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.