WHY DOES PHOTOGRAPHY NEED TO BE DEFINED ??
There is a worthwhile article posted in Conscientious Photography Magazine. In What is a Photograph, J.M. Colberg writes in response to the recent exhibit of the same name at the International Center for Photography. It is a good read and it is a conversation photographers should join. As a photographer a bit worn out by much of the current trends in photography that seem to be concerned about the meta-cognition of the medium, I myself have a point of debate after reading his piece. Not so much in critical response specifically to his ideas but to continue the conversation. Ultimately I am a bit bored by photography with the intent to define itself. Perhaps I am too much of a romantic or not enough a gnostic, but I believe photography, because of its tie to the real world, has greater potential to work to define something other than itself. But the current trend all feels a bit like the Ouroboros eating its own tail. The psychologist Erich Neumann defined the Ouroboros representation as an infantile experience so perhaps such behavior is appropriate for such a young medium. My three month old daughter is fascinated with her reflection in the mirror.
Photography is (increasingly so, it seems) evermore self-centric. Or at least, the self is a current trend of photography. Because we are very compelled to believe that photography need definition, we attempt to define it in relationship to what we in theory at least, understand the most which is our own self. Of course, to define things is a bit of an obsession for us. Colberg writes, “photographs are intimately tied to authorship: photographs are essentially re-confirming their maker’s (author’s) presence.” I have no qualms with this statement. That the photograph is inherently defined by the perspective of the photographer by way of many decisions made throughout the photographic process from subject matter and aesthetic to editing and printing (or not printing) have generally been accepted in all facets of the medium, including the at-one-time-thought-to-be-objective realm of photojournalism. But I also believe that more central to the question, “what is photography” is that the medium is communal and it requires not just an author and the ability of the author to self-reflect but also a reader. Perhaps a better question would be, how does the reader or how does the non-photographer define photography and really, does that even matter?
But the debate of what is photography should continue. And perhaps I question our own awareness of what influences our attempts at a definition. Take for instance Colberg’s idea that authorship is central. I agree. But is the idea that photography is defined by authorship not a reflection of our own desires to be authors of ourselves? Given that we are presented now with vast amounts of information, we are only more aware that perhaps what we considered to be true of what we know is narrower than what we thought. It is understandable then that we are a bit panicked to know thine self. We understand less our own governments, societies, motivations, and even our own body and minds. Try searching the internet for what causes your cough and likely, you won’t find a solid answer despite the notion that the answer is out there. And so how can we even know the self given that we are presented more and more information that suggests perhaps we don’t even have a starting point. Instead, should we not realize that by knowing more that we actually know less? Or are at least aware that some questions are too dependent upon experience for answers? And is photography not very much the same? Is it self-indulgent to then even ask, what is photography? But again, it is a youthful medium so maybe the answer is yes but that’s okay.
Poet and essayist Wendell Berry said, “it should be fairly clear that a culture has taken a downward step when it forsakes the always difficult artistry that renews what is neither new or old and replaces it with an artistry that merely exploits what is fashionably or adventitiously ‘new,’ or merely displays the ‘originality’ of the artist.” It only makes sense that if we are attempting to answer the question, “what is photography?” that it be answered in the context of two very prevalent forces in our contemporary understanding of the world, one being the self and the other being digital information. But as the Ouroboros eats itself curious as to how it tastes, doesn’t it eventually consume itself? If so, wouldn’t it be better to not know? And in this attempt to understand the medium of photography, to understand ourselves better, I hope we are not letting go of the mystery of both life and photography and giving in to vanity. Isn’t photography not fully defined more beautiful anyway?