Photographic futures

A recent article by J M Colberg about the current state of the art of photography Photography After Photography had me musing about the current state of the photographic art.

What he suggests (or more accurately) what I draw from his remarks is a sense that photography has somehow lost it's way. That at this stage in its evolution, all that can be learned or suggested by the medium is perhaps already learned or has already been demonstrated. But is this true?

It started me thinking about the links between the past & the present. And my own thoughts about where the real value of photography lies for me.

The starting point I guess, is where we are now. A world where the sheer quantity of (mainly digital) images being produced, overwhelms but also bewilders many of us 'workers in the trenches.'

For me, it's not just the scale of production but the sheer repetitive nature of most of what's being produced that makes me numb to much of it.

But is this a new phenomenon? And is there real merit to the deluge of imagery that's being made & widely & instantly distributed?

The answer to the first part is no. This is not new. Over a hundred years ago in 1888, George Eastman marketed his new product with the phrase 'you press the button we do the rest'. What followed was the mass marketing of what until then had been a hobbyist occupation, namely the taking & making of photographs. Only instead of learning to mix chemicals and develop negatives & prints, the only skill required for the interested amateur was learning how to click a shutter. Sound familiar?

And then (as now) what followed was a flood of largely repetitive images. With a mass audience, using relatively primitive cameras, but reproducing for the most part a fairly narrow range of narrative or pictorial possibilities ad nausea. However, by allowing the general public to record in detail their own lives, it did create something new. For the first time, proof of existence and evidence of a life lived could be passed on, as physical mementos. Facebook timeline anyone?

The sensible question at this point, would be to ask what happened next?

The new photographic commercialism/consumerism ushered in by Kodak didn't by itself help create a vast stream of new photographic artists.

The people who came 'into' photography (and emerged as artists) were not in general professional photographers. They came into photography from other fields. Some drifted. Some were curious. Some simply got lucky.

Alfred Steiglitz, studied mechanical engineering in Berlin & attended chemistry classes.By chance he met artists (Adolf von Menzel/Wilhelm Hasemann) who introduced him to the idea of making art directly from nature, which he then began to do using photography.

Ansel Adams Adams taught himself piano. Music was his main focus until photography became his main passion, which he arrived at via an interest in the philosophy of Edward Carpenter.

Walker Evans was something of a college drop-out. Middle class upbringing, rebellious by nature. Living briefly as an emigre in Paris, and aspiring to be a writer he found in photography a way to create something new that reflected his literary interests but was also non-traditional enough to satisfy his rebellious nature.

My point? These individuals, there are many more to choose from throughout history, did not arrive at photography as a first choice. They came to it, via interests in other fields, and through photography, created distinctive and innovative work that is now part of photographic history. In some ways, it was their interest in other fields (notably philosophy/modern art/literature) that made their own work unique but also powered it and gave them their own 'voice'.

While it's true that there is a great deal of photographic history (and technique) to contend with in the 21st century, for anyone forging a career. I'm not sure that makes the possibilities for new photography impossible to achieve or naive to hope for.

The central issues in photography for me have always been a) imagination and b) possibilities. And some (or all) of these questions: What is it you see with your camera? What is it you hope to create? Can you look at the world with your own eyes? How do you deal with the life around you? How much of yourself do you want to show? Is reality enough?

I'm not sure that any of this is in any way out of date. While there are still people interested in making some form of photographic work with cameras, I'm hopeful that these questions will continue to inspire and push interesting people to use photography to form their own answers.

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