Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Big Stories of Photography

One of the things I’ve been thinking about recently is how sites like this one (and most blogs in general) often feel like a collection of disconnected fragments. Day after day, we are posting and accumulating small pieces of detailed information, but in fact, we rarely talk about where these pieces fit in the larger realm of photography. It’s the 24-hour media cycle applied to the art world, where a big idea today is gone tomorrow, with little or no commentary to help us explain why it was important in the first place.

So I began to think about each post we make in a much larger context. I asked myself these questions: what larger framework does this tiny post feed into? For what larger story is this just one of the many supporting data points? Why is this fragment in the end important?

When you step back and look at things from this perspective, each gallery review, auction report, book summary and opinion piece suddenly seems markedly different, because the small story is now put into the context of something altogether more powerful. The simple addition of an analytical framework makes almost everything fall into place; nearly all of the dots have now been connected.

What I’ve discovered, perhaps not surprisingly, is that most of the important stories of photography are constant stories; they are ones that we have been grappling with since the beginning of the medium. We continue to come back to these same themes again and again, decade after decade, even if they now have a contemporary face. Underneath each long term umbrella concept are a handful of smaller ideas that feed into the larger narrative, many of which have a shorter run of interest (a week, a month, a year) and then evolve into something else or disappear.

What might surprise you is that I’ve only come up with 4 prominent stories that I see in photography today. I’ve outlined them below, and added some supporting information on each, including what kind of posts/ideas feed into the overall dialogue:

1.) The Continual Reordering and Reevaluation of the Photographic Hierarchy: Virtually every gallery/museum show that is organized and every photography book that is published is in the end making a case for the merits of a single artist or group in the grand sweep of the medium’s history. For photography, the overall hierarchy is remarkably fluid, with artists going in and out of favor perhaps more rapidly than in other mediums. Most of the voices in the community are directly or indirectly influencing the location of artists on the ladder. Some of the underlying stories include:

  • The rising stature of certain artists/photographers and the picking of “winners” and “losers”
  • The rediscovery of forgotten artists/bodies of work and the incorporation of this work into the overall historical narrative
  • The categorization of new work into common styles and movements
  • New curatorial approaches that reconsider/reinterpret historical “truths”

2.) The Impact of Technology on the Process of Making Photographic Art: If there is a single common thread to the history of photography, it is likely the development of new ground breaking technologies and their resulting impact on the way photographers approach their craft. Current incarnations of this overarching story include:

  • Digital manipulation/Photoshop: its use and influences on art making
  • The coming obsolescence of popular processes/approaches (gelatin silver etc.)
  • The rediscovery of antique hand crafted processes and their use in new ways by contemporary artists
  • The continuing story of color photography
  • The never ending development/use of new printing technologies (with impacts on print size, archival quality etc.)
  • The increasing scale/density of digital image capture technology
  • The ubiquitous use of digital cameras/camera phones and immediate images of “everything” (democratization of image making)

3.) The Internet-driven Transformation of the World of Photography: This narrative is the most unpredictable of the influential stories, since the revolution is still very much in progress, particularly as applied to the communities that surround the making of fine art photography. The Internet continues to upend old rules and generate new and exciting methods of connection. The underlying stories here are less about the photography itself and more about the people and their modes of communication.

  • New social networks/connectivity among photographers (blogs, artist websites, Facebook groups, Flikr etc.)
  • More widespread self publishing of photo books
  • Increased visibility of artists outside the traditional gallery distribution system (diversity)
  • Increased interest in international photographers (China, Middle East etc.)
  • Evolution of traditional arts journalism/criticism, based on the eventual demise of the newspaper/paper magazine and the rise of new online forums (blogs, Twitter, business models etc.)
  • New promotional approaches for artists and galleries
  • The challenges of appropriation/copyrights

4.) The Rise and Fall of the Art Markets: In the past year or so, this broad economic theme has been the dominant story across the entire art world, even though it has little to do with the art itself and more to do with trends/behaviors in the marketplace and their impact on various members of the food chain. Its many subfacets include (as applied to photography and more broadly):

  • Overall falling art prices and the recent search for the “bottom”
  • Rising prices/demand for certain artists
  • Performance of art at auctions/staffing and layoffs at auction houses
  • Gallery openings/closings/retrenchings
  • Museum budgets and staffing, deaccessioning deception, and admission pricing
  • Unemployed artists with more time on their hands/the impact of this on their art

While it might be easy to see this framework as a reductive and overly obvious view of the world of photography, I have found that thinking about daily posts from this perspective truly helps to put them into some kind of more meaningful context, where every gallery review, auction report, book summary, and opinion essay now supports at least one, if not two or three, of these overarching topics. I hope that regular readers will now perhaps come at our daily posts from a new vantage point: in some sense, we are trying to report on these four big stories of photography (with the collector’s interests in mind), and each post is part of the ongoing coverage of these larger themes.


J. Wesley Brown said...

You forgot "How does an emerging photographer get their work noticed, get shows, prepare properly for a reviews, edit a cohesive body of work, write statements etc...?"

Maybe that fits under number 1? Maybe number 2? Certainly not one without the other. Is this a new category all together that can be expanded?

J. Wesley Brown said...

Sorry, I meant #1 & #3, not 2 but now I see it's probably more like 1,3, and 4.

dlkcollection said...


I actually think emerging photographers fit into all four of the larger narratives. The interesting challenge is that they are typically not a big story all by themselves, but are part of bigger themes and movements going on all around them, their actions as examples of the larger idea or of the bleeding edge scene.

How an emerging photographer taps into or gets aligned with one of these big stores as a way to get attention for his/her work is perhaps something worth thinking about further.

RedSardine said...

I would hope that an emerging photographer is driven by forces more fundamental than the commercial environment and what best caters to current tastes and trends. The fun of collecting is responding to work that is produced by another human who has the ability to send a relevant message to the world through their art. If their work happens to be picked up by the market, that is marvellous, but the related sensation of satisfaction should never be more than a by-product of what should be the central motivation for collecting in my view — emotional response to work.

I have responded to Beat Gutschow, who was brought to my attention at a London photography fair. I thought her work was very powerful and intelligent. The fact that she has eventually been picked up by Sonnabend is "good news" in a market sense, but in reality just means that it will cost me considerably more going forward to add more work. Other emerging photographers I have responded to include Zoe Leonard (more a case of re-emerging, but her dye transfers from the Analogue series are spectacular works in my view), Edgar Martins (again intelligent work) and Pieter Hugo (couldn't get his images out of my head after seeing them in vitamin Ph).

dlkcollection said...


Thanks for the thoughtful comments. I wholeheartedly agree with you that "emotional response" as you phrase it should be the primary driver for collecting; it's certainly how we do things at least. I think the ideas in this particular post/comments were headed along a different tangent, more focused on how emerging artists are (or are not) related to the larger stories that surround photography in a journalistic/critical sense, which isn't quite the same perespective as that of collectors, but still potentially interesting (we think).

I agree with you on Gutschow and Hugo; they are both excellent. I am less familiar with Martins and the particular body of work you are referring to for Leonard, so we'll put them in the queue for further review. Thanks!