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.