Photography Today

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We’re all photographers now. Or are we? Certainly, it has its uses to paint with a brush wide enough to turn everybody who takes photographers under whatever circumstances into a photographer. It makes writing nicely populist, feel-good pieces easy, pieces that crop up on the internet like weeds. But the ideas that we’re all photographers or that photography is the most democratic medium really only have ideological uses. Take away the ideology, start asking some hard questions, and suddenly things are not so simple any longer.

Let’s assume that we are not all photographers. If that is the case, here’s the crucial question: what is it that photographers do that those who occasionally or regularly photograph don’t do? Populists will usually bring up the distinction between professional photographers and so-called amateurs and how that distinction is not very useful. They have a point, at least up to a point. The distinction between professionals and amateurs can easily become useless, and it’s not hard to find examples, many of them involving money and/or success.

As a matter of fact, all too often, debates about photography center on money or success – as if those two factors were what mattered the most. I suppose it’s a sign of the times, where we might rail against, for example, the 1%, while heartily embracing the underlying ethos.

Needless to say, a lot of people are interested in money and/or success. One, ideally coupled with the other, might be the outcome of an engagement with photography. It’s possible, but, let’s face it, not overly likely. But most photographers I have spoken with, read about, or learned about in whatever other way did not start out with this idea in mind: I want to take pictures to be rich and successful.

So let’s forget about money or success. Who cares?

What is it then that separates the photographers from all the rest of us? I think it’s aspirations. Ambition.

You might own a camera – or a cell phone with a camera built in – and take a lot of pictures. At the same time, you might not be overly interested in those pictures. You might not be too concerned with whether your pictures are good or not. Or you might even know that your pictures aren’t “as good as what the professionals do” (actual quote from my dentist’s assistant – we were chatting about her iPhone pictures). As a consequence, you might not be concerned with making better pictures; or even if you are, you don’t bother working on it – other than maybe trying a new app that promises you the world of photography.

Of course, that’s all perfectly fine, because that’s how we go about most things in life. It isn’t really a problem for photography, much like that it isn’t a problem for the meals in our homes that we’re not all Michelin star chefs.

But you might also have the ambition to make better pictures, to really work on your pictures and your skills. You might have the ambition to look at what other people do with photography. In that case, you’re a photographer.

Needless to say, this distinction has nothing to do with professionals or amateurs. Many amateurs are very ambitious, whereas many professionals go about their jobs like most people: they show up for work, get it done, and then they’re off to deal with what they really enjoy.

In other words, defining a photographer based on aspirations essentially is a judgment-free approach that allows focusing on the medium itself – instead on what is artificially being tied to it.

What do you do if you’re a photographer, and you want to learn more about the medium, in particular about its history and/or what other photographers are doing? Obviously, there is the internet. The internet is a great way to explore photography, but it certainly has its limits. In terms of talking about the history of photography, it’s very limited. And in terms of covering the full breadth of photography, it’s limited as well. The various people who write about photography online have their preferences for some things over others (this one included).

It’s easy to learn on the internet what’s popular in photography, and you’ll find the same photographers or photographs going viral every few years (like Sergei Produkin-Gorsky’s pictures; it’s straightforward to think of contemporary examples). But it’s quite a bit harder to see work that’s not easily accessible or that’s not very popular, or work that is widely lauded by photographers or critics but is difficult to access by a wider audience. My own photographic education relied on the internet for a while, until I realized that I had to expand what I was looking at in order not to get stuck.

Books provide a great way to learn more about photography, but you really have to find the right one. A lot of books suffer from a lack of illustrations, or from too much jargon, or from being written in such a way that reading them becomes a huge chore.

The good news is that there now is a new addition to the canon of books covering contemporary photography: Mark Durden’s Photography Today.

Writing a book about contemporary photography is a bit of a thankless task since the moment it’s published, there already is something else that is not included in the book. But completeness cannot be the goal of such books. Inevitably, something will be missing, for whatever reason. There will probably also be categories, resulting in debates whether artist XYZ should not have in fact been placed elsewhere, or whether some category might be missing.

The task thus is to present photography in such a way that any reader will be able to move forward after having engaged with the book. S/he might disagree with some of the choices, but s/he will know why, and – crucially – s/he will have a much easier time engaging with the medium on her or his own. Photography Today succeeds brilliantly doing just that.

For a start, the book covers the important bases, using ten chapters. The chapters each cover one particular topic, which could either be a type of photography (street photography, say) or a more general topic (for example, authorship and reproduction). The book thus focuses on photographic strategies rather than styles, which, I think, is the best possible approach to writing such a book. After all, each style or type of photography comes with its own strategies. Some might be fairly universal, while others are quite specific.

It’s easy to find a great picture. Everybody can do that. This is another one of those ideas behind the claim “we’re all photographers now.” But it’s damn hard to find great pictures on a consistent basis, over the course of months or years. To do so, you need a strategy. You need to know very well what you’re doing.

What makes photography interesting is that you can approach the same subject with different strategies. After all, the one thing that matters in the end is the photograph. How you get there, how you get to make or take that photograph doesn’t matter. The chapter The Street thus presents both the well-known street photographers (Garry Winogrand et al.) as well as more conceptual or critical approaches (Jeff Wall or Beat Streuli).

Photography Today mentions some photographers in more than one chapter. In part, this is because each chapter explores its subject matter by focusing on one particular body of work by a group of photographers – The Street gives 16 photographers, other chapters have more.  On top of this, the book presents the work of a grand total of over 150 photographers. Of course the usual suspects (that you can find all over the internet) are included. But the book also presents work by a lot of artists – women and men alike – that are not widely known, despite the fact that they are incredibly relevant for contemporary photography, people like Alfredo Jaar or Ana Mendieta.

Featuring hundreds and hundreds of high-quality photographs on 450 pages, the book ends up offering the probably best in-depth view of what contemporary photography currently has to offer. It even casually includes photobooks, granting them the importance and role they deserve.

Highly recommended.

Photography Today; writing by Mark Durden; photographs by various artists; 464 pages; Phaidon; 2014