Last week, the Clark Center hosted a one-day symposium at the Arts Club of Chicago that aimed to “reflect on the models we currently have for discussing photographs as art.” Organized by Matt Witkovksy, the curator of photography at the Art Institute of Chicago, “Photography as Model?” drew its inspiration from art critic Yves-Alain Bois’s 1990 book Painting as Model and asked six speakers—mostly art historians—to think about how the frameworks we use to examine photographs might shape the ways that scholars approach modern and contemporary art in general.
In this sense, the aims of the symposium were ambitious. To convincingly argue that photography studies might provide a model for art history as a discipline, or that individual photographs might model new approaches for seeing, is no small task. Especially when, as Victor Burgin has so aptly put it, “photography theory has no methodology peculiarly its own.” It often feels like photography theory has been cobbled together from several disciplines outside of art history, including cultural studies, film studies, feminist and queer studies, semiotics, and post-colonial studies. This flexibility is one of the things I’ve always liked about photography studies, but it can also make the discipline feel a bit nebulous: a feeling that’s compounded by the difficulties in even defining what a photograph is, especially with the advent of digital technologies (see David Campbell’s excellent post on just this problem over at his blog).
But I think these can be productive problems to have, and the papers that resulted from Witkovsky’s prompt to think about the productive disunity that characterizes photography as a field of inquiry bore out some of this potential. In his opening remarks, for instance, Witkovsky offered detailed readings of two very different kinds of photographs. The first was a spare, conceptual series of photographs of “‘hyper-banal’ subjects” by American artist Lewis Baltz; the second a group of four nearly-anonymous photographs taken clandestinely by members of the Sonderkommando unit at Auschwitz during the Holocaust. While the first is the product of an individual artist’s time-consuming process and is meant to be exhibited in a fine art context, the second is a group-authored image taken under life-threatening circumstances that was never guaranteed an audience of viewers (indeed, Claude Lanzmann has argued these photographs should not be shown). By offering these two examples, Witkovksy hoped to ask whether we could create a field of photography studies where these two kinds of images could be adequately accounted for within one broad and general history, a comparison he described as a “travesty” under the current theoretical models used in art history which would insist on separating these two series of photographs based on the identity of their producers and audiences.
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.