Sunday, March 25, 2007

Photo History is cool...again!?

Several photobloggers as of late have been delving into the annals of photohistory. As an art historian/photohistorian and one who works with and teaches living photographers, I find this very interesting both in terms of their approach and use of photohistory as well as the impact of the internet on the retrieval and dispersal of such information (or, these cases aside, sometimes misinformation). When I switched from art studio to art history in college, I generally left behind drawing, painting, and photo, although I sometimes take Holga and Polaroid pictures. When asked why I don't show these to anyone, I have to underscore that I bring something different to the discussion and that I want photographers to respect my abilities in curating, and not get bogged down in how good (or bad) my photographs are.

Photohistory itself was largely codified initially in and by museums and collectors as well as photographers turned curators. Think Edward Steichen and John Szarkowski. Photohistorians and photocurators did not exist as we know them today until well into the twentieth century (just as MFA programs in photography). We are still reeling from the canons proposed in such tomes as Gernsheim's and Newhall's history of photography--both of which have origins in private collections or museum exhibitions. Always one to provoke a healthy discussion, Douglas Nickel has spoken often on the history of the history of photography and goes into fascinating detail on the history (and impending dearth?) of trained photocurators on the PhotoWings website:

The museum industry needs photo curators and needs them to be well-trained. And they don't want someone who learned photo history from a studio person or from somebody who specializes in abstract expressionism. They want people trained in photo history.

As a fan of historiography (and drama), I highly recommend reading the whole interview (Geoffrey Batchen has also written and spoken about such issues, sometimes with Nickel). Has the pendulum swung the other way for us photohistorians - are we a dying breed? I have always been interested in museums and academia and hope to continue to work in both.

Another interesting development that I would underscore in Nickel's summation is the photographer teaching photohistory, which often happens at art schools. As an art historian, I must admit that this slightly concerns me, both in terms of my own job prospects someday (a masters in art history is not a terminal degree, while a MFA is, and I am years away from mine) as well as how this makes for an entirely different class (and here - I want to underscore that I am saying this is neither good nor bad, just different). I understand what an amazing perspective such a background can bring to the discussion, but are we teaching two different histories? For artists, a photohistorian's class might be better in some ways or more boring and less useful in other ways than one given by an artist colleague...either way they are different and we must consider the differences. Are Ph.D.s to teach only in liberal arts schools? I hope not. I must admit that I am highly generalizing this and there are many amazing doctorates teaching in art schools, but with the rise of adjuncts, it serves to make a point. There are likely fewer photohistorians out there and, if Nickel is right, even fewer to come. We need more photohistorians in museums, but also in colleges - to teach the next generation of scholars and curators as well as photographers.

Is this the beginning of an artist-non-artist split in terms of training? Sadly, at the University of Texas, we didn't hang out enough with the artists even though we had seminars in the same building. Working with practicing photographers (and dating one), I have learned more at my present job about taking and printing photographs than I ever did in graduate school. Such knowledge is somewhat lacking in academia (not all decorative arts and material culture historians, for example, know how to throw a pot) and is equally a cause for concern.

Where are we to go from here to bridge these gaps? A parallel discussion and perhaps model for uniting all of these forces would be the recent dialogue surrounding artists as art critics. Matt Nash has great review and essay on Big, RED and Shiny on the new book, "A Critical Mess," to which Steve Aishman has a humorous but very thoughtful response.

Here are a few words from Matt:

In this way, I think that many artists do not feel that the criticism they receive from a “critic” is any more or less valid than that of a peer, or a teacher, or anyone else who may encounter their work and wish to speak. In a lot of ways, art critics actually diminish their power to influence art-making by pretending to be above the artists they critique; artists respond to peer influences positively while generally rejecting “authority” in any form, even the established critical structure. This is why, I believe, much of art criticism has passed into the hands of artists, and found voice in forums that are immediate, localized and antiauthoritarian. By allowing artists to engage as equals, these new forms reframe critique and the “judgment” inherent within it; rather than waiting for tacit approval or denial from an authority, artists are now much more proactive about adressing the ideas and theories that are most important to them and their community. It is in this way that our expectations of art criticism have shifted from a pat on the head to a round of drinks; that is, from outside and authoritative approval to the welcome support of peers and colleagues.

Whew...apparently I had a lot in me on this topic! Any thoughts? I ought to conclude by pointing out a few photographers who have recently written on topics in the history of photography:

  • Photographer Christian Patterson has posted several items on early color photography. Here is Part 1 and Part 2 and Part 3.
  • Photographer and student Shane Lavalette has also posted on panoramic photography and Jacques Henri Lartigue and invited his readers to join him in learning.
  • Photographer Jeremias Paul gives us a great example to follow in his recent musing on the influences in his own pratice here

Photoblogging and blogging has certainly contributed to a renewed interest in photohistory by photographers (well, at least the sharing and talking about it at such an accelerated pace and in such a public forum). Almost every single post by Alec Soth addresses both photo and art history in some way. Recent topics include Portrait Week and his attempt to create a spectrum (Version 1 and version 2) to categorize photographers. I am personally thrilled to see such a community and discussion developing. Although not a photographer, the folks at Art + Commerce have started an interesting discussion forum, Tip of the Tongue, which is currently being led by a great essay by Charlotte Cotton on black and white vs. color. I hope their forums become more active (I wonder if there is any way to have the comments cascade to see them all at once?). I have offered to answer questionnaires and help in any way.

The short and apparently very long of it is: we all have something to learn from each other. One solution could be to team teach or team post on a blog topic - photographer, photohistorian, and critic; this would make for a fascinating class and discussion! Here's to a new sea change!

Christian Patterson's mock photo family tree. Read more about it here:


Walker said...

Wow. I was reading this post, which brought me this post of yours. I kept thinking of my professor, Steve Aishman, as I read what you were saying, then lo and behold, you mention him... not only that, you mention what we've been talking about in our Issues in Contemporary Photography class, which he teaches. Obviously not a coincidence, but quite ironic, no?

LKB said...

Thanks Walker! The wonder of the internet. It's not something I've figured out yet, just something I feel we need to ponder. Steve is great...are you in Atlanta?

I checked out your site, great work. Keep in touch and say hi to Steve. - lkb