Right before the year comes to an end, every online platform rushes to publish their best-of lists. Excited, editors exchange reviews and debate on their conclusions. The most this, the most that, the best photographs, best exhibitions, best books… It’s guaranteed that the photography market will be alive and kicking for another year. As for originality, it’s often located outside its girth. No doubt it can be found, but not necessarily on ordinary forms of visibility.

Trading photographs is just as any other business. It’s a simulacrum. You’re never really buying or selling photographs but the scenario has been so well crafted and worked upon that is unimaginable to consider otherwise. In reality, the object of desire is not the photograph (in whatever form it ends up being materialized), but the potential it opens and I believe that potential is an indicator of one major value: death. But this idea of death is like the ultimate door. When facing it, we want to be able to open it.

So this death I’m referring to is the source of all power. It’s the source of all spells that somehow contaminate reality (material or not) with the promise of something else (and that something else is not of this world). French sociologist Marcel Mauss had a very original approach to trading and symbolic exchange. Trading, whatever the circumstances, is not only a system but a ritualistic one; its systematization evokes magic.

As Mauss would have it, magic is the art of changing (Mauss, M. A Genreal Theory of Magic). One thing that separates magic from science is that the latter has laws that can be verified; the former doesn’t. Photography exists in between the two. Of course ignoring the laws would make everything seem like magic, but that’s not what interests me here. In this system of (ex)change, all who participate are affected by the rite. People buy and sell things for different reasons: 

  1. They enjoy them and want to have them nearby, to look at them;
  2. They like to own things they like (it empowers them);
  3. They recognize their money value and treat them as potential trade value;
  4. They attribute them a sort of magical power (which in turn guarantees them immortality);
  5. They think buying from great artists (already on their way to immortality) somehow connects them to them (the power of the rite);
  6. etc.

However, the profound corruption of the market is not triggered by those who sell or buy, but by those who create. Most authors, enchanted by the potential of their own value (a recognizable name will give them immortality), will fail to (re)connect with the essential nature of the creative process. In other words, authors keep forgetting that they’re not hustlers and in order for their practice to be sustainable (even profitable) they need not compromise their soul. Art should answer an internal need, not an external one. That’s something I deeply believe in. If done otherwise, it becomes about technique and nothing more. The sensuous nature of the aesthetic experience does not survive the capitalist rule.

I wonder where this all began. The need to produce and make objects circulate, to have the public hail the authors and ask for their autographs, buy their million dollar copies and their rare books… where did it all begin? How did photography turned into this slut, so concerned with pleasuring others and making quick profits? I’m going to try and briefly point out some of the historical conditions of the medium that might have contributed to this current situation. No attempt will be made at a conclusion.

Photography and Science

Photography obeys scientific rules. It’s a fact. To obtain an image created by rays of light is pure physics and to preserve it pure chemistry, but that is just a way to describe the nature of the process, not how it comes to life. This premise tells us that photography has its own methodology, but it doesn’t limit the author’s relationship with the methods he chooses to apply. In that sense, I think it’s not that different from painting, drawing or sculpture. 

For the first years, photography’s numerous techniques were first presented, proclaimed and defended in the Science Academy. Its inventors and first practitioners were scientists. As years went by, painters, printers and other craftsmen gained interest in the medium and contributed to its expansion, but to this day is common to find photographers, critics and outsiders who think about the medium in terms of its capacity to be objective in the way it relates to the time/space conditions of the real.

These scientific nature of photography is always present. As technology evolved and creating photographs became more accessible, that rigorous aspect started to disappear. People can now “use” photography without being aware of those principles. Scientists gave way to geeks. Either way, the conversation too often revolves around the idea that photography can make proof of existence: Is it really like that? Where did you find that? How did you manage to see that? That usually refers to some sort of phenomenon not fully visible (as a still) to the naked eye: a galloping horse, a lightning bolt, some microscopic animal, etc.

Alphonse Bertillon, crime-scene camera.

Photography and Technology

Since its very beginning, going back to the camera obscura and the camera lucida, it’s been about technology as much as it has been about chemistry. As scientists searched for a more sensible emulsion and better formulas to stabilize images, others were working on better optics and overall better cameras. That quarrel isn’t over; it will never be over. It’s in our nature to try an exceed ourselves but, most importantly, the market needs to keep creating needs and feeding the buyers’ desire, so new apparatus are always entering the market.

Although most people would think so, photography is not about cameras and technology. In fact, I believe once that happens, it becomes just an utilitarian means to an end and that alone robes it of any potential as a means of expression. Photography is a lot of things and that keeps feeding many outdated debates about the medium. Critics get confused. They want it to be tangible, understandable, but photography is a slut. It always gets its way.

British critic Jonathan Jones argues that photography is not an art form precisely because it is a technology. His understanding of photography is obviously limited. One year before he wrote that article, he wrote another one that read Photography is the art of our time, praising its humanity and its capacity to empathize. You see, he is very confused. He considers photography to exist only by means of a device. Reality develops and some device gets in its way, as if the person “behind” the camera were only an extension of that device: providing money, mobility and, finally, pushing the button. In the former article, he struggles to understand how Phantom, by Peter Lik, has been priced at $6,5m. I would too, if I was thinking about artistic quality. But that’s almost never the case, so why the indignation? Jones thinks the photograph is revealing of its author poor taste and I do to. It is a cliche: easy on the eye, easy on the brain, hackneyed and third-hand, he says. But why would we care if someone takes pleasure from it and wants to pay that much money to take it home? Really, why would we care? Sean O’Hagan says exactly the same, stating It’s global capitalism – obscenely rich people with more money than sense. Or taste. Jones’ problem is that this valuation would grant photography a place in the art world. He’s obviously been distracted. Authors using photography have conquered that place a long time ago. But Sean O’Hagan is not using better arguments. He states photography is about a way of seeing. If so, wouldn’t drawing and painting be equality dependent on vision? They both follow similar principles regarding representation… In different ways, both Jones and O’Hagan seem to perpetuate the idea that photography is about a relation between a subject and an object, mediated by technology. One then favours the power of the device, the other the power of the subject, but they both think is about vision and visibility. It isn’t; it’s as much about expression and inner needs as any other art form. To sum it up: one can approach photography, painting, drawing or sculpture as technologies or means of expression. Whatever we chose, it makes all difference.

© E. Muybridge, ‘Pigeon flying’, Animal Locomotion, 1884-87.

Photography and Masculinity

Photography belongs to men. It’s harsh!

One can easily count the women who practiced photography during the nineteen century. They were exceptions to the rule, either aristocrats, married to men close to the science field or subversive women (who wouldn’t play the role society forced upon them). Cultural changes take time and photography, being such a recent form of expression, is still ruled by men: photographers, editors, academics, professors, critics, collectors, gallery owners, you name it..

Most approaches to using photography involve a big apparatus. In that sense, photography is a very physical medium. The body is called into action, not only for its strength but also for its agility. I can’t count the times I had a man offering to carry my tripod or case. I find it offensive to see the ideal of the fragile and delicate woman perpetuated, but it’s still there.

To be fair, men have had their struggles. I wouldn’t compare them (given women’s lack of autonomy and rights), but they’ve also had to behave in a way as such to fit a cultural frame. That frame is clearly reflected on photographs from the early days. There’s a sort of mechanical approach to the endeavour of making photographs. That coolness is suspended by the work of women like Juliet Margaret Cameron, but it quickly gets back on track. Photography from the nineteen century thus reflects a hetero-normative approach to reality and that bias penetrates the twentieth century and survives to see the dawn of our days.

Today, as editor of a publication focused on photographic expression, that inheritance is blatantly clear. The gender ratio for people working in the field is so out of balance that for every twenty names of male authors, one woman surges. We’re actively working on that everywhere we can. Jörg M. Colberg wrote a good text about it – Photography’s Macho Cult – where he links to a letter signed by over 300 authors asking for gender parity at Rencontres d’Arles Photography Festival.

© Julia Margaret Cameron, ‘Sister Spirits’, 1865.

Photography and Capital

For almost a century, photography was a privilege. This is of the utmost importance. Photography was not done by talented people, but by people who knew the process and had capital (or access to it, being founded by royal families, aristocrats, etc.). So the idea that photography is the most democratic media is a very curious one. Either agreeing or disagreeing with it, one shouldn’t forget that our democracies are also simulacra: they’re not ruled by the people, but by people’s capital. Does that mean being a democratic media would make it an elitist one? I think it does.

I guess when people refer to photography as a democratic media they’re thinking about the possibility of creating digital images with your cellphone, etc. It’s a curious approach. I’ve never owned a smartphone, but I’m aware of its prices. If most people own one is not because they can, but because they fear being the other. Our competitive society is extraordinary. It created the most absurd needs. The technological aspect of photography is still expensive. Nothing has changed. The fact that most people own devices that can make photographs is a statement to the rule of capital and to our consumerist society, not to photography being a democratic medium. J. Colberg resumes it: In all kinds of ways photography actually is a less democratic medium than many others. For example, a pencil and a piece of paper will cost you much less money than even a cheap, low-quality camera. In terms of the economics, it’s much cheaper to try to sketch something than to photograph it

The thing is I neither think photography needs to be accessible to all – it has no intrinsic value -, nor do I think it ceased to be a privileged medium. Everyone in the field knows it too well: if you want to study photography, you’ll have to pay a lot of money; if you want to buy a good camera, you have to have money; if you want to exhibit, you have to have money for prints; if you want to have a book, you have to invest; if you want to make contacts, you have to hustle, have money for travel expenses and so on. It’s a never-ending roller-coaster of debauchery and mugging. 

© Gustave Le Gray,’Portrait de l’abbé lainé’.

Photography and Artistic Expression

I thought I was incapable of adding to the debate that questions photography as an art form, just because I don’t understand the starting point. Per se, as media, painting and drawing aren’t art forms, are they? I’m trying to dismiss the discussion (again), but of course I know where it’s coming from. People seem to think that a camera is different from a brush, a paint and a canvas. People seem to think technology implies the use of heavy machinery or highly skilled engineer work. I see technology as the set of tools need to execute a certain art or craft. Are there degrees of separation between the maker and his/her doing? Is that relevant?

Critic Simon Bowcock writes that Photographs are taken by an apparatus directly ‘from life’, the image made not by an artist, but by the light of the world. This leads many to see photographs as straightforward mechanical reproductions of people and things. My reaction is to ask how stupid can he be? but we all know there are no limits to stupidity, so better not ask. According to him, what prevents photography from being art is his documentary aspect. I guess he means its indexical nature, but why is that specificity so heavy on photography? Maybe we’re just not making the best use of words. Should we say informative content, instead of documentary? Because this apparently direct relation to reality is not that different from other media, such as painting and drawing, but in some way the light that gives birth to photography is the same that blinds its viewers to its fictional and subjective nature. Photography is a lie, that’s its essence. Can we move on? Apparently not. Bowcock says things in a way that I shiver: Purely artistic media just do not have these complexities. Even in a photorealist painting, the marks are made by the hand of the artist alone, in no way drawn by ‘the pencil of nature’.

Author Errol Morris (SOP), addressing the idea of truth in photography states that :The idea that photographs hand us an objective piece of reality, that they by themselves provide us with the truth, is an idea that has been with us since the beginnings of photography. But photographs are neither true nor false in and of themselves. They are only true or false with respect to statements that we make about them or the questions that we might ask of them. I don’t agree with the last sentence, but Morris himself gives me an alternative response, with which he fails to connect and I tend to agree. Quoting Kafka, in a book review about Mumler spirit photography: Nothing can be so deceiving as a photograph. Truth, after all, is an affair of the heart. One can get at it only through art.

© Oscar Gustave Rejlander, ‘Hard Times’, 1860.

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