Why photography cannot be judged along with other artforms- ESSAY FROM BLACK+WHITE PHOTOGRAPHY MAGAZINE EDITION 212

Why photography cannot be judged along with other artforms
This article first appeared in Black & White Photography Magazine Issue 212, February 2018

What is a photograph? asked Roland Barthes in his seminal book Camera Obscura. An answer to this question is being attempted in every fine art photography MA course. However, the medium’s purpose and definition will not be found in the colleges and universities but in the relationship photography has with the people who use it most, i.e. you and me.

It is long since anyone questioned the right of photography to be considered a high art form. Through practioners such as Andy Warhol, Chuck Close, Bill Viola and Cindy Sherman photography has secured its place as a medium of high art. But unlike other media, like painting and sculpture, photography resists categorisation as being the exclusive preserve of high art. This is photography’s great strength.

Photography is a huge genre but, unlike painting, it has many guises. These facets include; art, science, journalism, family snapshots, portraiture to name just a few. For our colleges to question the nature of photography and to try to guide students to find a new way to use it does not fundamentally alter the nature of photography because the medium is used across so many different cultural platforms. This is in direct contrast to the questioning by art colleges as to what the nature of painting is, for example.

Painting is a medium that is entirely artistic in the sense that it is only engaged with for the purposes of art. If one university is to examine the nature of painting and one of its students were to rise in status and visibility and paint according to a set of newly minted attitudes and techniques, then the very nature of what it means ‘to paint’ might be fundamentally altered. This new approach to the canvas wil,l in turn, filter down to the work of all painters in the same way that haute couture is the aesthetic elder sister to the more homely, pret a porter.

By contrast a college which implores its students to find new pathways in photography will have little bearing on the wider development of photographic process. This is not to say that photography is not a worthy medium for the highest level of artistic enquiry or that it shouldn’t occupy a place amongst the other great genre that spawn the greatest contemporary art. Photography is and always will be a means of artistic expression and should be studied and practised at the highest level as a means of interrogating the human condition.

If painting were to disappear, or at least the techniques taught in schools, then the entire artform would cease to progress. Compare that with photographic development. If art schools stopped teaching photography what would happen? The answer to this is that photographic technology, technique and its whole absorption into the mainstream of cultural life would continue unabated. And not just continue, it would blossom and develop at the rate and speed that a human population hungry to record itself would push it.

Cultural phenomena that appear within the realms of science, technology and art cannot come from the colleges but from the gatekeepers to the new connected culture that is social media. The most important cultural tendency of recent years is unquestionably the ‘selfie’.

The selfie is what happens when humans and technology combine in a dynamic form (literally and metaphorically) of self expression – an expression impossible without ubiquitous access to photography. This cultural meme adopted by so many people with access to the technology and means of dissemination was not taught in schools yet it’s effect on society as a whole is huge. The art schools can only react to it and academics can only comment on it. The selfie is by no means the only cultural form of expression that has occurred completely independently of the art schools. Photojournalism came about as technology gave new ways of gathering evidence.

Photography wasn’t an ideal that was discussed in universities to which industry reacted – it was the opposite. Industry developed new technologies and we, ever questing, inspired humans, set those new machines to our purpose. Photography is a medium born out of necessity. Painting, sculpture and other plastic art forms are not. They may be born out of the necessary human compulsion to express itself but they are not connected to the human need to advance through technology. Many great photographers have attended art school but few greats have emerged from ‘fine art photography’ MA courses. Art is a state of being, a permanently evolving reaction to the world. Photography is a technology where art and humanity meet but photography will always be its own maser.

Have We Experienced the End of the Beginning of Photography?- ESSAY FROM BLACK+WHITE PHOTOGRAPHY MAGAZINE EDITION 211

Have we experienced the end of the beginning of photography?
This article first appeared in Black & White Photography Magazine Issue 211, January 2018

Assuming that the Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees, and a few other notable thinkers and scientists aren’t right then human civilisation is set to last a bit longer. And, although, as Mark Twain said, history doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes, we can be reasonably sure that we have a few more centuries to go, at least even if these Brexit infected times look like the End of Days has begun.

Boys Playing Football, Taroudant

Lets agree that what we call photography started in about 1830 give or take a few years. And now, in 2017, some 190 years later we are where we are photographically speaking. That is to say that we have moved from the realm of brown bottles containing poisonous substances to the bland world of flat, shiny bricks designed for chatting that also happen to have small lenses on them.

Poultry Seller, Taroudant

Evidence that human beings have shown signs of an innate drive to record the world around them since before we were human would make it safe to assume that, if we have a future then photography has a future too. If this is the case, and I surely I hope it is, then where can we place ourselves, right now, in the development of photography and how will we be written about by future historians? How will photography look and what will shape it as it develops? The answer to this last question is perhaps for another piece but let’s continue to examine the unique time in the development of photography that we inhabit.

I wonder, of all the people who take pictures today, what proportion of us has ever taken a picture on film. We are living in a unique time because there are so many of us around who grew up and, indeed, remember a time before digital. I can recall going to one of the first demonstrations of Photoshop in the early Nineties when it was still just a tool for manipulating film originated images (having been scanned on the ‘system’ as it was known).

Man, Taroudant

Lets make another assumption; when did the digital era start? For me it started in about 2004 so lets say for the sake of historical accuracy the digital era started in 2000. Thats only seventeen years ago – roughly 11% of the time that photography has existed. And how far and fast has the technology developed since then? This means that you and I live in a really special time in the development of photography. Future historians will call this an age of transition from one kind of science to another, from one way of thinking about photography to another.

View froim the Roof of the Palais Salaam, Taroudant 2011

Mohamad IV of Morocco, Taroudant

To make my argument work I have to make several more assumptions. A new one I’m going to posit is that the purely chemical based era of photography represents the beginning of the medium whereas the advent of digital technology heralded the inevitable mastering of photography by machines for the purpose for which machines were invented, i.e. rapid and wide dissemination and consumption. We can describe this transition in another way; the silver halide era of photography was about the recording of experience for almost exclusively personal consumption. As technology advanced, the medium was taken from the private and into the public domain as mechanisation made distribution more possible.

Rebuilding the Wall Around Taroudant

In this way a photograph has gone from being a private document to a public record. Put another way, photography has grown up just as a child does; first spending all its years in its own private world and then, as it becomes an adult, moving into the world at large.

Taroudant by Alex Schneideman

Another way that photography has recently come of age, linked inevitably to the arguments already outlined here, is the way that a photograph is consumed by the viewer. The earliest photographic impressions, fugitive as they were, would have been held as delicately and preciously in the regard of the viewer as a fledgling bird fallen from the nest.

Taroudant by Alex Schneideman

Rapidly, as images became first ‘fixable’ and then reproducible, the value that we placed in each reproduction diminished making the content of the image more valuable than the print itself (this is another essay for another issue!). As the inherent value of the photograph has changed so has the viewer and this change in relationship between consumer and medium accounts, in a substantial way, for the way photography has grown as an art form and a technology.

We who are alive today and active photographically have a unique part to play in the continuing development of the medium. Even our children are returning to film, hugely fortunate that the chemicals, techniques and expertise still readily exist for voyages of discovery into outdated yet mysterious photochemical reactions. The past is chemical and the future is digital. The only time that we will ever straddle the beginning and the end of the beginning of the medium is now.