This week, from Sept. 20-22, the Toronto Photography Seminar is hosting a two-day workshop on “the photographic situation,” which invites fourteen international photography scholars to respond to and elaborate on “an emerging conceptual framework that defines photography as much more than a technology for producing pictures.” Co-organized with the Durham Centre for Advanced Photography Studies (DCAPS) and The Developing Room, the aim of the workshop is to develop new case studies and methodologies for understanding the photographic situation, in its many iterations.
As one of the organizers for the workshop, I’ve had the chance to read the papers as they’ve developed from abstracts to fully formed arguments. (To put the emphasis on discussion at the workshop, we’ve asked authors to circulate their papers before the event so the audience can read them and come to the event with questions and comments prepared). And, while there are a few common touchstones throughout the papers—Ariella Azoulay‘s work on the event of photography appears often, as do Sharon Sliwinski’s “Seven Theses on the Photographic Situation“—I have been most struck by the diversity of the situations that the papers take up. From Shawn Michelle Smith’s analysis of what is made visible (and invisible) in early spirit photography, to Stephen Mayes’s exploration of the impact Smartphones have had on photojournalism, to Kelly Wood’s reappraisal of Lincoln Clarkes’s critically derided Heroines series from the early 2000s, the working papers examine how relationships are structured by the camera in private, public and fine art photographs.
This diversity of material is refreshing, especially after the long debates about the division between fine art and documentary photography that plagued photography history in the twentieth century, and also seems to speak to the flexibility that the notion of the photographic situation offers to us as viewers and theorists. Though this flexibility sometimes feels a bit unwieldy (as Jonathan Long points out in his comments on this blog), it is also one of the concept’s strengths. By insisting that the relationships that are mediated by the camera are inherently political, the photographic situation seems to prompt theorists to reorient our analyses to some of the social dynamics that occur outside the frame of the photograph, treating them as political events rather than peripheral moments.
The way the event of photography, and the photographic situation, has been theorized necessarily puts stress on the temporality of photographs: the way that images emerge from a relational encounter, and the ways that they are understood by viewers in a particular historical moment. But the working papers also draw out the spatial dimensions of the photographic situation, calling our attention to the different spaces in which photographers, subjects and viewers negotiate their relationships to one another. The portrait studio, the artist’s home, the mug shot, the album and the photobook all emerge as spaces where the photographic situation takes place. It seems that, as we begin to use the photographic situation as a rubric for analysis, we may need to find ways to address the role of space and place both in the production and circulation of photographic images.