A photographic Call to Arms

I first became interested in photography about fifteen years ago. I had studied anthropology at university and so was initially attracted to the photojournalist/documentary end of the photography spectrum. I had seen a copy of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Europeans and not only marveled at the beauty of the photographs, but saw a very clear anthropological quality. It was one of those moments, a light bulb appeared above my head, or perhaps it was a flashgun. But I saw then the way I wanted to go. I wanted to change the world, armed only with my camera and my anthropological know how.

Over those fifteen years my goals became a little more realistic, you could say limited. But what did grow was my understanding and appreciation of a wider range of photography. My tastes have shifted, I still appreciate what is seen by some as the traditional photojournalist mode of Magnum Photos, but I have come to like the more oblique social commentary practices of Paul Graham; the poetic subtlety of Alec Soth; the unhinged reality of the Provoke era Japanese photographers, the ‘topographical’ architectural surveys of Donovan Wylie, along with many more.

But as my knowledge of photography has deepened I have grown ever more frustrated at some elements of the medium. It’s not about a particular way of working, although, as with everybody I have my preferences. It’s about the peripherals, for want of a better term, the labels, tags, boxes and restrictions that photographers and photography are forced to adopt and be squeezed into that bother me so much. And, what’s worse is that by and large these restrictions aren’t placed on us by us. We have come to accept them, and define ourselves by them as creative beings because we have been all too eager to fit into the pre-existing order of things.

Despite initially being written-off by the art world as inferior and lacking in genuine creativity, mainly due to its mechanical nature, (the fact that ‘anyone’ can push a button enough times that they will eventually get lucky) which apparently reduces the creative process to almost nil, photography has slowly gained a small measure of acceptance in the art world, albeit I believe, a grudging one.

Anyone who saw the National Gallery’s first photography exhibition could only walk away with that impression. Just look at the title: Seduced by Art. Implying of course that photography is anything but art – that it is something other, something lusting for the status of art – a medium that can only ape the work of the Masters. The exhibition itself was something of an embarrassment to anyone familiar with photography. From the childish text about how cameras work, to the constant references to photography’s relationship, or debt to painting. And then there are those who like to call themselves ‘Artists that use photography’. These ‘real artists’ feel the need to explain their photographic endeavors with this tag presumably because they are unable to lower themselves to the level of a mere photographer. The artist who uses photography has to explain to their audience that they are doing something really creative, that there is a self initiated, visible and historically accepted process at work; that they aren’t one of the fluky chancers who get lucky every few thousand clicks of the shutter. But why can’t they see that the camera is just another tool? That this device allows truly wonderful things to happen? After all, a painter isn’t an artist using a paintbrush. A sculptor isn’t an artist using a chisel. So why do so many ‘Artists’ feel the need to explain away the photography in their art. As Paul Graham so adroitly states:

‘…photography for and of itself -photographs taken from the world as it is– are misunderstood as a collection of random observations and lucky moments, or muddled up with photojournalism, or tarred with a semi-derogatory ‘documentary’ tag.’ (Graham, Paul: The Unreasonable Apple, 2010).

Now, this isn’t a rant against the art world, or artists who wish to make photographs. Far from it! As I said, photography’s stock in the art world is probably at an all time high. Tate Modern has a full time photography curator, exhibitions attract record crowds and images sell for more money than they ever have. Great! But I still feel that a bit of that prejudice still exists. Photography that illustrates a concept is fine, but photography in and of itself in the eyes of the art world is the junior partner, the Liberal Democrats to the Conservatives, allowed a seat at the top table, but only thrown a few scraps and then patted on the head and told to let the big boys get on with it. It’s an issue of identity – for too long we have let others determine who we are.

The problem I think is two fold: in the past we have allowed ourselves to be held up to the ‘traditional visual arts’ as a measuring stick, when in fact this rule of measure is not really the most suitable stick for photography to be measured against. It’s an obvious choice – but one I think ultimately restricts our individual creative possibilities. Of course this is partly down to the fact that photography was created when, in visual terms, painting was king, a king that wasn’t about to be usurped by a mechanical frivolity, a passing fad. Thankful photography has stuck around, but by following the existing models of the art world, where artists are lumped into schools, movements and worst of all forced to have a style etc., we have shirked the opportunity to be free to create as we wish to and control the destiny of photography. Of course the art world includes a far greater array of creative mediums, so some grouping together is inevitable. But all photographers use cameras, all are subject to the unique opportunities this affords as well as the limitations, and by dint of this, we are a group unto ourselves.

How many photographers agonize over their ‘style’ – wondering if it is ‘fresh’ or has ‘been seen before’, or if they in fact have one at all? We have allowed others to pigeonhole us according to their own inappropriate criteria. And once that label sticks it’s mighty hard to lose it, fore in the case of photography it seems to be almost impossible to alter how you work without raising howls of derision. The same type of thing happens in the commercial world too. While at times it is seen as the antithesis of the rarified art world, the commercial world has its own equally damaging set of descriptive terms: advertising photographer; editorial photographer, product photographer, what really is the point – other than to allow editors to organize their address books. Hmmm we’re doing a feature on Britain – get Martin Parr on the phone!

Of course if a photographer is happy to work in the same way over the course of their careers then I’m happy for them. Really I am. But I think there should be room for those of us that don’t. Why can’t a photographer change the way they photograph to suit their chosen subject matter. What is wrong with that? Surely it allows us to maximize the impact of our work – to really articulate our points of view, because after all, photography is a subjective medium and that subjectivity is malleable, it is complex like all things human. So why choose to stifle it?

I can fully understand the search for legitimacy as a creative medium that was felt by the earliest practitioners. But we now have history on our side – photography has stood the test of time. We need to assert our independence and establish our own rules and labels, or as I would prefer our own lack of them, after all chaos is good for creation! We must celebrate all that is unique about this medium, regardless of what we choose to photograph and unite as photographers. Not as artists, or artists-that-use-photography, but as creative people, as: photographers!

First published in Tonelit 1st Anniversary Edition

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