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Sunday, 20 September 2009

Alec Soth and Interesting Photography

Moradi at Weymouth

Time for a ramble...

There's a great interview by Daniel Shea with Alec Soth on Too Much Chocolate.

Perhaps most interesting is Alec Soth becoming 'nihilistic about photography' and its failure to tell stories. He says,

"I also just think photography was much more interesting 50 plus years ago, and now there is just this overabundance of photography. It’s like saying “What type of art do you do?” “Oh, I do Twitter.” I just put these little fragments out in the world, but I would rather call myself a novelist than a Twitterist. And I sometimes feel photography is that."

I don't know if photography was more interesting 50 years ago - but we would certainly have viewed it differently. Robert Frank's and William Klein's work (just to mention two I like from 50 years ago) wouldn't have been remotely as well exposed as it is now. If The Americans was published now, it would have had its flash in the pan and then we'd all be waiting for what Frank was going to do next - which ( in terms of photography on a par with The Americans) is absolutely nothing.

But Frank has been parlayed up into a Great Photographer. Klein is a Great Photographer, all these people from the past whose work has been condensed into those defining images, are now Great Photographers.

The Great Photographer is as much a myth as the Great Writer with his Great Life that Coetzee writes about in Summertime. He doesn't (and sorry, but except for Diane Arbus, it is always a He) exist, He is not that interesting and his life is not that great. But distance, a lack of information and the blurring of time makes him seem so much more interesting.

What also makes him and his work so much more interesting is the lack of easily accessible pictures available to us. Even 10 years ago, if you wanted to see somebody's work, you had to buy the book or look in a magazine - which made buying a book or looking in a magazine that much more exciting and attractive. Now you just link to it and see it twittered and facebooked and blogged in a random stream of pictures that you have neither the time nor the will to linger on or contemplate. You can pretend viewing pictures like this is worthwhile in some way, but it's not and it doesn't allow for intelligent comment or insight to appear.

And if you want to buy a book, well everyone can make a book and we all know that buying a Blurb book is not an attractive thing in the slightest.

This doesn't mean that photography is any less interesting than it used to be. I think it is much more interesting, with a greater variety of techniques, voices and media employed across a wider area (in all kinds of ways). However, where photography is interesting is still unclear - it's not in the traditional areas of media, art, academia or fashion - in all these areas photography is pretty much dead and buried. So where is this latent burst of artistic blossoming of a hundred flowers going to come from.

Who knows? The problem is if the primary way of accessing that work is through a computer, then those pictures, that art is corrupted by the means by which we view it. And because there is so much of this new work, and publicity ( ie money, hype and sychophancy) is the means of getting your work shown, that corruption of what we see is exaggerated to the extent that we no longer really know what we see.

How photography is seen is in a virtual crisis - a crisis which makes it unclear exactly what we are seeing, a crisis that blurs what the distinction between what is great, what used to be great, what should be great and what someone else tells us is great.

Photography itself is healthy and thriving. And photography is still as interesting, nay is much more interesting (even though I'm not that old but come on, was the Family of Man that good) than it was 50 years ago. It's just not that interesting in the places it used to be interesting, and nobody quite knows where it's going to be interesting in the future - or how it's going to be interesting.

Mmm, better stop there. What do you, Dear Readers, think?


Brenda said...

I think internet photography is dis-interesting, and often a positive turnoff, unless we see it as a taster of what the real thing is like, which is always a print. There is really no comparison, however expensive your monitor. And the sad thing is, many people only look at photos on computers, on the internet.

Tonight I went to see some of Rob Hornstra's Iceland photos, on the strength of having found out about them on the internet. Probably saw him mentioned on Mrs Deane. (He's Dutch). The prints were lovely. He has no website, by the way.

50 years ago, the only way to see photos was as either darkroom prints, or reproduced in dots in broadsheet newspapers. I have lots of old copies of Picture Post, and the photography in them is extrordinary.

Rob Hann said...

Interesting............ actually I passed a poster in the street a couple of days ago. On the poster was a photograph of an attractive girl. It was Photoshopped to death. It occurred to me that I wasn't seeing what the girl really looked like at all. There are so many pictures like that around now. We don't really know what we're looking at and, it seems to me, that the pictures are greatly devalued because of it.

mark page said...

It was certainly easier to be a "Great Photographer" 50 years ago. Take for instance some Magnum Photographers. Clearly owning a camera was the only criteria for many of them. The "print" is one traditional and increasingly irrelevant form of experiencing a photograph. The next generation and future of photography will, I believe be via new media whether that be online or print on demand or outlets yet to come and yet to be invented. Applying value judgments from the past to debate the present or infact the future seems pointless. Perhaps Mr Soth has got stuck down an ally with that bloody great camera of his?

Fabian said...

I think there may be similar tendencies in different types of media. Take for example music: People often have thousands of songs on their computers and MP3 players that they have never heard. Or maybe once, twice, but not a dozen or a hundred times as an album 20 years ago. Same thing with photos. So we hear a big stream of songs, see a big stream of images, and do not really pay attention.

BUT, this is just one side of the coin. On the other, a lot of artists sell limited edition LPs with beautiful artwork and extras. And photogs sell beautiful printed and really well-made books that leave Blurb etc. in shame. And they find their clients - also, in most cases anyway, thanks to the web: If I am able to get to know a photog from the USA that never would have had an exhibition or press mention in the country I live, I can still buy his book if I am really interested. This is the big opportunity to bypass institutions (where it´s all about professional marketing).

There´s of course a bit of luck involved, but as the old gate-keepers lose their monopolies, things get mixed up a bit. New gate-keepers get established (like Colberg or La Pura Vida or even smaller administrated Flickr groups), and also anybody who cares can promote photography he likes on his blog or Twitter etc. And so, all these interesting photogs can find clients or friends all over the planet. Thus, the broader offer of today (and I think you´re right about your argument of interestingness) WILL find people who care about it. Of course, not everybody visiting a website. But, for sure, some of them.

Just one more thing, as this comment is getting really long: I also think that we will get used to be looking a photos on small screens - as we also got used to see badly ripped DivX movies. It will change our way to see and will inspire new forms of art, too. Another interesting thing, I suppose. But good books will also go on to exist, as mentioned above..

cafe selavy said...

I don't usually post comments that involve such contested ideologies, but I like your work and your site, so. . . . I will be brief.

Aesthetics as it existed is dead ideal. What is left is an ideological battleground of which many would like to take control. It is the struggle for the power to control the narrative of art. This discussion is about privilege and who grants it.

I think. That's an old argument. I like having access to photographs online. I buy many books of photography (and prints when I can afford them) of photographers that I may not have had access to in the past. I don't think I would have found the wonderful photos on your site if not for the internet. Though I would love to see your body of work in an intimate setting, I'll probably have to wait for the book.

colin pantall said...

Thanks Brenda, Rob, Mark, Fabian and C.S.

I was looking through the Sunday Times oversized fashion special on Sunday and zzzzz... But I think that was always the way, Avedon, Steichen etc notwithstanding.

I was looking at album covers too, and Issy was wondering at how cool they looked, especially the gatefolds and the inserts - something from the past that will be reinvigorated for all sorts of reasons.

And the same goes for photography - I don't think anything digital will replace the paper-based - the sheer physicality of it all is what helps makes special photography special.

I don't know, Mark. Maybe people were more interesting 50 years ago, or at least less predictable - but then again, maybe Sothy did get stuck down a dark alley with his big camera. But then he is one of the more interesting photographers I have in mind when I think of the present day - a sort of photographic Coetzee miserablist if you like - which I do.

Oh yes, C.S., you're absolutely right. I too love looking at pictures on the internet but it affects what I see, what I buy (don't buy) and the way I look - probably in a bad way. It possibly also affects what I do with the work, at least after it's made, insofar as I don't do anything with it. It's on the internet/my blog/here, there and nowhere so I don't have to. Which is so lame really.

colin pantall said...

And thanks for the kind comments, C.S. A fine blog you have and I love your pictures very much.

Andrea said...

I definitely agree: prints look much better than screen, in every respect, and probably will continue to do so for more than a while. In fact, I just went back to film, because I think that my stupid photos look better on paper, and because digital pushes me in a direction I don't like.
But I don't think the medium can make a difference by itself, when you come to art, way ahead the summer shots I put on flickr.
I think the whole discussion is rather pointless, in fact. A computer is obviously a different type of medium from a silver halide print. I don't think it makes sense to "complain" about it for being different.
No "real art trade mark" comes with a web site, and that's a good thing. You can really practice your criticism with no prejudice.
And if you happen to really like something, you can still buy a book, or go to an exhibition. But maybe one day I will discover something I really like, but looks better on a screen. And beware! It may happen to you too. At that point, the digital medium will be a grown up thing, ready to walk with its legs. It will be nothing more or less than photography, just different

Gabriel Benaim said...

Ideally, of course, you'd want the internet to serve as a means of communication, and stop there. You see something you like, which one used to have to wait months or years to see, and then if you like it enough, you go see the actual thing (key part). One can make this point equally well about photographs, human beings, and whatever else isn't perfectly translatable into a computer screen. What's happened, of course, is that most internet users don't actually take that second step, and so, in our limited sub-culture, people know less and less what photographs, especially good ones, look like. This tends to skew matters in the direction of content/subject matter, and away from the actual physical presentation of it. Now, depending on where you stand on the never-ending debate, you'll see this as good/bad/neutral. Regardless, there's clearly something lost, and I wonder if in a generation or so, there won't be anyone left who can actually tell a good photograph (as opposed to on screen image) from a mediocre one. Will curators/gallerists in 20-30 years have had enough exposure to well printed photographs for this to play a role in their decisions? If not, this aspect of photography's history will slowly disappear. Already today, one can see how little emphasis is placed on the actual performance of a photographic work, with people at portfolio reviews, e.g. showing their work on laptops. Why should anyone bother printing up real photographs if that's acceptable?

cafe selavy said...

I don't want to take up your bandwidth, but I'll give an example of why I love the internet. In 1975, after graduating from college, I went on the road for three months with my camera. When I got home, I showed them to my ex photo profs and peers at the University of Florida and got kudos all around.

I stored the negatives at my mother's house and didn't retrieve them. When she moved many, many years later, she threw them away (along with all the other negatives I'd stored).

A couple years ago, I found some old, badly worn proofsheets from that time. I was sick and could do little else, so I scanned the images into Photoshop and did my best to bring back some remnant of an image.

Some nice people at the F Blog liked them and wanted to display the work at their online gallery. Zeros and Ones. That is all the work is now. The photos exist only in cyberspace. I think there is something in that. The images take on a certain mystery there, I think.

cafe selavy said...

Oh, shoot--and thanks for the compliment. It is really good to hear that.


Anonymous said...

Speaking as someone who's studying photography in academia at the moment, how could this discussion be brought into that environment? Has it been approached in any books or (sorry Colin) more authoritative sites or magazines? Academia lags behind these discussions, and without a well-formatted reference in the bibliography it's impossible to write a paper on this subject, and so to begin to shift the academic dialogue.

John Carolan said...

If screen technology improves, which presumably it will, paper prints may eventually be surpassed. Lots of evolving technology out there. Photography has already become an electronic medium, probably end up with lightweight super resolution/gamut film-thin screens with minimal power requirements that you can transmit images to. Or did I see that in 'Minoroty Report'? Just a question of sorting the wheat from the chaff, hey always got Flickrs 'interestingness' option. God help us.

Stan B. said...

There were fewer photographers, less galleries and books, and of course, no internet back in the day. Everything was all the more precious. You treasured and explored anything of value more carefully, repeatedly, longingly. It spoke to you more because there was less of it available, and because there was less available, more of it was likely to be original. Today there is more "good" photography out there than ever before, and therefore, less of it likely to be original.

I've dismissed photography I've seen on the internet, only to be blown away by it in a gallery. Lately, I've even bought books which I very much like, only to realize I've torn through them at internet viewing velocity and just as rapidly dismissed them without the proper time for introspection, evaluation or even simple plain ol' appreciation, as I would have done in the past. The latter particularly scares me.

And while nothing will ever replace a print, a high resolution screen does hold intriguing possibilities.

colin pantall said...

Thanks for all the comments everyone - I think we can conclude that we all like prints and paper loads, but that we like looking at things on the internet as well, even though there's a lot of stuff out there and we have to wade through it. And one day we might have some way of looking at pictures that don't involved paper.

We could go round and round in circles on this one - and probably will.

J. Wesley Brown said...

The art is in the printing, for sure (I struggle at times to make my prints look as good as on my Macbook) but what happens, as John says, when the technology improves and then it gets cheaper. And then, when it all get's integrated into a central system, say in your home so that you can display one of my photos today, then one of Collins' tomorrow and so on on each wall of your house? Or you can have photos sometimes and video / GIF's at other times? When we can actually afford to show everything on screens in a gallery show?

Ed Winkleman's got an artist currently giving away a media player for the work included in the purchase price and they still cost 230 or so but when they get to costing 50 or 100? Man, my frames cost more than that! I think if anything, we'll see more digital and less paper but I certainly hope the photobook remains.

Unknown said...


Rob Hornstra has a wonderful website: