Decades ago, when I wanted to be a painter and also needed a job, I thought it might be good to get some hands-on art world experience. I went to a number of galleries to inquire if there might be any positions and—in the era before MFA, museum studies, and arts administration programs made that crazily competitive—was hired by Harold Jones, the founding director of LIGHT Gallery, which had recently opened on Madison Avenue. Harold, who had spotted me looking at shows there previously, took a chance, hired me, and in ways I still marvel at, changed the course of my life.
Among the handful of photo galleries in New York in the 1970s, LIGHT was one of the important ones. Jones—a photographer himself, and a former curator at George Eastman House—opened LIGHT with the idealistic and respectful goal of representing photographers as artists, an unusual position to take at the time (Robert Mapplethorpe’s invitation to the LIGHT Gallery opening, 1973). Other galleries in the city, like the Witkin Gallery, mounted solid exhibitions of 19th and 20th century photography and had wooden bins in which matted prints could be flipped through like record albums. Harold had something more ambitious in mind.
Because of that, the gallery’s roster included classic image-makers of the time (such as Harry Callahan, Frederick Sommer, Aaron Siskind, and Andre Kertesz) and some of the provocateurs of the moment (including Robert Heinecken, Duane Michals, Mark Cohen, and Garry Winogrand). While the list of artists reflected, to a large extent, the straight, white and male photography world of its time, LIGHT also promoted the work of young and unknown artists. In the two and a half years I worked there–and before I went on to organize very different kinds of photographic exhibitions and projects for Castelli Graphics–we mounted the first gallery exhibitions of work by Stephen Shore, Jan Groover, and Robert Mapplethorpe, to name a few.
I knew little about photography when I started at LIGHT, and the learning curve was steep, quick, and a pleasure. The photography world was small at that time, so everyone interested in the medium stopped by, which meant you’d never know which legendary image-maker might walk through the elevator door, but they all did. Gallery openings were crowded and lively, like the night Winogrand pummeled and had to be pulled off of someone who had said something that pissed him off enough to disrupt the festivities of his own opening.
If lots of people showed up to see the photographs on exhibition, few came to buy them. The real photo boom, not the hype about it, was still years off in the future. That meant that there was plenty of time to handle, study, and fall in love with photographs, all of which I did. When people expressed interest in photographs, it was our job to engage them in conversation about the vision of those who conceived of and so meticulously made them. It was also our challenge to get them to consider buying one, something that often proved to be easier said than done. To this day, I have a vivid memory of showing photographs to a potential client I’d hoped might share my enthusiasm for them. But as I talked excitedly about the nuances of the pictures in front of us, it became clear that the woman next to me wasn’t enjoying them as enthusiastically as I did and hoped she might.
Obviously engaged, but clearly at a loss for words, she finally spoke. “Photography,” she said, “makes me nervous.” I was startled. But by then I’d worked at LIGHT long enough to know that while she was curious enough to walk through the door, and we would do our best to promote and sell photographs in a world already full of them, she did not feel comfortable in her looking. She might have sensed she lacked the specialized knowledge, language, or simply the confidence to articulate what or how she saw. Many people did. Many still do.
Back then, the notion of “art photography” confused many people, destabilized their everyday relationship to pictures, and made them distrust and then second guess their own perceptions of them. And that, you can argue, may be both a good and bad thing. If the process of looking at photographs closely and more critically scares some people away, it makes others raise questions and look at photographs more appreciatively and carefully.
What fascinates me today, forty years later, is how photography is making people nervous once again. Periodically, I still replay that woman’s comment in my head, and in the intervening years—as the medium, visual culture, and my thinking about both have evolved—it’s occurred to me that there were probably a list of things that made her uncomfortable that day. One I might not have grasped then, but certainly see now, is how the indexicality of photographs—the quality and quantity of information that cameras are engineered to record and self-conscious picture-makers delight in cramming into a frame—can become overwhelming.
Given how quickly and effortlessly we extract meaning from images, photographs confront us with far more data than we intend, need or are able to take in. When I was working on Photography Changes Everything, neurobiologist Jeremy Wolfe told me about Aude Oliva, a colleague and Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher whose work explores how much data we actually require to extract from an image to grasp what Oliva and her fellow researchers call the gist of the scene.
It is less than you think and the process happens faster than you can imagine. Within 1/20th of a second, we perceive enough data from the shapes, contrast, and contextual information we glean from images, even low resolution ones, to recognize their basic content. That fact raises interesting questions not only about how long, but about how closely we will want to look at any of the photographs we encounter and what happens once we do. What Oliva’s research and the low-res images we now take with our smart and cell phone cameras suggest is that, in most instances, what we require from photographs is only that they be good enough to do their job well enough. And that is something that, as I’ve traveled around talking at museums and universities in the past year, represents the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what’s making people nervous about photography now.
There were, looking back, plenty of other things making people nervous about photography in the 1970s and well into the 1980s. There was widespread and stuffy resistance to color photography, incredulity directed at conceptual artists making photographs without showing sufficient deference to the craft of the medium, and outright hostility in the art photography world to artists who were unapologetically appropriating images. Around the same time, as picture magazines were closing and video spread, the market for traditional photojournalism and the values it stood for were also being called into question. All in all, it was a rocky, but exciting time for photography.
We are going through something similar now. Once again, we can’t avoid questioning what photographic images are and may become. But what seems radically different to me, this time around, is that the issues surrounding imaging in everyday life seem more pressing, consequential, and nervous-making than much of what comes out of the art and photography worlds. The privacy concerns, legal challenges, and international controversies that swirled around the production of Google Street View images in the past few years, for example, were far more riveting than the work based on those images that was made by at least four artists I can quickly call to mind.
What interests me more, these days, is work that deals with our image anxieties less decorously and more directly. Harun Farocki’s 2003 video, Eye/Machine III examining the politics of robotic and surveillance imagery, and featured in an exhibition of his and Trevor Paglen’s work that I saw at the Center for Art, Design &Visual Culture at the University of Maryland last week, is one. Thomas Hirschhorn’s hard-to-watch and harder-to-forget piece, Touching Reality (2012), a five-minute-long video that scrolls through upsetting images of brutal harm and lethal injury that the media self-censors and keeps from us, is another.
My point is that if photography is once again making a lot of people nervous, it should. Photography, as always, is used in positive ways and to extraordinary ends. But, we have reached a moment in imaging history when we communicate through and rely upon photography more, even as we trust photography and ourselves less. We have good reason to be concerned with the ways images are made and worked over, used by and against us, and take on a life of their own. And so, photography makes me nervous, too, but the fact that it does is the reason I’ve never been less than fascinated by it.
Some recent articles about photographic things to be nervous about: