Friday, January 31, 2020


A common thread in the processes of Serious Photographers is a thing they call Research. This consists, I think, of a bunch of different things, but a big one is to go somewhere and photograph some stuff. Which, you know, makes sense. Photographing stuff is what photographers do.

Research, n., the systematic investigation into and study of materials and sources in order to establish facts and reach new conclusions.

Research, the verb, thus means to gather knowledge up in one of a bunch of ways, and synthesize from that knowledge new knowledge. You might sit quietly with a pencil and a pad of paper doing mathematics for a few thousand hours. You might read books, and then sit quietly, to see if any new insights arrive. You might mix up smelly chemicals, record the results, and then attempt to interpret what you saw in the test tubes or on the displays of your instruments.

Research can also be a little less dramatic, it may simply be to discover for yourself things already known. One might read the encyclopedia entry on Myanmar and thereby come to know things you did not know before.

My first reaction to Photographer Research is, naturally, this is a bunch of bullshit (this is how I react to everything,) but I am not convinced that I'm right. I suspect some of it is bullshit, but I'm not certain all of it is.

On the one hand going to some remote place and photographing something perfectly ordinary is not exactly the same thing as developing a vaccine for polio. One might even be tempted to assert that "research" implies the development of "knowledge" and therefore what you just did isn't. This isn't quite right. Visual knowledge is a thing, after all.

Possibly the picture is, I don't know, the facade of a building where something happened. Or, after Mathieu Asselin, a photograph of a perfectly banal train crossing or a can of microfilm. These things are perfectly ordinary, we know what buildings, train tracks, and microfilm cans look like. We know, intellectually, that these things must exist. We know that someone was murdered in an apartment, and we know without being shown that there was a building involved. Newspapers are often recorded on microfilm, therefore it is reasonable at least that a newspaper article from 1952 might be found in a can just like that one.

What is the value in these kinds of pictures?

I think for the most part the MFA doesn't have a clear notion, they're simply aping the moves of everyone around them.

Which doesn't mean it's wrong.

Suppose the story is of a murder, a murder shocking because of the bland ordinariness of the lives and circumstances involved. An apparently happy couple, living in a bland apartment in a bland apartment building with perfectly bland friends. One of the couple savagely murdered the other for no reason anyone can discern. A bland photograph of the facade of the apartment building could well be a piece of visual knowledge that backs up, supports, the story being told. Look, I told you how bland and ordinary it all was, and here is the building, see it with your own eyes.

So, we cannot just dismiss these photographs on the grounds that they are bland, or not-bland, or any other criteria.

If blandness, or other properties one might glean from the building photo do not figure as part of the point, though, what exactly is the photo contributing? If the story is about, let us imagine, un-diagnosed mental illness, then perhaps the building photo contributes nothing beyond proof that the photographer went there.

The result of research in whatever way we understand it, is something resembling an argument. It is a thesis perhaps, or perhaps several, backed up by materials unearthed in the process of researching. Even if there is no specific conclusion or thesis, the result ought to be a coherent body of material, tied together toward a common goal.

Perhaps the result is a summary understanding of Myanmar, the end product of reading and digesting an encylopedia article. Perhaps it is a scientific paper and a procedure for manufacturing a vaccine. Perhaps it is a critical analysis of Jonathan Swift's Tale of a Tub.

Thus, it seems to me that one can reasonably judge photographs within one of these "researched" contemporary art projects on the basis of whether the picture seems to support some thesis, whether it fits in to a coherent set of knowledge.

Some pictures (e.g. Asselin's microfilm can) do not strike me as doing so, they appear to be something like filler, and something like proof-of-labor. This is not a research product. It doesn't mean you shouldn't take the photo, much of the labor of serious research results in dead-end material that ought to be discarded.

In the end it's not much different from storytelling, or book-making, or sequencing, or whatever else you choose to call what is in the end essentially the same process.

One gathers up all the things, and sifts through them, and throws most of them away, and attempts as best one can to assemble the remainder into a coherent, interlocking, set of things which pull together to make some coherent statement or another.

Sometimes, often, when you get finished with the throwing-away part, there isn't enough left to make anything. This happens to many a poorly advised graduate student. One can attempt to assemble something from the debris field, but it's better if you simply go back and do more work, and make something good.

There is no particular shame in ending up with a debris field that contains nothing worthy. This is normal. It might be very inconvenient in, say, the 7th year of your Master's program, but there's nothing shameful in it.

Perhaps your adviser could use a bit of a talking-to, though.


  1. In a former life I was a professional member of staff in a university library. Some of my colleagues did a fair bit of user instruction -- mainly how to do "looking things up" in the approved systematic manner, using the appropriate tools -- which they liked to call "teaching". I would point out the difference between "teaching" and "instruction", especially in a university context, but they would always prefer the self-aggrandising term.

    By the same token, "research" has considerably greater cachet in the academic world than "teaching". It is the gold standard by which academic status is measured. This puts art practitioners who work in universities in an invidious position: what they do is not "research" in any meaningful sense, but they are judged (and therefore graded and paid) by the same criteria as bona fide academics. Thus, the "PhD by practice and/or publication" has become the sleight of hand by which artist practitioner-teachers can become self-styled "researchers".

    Of course, what counts as "research" even in the social sciences and humanities can be very dubious. My partner is a university professor, who supervises PhD candidates in the social sciences. One thing she has noticed over the years is the decline in the idea of a doctorate as an apprenticeship in research practice, and the rise of the "hobby" PhD, in which someone hopes to pursue a pet theory about something or other, in a more or less journalistic fashion, with all the confirmation bias, shortcuts, and opinionated bloviation that implies, and which "research" proper is meant to avoid.

    A very famous photographer of my acquaintance worked for many years at an art school, where the quality and reputation of his output, and to a lesser extent his teaching were the criteria that mattered. When that art school was absorbed by a nearby university all that changed: senior staff -- even a world-renowned practitioner like himself -- were required to undertake the "PhD by practice" and become "professors"; a ridiculous process, that also undervalued his genuine artistic achievement.

    Until making excellent pots and photos is seen as commensurate with making breakthroughs in chemistry -- highly unlikely -- this nonsense will continue, and will eventually end up in the same place as literature departments, i.e. run by untalented people who see their main job as to distrust and throw shade on the ostensible objects of study, and who encourage the sort of "meta" work that is shallow, unattractive to the general public, but easy to write about.


    1. I certainly see most "photographic research" as very much in the vein of "this is my report on Myanmar" in which they colorfully illustrate the things they have learned about Myanmar by reading various sources.

      This is termed, when a child does it, or even when a motivated adult who wishes to present on Myanmar to his photography club, "research", and I think that's not a terrible use of the word. It only slightly resembles what *I* called "research" when I was drinking heavily and proving theorems, not in that order.

      I'm pretty sure I agree with you that perhaps we ought not be granting PhDs on the grounds of this sort of "research" though, since it's not much more than a book report that a gifted teenager might put together. The PhD is, as far as I can tell, granted based on how convincingly one can attach to some stuff that everyone already knows some kind of political agenda.

      "Look what I learned about Myanmar, also, colonialism is bad and responsible for everything bad in Myanmar."

      "Congratulations, Dr. Jones!"

      handshakes and champagne all around.

  2. This might be a good example of what plausibly constitutes photographic research (you can skip the part about Mao at the beginning, though it provides some context for what is to follow):

    1. Huh, not bad. The book itself sounds a bit twee, but Sauvin's larger project is interesting. Also, Cat Lachowskyj can actually write. Thanks for the link!

      Those nonsensical pull quotes, though. Man. Everyone's doing that now, and it looks so stupid.

      Next blogging trend: drop caps in the middle of the paragraph.

    2. Not THAT Ross CameronFebruary 3, 2020 at 1:51 AM

      I see what you mean. They stuck out for me too. It makes sense if they’re highlighting a pertinent point. But just slotting them in so there are 4-5 over the course of the article just feels like style for its own sake.
      Otherwise an interesting read.

    3. They stuck in pics from the book, which makes it a whole lot better. ASX is a pretty janky enterprise on a good day.

    4. I am perpetually astonished that nobody seems irritated that ASX's good content is almost 100% lifted from other sources. Aren't photographers copyright absolutists?