Thursday, June 11, 2009

"Local" Photography

Only in America could an idea like “eating locally” become a hot trend. Starting with Alice Waters at Chez Panisse many years ago and followed up more recently by Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and documentary films like King Corn, Americans are beginning to slowly recognize some of the downsides to the prepackaged processed foods that have come to dominate our diet and relearn the benefits of locally grown meat, vegetables and fruit. The rest of the world has of course known about “local” and “slow” foods all along; this is why we find cuisines from other nations so enticing and exotic - quirky flavors, unusual vegetables, and cultural traditions combining to make something altogether different from our homogenized day to day foods.

The recent worldwide economic challenges have certainly woken many people up to the choices they make and how they spend their money. A tougher “back to basics” mindset has become more pervasive across the nation in the past few years, led by an undercurrent of exhaustion with the relentless marketing and consumerism of our particular American lifestyle. The search for something more “authentic” and “genuine”, rather than a clever marketing ploy to get us to buy something, has become more urgent.

This line of thought has led me to wonder about how these broad trends could affect the world of contemporary photography (particularly in America), and the larger art world in general. I am coming around to thinking that one way out of the current challenging times for artists and galleries will be a rediscovery or redefinition of the “local” in our photography, both in content and approach, as it may lead us to art that has more personal resonance.

In terms of content, perhaps it is just my jaded eye, but the recent photography of the hyper polished, international jet set seems decreasingly relevant now just a few years later; sleek, global, industrial-scale uniformity, packaged up for the super rich, is less and less enticing or thought-provoking. We may indeed look back on the works from this era as the last of an over-inflated dying breed.

What is perhaps more surprising is the rise of more “local” photography: artists who are turning back to subjects closer to home, to themselves and their families, and to the idiosyncrasies of local communities of which they are a part. Often these ideas are now being used in juxtaposition or contrast: the local knowledge of environment, history, and culture, clashing with the larger forces of globalization, industrialization and suburbanization.

Given the power of the Internet communications tools at our disposal and the disruptive changes brought about by the digital revolution in photography, it is easy to see how the world of photography will continue to speed up. And yet, I think the most important changes will occur in the realization that websites, blogs/Twitter, and self-published and self-distributed books are making it easier for us to form “local” subcultures and tribes of like minded individuals and “followers” regardless of our geographies; just like we are reconnecting face to face with the farmers that grow our food, we are now often personally connecting with the artists and photographers who make our art.

Given the diversity in the world around us, it is altogether unexpected that broad terms like “Chinese photography” or “German photography” or “Dutch photography” have any meaning at all; and yet, high level geographic grouping still offers plenty of clues about the context and likely viewpoints of works from these locales. I believe this is a result of “local” conditions and “flavors” consistently being incorporated into the art, even when the artist now lives in New York or London or elsewhere.

The one exception to this rule is the term “American photography” which given our melting pot culture seems less and less to signify anything. But perhaps what may emerge from this “local” trend is the development of more durable artistic cultures in pockets across the country. We already know that the photography in Los Angeles is meaningfully different than that of Chicago, or Seattle, or Philadelphia or New York; what we need to encourage is the deepening of those cultural “schools”, rather than a downward spiral of homogenization across the nation. We need to more explicitly tie artists from a common geography across time, even if their styles are dissimilar; the key is that they are drawing from a similar well of local culture and experience and we should work harder to understand the meaning of those local connections.

While the ideas expressed here aren’t particularly well formed, I believe there is a nugget of something important for photography buried in this “local” trend. If you can help me connect the dots more coherently, please add your comments below.


Chris Raecker said...

Would you see this as a kind of return to Regionalism?

A rejection of the urban and industrial, seen in the 1930's, seems to be parallel to our backlash against consumption and globalization. Through Regional Art, could we see a backlash against Conceptual Art today, as was the case against Modernism then? In general, I can't help but see a desire to Romance Ideals of ecology and economics in this environment.

By the way, I'm an artist born in Iowa and living in the Midwest.

dlkcollection said...


Thanks for your well conceived comments. Regionalism is indeed a better word for what I was trying to articulate. And I agree that such a concept can easily degenerate into worthless syrupy platitudes (and bad art) rather than actionable ideas.

That said, I do wonder whether an evolution away from artists from all over the world reworking the same concepts (deadpan warehouses, new construction, earnest portraits etc.) toward a focus on subjects of which artists from certain regions have special knowledge might help break the logjam of rehashed conceptual ideas we're currently experiencing.

Certainly, there will always be art that looks out to the future and perches itself on the bleeding edge of change. But perhaps there is also a place for photography that dives deeper into enduring subjects, only with new eyes and fresh perspectives.

Chris Raecker said...

Perhaps were looking to this new Regionalism for a kind of Naïve Art. Artist not conforming to, nor, flip side of coin, rebelling against established doctrine. Not spearhead nor rear guard.

Isolated individual artists may fit a "Romantic" definition. But, if they don't know the doctrine, why would their work have to look Romantic (syrupy)? Or Conceptual for that matter (deadpan warehouses, new construction, earnest portraits etc.)? Modernist (sharp focus body parts......)?

Aren't these clichés really just logos for their Brand? Brands that go in and out of fashion. Sign-age, not art. Artist buy into a brand and like buying a McDonald's, one must adhere to doctrine or lose the franchise. Doctrine may start out as theory, born from superb experimentation and observation, but, like the McDonald's owner, the art student often just wants to know what to do to succeed. To be well alined bricks upon someone else's foundation. "What rules do I follow?"

The local owner of Joe's Rib Shack isn't Naïve about his food. "Best dam ribs in the state, secret sauce, custom smoker, sweet corn fresh out of the field the way I like it".
He's not reinventing the wheel. He's just Naïve about running a McDonald's.
We have no problem using paper towels instead of napkins there, because we can judge Joe on his own terms. Your comment infers that, to some degree, the same can be done in judging photography and I would agree with that.

dlkcollection said...


I like the way you are thinking about this.

To my view, I'm not necessarily looking for a new Naive art to come out of Regionalism, although that might indeed happen. And I think you are right that an isolated artist working outside the doctinal framework of the art world can potentially approach a common subject without being constrained by the work/ideas of others. But in the end, from a collector's point of view, all the work from the same time period, regardless of its origin, will eventually be placed side by side and judged against each other. I'd like to think that quality wins out most of the time, which is why Joe's Rib Shack is still in business.

I'm looking for something altogether new and innovative that is based in some kind of genuine reality, rather than rule/success based Sign or Brand art as you put it. I think you are right on the mark in thinking that many emerging photographers are looking for clues as to what the market is interested in, and thus we get a plethora of art that follows the same group of visual codes. I'm hoping that we may start to see some breaks from these formulaic approaches, and perhaps a "back to what you know" approach may be one way to find a new path forward.

When we ask ourselves what has endured in photogrpahy (or art more generally for that matter), it isn't the 2nd and 3rd tier artists who followed the the paths someone else cleared. It is those artists who found a new path that led somewhere else, which somehow resonated with our lives.

I guess the conclusion for me is that another set of deadpan warehouses, even if done well, doesn't alter our perception of the world at this point. I'm hoping we'll see some new work that does challenge our boundaries, and perhaps a less conceptual, more Regional approach might be one way of uncovering it.

Chris Raecker said...

Good points.

Being the one clichéd has to be the greatest complement to a master and walking in the footsteps of giants from time to time for rigor and exercise is certainly an artist prerogative and not a sellout. As I seem to imply. I have more then my share of green peppers, Adam-istic landscapes and body part images to prove it. No wearhouses yet.

For me, the next frontier is internal. Szarkowski's mirrors instead of the windex clear windows today. We're experiencing breathtaking advancements in our understanding of the mind. When this accrued in Freud's day, the shift in art was remarkable.

Perhaps a can of worms for another day.

Thank you, so much for your correspondence and being a great sounding board.