Monday, June 28, 2010

On Post-Photography

Twenty years ago, at the very end of the analog age, to become a working professional photographer meant that you were positioning yourself to be the tip of a creative spear whose length carried somewhat invisibly back into the mysteries of the publishing world. There were hundreds of editors, publishers, and business people who made the determinations of how photographs were shaped and packaged for consumption. This process remained largely out of sight while the romantic vision of the photographer as an interpreter of reality, the daring individual who could shape culture and perception, carried the weight of the public understanding of the medium. The photographer made pictures that could move people to experience the world in special ways.

From war to fashion to food, our visual culture was created by these gifted individuals who could enter a battle or a crowded room with nothing but a camera and emerge with an iconic image that might resonate with the public in profound ways. All of those romantic associations are true, and it takes a great deal of talent, hard work and dedication, along with a particular kind of personality, to be able to make the images that make the culture. But it is only a piece of the entire equation. This mystique, however, benefited nearly everyone involved. Photographers could trade on the romantic myth while the editors and publishers of the work remained in large part out of sight, their own motivations and rationales unseen and therefore beyond critique. These are big and complex systems and industries that answer to no one person and do not bend to anyone's will. They have their own internal logics that cannot easily be re-written.

Out of this emerged an entire system of photographic education and interpretation that focused (and continues to focus) almost exclusively on the image itself, as if it came to exist on its own terms throughout the process. The chief problem, though, was that the image never did come into being on its own. It always required an army of support to gain iconic status, and that army of editors, publishers, galleries, museums, collectors, imaging specialists, paper buyers, sales people, printers, truck drivers, and sales venues all cost a lot of money. Which meant that the canon that we understand to be the history of photography was largely shaped by these structural and economic forces, and continue to be shaped by them today.

Last week, Tim Hetherington gave an excellent interview on the New York Times Lens Blog about his film, Restrepo, which he shot and co-directed with Sebastian Junger. In the interview he made the comment that we are living in a post-photography world.

I'm naturally inclined to be suspicious of any movement that describes itself as 'post' anything. By doing so, it defines itself based on what comes before it, by what it stands against, which is a way of reasoning that is set up in opposition to something. With that said, 'post' anything seems to come in quite useful when the precursor had set itself up to be a global, all-encompassing truth that could not be be escaped and therefore defined the working method and process for everyone who participates in it. In this case, the industries that have commissioned, paid for, edited, published and generally packaged the current sense of photographic history and practice fit nicely into that category.

Hetherington's use of the term post-photography deserves some unpacking because it is incredibly relevant to the transitions we are experiencing today. We have not arrived at a world in which photography is irrelevant or replaceable by another medium. In fact quite the opposite, photography seems to be expanding in its use and influence. Where we have arrived is a new place in which that old model that focused its energy on the image itself while the rest of the mechanisms of its life remained outside of the control of any one person has now been replaced by technological advances that bring much more of the entire spear under the control of the creators. Restrepo got made because it is now possible to make such a film with a camera and a laptop. 20 years ago it would have taken a small army of people and millions of dollars of equipment.

What exciting times these are. We are part of this incredible experiment. The greater the number of people required to create a project, the greater the pressure for it to perform in predictable ways that make money, achieve recognition and justify the participation of such a large team. The more control the individual has over the entire process, from concept to distribution, the more likely for unpredictably diverse expressions to emerge.  

We are moving into terrain well past that vision of photography as it was, focused exclusively on the image, and now we must see it for what it has always been, the image within the flows and exchanges that give the images access, meaning, and context. It is Post-Photography in the same way that Post-Modernism took Modernism itself out of its position of monolithic dominance and began to examine what it meant for Modernism to exist as a pluralism. We are no longer concerned only with the image, but also with its place in the flow that gives it possibilities for a life, for human meaning. It is an exciting time indeed. 

Tim Hetherington on NYT Lens 

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