Let me put my cards on the table. I came to photography as a fan. A fan of the images I saw in magazines and on record covers in the Seventies and early Eighties before starting to work as an art director on magazines in the United Kingdom. Magazines that exist to be aspirational, entertaining, informative and most importantly profitable. My view of photography was formed within that commercial context, I never studied photography (I studied graphics at art school) so I was never introduced to the sacred tomes of Sontag or Barthes. I had seen John Berger’s Ways of Seeing and Robert Hughes’s Shock of the New on television but this was as intellectual entertainment not as academic doctrine to support dissection, deconstruction and debate.
Despite this ‘commercial background’ whilst art directing magazines I commissioned photographers such as Abbas, Leonard Freed, Don McCullin, Jane Bown, William Klein, Steve Pyke, Sylvia Plachy, Chris Steele Perkins, Corrine Day, The Douglas Brothers and Kurt Markus amongst many others. Photographers whose work could sit as easily within areas of traditional photo-journalism or contemporary art as it did within the pages of a glossy magazine, but most importantly the photographers that I commissioned were those whom I admired, respected and enjoyed purely from a photographic perspective.
Fast forward to today and I find myself within an academic, a commercial, a photographic and perhaps most importantly an online environment. Photography is intrinsic to all of these environments but it is the way in which it is viewed and interpreted in each that I believe creates a series of unnecessary barriers for many to engage with photography and navigate its highways and byways.
In a recent interview the photographer and Magnum member Martin Parr declared “Photography is the most democratic art form we have in the world.” I agree with Martin, a photographer whose exhibitions and books are much reviewed, dissected, revered and as often dismissed and vilified but whose work helping to sell frozen food products, luxury clothing brands and streetwear is largely ignored by the theoretic photographic cognoscenti. Which makes me wonder if the writing about photography is as democratic and open as the art itself?
Let’s start with the word ‘commercial’. Despite the influence that this work has on our daily lives, it’s creative impact on our visual awareness and its positive impact in supporting a photographic economy ‘commercial photography’ is too often and quickly dismissed by the critics, commentators and academics who deem it to not be ‘serious’ photography. It is this compartmentation of photography based upon critical, academic and theoretical premise that I take issue with.
I can enjoy all forms of photography from the brash image created to sell me a hamburger to a body of work created over decades shedding light upon a narrative of global importance. I do not feel the need to place either in a position of photographic importance both have their place in our cultural awareness. So why do so many ‘cultural elite’ commentators feel the need to do so? Well, let’s think about that.
My personal experience of conversations with those who adopt and propagate these views, listening to talks and reading too many linguistically verbose articles illustrates one common factor. That is that few of those speakers and writers have any real knowledge of ‘commercial photography’ and even fewer have worked within it in any capacity.
This may take us some way to understanding the dismissive attitude many have towards it but it also I believe explains why other areas of work are so often exalted beyond their actual importance.
To theorize about a subject with any level of authority requires understanding, without that understanding theory is too clearly revealed as ill-informed opinions to those who have the understanding the writer does not have. Many of the critics and theorists I am referring to have never worked as a photographer in any context, they have studied art based theory and continued their studies into a career focusing on themes based on their academic studies and reading. They also continue to use a form of unnecessarily complex academic language (often described as ‘art speak’) in their writing. Within an academic context this is theory as research and when I say research I mean research as is defined by institutions, through papers created to appear within academic journals and at conferences with little if any relevance or impact on or to the wider photographic community.
I have no issue with this. It exists within a niche created for a specific reason. Just as ‘commercial photography’ is created to meet a need and provide an income this academic approach to photography provides a career for those involved with it. In turn reflecting on work created within personal areas of exploration outside of the commissioned market makes sense for those reviewing works that accepted theories and understanding can explain through the academics best friend the attributed reference.
We all benefit from insight into work, to question is vitally important and context helps us with our understanding of all creative endeavour. However, impenetrable academic text, agenda heavy theory and ill-informed criticism does none of these things.
The ability for everyone to have an opinion and the easy availability of online publishing (I know just as I am doing here, the irony is not lost on me at this point) has resulted in a tsunami of theory based journals and articles. But how much of it is of any real importance or relevance to us as photographers? We are constantly being told that the proliferation of images online is devaluing photography and in turn the role of the professional photographer. Surely, the same could be said of photography based writing.
I love photography but despite my passion for and knowledge of the subject I find myself, regularly confused, frustrated and quite frankly bored by so much of the criticism and theory I am presented with.
I want to understand more about photography, I want to read informed criticism and I’m happy to have these insights come from an academic perspective. But I want that writing to be based upon informed personal knowledge, not just referenced texts. I want it to be open to all areas of practice and I want it to be written in a language which is accessible to all. Great writing is not based on linguistic gymnastics but clearly communicated thoughts, ideas and beliefs delivered with panache and imagination.
Just as my tastes in photography are varied I’d like the writing on the subject to demonstrate a similar level of variety. I believe that we need critics, theorists and rigorous academic reflection on photography but we do not need it to be narrow focused, ill-informed, unreadable and elitist. Critics, theorists and academics are all writing for a reason, to be paid by a publication, to raise profile, to develop a book concept and to fulfil academic research commitments. Just as a commercial photographer shoots to a brief to please a client so the critic, theorist and academic fulfils their brief.
I am not a philistine when it comes to my understanding of photography but I do find myself agreeing with Albert Einstein who said that “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler”.
My call to all critics, theorists and academics is for them to think about why they are writing what they are writing and for them to be honest about that intention with the reader. If you don’t want anyone to understand what you are writing, then at least be honest about it. But if you want to communicate with me, inform and maybe even entertain me. Then bring it on. I want to read it!
Grant Scott is the founder/curator of the United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer in Editorial and Advertising Photography at the University of Gloucestershire, a working photographer, and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Focal Press 2014) and The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Focal Press 2015).
© Grant Scott 2017
Image Credit: Creative Commons Byron Barrett/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND