Joerg Colberg’s “Photography After Photography” Considered (Or, A Response to A Provocation)

This Photo Has Already Been Taken (?)
This Photo Has Already Been Taken (?)

Joerg Colberg has two thought-provoking essays making the rounds on the web right now. The first – we’ll get to the second shortly – came out earlier this month; in “Photography After Photography (A Provocation),” Colberg argues that the medium is now “dominated by nostalgia and conservatism. Even the idea that we now need editors or curators to create meaning out of the flood of photographs ultimately is conservative, looking backwards when we could, no we should be looking forward.”

We’ve been here before. First of all, this isn’t the first time that photography has been democratized. Indeed, what we’re witnessing now is just a logical extension of a process that began with the first Kodak cameras a century ago. What has changed is not just the gear that enables the work, but also the means by which that work – potentially all of it, and pretty much all at once – is viewed and shared. In other words, there’s more of the past hanging over us than at any time before in our history, and since by definition there’s so much more past than future, it’s become that much harder for newer and more innovative work to be seen. On one hand, anyone with a broadband connection could theoretically view your work. On the other, good luck getting them to find it among the other couple billion or so photographers (and tens of billions of photographs) out there.

Furthermore, every art form has cycles of stagnation and rebirth. As Colberg notes, photography was supposed to be the death of painting ‘til painting discovered abstraction. Rock dies as regularly as the drummer in Spinal Tap, but some new thing – a pinch of punk, a dash of grunge – brings it back to life. The likes of Henry Moore and Duane Hanson similarly took sculpture to new and unexpected places.

I think that one reason that digital photography hasn’t delivered on its promise quite yet is because it’s a potentially new medium, but dressed in old clothes. But then, it doesn’t help much when we’re predicating not only our understanding of what something is, but also what it’s capable of, on old models. The amount of possibility someone can find in, and wring from, new things comes from the ability to find and exploit the differences between the new medium and the old one, rather than using them the same way they would’ve used the original. Spray paint on canvas seems almost as silly as laboriously composing a still life in oil paint on a subway car, just the same as playing a Moog like a piano (I’m looking at you, Rick Wakeman) overlooks a huge palette of textural possibilities, not to mention the difference between an Edison wax cylinder and Brian Wilson getting Pet Sounds out of his head and onto multi-track tape.

A further issue arises when it comes to subject matter. If we stop to consider abstraction, it’s clear that painters have it relatively easy, whether we’re talking about Mondrian’s playfully severe geometry, the fierce urgency of Pollack’s later work, or artists like Mills or De Kooning’s melding of abstraction with more straightforward figurative painting. A painter can invent out of whole cloth, nothing but paint and imagination. One of the intrinsic (and highly obvious) limitations of photography is that you’ve got to have something in front of the camera for it to make much sense at all. The supply of “stuff” to place there, and angles from which to photograph it, while bewildering, is finite.

Another reason that photography seems stuck is because it’s a hell of a lot easier to “fake” it in photography. Whether it’s the camera or the software used after, it’s all too easy to use a preset that replaces the usual process of trial and error. In contrast, you can’t set a guitar, paints, clay or a rack of lamb to automatic and have a reasonably acceptable result at the end of it. The short-term mastery (and let me emphasize, I’m not talking about the longer-term effort that we put into learning and perfecting the craft if we want to get it right) is much easier than it is in other media. Taking painting as an example again: if you’re not very good, you either learn what you need to learn in order to move to a point where you get better, or you realize you’re a hopeless case and you stop. With photography, it’s easier for the average person to get into a rut of careless technique because it’s easy enough to get to “good enough.” Bypassing the trial and error means that you pass up a process that leads not only to understanding, but also – vitally – to accidents. Honestly now, how often do you hear photographers, photography teachers, or books on photography – in short, the places where your average photographer gets their information – to have more, and better, accidents?

Until relatively recently (i.e., the last 200 years or so), we took for granted the idea that the work of art was a “finished” product, a finite event. In tandem with that has usually gone the assumption that the work of art was in some sense inviolable, the text or object being somehow beyond alteration. As Benjamin reminded us in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, if you’re looking at an “original” print on a museum wall or if you’re looking at a facsimile in a textbook, it’s the same piece.  The work of art has traditionally been done once and then been finished–even mechanical reproduction giving rise only to more copies of the same finished product– but this no longer needs to be the case. Rather than just our approach to a given work evolving, the work itself could also be evolving right along with us. Photography is episodic by nature, and just as we don’t expect to open the New York Times, or turn on CNN, and find the same news we did the day before, it might help to approach photography in a way that allows us sufficient ambiguity that something new reveals itself each time we view the photo.

So what happens when photography stops being finished? What happens when each thing is free to be not only what it is, but what it might be, a stepping stone to something else? This way, you have something that’s always changing, growing, evolving; something that is intuitive and responsive rather than limiting or dictating responses and consequences.

Which brings us, in typically circuitous fashion, to Colberg’s second essay, “The Digital Revolution Has Not Happened (Yet?),” wherein he states:

In the past, progress often meant something new, something that not only could not be done before, but that was also pushing the boundaries. In a nutshell, photographers often took the new tools to expand the medium.

Colberg states in his first essay that he’s not quite sure exactly how to get photography from where it is now to where it’s going, and as I think about it, I’m not entirely sure myself. I think, however, that in the problems as he states them we might at least find the seeds of a solution.

As I alluded to earlier, it’s not just the change in the capture medium that we need to take into account. The medium in which it’s viewed should also have made some differences, but hasn’t quite. Yes, some slightly more adventuresome souls print on canvas or metal, to say nothing of various art papers. When someone figures out how to combine still imaging with the technology that’s emerging in 3D printing, there arises the potential for something that hybridizes both photography and sculpture.

Similarly, taking advantage of how most people currently view photos (on an LCD or LED screen) suggests that there are possibilities for display that allow for genuine interactivity (allowing others to actively manipulate, or somehow participate in, what would otherwise have been a “final” result). What if, instead of simply tweaking and processing a picture a bit, the photograph and its delivery system itself were reacting to you simultaneous to your reactions to it?

For that matter, what if photographers were to attempt something akin to remixing? Rather than being viewed as a finished artifact, songs – not only the song that acts as the foundation for something, what we’d consider the original, but often other people’s work as well – become the raw material for something that sometimes is barely recognizable as the original. Might it not be possible to find some way of doing the same to the printed/pixelated photo? There’s precedent for this throughout artistic history (and plenty in photography, whether it’s montage, the darkroom, or Lightroom). Like a Moog, however, it might be helpful for someone to come along that takes these things out of the accepted/expected realm and into uncharted territory. In other words, we could move the photo from pride of place as an art object to something that’s altogether more elemental, namely raw material to be reassembled and recontextualized.

Those things might, admittedly, be some time off. For right now, photographers are working in well-trodden forms (street, landscape, portraiture, etc.) that may be reaching – or may already have reached – the limits of their possibilities. On the other hand, because someone hasn’t yet pushed the envelope to its limits doesn’t mean there’s no more pushing to be done. I’m not sure that we’ve exhausted the possibilities yet, and because of that I think it’s entirely possible that there are people out there doing very innovative work right now. Maybe someone, or even several someones, has been doing precisely the kind of work of which Colberg speaks, but, like Vivian Maier, doesn’t get discovered ‘til time, fashion, and innovation have all long since moved onto new things.

But if we reframe photography (pun only partly intended) – what it’s for, how it works, and what it’s capable of doing – we might move closer to something that’s always changing, growing, and evolving, that is capable of being intuitive and responsive rather than limiting or dictating possibilities. In the meantime, the rest of us will fumble along as best we can, looking for and trying new ways of seeing and new ways of creating until, by sheer stubbornness and persistence, someone somewhere arrives at something truly new.

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