Regarding the exhibition “What Is a Picture?”, curated by Carol Squiers and opening today at the International Center of Photography, Philip Gefter wrote the article “The Next Big Picture” for the New York Times. He starts of by saying that, according to the curator, the exhibition poses the question, instead of giving answers. Well, but aren’t we posing that same question since photography made its way into the museums 150 years ago?
The big issue seems to be about materiality: what the surface consists of: whether it is a 3D or a 2D print; if there is texture to it; if there is such a thing as an original; what is the photographic support and is it stable; does it imply an external view or a machine oriented one, etc, etc, etc. Gefter sums it up like this: Photography is vastly different in these early years of the 21st century, no longer the result of light exposed to film, nor necessarily lens based. As digital technology has all but replaced the chemical process, photography is now an increasingly shape-shifting medium: The iPhone, the scanner and Photoshop are yielding a daunting range of imagery, and artists mining these new technologies are making documentation of the actual world seem virtually obsolete.
According to Gefter, photography is going thru an “identity crisis”, but I can’t agree with it. The photographic medium is going through a lot of changes, as it would have to since it is fairly recent. But change doesn’t imply the notion of crisis. If something is in crisis is the ‘picture’, not the ‘photograph’, and even that doesn’t relate to the object itself but to the way people started to relate to images of themselves and the world around them, which narrows the gap between ‘facts and fiction’. Yes, there is an “overflow of images”, does it make a difference if the image is ‘photographic’ or not?
So, as I sse it, this discussion about identity crisis is mainly a rhetorical one, one that is happening because the market needs to be assured about what is to be bought as being a photograph and what not. Of course this circle involves gallery owners, collectors, museum directors, curators, critics, and so on. It is rather a question of having a picture ‘authenticated’ as a photograph, by someone with the ‘authority’ to do that. In Gefter’s words: Today, the job calls for distinguishing serious photographic art making within the vast, visual cacophony of image making. What criteria are to be applied to what is called a “photograph” when digital technology has revolutionized where, how and how often pictures are viewed? […] While younger artists are incorporating chemical processes into their experiments with digital techniques, many “are still finding this need to make an object,” Ms. Squiers said.