Talking With Jörg

Not long ago, two writers on photography found themselves in broad agreement when each approached some pretty fundamental questions at the core of photography in curiously similar terms. One wrote (and posted a short video) on how it was worth trying to bear in mind that some things patently ‘matter’ in photography and others equally do not. The other wrote that identifying what was ‘at stake’ in a photographic project was a useful way of ascribing value to some things and withholding it from others. At that stage they acted separately. But since writing on subjects like these is all about engaging others in conversation, one invited the other to get in touch, and they have exchanged a number of e-mails batting ideas around.

What follows is a conversation. It is rough and ready, and it is closer to a collection of notes than to finished writing. At the centre of it lies the shared conviction that it is high time that we sought certain standards whereby to discriminate between photography as digital junk and photography as the most powerful and engaging means of communication that we have. The former sometimes poses as the latter, and more often the latter is mistakenly dismissed for not being properly distinguished from the former.

Francis Hodgson:

There is an intrinsic problem built into the surface of photographs.

Because the surface (of most, of the “standard” one…) is slippery, the eye tends to skid off it.

This is not what happens in other imaging systems. In painting, or when looking at engravings or most other media, there are (at the microscopic level) little ridges and troughs which trap light or reflect it in varying intensities, little pools and walls of dark and light. These hold the eye and make a natural passageway across the surface of the picture. Physiologically, your eye literally moves around within a painting from one resting-place to another. A good or great painter varies his brushstrokes partly deliberately to alter the structure of these ridges and pools, specifically to increase the control over the viewer’s eye. So there’s composition at the level of the picture, but also composition at the level of the physiology of the eye. Together, they mean that in a painting there is built-in a ‘time-taken-to-view’. This gives the artist more time in contact with the viewer, and therefore more time to get his or her ideas across.

Not so in a photograph. In a photograph, the eye finds nowhere to rest, and so skids or slides or bounces off the surface. That is why photographs are consumed at such a terrible speed.

Then, particularly at the standard sizes (say, post-card reproduction, or less-than-full-page magazine reproduction) we are further persuaded that the picture is a single gobbet of information. All of our instincts lead us to scan a picture (in one glance), reduce it to a ‘thought’, and pass on. And the thought, of course, is always framed in words, for the plain reason that we find words easier internally to codify, file, retain in memory… than pictures. In other words, we are all trained to turn a picture into a mental caption, file the caption, and never look at the picture again.

This is emphatically not what happens in painting or engraving, nor of course in those arts where time is built into the act of receiving the art ( film, video… but also sculpture, architecture, music, literature…).

Phrase this another way, and photography is almost unique in having immediacy built in. This is both a huge advantage, and a huge disadvantage.

— — —

These two facts, the slipperiness (can we even go so far as to think of it as a degree of repellence?) of photographs and the ‘single frameful’ of information, kid us that a photograph is something to be ‘got’ instinctively or immediately.

I emphatically believe that a photograph is much more than that. If I can put down a double ‘credo’ here, it would be that:

Photography is a perfectly ordinary cultural activity.

Which means that photographs must respond to analysis like any other kind of communication

and specifically, photographs are good or bad for understandable and explicable reasons.

But the slippery surface and the notion that photographs contain single gobbets of information have conspired to persuade us they are beyond analysis, and that therefore they do not come from an ordinary cultural activity.

Second movement.

All good photographers have struggled to find ways to hold the viewer longer on the picture. This is either by such effects as Hockney’s joiners, collage, embroidery on or making holes in the picture… anything, in fact, to break up that slick surface and keep the eye held there a fraction longer. Keep the eye there long enough, and it turns out that photography is not trivial at all. It is just as capable of carrying sophisticated thoughts as any other medium: in photography you can do allusion, irony, parody, thesis and antithesis, satire… But you can’t do anything at all if the viewer isn’t there anymore. Much of the effort that goes into composing photographs properly is for that reason. Good composition leads the eye around the picture, hopefully in an order, and (sort of) at a speed directed by the photographer. A photographer who can’t be bothered at least to try and do this doesn’t understand the basic difficulty of his own medium, and therefore can automatically be dismissed. Nothing he has to say can be of any interest except by chance (photographs are often interesting by chance, but that’s another story…).

The business of signifying that the story being told matters begins by respecting the relationship the viewer has with the photograph.

Third movement:

The digital phase of photography has made all of this infinitely worse.


A) digital printing has not yet produced any surfaces of great beauty. In spite of the lies put out by manufacturers, even the fanciest digital surface has nothing like the interest of an old silver print, a Polaroid, a cheap colour shot from a Fujica half-frame &c &c. Digital is a technology that wherever it is found tends to reduce the differences between media. This is as true in sound as in pictures. Digital is about the image, not the object. And pictures were at one time more likeable through their physical presence as objects even than through the images they held and transmitted. Hold a copy of Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung or Pesti Napló and they are appealing surfaces even though the printing was cheap. Digital has not countered that. Blurb books, iPhones, modern colour magazines… none of them have any tactile appeal at all. So the picture stops being object and image, and becomes just image. It’s less.

And B), remember that the vast majority of pictures are now seen disembodied, anyway. We view backlit, on screens, things that have no physical presence of their own.

NB. That the vast majority – perhaps 99 percent of photography – is still snobbed and unregarded. This is the stuff that is made and used by surveyors, grandmothers, dentists, cheap advertisers (often via picture libraries), various kinds of social scientists and so on. The boom is emphatically NOT just in art photography. We are all literate in photography. It is, whatever people may say, our shared culture, now.

Finally, we are all photographers, too, now. (Camera phone &c). Therefore to distinguish themselves, those who wish to be taken seriously must do things that are not available to Everyman. For a long time, this just meant printing things very large. If your print cost £200 or £300, you were at the very least making a claim that you were not just a snapshooter. It was nonsense, of course (and I for one have always been very intrigued by small prints). I think that tide is ebbing, now, a bit, and about time, too. But Diasec, mounting on aluminium &c (both of which, incidentally are techniques originally found in the signmaking industry – just a thought) are really just ways of saying “I am so serious I spend money on making the object itself. Because the image – I acknowledge privately ­– is indistinguishable from the image that Everyman produces”.

In other words, as that aspect of the photograph which is embodied in its objective presence (which is always the one appealing to connoisseurs) has diminished, the self-regarding among photographers have had to replace it by inventing a new category of objectifications. These give seeming importance, and are often mistaken for the content within the images mattering.

Jörg Colberg:

Let me think how to address what you brought up. Let’s start with the surface, because that’s a very interesting concept. I’ve never really approached it from the angle of the actual, literal surface. Might the fact that photographs don’t have a real surface be the reason why photographers (meaning here: Everybody really, “serious” photographers and “amateurs” alike) have been so eager to embrace photographic processes that – even just seemingly – embrace a breaking of the surface? There’s a wet-plate renaissance, for example, a company is working on bringing back Polaroid film, and smart-phone apps like Instagram or Hipstamatic have become wildly popular. None of those processes truly break up the surface, add what you could consider crackles in that slick surface (or their equivalent). Photographs are produced by machines, so there’s almost no way to get real crackles. But it would seem that photographers have been trying to introduce the crackles into the process, not the image.

And with digital media, there isn’t even a slick surface any longer. You can hold a print, and there is a surface, however slippery it might be. But a photograph that I view on my iPad – that’s not even there. The surface, that’s the surface of my iPad. That surface it has to be slippery, so the machine actually works, and I can scroll pages etc.

As for photographs being seemingly a single gobbet of information, I wonder whether we would all really think that if we were unable to take photographs. We know how a photograph is made, and that has always been there (Kodak: “Press the shutter, we do the rest”). So of course, we have been tempted to think that it has got to be that single gobbet of information, because when taking a photo, for the most part that is exactly what we do, 99.9% of the time: Very intentionally freeze a single gobbet of information into the photo frame.

I question, though, whether it’s really true that that is why we stick so much to captions. For what it’s worth, I certainly don’t. I have possibly thousands of photographs in my head, without remembering a single title or caption. I’ve always thought of captions as cheating: No photograph really holds that single gobbet of information. But we want it to do that. What better way to do that than to literally say it, by means of using a caption?

And most photographs never get a real caption or title. They’ll remain DFC4275.jpg, don’t they? Who has time to caption all those digital photographs they’re taking?

It got quite interesting for me when you talked about how we fool ourselves into believing “that a photograph is something to be ‘got’ instinctively or immediately.” It is, though, isn’t it? Because we do get photography instantly, even though what we get is not necessarily what the photograph actually shows! But we certainly get something, and we do it very quickly. How else could we survive in this world where there are so many photographs that are trying to sell us something?

That brings me to one of my pet peeves, namely that when talking about photographs, most discussions don’t move beyond that, which you can truly immediately get – usually just a small fraction of what else there is that can be had. This, essentially, is why I have been wondering for a while now how we can move talking about all those many photographs that are online into a different, higher, sphere. We need to talk about what photographs actually say and how they do that. This would then allow us to withstand the avalanche of photographs better because – and this might be too naïve – once you understand how to look at photographs, you will become better separating between those that are really just single gobbets of information (the photograph of my breakfast) and those that offer a bit, possibly quite a bit more.

Analyzing photographs seems particularly important given that the internet for the most part is a visual medium. And with so many photographs out there we have to talk about what is good and what is bad, because otherwise, we’ll lose our minds. A mindless flood of photographs might entertain some people, but for most people it ceases to make any sense.

I’d actually argue one of your points about how we treat photographs works exactly the other way around: Since we don’t understand photographs well enough, all we do is to slide on the usually too slippery surface.

This brings me to the relationship between the viewer and the photograph. I agree with you. We need to talk about that. Talking about that has to mean that we not only engage the viewer more, by bringing her/him closer to the photographs, teaching her/him essentially how photographs can be approached beyond the quick consumption that is so common now, but we also need to talk about to what extend the viewer brings meaning to the photographs. What I find odd is that we still talk about photographs as if the photographer were the only person who mattered. S/he is not. I wouldn’t proclaim the “death of the author” – I think that idea doesn’t really fully apply to photography; but the photographic author seems vastly overrated. The cult of the photographer needs to be broken for all of us to get closer to what that photographer is actually producing – and that is true both for the “serious” photographers and for the “amateurs.”

Once you introduce the digital world, there are all kinds of additional aspects, a very important one being that digital also means cheaper. Of course, a Blurb book doesn’t feel like anything, because no effort went into its making. Somebody dropped some photographs on the computer into some template, and then the cheapest possible printing and binding produced… well, a cheap-looking and -feeling book. I do think that the idea of cheapness, of photographs not costing any longer, has had an effect on how we think about photographs. Cheapness and a lack of effort. It’s too easy to make photographs now! To refer to my “What’s at Stake?” piece, there isn’t anything at stake in terms of taking a photo any longer. You can take as many as your memory card will allow you to. You don’t run out of film. There is no real cost to making a photograph. Nothing to rub against. That then translates into the pictures. That’s why there is so much bad photography out there: There literally was nothing at stake. How can such photography then not lack a surface, lack something to rub against?

How do we get us out of the mess? How do we re-introduce a preciousness into photography that has in many ways disappeared? I do believe, after all, that even in the presence of billions and billions of photographs, some (possibly many) can be precious. But we need to understand what we can do (have to do?) to get there, to be able to get a grip on that: What is precious, what is not?

Once you deal with the art market (which has totally spiraled out of control) how can you persuade a wealthy individual to pay a lot of money for a photograph (especially if it usually costs so little to make it)? There’s got to be something incredibly special about it. If it’s not scarcity, it’s at least got to be size, right? Get your bang for the buck as the American saying goes. Following that – and your thought – we’ve recently come to pretend there is a correlation between auction values or prints’ prices and artistic merit, whereas in reality, there often is none. Just because some Russian oligarch pays a million dollars for a print doesn’t mean it’s a good photograph. It just means it’s a photo someone wants to pay that much money for.

There we get the mattering again, because auction prices can’t be what we take as yard sticks for what matters. OK, we can, but then we’ll get an incredibly shallow culture. That’s just piling surface upon surface. And that brings us back to the main point, namely that we need to determine what matters and what not, by talking about photographs and by making distinctions, by introducing a yard stick (or possibly more than one) by which photographs can be measured. If we do this well, we’ll kill two birds with one stone: We’ll understand photographs better (aka more deeply), and we’ll be able to separate the wheat from the chaff.


I also want to try to add one extra bit of thinking to the mix, which is about

Taking Responsibility: —

Photographers expect their viewers to use all the resources of their visual culture to unravel a picture. We are expected, for example, to recognise small parts of well-known buildings without having to see the facade to be sure. We are expected to pick up quite small clues from flora and fauna to identify place, and quite restricted clues from e.g. clothing to identify social class or the relevant generation. We are expected to understand that a long lens compresses distance, so that e.g. the truck down the road is not necessarily immediately going to crush the unfortunate child in the pushchair.

BUT very few photographers use the same cultural resources fully themselves in making the image. There is a peculiar way in which [(bad)] photographers are quite routinely illiterate in their own art-form.

So: no writer in his/her right mind would try to make a novel about London without having read Our Mutual Friend, because the readers would obviously be looking for references (or relevant divergences) at every turn. Yet it is absolutely standard for you and I (in e.g. portfolio review sessions) to meet photographers who are working in some field with just as obvious a photographic precursor of whom they remain blissfully unaware. I have quite literally only recently met a photographer working on plump (i.e. non-model-shaped) nudes who had no idea that Irving Penn had ever done such things , and had not heard of Jenny Savile. I do not believe that this happens very often in other media. TV people, in my experience, are obsessed with TV and think (with some reason) that their audience is, too. Pop music is entirely referential, and works by reminding people of previous stuff and then proving a variation. Classical music was sometimes about stretching the envelope ever so slightly , until eventually something like sonata form just broke (Beethoven op.111, I suppose). The theatre is written for people who know theatre, by people brought up in it. Only a very contemptuous photographer would think photography any different.

The reason is bound in, I think, with what we were tackling before. If you suppose photography to work ‘instinctively’, to transmit its messages immediately, then the normal rich history of a culture is irrelevant. But I don’t believe that. I believe that for photographers to keep on claiming (or pretending) to reinvent the wheel is a huge loss of heat and light. Musicians, as I say, build on what they heard when they were little. They assume that there are certain things you just know, without having to have the point laboured. Certain other things can be parodied only once we are reminded of them &c. There is an assumption of shared culture between maker and user. Not in photography, and it’s almost entirely the ‘fault’ of the photographers. Photography has long been tagged as ‘marginal’ or (in British terms) ‘not quite proper’. This stems originally from Victorian distrust that anything made by a machine could contain artistry or expression. But that’s been obsolete for years. Nobody now wastes much breath on whether photography is or is not ‘art’. But photographers still think of themselves as embattled and misunderstood creatives, labouring desperately against insensitive opposition to have their creations taken seriously. It’s laughable, really.

In my view , a photographer is responsible for the reading of every detail of a photograph. Because – although very few viewers can actually put into words – what we actually do when we view a photograph is to look through it for clues as to what it means. If we start to find that those clues are pulling in the same direction, and that they add up to something coherent, interesting, moving, informative, sexually arousing (or whatever it is), we keep looking. But the moment we find that they contradict themselves, we’re gone. No second chances with photography. Keep the viewer engaged fully, or lose him altogether. For a good example of my thinking on this, see a recent piece I wrote for the Financial Times on a Robert Doisneau picture, apparently just a cheerful humanist street view about music, but in reality a complex meditation on the act of looking. ( ).

It is the photographer’s responsibility to make sense to a reasonably alert reader. Of course I understand that I may see a picture which reminds me irresistibly of my late mother, and that it may move me for that reason without that being the fault or the intention of the photographer, or even predictable by him. Nevertheless, the core of a photograph must be capable of a fair analysis as intended by the photographer. It is then the viewer’s responsibility to look well enough and hard enough at that photograph to test whether it does in fact bear analysis. If it does, the viewer is ‘in’, engaged in that picture, and the photograph can transmit to him ideas of just as great complexity as he could receive in any other medium. If it isn’t, he’s quite rightly away and gone and the photograph has failed and should not have been circulated.

Taysir Batniji Untitled (1996-2006), The SeaBatniji's pictures of the seaside look very ordinary.  His beach is not a place of idle rest, nor of the hope of sexual adventure.  But nor is it a place of work, as it has been for other photographers.  It is simply that as a Palestinian, he was for much of his life banned from going there. If you look at his website (  you will find that he writes in simple clear prose something of why the sea matters to him so very much, and what was at stake when it was taken from him.  Do the pictures say this on their own, without his explanation?  I don't know.  But I know that once you have read the explanation, you cannnot help but see that these pictures matter enormously. Getting the back story right is an important part of every other cultural activity.  Should it still surprise us to be asked to get it right in photography?

Taysir Batniji Untitled (1996-2006), The Sea
Batniji’s pictures of the seaside look very ordinary. His beach is not a place of idle rest, nor of the hope of sexual adventure. But nor is it a place of work, as it has been for other photographers. It is simply that as a Palestinian, he was for much of his life banned from going there. If you look at his website ( you will find that he writes in simple clear prose something of why the sea matters to him so very much, and what was at stake when it was taken from him. Do the pictures say this on their own, without his explanation? I don’t know. But I know that once you have read the explanation, you cannot help but see that these pictures matter enormously. Getting the back story right is an important part of every other cultural activity. Should it still surprise us to be asked to get it right in photography?

There are far, far too many photographs in the world. We are drowning in oceans of dreadful photographs. Many are destined (thank heavens) never to be printed, but to languish on hard drives or in the matrix of servers called the cloud until eventually their software becomes obsolete and no-one can read them as photographs (at least without a huge effort of recovery). Thank heavens, too, the older ones were made normally on fragile supports like paper and they got damp or creased or burned and also vanished.

Too many photographs. I have often made a distinction between pictures OF something as against pictures ABOUT something. Far, far, too many photographers routinely mistake the ease whereby we make pictures OF x or y with the rigorous intellectual and cultural difficulty of making pictures coherently ABOUT anything. If you want to be called a photographer, it is incumbent upon you to take full responsibility for the cultural legibility of your work. Your messages need to be understandable. If they are not, you may be a supremely competent camera operator, but you are not a photographer.

This presupposes, by the way, that the messages are worth saying in the first place. Photography is the most gloriously complete messaging system that we have. It is transnational, to some extent transcultural. It is immediate, works well on many different supports, including on backlit screens. It is more portable than paperback books, more reproducible even than them. It is capable of butcher’s accounts and of Atget’s Paris: everything is photographable, and no field of human activity has been unchanged by photography. But photographers must always bear in mind the Mark Twainism: ” If you have nothing to say, say nothing.” Far too many photographers don’t even realise that they might be expected to have anything to say. Yet if they expect us, their viewers, to use the full resources of our visual culture to ‘get’ their pictures, it behoves them to know pretty well what messages they hope we might get out of the damn things. The moment it becomes clear that they haven’t taken responsibility even for that, they lose any right to be scrutinised with intelligence and patience. There’s an old British military acronym which you can apply to any photograph which is not proving coherently to say what it purports to say: FIDO. Fuck it, drive on.


That’s a very interesting point you’re making about photographers. I’ve long been baffled by so many photographers seemingly having no interest whatsoever to look into their own art form more deeply. How can this be? How can you not look at a lot of photographs, just like writers, let’s say, typically read a lot (to then spend most of their time being utterly devastated about the fact that so many other writers are so much better)? How is this possible? The often complete lack of knowledge of obvious references pains me! You’ve just got to know who and what came before you so you, too, can stand on the shoulders of giants!

I’ve often thought that this disconnect from the past is tied to the lack of imagination I see in so much photography: If you’re not curious enough about the world, you can still make plenty of photographs. Of course, you won’t bother to look at what came before you, and of course those photographs will then at best be one liners (that someone else might have done a whole lot better).

It’s a bit like trying to learn a language by learning parts of the grammar and some words, but never looking at how that all can be used before having a go at it. Sadly, our culture, at least out photographic culture, truly buys into that, in all kinds of ways. For example, there is that cult of the young photographer. I don’t mean to say that young photographers cannot produce wonderful photography. But just like in any art form, being able to say something is contingent on having lived a life, experienced things. None of that stuff comes easy!

Add to that the obsession that everything has been new, and you’re truly in trouble. I have had students who told me they didn’t want to photograph something any longer, because someone else had already done it. How can that be? Why are there so many people writing about love – now that has been done before as well, hasn’t it? The moment you’re in photoland, the absurd idea that something is done when someone else has done it before is widely accepted.

This brings me to photographers still having that weird relationship to the world of art you mentioned. Of course, that debate is mostly closed. The art world might still not truly understand how photography works, but many photographers don’t, either. But place yourself into the shoes of someone in the art world: How can you take an art form seriously where so many practitioners worry about so much irrelevant nonsense? Where so many practitioners do not look much beyond their own navel, whether it’s looking at who came before them or whether it’s looking at other art forms? Everybody has been able to read and write for ages, yet writers don’t fret over how we’re all writers now. But in photoland, that currently is taken as the grand realization: We’re all photographers now! Woe us “serious” photographers! What are we doing? When you think about it, it’s almost absurd!

We might all be photographers and writers now. But the only thing that really matters is what people bring to the table. That means injecting a photographs with all those additional things that then can unfold so richly – provided a viewer will spend the time. The Doisneau you talked about is a good example. The art of photography is not taking pictures, it’s making very good pictures, with rich layers of meaning – usually a painful process, requiring a lot of work, certainly before and after that shutter button is pressed.

It is true, in a somewhat superficial sense, the tool to do that is now in everybody’s hands (just like people have been able to read and write for a while now). But just like I don’t treat the shopping list I write in the same way as the writing I do about photography, I refuse to take someone’s casual photograph of their breakfast in the same way as that same person’s more serious photography (whatever that might be).

And that is a crucial distinction, which, I believe, most people understand very easily – except the people who make up photoland. We all know that different photographs serve different purposes, and we all assign different values, meanings, and levels of importance upon them. To pretend that that is not the case strikes me as absurd. Sure, there are billions of photographs now – but just like their makers usually don’t treat every image exactly the same way why should we?

If you take a photograph, say, to sell something on Ebay you do it in a very functional way. It’s unlikely you will frame it and hang it on the wall, next to the photo of your children or pets. Of course, we can investigate the aesthetic of Ebay photographs, but that can only go so far. Such an Ebay photograph holds a different value for their maker. It’s functional. In a different way, a photograph of your breakfast might be entirely social: You take it to share it (again, you probably won’t print it and frame it).

I want to talk about another responsibility. The one you talked about is supremely important. In addition to that, I do think it’s an artist’s responsibility to talk about their work, and to do it in ways that can be understood by as large an audience as possible. I’m so tired of photographers claiming they can’t talk or write about their work, because it’s a visual art form. Seriously, if you can’t talk or write about your photographs, you don’t know what you’re doing. I know this will get me in trouble, because people won’t like to read it. Still: If you can’t express the longing or desire or whatever else went into the making in some way, however clumsily, then I will conclude that there was no longing or desire. I will conclude that it’s just a life style.

Let’s face it, one of the problems that seems unique to photography is that being a photographer can be a life style. No other art form will allow you to do this that easily. Poetry maybe. Photography and poetry seem to have such low barriers of entry (push the button, write some short phrases in a few lines) that, boom!, you’re a photographer or poet. Ask someone why they photograph, and you’ll often be surprised that they don’t have an answer.

That might be, in part, why there are so many photographs. Of course, there are all those people – me included – who photograph seemingly irrelevant stuff with their smart phones (I have way too many photographs of the same cats). But that’s not what I’m talking about. There are too many art photographers. Nobody wants to say this in public, but I hear it all the time, usually when I have dinner or a drink with someone.

Make no mistake, I do think that everybody should have a chance to be a photographer. BUT then you have to bring something to the table: Look at the history, look at references, read books, dive in deeply. If you don’t dive in, you stay at the surface. Yet again, that surface…

As you said, your message needs to be understandable. First: You actually need to have a message! Why should I care about your work if there’s no message? I can create my own messages all day long, and I do. But people look at art not for its lack of messages. Have a message, dare to have an opinion, and then make sure you communicate that clearly, whatever that might mean in the context of what you’re doing. That is way beyond aiming your camera at what I call The Thing and then pressing the shutter.

In other words, tell me something I don’t know. I don’t care about what I know already. I’m hungry for different perspectives. If I want to find out what I know already, I’ll sit down and think about it a little. I don’t need any writers or photographers of film makers for that.

Of course, now we’ve been tooting the same horn. But it still surprises me how many photographers will say that they don’t want to take sides, that they want to look at things from all angles. Well, you call it being open to all sides, I call it being wishy washy.

And we have to make that a criterion how to approach photograph, how to determine what matters and what not: Does this actually say something? If it says something is that something that might have a lasting value? It might be cool to see all those, let’s say, secret places in your photographs, but what happens after you’ve seen them? Merely showing something, however well it is done photographically, is art-editorial photography: photography conforming to art-photography criteria, but operating like editorial photography, illustrating something. You look at it, you go “Oh, that’s what that place looks like. Son of a gun!” and then you move on. Why look again? It’s going to look exactly the same way.

You can find such examples in the best art museums. It’s a problem that’s not just confined to the internet. We have to ask: What does this tell us?

— — —

Anticipating some of the reactions this might cause: Whatever activity we’re engaged in in our lives, we always try to make sense of things. We have to make decisions, for all kinds of reasons. For example, we prefer some authors over others. Or we prefer fiction over non-fiction. Or we prefer short stories over novels. How do we find something new to read? We might ask friends for recommendations, or we read reviews. That is how we deal with the plentitude of options, whether it’s selecting a new book to buy, a wine to drink, a movie to watch etc. In part this approach is what we need to bring to our approach to photographs as well. The common retort to a call for more curation or editing is that finally, photography has become democratic so why should something be picked over something else. The answer is simple: Because that’s what we need to do, so we can make sense of things.

The flood of photographs online has resulted in photographs barely making sense any longer (as is obvious from all the confused writing about it – we talked about it earlier). It’s time we started making sense again. This has nothing to do with taking the idea of democratic out of photography. On the contrary, it means making a meaningful access to photography more democratic, by giving everybody the same tools to approach photography. This is what critics will do: Point at something and discuss its merits. There is no obligation to agree with that critic, but at least there is an opening for a discussion.

— — —

Between us we have a prodigious experience of photography. We have each known of (and respected) the other’s writing a long time, but we work in different places, and find different ways to put the freelance bits of our lives together. The authors write separately and by no means agree automatically. We have come together here in an informal way for something approaching a two-man conversation. We have enjoyed the process and are perhaps looking for ways to push ahead with something similar. We do not particularly just want to blow hot air about photographs, though, without some sense that some of what we are saying reaches out to people who themselves are doing some serious thinking about photography. For the truth is this: there is already a lot of excellent thinking about photographs and their places in the world. But photography has suffered from a peculiar failure of trickle-down whereby that thinking hardly reaches the practitioners or the people who hire them, and even less the people who use photographs, all day every day. We don’t claim that all of our thinking is new, any more than we claim that all of it is right. But we would like to contribute to the trickle-down. We hope that after reading these lines, photographs will not be quite so easy to make, distribute, and consume unthinkingly. Because whatever else they have proved, photographs have proved that they repay thought a thousandfold.


11 thoughts on “Talking With Jörg

  1. I’m very grateful for this excellent and thought-provoking discussion with Jörg Colberg; being a loose and free-flowing exchange it leaves plenty of room for contemplation. These comments come from the cogitations it provoked in me…that the idea of ‘facture’ (in painting; the manner of execution and handling of paint) that propagates underneath the discussion, even if it is unspoken as such, and obscured a little by the distraction of ‘surface’, from which I’d like to distinguish it.

    Collectors might value the patina of a print surface, and certainly there is plenty of that to see in a fine print from the nineteenth century – the lovely bloom on silver and the craquelure of old glazed emulsion – even the yellowing of a snapshot from the 1970s has emotional (and sometimes monetary) allure. Much of that desire for substance is behind the motivation to ‘Instagram’ or ‘Histamat’ your phone pics, and it certainly accounts for tactics of Joel-Peter Witkin in staining and tarnishing his prints. But I think all that is off the topic if you are a photographer rather than a connoisseur collector. Yes, an Agfa-Gevaert Portriga matt paper has textual and reflective qualities an unglazed glossy does not, and we have all pawed greedily at the swatches of paper surfaces sent us by Seagull or (if photographing back then) Mimosa Kiel, sales reps. But since a negative or digital file can be printed on a number of surfaces, all that is just veneer.

    The real ‘facture’ (from facere ‘do, make’) lies literally, and in essence, in the forming of the image; in the eye, in the viewfinder, through the modulations and distortions of the lensing optics, in the camera, on the way, and how much, the emulsion or chip is exposed to the light of the world. That is there is where medium and message cross over. Colberg points a justifiably righteous finger when he says “Why should I care about your work if there’s no message?” and “tell me something I don’t know!”. And one thing a photographer SHOULD know is how to fashion (again from facere ‘do, make’) pictures to convey their ideas.

    To look at a photographer who knows, and loves lens and light; take Abelardo Morell (at When he aims a torch across the surface of a salt-dusted or droplet-covered sheet of film in the dark he predicts that we will see surface in a newly tactile way, so forceful in a medium which, as both of you point out, really has none. Morell’s surface comes courtesy not of manufactured paper-stock, but is about the rapturous encounter of light with surface and obstacles on that surface and in its unswerving path, and the resultant shadow, under the spell of Θεία (Theía). To look at his image is to fall in love again with the sense of light presented to us in this glorious medium, and to understand why he projects pinhole images into hotel rooms, or photographs images forming on the desert floor under a tent obscura.

    Unlike Morell, most of us have capriciously abandoned film; just because goat-like, photographers have always leapt for the crumbs of tasty novelties that drop from the cornucopia the fast-breeding imaging industry, morsels of what it might have developed for doctor, scientist, soldier (or for camera consumers, who are rarely actually photographers). Even so, this is photography still, and we continue to use lenses, to focus (or not), to choose shutter speeds, to pan and tilt, and in selective and designing ways to expose our prothetic retinas to sometimes new and astonishing revelations of light. And MAKE photographs.

  2. I think that there is a tendency to ignore BD or ‘Before Digital’ photographs by many contemporary photographers.

    I take photos and work in digital graphics and in both areas there is very little understanding of what came before. For instance, 3D graphics artists, on the whole are not influenced by traditional art. The rules are carried forward, for instance the standards of composition, but looking at traditional art work generally just doesn’t happen. People only look to their contemporaries for reference and influence. This creates work with very little depth, produces endless cliches and stagnates the medium.

    I think that this is the same in the photography world that, like computer-based graphics, there is very little apparent influence of art or photographic history in their work, which creates no depth in the work produced. Most digital photographers don’t buy photo books and are not interested in looking at photographs, other than on the internet. If asked for influences for their work, they will generally mention only the biggest, most commonly known photographers, for instance Henri Cartier-Bresson or Ansel Adams.

    Going digital creates a Year One situation where everything is reset, everything that came before is ignored and contemporaries are the only reference. This can be seen clearly in websites like 500px.

    I can’t count myself out of falling into this trap but once a problem is diagnosed, a cure can be found.

  3. Interesting, and I agree with a lot of the issues raised, however the words “too many photograph(er)s” come up a few times in this conversation (and many other pieces Jorg has penned in recent months). Too many for what or for whom?

    There are also repeated comparisons of photography to the written word in this piece, and legitimately so (in my opinion). But, if we stick with that analogy, then logically shouldn’t we also ask if there isn’t too much writing in the world? That’s a pretty absurd question don’t you think? One not likely to be taken very seriously by most people. Personally I find this question no less ridiculous when applied to photography.

    The above strikes me as a concern for people with too much time on their hands. Especially those not involved in actually producing photography. It’s one thing to be concerned about making challenging, thoughtful work yourself, and being critical about your own process, but to worry that there are “too many” photographs…I don’t know, to me personally it just seems like the least important thing I could possibly spend my time fretting about. Bad photography is nobody’s problem but it’s author’s (assuming that the content is not also responsible for negatively affecting someone’s quality of life, e.g. by perpetuating stereotypes or giving a highly distorted account of events, but this is another matter entirely).

    Or perhaps, as a producer, rather than consumer (to put it in crass but clear terms), I’m missing something?

    I agree with many of the other issues brought up here though, especially regarding the arrogance of photographers who think it sufficient just to show us things without having anything at all to say about/with/though them – yes, thank you, I have eyes too.

    Not sure if photographs “barely make sense any longer” though. True, they probably don’t make sense like they used to (e.g. blogs posting and reposting images without context or explanation), but if we can’t make sense of them then it’s probably a sign that we should try harder. To hijack your comparison with language again, if we don’t understand a text because we are not literate in that language then we can hardly blame the author.

    • Thank you for this. There are points here and in other reactions to the posting which merit a detailed reply.
      I’m not yet quite sure what forum such an exchange of views should take place in, but I am certainly glad that a number of you wish to take the trouble to express your views here. Perhaps that is in itself enough to constitute a forum of a sort?

  4. the first question that comes to mind is; what would do if all the photographs were good ? then i for one would really be in trouble, at least mentally.
    secondly, this distinction between digital and film is such a bore off. i doubt if any of us could tell exactly the process by which pictures come to us now..the soul is the work, not in materials and tools. digital files have changed the world, FIDO.
    Last point ,about photos being slippery, their now-ness is far stickier than people looking at painting. People look at each other in painting galleries. why? because we have to really work to know about history or painting to imagine what it could possibly have all meant.
    lets enjoy the latest twist of the art game and not appoint any gate keepers just yet, it can police it’s self.

  5. Pingback: Talking With Jörg | Francis Hodgson | Roseanne Lynch

  6. Pingback: Francis Hodgson talking with Jörg Colberg - Photo-Soup.ORG

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