On Trends

NewFormalismJMC

Trends come and go, so in principle there is nothing much to be worried about. Photography, much like any other area organized around human activities, has been experiencing trends for a long time, older ones now firmly established as important historical episodes (think “Pictorialism”). And really, given that photography can be art (not is art per se, as I’ve argued before, instead it can be art), its practitioners might decide not to worry about trends – simply because the idea behind art is not to be trendy, but to be truthful to higher ideals that almost by construction exclude the idea of trendiness.

Of course, this is much more easily said (or written) than done, especially these days. Right now, after the apparent demise of the Düsseldorf Photography trend, it’s all about the New Formalism. I’m not sure my own excitement for photography would have been triggered in much the same as it did over a decade ago if what I saw in most galleries had been those kinds of pictures – largely devoid of any real meaning (and, often, merit – but to be fair, the same can be said for any kind of photography).

This is not to say, however, that I bemoan the loss of seeing huge prints behind plastic everywhere. As much as I enjoyed the very best of them, it got a bit out of hand, if you know what I mean. Thankfully, the 2008 recession put a real end to it – even though I suspect that around that time it had already become abundantly clear that the trend had really run its course. The good news here is that now this kind of photography has become freed from its Düsseldorf hype, and it can be judged mostly on merit.

Let’s say you’re a photographer who doesn’t produce gigantic colour pictures of barren scenes or who doesn’t produce studio still lives that might or might not be awkwardly Photoshopped for reasons that only their makers and a handful of curators appreciate. Then what? As I wrote above, if you’re a real artist you probably don’t give a shit (your choice of words might differ, but you get the idea). It’s quite tough to be a real artist, however, especially these days. This is not only because of the challenges it entails. Those challenges are tough to deal with, and they require a daily struggle.

But you leave the house (or studio) with your prints, having struggled with the medium and/or your own demons for quite a while, only to find that your, let’s say, delicate black-and-white prints, lovingly hand-made in a darkroom, don’t appear to have an audience any longer. Or rather, if there’s an audience, they’re all holding their breath, counting to ten, and hoping that when they reach “ten” those god-awful pointless colour pictures of ironic still lifes will go away. But they might not. Something entirely else might, actually will pop up, and it might also not be delicate black-and-white prints, lovingly hand-made in a darkroom.

Then what?

That’s a situation a large number of photographers find themselves in. How do you go about dealing with it? You leave grad school, say, with your MFA diploma’s ink not quite dry, you take your photographs to galleries or publishers, only to be told that, well, they’re a hard sell, and if you only had a book (a gallerist might say) or an exhibition (a publisher might say), then there might be a chance (call this the post-MFA Catch 22).

And maybe, maybe, maybe you get the work onto some blog somewhere, but that little blip is going to disappear the next day anyway, while it is battling with the “NSFW” or “amazing” pictures or “pictures of the day” or whatever other hyperbolical-adjective-laden bodies of work it has to compete with that very day.

Maybe you’ll sign up for a marketing course, where someone will tell you all about social media, and how you have to be on Twitter and Facebook and Instagram, and you certainly have to have a mailing list, to tell the world about your photographs, and how you have to spend thousands of dollars on airfare, hotels, and entry fees for portfolio reviews and competitions you have no chance of winning.

Really, is that how this works? Is that how this should work?

It’s not that I have the magical answer for how to deal with this. If you thought you’d just keep reading and there it would be, that magical answer, I’ll have to disappoint you.

You can, of course, do all the things outlined in the previous paragraph (chances are you are doing it already, much like everybody else, contributing to a PR arms race that cannot be won, and that is, just to add that, won by entirely other means, which curiously nobody ever wants to talk about). But that still won’t guarantee anything. And regardless, it doesn’t answer the second question, whether this is in fact how it should work.

The “should” here lies entirely with each photographer her or himself. It rests on a decision nobody else can make, not this writer, not other critics or bloggers, not the social-media hype mongers, not even gallerists or publishers. All of those people certainly will have very good idea what needs to be done. But do those ideas make sense? That is the question every photographer needs to ask her or himself: does this make sense for me?

A photographer’s answers to those questions might easily be at odds with those provided by gallerists, publishers, critics, or the social-media crowd. But I think much is to be gained from resisting answers when they don’t make sense (assuming, of course, careful consideration has been applied). And it’s hard, especially these days, to do something different. Very hard.

For me, as a faculty member of a limited-residency photography MFA program, these kinds of issues tend to re-appear, whether during the course of the students’ studies or right after. Students are strongly encouraged to produce whatever work they feel they need to be making, however much – or little – it conforms to trends. Consequently, every year, there are students whose work finds itself at odds with large parts of what contemporary photography is focusing on.

It is easy finding an audience when what you are doing already is being given a lot of attention. But it is a lot harder – and a lot more challenging – to try to find an audience when that’s not the case, even when the photography in question lives up to the highest standards. That’s a tough spot to be in. But I think it’s the only spot that in the long run is worth anything. This is especially true given that there are in fact ways to get the work seen after all. It might “only” require a bit more work, or different, maybe even unorthodox, approaches.

For example, there currently exists a lot of hype around self-published photobooks, a lot of which is in dire need of a critical assessment. But the various issues of self-publishing aside, it does offer a good avenue for work that publishers simply won’t touch. Publishers, after all, are businesses, and just like any business, there are only so many risks that they want to take. A body of work might be very, very good, yet at the same time it might be a tough sell. Self-publishing then offers a way for a photographer to still get the work out into the world in book form, to get it to those people who are in fact eager to see it and enjoy it.

In other words, there are solutions for what to do with one’s work, however trendy or untrendy it might be. Finding those solutions requires a good amount of work, and creativity. But it’s worth it. And those solutions can’t necessarily come from other people, just like how solutions to creative problems need to be found, not given by other people.

What truly matters is for an artist to remain true to her or himself, and thus by extension to the work, however much resistance is going to be encountered. The quality – merit – of a body of work is not determined by how much it follows hot trends, how easy it is on the eyes, how well it can be used to serve as click-bait on some blog one day. It’s determined by what the work requires, what it needs, and thus by what it offers to those willing and eager to look.

If your photographs don’t serve well as click bait, if they require a slower engagement that results much in return – isn’t that a great spot to be in? To have work that holds up to being looked at for a little longer, that acts more like a fine red wine, maturing with age, than a piece of bread, stale the next day?

In other words, finding those willing and eager to look might be a challenge. But it’s a good challenge to have, and it can also serve as a reminder that the real reason for art to be made is not its desired success (as nice as that would be), but it being able to live up to its maker’s highest standards. Trends come and go – unlike good work, which has lasting power.