IN RESPONSE TO THE MISHKA HENNER INTERVIEW ON A PHOTO EDITOR
In the second half of the interview with Mishka Henner on A Photo Editor, Jonathan Blaustein and Henner briefly discuss making the same photographs as the recognized and accomplished photographers who have come before. Henner says, “if you went out today and tried to photograph the culture like Robert Frank did – which a lot of people do – it would be pointless and almost disingenuous. I know because I was doing it before. And I realized that what I was doing was trying to emulate the idols.” Henner’s process is certainly “21st Century” as Blaustein puts it. And as he points out, the issues are as well.
I often wonder though if the problem that any photographer faces in attempting to not simply imitate our idols is figuring out not something new to say, but repeating it in a way that will be heard by a contemporary audience. Because I don’t believe there is anything wrong with reiterating a particular point and while yes perhaps photographing the culture the way Frank did would be less than sincere it doesn’t mean you can’t say what he was saying. Henner’s approach is certainly contemporary. He utilizes appropriated satellite imagery. And the topic of consumption is contemporary as well. But isn’t consumption a universal theme that can be visualized in many ways? If it wasn’t, it wouldn’t comprise a category two very different photographers such as Blaustein and Henner were both nominated under for the Prix Pictet.
The current photography community demands that we are so certain of ourselves. Henner has been shortlisted for the Prix Pictet and Deutsche Borse Prizes. One doesn’t get shortlisted for such awards because they are attempting to figure it all out. And not that they should. Good work deserves recognition. But awards and a general positive recognition of one’s work has unfortunately become the only qualifier for what is good photography and tend to do less than promote the photographic process which is not so defined. At a portfolio review I attended years ago I had a typo in my statement. From that point on, because I didn’t have it absolutely together, the reviewer all but ignored me and my work. We didn’t have much of a dialogue. I spoke and she likely considered what she would have for lunch. While this was an isolated event it reflects a certain tone that we almost defend our photography by apologetics. And that if we cannot systematically prove that we’ve checked our facts and cannot without uncertainty take another photograph then the work is a waste of time. It doesn’t leave much room for photography to not only be revealing but also to reveal itself to the photographer in the process.
Henner’s work is good. It is engaging. And I am laboring a point that was only briefly discussed in the interview. Perhaps the problem is that I read Henner arriving at his process in such a linear way. As though he decided he won’t shoot like Robert Frank and that was the point at which his work became good. As though had I walked away from that horrible portfolio review and never made another typo, I would be a better photographer. I know that in all likelihood this isn’t what was being said in the interview. But what I am fixating on is that I struggle to accept that I am okay as a photographer saying the same thing as those before me, knowing that the photographic process isn’t linear but rather it is a trip of circles leading you back to where you were before you get to where photography can take you because a large chunk of the photographic community says otherwise.
That last statement is perhaps a bit romantic and Henner seems a bit more pragmatic both in ideology and process. So perhaps what I am getting at is that the photographic process is more a call and response. Henner’s work is good perhaps because he listened to his own photography. In listening the conversation evolved and as a result so did his process, a contemporary approach to a universal idea which garnered him the attention of a photographic community that unfortunately doesn’t do too much to embrace the process.