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photography

The difficulty of talking about photography

What is photography?

One of my favourite books is Mishka Henner’s Photography Is. Not a single image and 3,000 disparate statements torn from writing that attempt to define the field.

Of course, definitions are difficult things. Nietzsche had it right when he said, “all concepts in which an entire process is semiotically concentrated defy definition; only something which has no history can be defined.” As photography has a complex and varied history, definition seems unattainable.

I’m coming to doubt the usefulness of both the question ‘what is photography’, and writing that presumes the unity of a field as it investigates its problems. Indeed, in recent times – especially after speaking at Visa Pour L’Image in Perpignan, an academic conference in Toronto, and running the first World Press Photo multimedia seminar in Amsterdam – I’ve been personally struck by the difficulty of even talking about photography generally. To use the term as an all-encompassing concept seems pretty much impossible.

After all, what, if anything, connects stock photography, fashion photography, art photography, news photography, conceptual photography, documentary photography, amateur photography, forensic photography, vernacular photography, travel photography, or whatever sort of photography?

That’s not to suggest there isn’t a lot of good writing about this thing variously called photography. As I catch up with material filed away while travelling, I’ve benefited greatly from Michael Shaw’s three part analysis of the state of the news photo, and John Edwin Mason’s critique of claims about the “tsunami of vernacular photographs.”

What connects such analysis is that they don’t focus on the alleged essence of photography, what it is. They deal with its function and its effects.

To do that we will all have to make clear our own assumptions about the particular functions or effects we want to investigate. As Mason observes, “photography is one of the most complex phenomena of the modern world.” That may be the only simple, singular statement we can make about it.

So rather than ask what photography is, perhaps we should probe what it does, how it does it, and who does or does not want it to work in particular ways.

References: 

1. Friedrich Nietzsce, On the Genealogy of Morality (Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 53. Thanks to Ian Douglas and others for reminding me of the source.

2. Shaw’s analysis might be seen as an important extension and update of Stuart Hall’s important essay “The determinations of news photographs,” in The Manufacture of News, edited by Stanley Cohen and Jock Young (Sage Publications, revised edition, 1981).

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Hipstamatic angst, Instagram anxiety: time to move the conversation forward

It’s back – another round of high octane commentary on the supposedly nefarious influence of Hipstamatic and Instagram on the world of photography. We’ve had Jean-Francois Leroy of Visa Pour L’Image deride these apps as “all a gimmick…pure laziness“. We’ve read Kate Bevan in The Guardian detail how she loves manipulating her own digital images, but thinks Instagram and its fellow travellers is “debasing photography.” And we’ve seen the announcement of Hipstmatic’s plans for a photojournalism foundation scoffed at by the likes of Foto8.

There’s plenty of room for a constructive critique of how filters that replicate earlier analogue forms have become so popular. A good place to start is with Nathan Jurgenson’s analysis of “faux-vintage” photography and the way it manifests a “nostalgia for the present.” Heightened by social media’s power to view the present as always a potentially documented past, Jurgenson argues that images from Hipstamatic, Instagram and other services work to make our prosaic and vernacular images “seem more important, substantial and real.”

And there will be plenty of time to ask hard questions of Hipstamatic about whether its serious with its plans for a Foundation of Photojournalism and what benefits, if any, it might provide for the production of new stories.

But, really, it’s time to move the conversation on. This applies to both the supporters and critics, as Ashley Gilbertson tweeted this week:

The vehement opposition to these apps commonly operates in terms of ideas of ‘legitimate photography’ versus ‘illegitimate photography’, in which a supposedly new realm of popular manipulation is undercutting the cultural status of established photography, all infused with a professional anxiety about the influence of ‘amateurs’. We’ve got to get beyond this frame. I’ve long argued that we have to reposition debates about photography so we recognise the inherent and unavoidable place of aesthetics and representation in the production of each and every photographic image, no matter who is making them. I’ve written about that in relation to photojournalism generally, specific images like the most recent World Press Photo winner, as well as everyday, personal photos. If we think about the latter, we might just appreciate that popular culture has a sophisticated appreciation that images can be both produced and hence constructed, yet function as documents, evidence and records. The stale, either/or, rendering of ways to understand our condition totally fails to apprehend such complexities.

Much of the criticism directed at the Hipstamatic is profoundly ahistorical. Given that the development of the app was driven in part by an interest in Polaroid, we have to wonder whether the detractors are as critical of those photographers who choose cameras, lenses, films, printing paper, or digital picture profiles to get a particular look to their images. In other words, don’t they have to mount a critique of pretty much all photography and photographers? John Edwin Mason had a series of tweets that made this point well, starting from the revelation that Ed Kashi’s Instagrams were subject to some online abuse:

We also have to dispense with the idea that everything produced with these apps is poor, banal or the same. If you want to see a great contemporary image maker who can produce visuals with smartphones and apps way better than most, check out the work of  Richard Koci Hernandez.

One of the things that is most significant about Hipstamtic and Instagram is that they make photography popular, social and mobile. This is why Facebook is prepared to pay $1 billion for a company that has no revenue. It’s not actually about the photography – it’s about the social and the value of Instagram’s user community, which numbers 50 million or more and is growing at the rate of 5 million per week.

All that said, this post is not actually a defence of these apps. I’m not interested in being for or against. I want to put the critiques in context, understand their historical and conceptual limitations, and reframe the issue. There has been too much heat and not enough light.

The primary question has to be what stories can you tell with what tools? Do these new tools help produce more interesting visual narratives that can be connected to more people? It’s entirely possible, and could even be happening now, but those have to be the grounds on which we should judge their success or failure. Let’s move the conversation forward to that point, and dispense with the angst and anxiety.