I’ve been thinking a bit lately about what a useful history of contemporary photography for the recent decade (2000-2010) should or might look like, and I’ve come up wholly frustrated by the status quo. If you go to any book store, the kind of thing you will find on this topic (if you find anything at all) is a theme-based selection of representative photographers, bunched into buckets (staged, appropriated, manipulated, process driven, performance, etc.), with a few images from each along for the ride as examples. Perhaps there will be backgrounds on each photographer, discussions of high level prevailing trends and a stab at a comprehensive essay. All well and good, but this kind of analysis isn’t particularly useful or actionable from my point of view, mostly because it glosses over the important chronological details of what was happening year to year. What I think needs to be understood is the interaction between photographers and their projects on an annual basis, so it is possible to trace who came first and in what order original ideas percolated through the artistic world.
As a starting point, what I think someone needs to do is build out a list of the top 50 photographers of the period (by whatever definition you might choose), and then detail each of the projects they did during the decade (good and bad, known and unknown) and the years in which they worked on those projects. As an example of what I mean, see my amateur hour infographic below of 5 photographers who I think would be in the top 50 (I’m no graphic designer, and I don’t warrant that the data presented is either complete or correct – in fact I know it isn’t, but it’s good enough for illustrative purposes):
What I think this kind of presentation does is that it gives clarity on the progression of an artist’s own projects and makes it much clearer to see the interactions with other artists working contemporaneously. Look at the three vertical lines, in 2001, 2004, and 2007. By ticking down the chart (or drilling a core sample), it is now possible to see what each of these photographers was doing at the time. If you want to overlay political (say 9/11, elections or the economic crisis), social, technological, or art world events, it becomes easy to see what the responses were and how long they took to percolate through the system.
So to build out the history of 2000-2010 in contemporary photography, you start with the top 50 as I mentioned before, to get a comprehensive visual on overall trends. Then you drill down into the top subgenres we already use as a rough and ready taxonomy (say abstract, or portraiture, or street etc.), and pick a top 15-25 or so in each genre (with particular attention to major influencers), repeating the ones from the top 50 that are relevant and adding others, thereby expanding the overall coverage further. Slicing and dicing this way would really generate some surprising insights I would think (as would some multi-layered Venn diagrams of intersecting genres, but that’s an idea for another post). What is critical to success here is meticulous data collection and superlative graphic design. From there, example images and tying the findings into a coherent narrative (driven by what the data says) are the last tasks. The one drawback I can see here is handling those photographers whose work is not easily separated into discrete projects, series, books, or the like. In this case, I think the easiest and best solution is to select a few highlight images that stand in as representatives of a photographer’s changing interests, subject matter, or style, even though this glosses over some work to work variation and evolution.
What I like about this kind of approach is that it is far more data driven than most art history texts or coffee table surveys. It uses fine-grained chronology to filter ideas and provide context in ways that we overlook far too often I think. To make sense of the confluence of ideas, approaches, and technologies that have driven contemporary photography in the chaotic past decade, I think we need to reconsider the tired “group show” summary approach and search for new ways to synthesize, analyze, intepret and communicate the wealth of data that is already available.