No Matter The Media: On the State of Photography Today

Cory Smith is a video artist and photographer primarily working with a view camera. We asked him to write a piece with his thoughts on the current trajectory of photography. Not only has he been a longtime darkroom monitor at Project Basho he is also the Editor of many of the ONWARD videos.

On the surface, one would expect open-ended photography competitions like ONWARD to offer little in the way of thematic cohesion: the emphasis is first and foremost to treat each contestant individually. It is up to viewers to sort through a hodgepodge of imagery and draw up distinctions between this artist and that, picking out the photos that stand on their own and those that fall short, all in spite of the often overbearing influence of neighboring images.

In theory this is how I usually approach varied group photo shows, and although there is merit here, it is easy to overlook the importance in taking a step back and coming to terms with the show as a whole. Perhaps the most diverse selection yet, last year’s ONWARD competition, judged by Larry Fink, offered an ideal opportunity to take this step back and get a closer look at the state of photography today. And based on what I’ve seen of Todd Hido’s selections for the 2012 show, it will offer much to the same effect.

While the subject matter of the 2011 show ranged from posed imagery to more documentary-style work, and everywhere in between, the multitude of techniques utilized is what struck me most. Although I have always maintained that technicalities are by and large trivial – a means to an end at most – the broadening of ways to produce photographs is a dimension of the medium that is becoming harder to dismiss. This is not to say that a hierarchy championing some forms and ousting others should be introduced; only to acknowledge that photography has become so overwhelmingly varied that its place within the world as a whole often feels too diffuse to grasp.

Of course, the making of photos only comprises the front end of this overall trend. Image distribution is also becoming both varied and easy. Photo sharing websites like Flickr and publishing services such as Blurb have provided countless amateur photographers with an affordable (often free) way to share their work. The question then that begs to be asked: Is good work still being made? Sure, but not necessarily more than it was thirty years go. In fact, if one thing is for certain, it’s that “user-friendly” equals an onslaught of bad work.

But while the boon in digital technology has greatly impacted the popularity of photography, this should not be misconstrued, as it often is, as a sort of “digital-takeover.” Although smaller in numbers than their DSLR and camera phone-wielding counterparts, proponents of analogue photography and alternative processes are as present as ever. If not in a state of revival, these techniques have certainly maintained a longevity among smaller but dedicated crowds.

From the ONWARD ’11 Exhibition, Keliy Anderson-Staley, “Kaeley” – Wet Plate Collodion Tintype

In looking at photography today from both its conception to its consumption, it is hard to look past its parallel to the state of music. I for one listen to music on vinyl, CDs, streaming programs, iPods, smart phones, and even cassette tapes; and preceding my contact with it, the music itself has likely gone through a slew of different production workflows. The songs remain virtually the same across each device, but with so many options it is overwhelming to sort out the place each mode holds in my life. Much like photography, music has found its way into our lives in so many ways that it often feels cheapened. The ease with which it can be accessed feels a little too easy. The question that lingers is whether or not special interactions are now harder to have with photographs. And if so, then in what way should you approach these art forms after their cultural bombardment?

In the end, it’s hard to come up with a definitive answer, or if there is even one to be had. While it often feels as though something ineffable is slowly being drained from our visual experiences – I wonder whether I would cherish the few photo books I own more if not for the ease with which their imagery can be viewed online – the idea of a limitless, democratic art form is remarkable in its own right. Art is about ideas after all. Should it even matter whether an image was tinkered with in a darkroom or printed from a low quality point and shoot camera? It’s a little bit too easy to fight against the state of culture today. Maybe the real value lies in embracing this big mess and forging a new vision of art, wherein lies an appeal and artistic usage in any and all forms. Maybe the idea of what’s good or bad – the idea of having “taste” essentially – should be thrown out the window too and instead replaced with an openness to all personal expressions, highbrow or low.