A Disturbing Trend

As someone of the same generation as Neal Rantoul it perhaps isn’t surprising that I share much of his thoughts about the increasing way in which “Photographic series or bodies of work are being explicated, explained, contextualized, rationalized, and elevated with text or verbal rationals” which he puts forward in A Disturbing Trend in Photography, published in his blog on his web site and reprinted where I read it on PetaPixel.

Like him I’ve often been to shows where the verbiage is far more impressive than the photography. His is a piece that deserves to be read in full, suggesting reasons for the trend, but perhaps at its centre is this:

Very often the craft of the medium is subsumed, indicating the artist has little interest in the inherent qualities of the discipline itself, using it simply as a vehicle for visual communication ….This constitutes a “literalization” of the medium or in effect a deconstruction of its inherently visual qualities resulting in an analytical and intellectual final result.

Here in the UK, this was something that we very much saw taking place in the late 70s, as photography established itself – or at least something called photography – in academia. Students I taught came back to visit us, showing huge reading lists, sometimes stuffed with works that really had very little relevance to photography, and bemoaned the fact that none of their lecturers seemed to want to teach them any practical skills or make the kind of comments on their photographs that would help them to express themselves more clearly. Some courses were fortunate to have technicians who were prepared to give the kind of photographic advice they felt they needed, but it seemed to be largely left to chance.

In the US, where Rantoul taught at university level for over 40 years there was of course a much greater tradition of craft-based teaching at the highest academic levels, as well as far more emphasis on the importance of photographic history, which perhaps provided a greater resistance to the trend he notes.

I’m perhaps more at ease with the combination of images with text than Rantoul – I have produced several pieces of work that combined image and text, and as well as the example of Robert Adams that he gives, can think of many other photographers whose work successfully combines both, including Minor White. Many pictures are enhanced by appropriate texts, but if I go to a photographic exhibition, or view the work in print or portfolio by someone who claims to be a photographer I expect a certain competence and facility in the use of the medium which is often and increasingly, as Rantoul states, lacking.

Technology has of course, as Rantoul says, made it much easier to make pictures. Many of those old craft skills are now largely redundant. Not of course that all photographers – even very good photographers – always mastered them in the past; many relied heavily on the darkroom magic of others, and it was always clear that a lifetime devoted to the Zone System never guaranteed a single interesting image. But certainly we now live in an age where passable mediocrity is within a button-push for anyone (though often I find myself looking at a set of pictures and thinking it was quite an achievement of someone to make something so bad.)

But taking good pictures remains as elusive as ever. Rather than encouraging students to strive towards this, often a long and difficult process, it is easier to teach people to write texts that obfuscate or even question the existence of ‘good pictures’  and which serve to hide or gloss over the weary and unfocussed images that accompany them.

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