The Conversation of Photography

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One of the hardest challenges for a photographer might be to figure out how she or he wants to position her or himself: what is it exactly that I do? When using the word “position” I’m not at all interested in the marketing of one’s work. The marketing really only needs to be the final step (if even that) of one’s engagement with this curious medium photography. What I’m interested in is an awareness of what one actually does, what one is interested in, and — specifically — how or where what one does is located in the vast continuum of all the work that already exists and/or is being made.

After all, a lot of photographers don’t really have much, if anything to say. They might be good at marketing, and the work might even be a bit flashy, but that veneer tends to expose itself as flimsy and superficial quickly. Of course, the internet thrives on this kind of work, given that every day, there has to be something new, something else to feature. Whether or not the work holds up to any serious scrutiny doesn’t matter so much if you’re after clicks and shares. Who cares if the day after people notice how flimsy some work is when in the meantime you’ve already thrown something else at them? And it’s totally fine for me if as a photographer you want to play that game. I personally am just not interested in it.

What I’m interested in instead is the dialogue someone’s work has (or attempts to have) with everything else. What is that conversation? For my students, this usually comes down to finding references. But it’s not about the references per se. Of course, every photographer needs to know what her or his work is in dialogue with. Knowing about the dialogue is good, understanding what exactly that dialogue is — that’s really where the meat can be found.

This then is why so many genres of photography have become so stale for me. Of course, there is nothing wrong with doing street photography, say, Garry Winogrand style. That’s great. But there needs to be a dialogue, and not a parroting. And the parroting problem is pretty common throughout large parts of contemporary photography. Think about family photography. It’s great if you want to photograph your family’s drama, whatever it might be. Things is, though, we all got some family drama, and we’ve also seen quite a bit of it photographed already. So what is it then that you’re bringing to the conversation that adds something substantially new? This is not to deny your personal drama. It’s just wondering why everybody else needs to see it.

Maybe it’s a sign of our increasingly inward turning times that these kinds of considerations are not commonly voiced. After all, a few years ago, we collectively were “persons of the year” courtesy of Time Magazine, so we matter, right? Sure, yes. But contemporary photography shouldn’t be mistaken for a self-help group. Navel gazing does get old pretty quickly, and we might be seeing a tad too much of it in photography these days.

Contemporary photography has become too comfortable. The New Formalism fad might just be the most obvious expression of that: if that is what you want to focus on, without any of the larger ideas someone like Laszlo Moholy-Nagy dealt with almost 100 years ago, you might just be too comfortable. And that is what bothers me about this movement the most. It’s not that I’m not interested in looking at what photographs do — quite on the contrary. But it needs to be done for the sake of something other than itself. If you don’t know what this might mean, read Moholy-Nagy’s Painting, Photography, and Film.

This is not to say that whole genres of photography need to be abandoned. I do believe there still is ample space for street or family photography or New Formalism work. But it can’t just be a rehash of things we’ve seen a gazillion times already. It can’t be so exclusively self-centered. Instead, there has to be a dialogue. There has to be an evolving conversation. What’s at stake is nothing less than for us all to learn a bit more than we already know, to be exposed to things that might make us feel uncomfortable — instead of making us all feel cozy, united in our often quite self-satisfied ways of seeing the world in just the right (non-threatening) ways.

(French: La photographie en dialogue)