Monday, March 23, 2020

"Meaning" in Contemporary Photobooks

It occurred to me just now (so this might not make sense) after thinking for a moment about Colberg's recent video, and some other remarks I've read, that the maybe the point of the contemporary photobook is its references to other artists and other books. Maybe that's why they seem so devoid of meaning in and of themselves.

It puts me in mind of Jonathan Swift, the satirist most known for Gulliver's Travels. That book is dense with references to current events and people, readers at the time recognized the characters as this politician or that, recognized the controversies as thinly veiled contemporaneous debates about this and that. The book survives because it's a walloping fun read even if you don't get the references, though.

He also wrote a thing called Tale of a Tub which is also a rollicking tale packed with references, but which is almost completely incomprehensible if you don't get the references.

Tale of a Tub has survived largely as an exemplar of Swift's talent as a satirist. Nobody reads it for fun.

To be honest, while I didn't like Schmidt's 89/90 I thought there was a lot more going on there than Colberg let on. There's repeated references to walls and barriers (duh), there's a fair amount of formal relationship one frame to the next, and so on. What got me going, though, is how Colberg ignored all that in favor of citing what he felt were references to other work, either by Schmidt or by other photographers.

It is as if he's understanding Gulliver's Travels in terms of its satire, its referential nature, and ignoring the story itself. Which, you know, is an approach. It's not an accessible approach, and it ignores a fair bit of the work. Swift actually did both, you know, he wrote a story and made it a satire. You can get at it either way and, optionally, attempt to attack it as a whole, if you want to make sense of it.

The example of Tale of a Tub ought to stand as a warning here. If your work, whatever it is, leans too heavily on its connections to everything else that's going on right now, then it will inevitably fail the test of time. You cannot rely on the structure surrounding your work to remain intact, indeed the opposite is true. Most of your references will fall away in to obscurity, and if you don't want whatever you just made to descend with them, it had best have some bones enough to stand up by itself.

If indeed I have correctly characterized the world of MFA Art here, it appears that it is — by design — creating bodies of disposable art, which is more or less the opposite of its stated goal.


  1. I like Your Article I like Your Thoughts thanks For Share This Amazing Article :-)

  2. The word you need is "intertextuality". Once it was identified as a thing by theorists -- see Julia Kristeva et al. -- idiotic practitioners started to run with it as a fashionable idea, and the next thing you know you have the situation you describe. I think this is probably how the whole "my work references..." nonsense got started.


    1. Referencing other work is a convenient way to ass-kiss. Even in the sciences it is (increasingly, I gather, at least in some fields) a good idea to reference other papers by people who's support you would like.

      As long as your work references all your committee's "important, necessary" work, then surely they'll sign off on your MFA, right?

    2. Also, having just now googled up Julia Kristeva, I can report that the word "semiotician" makes me say "oh" in a gloomy and knowing kind of way.

    3. Semiotician -- incredibly -- is not being classified as an essential occupation here in the UK, during the current Covid-19 lockdown.


  3. I'm thinking of 'Horizont' as I write this. I think it's pretty easy to wander through a 'foreign city' with a history and your camera and take a bunch of photos and then claim that they mean something. Like the one I took, most distractedly, as a woman ran by bare arsed around Bila Hora in Prague just as a thunderstorm was providing a good show. (The battle of Bila Hora was arguably the Czech's nadir as a nation, they lost before lunch and had to suffer 300 or so years of Austrian occupation.) Alas, the fair maiden had more sense than to succumb to my paltry charms. You get my drift.