“I don’t know what truth is. Truth is something unattainable. We can’t think we’re creating truth with a camera. But what we can do, is reveal something to the viewer that allows them to discover their own truth.” —Marcel Brault
It’s a pretty grand quote with which to start an article, I know. Its relevance will become clear.
In Issue 2 of Unseen magazine (the magazine that accompanies the upcoming Unseen Photo Fair in Amsterdam, September 18–21) Sean O’Hagan makes the argument that the question "what is photography?" is not actually a question but instead “the environment that photography inhabits right now.” He makes a pretty compelling argument for this state of affairs by tracing the history of the trend back to the likes Hippolyte Bayard, László Moholy-Nagy, and Man Ray, through sixties conceptualism to today.
In a certain sense, what he’s doing is paralleling a question that has been prevalent throughout the last hundred or so years of art in general (although there is a big difference between the question "what is art?"—questioning of a genre, an idea, a concept—and questioning a medium). Which isn’t to say that all other artistic mediums haven’t been going through a similar mill of self-reflexive questioning; photography is no different from painting, sculpture, performance, video and so on, in suffering from this kind of existential crisis. My question though: as we look at the future of photography, does this still really need to be the case?
Photography is different from other media. Firstly, for its immediacy, the power of an incredible, bright, precise image; secondly, by the fact it’s static, and in a way that will always be more closely tied to reproduction in a way that a painting isn’t. While Wolfgang Tillmans and others can do abstraction in photography, the mechanism of the camera is a limitation on the possibilities of this— and here we get into the difficulties that photography faces in an art world dominated by elder techniques: it struggles to achieve the "thing in itself-ness" of abstraction and is tied up with the idea of documentation. It is this that causes photography to be considered a "lesser" medium within the canon of artistic production?
This state of affairs can be supported by various forms of evidence: comparative pricing on the market; the fact photography has its own art fairs; or even just anecdotal evidence of the fact it appears easy to point the camera at something and press a button (even easier in today’s digital world). But maybe most important is to look at photography’s position in the world.
All other artistic techniques exist pretty much solely within the artistic world, whereas photography is almost embarrassingly ubiquitous. Not all photography is "art photography," which is very much a smaller field than fashion or journalism, both massively swamped by what we could call "private photography," i.e. all those billions upon billions of snaps and selfies taken by individuals.
Ironically one of the reasons this "lesser" position has come about is that the young technique of photography basically stole pretty much all the "practical" functions drawing and painting used to fulfil; think of illustrated fashion magazines in the thirties and so on.
The end result is that "art photography" can sometimes feel like its got a chip on its shoulder, something to prove, and is, perhaps, not as self-confident as the rest of the art world. Da Vinci never took a photo after all. It does appear, however, that times are changing, not least because art photography is gaining recognition and becoming more popular, and market sales are increasing year on year—and those art fairs are growing and spreading across the world.
And this is where I come to question O’Hagan’s position. Isn’t this interrogation of the medium just a self-conscious attempt to place photography within the critical milieu of the other techniques? To reaffirm its place within the canon of contemporary art? The problem that I have with these gestures is that aesthetically they can often push us into realms—such as collage, found photography, or heavy post-print manipulation of the image—that perhaps detract from the strength of the technique itself. Therefore the trend I identify as being the future of photography is photography that is self-confident, even while embracing all the polymorphic potential that entails. If we look at some emerging photographers we can see this being manifest.
Heikki Kaski, Tranquillity
The works of both Heikki Kaski and Danila Tkachenko embrace the potential for documentary photography that is most certainly art photography. Kaski’s luminescent and melancholic documentation of the town Tranquillity, and Tkachenko’s stark photos of abandoned military infrastructure in the arctic region both demonstrate the relevance of the opening quote; they document without comment, offer a mediated truth that perhaps opens a "shining" truth behind.
Justin James Reed, In Heaven
Justin James Reed’s In heaven the darkness is quite beautiful engages with nature and complexity in a way reminiscent of some of Andreas Gursky’s pictures, the strength of the image coming from the exact replication of a scene of almost mind bending intricacy. His work performs the classic trick of allowing us to see that which we’d perhaps normally pass over.
Mariam Medvedeva, meanwhile, composes sculptural displays of dead game and pest animals, while also referencing in the most direct way the tradition of nature morte; again it is the simple "complete" reproduction that gives these images their power.
Isabelle Wenzel, Positions
Finally I’d identify the work of Christto and Andrew, Isabelle Wenzel, and Thomas Rousset, who all engage with what we might call surrealistic techniques. This is for me perhaps the strongest area of contemporary art photography, a trail blazed by Maurizio Cattelan’s Toiletpaper magazine. The exact reproduction and immediacy of the photographic image strengthens the disconcerting juxtaposition of incongruous items, the bright saturated and unworldly colors, and the unsettling situations, reinvigorating and reinventing these gestures for today’s world.
Now is the time for photography to step somewhat from the shadows—or at least look up from its navel—and, in all its diversity, start to unashamedly be itself.
Upcoming shows and dates for the diary that somehow demonstrate what I’m talking about here:
Ocean of Images: New Photography 2015
MoMA, New York
November 7, 2015—March 20, 2016
Team (Bungalow), 306 Windward Avenue, Venice, CA
September 20–November 8
Beetles and Huxley, London
September 22–October 24
Stills Gallery, Paddington, NSW, Australia
September 2—October 3
Huis Marseille, Amsterdam
September 12–December 6
Lo Obvio y lo obtuso
Rolf Art, Buenos Aires, Argentina
August 31–October 16
 I’d like to attribute this quote to Werner Herzog but actually can’t find the reference. I believe it was in answer to a question as to the documentary techniques used in the movie Grizzly Man, where he was accused of manipulating the scenes. His response, as I remember it, was that he wasn’t looking for a specific truth in his films, but a shining universal truth behind them.
(Image at the top: Christto and Andrew, MIMEMTIC GESTURES II)
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