The Universal Photographer

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The art of photography does not consist of being able to take a good picture. Anyone can — and actually will at some stage — take a good picture. The art is to be able to do it on a consistent basis, in a consistent manner. Of course, over the past decades the idea of what the word “art” means has become sufficiently watered down for any photograph to be considered good (plus, what does “good” mean anyway?). So it would be straightforward to throw all art ideas out of the window and simply enjoy things as they come.

There’s a small industry of people who have been doing exactly that — think, for example, Erik Kessels, Joachim Schmid, or Melissa Catanese (if you don’t throw the idea of art out of the window, you’re in Christian Boltanski territory). Their is a fun game that in part derives its appeal from the fact that using photographs by people who according to the professionals have limited skills is a somewhat subversive maneuver, which pokes holes into photoland’s vast pretensions.

As much as I find these pretensions tiresome myself, I personally couldn’t spend too much time with the work produced in this industry, though: with enough holes poked, the idea of doing that gets a little stale, a little too self-satisfied. Plus, as is the case for all kinds of activities, too many low hanging fruits picked tend to spoil the overall experience.

Luckily, there still are plenty of gems being produced, such as the most recent The Universal Photographer by Anne Geene and Arjan de Nooy (larger parts of the industry appear to be based in the Netherlands). The basic idea is simple: the book presents the work of a fictitious photographer, whose name is reduced to merely one character — U.

The book starts out by establishing U.’s relationship to the well-known world of photography. This is a tongue-in-cheek endeavour that where it succeeds particularly well manages to perform the aforementioned calling out of of pretensions (“Where Winogrand said: ‘I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed,’ U. stated ‘I photograph to find out if I am still looking’ and sometimes ‘I am looking to find out if I am still photographing.'”).

The book then presents the artist’s presumed bodies of work much like a serious catalogue would, starting with — of course — “Early Work” (in b/w), moving to Tichy style “Voyeur”, and from there onward to “Wedding Photographer”. I suspect at this stage, things could have easily got tedious, but with the next section, “Theories”, things take a turn towards the unexpected. “Theories” is comprised of photographs onto which someone types text with a typewriter. “Collages”, the following section, then involves photographs getting stapled together. And on and on it goes — I won’t give it all away here.

So whatever expectation the viewer (well, this one anyway) might have had (“Oh, I know where this is going”), they are being subverted. It’s mad fun. Deftly, Geene and De Nooy manage to re-insert a lot of fun into their industry that of late had felt a bit too predictable.

In addition, the authors are clearly aware of what already has been done, to push things a little further to an absurd conclusion. An example would be the chapter “Corrections” where sections are cut out of photographs; however, instead of just faces (to be used in passports, say), a knee might be cut out (needless to say, this description falls far short of what the visuals are able to deliver).

The Universal Photographer concludes with a 70 page section entitled “Notes.” This section is subdivided into a larger number of smaller parts, each of which contains dozens of quotes. For example, under “Authorship,” you find “Cameras don’t take pictures.” (A.D. Coleman) or “Can an art without an artist still be an art?” (Pierre Bourdieu). This is good stuff. The section “Character” alone is enlightening, as it reveals the sheer pomposity with which some of photography’s “greats” have spoken about themselves.

All of this makes this book one to get. It’s hugely enjoyable, it’s clever, but it’s never too glib about its own cleverness.

The Universal Photographer; various photographers and authors; edited/appropriated by Anne Geene and Adrian de Nooy; 420 pages; De Hef; 2018

(not rated)

As a postscript of sorts that seems oddly connected to the above: I came across Failed Images: Photography and Its Counter-Practices by Ernst van Alphen by chance. When I found it, the cover look interesting enough for me to flip through its pages, and the plethora of images I encountered had me look further. Truth be told, I ended up being intrigued about the inclusion of a seemingly bewildering variety of photographers and theorists — here, someone clearly was approaching photography from a somewhat unusual angle.

The general idea of the book isn’t all that different than your run-of-the-mill book of writing around photography. But instead of setting out from solid ground, Van Alphen decided to do the opposite, specifically to test ideas around photography based on images that clearly deviate from the ones usually considered.

These images comprise staged photographs, blurry/blurred images, over- or underexposed images, and archival material (actually, the photographs in the “over- and underexposed” category all are actually properly exposed — they mostly conceal information through a variety of techniques). The basic premise is that theories around photography ought to be able to apply for all kinds of photographs and not merely “straight” ones.

In addition, the book casts a very wide net around existing theoretical writing, including not just Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes, but also Villem Flusser, Siegfried Kracauer (whose writing around photography deserves to be read a lot more widely), and others. In addition, Van Alphen combines a variety of artists in an initially slightly perplexing but ultimately very rewarding manner.

I’m not sure I agree with all conclusions in the book, but for sure the general insight offered makes it a very worthwhile book to get.

Ratings explained here.