Photowisdom: The enduring power of the photograph

Photography can still triumph in a visually-saturated world, argues Lewis Blackwell in a new book

These are the best and worst of days for photo­graphy. It is the best time if you simply want to see, take or view a photo. There has never been a wider range of choices at all levels.

For very similar reasons, these might be bad times if you have a photo­graphic career or business plan built around how things looked all of about 18 months ago. The supply of pictures has increased while demand has stagnated or shrunk, with budgets squeezed eye-wateringly tight or even disappeared altogether. It is not just recession but major industrial change that is affecting the practice and use of photography today.

Photographers must know precisely, and sometimes rethink, what path they are going down today. Digital or film; painting with light or moving pixels on a computer; personal art or ‘evidence’ or both; one-off, sequential or moving (a film is just a long sequence of photographs, after all); with or without a lens; even original or appropriated – you don’t need to take the picture to re-context­ualise it and frame it as a piece of your own work.

I have been trying to find the links and direction in all this creativity over the past year through a series of 50 inter­views with leading practi­tioners. The resulting texts and images are contained in my new book Photowisdom (Chronicle; £35). Where I started out and where I ended up are two very different places. My very idea of what a photograph is and can be radically changed. This is perhaps not surprising if you consider the visual and cultural differences covered by, say, the work of Elliott Erwitt, Ed Burtynsky, David LaChapelle, Albert Watson, Adam Fuss, Massimo Vitali, or Tim Flach, to pick just a sample.

My personal journey was a glimpse into the complex quests of key practi­tioners. At one level, their work challenges us to rethink why we might use or take a photograph – I found myself wondering at the point of all their activity, albeit in a curious rather than despairing way. The more I looked, the more surprised I became at the ways in which an image can still uplift and stimulate thought, even (or partic­ularly) when containing distressing associations.

Our preconception of the photo­graph, the expectations and limits we put around it, is an issue that most of my interviewees seemed to be wrestling with. The photograph is so much more and less than what we often expect of it. It is not a reliable document but it can capture a moment unlike any other medium.

It is remarkable how a photo can elicit pure wonder. Consider the works of Andrew Zuckerman and Guido Mocafico. The former has become well-known for his super-real images of animals and people. The latter is known for his super-real still-lives, with subjects encompassing snakes, spiders, flowers, guns and watches.  Their work is both very much of today, with the former pushing the bound­aries of digital capture and the latter extracting the remaining potential from 10×8 film.

Their images show things we cannot quite see – but in their detail and reference points we are ready to believe that they extend our powers of vision. They are a new form of a very traditional activity of bringing surprise and delight to the eye and inspiration to the mind by simply showing things so much more intensely. It is the visual equivalent of the molecular gastronomy of Ferran Adrià or Heston Blumenthal.

You don’t need to read the caption to get a lot from such work. But there is photography that is absolutely tied with its caption for understanding. To look at the image of a single fig-leaf on white created by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin is to read a question only answered by the caption. The words are vital, each clause another nuance: “ficus religiosa, Tel Aviv, Israel. When the sixteen-year-old Palestinian Aamer Alfar blew himself up in a Tel Aviv market on 1 November 2004, this leaf was propelled to the ground by the force of the explosion. Trees stripped of their leaves are a common sight around the vicinity of such attacks.”

In contrast, for Stephen Shore captions are almost a necessary evil, a distraction from his concerns. He makes them as bland as possible, a diary note of when and where the image was taken and no more, leaving you to focus on the image. And the image leaves you wordless. His dead­pan, large-format images of Americana have spawned many imitators but they can’t be him: where he stood and how he wanted to see the scene is an analysis of a time and a place that cannot be other than it is, connecting us with a unique representation of cultural forces at work. This point of meditation, beyond words, the world frozen, is a key part of photography.

A very different kind of document is delivered by portraiture, which became apparent in my conversations with the likes of Mary Ellen Mark, Nadav Kander, Peggy Sirota, Mark Seliger and Albert Watson. In particular, the challenges they face when working with famous people reveals much about the truth and lies we propagate in our society, and the role of the photographer in trying to work around this. A key element, not surprisingly, is to play and probe human psychology in this kind of work – Steve Pyke gets in close, requiring an invitation into personal space; Platon gets down low, physically playing a subordinate role and making the subject feel secure and relaxed. This is photography as a performance art.

Increasingly, we will see more work that overtly deconstructs and teases around the relationships between viewer, photographer and subject. If only because we are all photographers now. And out of the potential billions armed with cameras in this coming decade we will see new kinds of photographic leaders – collaborative, networked, and also highly reactionary to the technology and other structures. In some ways, Photowisdom captures a culmination of the old art as it moves to a very different space. But one thing won’t change, which is the simple need to connect around points of profound human interest that are triggered by the image.

“I prefer to be amusing rather than to be tragic,” Elliott Erwitt told me. It is a preference I would appreciate more people making but it doesn’t matter if you go the other way as long as the result captures something relevant and inherently non-verbal. This involves seeking out “the essence of visual things” as Victor Schrager puts it. Or, for Mitch Epstein: “Clarity is what draws viewers in and compels them to bring their own set of associations….”. Showing the key culture points in emotionally immediate ways – from celebrities to climate change – is why photography still works and, like spoken and written language, will continue to expand its remit in ways that redefine the medium.

Photowisdom, by former CR editor Lewis Blackwell, is published by Chronicle; £35. All images featured copyright the artists.

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