Writing on Photography: Q & A with Jörg Colberg
Jörg Colberg is a photographer, professor of photography, and writer. His popular online magazine Conscientious features photobook reviews, profiles of individual photographers, and essays on photography. He is one of the review instructors for ONWARD Global Courses, where Japanese photographers learn how to develop a strong body of work over one year.
Earlier this year, in a widely read and aptly titled article, Colberg offered his advice on how to write about your photographs. We wanted to know more, so we asked the author to elaborate on his previously published suggestions. This is what he told us.
Giveaway time! Hey, we are giving away 5 books from Jörg’s recommended readings, which will help you to write about your own photography. All you have to do is to follow the link at the bottom of the article and sign up for it.
Photographers often ask you how they can get better at writing about their own work. What kinds of writing do we need to be able to do? Artist statements of course, but what else? Who are the audiences photographers must be able to write for?
There are a lot of misguided ideas about writing in the world of photography, probably in part because so many practitioners are so myopic, looking at only photography (at best—I have met photographers who don’t even spend time looking at the history of their own medium—how can this be?). The reality is that photographers are expected to write about their work in the form of a project or artist statement (these two are not identical). What is usually forgotten, however, is to successfully finish a project the photographer needs to achieve utmost clarity about the work. Without that clarity, s/he will be unable to, for example, produce a coherent edit.
That clarity can (I’d actually argue: should) be achieved by writing about the work, in whatever form. The more writing there is, the more material exists that can be used to ground the work, to measure whether what exists is enough, or whether there are photographs that are missing. So photographers really want to write because it helps them make work. And the writing can then be used for all kinds of things later, such as a statement or as a basis for a presentation (many photographers are also awful at talking about their work in artist talks).
Thinking about the writing backwards—as in your “audience” question—attacks the problem from the wrong end. A project statement shouldn’t be a problem to write at all, assuming the photographers has achieved the clarity needed to finish the project, filling in all the holes. If there is clarity about the work, that clarity naturally translates into a statement (or into a good talk). So this is not so much about the audience itself as about the clarity, about having engaged with one’s work on a multitude of levels. Once clarity has been achieved, worries about presenting to specific audiences will fall away, given that all the basic material needed is available.
You advise photographers to begin writing as they develop a body of photographic work, rather than waiting until a project is done. Why?
As I said above, it’s about clarity in one’s mind about what one is actually dealing with in one’s work.
What do you mean when you say, “if what you’re writing about is not in the pictures, you’re in trouble”? Can you give an example (real or imagined) of a failure to write about what is in the picture?
This is a common, maybe the most common mistake photographers make. On the one hand, photographers are maybe the most literal (and conservative) of all artists, usually thinking that, for example, that which is depicted in a photograph is its subject. On the other hand, many photographers cannot disassociate what they know about a photograph from what is actually in it.One’s intentions, to pick the most obvious example, are usually not communicated by a photograph. But photographers often assume that everybody else knows what they know, in particular their intentions. Given those are not in the pictures, there’s a big problem right away.
Writing is a particularly good tool to deal with this particular problem. When writing about one’s work, one can focus exclusively on what is in the pictures. It’s a process, in which one can investigate what one knows (or maybe assumes) and what is there. This is the real struggle of photography. Assuming one possesses a strong sense of honesty with oneself (and one’s work), writing might be the best tool to disentangle intentions and assumptions (which aren’t communicated in pictures) from what is actually in the photographs.
On an even simpler, and more obvious, level, any kind of knowledge about something in the picture that is not in the picture is likely to cause trouble. If I show you a photograph of my mother, you’re going to see an older woman. Unless I told you you’re looking at my mother, I’d be foolish to assume you’d know that. Seen that way, photography actually is a very limited and problematic medium, which is, I’d argue, the only reason why it can be art: it looks like it is telling you a lot, but in reality, it isn’t.
You advise photographers to write “around” their pictures rather than describing or explaining them. Would you share a favorite short piece of writing around a photo?
I think everybody will have to work this out on their own. There is no recipe to do this. But I think the above should give people some idea how this might work.
What is some common jargon that we should avoid in our writing?
Any jargon should be avoided, whatever it is. Jargon is just tedious, and it makes for very bad writing that nobody really wants to read (academics and the Artforum crowd possibly excluded). Write in a simple, clear, obvious way.
It’s not hard to imagine making people care about pictures that relate directly to social issues or human suffering. But how can photographers make people care about other kinds of work, such as abstract images or landscapes?
For a start, to make people care you have to care yourself. If you, as a photographer, want to have something at stake for the audience, there has to be something at stake for you.
In the case of a social issue, we all can make work that addresses the things we pretend we care about, and we then go through the motions (only to leave things unchanged). The stakes in abstract work are different, since here, we’re “only” dealing with aspects of beauty. But ultimately, it’s the same struggle.
I believe that an audience will only truly engage with work, whatever it is, if it is made from a position of urgency, out of a deep passion. Unfortunately, photography itself has become a choice of lifestyle for many people. I often have the impression that the only thing some photographers truly care about are their careers. And that shows in the work. So I gotta ask then: if that’s all you care about, your precious career, why should I care about your work?
Assuming you care about your work, the rest will simply have to follow from there. If you have the work, and you care deeply about it, is it really that important that it gets a gallery show? Or is in some museum? Or that 100,000 people “like” it on Facebook? Maybe it is, but I’d like to think that the real reward of working on a project for a while is to have something that is deeply satisfying on a personal level, of having that body of work that expresses the desire to scratch that itch that won’t go away. I think that’s the position from which to start worrying about the work, and about how it is perceived.
But just like in the case of your “audience” question, people usually get it backwards these days. People will show me work and ask me how they can make a book or get a show, and then they’re almost annoyed when I tell them that they don’t have a book, yet, or that the work isn’t strong enough, yet, to get a show. But while the art world has become completely commercialized, and thanks to all that “social media” nonsense we’re now treating photography as if we we’re all running out own little corporations (where marketing is more important than the quality of the work), the reality is that in the end, photography suffers greatly if it is being treated that way.
And then one must always remember that there is no guarantee that people will care. It’s a bit of a risk really. You spend years on doing something only to find out that people don’t care.
However, I do believe that if you truly care yourself, you can make at least some people care. But the most important thing should not be the success in the end, the number of people who care, but rather having made the work in the first place. If you can find ten people who care deeply about your work, isn’t that much better than getting 100,000 superficial, meaningless “likes” on Facebook?
I believe one must be a good reader in order to be a good writer. Do you agree? What should photographers read? Can you give us some recommendations?
I don’t think I could say what a good reader is. But to write, one certainly needs to read. Reading is important for all kinds of reasons. And even if you’re a voracious reader, you might still end up being a crap writer (which is really only a problem if you want to “make it” as a writer). The key to reading is not to read those ten books that everybody thinks you should read. It is, instead, to find the material that you truly enjoy reading, whatever it is—assuming it challenges you.
But I couldn’t say “read this or that” for any reason other than that it’s what I enjoy reading. Maybe you’re really a person who’d enjoy short stories (which bore me to death), whereas I prefer long novels. So photographers should just try things and see what they like. Writing offers a large variety of engagement, and I don’t think one is better than the other.
I’ve listed some books that might help photographers understand their medium better under my recommended readings. Apart from those, I’d recommend:
- Vasily Grossman’s “Life and Fate“
- William Vollman’s “Europe Central“
- Philip K. Dick’s “The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch“
- Philip Roth’s “American Pastoral“
- Thomas Bernhard’s “Woodcutters”
- W.G. Sebald’s “Austerlitz“
- Stanislaw Lem’s “Solaris”
Jörg Colberg’s Recommendation Roundup
In summary, Colberg offers this writing advice to photographers:
Here comes a book giveaway!
We are giving away 5 books from Jörg’s recommended readings, which will help you to write about your own photography. All you have to do is to follow the link at the bottom of the article and sign up for it. Also, if you share the giveaway, your chance of winning goes up too!
What are you going to do with those newly honed writing skills? You might consider putting them to work on a grant proposal so you can get the cash you need to fund your next project. To learn about grants for photographers, check out Elements of Grant Seeking here on the ONWARD blog.