2012 Trends, Newcomers, and Open Questions

As the third and final installment of my 2012 summary (top New York shows and venues are here and here respectively), I think it’s worth trying to take stock of the important new ideas that emerged during the year. For the most part, these themes did not come from the blockbuster retrospectives or the obvious big name shows, as these crowd pleasers tend to reinforce what we already know. Instead, they came from the fuzzy front edge of the medium, as expressed by first solos, out of the way galleries, and eclectic group exhibits, where boundaries are being challenged by fearless newcomers (however defined). Using a handful of shows as examples, I’ve teased out a few patterns that I saw coalesce out of the swirl of innovation and noise this past year. My goal here is to take an on-the-record snapshot of my preliminary conclusions at this point and time, so that we can look back in a few years and measure whether this data was actually pointing where I thought it was. At a minimum, I hope these themes will be a starting point for putting an analytical framework around some currently amorphous areas of photographic exploration.

Software is the Future of Photography The digital revolution has been percolating along for the better part of two decades now, so saying that software is the future of the medium is perhaps patently obvious. But for this first time this year, I began to see a deeper, likely permanent shift in mindset, away from software as a digital replacement for an analog darkroom and toward software as a broad scale enabler of artistic expression. Of course, photographers have been playing with the features of Photoshop for years now, so what I’m getting at is more of a wholesale rethinking about the process of photography, and how software is now inextricably woven into that artistic endeavor, so much so that we’re beginning to see more photographic art that is truly software driven, rather than camera driven. A few examples to illustrate my line of thinking. John Houck’s Aggregates start with purpose-built code used to output complete sets of color combinations, which cover large sheets with striations of abstract pattern (review here). He then folds the sheets and repeatedly rephotographs them, mixing images of folds and actual physical creases into layers of illusion. The works are photographic, but rooted in the mind of an engineer. Artie Vierkant’s works live entirely in the realm of software, building up geometric forms and colored gradients into overlapped abstractions (review here). His thinking finally breaks down the age old idea that there is one best copy, putting a machine cut, physical manifestation and an electronic file on the same footing. Melanie Willhide pushes the expected perfection of digital photography to the point where the glitches start to emerge (review here). Her images stutter and jitter with unexpected, uncontrolled digital bugs and greebles. And Alfred Leslie has taken the white space of the paint program seriously, using his talents as a painter and the features of the software to reconsider digital first painterly input (review here). His works use layers of flatness and detail in completely new visual combinations.

My point here is that we must begin to better understand, define and embrace the connection points between contemporary digital photography and computer-based, network and software-driven digital art making. I expect that these two mediums are going to continue to bleed together, and that photography will ultimately evolve to absorb the new functionality. Photography has always been a technology driven medium, so our collective attention needs to move to where the action is – it’s the software and how it is changing the way artists think.

Appropriation is Underdefined My second light bulb-over-the-head revelation of this past year is that we are lost in a deepening muddle of “appropriation” without a map to give us a sense for what is really going on. If we look back at the Pictures Generation, appropriation was generally defined as taking photographic imagery from magazines, newspapers, and to some extent television (the media of the day) and repurposing it, relying on the change of context to bring out underlying meaning. It often mixed an inherent critique of media with irony and conceptual wit.

Fast forward to today and we’re still using the word appropriation to help explain contemporary digital image reuse, and I’m coming to see this as a definitional disaster. First, we need to end the debate about whether digital appropriation is or is not photography or even artistic in some way. It is. Full stop. Move on. Second, we need to broaden the definitions of what we mean when we use the word appropriation, mostly because our problem is only going to get exponentially worse with continued digitization of everything in sight. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I think there is an important difference to be clarified between appropriation that is driven by undermining the image’s original context and appropriation that is purely digital raw material for a new downstream artistic effort; one is predicated on friction while the other is essentially frictionless. We also now have dozens of media sources, from surveillance cameras and space satellites to archive digitization and family snapshots, each with differing levels of machine and human intent and widely divergent sources and uses. Seung Woo Back’s reuse of random flea market photographs (review here) and Doug Rickard’s mining of the Google Street View database (review here) need to be defined separately and with more useful granularity. I think this is the single most important semantic problem we now face in contemporary photography, so let’s collectively find richer ways to define image reuse, as it will inevitably become a larger and larger part of how we think about the medium.

The Slow End of Flatness

My last insight from 2012 is that the sculptural properties of photography are finally being explored with more innovation; the boundaries between the two mediums are gradually becoming less distinct. I’m not referring to straightforward photographs of sculpture, but to thinking about photography in three dimensions rather than two. I marveled at Sigrid Viir’s constructed frames with jutting cantilevers and rolling wheels (review here) and at Kate Steciw’s addition of tape, stickers and other objects adhered directly to the photographs and frames (review here). This thread of thinking is moving away from traditional flatness and instead building up surface and playing with photography in space, not as a gimmick, but as a reconsideration of how we experience imagery. Perhaps we can also see this as an inevitable reaction against the tyranny of the ubiquitous flat screen, and a desire to interact with photography in a more physical way. While this idea has been slowly gathering steam for a while now, I’m definitely ready for more complexity and risk taking in this area.

Overall, I think my key takeaway from 2012 is that the trends are now being driven from edges of the medium back into the center, and the only way to see the new patterns is to get right out to the boundary lines and peer over the edges. While there will always be time for appreciating the greatness of our masters, we are witnessing a time where the entire landscape of photography is in chaotic flux. I for one plan to get out to more off the beaten path galleries this coming year to make sure I don’t miss the action.

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Read more about: Alfred Leslie, Artie Vierkant, Doug Rickard, John Houck, Kate Steciw, Melanie Willhide, Seung Woo Back, Sigrid Viir


  1. Lane /

    Hello, I have also been thinking about the “end of flatness” and how we're seeing more tactile work these days in photography. Edwynn Houk's current show by the Vienna-based artist, Sissi Farassat, is illustrative. (I look forward to your review.)

    Thanks, as always, for giving contour to bold ideas. How we think about photography is in historic flux, and I find it wonderfully exciting.

  2. Kevin /

    I recently found your blog and have been reading religiously and ravenously every since. Thank you, thank you.

    I have been following the sculptural/3-D elements of photography for a while now (since maybe mid/late-2000s) with great interest. I personally see Wolfgang Tillmans (see Lighter series in particular), Mariah Robertson (see recent MoMA purchase of 100 ft role), Liz Deschenes (again see recent MoMA purchase), and Walead Beshty (see FedEx boxes) as the most important and foundational photographers working in this particular area of photographic exploration. Thank you for bringing the other 2 photographers to my attention as well, though I can’t say that I am as impressed by that work as I am with that of the above artists.

    Thank you again.

  3. Anonymous /

    Love the content, but what's up with this awful theme? The old design was pretty bland, but it was much more readable than blue links over a gray background.


    To clarify just a bit, I built these trend ideas entirely using shows I had seen/reviewed in 2012. There are of course lots of other worthy photographers who might fit under some of these headings, but for whatever reason, none of these folks showed on their own in NY last year, so I didn't use them to illustrate the points. I also expect that the 2013 calendar of shows will offer additional examples supporting these same lines of thinking.

    As for the amateur hour template, the old “classic” one was starting to act a little funky, so my goal was to make a new one that would at a minimum suck less. Clearly, I am no graphic designer. Help is undeniably needed on the look and feel of the site (including its navigation) as well as on a snappier logo.

  5. Kevin /

    Got it. Maybe these latest examples are just further evidence of the importance of this line of work in the field of photography. It is certainly catching on, as you suggested.

    I actually think that your first point and last point provide an interesting contrast to one another within the same general field of endeavor (photography). In the first instance, digital photography and the work of artists such as Artie represent a movement toward the complete disembodiment of the photograph from even its meager, traditional paper support. Whereas the work of artists in the latter category represent a movement in the opposite direction toward tangibility and higher levels of physical dimensionality. Perhaps in some instances the work of these latter artists is even a reaction against the digital age of photography and the work of artists in the first category. It is fun to think about anyway.

    I personally think photography is the most exciting area of art today. The potential is tremendous.

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