Last month I spent a week in Daytona Beach, Florida—teaching, giving an artist talk, attending an opening and soaking in dialog with other artists and curators about photography.
After all the events were over, I spent an afternoon participating in an extended conversation sitting around a large table between myself, three other artists and two curators. It was an opportunity that I never had before, to have a lengthy, open and unfiltered discussion about what our individual perceptions were of the current state of photography, what our struggles and worries are as the medium progresses, and where we would each like it to go.
We started by looking at the work of one of the photographers. It was casual, no sense of rush or unease like there is at the formal portfolio reviews. We could each linger on a particular image as long as we wanted, ask the questions that needed to be asked, and understand where the artist was heading with their work. It was one of the more enjoyable presentations of prints that I’ve had in a long time.
The last time I was shown prints by the artist, or showed mine in return, was at Fotofest this past March. While those interactions generally are the ones that I enjoy the most at portfolio reviews, many of them I engaged in, especially when I think about the experience I had last week in Florida, were lacking. The atmosphere was one of competition rather than sharing. Many of the photographers I showed my work to weren’t even looking at my prints, but focusing instead on seeing who was walking around, as if always looking for a better opportunity to network.
The conversation in Florida ranged from the quality of prints now showing in galleries and museums; to whether museums should be showing more online exhibitions; to the difference in viewing images in books compared to exhibition; to how to show books in exhibitions; to current trends in photography. When we left, after a few hours, all I could think was why why why are we not able to have more of these kinds of interactions—artists with artists; and, artists with curators removed from the formal setting of a portfolio review event?
Certainly, I understand why it would be difficult for curators to commit to ongoing discussions like these. Just the time required would be difficult. But we artists, at a minimum, should be engaging each other more often and with more clarity and depth.
One of the main topics of our discussion was the viewing of images online and the dangers that doing so poses to the medium (see Casual Consumption). The previous night I had based much of my artist talk on my history and education as an architect. I was brought up as an artist to primarily use the tools of light, form, material and scale to communicate the ideas I wanted to convey. I feel deeply and confidently, that I could make a strong argument why viewing images online doesn’t engage any of these.
So, how to combat this? Clearly, it would be unrealistic and naïve for me to suggest not showing images online (although I have experimented with ways to force people to look at new work in print before viewing online – see Lookbook Series V1: Growth).
One of the artists in Florida presented, as an example, how the Metropolitan Museum of Art displays works online as a potential answer.
I also find the way the Beinecke Rare Book Library shows their collection of photographs to be very compelling (you can even see an image of how the artist signed the back of the print). See examples here.
What’s wonderful about how the Met shows many of its works is that by allowing the viewer to zoom in, almost to the point of being able to see the texture of the object itself, it begins to communicate scale and materiality. For me, this is a huge leap forward to how photographs should be presented online as well.
The big realization that came from this talk was that, for me, photographs are objects, in three dimensions with scale, made of specific materials, that react differently in varying lighting conditions and convey potent ideas about form. The big problem right now with the push to view everything online is that photography seems to be the only medium where there isn’t an internal acknowledgement on the part of the viewer, that what you’re seeing on the screen is actually not the art itself, but a representation of the art. I don’t believe other mediums have this problem. When I look at paintings or sculpture online, I know that what I’m seeing is just a depiction of the real object. And I don’t judge it as the art itself. I look at it, get a general sense of what the artist was trying to do, and leave it at that. Most of the time, I use the internet only as a reminder of an experience I had in seeing the object in person.
I see this voracious online consumption as very dangerous to our medium. So much so that I’ve given serious thought to taking all of my work offline. My interest in photography is in creating objects. I do not believe that the life of a photograph begins at conception (capture), but at birth (the print). I find this push for accepting what we see on the screen as the art itself a threat not only to my years of work trying to become a competent printmaker, but also in reaching a point where the prints I produced could provide enough of a living so that I could focus solely on creating work. But even larger than that, I worry about it further segregating photography from broader recognition as an art form, especially if we accept that merely subject and composition are enough to make it art.