On Process (Further Down the Rabbit Hole)

Article main image

Last year, I wrote an article entitled On Process. I’ve long been struggling with how process is treated and discussed in the world of photography. Committing my own thinking to the electronic screen seemed like a good way to address some of my frustrations. The article’s core is centered on the following: “For me, process alone almost never makes a good or interesting photograph. Process is not enough. […] A good photograph is a good photograph in such a way that the process itself might be an integral part of it, but it’s not the focal point. In other words, the moment you can almost separate out the image from the process […] you’re in trouble: Suddenly, the process itself becomes part of what is being evaluated.” Being the author of these words, I still know very well where I was coming from. But I also feel there is too much of the baby dangling dangerously over the edge of the bathtub now that I got rid off the bathwater.

Some of the original impetus behind my article is unchanged. Usually, nothing irritates me more than some photographs being presented starting out with a description of their process. Having been exposed to such PR for years now, I’ve come to the conclusion that most of the work showcased that way is, well, not very interesting.

Mind you, there often is that element of visual attractiveness, which is coupled with pictures looking rather different than your run-of-the-mill straight photography. This holds in equal part for tintypes and for images on Instagram – to pick two very different processes (however in these two cases something interesting is happening: a digital version of a tintype usually looks much less interesting than the actual object, and most Instagram images don’t survive being printed on paper very well at all).

Still… At the end of the day, it should be about the pictures. It’s one thing to take a camera and make tintypes. It’s quite another thing to take a camera and make tintypes that aren’t just lousy pictures in the form of tintypes (of course, the same is true for Instagram or any other process). So I look at the pictures first – are they any good? – and then at the process.

But, and this is important, there is very process-centric work that not only is extremely interesting, but that also focuses heavily, if not exclusively, on the process itself. Over the past few months, I have been looking at – and enjoying – quite a bit of it. Before looking at examples, this leaves me with this following curious position: process doesn’t matter, except where it does. Needless to say, that’s not a very useful statement, in particular for someone who wants to write critically about photography. How can this be improved?

When teaching photography, there will be the inevitable point where I will ask a student to what end they’re doing whatever it is they’re engaged with. This is not quite the same as asking what is at stake (for either the photographer or the viewers – I ask that a lot as well). Instead, I want to learn whether the decision to do something actually makes sense. I don’t necessarily need to agree with the decision, but I want to find out whether the student has an actual reason beyond, let’s say, “it looks cool.”

I want to bring that approach to thinking about process, because I think it can help me clarify my approach: in a body of work whose process is very prominent to what end is the process being used? This splits thinking about process into two branches. First, there is work that is very clearly about process itself. Second, there is work whose focus lies elsewhere but for which process plays a prominent role. An example of the former would be Marco Breuer‘s work. Richard Mosse‘s The Enclave is an example for the latter.

Before proceeding, I need to point out a few things. My approach constitutes a simple model intended to help me guide my thinking and not more than that. I really would not want the model to be used as the basis for yet another discussion for the question “what is a photograph?”. That stopped being a fruitful question to approach photography sometime in the 1980s (or even earlier). What is more, there is quite a bit of work that falls clearly smack in between the two branches, making things more complicated. For example, in Michael Wesely‘s work the process and its focus – the passing of time – fuse. Such work serves as a reminder that ultimately, all photography is process centric – we just only talk about cases where process strikes us as dominant.

With Breuer’s work in mind, it becomes clear why my earlier statement that “process alone almost never makes a good or interesting photograph” is problematic. OK, there is that qualifier “almost never,” but I don’t want to argue on that basis. There is indeed photography that is very process centric and that is very good and/or interesting. Process can be enough, more than enough actually. To separate out process from the work in such cases can easily become problematic, and it’s not clear what is actually gained from doing that.

But abstract, very process-centric work has never really been a problem for me anyway. The frustration I have been talking about earlier has instead resulted from work such as Richard Mosse’s. Please keep in mind that I’m using Mosse as an example. One of the artists whose work I’ve spent a lot time looking at lately is Daisuke Yokota, and I intend to write about it in a separate piece.

But Mosse’s Enclave can serve as a perfect example of work that has truly ruffled my feathers. Or more accurately not necessarily the work, but rather the way it was sold and discussed. Photographed in Congo, using some infrared film, the work presents us with… yeah, with what? Here’s what the publisher of his book wrote. Photographing “in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, a region in which a long-standing power vacuum has resulted in a horrifying cycle of violence, a Hobbesian ‘state of war,’ so brutal and complex that it defies communication” (this alone would require a thorough dissection) The Enclave is the culmination of Mosse’s recent efforts to radically rethink traditional representations of conflict photography, drawing on artistic and documentary strategies in equal measure. […] With both still- and 16 mm-cameras, Mosse uses a discontinued military surveillance film, which registers an invisible spectrum of infrared light. The resulting surreal palette describes these isolated, jungle war zones and the soldiers that inhabit them in disorienting psychedelic hues of scarlet, lavender, cobalt, and puce. […] Mosse has captured a landscape that is deceptively seductive, alluring. Ultimately, however, the resulting images and film map the otherwise invisible edges of violence, chaos, and incommunicable horror.” (source)

I don’t think so.

When I first saw the statement I thought “Oh, that’s cool, this is trying to make me rethink ‘conflict.'” Given I knew next to nothing about the conflict in question, I bought and read Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa by Jason Stearns. This is probably not what art and/or photography critics do when they’re being presented with work. But I thought that in order to be able to have an educated opinion about the work I needed to know more about the background story.

Having read that book, I liked The Enclave even less.

Let’s take the publisher’s statement at face value (why wouldn’t we?). If these images are documentary in any loose sense of the word, are they doing what they are said to be doing? I think the answer to that is a resounding no. No, they are not. They show us a, let’s face it, fairly romantic view of a region in Africa that has seen enormous amounts of suffering, the romanticism a bit disturbed by the bubble-gum pink. Because that’s what it is: these images ultimately are quite romantic.

I don’t think the various statements surrounding the work were questioned much, given that everybody was talking about the process (a noteworthy exception, a piece by Lewis Bush, can be found here).

Seriously, we’re dealing with one of the most horrific conflicts in Africa in recent years, and all we can talk about is the infrared film? What’s wrong with us art-photo people?

As much as traditional representations of “conflict photography” are problematic, showing us these pictures hardly can be the solution, can it? Rethinking representations of conflict is fine. But I want to think that whatever the solution might be, it should still talk about the conflict.

Speaking of the “incommunicable horror” mentioned in the publisher’s blurb, the reason why that Marlon Brando scene in Apocalypse Now works so well is because it’s at the very end of the movie. At that stage, the movie has attempted to show us the “incommunicable horror” of war in all kinds of ways (many of which we are familiar with from “conflict photography”), and it’s very clear, that some things simply cannot be shown or told. Cue Brando. Exeunt.

Not to dwell on The Enclave too much, but it’s a good example to explain where my frustration with process is coming from. There are various other such bodies of work, all of them touted mostly because of their process, and none of them holding up too well to actual scrutiny.

I suppose part of what I’m trying to say here is that some things are maybe a tad too important to just use them as a playing field for process, as a playing field for an art-photography scene that appears to have become a bit too bored with itself. Some things are so important that even when they’re used as a playing field for process, the ultimate questions can’t be about said process, and the work better hold up to proper, rigourous scrutiny.

This extends to all of those bodies of work where process is dominant. Regardless of how important your topic might be (in whatever grander or smaller scheme of things), if you use some funky process, at the end of the day, the images matter. Process might – if and only if it’s about process.

I’m aware that you could consider large parts of what I wrote above as my own personal preferences. I realize that. I am not particularly interested in, say, New Formalism photography simply because I’m not overly interested in investigating photography that way, especially given that so much of the work is so one-dimensional. To a large extent, that’s my personal preference. I prefer photography that looks at the world.

But whatever you enjoy in photography I do think that it’s very important to judge photographs based on their artistic merit, based on what they are said or pretend to be doing. For some work – Breuer’s, say – artistic merit is strongly tied to process. For a lot of other work in which process features prominently, the process merely is the vehicle to reach a different destination. And in such cases we need to ask: is that destination being reached, regardless of however cool the vehicle might look?