Monday, June 7, 2010

Is Anyone Trying to Lead the Conversation?

Quick! Who is the most influential thought leader in the world of contemporary photography? Who is spotting the trends as they are happening? Who is taking risks and making a case for what’s really important (and what’s not)? If you’re like me, even with a bit of time for reflection, you’re utterly unable to come up with even a single name that can be defended as consistently (or successfully) trying to frame the discussion of what’s going on in contemporary fine art photography. Why is this?

This is a question that I have been mulling over for the past few months, and I was reminded of it once again when I read Peter Schjeldahl’s review of a biography of Leo Castelli in the recent issue of the New Yorker (here). Schjeldahl writes: “Castelli altered a situation in which critics and curators had wielded guiding authority. He became, effectively, the scene’s predominant critic.”

So who is contemporary photography’s predominant critic? I suppose the last person to have so much control over the narrative of photography (contemporary or otherwise) was John Szarkowski. But if we look back at the last twenty years (1990-2010), I can’t seem to come up with any individual since whose voice has been as strong and authoritative as his was. Whether his preferences and choices were in the end the “right” ones, he undeniably had a point of view and a platform from which to broadcast it to a large audience.

So I started to consider where I might look for the potential leaders of today’s photography discussion, those who have stepped out of the crowd and stood alone with their opinions. Even if we might not have any omniscient, far reaching voices, there are clearly those who are making choices, tacitly separating winners and losers on a daily basis. In theory, such people would likely come from one of a small handful of occupations/groups. Absent overt and explicit statements (i.e. “Contemporary Photographer X is durably important, while Contemporary Photographer Y is not”), of which there are very few (if any) these days, all we can do is infer points of view from their public choices and omissions.

So let’s examine the possibilities. Rather than naming names, I’m going to come at this more abstractly for the most part, in the form of direct questions that I think we ought to be asking. The most obvious location in which to search for thought leadership is amidst the ranks of the museum curators. So:

  • Which museum curator (major institution or not) has put on the most influential set of contemporary photography exhibitions in the past decade?
  • Which has written the most memorable catalog essays in support of key contemporary photographers?
  • Who has actually taken a single contemporary photographer and championed him/her to the rest of the community?
  • Who has considered larger thematic issues/topics in the current medium (like the recent “Is Photography Over?” symposium at the SFMOMA)
  • In short, who has “shown their cards” and taken a position in favor of certain artists or modes of photographic expression, rather than taking the politically correct route of “it’s all good”?

Another stakeholder with a strong point of view in this discussion is the photographer/artist him/herself, via efforts in writing, active participation in the community of artists, and teaching. So:

  • Which working photographers have meaningfully participated in the discussion of contemporary photography and its future? Who speaks out, voices public opinions and/or truth tells?
  • Which have created “movements” or groups of followers/emulators who are working in a similar style or approach?

I think the gallery owner/director is an under appreciated source of control of the contemporary photography narrative; the Castelli example above is yet another reminder of how gallery owners can influence the direction of what’s important and what’s not. While supply of top contemporary photographers is scarce/limited (not everyone can represent the same artists), I think it is safe to assume that gallery owners represent work they believe in and are willing to champion, or at least work they think they can sell. While there are clearly different economic models in use (from international mega-galleries to small single geography dealers), I think the composition of the gallery stable (and which bodies of work are shown from the gallery artists) is the single most important way to judge how the gallery owner sees the market in which he/she is participating. I’ve been kicking this idea around in my head for a few weeks and doing some background work to see what the major NY stables actually look like in terms of their contemporary photography (and what those stables might mean in terms of implied thought leadership); more to come on this later in the summer.

I’ve lumped critics, writers, art historians, magazine editors, and book publishers all into one big group, as I think there are some commonalities to how they influence the contemporary photography conversation. So:

  • Which critics, writers or historians have memorably covered and analyzed the most important events in recent contemporary photography?
  • Which have taken a stand in support of a single photographer, defended a mode of expression, or identified an important trend in the contemporary medium?
  • What choices have editors and publishers made in terms of which contemporary photographers got coverage/book deals?
  • Who has published the most important contemporary photography books of the past decade?
  • Which articles, essays and monographs have meaningfully altered or reinforced the trajectory of contemporary photography?

This short post unfortunately offers no answers to these many questions, only a framework to think about how to discover who the silent leaders in contemporary photography might actually be, so we can encourage them to step out into the light even more. In our always-on digital world, the number of individual voices has multiplied exponentially, but the noise is drowning out the signal. More than ever, we need intelligent, thoughtful, opinionated guides for this journey through contemporary photography.

You know who you are out there. Now is the time to stop being so polite and start molding this amorphous lump of clay into something recognizable.


John Legweak said...

I’m an outsider and a newcomer, but I’m extremely interested in the question you’re posing.

The first thing I’ll say, just to get it out of the way, is that I think you are doing some thought leading yourself, as in your comments on the photography in the Whitney 2010 biennial.

I don’t know how much influence she has, but I pay a lot of attention to Charlotte Cotton. I was impressed by her leadership in the 2007-8 LACMA Words without Pictures project , and I loved her bold position statement for the 2010 SFMOMA Is Photography Over? event, though I never found out how much she carried through on it during the actual proceedings.

I was expecting Michael Fried’s book to get a lot of response, but it doesn’t seem to have. Maybe that’s for the best, since it seems pretty clear that Dusseldorf is over (even if Robert Voit has given it new life with his New Trees series, and a number of the Dusseldorfians continue to do interesting work).

I will be surprised if Kaja Silverman’s upcoming book on photography (The Miracle of Analogy) has any impact at all.

I think Paul Graham’s resolute defense of straight photography in his Unreasonable Apple essay and other places is a critical stand and will affect, if not determine, the course of photography in the next twenty years. It will show up the digital issue for what it is, a distraction, and will shift the search for the “artist’s touch” from the fabricated world of setup and photoshopping to the realm of engaged, reality-based, photography.

dlkcollection said...

Two more ideas.

I think part of the challenge in discerning who is trying to lead the contemporary photography discussion is that many of the voices are so compartmentalized. Some follow only emerging photographers, some follow photojournalism, some follow mid career artists etc., so we get commentary that is diffuse and disjointed. But there are very few who are analyzing the entire stream from Andreas Gusrky and Jeff Wall down to those having their first solo show and trying to tie it all together, understand what's important, and draw broad conclusions. This is what we need more of.

Secondly, part of what I was trying to get at with the post was the idea of carefully looking at the actions of those we currently listen to and see what their track records really look like in terms of thoughtfully deconstructing contemporary photography and discerning patterns. I think John is right about both Cotton and Graham, who have consistently and thoughtfully spoken up on a variety of issues. I think we need more from them, and more from many others.

dlkcollection said...

Alec Soth and Gerhard Steidl have been put forth as additional key contributors to the contemporary conversation. Agreed on both.

Marc said...

Thanks to DLK for another interesting question. I agree with your sentiment that there are no stand-out 'thought leaders' in this debate. Interestingly you mention Szarkowski as the last individual to have really shaped the course of photography. I wonder whether it is possible in the current environment for there to be another Szarkowski, not for a lack of vision, daring or discernment, but due to the structure of the contemporary photography/art world. It seems to me that we are seeing more and more blockbusting exhibitions by major institutions like MoMA, the ICP or the Jeu de Paume on our side of the pond. If there is a leader at the moment, I would say that it is the market. In terms of museums this manifests itself by a focus on getting the greatest possible number of visitors through the door, a necessity in the current economic environment which does not lend itself to taking risks. My impression, and I may be off the mark here, is also that sales have become far more important than support by cultural visionaries like Szarkowski in determining the direction of contemporary photography.
As for commentators (critics and bloggers) I suppose it is normal that with the media's woes and the relative youth of blogging, it is pretty normal for there to be a fair bit of confusion, for no significant voices to be ringing out in a global way. But this situation also has some positive sides as there are now a large number of interesting, albeit quieter voices that are shifting things in less visible ways.
This is turning into a post rather than a comment, so I'll wrap this up by putting forward FOAM in Amsterdam is an example of one of these smaller voices that is genuinely engaging with emerging contemporary photography and adding a strong personal voice to the debate.

Anonymous said...

I would say both Roxana Marcoci, thephotography curator from MoMA, and gallerist Yossi Milo -- both of whom seem to set trends that move the markets and get the most press.

Anonymous said...

But while curator at LACMA, did Cotton ever vouch for anyone new in the form of a show or did she play it safe?

Ok, she organized a book (that's quite heady and theoretical), oversaw the acquisition of a collection and organized a PLdC show that took no curatorial courage or innovation.

I'm not impressed.

dlkcollection said...

Now this discussion is starting to get interesting. Some counter thoughts and reactions:

1.) I think Marc is right that it is less and less likely that we will see a dominant figure like Szarkowski emerge. Some might argue this is actually for the best, in that we will then have more divergence and multiplicity of opinions in the mix. Fair enough. What I'd like to see however is a handful of "lightning rods" who are consistently asking the hard questions, making judgements, and pushing us all to think a little harder. I don't think the crowd can do that on its own. While many of us can contribute enthusiasm, we need a few bold thinkers who are contributing something altogether more radical and different.

2.) The idea that the "market" is actually leading the contemporary photography discussion is both a fascinating and disturbing one. It implies that collectors/buyers and gallery owners are the ones leading the trends, and that we have all become supply/demand driven. While I'm sure many museums would admit to being influenced by the economics of visitor numbers, I'd imagine that most would ultimately reject the idea that their missions of education, preservation and scholarly study have been made secondary to the budget. But if risk taking is noticeably muted (which I think it has been), then we will indeed see a weakening of influence of museum curators in the larger framing of the contemporary photography narrative - they become just another buyer. I'm not at all clear that the "market" as an abstract concept can fill the void however. I think it's much too blunt an instrument, driven by spikes of information. The longer term coalescing of trends is a more patient process I think.

3.) As names start to be put forth as potential important people in the dicussion, I really want us to remain grounded in the facts, in terms of what have these individuals actually delivered in terms of being thought leaders - where is the concrete evidence. If this requires some futher background work to compile lists of what influential shows, books, articles, artworks even have actually been created, then let's do it. It will likely be the case that any one person is not covering everything, but has chosen certain topics to dig into or battles to fight. But if we limit our view to "contemporary photography" in the past 20 years, we have at least narrowed the objective criteria a little.

Anonymous said...

As I stated earlier, of course the "market" is leading the discussion. Artists/photographers want money and fame, museum need visitors, galleries need to earn a living. As a longtime collector, trends in photography seem to be set by what sells the most. Sugimoto, Gursky, Struth, Soth, Ruff, Misrach, Burtynsky -- they have influenced so many, not just due to the quality of the work, but by how in-demand they are from collectors and curators -- it's a NY-centric echo chamber of NY gallerists, NY Times art reviewers, and NY curators. This has been the same thing for 50 years.

John Legweak said...

I don’t know Charlotte Cotton’s curatorial record; maybe she is more an observer than a doer. But somebody has to observe. There is so much new photography whirling around, and so many different kinds – way more on both counts than 20 years ago – that it’s almost impossible to see what’s happening without stepping back and taking an objective, empirical, quantitative (aka bean-counting) look.

I suppose art really moves forward one artist at a time, but I still think things change from decade to decade, and that it’s possible to identify trends and developments that transcend individual artists.

I dismissed the digital thing in my previous somewhat over-dramatic post, but it does seem to be at the center of all the Whither Photography teeth-gnashing that’s become especially pronounced in the last few years, and it’s obviously real. I saw the travelling MAGENTA FlashForward 2009 show a couple months ago and I was struck at how pervasive and dominant digital manipulation was in the selected work (which represented only a subset of the 2009 winners). I was interested to hear knowledgeable people at the show talking about it. They were mostly not questioning it at all rather talking about how, and maybe how well or how badly, it was done in the individual images.

How did this happen? It’s easy to say, oh, photography always exploits every new technical development as soon as it happens, but this doesn’t really answer the question. My assumption is that young artists now go the manipulation route because it’s condoned and even actively taught in art schools. But why is that? Is it the influence of commercial photography, which is also part of the curriculum in at least some of the schools? Or is there a thought-leader within the artworld that has pointed the way? Jeff Wall is maybe the most obvious candidate, but Andreas Gursky is the one with the astronomical sales.

Also, why has it happened so fast? (Compare the situation with color.) Is it because the artworld wants works that are “made” by artists and the clearest indication of that for photography is digital manipulation? (Others are obvious staging, hand-crafted miniature scenes with figures, pure, possibly non-lens-based abstractions, alternative processes, and – though more an approach than a process per se – painterliness.) Or is it because, in the wake of the last crash, there was a heightening of urgency in the pursuit of the new, the distinctive, the fresh, which is most easily found where artists are “pushing the limits” of photography?

If we could just travel 20 years into the future and pick up the latest survey book on the history of photography and jump to the chapters on 2001-2010 and 2011-2020, we would see all the answers laid out before us. But it's really more fun to try to figure it out while it's in the middle of happening.

J. Wesley Brown said...

John - I think the manipulation aspect is because in fine art photography, as in any other commercial enterprise there are competitive advantages (I've come up with a list in the past but we'll save that for another day or a whole post on my blog) and technical know-how is certainly one of them. In an age when photography is so pervasive and everyone is shooting with the newest digicam, one must separate himself from the crowd and this is one way. You are correct in saying Gursky's a perfect example of this.

Now, back more directly to the topic at hand, I asked an Associate Curator I know at a major museum (I won't say which) why museums aren't vouching for relative unknown's whose work they believe in by giving them shows like Szarkowski did all those years - put the mu8seum's reputation on the line and say, "This is good!" I told him the last time I could think of this happening was the McGinley show at the Whitney in 2003 and could he think of any since. He responded something like, "The museum world plays it safe these days and follows the galleries."

It was very depressing.

verninino said...

First, this isn't said nearly enough. You are doing a fantastic job. It will be interesting charting your (hopefully exponential) growth and development over the next few years.

For me folks like William Ewing seem like Szarkowski analogs, which only goes to show how anachronistic the Szarkowski/Stieglitz model of imposing messianic values is-- in this moment. Perhaps the only thing limiting him (and others like him) is insufficient hubris. Of course, as a mass audience, we too are adapting to find the right rhythm and frequency for tuning in to such a messenger.

It seems to me Cotton, Soth, Aletti, and Susan Kismaric's visions are leaving consistent definite impressions on the photoscape. Martin Parr's reorientation of photobooks has made definite impressions. Yossi Milo was mentioned but I'm often astounded by Jen Bekman's growing influence.

However so much repressive noise is being generated by the discombobulating and relatively slow shifting of the print industrial complex paradigm. Flip that coin and, of course, every critical voice broadcasting from the blogosphere with a creative sense of grammar is trying to convince everyone else of her/his supreme ingeniousness.

Who can keep up?

A few years ago (before we had kids), my wife and I used to attend all manner of art public discourse -- ICP, SVA/New School, Aperture, the National Academy Museum. Now it's all school fairs and professional advancement.

Nevertheless I believe when WE'RE (the audience for photo discourse) is settled down and ready someone will emerge, but probably not before.

J. Wesley Brown said...

It just dawned on me that no one has mentioned Kathy Ryan yet. I'm always checking to see who's shooting for her each week.

dlkcollection said...

One astute reader just reminded me that this is not a popularity contest. I think this is a really important point, and the reason why "the market" as the leader of the discussion doesn't really fly in my opinion. Thought leaders by definition are those that go against the grain, that challenge the accepted norms and standards and stand up for what they think is ultimately going to be important. With the benefit of hindsight, we can now pick out those mavericks who backed the unknown artists who became the Modern canon. This is what I'm looking for: the thinkers, regardless of their place in the photographic community, who are using their combination of intelligence and aesthetic sense to pick out the wheat from the chaff, and who have the insight to discern what is durable in the long run. They won't likely get it "right" every time, and maybe I won't agree with all their choices, but it is their underlying logic and thought process that I am hoping to try to follow/understand, as it will likely call in to question those photographic ideas and truths I already take for granted.

Anonymous said...

Some of the best eyes and smartest thinkers in the photography world ARE the dealers -- people like Jeffrey Fraenkel, Yossi Milo, Bonni Benrubi, Paul Kopeikin - as well as the museum curators like Anne Wilkes Tucker and Charlotte Cotton. They pick the wheat from the chaff first and foremost because they think it's important work AND that it might sell - the two aren't always mutually exclusive. I suppose the only people that, in theory, might not have a vested interest would be certain critics like Jerry Saltz or Roberta Smith - but as I frequently disagree with their opinions, I don't think they're perfect either. I sincerely continue to believe that capitalist art/photo dealers are the most important people in the photo world.

John Legweak said...

A late thought. Is David Alan Harvey’s online Burn Magazine on the artworld’s radar screen? I was just looking at their 2010 Emerging Photographer Fund grant finalists and thinking, this looks like some of the missing photography that Paul Graham was talking about. Too documentary, too essay? Too context-dependent, too grounded in reality? Some of it looks pretty “stands on its own” to me, for example the work of James Dodd. A lot of it, “stands on its own” or not, seems worth looking at.