A response to Joerg Colberg’s article, “Photography After Photography? (A Provocation)” by Michael Wayne Plant, July 2012
Lets start with this statement “Photography liberated painting from the existential burden to depict. With the advent of photography, painting was finally able to move sideways and forward, blossoming in all kinds of directions.”
This is where we get into the argument of Art vs. Representation. We have a problem with photography having to depict something, as it is tied to the real world in a more direct way than painting ever was. Painting could and did get used to show things, but it was always filtered through the eyes of the artist/maker and therefore had a detachment that a photograph lacks. By its very nature photography is tied to the real world. Unless one is going for the abstract and exploring the medium specifically, which does not happen as much. However, this has changed recently with the advent of digital, with photographers waxing lyrically for the days of film, who have made work that is all about the medium of film. For example Paul Graham’s book “Films,”[i] is but one example of nostalgia for the analogue material of film.
I find the problem with the statement that photography is dead a dead end as it is most definitely not dead, but like all living things constantly changing and evolving.
I like this statement by Joerg Colberg: “What can you photograph when every picture has already been taken? Well – isn’t it liberating to know that every photograph has been taken already, so now you can really take your photographs?” Joerg Colberg, Jun 12, 2012 [ii] As it is something that I work closely with my students to think about. How to make images that are your own? How to make images that are not only your own, but also connect with the world and photography’s traditions and also it’s potential.
“In a nutshell, I’m wondering when we’ll see more people explore this, yes, new medium: Digital photography – not as an extension of analog photography, not as something that’s more convenient than analog photography, not as something that can simulate old-timey photographs on your smart phone, not as something that can produce “multimedia”, but as something that can do things that analog photography cannot do. Given the potential that still lies dormant in digital photography we might be in for a surprise – assuming there are enough artists willing to look forward.” Joerg Colberg, Jun 20, 2012. [iii]
What is this looking forward that Joerg Golberg is referring to. I personally think that is the most interesting question and only artists and photographers can answer this by actually thinking about the medium of digital photography and doing work will the answer to this become truly apparent.
I really suspect that the key to this will be artists/photographers who are interested in how to make work that is their own work not derivative of others. I have always thought that the subject is key but then again it really comes down to what it is you want to photograph or make images of. Then how do you approach it so that it is your way of seeing. We so often make images a particular way because that is how we have seen images made before and there is something reassuring in that as it says if it worked for them and they got accepted then I will get accepted for using a similar approach. This conservative approach to making images is what leads to a dead end, however it is also what leads to an easy way of working as you can easily say to others I work like so and so, or my work is using these techniques like such and such, labels that we pin on work helps us to categorize it and this helps us in talking about it and in ‘selling’ it to others. That our approach is valid and therefore we belong within the pantheon of accepted photographers. To do something different is scary as it means we risk the possibility that the work is not accepted within the canon of photographers, this for most photographers is why they keep making work that is similar to that of others. Yet we also have to consider that the medium itself gets us to us the tools in specific ways, potential photographers are taught to see images in a particular way, they go to classes that show images, made by the established photographers, they get taught how to use the tools to make images that ‘work’ within a narrow technical quality level. I am guilty of this, as that is what teaching photography does, it shows you what has been done before and how to achieve this. Yet, teaching photography does not often get one to think, how to make images that I want too, about my subject, in my way and with whatever technical quality, that I want it to exhibit.
These ideas are something that photographers will need to grapple with if we are to make new work, in our own style with our own subjects.