We live in a period of anxiety, a time of deep uncertainty about the foundations and frameworks through which we make sense of life. It may have always been like this, but various faiths and philosophies work to convince us that there are guideposts and touch points around which we can orient our purpose and values. The philosopher Richard J. Bernstein, in his seminal 1983 book Beyond Objectivism and Relativism, coined the term “Cartesian Anxiety” for the generalised belief that we have lost even the pretence of secure reference points. As Bernstein argues (p. 19), we face “the growing apprehension that there may be nothing – not God, reason, philosophy, science, or poetry…that answers to and satisfies our longing for ultimate constraints, for a stable and reliable rock upon which we can secure our thought and action.”
This Cartesian Anxiety manifests itself in multiple forms and different ways. In recent times it has been evident in the media economy, where economic and technical disruption has challenged the traditional frames image makers, reporters and storytellers have relied upon to give their enterprise purpose. In Bending the Frame, Fred Ritchin – former picture editor, educator and one of the most important writers on the social role of photography over the last two decades – asks some of the big questions that flow from these disturbances. What is photography for? Do photographs help anyone? How should journalistic and documentary photographers regard themselves? Ritchin’s book is structured like an essay that probes debates and perspectives rather than a linear argument leading to a single conclusion. He generally avoids the easy temptation of those afflicted by Cartesian Anxiety, a nostalgic longing of a better and simpler past. Instead, he sees great but largely unrealised potential in the new digital possibilities for storytelling, a point that reinforces his important argument about “hyperphotography” from his 2009 book After Photography. This is especially the case given that tools like Luminate, Stipple and ThingLink now allow producers to embed information in online images and connect them to other sources of data, a commercial function that has great potential for visual storytelling.
One of Ritchin’ virtues is his upfront recognition that photography inevitably and inescapably is an act of construction and interpretation. Photographs have been granted the cultural status of “a reliable trace of the visible and the ‘real’” (p. 8), but they embody the photographers point of view amongst other factors. This should be obvious to the point of being a truism, but it is surprising how many discussions of photography’s meaning and status proceed by assuming an unshakable, but conceptually unsustainable, commitment to objectivity (partly, I suspect, as an unconscious way of warding off the Cartiesian Anxiety). Ritchin acknowledges this commitment by references to John Szarkowski’s claim photographs were “windows” on the world, transparent devices to record reality, but is not bound by it. Nonetheless, Ritchin wants to retain the social purpose that was part of that commitment, the idea that photographs are “also capable of telling truths, however partial.” Pictures have this capacity, but it is not derived from their status. Rather, it flows from how they are used: “photographs have to be employed rhetorically to build a case and to persuade.” Cast in this light, photographs, “rather than routinely indicate what is (as records of the visible)…increasingly point to what might be – with the potential for much deeper understanding, as well as for a particularly subversive simulation designed to mislead” (pp. 6, 9). Given this, documentary photographers, who, Ritchin argues, “have always seemed to approach the world with touch of both the poet and the social worker, aware of both what is and what might be” (p. 152), must “increasingly emphasise the role of interpretation rather than that of transcription” (p. 49).
The increased recognition of the professional photographer as author rhetorically building a case – for which Ritchin uses the New Journalism of the 1960s and 1970s as an interesting analogue – is heigthened by the contemporary image economy. Claims that we are being saturated to the point of passivity by photographs proliferating daily, are now a staple of much commentary. Ritchin variously invokes this perspective when he writes of the “cascade of screens submerg[ing] viewers with enormous numbers of images, including billions of their own photographs and videos,” “societies experiencing a surfeit of images,” and the “unrelenting barrage of vivid, often heart-wrenching imagery” (pp. 9, 20, 30). There is a quasi-conservative strain to these claims, a sense that the population at large is ill-equipped to make sense of the visual information it is presented with. While it is easy to cite some egregious example of public stupidity, and while we must contextualise information better, do we really believe the citizenry – of which we are all a part too – cannot cope with the billions of images they readily contribute to? I confess I have only ever heard this claim from photographers and photography critics. Part of the problem with framing our concerns in terms of image saturation is that we can be seduced by the macro numbers oft cited in relation to mobile phones, Facebook uploads and the like. There is no doubt that the growth of mobile devices and social media is one of the most significant developments of our time, but the idea that all of us face a tidal wave of billions of images daily is far from personal reality. As I’ve argued previously, the metaphor of the image flood is deeply misleading. If you average out the global numbers of Facebook photo uploads across all users, they are the equivalent of one picture every three days per person. Add to that the fact these uploads are more personal than public – we generally don’t see the images uploaded unless we are recognised as friends or followers – and the automatically assumed cultural problems said to be induced by those global numbers are looking a little overstated. Not to mention that the popularity of photographic images in social media might actually be a good thing for visual storytellers to connect to and build on.
Ritchin does qualify the claims about image saturation: “Grumbling about the enormous number of images online now makes little sense without acknowledging that they constitute a new, expanding visual literature that, riddled with its share of inanities, will in the end transform our understanding of ourselves and our universe” (p. 48). And the fact his New York University photography students were ignorant of the work of Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros (p. 145), suggests there are some dry spots in the pictorial deluge. Making good work more visible is one of Ritchin’s main concerns, and it leads to his consideration of the need for a new “front page” for the online world that helps societal priorities surface and “tells us where to look.” Ritchin proposes “informed groups of people, a rotating cast of experts who have studied certain issues at length or lived through them,” helping us ascertain what matters, and funded by users micropayments (pp. 145-46). He suggests these groups could be – “like the editors and community leaders of yore – people we learn to trust” (p. 147).
Ritchin’s proposal informed the 2011 Aperture exhibition “What Matters Now: Proposals for a New Front Page” he coordinated. I was amongst those who contributed to the section run by Stephen Mayes that concluded we “didn’t want new conventions to replace the old.” Given that front pages of even the most estimable newspapers promote what Daniel Hallin called the “sphere of consensus” – which is a reduction of political options to a series of accepted that frameworks that sometimes involves printing lies – some of us felt the new structures of post-industrial journalism we now live with were already doing a better job of contextualising and promoting important issues. But, as Ritchin notes, “Others at the exhibition felt differently – asserting that media strategies are necessary to prioritize events and issues, in order to create a community with at least certain similar preoccupations” (p. 149). While I don’t doubt that we need ways of prioritising and creating community around pressing issues, the new networks and structures of our disaggregated media economy are already doing this and permitting this. What we need to see is more of it around visual projects of significance.
That disagreement aside, Bending the Frame provides us with an essential starting point for debating the place and role of the image and image makers in the new media economy. We need to change the conversation around the place and role of the image and image makers in the new media economy, and Ritchin’s book will play a big part in that movement.
This is a revised version of my review of Fred Ritchin, Bending the Frame: Photojournalism, Documentary, and the Citizen (New York: Aperture, 2013) that appeared in Source 76, Autumn 2013.