Using Still Searching as a shared space, what I hope to do over the next six weeks is both to stimulate a dialog and extend a project I’ve been working on lately, which involves taking a broad look at photography as the medium itself is in the midst of transformation. To that end, watch for links I’ll post periodically to online news reports and timely stories about provocative images, events, and issues in visual culture.My goal is neither to attempt to nail down what photography is, nor to advocate for one or another factionalized view of how the medium does or should work. What I want to do is acknowledge and celebrate photography as a moving target, to point toward the kinds of photo-driven incidents and narratives that pop up and underscore that when it comes to photography, there is much to marvel at, admit to, and reconsider.
I’m honored to have the opportunity to do that here. It has always seemed to me that the Fotomuseum Winterthur has, since its inception, shrewdly and uniquely positioned itself in relationship to the medium by fully embracing both photography’s power and slipperiness. In 2003, Urs Stahel, the Fotomuseum’s founding director, acknowledged the competing discourses within a medium that, ironically, refuses to be stay still in a lecture titled “What is Photography?”
Without hesitation, people take a deep breath and announce in a booming voice: “This is photography!” “No, this is photography!” “This isn’t photography anymore!” “You are wrong, this is photography!” The more forceful the claim, the more likely it is that someone is standing nearby ready to declare the same three words just as emphatically but with a different meaning in mind.
In the years since then, I’ve watched from afar as exhibitions mounted by Fotomuseum Winterthur have explored an impressively eclectic range of subjects–advertising, industrial, architectural, and scientific imaging are just a few of them. One of my favorites—The Ecstasy of Things: From the Functional Object to the Fetish in 20th Century Photography, curated in 2004 by Stahel and Thomas Seelig (now a co-director of Winterthur)—was a bold admission of how the how often and insistently photography is called upon (for good or insidious purposes) to elevate the everyday and to inform or rope us in.
What is most impressive about photography, now, is how resolutely it resists being tamed by any singular perspective or set of standards. The medium that impacts every aspect of our lives, that plays a pivotal role in defining our rational and fantasy lives, is unruly. The democratic nature of the medium and its malleability insure that the dialog around photography will always be rich, unless you see those two specific qualities as being problematic. On that front, I have been fascinated by how often in recent years—and mostly in the context of the art, art photography, art museum and gallery worlds—I’ve heard people worry over some “crisis” or another in photography. As the medium’s 19th-century practitioners knew well, as writers like John Tagg and Geoff Batchen have repeatedly said, and as artists like Thomas Ruff or Catherine Opie or Roe Ethridge have shown in restless work that jumps from genre to genre, there is no single or simple story to tell about photography. There never was.
“When I first became interested in photography,” Edward Steichen said in 1969, “I thought it was the whole cheese. My idea was to have it recognized as one of the fine arts. Today I don’t give a hoot in hell about that. The mission of photography is to explain man to man and each man to himself.” Say what you will about Steichen. Criticize his spectacular Family of Man project if you like and as many have. But keep in mind that he—a darling of the early 20th century’s avant-garde who went on to boldly reshape military, fashion, portraiture, celebrity and advertising photography—got it right by whole-heartedly and unapologetically embracing the central roles photographic images, of all sorts, play in contemporary life.
Ironically, it was after Steichen’s death and in the 1970s that the more insular approaches to “creative” photography he turned away from reemerged triumphant. In the past four decades, art photography has flourished as galleries, private collections, advanced degree programs, festivals, critical theory, and juried prizes of up to five and six figures proliferate. And as a former gallerist and artist representative, and in my work as a curator, writer, and educator, I admit to have done my share to bolster what myopically calls itself “the photography world” on those fronts.
But the reality is that there is no photography world; there are many of them. And so we have no choice but to keep rethinking the medium and our relationship to it. People point to the “digital revolution” as if it were some 21st century phenomenon when, in fact, it’s been going on for well over forty years. The first digital cameras, bulky things the size of microwave ovens, were introduced in the mid-1970s. What is new now is that, as a result of advances in digital technology, options for the making, mining, and sharing images are increasing exponentially. As a result, what photography is, what photographs are, and what “the photographic” means have to be continually and, at times, dramatically rethought. And as a result, so will our relationships to the medium, the world, and each other. The more photography and imaging change, the more it looks as if Steichen was right. If you want to understand how the boundaries of the photographic are being redrawn, how our lives and identities and futures are being reshaped, and how the consequentiality of imaging is being reimagined, look around.
Which is what I propose we do in this space and over these next few weeks.