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Tuesday, 11 June 2019
There's nothing interesting about photography
A few weeks back I wondered what the face of contemporary photography would be if we look back at it now. It's kind of difficult to tell because history gets shaped by mythologising and we haven't mythologised the present yet.
But what is really refreshing about the present is how so many contemporary photographers are framing their work using different voices, modes, and generic nods to create narratives that recognise how we read and understand images.
An example of this is a series I'm writing for Magnum on inspirations. It's a kind of loose title but essentially it's a way for photographers to talk about their work and the way they work without talking about photography. In and of itself, photography isn't interesting, it's really boring. There's nothing more tedious than talking about photographic nuggets on technique, on lens, on lighting, on post-production.
It's not to say these things don't matter, it's just that in and of itself, it's not in the least bit interesting. It's like talking about why a butter knife is so good at spreading butter without ever eating the toast that you're spreading the butter onto. Actually, no it's worse than that. Spreading butter on toast is pretty nice.
Anyway, what is interesting about contemporary photography is how much work does have personality and does tell a story and brings in elements in from forces outside photography. In the last few months I've seen brilliant and interesting work that connects to music, science, poetry, short stories, folklore, martial arts and cinema.
All of these things have been used to create parallel narrative structures in photography, to tap into our global image bank and lead us into particular directions and ways of seeing and being.
There are photographers who talk about the way their images are seen and understood, and how they can transform the way images are seen and understanding by a shift in voice. So you can shift something from being regarded with the gravity of documentary to something altogether lighter.
That's the idea behind this conversation with Cristina de Middel, where she talks about the way music (and musicals in particular) can loosen up your visual train of thought. Everything is allowed in a musical, as opposed to the limitations of some forms of photography. So click your mind into musical mode and there is creative freeing.
If you've ever studied photography, you'll recognise this as connecting directly to the idea of the discourse of sobriety. Basically, we are kind of preconditioned to talk about certain things in certain ways. So with photojournalism or documentary we have the discourse of sobriety - we talk about it very soberly and persuade ourselves that we are involved in recognising a particular problem and engaged in something high-minded and... sober. Move over to musicals however, and we talk about them differently. We smile, we laugh,we remember, we experience pleasure.
So there you go. And of course you can shift how people see your work by the way you frame it, by the way you talk about it. It's difficult but you can do it because nothing is written in sand, the great challenge is to get people changing how they talk about genres as a whole. The sobriety is great when we need to be sober, but sometimes pleasure (in the broadest sense) might connect to a wider audience and be - more pleasurable. There's a limit to how much sobriety, concern and rage (ah yes the discourse of anger and rage. There's a lovely thought) one can take..
One way to do this is to shift the genre, to let it merge and overlap with other genres - that's what's happening all over the place - and when that happens you talk about things in different ways. So it makes little sense anymore to view fashion as something purely connected to ladies and gents wearing nice frocks and suits. It never did. Fashion was always about the body, about sex, about identity, the best fashion always mixed things up that way. And now even more so. And similarly with documentary or art photography. The most interesting photographers slip across genre, across media, across materials begging, borrowing and stealing from here, there and everywhere to tell a good story, well, to give it body and soul and substance, to move everything away from photography. Because photography is not that interesting. \It's what it attaches to that's interesting..
But it was always that way. But now even more so.