When was the last time you saw a fine art photograph that you would describe as ferocious? One that had such raw emotional intensity that it seemed to slap you in the face, kick you down, and leave you for dead in the gutter? I’d say the answer is hardly ever these days, and I think that’s worrisome.
Whether we draw the line all the way back to the brainy photoconceptualism of the 1970s or the pervasive influence of the teachings of the Bechers in Düsseldorf in the 1980s, I think a compelling argument can be made that for the last several decades we have been in the midst of a long term trend toward rationality and intellectualism in contemporary photography. We have come to embrace conceptual control, deadpan rigor, and cerebral inward-looking process-centrism as mainstream practice, and to celebrate the best examples of this approach as the apex of the medium. We are in the midst of the Age of Precision, in capital letters.
As much as I have a strong personal affinity for this type of work and the underlying structured thinking it implies and often embodies, as I look across the broad expanse of contemporary photography today, I am beginning to wonder if we have forgotten how to engage with passion. Have we become so hermetically sealed in our neutered, academic bubble that we run the risk of draining all the emotion out of photography?
While it is perhaps too early to tell, the digital revolution seems to have mostly reinforced the existing paradigm rather than disrupted it. The vast power of software manipulation appears to led to increased formalism, aestheticism, and staging, rather than increased eccentricity and chaos. With the shackles now unbound, where is the strain of innovation that provokes a visceral reaction? Even the tossed off smartphone selfie has bound itself in its own chains, quickly becoming the most controlled form of expression we offer the world.
We may also be seeing the growing, unexpectedly insidious power of the market in this larger domesticating trend. Angry, harsh, even ugly pictures supposedly don’t sell well at art fairs, at auctions, or in galleries, and so over time, many of the market players have adapted, tuning the formula to what sells best, pushing that mindset all the way down into our MFA programs, reducing risk taking throughout the system. And as galleries get squeezed by larger economic forces, the first thing over the side when the boat starts to sink is most logically the aggressive, uncomfortable work that nobody buys, unless you’ve got a handful of established artists who can subsidize the others (and haven’t been poached). The gathering monculture of the art fair is in many ways the epitome of this perverted process, where dumbing down and safety are being rewarded.
Only mavericks, fools, and rule breakers would buck such a systemic trend. But then ask yourself why it is that so many of the gargantuan prices being paid for contemporary paintings are being shelled out for works that are so astonishingly vital and confrontational. Whether it is Bacon’s tortured portraits, Munch’s scream, Warhol’s car crashes and electric chairs, or even Basquiat’s manic energy, no one would quibble about calling any of these artworks ferocious. We’re drawn to the unbridled intensity of their expression, like moths to a flame.
What I think is required is a conscious effort to rebalance the scales, to specifically search for those pictures that jangle our nerves and push us around. Genre and subject matter are irrelevant – a photographic landscape, a nude, a still life, or even an abstraction can be just as ferocious as a searing portrait (if you doubt this claim, dig up a Robert Adams clear cut forest of stumps, a Friedlander nude, or a Soth still life from Broken Manual). We need more Boris Mikhailov, more Anders Petersen, more pictures that make us shuffle our feet and look away. We need Katy Grannan, and Ed Templeton, and Bruce Gilden, and Leigh Ledare, and Gillian Wearing, and Mariah Robertson to push further away from the center, not towards it. We need to be contrarian about what we’re looking for, tolerating the uncontrolled, the improvisational, the irrational, and the uncomfortable that now lie on the margins.
Photographs by Nan Goldin, Diane Arbus, Cindy Sherman, Carrie Mae Weems, Larry Clark, even a Richard Avedon here and there, these were some of the pictures that jolted us out of our ruts, forced us to react, and burned our eyeballs. While purity and rigor have their place, we need a bracing dose of ferocity to bring us back into equilibrium. We’ve been blindered into believing that we can think our way out of this box we’ve built – the reality is we need the addition of some unruly emotions to remind us that we can’t control everything, and that part of what gives photography its power is its reflection of that untethered vitality.
Waiting around, hoping for change won’t fix this stylistic imbalance. Fellow collectors, I lay this issue at our collective feet. We need to buy more challenging work. We need to look for and value raw energy and emotion in photography. We need to buy pictures that we initially don’t like or agree with, the ones that that burrow down into our brains without our consent. By sending this direct signal that we are ready and receptive (rather than timid and afraid), we can break the log jam, allowing the fierce and the vivid to once more reclaim their rightful place in the photographic conversation.