Tuesday, June 22, 2010

the choice of photographic language

First of all, thanks to Doug for enabling this blog in the first place and providing a forum for the kind of photographic discussion that doesn't always have the highest level of visibility. I've succumbed to Doug's enthusiasm for glassprints and chemigrams and have begun my own experiments with both forms in recent weeks. What strikes me about cameraless photography is the relentless desire to remove the camera from the equation of photography, to both negate the historical progression of photography (to a point, anyway, that point usually being the invention of photograms in the post-WW I period) and simultaneously claim its technical (or optical/chemical) language. As someone who for years maintained a makeshift black-and-white darkroom in various bathrooms and basements and who derived more aesthetic satisfaction from, well, non-traditional darkroom techniques like tilting the composing easel, sandwiching negatives, making double and triple exposures and the like, I understood even then (the then here being the late 80s and 90s) that pursuing and achieving the perfectly crafted conventional print was just not going to happen in my photographic lifetime. I set aside my camera except as an occasional recording device for years and used digital photography mostly as a way to create imagery that could be reconfigured in the computer and subsequently transfered to prints and artists' books; in other words, I saw the digital camera as a photographic means to a non-photographic end.

In the history of photography classes I've taught at FIT, Columbia and the Museum of Modern Art, I love to engage students in discussions about the digital revolution and the fundamental change in the way we make and use photographs, and I suggest somewhat provocatively that we are now readying ourselves for post-digital photography and let the students attempt to guess what I'm talking about here. (This often fails tragically, by the way, but my classroom is an experiment and experiments sometimes fail, yes?) What I mean is this: photography has now so infiltrated popular culture and visual sensibilities that the instantaneous possibilities of the digital photograph have become an unanalyzed given. What was once revolutionary is now omnipresent and almost literally unthinkable. Or to restate yet again: where can photography possibly go from here?

Let's make a brief comparison to modern painting. Jasper Johns once explained his early flag paintings from the mid-1950s by stating that choosing such a ready-made and ubiquitous subject allowed him to work "on other levels" in his paintings. Maybe this is where we now are in photography: perhaps the absolute, inescapable crushing presence of the digital image as tangible record of almost everything tactile or event-based in everyone's daily life allows art photographers (for lack of a better term) to withdraw from representational duties and work on the "other level" of the abstract. What better way to rebel against your photographic parents, after all, than to eschew the camera itself?

A long opening salvo, I realize, but just that, an opening.

rich turnbull

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