Not much is there left to say about the United State’s 2016 presidential election other than that the Republican Party (“the party of Lincoln”) has become just another incarnation of any of the neo-fascist parties that have been plaguing Europe for a while now (think France’s National Front). A racist, sexist, two-bit real-estate developer turned reality-TV entertainer who was caught on camera bragging about physically assaulting women is going to be the country’s 45th president. Right now, this is a travesty. No doubt, soon enough it will be a tragedy for all those at the receiving end of the next administration’s policies.
Sixteen years ago, as the Supreme Court handed George W. Bush the presidency, I sensed a similar feeling of shock and dejection in large parts of the population. What was to be done? That was the question then. Honestly, I don’t think there was a convincing answer; much like there is no such answer today.
What does any of this have to do with photography anyway? I’ll get there.
It might be too much to hope there would be a way to find an answer. Then again, maybe that is exactly the problem, the idea that there need to be answers, that there need to be solutions. Also, isn’t it interesting that the blame for all of this always lies with others? So let’s turn this around. If the fact that Trump won is a sign of a deep unhappiness with “the system,” and if that same unhappiness also fueled the ill-fated Bernie Sanders run for the Democratic nomination, then we might as well start out by asking if we, the creatures who in some capacity are part of that larger, mostly amorphous body called “the art world” or “the photo world,” are unhappy, and if, yes, what exactly we are unhappy with.
I’m writing this while a considerable part of my Instagram feed is taken up by photographs taken around Paris Photo, while fending off, or rather: deleting a large number of emails about special-edition-this or we-are-booth-that sold there. Can one seriously feel dejected about the election and not get absolutely furious that the circus run for the entertainment of those of the rich who buy photographs goes on as if nothing had happened? OK, it’s not that I would expect Paris Photo to get canceled. After all, too much money is at stake. And it’s France anyway, where the National Front has not yet won the presidency.
But still… Maybe we ought to be a tad more incensed. Maybe we really need to start asking more questions about how this medium photography operates. A few weeks ago, I went to see one of those exhibitions of a private collection that simultaneous strokes that collector’s ego and offers them a way to save some taxes while throwing some hapless art gallery some good (albeit mostly second-rate) work to show. I was with students, and there was a discussion about what was on view. At some stage, I asked my students why they would be surprised that only the 1% bought art, given that 99% of the population was given no access to it, both literally and metaphorically.
You see what I’m getting at here?
Of course, it’s a bit too easy to claim that all photography is done with the ultimate goal of selling it to the rich. It’s not. But you’ll have to admit that an awful lot of discussion centers on just that. Meanwhile, photographers can’t understand why, for example, the number of people buying photobooks isn’t growing. Show someone not part of our circle any of those books we go gaga over, and you’re likely to at best receive a blank stare: what is this? This is not necessarily to say that per se there’s something wrong with these kinds of books. But I believe there is a lot wrong with our insularity, our inability (if not unwillingness) to cross a divide, while, and this is where this gets really ironic, a lot of the work in our books might even be made about the very people who will just shake their heads since they can’t understand them.
You see what I’m getting at here?
While there is some truth to the faux-populist talk of those “gatekeepers” who somehow always tend to keep out the truly deserving while letting in other people, it is centered on the idea that there is a gate, something that separates where we all exist, as citizens, from whatever that other area might be called, where the select few get to exhibit their wares and sip their cheap wine from plastic cups. Attacking the gatekeepers really isn’t a complaint about the status quo. It’s really just a grievance over not being allowed in.
As far as I can tell, the Bush jr years didn’t change this whole dynamic one bit. Neither did the Great Recession, which, curiously, ended up being photographically completely underexplored — as if photographing those being left in the dirt (and that’s a lot more people than merely the Rust Belt folks everybody suddenly has an interest in) by a ruthless financial complex (that buys our wares) somehow wasn’t deserving of our attention.
So yeah, we can march down 5th Avenue chanting something (not that there’s anything wrong with that — at the very least it makes voices heard), or we can continue our hashtag activism, clicking here or there (no, really, that’ll show ’em!). But I’m afraid that’s not going to do much, other than somehow convince us that we did our easy bit. This time around, with the stakes vastly raised, we might want to consider other, additional options — assuming we’re actually serious about our claims that the outcome of this election and by extension what that stands for are not right.
It’s not as if there aren’t any options. But some thinking outside of the white box, outside of the Grand Palais might be required. What if, for example, instead of thinking about how to get into the club, we start thinking about whether there are other gates? What if we extend that club? Or make our own club? I know a lot of people are really happy to go to Paris Photo. I have to tell you, though, that’s not a club I am very eager to join. Your mileage might vary.
Is there a law that says that we can’t change the rules of the game?
After all, the world of photography has changed a bit over the past decade and a half. Now, there are sizeable communities online, and you can see photography made anywhere in the world with the click of a mouse. Photobooks are a lot easier and cheaper to make. What does that add up to, though? We need to ask this question and face the possibility that what we might find out isn’t quite enough. Then what?
Correct me if I’m wrong, but whenever someone does something really different, that’s really not OK, either. Let’s just take Humans of New York as an example. Mention that site to anyone inside photoland, and chances are they are going to make a face, talking about how bad the pictures are or whatever else might be wrong with it. Funny, though, at the same time those same people have trouble selling the 300 copies of that book they made.
You see what I’m getting at here?
What if we finally thought about breaking out of that narrow little world I call “photoland”? If we’re really serious about it, that would not entail giving up all of the things we believe in so dearly. But it would mean thinking about a lot of them a bit differently. You don’t like Humans of New York? Well, try to do a site that does the same thing, but better (whatever your idea of “better” might be).
Because there is a lesson here: it’s not that art photography is a niche because there is some universal law decreeing that. Art photography is a niche market because we like it that way. And the reason why art photography reaches so few people is directly related to that.
Do photobooks, for example, always have to be luxury objects? Couldn’t we be making newspaper-style publications and just give them away for free? Place a few copies at the local diner, say? Oh, I know, that’s not the most original idea, but right now, to me it sounds a lot more interesting than another fancy book in an edition of 300 or 500, designed to end up on some shortlist.
Honestly, what really gets me is how a field that prides itself as being progressive ends up happily playing by the rules laid out by people for whom a picture of a homeless person is only considered based on home-decoration criteria (actual story, btw — someone I know overheard two collectors debate this over a fancy dinner). Somehow, to me that doesn’t compute. But again, that might be just me.
In the end, it’s not even that clear how this whole system we have right now is going to be sustainable. There are only so many resources available, to many jobs to be filled, so many galleries willing to show work, so many people who’ll buy photobooks. It would seem to me that the options are either to try to get a foot in the door and snatch up some little crumb (while taking it from other people), or to vastly expand our thinking around what our photographs should be used for, how and where they should be seen, how we define our success.
So what we need these days, especially once Trump is in the White House, is a lot more inventiveness concerning photography’s dissemination. We have a lot to say, and now it’s time to reach more people potentially interested in looking. We owe it to them, as citizens, and we owe it to ourselves, not just as artists, but also as members of a crowd that is already too large for the way too restricted and way too restrictive environment we currently operate in.
Why the Art World Must Not Normalize Donald Trump’s Presidency (Noah Fischer/Hyperallergic — added 15 Nov 2016)