SFMOMA Discussion – Is Photography Over?

- - The Future

A major symposium on the current state of the field was held at SFMOMA in April 2010. You can view all the videos and transcripts (here).

Watch Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Peter Galassi (former chief curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York), Vince Aletti (New Yorker photography critic), Charlotte Cotton, Jennifer Blessing (Guggenheim Museum photography curator) and other luminaries discuss the topic.

Fascinating discussion best taken in small doses to avoid an ice cream like brain freeze (for example, they don’t agree on what photography is).

via, I heart photography.

There Are 50 Comments On This Article.

  1. Hmm, sorry to say, I’m about 20 mins in, and finding it quite slow and unilluminating so far. Awful lot of folks on the stage, not sure how they’ll ever get around to everyone.

  2. I really enjoyed this, but admit, it’s not for everyone. As a photographer who emerged from an academic and Fine Art background, I definitely wanted to hear what they had to say. Like may artists who made the transition from film (or chemical, as they put it) to digital, I sometimes feel a bit lost and overwhelmed. It has been so long since I’ve been involved in a significant and serious discussion on these subjects. I really miss it that aspect of photography.

  3. Well, let’s cut to the chase. The picture is still the picture. The craft is different. Now, anyone can take a picture and do a fairly decent job of producing a final. And, I mean anyone. My 11 year old son can produce a very competent final picture. So, what we’re dealing with now, is taste in the market place. Rembrandt mixed his own color pigments. Joel Sternfeld and Stephen Shore mastered the art of color printing. Now, my 11 year old can produce a very competent digital file. So, we’re all screwed. Our audience doesn’t have a discerning enough eye to know the difference. Photography was always fairly easy compared to other art forms. Now, a child can produce something that looks like a good picture. Is it a good picture?

    • Maybe. Sure. 11 year olds are the new competition ;).

      I teach photography at a private high school and the kids make some astounding images. It’s film-based, and of course they struggle mightily with the craft aspects. But their way of seeing can be quite creative and fresh. Somewhat surprisingly, no one whines ‘why aren’t we doing digital?’.

    • Without mastering the craft of photography, a bright 11 year old or 25 year old will never have a full vocabulary to express what they have to say that no one else does. F-stops, shutter speeds, technical skills matter more than ever in the age of point and shoot auto everything because that’s how you separate yourself from the mass of lookalike shooters today. It might be subtle, and the majority of the audience may not care or get it, but I’ll keep pushing for that tiny, narrow slice of the world that still cares about a unique vision. Or die trying.

      • Doug, agree in part, but seems you’re sort of mixing vision with mastery of the technical craft. The latter may be one way to stand out (though harder and harder, as you say those differences are becoming subtle). Totally agree that unique vision, authorship, sensibility, whatever people want to call it, is the key to setting oneself apart.

        • HI Bill,
          I am confusing vision with mastery I guess in that I perhaps naively believe if you do pay the price to gain mastery of your craft only then can you truly express the full extent of your vision. If every new shooter relies on the chip in the camera their vision is limited and averaged out by default. Their work joins the average multitudes of “good enough” mediocrity. Our whole culture now is about the lowest common denominator, the simplest, easiest answer, black and white with no gray areas, so this kind of makes sense and probably suits the masses just fine. Onward to oblivion! On a positive note, this is just one plateau on a long continuum of improving technology allowing more people access to what had been limited based on skill and craft. Kodak brownies did the same thing as digital is now. Smart shooters will always find a way to rise up out of the muck.

          • You’re right, mastery and vision go hand in hand of course, you need both ideally. Always a shame when you see someone who has one but not the other! :)

            As far as ‘good enough mediocrity’, yeah, it reminds me of my musician friend who said that for years he and his bandmates would spend countless hours tweaking sounds from amps, putting it in different acoustical settings, etc. Until the day came when you could get a sound that was 90 percent as good with the push of a button or the click of a mouse. He is a semi-purist but wondered whether the average person would know or care about that 10 percent difference in quality. And he even wondered whether he himself should care, given the time and energy saved…

            I always tell my photo students, the world has enough photos (we don’t really need more perfect flowers, butterflies, etc). Unless they are YOUR photos, your authorship, and only you can work out what that means. To me that is and will be the best way to rise above the sea of mediocrity that we will be swimming in for the foreseeable future.

    • Mike Moss

      “Our audience doesn’t have a discerning enough eye to know the difference.”

      You’re exactly right and that’s probably the main reason that many aspiring photographers have little incentive to invest time to mastering craftsmanship and technique. According to Gestalt psychology, viewers of images will actually fill in missing visual details through the use of their own perception. This provides cover for poor photographic craftsman because the loss of detail due to bad technique (motion blurs, un-sharp focus, blown highlights etc) actually increases viewer participation by giving them an opportunity to use their own powers of imagination to fill in the missing details.

      “My 11 year old son can produce a very competent final picture. So, what we’re dealing with now, is taste in the market place.”

      True. …one of the main impacts of 11-year-old photographers on taste in the marketplace might have to do with the relationship between “found-objects” and “staged-events.” Medium specificity requires photography to differentiate itself from other media by it’s relationship with actual objects that exist. For this reason, it has been popular for photographers to capture chance encounters with found objects. Ansel Adams shot landscapes and Bresson snapped street scenes, but both photographed found objects. Nowadays, 11-year-olds with i-phone cameras have limitless opportunities for chance encounters with found objects and this could cause interest in those types of photographs to decline. Staged-photography usually requires far more resources to produce than found-object photography and mainstream audiences can more easily distinguish between levels of production associated with professionals and amateurs. For this reason, taste in the marketplace might favor staged photography over found object photography in the future.

  4. it’s so uninteresting when “wise, educated, experienced people” whine about the “death of something” or “something passing”…when in reality all they are concerned with is whether or not someone will listen to their old, outdated and behind the times thinking on something and quote them as an authority on this or that subject…photography is alive & well, there are so many incredible shooters out there with tons and tons of outlets for their work and so many new interested eyeballs looking, plus, digital has opened up the doors to a new creative spirit that has also made photography affordable for the masses

    • Yeah, not to be snarky, truly, but watching it (granted only the first third or so) I felt like no one had a clue what they were talking about, and/or made fairly limited, tangential, labored, banal points that didn’t get to the heart of much. Like they knew they were supposed to be experts and struggled to come up with something to say. It was a little shocking actually, I was ready for some good food for thought. Maybe the format (so many panelists) was kind of suffocating, dunno, trying to be generous ;).

  5. Ajay Malghan

    All this talking instead of making art. Seems like an MFA class to me.

    • Ajay…I wasn’t planning on commenting since I haven’t watched the video, yet. But I am about to start my MFA this fall…I might just have to break this quote out again at a later date (attributed, of course). :)

  6. For a panel of people in the “art” realm of photography, it was surprising how much they talked mostly about technical aspects, and hardly at all about any creative aspects. It’s as if they subscribe to the notion that “the medium is the message.” I suspect what they’re really lamenting is the fact that people turn less now to museums and exhibits to experience the art of photography. Because it’s certainly not dead.

  7. Photography as an art form has always been incredibly simple; what more is there to talk about?

    Regardless, I’m excited to hear what they all have to say… and a bit worried as well. :-/

    • precisely. why not talk about trends or how they choose the artists they prefer or even how they sequence a show? it’s almost as if they’re afraid to get personal about their work.

  8. Photography is indeed alive and well. Now, in fact, it’s ubiquitous. All of the comments are correct in my opinion. So, how do we separate ourselves? How do we even know who the real artists are? Since anyone, even a child, can capture a beautiful found moment and produce a very competent final image, how does a true artist shine? Who indeed will know the difference? “Staged-photography usually requires far more resources to produce than found-object photography and mainstream audiences can more easily distinguish between levels of production associated with professionals and amateurs. For this reason, taste in the marketplace might favor staged photography over found object photography in the future.” This is critical. Staged photographs require extraordinary technical skill. A child cannot do this. Only skilled artists and skilled professionals. Our industry still needs them. And, we do still have editors curators and art directors……let’s see what the future holds.

    • Another way to separate is lighting. Along with the aforementioned staged photography, good lighting is one thing that separates the adults from the children. The question is, how many of the editors, curators, art directors, and other tastemakers out there can still recognize good lighting? Some of the stuff that passes as good nowadays looks like an art school project, does anybody know the difference anymore?

  9. I find the discussion interesting in that it seems the goal is to stand out, as opposed to making an image. I understand it is coming from an economical point of view, to stand out equates to monetary success. Making a living is the bottom line, but making images that excite the maker is where it emanates from.

  10. nostalgia is the enemy of invention and creativity. for every person waxing about an old past that is lost, there are ten 10 years olds imagining a future in their bedroom none of us can foresee. everything evolves, nothing dies. a ton of us will look to the past and approriate something.

    great talk, though. terrific to hear what people in their position are thinking. though they do get lost sometimes in ontological/semantic academic highfalutin, but so is the nature of discussions, no?

  11. i wonder if a bunch of equivalent “influentials” in music, or architecture, or dance, or theater, or sculpture would have such a mind-numbing dialog about their particular art form. why must we always hint at the validity (or invalidity) of photography when discussing the technical aspects of the same?

    “yeah, but what is music now that we can record it and listen to the same thing over and over without the need for musicians?”

    “i mean, we’ve dedicated our lives to dance even if we can’t agree on exactly what dance is.”

    “eventually they’ll just pump Shakespeare into our brains and theater will be so over never mind broadway.”

    “if a modern sculpture falls on you in a museum it’ll kill you, i’m not sure what you mean by physicality.”

    “we’ve had such a flood of construction workers building things it’s hard to value the traditional hand-made architectural blueprints.”

  12. Hey, as Howard Bernstein always says to me, “photography is too easy.” Try and dance beautifully, try and write a play…..try and make a beautiful modern sculpture in steel….let’s see you make a blueprint for a modern glass and steel building….. but, make a photograph that looks nice……..easy enough….I can do it, and I’m definitely not an artist. My 11 year old can do it. Is he an artist?…..the camera CAN do all the technical work now as far as captured moments are concerned. Of course, an artist tweaks this, but in the end people, let’s face it….as Howard says “photography is too easy…….” I’m sorry……

  13. This was WAY to slow and boring to waste time on. Seemed like a lot of inane BS.

  14. While it might be getting easier for anyone to take a good picture, it is becoming more difficult for one to define themselves through their work. Have we reached a point were a single beautiful image, tells us nothing we don’t already know or haven’t already seen and thus, its beauty diminished? War is horrible. Sunsets are beautiful. Mountains are awesome. The Empire State Building is in NYC. People are funny, sad, black, white, old, young….

    I’ve always thought that the best work, in any field, was done by those, that just did the work. My favourite fine art photographers, are those that have an interesting idea and follow it through to completion to the highest standards, regardless if it takes a week, a month or a decade. I can’t imagine that this process will ever end.

    Committing to completing a body of work with a cohesive narrative, that appeals to a wide audience, is a task very few artist achieve.

    Commercial still photography is a completely different can of worms.

  15. As a photographer who is getting into film making it is interesting to look as this from the other side. Directors who have been making movies for 30 years and came up learning the craft from the ground up complain that the technology means that anyone can call themselves a filmmaker . But I think that is a good thing and that is true for photography as well. I am seeing more and more of my assistants who have never made a print in a darkroom, or exposed a piece of film or used a light meter. They have come up with these new cameras and all they care about is whether or not the image moves you.

  16. Oh……I thought they would never get beyond introducing themselves and all their affiliations and credentials. If these people are what represents photography in academia, yea, it is dead and it died of boredom and brain death.

    Was there anything that they said that has not been said about a zillion times all over the Internet? Retrogrouch arguments about not being able to “interface” with chemicals nowadays with digital. One can find this on the average photo forum.

  17. What I couldn’t get my head round is that these academics were talking about film being a vestigial niche. But as I understand it film, and large format film in particular is still relatively important in the making of these monster colour prints we see on gallery walls. For example three out of the last four finalists of the Taylor Wessing Prize 2010 were shot on film. So are they saying they are part of an insignificant niche? Is Alec Soth or Dan Winters a marginal hobbyist? And how do you make pictures chemicalogically? It seems that academia seems desperate to add obfuscation to cover the banality of their arguments.

  18. Hi Tobias,. Yes, film is indeed a vestigial niche….in my opinion anyway. The only purpose left for it was/is a matter of “quality.” Now “quality” is in the craft. Anything an artist wants to achieve visually can be achieved digitally. Alec and Dan are beautiful artists. They just don’t need film anymore. I have convinced all of my artists/and I mean everyone/to move to digital. Now, none of them would even consider using film. Why? In the end you’re going digital anyway. So ,get your craft in order and remove the film step. It’s over. NO MORE FILM. Sad, but true.

    • Bill I agree that film is a niche – what I was trying to point out is that a lot of fine art currently or recently made falls into this niche, and they don’t seem to spot the irony or inconsistency in their argument.

    • Bill,
      I’ve been lurking at your site from afar for sometime, very much enjoy all of your words on this subject, but…
      Film is but another tool, especially in my tool box of creativity, yes I can achieve the same technically speaking, but my interaction with my subjects with my old speed graphic is much different than my leica, than my D3. I’m not old but grew up on film, I just still love the fact that in a chemistry process I can still be surprised by my outcome, digital, not so much.

  19. Mike G., I appeal to you to not waste your money on an MFA in photography. You’ll come out of school with NO PROSPECTS, I mean NONE. Just a $1000,000.00 debt. The whole masters thing is completely useless. You can contact me at bill charles . I will gladly supply you with all the educational material you need….for free.

  20. Sorry Mike….$100,000.00 in debt. A total waste. Do you really want to sit there and listen to your pears commenting in your work for 2 years? Better to go to the library and do your own art history lesson. Email me and I’ll suggest some books to look at . If you really think you have what it takes, spend your $100,000.00 (a lot of money indeed) on books, equipment and promotion. I’ll be glad to help you. We’ve all watched this video now. The definition of “lost” ” clueless,” ” BS.” None of us know….but art is still art. I think I can discern the difference. Doug certainly can, and I know most of you can too. We’re in avery difficult moment. But, please do not waste your time in a masters program. At best, it’s 2 years of fun. At Yale, you’ll become a cookie cutter cookie. Do you really want to look like everyone else? Push on man. Be an artist! Be yourself.

  21. I’ve given up trying to compete. It’s all been done before style-wise anyway. I just do my work, submit to a few things here and there. If an agency contacts me, fine. If someone wants to buy one of my pieces, that’s cool too. I don’t think any medium is “dead.” It’s just personal preference now. And it’s all in the hands of the reps, agencies and gallerists now anyway. Photographers have little or no control over the market. We throw our work out like “artists” in a tourist square hoping that SOMEONE will like it and buy a piece…then it’s back to the hawking all over again.

  22. Well this explains the heat wave that has gripped much of the country. All the hot air from this seminar had to go somewhere. God this video is boring.

  23. “…it seems that one form of disappearance would be for a kind of lens-based image to become ubiquitous. Thus, the lack of the ability— where we would lose the ability to compare it or contrast it with another kind of image. I mean, that would be a form of disappearance, in the sense that it would become so naturalized and so ever present that there wouldn’t be another form…..”

    Huh….WHAT?!! My God…I have just spent the better part of an hour with this thing playing (whilst I push around a bunch of ‘zeros’ and ‘ones’ in Photoshop) and all I have managed to take away from the experience is to promise myself to NEVER get into a highbrow existential conversation about photography with a group of self-important academics! I’m sorry, but I wouldn’t trust the opinion of a single person on that panel as to what they regard a good or bad photograph to be! They all seem far too interested in showing off how bloody smart they are.

    • Jeff, rock and roll is not over. All three of my young adult children and most of their friends, are hugh, Zeppelin, Hendrix, Stones & Beatle fans. My 20 year old has Buddy Holly on her cell.

      Make you wonder if a generation from now, there won’t be a resurgence of film based image making, horse drawn, buggie riding and 2D cinema.

  24. watched it

    Ok, so I watched it all. Not just the three hours of Day 2 but also the two hours of Day 1. Yes, the whole five hours. I don’t know why Rob posted Day 2 as it’s much less interesting and less structured than Day 1.

    The whole thing wasn’t very “highbrow” at all. In fact, I would’ve preferred it do be a bit more academic at times.