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.
The Covid-19 pandemic put a stop to my planned travels to both Lorne and the Great Otway National Park with the Friends of Photography Group in April, and to Melbourne’s CBD to continue working on the drossscape project with Stuart Murdoch in June. I found it astounding that a neo-liberal government committed to austerity and financial orthodoxy locked down whole sections of economic activity knowing that this turn to public health restrictions meant jumping over the cliff edge of the sharpest recession in modern history.
Melbourne has become a no go destination due to the city becoming a hotspot with an outbreak of community transmission in a number of suburbs; those areas in Melbourne with high rates of household overcrowding, homelessness, housing affordability stress and financial hardship. A crucial source for the community transmission of Covid-19 was the security guard fiasco at the Melbourne quarantine hotels for those Australians returning from being overseas. The public health response to the failures in hotel quarantine infection control protocols was to reimpose restrictions on family and outdoor gatherings; a widespread testing blitz in the hotspot suburbs assisted by Australian defence force personnel; then a stage three lockdown of Melbourne itself.
A common argument in photographic theory is that the triumph of the digital image as the contemporary form of photography forces a reevaluation of the traditional assumption of correspondence between the image and some form of reality of which it is said to be an imprint. The argument is that digital images that begin their life as binary data and are driven by algorithms cannot be comprehended through the conventional trinity of representation, the index and the punctum. A major shift has taken place with the emergence of the networked image.
As a photographer I understand the digital image to be an evolution from analogue photography: to all intents and purposes a digital image made with a digital camera is little different to the one that is made with an analogue camera. I situate myself in the world in the act of photographing, and then I use these working tools to construct visual representations. The Sony a7R111 digital camera is an automated, computational and pre-programmed tool compared to the entirely manual Leica M 4-P analogue camera that was made in the 1970s. The trajectory in digital photography is towards the expensive professional high end. This means increased automation, a pre-programmed apparatus, and more and more AI being built into the post processing software in order to counter the competition from the increasingly sophisticated cameras in smart phones.
Here is a digital image made with a digital Sony-a7 R111 camera:
Here is the analogue photograph made with the all manual Leica M 4-P analogue camera. The negative has been scanned into a digital file and then processed in Lightroom.
The differences between the two technologies within this logic of representation are minimal when they are viewed on a computer screen after being edited with Lightroom software. The object —ie., the quartz and creek in the two images –is known to us as a representation of the object. Photography is a process that mediates the world with the agency of light to produce legible images.
From my perspective as a working photographer the main difference between the two technologies is evolutionary. The digital technology is more convenient to use and it offers greater flexibility for hand held photograph in low light situations–eg., at dawn. As a photographer I continue to work within the trinity of representation, the index and the punctum, with both digital and analogue cameras. However, I do realise that the image on the computer screen made with a digital camera resembles the look of a traditional photograph because the computational processes are currently designed by the manufacturers to make these data packages look familiar to those working within the photograhic tradition.
The Tate exhibition basically re-inserts the history of photography into the well-writ narrative of art history to make a necessary point: – that photography merits serious consideration within the category of abstract art, and that the camera’s attraction to the shape of light rather than the shape of solid form as we perceive it, changed the way images of all kinds were composed. It also suggests that there has been a fruitful dialogue between abstract painting (Miro, Riley, Braque, Mondrian, Pollock, Kandinsky) and photography over the last hundred years.
This raises a question: has this kind of dialogue around abstraction come to an end in the 21st century rather than being continued?
King’s Head abstraction
The curators place the 20th century’s avant-garde’s photographic experimentations (ie., abstraction) in the context of wider developments in art, with examples of cubism, abstract expressionism, Bauhaus and op art providing benchmarks. The curatorial argument is that abstract photography has evolved in step with painting and that there is a shared history. The relationship between painting and photography has been a symbiotic one, a close mutualist relationship that has benefited both art forms.
An alternative interpretation is that abstract photography followed behind abstract painting, in that abstract painters influenced the way photographic artists understood image and that the photos are the monochrome equivalents of paintings. This interpretation reinforces the culturally conservative position of the supremacy of painting. This conservative interpretation overlooks the way that both Rodchenko and Lazlo Moholy-Nagy challenged the supremacy of painting by refusing to see any medium as more important than another, and by working in fields as diverse as film, graphic and theatre design, sculpture, painting and light shows. The common tendency in the Australian art institution is to adopt the conservative interpretation. Continue Reading…
I am participating in the Photoforum Members Show at Studio 541, Mt Eden, Auckland, New Zealand. I rejoined Photoforum when I was at Photobook-NZ in Wellington after several years absence. I submitted 3 images (medium format, colour negative film) for inclusion in the Members Show, which were made when I was walking Wellington on a recent visit. The exhibition was oversubscribed, so the curators/organizers reduced the three images to two. However, it was only due to the stirling work at very short notice by the team at Atkins Photo Lab in Adelaide that I was able to get the images printed, framed and couriered to Auckland. We had a week to do it.
All the images in the Photoforum exhibition are posted on Studio 541’s website along with the bio’s and artist statements. These show a diverse range of work that stands in opposition to, and digs beneath, the NZ is beautiful or a paradise school of photography.
Photo Forum Members’ Show 2018.
Photoforum was co-founded in 1973 by John B Turner, Tom Hutchins and Max Oettli to promote photography as an artistic and expressive medium, to encourage co-operation and collaboration amongst the photographic community, and to provide mentoring for photographers. A secondary, but crucial aim, was to encourage photographers to actively engage in the public risk-taking of critical writing and curatorial practice, outside of the universities and polytechnics.
Over its 40 years history Photoforum has also helped to nurture a critical environment, but there is still a lack of critics and historians to better cover the field of photography in New Zealand. My memories of the early years when I was a member was that documentary photography has been the dominant language of PhotoForum photography.There is nothing like this community-orientated non-profit organisation, which has made valuable contributions to New Zealand art and art history, amongst the art photographers in Australia. We independent Australian art photographers are much poorer as a result of not having a similar DIY community of expressive photographers. Continue Reading…