Photography’s Existential Dread

Jörg Colberg - Untitled, Berlin 2013

If you have followed discussions of photography on the web over the past few years, it’s not unlikely that you might have come to the conclusion that the medium is experiencing a crisis. Here is just one example of someone characterizing photography:

Everything is being tried, but nothing seems to dispel the malaise that hangs over the contemporary photography or the uneasiness, lack of confidence, alienation, and dislocation that afflict the contemporary photographer.

That appears to sum things up fairly well, doesn’t it? That’s Janet Malcolm, writing in 1976. I found the sentence in the very last paragraph of an essay entitled Diana and Nikon (originally published in New Yorker Magazine, you can also find it in Diana and Nikon: Essays on the Aesthetic of Photography, my source).

Let’s forget about photography for a second. Let’s focus on the fact that a statement from an article about photography written in 1976 sounds as if it was lifted from one of the many articles published about the medium today. What’s going on here? It would be tempting to dismiss Malcolm’s statements, just like all the other ones, claiming that essentially, people have always complained about this. Apart from the fact that that’s not necessarily true, it also refuses to address the problem.

The malaise in large parts of the world of photography is very real. The question is: why has it lasted so long? What is going on here? It might tell us something that Malcolm wrote her essay a couple of years after digital photography was invented, decades removed from the point in time where digital cameras, in whatever form, would find their ways into the lives of photographers (professionals and non-professionals alike). The malaise has nothing to do with the digital world.

Instead, it has a lot to do with our general ideas what photography should do and its inability to live up to those ideas. Let me give you an example to try to make this a bit clearer. It’s a common and widely accepted claim that “we’re all photographers now” (here is just one example). But when a newspaper fires all their photographers everybody is suddenly upset. Something doesn’t compute here. We’re either all photographers, or we’re not. If we are all photographers, then obviously a newspaper doesn’t need to employ photographers given that everybody else (the cleaning staff, the other reporters, the receptionists, etc.) can do the job just as well.

I think it’s fairly obvious that firing the photographers was a bad idea, because the cleaning staff, the other reporters, the receptionists, etc. will not be able to do the job the photographers were doing (the newspaper will soon find out; I don’t expect it to last). Which means that we are not all photographers. Or maybe more accurately, we might all have cameras, and we all might be using them all the time, but that doesn’t mean that what we’re doing with them is the same thing, regardless of whether it’s Thomas Ruff, Alec Soth, Sally Mann, some photojournalist in Afghanistan, a local news reporter down the street, your grandmother, your parents, yourself, or whoever else.

This brings me back to Malcolm’s essay, which was written in response to John Szarkowski’s The Photographer’s Eye and to Jonathan Green’s The Snap-Shot, to, essentially, the introduction of so-called vernacular photography into the sacred hallways of high-brow photography (or whatever you want to call it). It would seem that the world of high-brow photography has never fulled recovered from this and is stuck in a perpetual state of malaise, resulting in, to re-quote Malcolm’s words, “the uneasiness, lack of confidence, alienation, and dislocation that afflict the contemporary photographer”.

It would seem that there are two ways to solve the problem so many photographers appear to be having right now: We can either go back to the world where there were photographers and amateurs, the latter strictly separate. It’s probably fairly obvious why that isn’t a very good idea. The alternative to that would be to start looking at photography does and how despite the dictum that “we’re all photographers now” in reality means that we’re engaged in very different things.

Whenever I have the opportunity I like talking to non-photoland people about photography. Not surprisingly, pretty much everybody I talked to takes photographs, usually with their cell phone. Just as an aside, one of the best photo presentations I’ve had in a while was courtesy of the twelve-year old daughter of a (photographer) friend of mine, who was happy to show me all the photos from a recent trip on her cell phone. People usually love talking about their photographs, and they love telling you what is in those pictures (even if most of that is not apparent to a stranger at all – we’re certainly all photographers in the sense of believing there are things in the pictures someone else simply can’t see, given her or his lack of background knowledge).

At the same time, I yet have to meet someone outside of photoland who believes her or his photographs are in any way comparable to the photos taken by professionals. As it turns out, from my admittedly hardly representative “research,” most non-professional photographers have a better understanding of the differences in meaning, use, and even quality between their pictures and those of professionals than many professionals themselves!

Maybe it’s time to stop all the hand wringing now, and to go back to making pictures, and to exploring what the medium photography has to offer. We’re all photographers now. Fine. Whatever. Plus, we’re really not. Now might be a good time to stop pretending that we are all the same kinds of photographer, realizing that making distinctions does not mean that one is better or more valuable or more desirable than the other. Add context to the debate, and things get even more interesting.

And maybe the problem with art photography is that it has lost all ideas of context, of what it can or should do. The days of John Szarkowski, of someone being willing and able to engage with the medium, of someone being willing and able to take the medium and to try to figure out what it does, and to then communicate this to a wider audience… Those days appear to be over. Make no mistake, I don’t yearn for just one person to be that person. But there is no reason why it just needs to be one. Who says it can only be one?

It’s a shame that as far as photography is concerned our expectations have become so vastly diminished. We’re all photographers now – that’s really just scraping the very bottom of the barrel as far as the medium is concerned. Given that photography is more popular than ever, it’s almost shocking to me that such an opportunity is essentially being squandered. It’s time to end the existential dread that has been hanging over large parts of the photographic community for too long now.