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.
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).