Photography Is Magic, ed. Charlotte Cotton

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2015 by Aperture (here). Softcover, 384 pages (glossy), with 311 color reproductions. Includes an essay by Charlotte Cotton and short artist statements from all 85 of the photographers whose work is represented. (Cover and spread shots below.)

The following photographers have been included in the book: Michele Abeles, Takaaki Akaishi, Lotta Antonsson, Walead Beshty, Lucas Blalock, Andrey Bogush, Brian Bress, Bianca Brunner, Stefan Burger, Antoine Catala, Phil Chang, Talia Chetrit, Joshua Citarella, Sara Cwynar, Bryan Dooley, Jessica Eaton, Shannon Ebner, Marten Elder, Jason Evans, Sam Falls, Brendan Fowler, Victoria Fu, Daniel Gordon, Darren Harvey-Regan, Leslie Hewitt, Nancy de Holl, John Houck, Go Itami, Rachel de Joode, Farrah Karapetian, Matt Keegan, Annette Kelm, Soo Kim, Yuki Kimura, Josh Kline, Lucas Knipscher, Owen Kydd, Josh Kolbo, Taisuke Koyama, Nico Krebs and Taiyo Onorato, Elad Lassry, Brandon Lattu, John Lehr, Anthony Lepore, Alexandra Leykauf, Matt Lipps, Florian Maier-Aichen, Phillip Maisel, Annie MacDonell, Emmeline de Mooij, Carter Mull, Nerhol – (Ryuta Iida and YoshihisaTanaka), Katja Novitskova, Arthur Ou, Matthew Porter, Timur Si-Qin, Eileen Quinlan, Jon Rafman, Sean Raspet, Clunie Reid, Abigail Reynolds, Will Rogan, Asha Schechter, Hugh Scott-Douglas, Shirana Shahbazi, Daniel Shea, Erin Shirreff, Elisa Sighicelli, Brea Souders, Kate Steciw, Batia Suter, Yosuke Takeda, Miguel Ángel Tornero, Sara VanDerBeek, Artie Vierkant, Anne deVries, Hannah Whitaker, Charlie White, Lindsey White, Chris Wiley, Letha Wilson, and Amir Zaki.

Comments/Context: Back in 2004, curator Charlotte Cotton wrote a now familiar historical survey of contemporary photography called The Photograph as Contemporary Art. Even today, more than a decade later, it can be found on the syllabi of many undergraduate and graduate degree programs in photography, mostly because it successfully did something very few survey books have had the guts to do – namely, to take a systematic, analytical view of the chaotic breadth of contemporary photography, and to then use that derived framework to place individual photographers into thematic and stylistic groups. It was, in the simplest analogy, a map, one that a reader could use to see connections, draw parallels, and chart relationships between artists and bodies of work. Even if some of Cotton’s choices and conclusions have inevitably lost their luster over time, the structural thinking that gave the book its shape remains largely intact.

While the digital revolution was widely underway in 2004, Cotton’s original analysis in that earlier book doesn’t spend much time on the transformations taking place in the medium as a result of the confluence of digital capture, software processing/manipulation, and flexible printing/rendering architectures; perhaps it was too early to see what was really happening to photography, or maybe we still needed a few more technological turns before the new tools would start to be used in identifiable ways. So it was with real anticipation that I have looked forward to Cotton’s new book Photography Is Magic. Collectively, we are in dire need of a critical framework for organizing and evaluating the work made since the advent of Photoshop (both the digital AND the analog work), and I had ardently hoped and assumed that this book would be another daring and useful platform for catalyzing the next round of curatorial thinking and discussion.

Strangely, however, that is not what this new book is, which has honestly left me a bit wrong-footed, trying to figure out why it doesn’t do what I thought it would (or should). Photography Is Magic is indeed a broad-based survey of work made in roughly the past decade, but it is in many ways much more of an edited source or reference book than a reasoned analysis. Some eighty-five (85) photographers have been included, each represented by two to six pages of images and a short statement written by the artist(s) ostensibly providing some insight into their work. It is not organized chronologically, thematically, geographically, or even alphabetically; in fact, aside from 23 photographers receiving the maximum 6 pages (all shown above in spread shots) while the rest received somewhat less visual attention, there is no discernible differentiation between or categorization of those included.

So this volume is neither a summary of all the photographic work made in the new millennium, nor a narrower subset of the digitally-minded or so-called formalist work. There is no documentary photography at all, little work we might call “straight” in some manner, and virtually no storytelling, narrative, or archive/network-driven work; what it does include is a healthy dose of various kinds of experimentation, much of it conceptual/synthetic in nature or process-centric.

Cotton uses a thematic filter (photography that is loosely interested in perception, thus the umbrella metaphorical construct of “magic”) to draw the who’s in and who’s out line for her group, and applies it inclusively to a sprawling gaggle of photographers. The result is an intriguing and perplexing hybrid of the contemporary menu – it includes both analog and digital work, black and white and color, representational and abstract subjects, found and staged/constructed scenes, and imagery executed in two and three dimensions. For better or worse, there is a lot of photography about photography on view here.

After a few aimless flips through this thick compendium, I came to the conclusion that the success or failure of this book was going to hinge almost entirely on the quality of Cotton’s essay – was this just photographic eye-candy for forward thinking coffee table buyers or was it the rigorous and thoughtful analysis of the state of the medium I was not-so-secretly hoping for, hiding in an unruly thicket of uneven examples?

The first part of Cotton’s essay spends significant time defending her choice of close-up magic as a thematic construct. As “help-us-understand” analogies go, it’s perfectly adequate – much of this work does create puzzles of perception and warps of expected reality via various sleights of hand – but the extra time spent explaining the details leads to the conclusion that she is both worried that we might not find the comparison as compelling as she does and inordinately intent on proving just how perfect this clever connection is. She dives into aspects of repetition, distraction, misdirection, scripted performance, “mistakes”, imagination, historical tradition, active discourse with other practitioners, shared expectations, and camouflage, grinding us down with the relentlessness of her parallels. In the end, it feels like a playful idea taken a bit too seriously, turning an intellectual trifle into something heavy-handed, and the takeaway is that this analogy doesn’t provide much in the way of broader analytical insight into why this work will be durably important.

Once this magical stage is set, she unloads one audacious caveat before she gets going. Cotton declares that these works are about their general ideas much more than their specific techniques or exact artists, and that she doesn’t plan to measure them against the history of the medium. This amounts to a statement that she isn’t going to go out on any rickety limbs in ardent defense or explanation of this work, which seems astonishingly and head-scratchingly timid (unless she isn’t a believer, which would be interesting in and of itself). In other words, she’s going to raise a bunch of questions, but provide no answers (or hints of answers), even though she is one of the more qualified and respected judges we have at the moment. In my mind, that’s a dodge of epic proportions, and one we shouldn’t let her get away with.

In the rest of the essay, Cotton lays out many of the ideas and questions that form the foundation of the work included in this survey, and while my brow was often furrowed at the high level arm-wavy-ness of the reasoning (declarations of fact without any examples or supporting proof), her analysis is generally insightful and inspired with respect to the important issues (and her many footnotes make it clear she has done her homework thoroughly). She rightly highlights the role of iteration and additive techniques, where repetition and versioning are inherent to the process. And she smartly details the reality of a digital world where source/original and networked reproduction become indistinguishable, where image mutability changes our perspective on appropriation and reuse.

Cotton then changes gears and starts to lay in some of the digital history milestones that I had hoped she would clarify. She lays out a step-by-step progression that took place after the revolution – first digital as a direct simulation of analog, followed by hybrid digital and analog approaches, followed by the realization that software/algorithms actually offered entirely new pathways for creative thinking. After a moment of relative stabilization, she outlines how mobile phone cameras and social media smashed down the door, transforming and expanding our image culture, both in terms of the making and disseminating of photographs. This flood forced artists to react against that tide, leading to active and intentional strategies of purposeful destabilization and subversion, subjective modification, and nonlinear progression. In her view, the artistic movements back to analog and black and white represent specific and deliberate examples of this reaction, some a retrofitting of digital back into older forms only to upend them once again. She draws a similar line of thinking through to the reinvented image object, and the interdisciplinary strategies that reach out toward painting, sculpture, and other art forms.

The last part of the essay lays out what she sees as precedents for this new genre of work, and again, I think she’s mostly hit the target in the center. She ticks off the unmanipulated readymade, the multiple perspectives of Cubism, the experimental avant-garde, the wry irony of Post-Modernism, the market imitations of 1980s Simulationism (a movement I will admit to knowing little about), and the broader implications and motivations of a Post-Internet mindset all as supporting ideas that have migrated into the mix. I’m not sure why the clever illusionism of 1970s photoconceptualism didn’t make the list, but she’s certainly added some lines of ancestry that are worth considering as we try to get our heads around the work in this book.

But all of this thoughtful curatorial analysis is meaningfully undermined by the lack of concrete and illustrative examples, which is entirely mystifying given the smorgasbord of work included here. To be clear, there is not one single artist or artwork mentioned by name in the entire text of her essay. Not one. If she wanted to make a point about reuse of readymade imagery or the chaotic collaging of high and low found in Cubist influenced works, give us an example or two to prove her point, preferably drawn from the reproductions at our finger tips. By not doing so, she has in effect set up a high level logic of generalities, laid it on a platter, and left us to puzzle it out for ourselves. Not only is this frustrating, but it smacks of tin-eared arrogance, like we all must know exactly what she is referring to.

Given that she began to walk us down an analytical road with multiple pathways and sets of underlying ideas, I can’t begin to understand why she didn’t organize these artists into groups or buckets, where commonalities of thinking, process, style, or subject matter would have offered instructive resonances. This is where her curatorial acumen should shine; if anyone can make sense of the interwoven ideas and influences swirling around in this kind of work, it is someone like Cotton, so for her to throw up her hands and beg off is disappointing. And letting the artists talk at the end (via their statements) doesn’t help with this process much, as each one seems to be answering a different question, some in the incomprehensible mumbo jumbo of obtuse artspeak, others in off-the-cuff email-style prose. I expect time spent parsing these statements and mysticisms will confuse readers more than providing them with clear direction.

The inclusion of so many artists also feels like a misstep. Imagine I wrote a history of 1950s Abstract Expressionism and I included 85 effectively undifferentiated artists from all over the world, putting the important artists (Pollock, de Kooning, Gorky, Kline, Still etc.) on the exact same footing as the many derivative, unimportant, and forgotten ones. Would it be “everything”? Or everything “good”? How useful would that be from an analytical perspective? Not very, except as a very broad sampler of styles and common ideas. And then even with such a huge group of photographers, we can certainly quibble with some of the exclusions – if you’re going to include Walead Beshty’s photograms, where are Thomas Ruff’s and Mariah Robertson’s? Or if we’re ticking off truly influential (and magically disorienting) work, where are Cory Arcangel’s one-click Photoshop gradients or Roe Ethridge’s slick commercial remixes? As the pot gets ever bigger, more and more photographers can make a reasonable case for inclusion, which is of course, madness.

One of the things sorely lacking in the analysis of this work is a chronology of importance. We know there have been several stages of iterative growth and influence in the past two decades and that some artists have been leaders while others have been fast followers, quickly incorporating the innovations of others and turning the crank. If we’re honest, much of the early digital innovation happened in America (where the software was originally developed and the retouching crowd was centered), and yet in this book, second and third generation followers from Europe and elsewhere are given parity with the actual first movers from the United States. There’s probably a similar analysis to be made of the process-centric and in-camera analog innovators, who need to be separated from those that have followed their lead. Not only is this lack of differentiation and precedence distracting, it’s misleading from a curatorial perspective. I appreciate the idea of being inclusive and expanding the net to catch ideas from all over, but I think the lack of organization here undermines the communication of a clear thesis.

Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of deservingly intriguing work reproduced here, much of it worthy of further discussion and debate in the context of where contemporary photography might be headed – we absolutely need to intelligently and systematically address the many questions this broad genre of work raises and this book provides a place to start. The issue I have is that what Cotton has produced is a glorified time capsule not a curatorial analysis with a clear point of view, and this I think is a major missed opportunity. She had the chance to boldly blast us with the equivalent of a crisply-argued analytical fastball, and for whatever reason, that didn’t happen and we got a soft-pitched melon. Given all the examples included, Photography is Magic still has the ability to spark some heated and worthwhile discussion, but it certainly isn’t the generation-defining landmark book the photography community needs and was hoping for.

Read more about: Anne de Vries, Arthur Ou, Artie Vierkant, Asha Schechter, Brendan Fowler, Carter Mull, Chris Wiley, Daniel Gordon, Eileen Quinlan, Elad Lassry, Jason Evans, Jessica Eaton, John Houck, Jon Rafman, Kate Steciw, Letha Wilson, Lucas Blalock, Owen Kydd, Phil Chang, Rachel de Joode, Sam Falls, Sara VanDerBeek, Shannon Ebner, Aperture

3 comments

  1. Pete /

    The naff ‘magic’ concept is one I expect she will come to tire of explaining over and over again but, the work, bearing in mind LK’s many caveats about it being a hit-and-miss affair, looks an appealing package and despite a resolution last year not to buy and more physical (photo)books I just might…

    I’ve read elsewhere that it’s target audience are the web-savvy sophisticated next-generation (rules me out). Odd then the book’s design looks very conservativer, but which really should beg the question why even resort to the traditional book form? Seems to be completely at odds with the message that this is the ‘post internet’ age.

    In theory galleries and museums should have also lost much of their significance but they seem to be showing themselves capable of still meeting a need. The demand is obviously still there from makers for wall and floor space – the psychology of ego/commerce remains the same.

    The bounce online works best where there are daily reviews of what’s showing out there today – with smart, carefully considered, empathetic, near fanatical coverage of a wide variety of work, written by non academics and non-institutional curators who aren’t positioning for a better place in those hierarchies. It’s right here, it’s collectordaily, and it’s free (thanks!).

  2. Mickalene /

    Maybe you’re asking for too much from a book like this. This is a carefully curated book reflecting Charlottes fashionable tastes. Few of these photographers will be remembered for very long, but I don’t think that’s what her concern was. This is not work that speaks to us viscerally. It’s neither universal or timeless. It looks cool today, and it will look dated tomorrow. I appreciate that Charlotte didn’t attempt to categorize this work. I don’t believe art should ever be categorized, and in this case all the work belongs in the same category anyway.

  3. Don /

    Mickalene –

    Pertaining to your comment above, I’d like to ask: what is timeless and/or universal? Your assertion that the work in this book is neither is very clear and confident, but these are terms that are thrown out commonly and that I have trouble understanding.

    Can we really know and declare what is timeless and universal now, without the distance of time? If so, can you provide a concrete example of what was, and continues to be timeless? Is it about content, or style, or context, narrative, or something else entirely? Did you look at a work released 20 years ago and KNOW it would be timeless when you saw it?

    Are Ruff’s JPEG’s timeless? Is Lange’s Migrant Mother timeless? What about Outerbridge? Bresson? Soth? The list can go on, but these things aren’t being produced in a vacuum and a lot of them come back around to ideas or approaches that have been explored over the history of the medium.

    A lot of the work gets written off as a trend – as cool, hip, perhaps even superficial, but there’s an awareness not just of the physical surface of the image but of the surfaces of display, transmission, and influence. Maybe confronting superficiality is the point?

    Would love to hear your thoughts…

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