I recently attended a group photography show featuring approximately eighty images by eighty photographers. The work was competent, well printed, professionally framed, technically proficient but boring. There were some landscapes, some looking straight at the camera portraits, some conceptual stuff, observational everyday life and a smattering of macro insects and underwater images.
The problem for me is that I had seen it all before. I was also able to see the influences for the work too clearly. The photographers who had made the work had done a good job but it all lacked soul. There was no evidence of any personal visual language. In a world where photographers are fearful of the oncoming affects of AI the images exhibited showed why they should be afraid.
The argument against AI is that it can only produce from what has already been created, therefore to make work that breaks no barriers in subject, approach or aesthetic clearly falls into the lap of the skilled AI creator.
The problem is that these photographers appeared to be creating work to meet the expectations of others. To create work that conforms to widely understood set of rules, as to what constitutes ‘serious’ photography in 2023. The work would have looked very different in 1993, 83, 73, 63 etc etc. The approaches would have been different, the themes would have been different, the subject matter would have been different. If you don’t believe me just look at any of the photo annuals that used to be produced featuring a selection of the ‘best’ photos of the year. You can often find these in charity and second hand book shops.
I have never been a believer in the process of learning photography by slavishly copying the work of another photographer. It makes no sense to me. Why would I want to learn what someone else did to improve my own work by copying their approach and aesthetic? I know this is a common practice amongst some photography teachers but it is a process which is reliant on technical repetition not creative experimentation. It aims for safety and not risk.
Well presented, technically proficient well-lit exhibitions are fine. But. Do they excite or inspire me? No! And surely the reason for creating and showing work is not to achieve a grade or meet the approval of our fellow photographers. Surely it is to provoke, inspire, question and challenge. If we are not doing that why are we doing it?
Dr. Grant Scott is 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. He is the presenter of the A Photographic Life and In Search of Bill Jay podcasts.
Scott’s next book Condé Nast Have Left The Building: Six Decades of Vogue House will be published by Orphans Publishing in the Spring of 2024.
© Grant Scott 2023