Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Is contemporary photography too samey?

This post raises the question about the health of contemporary photography. I ask this as I keep hearing that rude it perhaps isn't...Roger Ballen was very dismissive of it and most recently I have heard as such in three blogs, conscientious [1], fotosavant[2] and nearbycafe[3].

A.D. Coleman of nearbycafe makes the following observations:
'the well-made photograph' I use that phrase not as praise but in a derogatory sense, to describe a recurrent type of photograph produced according to strict, if unstated guidelines' [3] 
'These pictures and projects resemble each other to such an extent that, with minor adjustments, the images, their accompanying texts, sometimes even the project statements, are hot-swappable and interchangeable.' [3] 
'the well-made photographs' reiterate the same elementary formal structure [3]:
  • primary subject receives central placement and largest object in frame
  • primary subject is addressed frontally and head-on
  • primary subject is closest to the picture plane within the frame and in sharpest focus. 
  • primary subject contains the most intense highlights

In effect many photographers are working to a template, albeit tested and used by many classic photographers and painters of the past. He suggests once you're aware of this formula, you will see it umpteen times in galleries everywhere. A.D. Coleman [3] who has written this article goes on to suggest there is homogeneity with project conception too which he calls the 'well-made project':
  • it manifests itself with some documentary or sociological premise 
  • identify a literal subject matter 
  • photograph them in their own environments and photograph 40 examples of your chosen subject matter (preferably using the image-structure template described above) 
  • transcribe interviews with them or get them to write their own stories to accompany the images. 
  • draft an artist's statement explicating the significance of what you've chosen to point your camera at.
 In his words, his reasons for such a pervasive homogeneity is:
the vast majority of photography projects I encounter nowadays seem to represent some welling-up of archetypes from the collective unconscious of the academically indoctrinated. 

In fotosavant[2], it suggests that photographic instructors tread a fine line between teaching process and mechanics, and encouraging a particular aesthetic. The danger being that students are too keen to follow/copy/imitate the work of their teachers and teachers in danger of creating disciples. It is augmented further by curators and gallerists. The outcome being that those who 'stray from the laid path will usually find themselves derided and shut out of the discussion'.

Joerg Colberg[1] speaks less pointedly about this, however, in his post he makes three observations I wish to raise:
  • I do think that collectively, photographers are currently suffering from a curious lack of artistic ambition. 
  • There is just so much photography online, and of course that makes it seem as if there was a problem. After all, unless you're lacking any sense of taste, by its very nature most of what you'll encounter will be not what you like. So regardless of what it is you like, it seems as if there was a flood of junk out there. 
  • I do sense that there appears to be a growing discontent with photography online.
And I think Colberg's[1] observations can someway answer the predicament identified by A.D. Coleman[3]. The internet means we can and are likely to see much of the photography out there, good, bad and otherwise, with a certain amount of fetishisation and 'trending' occurring as a result. Students globally have access to the same level and quantity of information and it seems the student body, as a mass, is processing the information and producing formulaic work as a result. How should we, as students, respond to this? Why do we lack artistic ambition? What is the alternative other than the formulaic? A few thoughts that come immediately to mind:
  • look beyond the internet and contemporary photography for inspiration 
  • now alerted to the template, be aware of it...I have certainly produced  'formulaic work' according to this definition. Consider the alternatives.
  • whilst looking at the work of the elite photographers, be aware not to 'imitate' or copy them 
  • forge your own path 
Referencing Colberg's[1] last point about a growing discontent of photography online, I think this is perhaps another fundamental issue for us developing photographers. The online presentation of images and the dearth that there is out there is causing fatigue to the observer and the maker.  The photographs are quick, digestible snacks when viewed on screen.  And when the photograph is a 'product', it becomes more substantial.

I have heard Clive White mention this on numerous occasions and have recently read this article by Blake Andrews. And therein lies part of the solution possibly. Whilst on the internet the image remains 'data', as a 'tangible thing' it becomes 'information' and as such a desirable object.  Whilst some photographers are returning to the traditional methods of photography and production to create this 'worth' in their work such as wet-plate collodian, film...whether looking back is the way forward I'm not sure but I do think considering the production options of photographs will become an increasingly critical aspect of our work.

So, there goes another morning of housework...I'm sure this housewife would have been sacked many times over!!!


  1. Interesting article Penny—the housework deserves to wait! You give voice to some of my thoughts—especially the comments from nearbycafe. When I went to the Taylor Wessing exhibition last year, I thought this of many of the images—and wondered whether the fault lay with me; and that this was the type of work that I needed to produce in future.

    Also the comments about a return to traditional methods of production—it's on my back burner waiting for a chance to develop that.

    Off upstairs to shoot; and I'll bear some of this in mind. BTW—thanks for the links to those blogs—a couple of hours I can spend reading—and avoiding housework here!

  2. Hi Vicki, I'm looking forward to the instalment when Coleman goes through what he would consider a 'non-template' image. Because he does say in the article he refers to all the decisions from technical through to choice of subject and approach. If you were taking a portrait and you wanted to do something non-template and didn't centre your subject, pulled them out of focus and had others aspects of the image sharper, you would need to know why you had taken those decisions. I mean think of the Mona Lisa - very template!! It maybe a template because it works and to get anything to work aesthetically non-template could much, much harder. Either which way, this sense of boredom he alludes to in the article is very interesting and will undoubtedly alter the way I look at and critique work I see in galleries...and I suspect it will alter a few decisions on my own work too.

    I would love to know more about the traditional methods of production such as wet-plate, but think I need to have greater clarity on all the other aspects of my photography first!!

    Housework - I could do with a few Kletterkins or House Elfs here!!

  3. I smiled about the student part of this piece - we went to see Educating Rita last night in Oxford. Great performances, but I kept smiling at the notion that Rita "wanted to know everything", whilst Frank (the lecturer) derided the system for being formulaic and wanted her to develop her own talent. She wanted to "pass exams". Rita of course passed the exams AND developed her own vision - but she came from a different place to all the full time students, sacrificed her marriage and her identity (by adopting a new one). I have wondered about learning a vernacular about adopting, by rote, visual grammatical syntax; however I think that if you question, if you are prepared to confront what you think are banalities then you have a chance to become an artist with a individual voice. But I think we also depend on having some conversations with our own particular Frank who should challenge and question our direction and motivation, and that might be a trifle more difficult to do.

  4. John, for the life of me I can't recall the story line to Educating Rita although I have seen the film many moons ago. However, I can see the relevance here...conforming v independent thinking...something we encourage of our kids, it is an important life skill but something we probably all battle between at times.

    I am just trying to decode your other words and glean the wisdom out of them.
    - 'learning a vernacular about adopting, by rote, visual grammatical syntax': by this do you mean to introduce your own template/visual identity that has self-imposed constraints encompassing the technical, aesthetic and choice of subject matter that is applied to all your imagery? In so doing creating your own unique visual style beforehand? I guess the fear would be if it became restrictive in your work. Although I suspect when you look at the work of elite photographers you probably arrive or evolve to a point where it becomes instinctive as there is certainly a consistency in their work.
    - 'confronting the banalties' - by this do you mean the banalties of the education/sytemat or within the context of photography? It could be relevant in both contexts.
    - and lastly, to have a sage whose wisdom you respect and can learn from must be an essential element to realise your potential and develop a mature voice. I'm interested to know why this is more difficult to do. Do you mean finding a decent chap like 'Frank' or do you mean addressing the challenges of direction and motivation being particularly hard?

    Thanks John, over to you if you're around and about...

  5. Sorry for being dense it was after a long and largely fruitless day in London! What I so badly tried to describe was; I was concerned that if a student learns, by rote.... it is likely that the student will find it difficult to develop a singular voice, which is the restrictive element of that learning process, and rather than use banality in an original way find that the work is banal because of it. A sage is perhaps one that challenges by having a conversation, rather than, as Frank refuses to do with Rita, tell her how to pass exams by answering the set questions in the prescribed way. Rita's original view is that by "passing" the exam she will have accomplished her notion that she would now "know everything", whereas, because of Frank's tuition, at the end of her exams she understands she has only just begun to understand, but that she now has the tools to work a lot out for herself (it leaves Frank a bit bereft, but that's a separate sub-plot).
    I took the opportunity to go to the NPG yesterday and see their Struth's, which confirmed that even though I was looking at the actual prints, rather than the excellent copies in his book, that I found them (three portraits) highly colourful, beautifully rendered, technically supreme, but ultimately banal. The point might be the banality, but I admit to confusion, incomprehension and wonder at the levels of exaltation at his work - clearly I have a very long road to travel!

  6. It is was great to read the post, but when I read these arguments related to the templates and the repetition of the same image the same things come to my mind.

    Bread has been cooked with the same recipe for hundreds of years. It is very simple:water, four, yeast and salt. If the same recipe has survived for sooooo long, it is because it is good. Might be considered simple, but certainly good.

    There are variations of the bread recipe: adding nuts, or sugar, or pieces of fruit, name it !!! But the basic, original recipe is still the same.

    On top of that, the fact that the recipe is simple, does not imply that it is easy to make a good piece of bread. Requires expertise, good ingredients, patience and skills. Even with all of these it is possible that something goes wrong. Even with all of these, two different people will likely produce two pieces of bread that are different in taste, shape, degree of cooking, etc...............

    Where is the problem? A good piece of bread is and will be something great !!!!!

    1. Sorry Leo, for some reason your comment went in to my spam box.

      I totally agree...we can't reinvent the wheel and the tried and tested methods are just that and for good reason. The author from nearbycafe has extensive knowledge of galleries all over the world and has arrived at this conclusion, so I feel there is some evidence, albeit anecdotal, in his views. Clearly the elite photographers are following a tried and tested method, again, for good reason, and to all intents and purposes, it is a successful recipe. However, there appears to be little to differentiate each artist, one from another. In their eyes, there is little fresh, overtly ambitious or inventive coming through. Perhaps in the social world of the internet, the less travelled road is quiet and less profitable, encouraging mediocrity within the global internet highway.

      In our own practice, even if we make a 'well-made photograph' (which I would be pleased to do) or diverge from it, I feel better armed knowing this piece of knowledge, than not...I know a part of me has looked at Dijkstra's portraits and thought I'll try doing my own typological series...and it would be a poor imitation no doubt...and perhaps therein lies the problem.

  7. Thanks John for the helpful response, sorry to hear about your fruitless visit, and it was me being dense in not understanding! With regards Struth, I liked his museums work and the portrait he did of the Queen and DoE. But there is no rule saying we have to like or understand all galleried work out there and I don't think we're meant to. If it left you cold, embrace that feeling and ask why...and that will help you inform what work does. Now I should heed my own advice...I feel like you about all sorts of work, often have the feeling of wondering what I'm missing!!