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Why Photography Now?

In recent months one has been able to recognize a tense anxiety in many of the people in the photography community to do with whether the conquerable interest in serious, expressive photography, felt by a large segment of the educated public, will last. Is it a fad akin to those which may be consistently found in popular culture, or is this interest reflective of something more meaningful? Has it come too late? Is the medium acquiring an overly safe historical perspective and is this interest, or more accurately this acceptance of it as an art, the signal of the medium's own academicism and eventual demise?

This interest in photography may be seen to be reflective of the fact that people are deeply interested in science. Today they have turned to it in increasing numbers, not only for pragmatic solutions to physical problems, but also for a certain spiritualism. The church understands this and it is justifiably concerned. In this context photography, which at its most fundamental root is a scientific medium over which the artist exercises control, is seen by many to be the art form of the modern era. lam convinced that because of its understandable practicality and its austere, machine-made appearance photography is being appreciated today as a positive manifestation of modern scientific endeavor. The realism of the image is also an issue of consequence, in that this progressive sort of realist art is seen to be akin to scientific observation. Information gathering of every sort is the norm today and photography is a part of this apparatus of contemporary information systems. Even accepting it as an art has become assuredly without danger.

Man's role in the manipulation of science is becoming understood. Photography was never a theoretical science, but rather a practical technology. The earliest 19th century argument that photography was a kind of miraculous, self-operating art was replaced by the understanding that man had always been the manipulator of the process and this is now taken for granted. Moreover, in recent years photographers have been seen to be not so much artisans of a manipulated craft as they are now admired as social and esthetic commentators relying heavily on their powers of selection and significant presentation. After years of trial and error in making images and promoting them, the public has now come to recognize that the photographers who have done this are educated, intellectual and emotional beings whose values are to be respected and whose endeavors in the arts are akin to those who chose writing, painting, or musical composition all during these same years. That is to say, the expressive content in photographs has at last been perceived.

To select a subject for a photograph is an act of responsibility. Taking possession of a subject by photographing it immediately establishes an identity for the photographer. The public has ascertained these choices and we understand their stylization and their validity, and we have learned from them. Seeing photographs frequently, as one cannot help but do now in museums, commercial galleries, at the universities, and in the press, has created a fundamental revision of habits in thinking and feeling about the medium. Likewise, the frantic and transitory nature of the video image, most commonly seen as television, has increased interest in the still photograph, including the fostering of a nostalgia for old journalistic and documentary images, some of which were once the mainstay of the printed media. We can witness events live on television, but curiously it is not possible to reflect on these images. Such reflection is an aspect of our historical sense and likewise, may be seen to be fundamental to the documentary photographic esthetic.

A sense of history is a very large issue today. Interest in our past is at an all time high and the past which seems most vital and within reach Is that which spans the photographic age, roughly since the mid-19th century. Historical and personality photographs are most in demand and apparently most deeply appreciated not only by collectors of the medium but by those persons interested in the picture as an artifact from a precious lost time. The fact that all photographs exist in the past must never be forgotten, and that the precise moment the picture is made is the decisive conclusion of the immediate present. The one thing a photograph cannot do is record the past—real or imagined. The medium operates solely in the present and its product instantly becomes the past in and of itself. This places the photographer at a unique position from which to project his commentary, but it is also one which demands revolutionary creativity. The power such a sense of image has over one is immense and, it seems to me, is the basis for so much of the interest in straightforward photography today. Contrived or manipulated imagery, out of the more painterly synthetic tradition, while of interest to an inner circle in photography, has less esteem with the general public because of the cliché of the recognizable and the scientifically direct.

In the l9th century the sheer abundance of photographic imagery and the pace at which it was created was immobilizing. It was something which could not be controlled, and for the intellectual community, accustomed to works of a more measured and reflective sort, photography was a threat to the established order. Quite apart from the favorable attention on the part of some artists and writers in observational or realistic art, the photograph, like so many advances in science and scientific thinking, undermined the prevailing value structure. Photography may be seen as the first true substitute for experiential reality. The photograph gave the illusion that what was in the picture was real and by experiencing it one could experience truth itself. Not only that, but the photographers believed that what was true, or at least apparently so, was also relevant and interesting. Instead of attempting to understand these interpretations more fully and to either accept or expose them, the intellectual community shied away altogether. Writing about photographs was pretty much left to those who also made the pictures.

At the beginning of this century Alfred Stieglitz attempted to change this, and in some measure during the years of his Photo-Secessionist organisation, he was strikingly successful However, beginning in the '20s when he sought to articulate his philosophy of photographic esthetics through his photographs which he called "equivalents," the world of self conscious artistic photography again closed. Unfortunately this turn to estheticism had the reverse effect of essentially turning off for several years a great number of people, including perceptive critics. I believe that even though this school of photographic thought continues, two essential changes have happened to alter the general critical situation today. The first is the continuous evolution of the journalistic or documentary realistic photograph which, since the '30s, has been typified by the work of Cartier Bresson and Walker Evans respectively. These artists have been generously promoted by major museums around the world and the clarity and apparent directness of their vision has liberated many from the prejudice of a narrow elitism for or against the medium. Their work, and that by the younger contemporaries who have followed them, has caused an enormous interest in the medium by critics and the public alike A second occurrence, less precise, is that the literature of the more esthetic side of the medium has increased over the years, especially since World War II, and so has the reservoir of rich substantive imagery; for instance, that by Minor White, Aaron Siskind, and Frederick Sommer. Perceptive critics, sensing a meaningful evolution which was seemingly occurring without them, have now begun to express a serious respect for the medium in spite of some early hesitancies and, indeed, even a continued hostility toward the work of the Stieglitzian school. The important point, however, is not the opinion of these critics, but the fact that they have joined a kind of literati which always existed in the most inner circles of the medium and thus have closed a gap and brought photography into the arena of public concern and opinion. Commercial dealers were quick to follow on board when it was discovered that the public's interest, once encourage, extended to the purchasing of actual images, and that this public which was being so impressed did not necessarily harbor the reservations of some of the critics, but tended to follow the guidance of the historical chroniclers who had identified the major in the development of the medium regardless of esthetic or stylistic persuasion. Collectors and curators are still largely following this age-old approach to self-confidence in such matters; that is to select acquisitions from the list of historically established figures indexed in the most respected nr widely read history texts. This situation should not surprise anyone who has similarly followed the rise in the postwar print market.

These same issues and manifestations which have applied to critics and the public have attracted practitioners to the field. There are probably no more serious photographers working today than in the past, but through the vehicle of publication, of gallery and museum exhibition, their notoriety has in creased There used to be a strong sense of working in a precious, yet privileged vacuum. This situation has now been replaced with a certain pride in the medium itself, perhaps even a sense of political avant-gardism which is pleasantly combined with t h e first opportunity to receive some monetary reward for their efforts. But in spite of these positive manifestations the photographic community still harbors an apprehension about it all. I think this is nonsense and that the state of the art is only now approaching maturity.

This article originally ran in the October 29, 1977 issue of the magazine.