Unknown Untitled [Man reflected in mirrors], n.d.; photograph; gelatin silver print; Collection SFMOMA, Gift of Gordon L. Bennett
Unknown Untitled [Man reflected in mirrors], n.d.; photograph; gelatin silver print; Collection SFMOMA, Gift of Gordon L. Bennett

“Is photography over?” SFMOMA has assembled a panel of 13 esteemed thinkers – curators, academics, and artists working in and around fine art photography or photography history and theory – and asked them to respond to the question before convening in San Francisco on April 22 and 23 for a public symposium and closed door discussions.

What does this question even mean? It’s not really clear, as Douglas Nickel notes, what’s meant by either “photography” or “over”, but the fact that it’s a museum of modern art that is posing the question is certainly significant. “Is photography over?” begs to be answered with a “yes” or a “no” rather than a more useful “how”, “why” or indeed, a better question. Yet despite the sensationalism and vagueness of the question the panel’s reaction is both varied and illuminating.

Tasked with trying to understand just what they are being asked, several of the panelists make an effort to define photography. Photography is variously described as a process, a technology, an exercise of power through the representation of space, the object around which art-related institutional practices are formed, art photography, “straight” or “pure” photography, and a medium for either or both of the previous. With few exceptions – Corey Keller and Walead Beshty, notably – the critics take photography as an object in relation to photographs rather than as a set of practices.

Copperheads  © Moyra Davey 1990
Copperheads  © Moyra Davey 1990. “[Davey] locates photographic qualities in an analog outside of the photograph itself.” – George Baker.

The responses tend to foreground photography’s status as art in their considerations of what photography can be. The many ways that photography is practiced and the many kinds of meanings and experiences that implicate photography – family pictures, advertising, photojournalism, themselves broad and problematic categories – are not well addressed as areas of potential. Blake Stimson’s perspective that photography will be better understood in terms of the everyday of social media rather than art is an exception as is Trevor Paglen’s commentary on the spatial politics of phtoography. But the concentration is largely on art and shouldering its boundaries.

Aerial photo of Iraqi chemical munitions facility
Aerial photo of Iraqi chemical munitions facility. “In the case of Colin Powell’s presentation… we can examine the architecture of seeing behind those photographs — the tens of billions of secret dollars, the vast and hidden landscapes of launch facilities, ground stations, aerospace factories, not to mention the vast secrecy and security apparatuses and even blank spaces in the law (such as the ‘state secrets privilege’) constituting only one aspect of the contemporary American ‘sight machine.’” – Trevor Paglen.

Some celebrate and some lament, but nearly all acknowledge that something has indeed changed for photography, that something is over. For some it is that photography in the art world has run out of steam; for others it is that contemporary photography fails to address “pictures that simultaneously exemplify and expand what were once called “the peculiar possibilities and limitations of photography.” (This last from my former advisor Joel Snyder). Changes are attributed to some extent to new technologies but more largely to what photography can be as contemporary art.

Jean-Siméon Chardin, Lady taking Tea, 1735.
Lady taking Tea, Jean-Siméon Chardin, 1735. “Photography’s distinctive value lies more in its humble documentary function, its intimate examination and commemoration of everyday life, than it does in its obsolete technology. Think of the painterly attentiveness of Chardin as being more photographical in this regard than the photo wizardry of Moholy-Nagy or Man Ray.” – Blake Stimson.

So while photography has in many ways to the world at large “only just begun”, its position as art calls for elegiac stanzas. Fascinating indeed to see curators, art historians, critics and artists rail at the art world for letting the air out of art photography: “The real question,” writes Philip- Lorca di Corcia, “should be ‘Is Art over?’ To me, it is more like: ‘Was it ever relevant?’ To that I say Photography has always been an unwelcome bedfellow to Art, which is for most of the world irrelevant, and Photography has been, and remains, relevant. So, if it’s over then the issue has to be looked at as either a precursor to the demise of Art’s sanctity, or the liberation of Photography from the threadbare criteria that Art History has imposed.”

And, from Corey Keller:
“It is photography’s nagging relationship to the real world that has always been the stumbling block for art critics from Charles Baudelaire to Michael Fried. Photography is, however, different from most other forms of image-making, not just in its special representational qualities, but also in practical terms – it has always had a rich and vigorous life outside the narrow confines of the art world. After years of teeth-gnashing and hair-pulling we find ourselves back where we started, still without a language that embraces photographic production in its exquisite complexity, that recognises it as a practice as well as a medium, that privileges neither its technological foundations nor its formal qualities, and that does not treat photography as merely a theory, but also acknowledges it as a body of objects with a 180-year history of its own.”

Photography’s value is where you find it: As it appears, informs, conforms, collaborates, defies, or otherwise becomes part of the process of making meaning. As Fred Ritchin (who would have added an interesting perspective to this program) writes, “The history of media is not a linear narrative following a neat progression. It is a chaos of possibilities that emerge and recede, back up and move forward, crisscrossing one another.”  It’s in and of the world, not a separate discrete thing. Photography is not important apart from these instantiations.

New Family, 2001 ©Wolfgang Tillmans
New Family, 2001 ©Wolfgang Tillmans. “Some curators and critics want to believe that contemporary, photographically based art production is continuous with the old practices, traditions, and norms of the photographic medium and attempt to put, for example, the work of Nadar and Watkins, Evans and Sander in relation to Georges Rousse and Walid Raad, Wolfgang Tillmans and Candida Hofer. This sort of exercise corrupts our comprehension of both photography as medium and photography in the service of contemporary art.” – Joel Snyder.

The danger here is not only of painting all of photography with a broad brush but of taking the photography of the art world as exemplary or representative of photographic possibilities broadly. Happily, many of its participants are keen to address these dynamics. The language that Keller wants does exist – it exists in Keller and Beshty’s practice-oriented perspective that refuses the industrial boundaries of the art world and its markets, that looks for specificity and sees photography in its connections and not in the isolated forms of photographs. Similarly, Stimson calls for a return to relevance, recognising photography’s role in relation to emergent public spheres. Art is vital when both the questions and the answers posed by artists are vital. An acknowledgement of the stakes such as these is necessary or else the whole endeavour just remains an exercise.

Trolley- New Orleans 1955 © Robert Frank
Trolley- New Orleans 1955 © Robert Frank.  “There [have been] plenty of adverse critical reactions, announcements that a particular figure — Eggleston in the 1970s or Frank in the 1950s — is a disaster or an affront, but what’s astonishing is not the way such people have been vilified but the speed with which that initial revulsion reversed itself into acclaim and assimilation within a tradition that continues to advance.” – Geoff Dyer.

Finally, this discussion echoes often sensationalist discourse about the demise of photojournalism and documentary photography communities. For both photojournalism and art photography, commerce and technology are implicated as shaping factors (though surprisingly few of the panelists really addresses the influence of technology on actual creative photographic practice in art). However, where photojournalism’s bogeyman is the transformation of the publishing industry, these critics and curators have pointed at their own industry – serving the photography art market – as one of the causes of constraints on photography’s vitality. And it not only echoes – it implicates: When documentary photography is drawn into the art world it gains a certain prestige but it also loses some of its connection with the world.

Leo Hsu

Is Photography Over? At SFMOMA

The event is fully booked. An audio recording will hopefully be available later on the SFMOMA website.

Preview response texts by
Vince Aletti
George Baker
Walead Beshty
Jennifer Blessing
Charlotte Cotton
Philip-Lorca diCorcia
Geoff Dyer
Peter Galassi
Corey Keller
Douglas Nickel
Trevor Paglen
Blake Stimson
Joel Snyder