Is photography stuck in a constantly repeating loop?


“History never really says goodbye. History says, ‘See you later.’”
—Eduardo Galeano

At a recent talk hosted by a number of preeminent photographers with an audience including many of the greats from the British photographic community of the past 40 years, the panel (and subsequently the audience) was asked if they felt that things were any better now for photography than they had been in the past.

Both the panel and the audience were in the perfect position to answer such a question and their response provoked me to write this article.

The ability to create photographic images has never been more available to the global population; its acceptance as an art form never more obvious in our museums, galleries, magazines and homes. Where once battles were held to place photographs on gallery walls, today blockbuster exhibitions featuring the work of Andreas Gursky, Richard Avedon and William Klein amongst so many others fill the gallery spaces and coffers. Things have changed, that’s for sure, in how we are shown and sold photography.

Photography is now widely accepted as an art form; it can be sold, re-sold and sold again by auction houses, galleries and dealers. It is a thriving marketplace, as can be easily seen by the size and scale of selling events such as Paris Photo and Photo London—their financial institution support and base reason for existing: commerce. It’s a new world for photography and photographers. Things have changed; the photographic print has been monetised. And yet, the discussions that surround the work are not new, the issues facing photographers are not new, and the reality behind the slick promotion of the medium at such events is all too familiar to those not in a position to purchase. That’s the photo loop.

Conversations concerning image manipulation go back to the earliest days of photography — just pick up a copy of Alfred Wall’s 1861 book A Manual of Artistic Colouring as applied to Photographs: a Practical Guide to Artists and Photographers containing clear, simple, and complete instructions for colouring photographs on glass, paper, ivory, and canvas, with crayon, powder, oil or water colours to see the importance of manipulation to Victorian photographers — they are not defined or restricted by digital capture. This is the photo loop.

A reaction against technical image perfection leading to a desire to create work referencing painters and a ‘painterly’ aesthetic can be traced back to the Victorian pictorialists, such as Alvin Langdon Coburn, Edward Steichen, Gertrude Käsebier and Oscar Gustave Rejlander.

The idea of creating an image through manipulation rather than as pure documentation is not new, and it is having a moment of resurgence through personally initiated projects and particularly landscape-based work dealing with memory and the written word. If you are not aware of this movement, just take a look at the plethora of self-published books, online platforms and social media that feature photography and then take a look at the photographers I have mentioned. The similarities in creation and curation of the work, then and now, will clearly demonstrate a photographic desire to return to a perceived halcyon time for the medium and a recognition of the medium’s history. Photo loop.

Discussions concerning what is ‘commercial’ and what is ‘art’ photography and photographers as artists are nothing new. Throughout history, painters were artisans paid by the square foot to promote a prince, an aristocrat, a church, or some other wealthy patron. They made commercials, in exactly the same way and for the same reasons as today’s film directors make commercials. That is, to please their corporate paymasters.

The only factors that have changed are: who owns the wealth to commission the art and the ability of that art to reach vastly more viewers than those actually standing in front of the original. Despite this reality, conversations still rage about the serious intent of the photo artist over the commissioned. Please note that I do not use the word ‘commercial’ here. One of the biggest myths of contemporary photography is that of the solitary, individual, non-commercial, spiritually minded genius who is in opposition to the corporate world. But the corporate world has embraced rebelliousness and spirituality and created a climate in which it can sell both. Nothing has changed. The photo loop remains.

The funding of photography and photographers remains as relevant an issue as it has ever been—or should I say the lack of funding of both. The truth, of course, is that there never was a time when the roads were filled with gold and projects were fully funded with ease. There was a time when less photographers were searching for that funding and in which the expectations of those responsible for that funding were less exacting. That is true, but a lack of funding for the medium remains the same. The photo loop continues to repeat itself.

I remember working on foto8 magazine some 18 years or more ago. A time when social documentary photographers and photojournalists were finding it hard to get their work seen. Online platforms were in their infancy and magazines had turned their backs on the ‘real’ in favour of the ‘aspirational’. Today there is no shortage of online platforms for such work. In this, the photo loop has come full circle. But with the rise of ‘Fake News,’ is it due to suffer a down-turn in popularity? Have people become image-blind to atrocity and reality due to its omniety?

All of these aspects were raised, addressed and debated by the panel and the audience I spoke about previously. The people that sparked this article, their conclusions were the same as mine. The photo loop is constant, the same issues remain—some in the same clothes, others wearing different uniforms.

As I sit writing this article, a question has been raised of a major UK arts gallery announcing its coming year’s exhibitions in which photography does not feature. That is despite the institution employing an Adjunct Curator of Photography—whatever that title means! The photo loop continues…

Grant Scott is the founder/curator of 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). His next book #New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography will be published by Bloomsbury Academic in January 2019.

His documentary film, Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay will be screened across the UK and the US in 2018.

You can follow Grant on Twitter and on Instagram @UNofPhoto.

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