being provoked by an essay on ‘what is 21st century photography’

I commented in passing in my previous post on the freedom that a blogpost offers: to write more loosely and widely than you can in an academic paper.  And along comes an outstanding blog post – well, a blog essay really – that demonstrates that in spades.  The post is Daniel Rubenstein‘s ‘What is 21st Century Photography‘ and it’s on The Photographers’ Gallery website.  It’s racy, provocative, covers several centuries, is stuffed full of quotable aphorisms, and has a clear argument to make.

I think that argument is very interesting.  Its key claim is that:

in a post-Fordist society the locus of political agency and of cultural relevance has shifted from the object – as visually arresting as it might be – to the processes that (re)produce and distribute the object. Processes, however, by their own nature, are less visible and less representational than objects. For that reason, it seems to me that if photography mainly concerns itself with representations of objects in space, it is losing its relevance in a world in which speed, acceleration, distribution and self-replication acquire a significance that overshadows the visual appearance of spaces.

Which leads to probably my favourite line in the whole essay.  If a photograph is now something that is just occasionally assembled from a wave of data that continually shapes all kinds of visual forms – then, says Daniel: “it has little in common with prints in black frames – these coffins of photography”. ‘Coffins’.  Fab.

The post has lots of insights and pleasures then, though I wasn’t sure about the ‘invisible puppet masters’ who are our ‘real rulers’, and I did feel that its recuperation of photography in its very final line – “photography is not a stale sight for sore eyes, but the inquiry into what makes something an image. As such, photography is the most essential task of art in the current time” – was bit of a failure of nerve.  Maybe photography is just past it?

All this interesting provocation is in sharp distinction to what I was going to discuss on this post, which is Nicholas Mirzoeff’s new book on visual culture, modestly called How To See The World.  I was sent this by the publisher so I perhaps shouldn’t look a freebie too directly in the mouth… but.  The book is bit of a mess, I think.  It attempts the sweeping overview but there’s no clear analytical framework, let alone theory, to guide it, and there are also some quite irritating – well, to be frank, just plain wrong – generalisations.  One of which is that images now are all about time. (We know this because an artist made an artwork with lots of clocks in it, apparently.)  As for example Hito Steyerl, and many others, myself included, argue, it is absolutely necessary now to have a sense of the spatiality of (what is better understood as) visual data, as well as its temporality: its form as a swarm, population or wave; its immersivity; its materialisations; and its geometry as a network.  I think one of the difficulties in Mirzoeff’s book is actually that he remains fixed on images as the problematic rather than these sorts of spatialities that articulate their production and circulation and use, so that he flits from place to place, example to example, without thinking about they might (or might not) join up in some way.

But that’s my query to Daniel too: what are the geographies to his account?  Where does the data move, pause and decay?  How is it circulating, and with what effects in different places?  And how are places themselves being reconfigured in this process?

3 thoughts on “being provoked by an essay on ‘what is 21st century photography’

  1. Great post! I am eager to read the essay by Daniel Rubestein myself. With regard to Mirzoeff’s new book, I must say I am not very surprised as the field of visual culture tends to be defined much more in terms of academia politics than through a coherent and encompassing theoretical framework (oh, dear, speaking of generalizations … ).
    However, Mike Bal’s work stands out and has provided my research with a good theoretical backbone on visual culture. As for the questions you pose at the end, I am very keen to see others responding to them. I do my best with my work, trying to map out circulation of images in transnational families and exploring how these routine exchanges impact on the constitution of place(s). I am a strong advocate of Miko Villi’s line of work and I think he makes a good point about photography in the 21st century being able to equip non-spaces with relevance and value. So that photography might not be so much about “representations of objects in space” as about building places of affection through the image-based exchanges. The objects thereby represented are also shared and thus connected in spite of distances apart. Rubenstein points out that the visual appearance of spaces is overshadowed by these intense circulation of images and I partially agree. However, there are fundamental changes in visual appearances/aesthetics such as the ones brought about my arm-length photography.
    Apologies for the long comment, but this post really inspired me!

  2. Great comment, no apologies needed. I don’t know Miko Villi’s work I’m afraid – can you share a reference or two? And you know Helen Grace’s book I guess, on image sharing among migrant workers in Hong Kong? It’s called ‘Culture, Aesthetics and Affect in Ubiquitous Media: The Prosaic Image’. Thanks!

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