While painting has been numerously pronounced to be dead and over, Besthy made a statement that photography has never not been having a crisis - first the institutions could not decide whether it was an artistic medium or purely a scientific invention. Now, present-day technology is making it possible for anyone to take high quality photographs. Perhaps considering what are the monochromes (as in what Rodchenko considers the highest form of painting) of photography, that could be something we should be looking at. And then looking into pushing it further.
Since “there is an inevitable commercial in what is to come now, and who are to be the important practitioners in movements next to come” (Adorno 85), thus the contemporary photographer is a commissioned worker, creating within a capitalist society, providing us with content that sells commodities to consumers (Edwards). Out of all the photography available for viewing in the world, only a tiny percentage is created with the intention of being an art work. The vast majority of photographs taken on a day to day basis, are simply fragments of one’s existence - a temporary reminder of an experience that the said person will likely forget about. Different people document the same experiences, therefore one’s personal archive becomes redundant in a way.
In this essay, I will write about the post-historical era of photography, in which photographs are not created regarding the historical significance. I will be addressing social media (where majority photographs live), the temporality of archives, lack of need for documentary photography and then summarize what I consider the current status of contemporary photography.
Too Much Content
A 2014 statistic reveals that 20 billion photos get uploaded daily, on Instagram alone. The greater majority of photographs we come across on the daily are, metaphorically and literally, trying to sell you a commodity. Whether it is one’s representation of themselves, their food or an ad for whatever the algorithm thought was relevant to you. Due to the small size of a phone camera, the images captured with our phones are mostly noise, and are generated through an algorithm that Hito Steyerl describes to be “comparing what you and your network already photographed, [it] guesses what you might have wanted to photograph now. It creates the present picture based on earlier pictures, on your/its memory.” Therefore, the internet has billions of photographs that lack, what Benjamin would describes as aura. These mass produced images by a machine that you can not fully control are highly political, they are reflections of what your smartphone thinks you are. That being said, if photography has become a tool for capitalists to sell more products and services to consumers, and for the society to share unnecessary amounts of images, created based on what their iPhone thinks they want to see, then what photographs are considered art?
With such massive quantities of content, to determine such, is likely confusing and unclear. A work of art gets the status of art when recognized by an institution (Benjamin 255), that means only the photograph that is shown or recognized by an art institution is art. And that would make the most sense (but categorizing art in general is a difficult task). Adorno makes a reasonable argument, that while animals can perceive pictures, picture-making is a human skill, is a part of reason why art has a history (Adorno 90).
However, if only the smallest part of photographs made are made with the intention of creating a work of art, perhaps meant to be looked at in an art gallery, it is then necessary to ask “why do we maintain photography departments within art schools, most absurdly graduate art programs, when these professional distinction barely exist within contemporary art?” (Besthy 132) I wonder if it still makes sense, to be studying photography if “whatever comes next will not matter because the concept of [photography] is internally exhausted.” (Danto 84)
Is there a way of knowing, whether what one is creating is going to end up being an institutionalized artwork or just floating in the endless void of the world wide web? Perhaps, worth mentioning in this context is Richard Prince’s body of work in which he appropriated (read: stole) photos off Instagram. Why make new work, when the internet is an infinite source of already existing imagery.
The Temporary Archive
The idea of an archive is dying. We surely have entered an era of the post-historical with the arrival of Snapchat and later Instagram Stories - images that disappear forever after twenty-four hours. Ideal for when you want to let everyone know that you are at the gym, but this information is so irrelevant, not even you are going to care the next day. When I think of the ways photography was previously utilized, it is the opposite - creating an archive for future generations to look at. The Generation Y has seen it all, seen everything to the extent, that we no longer feel the need to keep images for longer than a day.
So then, should documentary photography still be taken seriously? Considering the technology available, anyone that happens to be at a certain location at the right time, can take a photograph that could later be widely shared as the image documenting this said event. Nowadays, what is the purpose of documentary photographers, who spend their lives capturing events of terror or the streets of familiar and foreign cities?
Anyone, literally, can be a documentary photographer in the year 2017. The person behind the The Agoraphobic Traveller Instagram, travels around the world, from the comfort of his own apartment, thanks to Google Maps. The unimaginable fear of traveling, or financial instability, can clearly no longer stop a person from going around the globe making photographs.
The State of Contemporary Photography
What is photography nowadays, I keep asking myself. Does it still exist as an art form or have we exhausted it. Maybe it is not all wrong to assume, that only the photography that actually gets bought into collections, and is deserving to be archived, can be defined as art. And the rest becomes irrelevant with time.
Perhaps it makes sense to compare photography to design in this sense. Design, 2D and 3D, seen predominantly for its utilitarian function, struggles ever being included in art exhibitions. Even within art school, the distinction between visual artists and designers is very evident, with a great lack of opportunities to collaborate. Maria Lind challenged this notion with What If, an exhibition she curated in 2000 at Moderna Museet in Stockholm. What If consisted of artworks that were considered designed, but were not functional - design’s main feature. The line between functional design and art design is extremely blurry as is the line between different types of photography.
Photography too can be utilitarian (commercial, editorial, event, documentary) or meant to be looked and contemplated in a larger context - especially “starting in the late 1970s and 1980’s, art photographs began to be made no only at large scale bur also [..] for the wall.” However the line here too, is not crystal clear. Elad Lassry’s commercial (-looking) works were, until recently, on display at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Documentary photography is a tricky one, especially in contemporary context of the post-historical, archival-less era.
Well, considering the fact that painting has been announced to be dying and dead countless times over the past 150 years, I think it is safe to assume that photography is gonna stick around for some time. Sure, its function is rapidly changing, to the extent that “history and [photography] must go in different directions, and though [photography] may continue to exist […] its existence carries no historical significance whatever (Adorno 84). The form itself has changed greatly, from film to digital, to not using cameras at all in some instances. The content has changed too.
Art is constantly developing - with current on-goings around the world, new technological innovations. And artists have no choice but to adjust to these changes. However much it may be transformed by new technology, photography seems likely to retain its central importance in our culture.[…]For this reason alone photography, whatever technical form it takes, will remain exuberantly alive.”(Hagen 1993)
Bibliography and works cited:
Chan, Mary. “Aleksandr Rodchenko: The Death of Painting.” MoMA, vol. 1, no. 3, 1998, pp. 2–5. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4381398.
Edwards, Steve. “Photography, Allegory, and Labor.” Art Journal, vol. 55, no. 2, 1996, pp. 38–44. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/777744.
Blouin, Francis X. “History and Memory: The Problem of the Archive.” PMLA, vol. 119, no. 2, 2004, pp. 296–298. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1261384.
Costello, Diarmuid, and Margaret Iversen. “Introduction: Photography between Art History And Philosophy.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 38, no. 4, 2012, pp. 679–693. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/667419.
Fried, Michael. Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before. Yale University Press, 2012.
Steyerl, Hito. “In Defense of the Poor Image.” e-Flux Journal, Nov. 2009, www.e-flux.com/journal/10/61362/in-defense-of-the-poor-image/.
Groys, Boris. “The Obligation to Self-Design.” e-Flux Journal, Nov. 2008, www.e-flux.com/journal/00/68457/the-obligation-to-self-design/.
Steyerl, Hito. “Proxy Politics: Signal and Noise.” e-Flux Journal, Dec. 2014, www.e-flux.com/journal/60/61045/proxy-politics-signal-and-noise/.
Hagen, Charles. “Reinventing the Photograph.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 30 Jan. 1993, www.nytimes.com/1993/01/31/arts/photography-reinventing-the-photograph.html?pagewanted=all.
Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Illuminations: Schocken Books, 2013.
Walker, Alice. “Active Users and Other Statistics on Social Media in 2014 (Infographic).” Nuke Suite, 14 Apr. 2015, www.nukesuite.com/active-users-and-other-statistics-on-social-media-in-2014/.
DenHoed, Andrea. “An Agoraphobic Photographer's Virtual Travels, on Google Street View.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 29 June 2017, www.newyorker.com/culture/photo-booth/an-agoraphobic-photographers-virtual-travels-on-google-street-view.
Lind, Maria. What If:Art on the Verge of Architecture and Design. Moderna Museet, 2000.