"Is Photography Dead? ", a Newsweek essay by Peter Plagens, is based on so many wrong-headed premises that I wouldn’t draw attention to it except that the question at the core of his essay is and– despite what Plagens might think– has always been one of the key questions that has driven the transformation of photographic practices.
Plagens writes that "Photography is finally escaping any dependence on what is in front of a lens, but it comes at the price of its special claim on a viewer’s attention as "evidence" rooted in reality." This sentence (and the rest of his essay) romanticize a particular take on photography generically and the belief that "it" as a technology has an essential character and relationship with truth that is better or more poorly served by certain kinds of art and certain kinds of photography.
Along the way Plagens manages to discredit pretty much everyone he mentions: modernists are successful only by virtue of letting the medium do its own work and postmodernists have taken us down the road to ruin.
But despite Plagens’ assumptions (and conclusions), the question persists: How does the fact that the photograph provides evidence that the camera and the subject existed in a specific relationship at a particular moment (the "indexical" relationship) become interpreted (through a very specific technology, through cultural practices of picture-making and aesthetics, through assumptions about the nature of truth, through the rhetorical strategies of the subject- performer, the photographer-author, and the gatekeeping institutions that managed the life of this image, through cultural practices of picture-reading) as evidence of some "real" truth? That’s the contradiction that has always made photography interesting, and it plays out in different ways, with different emphases, in different kinds of photography. It’s not, as Plagens seems to think, a sacred covenant to break at your peril.
If you do find yourself reading this essay online, make sure you take a moment to read some of the responses to the essay, many of which are much more satisfying than the essay itself.