Monday, December 3, 2018

The Broad Field

One of the things that fascinates me about photography and photographers is how broad the population is. There are all these little (well, enormous, often) cliques and regions of the field. There's photojournalists, amateur snapshooters, fine artists, and so on.

Just sticking to the Fine Artists, we have:
  • modern fellows like Alain Briot and so on who sell brightly colored landscapes in shops they refer to as "galleries."
  • closely allied but not quite the same, the black and white Serious Photographs who appear in LENSWORK and that Mike Johnstone likes.
  • the even more serious artists, who get big gallery shows. Sally Mann, Thomas Ruff, Cindy Sherman, etc.
  • The random crew of people I dig up from time to time, which surely represents 1000s of artists, very serious, very good, but obscure.
  • the MFA crowd who take themselves terribly serious but mainly turn in derivative lightweight muck that's trying to be political. This is mainly where Colberg hangs out.
  • the digital artist crowd who are mostly in it for the social media likes and maybe do ads as well. Google up Antti Karpinen.

What is curious here is that even in this narrow world of Fine Art photography, within each we have very little acknowledgement of the other groups in it. Most of these groups don't talk about antecedents, heroes, sources of inspiration except in terms of one another. Mostly, each group behaves as if Photography consists of their kind of work, and a bunch of irrelevant snapshots nobody cares about. The most serious group is the best at acknowledging their antecedents, and as you get into crappier and crappier art you get less and less talk about antecedents.

I am working my way through a book of contemporary female photographers, Firecrackers, which truly has much to recommend it, and which I will have more to say later. It is entirely the MFA crowd, being a diverse and multinational group of artists who all went to the same very very short list of schools.

At least three of the artists are dressing up in costumes and photographing themselves in constructed scenes in order to comment on some aspect of the feminine in culture. Anyone who had not been under a rock will recognize this as Cindy Sherman's schtick. Sherman, of course, is cited exactly zero times. The editors manage to equip the Ethiopian one with one antecedent, Malick Sidibe, who worked in a completely different country, 60 years and 2000 miles away, and whose work I hardly need to say has exactly no resemblance to the artist's other than being pictures of African people. This is roughly like saying that Ansel Adams pictures shows clear signs of the influence of Julia Margaret Cameron, because they're both white and sometimes photographed people.

As an aside, I find this particular reference to be very dubious. It is as if the editors could only think of one other African photographer, and so decided it was fine to lump Ethiopia and Mali together in this way.

The MFA crowd in particular seems to be very distinct. They acknowledge nobody else, and nobody else seems to pay the slightest attention to them.

The lighter weight but still serious landscape people seem to intersect pretty much at Ansel Adams, more or less universally claiming him as an inspiration, but otherwise ignoring everything and everyone else. The lighter weight but still serious everything-else people usually acknowledge 2 or more from a standard short list: Cartier-Bresson, Kert├ęsz, Koudelka, less often Capa, almost never Smith, and that's about it.

The digital artists don't acknowledge anyone because they're free, man, to do whatever the want, man.

The actual major players can, in general, speak at some length to their antecedents and who they attend to, where they came from, and where they are going. Some of them aren't going anywhere interesting but they are at any rate thoughtful about it.

It may be a wrong-headed feeling I have, my I cannot shake the sense that the more an artist knows and cares about their own historical context, the better they're likely to be. It's not a road to awesomeness, but it does feel like a necessary pre-condition.


  1. What if you look at a lot of stuff in museums and galleries, paintings more than photos usually, but never take note of the names and even if I did, I would never remember them anyway? How do you give your antecedents their due if you can't remember their names? What if you never write an artist statement anyway and nobody asks?

    I actually don't like reading about visual art. Is this a failing on my part? I'm 65, I hate spending time doing things I don't enjoy. I don't repair my own cars anymore either.

    1. There's some insightful writing on visual art among all the dreck that will enlarge your understanding of what you are looking at (what, where, when, why and how), and help you see connections to other artists, whose work you might like. Some artists are fairly good writers. You could do a lot worse than to start with "The Journal of Eugene Delacroix", whose name you apparently won't recognize (yeah I kind of agree with not looking at museum and gallery labels, because they can be distracting and misleading).

  2. It's because most photographers are visually illiterate and in it for the gear not photography. They like what they're told to like by the museums, monograph publishers and follower count. The MFAs think they're reinventing the wheel so don't have to pay it back. Add that to the fact that good photography is really fuckin' difficult, time consuming and expensive to keep track of and you usually end up leaning on the institutions to inform you what to look at. A real interest in photography is not for the faint-hearted.

  3. That's a fair description of the situation, but I'm not surprised. "Photography" is a big, sprawling thing. It takes quite a bit of effort to take it all in, to understand the history, and to tease out the various genres and how they relate to each other, or not. You need a bit of a scholarly bent to want to do this; most people who get into photography do so because they like making pictures (or like gear), and not because they like reading about the history of the field.

    If you want to take a guided tour of "photography", the options are few. The formal path is the MFA, and that means diving into the beast that is academia. The structuralists seem to have sunk their teeth into academic photography and are not letting go. As a result, there doesn't seem to be any respect in that world for those who have gone before in photography. So we see that the typical MFA reading list is loaded up with critical theory, often written by people who arent't themselves photographers. This is not a problem that's unique to photography by the way. I've seen this in many other fields.

    For someone who wants to gain a deeper understanding of the roots and traditions of the field independently, it can be tough sledding. The local library usually isn't a lot of help, unless your local library is the Library of Congress. Mostly you'll find "how to books", with a few that showcase styles of photography (people, pets, landscapes). Occasionally you'll find some books that are dedicated to a photographer (likely Ansel Adams). It helps to find a few books that can point you to where you need to go, but there aren't many that are accessibly written and free of a particular ideology that colours everything. I'm nearly through Gerry Badger's The Pleasures of Good Photography and I quite like it. He doesn't have much use for the structuralists and actually likes photography and photographers. The writing style isn't casual, but it's manageable, and he does a good job of connecting some things together.

    If you're going solo, you also need access to a good interlibrary loan system. For example, I've recently become interested in Robert Adams. Finding out what he's done, seeing his work, and figuring out where he fits in the landscape has involved lots of scholarly detective work, and then a lot of interlibary loan requests to bring his books from all across the country so I can see what he's done without the filter of someone else's opinions. I do this kind of thing for a living, so it's second-nature to me. But I can easily see why it wouldn't be someone else's idea of fun.

    1. Is it really the structuralists running around MFA programs in photography? I don't know a single thing about the curricula, but the work that comes out simply seems to be random junk that has more to do with a sort of kindergarten postmodernism than anything else.

      Perhaps the students are unable to make it through the assigned reading, and instead read the somewhat simpler word salad on wikipedia, which is certainly not going to teach anyone anything. I cannot make much sense of any of this stuff through online resources, and I suspect it's because the underlying texts are gibberish.

      MFA-holding photographers seem to produce a few sound bites of text reflecting some simplistic political take, paired with some random snapshots that are somewhere between vaguely related, and not at all related, with the implied insistence that IF ONLY you were SMART ENOUGH you'd see how deep it all is.

      I don't know if there's even enough there to ascribe it to a critical theory, but PoMo seems disjointed and broad enough to at least encompass it.

    2. What you don't like about MFA programs started, I think, with structuralism but has branched out in all kinds of other directions (post-structuralism, postmodernism, all kinds of critical theory inspired by sociology and allied fields).

      I'm not throwing all that stuff under the bus. I've been known to dip into some of those ideas in other settings. But I'm inclined to skepticism. For me a marker is the deliberate use of language designed to obfuscate and exclude. I'm also not fond of fields that ignore or scorn their roots, and I especially don't like the ones that force a uniform ideology on new entrants to the field. Unfortunately these do seem to be characteristics of many (most?) MFA programs. I'll be careful to qualify that I'm not familiar with all their curricula either so I'd be delighted to learn of exceptions...

      As a slight aside, social theories of power -- its sources and how it's exercised -- are actually quite useful in this conversation.
      From the perspective of power theory, what we see in MFA programs (and any other social setting by the way) makes perfect sense. If you can make up and control the language, set the norms and expectations, and establish the criteria by which success is determined, then you run the show. Academic fields and programs are the way they are because of who has this power. We're certainly seeing this in contempoary politics too.