Beyond Photography's Identity Crisis

IMA, Vol. 4, Summer 2013

In recent years, photography has found itself in the grips of a mid-life crisis, or given that the medium is still very young compared to other art forms, maybe it is more apt to talk of a crisis of adolescence. Fred Ritchin alluded to photography’s uncertain future with his 2008 book After Photography while, in 2010, SFMOMA in San Francisco organized a symposium on the question, “Is Photography Over?”. In 2011, the most-talked about exhibition at the Rencontres d’Arles photography festival was From Here On, a kind of photographic manifesto for the future, while over the last few years Foam in Amsterdam have been asking “What’s Next” for photography with a series of publications, events and exhibitions and an interactive website.

The question of what is becoming of photography’s identity poses itself in many different forms. Does the rise of digital photography mean that analogue photography is doomed? What is the role of a photography museum in a world where millions of digital images are uploaded to the Internet every single day? Are photographic prints still relevant when we process the vast majority of visual culture through digital screens? Do people still believe that photographs are ‘true’ or ‘real’?

This state of affairs isn’t particularly new: in a sense photography has been suffering from an identity crisis since it was invented. In its earliest days it fought for recognition as an art form alongside the traditional arts of painting and sculpture, often trying to emulate its older cousins. When it did finally find some sense of identity of its own, this was largely through photography’s privileged link to reality. Since World War II, the medium has primarily been characterized by its ability to produce some form of ‘objective’ document of reality that reveals a ‘truth’ about the subject it depicts. However the recent evolution of digital technology has caused fundamental changes in the way that we make, distribute and consume photographs, changes which have shaken this idea of photography as objective documentation to the core.

Daisuke Yokota,  Cloud , 2013

Daisuke Yokota, Cloud, 2013

This all makes the landscape of contemporary photography a very complex one. The roles of the traditional actors of fine art photography—the museum, the gallery, the book publisher, the magazine, the darkroom, and of course the photographer—are all changing. In one sense with the spread of cell phone cameras and online photo-based networks like Facebook, Tumblr and Instagram, it seems that everything is being photographed all the time. To quote the title of a 2007 exhibition at the Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne, we are all photographers now.

What does that mean for the fine art photographer? On one hand, their work can be perceived as a drop in today’s ocean of images. On the other, barriers are coming down. Museums like the Musée de l’Elysée are devoting their attention on types of photography (vernacular, commercial, fashion) that would never have been allowed through a museum door in the past. New channels are opening up offering new possibilities for making and distributing photographs. How does a young photographer like those featured in this issue navigate this changing landscape?

Looking through the images presented in these pages it is clear there is no single style or approach that emerges that is common to these artists. While for many years the influence of the New Topographics in the United States, Provoke in Japan and the Dusseldorf school in Europe cast a long shadow, photography today has become more fragmented, less characterized by groups and movements. The photographic approaches of these artists are personal, characteristic of the individual rather than of a country or a region. What unites them is their desire to develop a distinct visual language. An image by artists like Lieko Shiga, Viviane Sassen, Daisuke Yokota or Ina Jang is instantly recognizable as one of their own.

Of this group, Estonian photographer Alexander Gronsky is perhaps the most influenced by photography’s documentary tradition. On the surface, his work is a ‘classic’ documentation of the contemporary Russian landscape. However, these images are not capsules of truth. Instead, Gronsky seems to use these landscapes like backdrops or film sets, looking for the most surreal and visually arresting moments possible. His images are not resolved, but seem to be caught in moments of tension. His work is also an exploration of the nature of photography, a commentary on the power of the frame and its ability to change the meaning of a photograph.

Taiyo Onorato and Nico Krebs,  The Great Unreal , 2005–9

Taiyo Onorato and Nico Krebs, The Great Unreal, 2005–9

For Taiyo Onorato and Nico Krebs photographic history and tradition often informs their approach. This duo of Swiss photography obsessives examine and deconstruct the tropes of photography in a way that is both respectful of tradition while also poking fun at its stereotypes. In The Great Unreal they take on one of the great photographic clichés, the American road trip. The project plays with the iconography of this photographic rite of passage, confounding expectations and creating something entirely new in the process. There can be a sense in contemporary photography that everything has been done before. Instead of trying desperately to break new ground, photographers like Onorato and Krebs have instead chosen to revisit the past, borrowing, deconstructing and reassembling it to create something new.

The aesthetic of Japanese photographer Daisuke Yokota is also arguably influenced by the past and the are bure boke (grainy, blurry, out of focus) of the Provoke years. While they share Provoke’s rough aesthetic, Yokota’s photographs also have a sense of otherworldliness to them, images taken in another time and space than the here and now. Like many of his peers Yokota does not seem to be wedded to the idea of ‘pure’ or straight’ photography, or feel the need to choose between digital and analogue photography. Instead he is willing to use all the tools at this disposal to create his own visual vocabulary. He has developed a unique process of rephotography to create his images whereby the final image consists of multiple layers. In some cases this layering is analogue whereby Yokota will print a photograph, rephotograph it with another camera, print it again, and so on, each time creating a new layer which results in the progressive deterioration and manipulation of the image. In other cases this layering is done in Photoshop.

This unusual method also illustrates another trend with this group of photographers: their willingness to borrow from other artistic disciplines. Yokota describes how he devised his layered approach by trying to apply the ideas of delay and reverb from music to the production of a photographic image. Similarly for the American artist Sam Falls photography is but one of several artistic tools that he uses in his work, combining photographs with painting and sculpture. Korean photographer Ina Jang’s photographs often start out with a sketch that she makes in her black Moleskine sketchbook.

Sometimes these influences do not come from other disciplines, but rather from other areas of photography. Like Jang, Dutch photographer Viviane Sassen’s personal work is clearly informed by fashion and her practice as a fashion photographer. By borrowing from the languages of fashion and design, Sassen has been able to assemble a uniquely colourful and joyous vision of Africa—the main focus of her personal work—which could not be further away from most photographic representations of the continent.

Lieko Shiga,  Rasen Kaigan  #45, 2012

Lieko Shiga, Rasen Kaigan #45, 2012

Of the artists included in this issue, Lieko Shiga arguably has the most distinctive visual style. Like Yokota she has developed a unique process, which does not involve digital manipulation, for the creation of her photographs. The resulting images are akin to vivid hallucinations, magical realism brought to life through photographs. While she is first and foremost an artist, Shiga has also taken photographs in a very different context as the official photographer of her adoptive village. At a recent talk in Paris she explained how this process informed her understanding of photography and the many different meaning it can have for different people, and how this subsequently informed her artistic practice in her latest work, Rasen Kaigan.

This may be the strongest common trait of this new generation of emerging photographers: they are not driven by the idea of a single definition of photography but rather revel in the multiplicity of its meanings and approaches. They are not artists of the digital age, as books and prints remain essential components of their artistic practice, but move comfortably between analogue and digital forms. They borrow from other disciplines and from different types of photography in order to develop their own approach and in so doing they have accepted and moved beyond photography’s perpetual crisis of identity.

By Marc Feustel