Any Surface You Like: Unseen Fair, 2016

Christiane Feser, Partition 48, 2016  ( Detail )

Christiane Feser, Partition 48, 2016. Represented by Anita Beckers. This is an angled detailed view of a work that is cut, layered and built well above the plain surface. One of many pieces deliberately shown for the first time as an Unseen Fair Premiere.

It’s a rare thing – for those of us in the business of extrapolating tendencies from the amorphous bulk of any creative activity – to see an unmistakable trend. I’m sure the fashion writer who says “Roman legionary sandals will be in this year” worries that no such sandal will be seen again. For once, at the Unseen Photo Fair in Amsterdam, there was no mistake. It’s not quite a rule, because there are still plenty of exceptions, but it’s all-but a rule: You want to be taken seriously as an artist using photography? Any surface you like so long as it’s not flat.

 

The varieties of finished result that this allows are many. But the essential tendency is definite. Flat pictures are what you get on screens when you make image searches. Flat pictures are what you get when you are asked to view a fact or a purported fact. Sportsman scores. This is what our tulips look like. Mimi has graduated. The managing director shakes hands. I was at the Victoria Falls. Those kinds of pictures are curiously neutral. Nobody who uses them cares very much what the photographer thought about what was photographed. In the jargon of art theory, they are transparent: they act as a time-shifter, to get you to a place where you were not. In the end, it doesn’t much matter who made them; and in most cases the viewers don’t ask and don’t care. Those pictures are viewed fast, and normally not viewed again. Can you remember the lead picture in the newspaper yesterday? You probably didn’t even buy the paper, but you did walk past it. The picture had a function, yesterday.

 

For artists, this is all complete anathema. Artists want you to care what they feel, and are not so much bothered by the facts of what they saw. They want to engage you for long enough that you are in their way of working — and by extension, their way of feeling — for a moment. They want to reach you with a packet of thoughts and prejudices and opinions and emotions. They want you to be persuaded by their argument and moved by their appeal.

 

For me, who have been watching these divisions for a long time, Unseen 2016 was the first time it was completely clear that there is an actual schism here. For me, factual photography is camera operation. It is sometimes made on machines which are incorporated in other machines (mobile phones, usually), sometimes by super-sophisticated systems for getting pictures from the real world they allude to into the distribution channels through which they will be consumed. If you go to a football game today, where camera operators work in public, you can see that the vast bulk of the labour is in captioning, editing, and otherwise equipping pictures with metadata, and then above all, getting them away down the airwaves as quickly as possible. There is very little labour in really getting across the emotion of the scene, the operator’s thoughts about it, or anything else so weak as feeling. The schism has happened: there is no room for any of the imagery which results from this kind of activity at a fair devoted to art photography. Artist-photographers rather despise camera-operators and undervalue the skills they deploy. Camera-operators have a tendency to be dismissive about art, and to overvalue the technical. But audiences like both, use both, and respond to different elements of each. I have not yet met a person who collects art photographs and doesn’t look at Facebook or at sports pictures or at the pack-shots in magazines which make him want to buy stuff.

 

Camera-operation is by nature un-self-conscious. If you’re making pictures for rapid consumption, you can’t much care about the culture of imagery that went before you. Selfie? Low-end commercial job photographing pizzas and kebabs to be stuck on the window of a fast-food place? Hard news from Mosul? However skillful you are, however learned your background, you make those pictures for what’s in them, not for allusion or comment. That stuff has a tremendous vitality.   Exclude it from your entire narrowed conception of photography and you exclude more than the machine way of seeing. After all, a very great deal of the new self-conscious photography of the art world is anchored in re-editing or otherwise re-working precisely this kind of vital, fast, vulgar, energetic photography that went before.

 

Nothing wrong with rethinking things, of course, and nothing wrong with an art that looks to its own roots for the well-springs of its content. But there is something uncomfortable in the way new snobbish self-conscious photography is ferociously consuming old vulgar vigorous photography while at the very same time despising it for its … vulgarity.

 

I felt this more strongly than before at Unseen this year.

 

katrien-de-blauwer-jump-cuts-1-2015

Jump Cuts 1, 2015, by Katrien de Blauwer, represented by Filles Du Calvaire

Some galleries took so literally the new orthodoxies that they showed almost nothing on a plain flat surface at all. Filles Du Calvaire, for example, from Paris, showed an artist who sticks pins in pin-ups, another who embroiders over dismembered nudes, and a third who makes collages. This third is the only one of the three worth a damn: Katrien de Blauwer, who makes rather small collages of salvaged black and white imagery. At first sight they look simply like design work – book covers, say, in which two simple elements make an allusion together. They are not complicated things, but de Blauwer plays them with great virtuosity. Often mounted on thick card of a buff or manila colour, with some pleasure taken in the material seaming and matching of the images, they add up to very much more than the sum of their parts. de Blauwer muses autobiographically in these pieces, which are elegant and light but not trite for all that. She is visibly different to all those artists who find a technique (it may well be as recognizable as hers), but use it to brand themselves in a highly competitive environment, forgetting (or not being able) to have anything to say in that technique or any other. Of course the message needs to be expressed in a medium that suits it; but it does help to have some kind of message in the first place.

 

alma-haser-from-cosmic-surgery

One from the series Cosmic Surgery by Alma Haser. Represented by The Photographers’ Gallery

 

There are ways and ways of making surfaces, of course. Embroidering photographs has been a thing for perhaps too long, now. Maurizio Anzeri made such exciting things a few years ago when his stitching added sharp bite and wit to the reading of character in the (found; vernacular) portraits that he brought so startlingly to life. Today at Unseen the London Photographers’ Gallery showed him succumbing to a tired but doubtless lucrative formula in a series of landscapes overstitched. The technique adds nothing to the pictures. They look like telegraph lines have been allowed to wander over the view. Or just doodles, done in thread rather than in felt-pen, but not more interesting for that. Just down the wall, the Photographers’ Gallery also had the work of Alma Haser, who builds curious origami structures into portrait photographs, challenging our assumptions of how we read a photograph or read a face. This is a career that has been developing interestingly for a while; there is certainly a danger that such an idiosyncratic technique will become formulaic, but it hasn’t yet. The origami shapes obscure the middle of the face, but are clearly made up of folded sheets of the same portrait. There is a cubist quality to the unmaking of anatomy, but also an endearing one. The folded paper must have been very gently stroked into shape for quite a while in each case, and those caresses remain folded in to the finished portrait.

 

The Unseen organisers are good at keeping their functions in view. It’s a show dedicated to new work. Galleries don’t always play the game, though. I came around a corner face to face with one of Araki’s horribly jaunty bondage scenes, for example. Araki is an incontinent artist, and those bondage pictures don’t get more interesting on the hundredth or thousandth viewing. If the special point of Unseen is new work, then showing tired old work (and specially,  bad tired old work) should be considered a definite loss of cool for that gallery. Reflex, Amsterdam, do take note.

 

jonny-briggs-trompe-loeil-2012

Trompe L’Oeil 2012, by Jonny Briggs, represented by mc2.

 

Araki had a show at FOAM (the Amsterdam photo museum which collaborates closely with the Unseen fair) a few years ago. That may be why he was shoe horned into the fair. The British artist Jonny Briggs won a FOAM award for emerging talent a couple of years ago. So in his case it is entirely appropriate that he should be included in a gallery display by the mc2 gallery, from Milan. Briggs is definitely in the no-flat surface camp: he is endlessly and wittily inventive in the kinds of damage he can do to pictures, but endlessly successful in re-thinking them, too. He sometimes cuts framed family snapshots (frame, glass, mount, backboard, picture and all) on a diagonal and shoves the two parts along the fault line until one head is on somebody else’s body. These sound awful described like that, but a thoughtful family-dynamic or family-history scrutiny emerges which is not at all unlike what one finds in a certain kind of literary fiction. I liked a piece in which Briggs had recreated a corner of his grandmother’s sitting room, and spray-painted every detail in the kind of ‘magnolia’ house paint that was the more genteel version of white a few years ago. Briggs left just enough unsprayed (one grape and a little bit of tablecloth, since you ask) to stop the thing being simply a horrible off-white sculpture. There is a sculptural act behind it, but it remains wholly a photographic gesture. Better still, it comments with controlled melancholy on the monochrome tradition of respectful photography that makes up a part of every family’s history.

 

Briggs has also found a way to re-use the little trick the film maker Chris Marker used a number of years ago, of crumpling portrayed faces, re-smoothing them, then re-photographing the sheet (Marker used the name Crush-Art to refer to these pieces). The wrinkles and creases add a layer rich in meaning to the otherwise smooth picture. Marker’s ones came from magazines, and the creasing told of the throw-away culture, of consumerism, of the way your face might not be your fortune in a month or a year once the wrinkles had grown. Marker worked brilliantly around photography (his masterpiece, La Jetée, is a film made of sequenced still photographs) and it is interesting how the ideas he pioneered, including changing surfaces, but including also harvesting and re-working imagery from largely unpretentious sources, are now so central to the language currently in use.

 

john-hilliard-lakeland-palette-1-2016

John Hilliard. Lakeland Palette 1, 2016. Represented by Kopeikin Gallery.

Not every treatment of the surface of photographs is a physical change like collage or creasing. John Hilliard’s Palette series (shown at Unseen at the Kopeikin Gallery from Los Angeles) is a self-conscious and formal exercise in testing perception. He samples the colours from a scene, and then includes blocks of those colours in it. The blocks are large enough to prevent us seeing the scene itself. This works much better when he does it to paintings or photographed views than it does when he picks colours from the spines of books in a library. In paintings, he makes us see just how much of the emotional effect comes from specific choices of colour. But with the books, where there is no overall emotional effect in question, nothing much happens.

 

Interestingly, a hipper, updated, but much less rich version of this process was also on show in the fair. Jan Rosseel’s current series on the Aesthetics of Violence does not much more than remind us that if you search on Google images for James Foley, say, you will get a lot of one particular orange, that of the jumpsuit in which prisoners of ISIS are executed. This seems a dead-end, although the series is only just begun and may develop.

 

elina-brotherus-bedsheet-2014-from-the-annunciation-series

Elina Brotherus, Bedsheet, 2014, from the Annunciation series. Brotherus was represented at Unseen by Camara Oscura, from Madrid

Sometimes, the play with surface can be wholly included within an image.  Elina Brotherus’ Annunication series, about her own inability to have a child, is powerful for all sorts of reasons.  But there is one print within it in which she is seen shadowy through a bedsheet hanging on a line. Here the sheet – in addition to its more usual lexicon of references, to domesticity, to conception, to wrapping corpses and so on, also takes the form of a photograph: a creased and not very square photograph showing a ghostly figure.  You could say that as a print, this does simply have a flat traditional photo surface.  But you can’t help but notice that with the figure on the sheet, it has been given another layer within that.  It doesn’t always have to be a miniature sculpture or the record of an installation.

 

Unseen promotes a number of associated activities around the fair. There are talks (often interesting), a photo book market (de rigueur nowadays at photo fairs, and often not interesting), an associated festival. The Dutch photographer and film-maker Anton Corbijn was asked to curate a show in the (wonderful) Het Schip museum, around the corner from the site of the fair. As if to cement his perception of the rift away from camera-operators who make flat prints, Corbijn chose to make a show (Touched, it’s called) on a sample of hand-working processes and techniques. Sometimes it’s as simple as taking pleasure in the creases and stamps on an old picture from an archive, sometimes a self-consciously antiquarian revisiting of archaic processes. Some of the things Corbijn has chosen are marvellously beautiful, others less so. I worry about a banally sexist picture of a girl on all fours licking the wheels of a car, turned into a huge cyanotype by Thomas Mailaender. It is not the less sexist because he’s a well known curator and plainly knows how sexist it is; nor does the fact that it’s made in a (not very well mastered) nineteenth century process make it ironic. That was a bad miss.

Adam Jeppesen - 3

Detail of an untitled pinned xerox by Adam Jeppesen from Anton Corbijn’s Touched show at Het Schip in connection with Unseen.

Adam Jeppesen put long steel seamstresses’ pins in murky Xerox landscapes. The heads of the pins make points of light, exactly similar to the little glittering point of light that one sees in a real landscape – from mica, or moisture, or just shiny surfaces catching the sun. The shadows of the pins in the bright gallery lighting look like rain across the view. So by a simple manipulation, Jeppesen has given mystery and charm and wit and an element of narrative to a view that would without his pins have been rather…flat.

 

maija-tammi-day-79-from-white-rabbit-series

Day 79, from the White Rabbit series, by Maija Tammi. Represented by East Wing.

 

The best single display in the whole fair is a gallery display, though. East Wing, an interesting gallery from the Gulf, has taken a big risk in putting on a real show of loosely connected photographs on environmental themes. Here is where photography overlaps most obviously with sculpture, and therefore where the remove from flat prints is at it most distinct. Caleb Charland makes a variant of that school exercise where you make a battery from a lemon, by lighting a lamp from apples still on the tree. It’s an environmental piece of some seriousness, but it’s also absurd. Maija Tammi has made thoughtful work about the culture of cancerous cells, about death itself, and about our industrial relationship to it, and she has included camera-shaped boxes which you have to hold in your hand to peer and peek. Mandy Barker’s work on plastic has been developing for some time. In its latest advance, she looks at micro-particles of plastic as a species of a lunatic plankton, floating about the sea, and she has included a rather wonderful pastiche book of old-fashioned science as a way of getting us in to her subject. Yann Mingard has made a clever but unpretentious series of paired images comparing the ‘damaged’ light of Turner (it seems Turner’s famous skies were much affected by volcanic activity in his lifetime) with the hazy effects of pollution on skies in China today.

All four of these could easily be research projects in environmental science or in sustainable development. All four artists have the rigour, the search for evidence, the other careful habits of science. But all four thankfully have the wit and confidence to find ways of expressing themselves somewhere on the border between photography and sculpture. They jostle each other across the crowded walls of a gallery booth in an art fair, and no one who sees it leaves unmoved. It will take institutional buyers to buy such things, but it was good of East Wing to try it.

 

putput-one-from-the-series-of-paint-rollers2016

Of course, not all attempts to make new surfaces are interesting. There is plenty of room left for the pretentious, the idiotic, and the meretricious. It wouldn’t be an art fair if were not so. This is one from the series of Paint Rollers, 2016. By PUTPUT, represented at Unseen by Galerie Esther Woerdehoff

 

So there you have it. There’s plenty of room for pretention and foolishness. It wouldn’t be an art fair if there weren’t. But it’s also clear that a new generation of photographic artists are developing who quite knowingly want their messages to be read slowly and with thought, and who will break up that flat skiddy surface of the photograph we know so well to do that.

teen_spirit_island_diamondprox

Diamond Prox, from the series Teen Spirit Island, by Joscha Steffens. Perhaps the exception that proves the rule. One of a glorious series of portraits of professional (and very successful) gamers, this really is a traditional flat print. It’s lit by the light from the screen only. It is usually shown as part of an installation (so that may be how it qualifies for non-flat, not-fast photography) that reflects on the twilight world of these highly sponsored superstars, who burn out in their early twenties as their reflexes get too slow to play.

 

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Making a Mark

Caroline Fellowes. Animal, Vegetable, Mineral 8. 2014

Caroline Fellowes.
Animal, Vegetable, Mineral 8. 2014

Caroline Fellowes. Animal, Vegetable, Mineral 1. 2014

Caroline Fellowes.
Animal, Vegetable, Mineral 1. 2014

These extraordinary pictures are by Caroline Fellowes, an artist who lives in France but is represented by a gallery in Derry, in Northern Ireland.   They are wonderful things, and I post them today because they happen to sit right in the middle of a number of conversations I seem to be having with increasingly frequency of late. Fellowes’ series here is made to face a perennial challenge in photography — one which I have approached from different angles on this blog several times in the past. Fellowes’ pictures (they’re called Animal Vegetable Mineral) record the marks made on her windows by a number of different agencies: heat, plants brushing against the glass, cold, limescale, water, the tracks of various kinds of animals, fingers… Naturally, they are visible only in certain lights, at the right angles, and for a particular time. They come and go, too: smear marks in condensation today will re-appear in tomorrow’s condensation, even though they seemed to have gone when the pane was dry. Not only are they photographs in fact — beautiful fancy digital prints on water-colour paper, since you ask — but that temporary quality makes them wholly photographic in conception, too. So much photography is about seizing what will not otherwise stay, or seeing what cannot otherwise be seen.

Yet the pictures in Animal Vegetable Mineral are in one other important sense antithetical to core photographic values, too. These take great store by the business of mark making which is normally absent in conventional photography. To that extent, they have more to do with painting, and indeed Fellowes is a distinguished painter as well as a photographer and knows very well what she’s about in that regard.

In Fellowes’ AVM series, the marks are made by outside forces. I believe some of the footprints are of frogs. In other work the artist often makes them. My colleague at the University of Brighton, Johanna Love, gave a brilliant seminar presentation on these kinds of ideas the other day. Love is a print-maker in various different kinds of process (including photography). She’s interested in the variety of marks that can intervene even in a carefully controlled sequence: she has photographed pencil markings at huge magnifications to see the landscape of pits and peaks which make hand-made marks so attractive. She draws on photographs and likes the way that when the light strikes the greasy pencil markings you can’t see the print beneath. She grew interested in the dust that interposed itself between scanner and subject if the subject was raised a little from the scanner bed — until that dust could itself be a legitimate subject. She had tracked the antecedents of some of this thinking in close detail: I’d not come across an interesting book of Xerox ‘drawings’ she mentioned by Ian Burn, for example, in which the marks are the marks of the process itself. When she referred back to Duchamp and Man Ray in regard to dust, I was on familiar ground. She made a lot of reference to Helen Chadwick, whose combination of machine-made and hand-made was absolutely pioneering.

Ian McKeever. Shade and Darkness-Evening 1983. From the series Traditional Landscapes.

Ian McKeever.
Shade and Darkness – Evening 1983.
From the series Traditional Landscapes.

Not long before that I took part in a round-table discussion at Somerset House, one of a series leading up to the PhotoLondon fair in May 2015. It was led by the artist Ian McKeever. His title? Against Photography. He meant it in both senses: against meaning leaning against or next to, as well as counter to or opposing.

McKeever with impressive articulacy laid out some of his own trajectories to and from photography. McKeever is a wonderful painter, taking as much pleasure in the physical acts of painting as he does in any communication that results from it. The discussion was driven mainly by a very fine publication (half-way between catalogue and monograph, the first of a new series called Imprint) produced by McKeever’s gallery, HackelBury, in West London. McKeever was outspoken in some of what he had to say.   He has no doubt about the intrinsic primacy of paint over photography as a vehicle for thought. Given that he is a long-time and highly skilled practitioner of photography (and one who has written on it very well) I was surprised by how categorical he was. But he was, and mainly because of the fundamental importance to him of making marks. He had other arguments: he stressed that painting takes time and that time allows the painter to distill thought into the artefact, something that cannot be done at the 125th of a second at which photography operates.

“A photograph”, said Ian McKeever that day, “is at its maximum position at the very moment it is made. [Afterwards] it can only ever be less than that…so a photographer is left with a dilemma: how to extend the language. The painter has a year or two in which to inflect meaning into what he’s doing. The question becomes how does the photographer bring that to the photograph?” And McKeever’s answer, clearly felt, although never in fact stated outright, was that he can’t.

It was a terrific performance, and compelling.

I remain unconvinced, I must say, by this notion of painters ‘inflecting’ meaning into what they do. They’re supposed to, sure enough. But many inflect only their own interest, their enthusiasm or their patience. If the formal instant of making ( or taking ) a photograph is too short to allow for much of that, the ancillary processes, of editing and arranging and printing in different ways allow for just as much. At one point McKeever contrasted painters trying to slow the world down against photographers trying to speed it up. The surfaces of photography are – I have written it before ­– skiddy, slippery. The eye tends to bounce off a photograph, having seized what quick meaning it can on the way. I’m not sure conventional photographers try to speed the world up – but they certainly make objects which are consumed at lightning speed. Photography is very good at making posters. One message: get it, and go. Contemplation, a combination of multiple meanings or the enjoyment of multiple – maybe even contradictory – sensations are not readily included in that.

Gerhard Richter.  Firenze 2000

Gerhard Richter.
Firenze 2000

John Stezaker. Mask XLVI, 2007

John Stezaker.
Mask XLVI, 2007

My own take on it is not quite so simple as a direct contrast between the marklessness of photography and the richer textures of paint or other systems which reveal the hand of the maker.   Gerhard Richter worked all around this question: he did blob paint on the surface of photographs, with wonderful effects on each, but it was not his only solution. Lots of photographers have found ways to build illusions of depth or surface texture without any physical lilt to the surface at all. It has been one of the challenges that photography has faced best and longest. Montage, double-exposure, collage: all of those can do it. Part of the problem is that photographs are so often reproduced and that somehow we don’t think that makes any difference. See a Monet reproduced and you know that you’re seeing a shorthand version of the thing. A re-photographed John Stezaker will have an unbroken surface throughout. The ‘originals’ of such things as his have physical shifts to the surface: jumps and cuts and bumps and ruts where one surface meets another or overlays it. Such pieces are very often re-photographed. Sometimes they lose a lot, sometimes they don’t.

Sohei Nishino. Jerusalem,

Sohei Nishino.
Jerusalem, 2013.

The dioramas of Sohei Nishino definitely lose something in their re-photographed editions. The whole point is that they were not made by a single glance. Seen as hundreds of little views, they compete to tell their little stories, but also add up to more than the sum of their parts. They’re like a mediaeval map, slipping from one perspective to another, jumping from middle-distance to near and from scale to scale. Seen as a single slick carpet, they lose a lot of that jostling energy: they become more like a page of results from a Google image search, flat, with less connection from one picture to another.

Jorma Puranen. From Shadows, Reflections and all that Sort of Thing, 2010

Jorma Puranen.
From Shadows, Reflections and all that Sort of Thing, 2010

Santeri Tuori.  Sky #7, 2011–2012

Santeri Tuori.
Sky #7, 2011–2012

I’ve written before about Jorma Puranen’s wonderful series of old masters – Shadows, Reflections and all that Sort of Thing – in which the slicks of light that get in the way of seeing the whole picture all at once become themselves a subject. Puranen reflects on reflection. His fellow Finn Santeri Tuori does something parallel when he builds up his skies of dozens, maybe hundreds of layers piled up electronically, in imitation of the hundreds of thousands of separate condensation events that go up to make each cloud. Puranen’s series works all right in reproduction, and therefore on screen, too. Tuori’s makes almost no sense unless you can see the print itself.

Elsewhere, but still on this blog, I wrote about the marking James Newton found on the backs of Ford Transit vans (and – credit where credit’s due, it was pointed out that Adam O’Meara had done something pretty similar before).

Calum Colvin, Cupid and Psyche 1986

Calum Colvin, Cupid and Psyche 1986

Miles wears T-shirt and Sweater by Galliano. From Dazed and Confused, 2011. By Maurizio Anzeri. In point of fact, and lest we forget how absurd the fashion industry often is, here are just some of the credits we are asked to acknowledge in connection with this photograph: Photography Richard Burbridge Styling Robbie Spencer Artwork Maurizio Anzeri Hair Duffy at Tim Howard Management Make-up Francelle at Art + Commerce using NARS Cosmetics Model Miles at Root, Photographic Assistants Jeff Henrikson, Kim Reenberg Styling Assistants Elizabeth Fraser-Bell, Daniel Edley Hair Assistants Peter Matteliano, Yoko Sato Make-up Assistants Hiroko Takada Casting Edward Kim at House Casting It's a picture whose entire appeal comes from Anzeri's work.  He's done it many times to just as good effect upon pictures picked up more or less as junk.  All those other  people are hitching a free ride on that one person's work.

Miles wears T-shirt and Sweater by Galliano. From Dazed and Confused, 2011.
By Maurizio Anzeri. In point of fact, and lest we forget how absurd the fashion industry often is, here are just some of the credits we are asked to acknowledge in connection with this photograph: Photography Richard Burbridge
Styling Robbie Spencer
Artwork Maurizio Anzeri
Hair Duffy at Tim Howard Management
Make-up Francelle at Art + Commerce using NARS Cosmetics
Model Miles at Root, Photographic Assistants Jeff Henrikson, Kim Reenberg
Styling Assistants Elizabeth Fraser-Bell, Daniel Edley
Hair Assistants Peter Matteliano, Yoko Sato
Make-up Assistants Hiroko Takada
Casting Edward Kim at House Casting
It’s a picture whose entire appeal comes from Anzeri’s work. He’s done it many times to just as good effect upon pictures picked up more or less as junk.
All those other people are hitching a free ride on that one person’s work.

Julie Cockburn.  An Inkling.

Julie Cockburn.
An Inkling.

Calum Colvin has been working his whole life at a lovely waltz between two dimensions and three. Much later Maurizio Anzeri and Julie Cockburn are doing something connected to that.

I’ve argued that the whole Pictorialist tendency contained at root a kind of campaign for viewers to be held longer on the surface of photographs than has been the norm in news, or advertising or topography or any of the one of the dominant zones of photography. Maybe it was not always mark making, but certainly mark-imitating. Interesting surfaces will do, if you can’t have marks upon them or seemingly upon them. Anything which counters the tendency in viewers to see a photograph as a single rectangular frameful of information can help to slow the viewer’s mind within a photograph. Come to think of it, I suppose that’s what’s at play with a really fine print, too, even if it has the most traditional surface, acting merely as a window does. A great print has depths. It gives to the view it contains a quality which I can describe only as ocular weight. That’ll hold you there a while. We all know the feeling of finding a really great print more interesting than the scene within it. Reproduce it, in print or online, and that is destroyed.

Tacita Dean. The Wrecking of the Ngahere,  2001  From The Russian Ending

Tacita Dean. The Wrecking of the Ngahere, 2001
From The Russian Ending

Tacita Dean’s Russian Ending – a series I keep coming back to and which has slowly crept its way up my own internal league tables of photographs – has lots of things about it, but in this context it has both the careful ( and appropriate ) attention to surface (they’re photogravures) and the hand-written notes apparently carved into the surface. They are layered intellectually, seemingly physically, too; they’re even layered as narratives or pseudo-narratives. You may or may not like them as much as I do, but you won’t just glance at them and go.

That is the challenge for photographers. I’m coming around to thinking it a far more central challenge than I had realised. If you’re a jobbing photographer or a craftsman or a ‘professional’ or what I have begun to think of as a camera operator, you want to make crisp clear messages that are simple and linear. Those can be grasped as quickly as you like, and their surfaces can be slick. Christiano Ronaldo scores a goal. The graduating student in a rented gown. No complex messaging needed, or even welcome. But any photographer who wants to send out more complex messages has to find a way to keep the eye of the viewer on the surface of that print for longer. That’s what every single one of the people here is doing. It’s plain. A photograph which offers no solution to the problem of the eye sliding off it will never be capable of transmitting very sophisticated or complex messages, however much its maker tries.

Solve that, in whatever way that you can, and a photograph can bear as much ‘inflected’ meaning as any other medium. But since that eye-retaining or eye-detaining surface is so much at risk in reproduction, it becomes easy for an Ian McKeever to say photography can’t do what other systems, more recognized for mark making, can do.

Michael Wolf. Tokyo Compression Revisited.

Michael Wolf.
Tokyo Compression Revisited.

Richard Learoyd. Harmony White Shirt, 2011

Richard Learoyd.
Harmony White Shirt, 2011

David Hockney.  Portrait of the Artist's Mother, 1985

David Hockney.
Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, 1985

There have been hundreds of solutions. I wrote once about Michael Wolf’s Tokyo Compression series, in the best of which the condensation on glass acts as a surface, which is readable two ways: metaphorically, it looks like the spirit of the crushed commuters, weeping and seeping out. Practically, it reminds us that tropical climates are physically hard to endure. At his best, Richard Learoyd achieves with his hand-built cameras an incredible trick of imitating the act of looking very hard. He seems to make pictures which have peripheral vision built into them, as if he had already committed you to staring at the bits he cared about. Katerina Jebb achieved something similar by a wholly different technique in her show at Arles in 2014 – when she found depth of field enough by using a hand-held scanner to move around her sitters, making a sort of haze of doubt which became a haze of wonder. David Hockney spoke very clearly in his Bradford lecture long ago about how his Joiners imitated the staccato jumping of the eye within the frame that is standard in paint but rare in photography. Indeed, he has gone on exploring that same idea for many years; the gridded-videos moving down the lanes in East Yorkshire do much the same thirty (or whatever it is) years on.

Mining in the Ore Mountains,  by Josef Koudleka. From the Black Triangle, 1992

Mining in the Ore Mountains,
by Josef Koudleka.
From the Black Triangle, 1992

Lee Freidlander. Montana 2008. From America by Car

Lee Freidlander.
Montana 2008.
From America by Car

Even with no such complexities of surface, a photographer can do things with composition itself to hold the eye in place: the classic example would be Josef Koudelka’s panoramas, which seem almost to build a maze or circuit of blocks of darkness that we cannot pass except in an order chosen by Koudelka. But a panorama is peculiar anyway: it is rarely possible to see a whole panorama at once: the shape itself holds the eye there a while. Friedlander’s tour-de-force pictures through (and of) car windows do it in a completely different way.

It may be that one of the reasons we ( or certainly I ) enjoy battered old photographs is wrapped up in this same connection. A picture, which shows upon itself the marks of how it got to be what it now is, has acquired another layer. That layer may be no more than survival: but that’s not nothing. Even a trivial survivor has absorbed a certain amount of time. That’s what we mean by patina, and it’s partly why the myriad examples of re-mining or repurposing old archives going on at the moment are so interesting: old vernacular has depth, just by dint of that battered surface.

Sooner or later photographs will become rare as physical objects. On screens, photographs never have those marks: unless … somebody has put them there on purpose. And that’s where we began. It’s not really about mark-making as such. It’s just making marks or finding ways to imitate them is one of the very best ways to keep the eye of the viewer where you want it. And once you’ve done that, you can begin to say whatever it is you have to say. But you’ve got to find a way to keep the viewer from sliding off your photograph.

Caroline Fellowes. Animal, Vegetable, Mineral 7. 2014

Caroline Fellowes.
Animal, Vegetable, Mineral 7. 2014

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.

Because

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.

FH:

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. (http://on.ft.com/Z75khQ ).

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 (http://bit.ly/139icus)  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 (http://bit.ly/139icus) 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.

JC:

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?

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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.

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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.