It’s Time In Photography For Some New Reference Points…

Let’s start with the ‘Decisive Moment’, or if you prefer, “if your pictures are not good enough, you’re not close enough”, or maybe “a picture is worth a thousand words”. Or even “the first 10,000 photographs are your worst”. Your call.

We have all heard these phrases, dictates and possible truisms many times. I’m not saying that they do not have some value but surely it’s time to move on. Anyone that reads what I write or listens to what I say on the A Photographic Life podcast will know that I place great store on the importance of history. But lazy history is exactly that.

The ‘go toos’ that are Sontag, Barthes, Berger etc can be similarly lazy in my opinion. They all have interesting insights but are they really still relevant to where photography is in 2022? Or are they merely referenced as names that are known and were taught to those now teaching? Is the continued reference to these people preventing new thinking about the photographic medium?

I don’t know the answer to these questions, but I do know that I often read text I cannot understand, quite possibly written for reasons other than understanding. I know that much of the text I see is written by men over forty and that I would love to read new insight from new thinkers with something new to say.

You may suggest that there are new commentators such as David Campany (55), Teju Cole (46) or Robert Adams (85), Stephen Shore (74), or perhaps Fred Ritchin (60s?), Geoff Dyer (64) or Gerry Badger (74). I say their age and dominant gender says it all.

I am not dismissing their writing or views, merely suggesting that as photography evolves surely its commentators should also. I am of an age where I easily fit into the demographic I am highlighting so I am not being ageist here, merely honest.

I have written previously that I was not taught Sontag, Barthes and the rest and yet my love, engagement and understanding of photography is no less for this.

And yet I am interested in reading insightful text that challenges that engagement and understanding. I also want to debate the medium without constantly being referred back to those tried and tested statements. Not every discussion needs to reference Ansell Adam’s, Cartier Bresson or Robert Capa as the basis of an argument, just as Sontag and Barthes do not have to be the dominant texts that are taught.

There is no shortage of writing on photography (I admit to adding to that reality!) But how much is read, understood or quoted by the broader photographic community outside of academia? Are the oft repeated phrases used so often due to a lack of replacements?

I think it would be condescending to suggest that photographers are not interested in understanding the medium in more depth or having their practice challenged. I hope you agree. However, the majority of writing on the medium today is unintelligible to too many photographers because it is not written for them. John Berger spoke on television, and his books are still published by main stream publishers as are the books of Robert Adam’s, Sontag, Dyer and Barthes. They are easy to buy. This is not the case for most of the contemporary writing on photography today, which is published by academic publishers who do not pay their authors, expect their authors to pay them to proof their own words and include images in their own books before printing so few copies that it becomes almost impossible to buy them. These books are not marketed or distributed to photographers, but to university librarians with the budgets to invest in books for research purposes. These publishers are feeding off the need for academics to create artefacts of their research for academic approval to protect their employment. Online articles have a similar reason to exist in academic journals that have deliberately high subscription rates that universities find themselves having to pay.

None of this helps us as photographers find new understanding or new thinkers that could support our discussions or arguments concerning the medium in the 21st Century. I believe in experience and history, I believe in a balanced education, but I also believe in the need for new voices to challenge the old guard. If we continue to use those from a different age as the defining arbiters of what photography is and means we negate the reality that visual communication today is not what it was when they were making their proclamations and visionary statements. Some may have been right, and some may have been wrong in their time, but does that mean that we must cling to their words whatever the evolution of the medium? Now is the time for the new thinkers to write clearly and simply about photography so that we can replace or improve upon the statements many remain using.

Dr. Grant Scott is the the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019). His film Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay was first screened in 2018 www.donotbendfilm.com

© Grant Scott 2022

7 comments

  1. Guy Tal, he’s written a few books and has a reasonably active Facebook page, often he ties in a great deal of philosophy and certainly the early photographers, Minor White, Henry Peach Robinson, the Pictoralists et al, whilst I don’t care much necessary for his landscape photography, quite often the quotes and his observations are prescient and interesting enough to warrant a screen grab or two in my opinion.

  2. I’d like to think that we’re all interested in reading insightful text that challenges engagement and understanding, Grant. 

    While I agree that not every discussion needs to reference Ansell Adams, Cartier-Bresson or Robert Capa as the basis for an argument, I recognise that they gave birth to genres, and many of these have been & remain formative. So, in that context, there’s value in the reference. One cannot learn Maths without understanding the formative stuff – Cartesian or other – even though it’s from a different age as it often remains a defining arbiter of a strand of mathematics. Also .. of course visual communication at any point in time will not be what it was when the Adamses, Cartier-Bressons et al were making their proclamations and visionary statements, yet, we learn them coz they’re formative, relevant and necessary for framing today’s state of progress.

    And btw, any point in history is the time for the new thinkers to write clearly and simply about their subject matter, be it photography or other, so that we consumers select and learn, and offer new voices to challenge the old guard. Not just now. 

    P.S. 1. It IS presumptuous to suggest that photographers are not interested in understanding the medium in more depth or having their practice challenged. I for one certainly scan publications for new insights.
    P.S. 2. The issue with university librarians taking the easy routes for their budgets to invest in books for research purposes is a complex one that deserves treatment in a different blog. However, I understand your point.

  3. How about some suggestions for contemporary/diverse writers for people to look at? Seemed like the article was only half finished.

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