Two Stops Down

A journal on photography by Thomas Riggs

Defining Photography

Work in installation.

The proposal I handed over at the end of term was pretty tame. Taking from Victor Burgin's writings on art history and culture, I decided I would use the project to develop a critical understanding of photography.

When it came to specifics though, I found it almost impossible to articulate what I really wanted to do. I wasn't sure what I wanted. I knew I wanted to take a critical look at photography, but all I had to go on was Tom Hunter's work, and how that might say something about the portrayal of minority groups, through his contrast of mass-media and fine-art photography.

I gave myself the first two weeks of Easter to not work, and to let things percolate a little. Avoiding work was a lot harder than it should be. I ended up thinking more carefully about the work I had done last term, and how I had responded (or not) to the feedback I was given. In particular, I kept thinking of my reaction to one particular approach people kept suggesting again and again: that of closing in, cropping out the extraneous details, the context, and telling through fragments. I hated the idea; it was a cheap visual trick of dramatics, which instantly cut out all the context and totally removed the spatial relationships I was used to in photography.

Yet, in my final work, the images which employed a close crop were the most successful. What I had failed to grasp was, while I could understand the concept and visualise the results, I was quick to form my own opinion based on those visualisations and call it a day. It's scary how common a pattern this is in my thinking, and it's a really destructive way to work.

Then came another realisation: I really didn't get on with the idea of photography studied as a fine art. I had become so repulsed by the endless rows of prints hung on sterile walls that it felt an obligation rather than a decision to show the work in that context. It seemed alien to what I talked about with other students, and with what photography meant to me personally.

I have quite a few photographs of my own on my computer, probably a few thousand (for obvious reasons), though my family has a comparable number on their computer, and countless more in albums. And they feel so strongly of them that they must be kept in duplicate, or triplicate, in case any are lost. In contrast, the number of photographs that my family cherish which aren't theirs (and aren't just illustrations in a newspaper; images that are held in an almost equal status) is probably in the single digits. Think about it: in what other medium is the ratio of produced to consumed images in such orders of magnitude?

I don't think it's due to photography's inherent autonomy, with which it is associated so well. If a man liked paintings, why wouldn't he create his own, to match the number of those he owned? The limit is not in physical ability: painting or drawing can be as autonomous and industrious as the camera, and as many art students know, the real barrier is the mental one. People are so open and accustomed to the idea of taking pictures that there is no such barrier in most people. The impulse to create, therefore, is just the same as that to consume.


As testament to this, try telling one of your friends (hell, even your family) that you are a student of photography. Tell them this, and you will quickly learn that photography is no longer considered a craft in the same way that fine-art painting or horse-shoe making still are; rather, it is something they also know how to do, and can easily make assumptions on the practice thereof.

This puts photography in a very interesting position. Many student and professional photographers feel the urge to distance themselves from the common cultural usage of photography, creating the parallel field of the fine art photograph, often becoming dismissive or even reductive of what the layman calls taking pictures. However, photography as an art form has always sat awkwardly in the traditional telling of art history (continuously trying to rise to the status of painting, which it shunned and rejected; growing jealous of its little sister of cinema), ultimately becoming an alienated character in the story -- when, really, photography was so much more than an art form. It was a cultural shift in every way imaginable, and continues to find new (and often under-appreciated) modes of being in popular culture.

As much as it may seem otherwise inside of the bubble of "the institution", photography, in all its popular and artistic manifestations, is almost impossible to pin down in such a simple sense of popular and artistic function into which it is often segregated. In such promising times, when risk is low, the tools are there and the possibilities for new work are endless, it seems absurd that photographic study should take place on a foundation of such ignorance as to block out the periphery; to continue to make work on the assumptions that the public uses of photography are completely foreign to our own field, isolating themselves when really, it is the public who are the masters.

This article was published on 13 April 2011.