The Crisis in Photography
Everyone has a camera. Everyone is taking pictures. No one is making photographs. Okay, that’s not true, some people are, but it seems like there is a crisis in photography. No one knows what the next step is, in other words, Where do we go from here? So let’s take a breath and try to see where we are currently. The prevailing thought today is that now everyone is a photographer because everyone has a smart phone with a camera. That’s like saying everyone should be on a Broadway stage because we can all speak! The other big (okay pun intended) trend in art photography is gigantic prints. Photography is trying to compete with painting and from what I see this is not playing up to photography’s strength. Duane Michals has strong opinions about everything and he has an appropriately strong opinion about large photographs:
If you look at photography today, photographs have simply become large. This is the age of museum photographs. I wrote 32 aphorisms in my book and one of them is that I’d never trust any photograph that is so large it could only fit in a museum. Those photographs are only designed for museums or homes. They aren’t photographs anymore. If you took an Andreas Gursky picture in a hotel lobby and made it into an 8×10—it’s an annual report photograph. It only has any power because of the size. That’s why people like Wolfgang Tillmans will photograph their breakfast with a little camera and then make it into a 10-foot photograph. Who gives a fuck about what he had for breakfast? These are stylistic ticks. The digital has changed the paradigms of photography.
So then what are photography’s strength? How does one go about creating photographic art in the age of tumblr that is real and relevant? Hell if I know. The answer to that is as varied as their are people. But I do have some opinions that might shed some light on the matter for some. First of all, just because you have a camera doesn’t make you a photographic artist. A photographer is mainly someone who intensely and almost obsessively thinks about photography in all its manifestaions. It’s practice, it’s history, it’s technology, it’s ramifications for society and the self. I think that is what truly separates a photographer from a person with a smart phone.
Secondly, the power of photography lies in its relationship with the viewer. The experience of viewing a photograph is dependent as much on the viewer as it is on the skill of the photographer. The viewer brings with him/her a full set of psychological associations, life experiences, love and pain that makes the viewing experience unique, rich and personal. The job of the artist is to use his skill and knowledge of symbols (universal and cultural) , the psychology of color (or tonal) relationships, and also knowledge of the self to bring about a certain experience. This can work for a single photograph or (much better) a sequence of images. The relationship between the images sets off associations and the space between photographs is where you search for your soul.
I love small photographs that can be held in your hands or a book of photographs that you can sit down with like an old friend and read and contemplate. And when it is time, like an old friend, she will understand that you must stop and go, and the photographs will be there when you want to pick up the conversation again. She will always understand and be waiting.