3.29.2021

Photographic Homeostasis. Ingrained Resistance to Change.

 Photographer Kristian Dowling said: "As photographers we are only as good as the opportunities we create." 

Johnson City, Texas.
March 28, 2021

Biological Homeostasis is an organism's adherence to a set of constants. All systems from blood circulation to hormone production to breathing; even shivering or sweating, are all about maintaining a very narrow range of constants in a system. Homeostasis in a human body is really a nice deal since it keeps us alive and functional. And it's all done autonomically. 

But....I am pretty sure that homeostasis in the art field of photography is a strong inhibitor of the evolution of new art and new ways of seeing things. Our generation of writers who are joined at the hip with photography continue to mine the past (way past!) masters as though there have been no changes in style or content since the last century. All hail Weston. All hail Sexton. And, of course, All hail Henri-Cartier Bresson and Robert Frank. But after a while it becomes like visual elevator music; an endless loop of Beatles instrumentals as a self-reinforcing paean to work already accepted and vetted. And then re-done by legions of lesser talents...

The mining of the past goes beyond just a knee-jerk adoration of our formidable heroes and includes now a vast collections of work by other photographers rigidly adhering to the look, feel and even process of our forerunners. One has only to attend a photography workshop at Point Lobos to see a horde of wannabe Weston's wielding their 4x5 and even 8x10 inch view cameras with their tripods anchored as close to the spots where the master once stood. 

When I read essays by critics and "experts" of photography there is always the sly comparison to the manner in which one of the old timers handled their vision or their craft that is a wink and a nod of approval to the hoary and calcified status quo. And why not? There's no downside for writers and critics who work over the bones of past giants. They are assured that at least a fair number in their audiences will know the work and also strive to follow in their footsteps. 

In fact, as photographic writers age we are getting locked more and more firmly into an encapsulated and fully "approved" version of the history of photography. Why? Because the audiences are in lock step. They've read all through their careers, as hobbyists or professionals, about these giants. In printed photography magazines and in books.

It's a curatorial mindset that's a remnant of a time when we knew about the "famous" photographers from a limited set of sources. In the last century there were gatekeepers and photographic kingmakers who could make a career from a sow's ear. How else to explain the work of Stephen Shore (sorry if you happen to be a fan...)? Patriarchy and privilege bestowed directly by John Szarkowski to a teenager with a banal snapshot aesthetic. J.S. also gave us a number of shooting stars that flamed out in the brutal glare of retrospective, and the passage of time, and fell back to earth singed and forgotten. But current writers of a certain age are relentless in branding "art" photography as a quiet, solitary pursuit which involves large format image creation, fine art printing (usually in B&W), gallery representation and book publishing when, in fact, most progress in the digital age comes from the democratization of distribution. The absence of gatekeepers and the rejection of 20th century restraints. 

We of a certain age like what we like because we are familiar with it. The traditional publishers and museums ensure the homeostasis of their curated favorites by dint of their control of traditional distribution and vetting, and by the artists' sheer tenure in an industry that profits from having recognizable stars. But would the art of photography be (much) better off if we had much less emphasis on revisiting, over and over again, the past success of photographers? If we let go of the homeostasis of the familiar and replaced it with a new reverence for evolution and revolution? When can we decide that an artist's impact is inextricably intertwined with his/her temporal context? 

I know one thing for certain. If you want to achieve glory as a current photographer in a traditional venue you'll go further if you present in black and white and you produce in large format. These signature properties have had the historic blessings of the gatekeepers and curators of a certain age as surely as the mention of archival processing. 

Just a thought. The image at the top of the blog is my nod to every southwestern (USA) landscape photographer who worked in the 1940's up to the end of the last century. The color would be frowned upon but is now tolerated. Thank you William Eggleston. (As elevated by J.Szarkowski). 

Hope you are having a happy and productive Monday. I'm off to steal some secrets from the work of the late,  JeanLoup Sieff. 


10 comments:

MikeR said...

That blue again!

Eric Rose said...

So true Kirk. Sexton etal are milking the AA and Weston mystique for all it's worth. Hey I enjoy a good traditional f64 type print. I've chased that pony myself but it's time for a new path. At least for me anyway.

JC said...

We are so inundated with photographic images that I'm not sure there is really much of a space for "art" photography anymore. We can make art photographs for ourselves, but to try to live as a photographic artist is an entirely different matter. Do we really need more nudes? Does anybody? When was the last time you saw a really engaging, creative nude? Do we need more lakes backed by mountains? Do we need more snow in trees? If you go to Google - Images - "Snow in trees" you can find hundreds and maybe thousands of shots (I didn't count them.) If you go to Google-Images-"Nudes" you can see hundreds and maybe thousands of nudes, from the strikingly ugly to the blatantly pornographic. Since a certain element of "newness" seems to be required of art, and in photography, almost nothing is new, we seem to be cornered. The "new" in photography comes from photojournalism and its near relative "street," and that has limited and usually short-term appeal. There will always be a certain fascination, IMHO, with high-end portraiture, because faces always have something new in them. Other than that...it's family snapshots and personal satisfaction. Which is quite a bit, actually.

Greg Heins said...

Of all the photographers in my 3K or so photobook library, I have long thought that Sieff probably had more FUN as a photographer than anybody else.

James Moule said...

Thank you very much for your comment about Stephen Shore. I could never understand why MOMA gave him a major exhibit.

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

I totally agree! He's one of my all time favorites. Kind of the fashion antithesis of Guy Bourdin. Do you have a Guy Bourdin book? Very rare, I think.

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

My comment just above was in response to Greg Heins. Sieff = great stuff, nice photographer. Just want to make sure stuff lines up....

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

Stephen Shore might be the nicest guy in the world but he has always been a desperately boring photographer.

karmagroovy said...

Although I agree that Landscapes and Nudes may be "played out", I think there still is plenty of envelope pushing to be done in the social statement style of photography, a la Cindy Sherman, Sally Mann, Jill Greenberg, etc.

Greg Heins said...

Kirk - No Bourdin here, though I've had my chances. I can't quite get myself into his look and now I'm getting more fussy about only buying books by artists I want to steal from... so to speak. That is still a pretty big category; I seem to be adding a book a week. Sometimes more.