The insistence on medium-specificity in the visual arts arose in the era of modernism has become associated with the art critic Clement Greenberg’s commitment to medium-specificity as a condition of artistic value. This was spelt out in the aesthetics essay in the Adelaide Art Photographers c1970-2000 book published by Moon Arrow Press (Adelaide, 2019). With postmodernism medium had become akin to toxic waste and too ideologically loaded. Is it possible to still speak of photography as a medium after the demise of modernism? If so, how can we understand contemporary photography as a medium?
The concept of the medium can be traced back to Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s 1766 essay, Laocoon. Lessing dismantles Horace’s famous claim “ut pictura poesis” (as is painting, so is poetry), arguing that these media are inherently different, because while poetry unfolds in time, painting exists in space. He refers to the media as two equitable and friendly neighbours who should not overstep their respective domains. Lessing contended that an artwork, in order to be successful, needs to adhere to the specific stylistic properties of its own medium.
Greenberg picks this up as and uses it to state that medium-specificity is a characteristic which distinguished Modern Art from the previous art forms. These theories consist in the emancipation of art from its classical role of pure representation. He defends and celebrates abstract painting as achieving the perfect expression of medium-specificity and purity–purity being the ideal state of medium-specificity, the work as uncontaminated by the influence of other media.
By escaping from the chains of recognizable subject matter, the abstract painter became free to focus on the materiality of the medium. Thus, painting became an autonomous force that communicated nothing outside of its own self-contained properties.
There has been an outbreak of the Covid-19 virus in the northern suburbs of Adelaide in South Australia. These new cases are South Australia’s first without a known source of transmission since April 1 2020–7 months ago.
Known as the Parafields cluster it has been traced back to returned traveller from the UK, to a cleaner, on to two security guards and then into the community. The cleaner worked at a medi-hotel (a quarantine hotel) for Australians returning from overseas, and then transmitted to the cleaner’s extended family, some of whom worked as security guards. The particular strain of this virus is showing no symptoms for people who have become infected; it is highly contagious (it was transmitted from surfaces at the medi-hotel in the city); and the incubation is very short —down to 24 hours.
The state government, in response to this second wave, has instituted a very tough mandatory lockdown of the state at midnight on the 18th of November in an attempt to execute a six day circuit breaker, to get on top of the contact tracing and to get every single person that they can into a quarantine situation as quickly as possible. The lockdown is being used to contain the virus, where as in Europe governments only uses lockdowns when things are out of control
Basically we cannot leave our house for the next 6 days and only one person per household can leave the home once a day to visit the supermarket, or if they are in an emergency, or if their home is unsafe. Face masks are advised when in public but they are not mandatory.
Two quick observations about recent trends in photography.
Firstly, the euphoria and excitement that came in with the boom in photography in the 1970s-80s isn’t really at the core of art photography now. The social context of photography is social media; social media has actually created and defined the form of art photography and I think, unfortunately, that takes it down the narcissistic route. art photography doesn’t have the importance it once had, and that’s been the case for quite a while. It’s become a facet of social media. Reading photographs consists of people glancing at the work in 10 seconds –instant consumption on literally everything.
Secondly, there is the dramatic decline in camera sales. An example:
We are seeing more declines in 2020, partly due to the pandemic but in reality, this was coming regardless of the Covid 19 pandemic. The virus has caused these decline in sales to fall at a faster rate. The future is one of fewer camera bodies being made and price increases across the board– less demand, less sales, lower profits. The dedicated digital cameras today are already a niche and they are already there due to smartphones. Not all manufacturers will survive as there are not enough people buying cameras to sustain them all.
I am in the process of working on a third newsletter and the third online exhibition, which is one on abstractions in photography. I am a bit behind schedule due to Light Paths.
Light Paths is currently under construction. It is a community orientated website for art photographers in South Australia. It is currently in ‘coming soon’ mode, but it should ‘go live’ sometime during October. It is premised around the idea of encouraging art photographers to publish their work in progress re the current project they are working on (initially on the blog and then in a gallery); to go on 2 field trips per year; and to have an annual exhibition based on the work produced on and around those field trips.
I ran the now defunct junk for code and public opinion blogs in the first decade of the 21st century, and these blogs were part of the post-20th century blog ‘moment’, with its hyperlinks, blog rolls and networks. Though this blog moment has long passed, it is worth looking back to see what has been lost. This is not for nostalgic reasons of looking back to golden times, but to recover some things from that moment that could both help us to address problems that we experience in the present, and to guide us to construct the future in an Australia that continues to devalue culture.
The blogging nexus of online self-publishing was at its most intense and generative for roughly a decade, from 2002 onward. Blogging was easy, it was free, it got more readers than you could from a zine and it sidestepped all the old means of distribution and cultural production. The energy of the blogosphere fostered an unofficial, de-commodified intellectual and visual culture. DIY book publishing –eg., like many books my Edgelands photobook —emerged out of the writing and photography in the blogosphere.
I currently persevere with the blog form in an attempt to keep the concept of the public alive outside of academia, social media such as Facebook, the commercial televisual mass media, and the decline of the surviving print papers. I also continue to use the photo blog form as a counter to the isolation and the feeling of weakness in the face of neo-liberal, capitalism’s consumer distractions, temptations and depressive hedonism. This isolation and weakness can lead to a particular interior, emotional state — a sort of debilitating emptiness, despair and resignation. A nullity if you like, which makes it difficult to continue being a creative artist/photographer.
This picture is of an early morning seascape made whilst standing on Rosetta Head in mid-winter. We are looking across Encounter Bay towards the Coorong National Park. This was the morning I was playing around experimenting with fuzzy seascapes learning to see what’s in front of me—what’s actually there, in all its existing complexity– and figuring out how to represent it.
We now live with a digital duality, which suggests that in fact no easy divide can be made between our online and offline lives. These two aspects of our lives are now so closely enmeshed with each other as to be inseparable.