Photography as Object / [Subject + Concept]


Dead Bird, Ben Dolman 2013


Over the past year I keep on stumbling upon discussions and articles about ‘photography as object’ in magazine articles, photography blogs and the general photography art world. At first I was perplexed by the notion of photography as object, for me it has been primarily of subject and its actual physicality, a crafted artefact that is original and is validated when touched or held was something I never considered as I saw the medium as a form of mass visual reproduction. Perhaps the reason that only saw photography as only visual reproduction and not as an original artefact like painting was because I started photography in the digital age and seeing the medium as an actual physical object had become dematerialised. In the past photography was analogue, the cameras were mechanical and the technology used to develop and process the film and paper was based on chemistry, the resulting prints were ‘hand-made’ but this has been largely replaced by the digital darkroom, the virtual online gallery and the inkjet print, the human hand no-longer physically touches and crafts an image. The question I have asked myself is there a need to see a photograph as an object as some kind of validation the medium. The interesting thing about photography in the digital age is it has enabled photographers to produce massive prints originally developed by the sign making industry and take contemporary art world by storm, exhibiting on a scale not dissimilar to painters. The digital age has also seen the re-emergence of alternative and traditional analogue photographic processes that either seek to reject or add to the new photographic digital technologies and their online forms communication and publication.

Before I start pondering the merits or notions of ‘photography as object’ I just need to scribble down some lines about my own practice for reflective purposes. I must admit I am slightly ambivalent at the moment towards certain traditional craft analogue photographic processes in my own current creative practice although I do see such processes employed by other artists and photographers as an interesting form of image making and will most certainly review alternative photography and process again in my own work at a later date. I do use film and large format view cameras but purely for pragmatic and financial purposes as film gives me a resolution I require, a non-uniform grain, a colour and dynamic range in landscape photography I find highly desirable and a second hand large format film camera is a lot cheaper than a digital medium format camera even taking into account the rising cost of film. My own 4” x 5” large format camera setup with 5 lenses that range from 90mm to 300mm cost me about £1500 second hand whilst the medium format digital Hasselblad kit I sometimes borrow from work with only 3 lenses [28mm, 80mm and 150mm] would cost over £25000. An additional element that traditional analogue cameras have afforded me in my practice besides the cost of the camera kit and the aesthetic qualities of film was the understanding and mastering of the fundamental techniques of photography in taking and composing a photograph. What are these fundamentals, for me it is making an informed judgement what would be the most suitable aperture, shutter speed, film speed, depth of field, framing and choice of colour or black and white film that could best capture my experience of a given subject and how I engage with the world looking through a camera. Analogue photography slows you down and gives you time to think and look more closely at a subject, it also now informs my digital workflow as well.

If digital photography could offer what I currently do in film photography at a price I could afford would I continue with a large format view camera and film processing, it is an interesting quandary something that commercial photographers dealt with some years back and the answer in their case was digital, but what for art photography. Does art or should I say the art market feel comfortable with the purely digital, the removal of traditional notions of what is an object, something that is unique and can be valued as such. The art market has already struggled in the past with the negative that can mechanically reproduced itself through prints, a digital file is just code and this code can breed like rabbits especially when put online, the internet does not do the unique, the digital is not known for the singular it is a duplicator. As soon as my film is developed in a semi-automated Jobo colour processor it is scanned, I do not use the traditional darkroom at the moment to develop and make my prints, I am happy in the non-linear workflow of the digital darkroom where there is no fixative, no finality. I prefer the impermanent and mutable rather than the permanent and rooted. The ‘physical’ removal from the process, the no hands-on approach in the conventional sense to image making is for me a rest bite from the hand crafting of an image that I did when I was a painter. What I am interested in photography at the moment is the subject and how I define it and capture it, its objectification for me up until this point might have been a distraction but something that I am starting to take note of hence this posting and through my somewhat contradictory musings and research as I try to get my head around the issues.

I am not sure I can call myself a photographer, perhaps I am just an image maker who happens to use photography at the moment. The reason I am unsure about calling myself a photographer is I feel for one reason or another I have not earned the right. Out of all the mediums and processes I have used in my creative practice over the years I have found photography the most complex and hardest to learn, it is not just the technology although this can be difficult due to its range and scope and the unrelenting technical changes and developments but the notion that you are essentially capturing light which is such an ethereal thing. The image we see in a photograph is derived from light, a light that is refracted, reflected and transmitted, a light that makes things visible, a light that creates colours through the admixture or absorption of the primaries blue, red and green, a light and it’s absence that gives us shade, mid-tones and highlights, we do not see an ‘actual’ subject but instead its reaction to light and subsequent emission or radiance of the reflected light. Light for me is an intangible thing, continually changing, to best capture its delight and maddening radiance requires the photographers eye, an eye that requires plenty of training and in time becomes instinctual, my eye is not quite as instinctual as the eye of photographers I most admire.

Returning back to the notion of photography as object, is the capturing and rendering of light onto film or a digital sensor only the start of the process of making and the final resulting print is the object or can we view just the taking of a photograph as an actual objectification in its own right. I guess where I am going with this line of thought is when we click the shutter button on a camera the capture of an image it becomes an object at that very moment or can this only happen in the processing of the image and its final output, the print.  If it is process and output what kind of output could be classed as an object, does it need to be an ‘actual’ object or can it be a ‘virtual’ object, does the image have to be a print on paper or can it be an image rendered on a computer screen. Is it the process that defines the outcome of an object and it’s worth, intent and meaning to a particular audience. Is the subject capture altered by a given photographic process, can a subject be viewed in different ways by subjecting it to different processes, can a subject be made lesser or more by a process? Finally is photograph defined by its subject and/or by it’s process and the object it might become, lots of questions.

This leads me onto Susan Sontag‘s ‘On Photography’ in how she considers photography as our “consciousness in its acquisitive mood” and “photographs are experience captured”. I like to see or think of photography as my experiences captured and translated into images, passing moments of being in a particular place and time and my response to it, moments illuminated and captured onto film or a digital sensor. Is this the point a photograph becomes an object, its capture of experience, of subject, of a particular location and time or does photography become an object through a subsequent or particular process, or is it an object when it becomes a physical, a print, something made ‘real’. I wonder if the notion of photography as object has come about as a reaction to the digitalisation and virtualisation of the medium, the wish to retreat to craft and the past, to gain acceptation from the art market and offer the notion of something that is real and physical?

Craft can be reactive, regressive and superficial lacking in concept and subject and seeks only material, the textural, process, and form as its main governance. It can seem to seek sanctuary in the past, a pre-industrialised age and now a pre-digital idyll. It aesthetics can veer towards the pretty, a superficial beauty of the hand made and a fetish for nostalgia, a sentimentality for the uncomplicated that is subject to all kinds of mannerism. I also believe that craft can engage with the modern world, a world that is not always pretty and accepts that things are mass produced, life can be banal and hard, things are complicated. A craft that is not for its own sake but in service of a subject, that has content and an intellectual depth can offer something new that is sustainable and substantial. A craft that engages with the present, with new technologies can afford new possibilities and directions. A craft that challenges its specialism, that is open minded, that does not mind being subservient to intellect and concept. Craft employed in photography in the making of photographic prints can undermined or enhance a photographic image, it will not make a bad photograph better, it is an addition to or an alteration of the original image.

In Joerg Colberg’s excellent article ‘On Process’ posted on his blog Conscientious Extended http://jmcolberg.com/weblog/extended/archives/on_process  he looks at photography as object, the photographic process of image making. He argues that through process along one cannot achieve an interesting photograph and that process can get in the way of making interesting work. Joerg uses tintype as an example for his discussion, a process that is currently having a revival and creates one off individual crafted photographs, a process that is now mimicked as an Hipstamatic tintype filter that be used on an iPhone to alter a photograph for social sharing media sites. What he argues is that all process in photography are really just filters, an addition to the captured image and the true essence of photography is the image, a good photograph, of being in the right place at the right time and the subsequent meaning and the emotion behind the image. It does not matter if you use an iPhone or a 8” x 10” large format view camera, it does not matter if you hold an original print or see the image on a computer screen, if the photograph is bad or indifferent the process will not make it any better, but a process can enhance an image when subject and process/filter are carefully married. Joerg Colberg references Sally Mann’s Photographs of her husbands body documenting his illness when a particular process suited the subject, the process added something to an already interesting subject and photograph and it was not just done for the sake of process for process sake, and using a process to mask or give a stylistic effect to an indifferent photographs, style over content.

Tin plate and wet plate photography processes heavily define what type of photograph is made, the process or filter limits the type subject matter that can be captured. Often when viewing wet plate photography everything can look similar and this is down to two reasons. The process requires the photographic plate to remain wet  and this limits the time between the preparation of the photographic plate and the time it must be exposed and then processed, this technical issue can lead to the work being confined to the studio that close to the darkroom. Some more adventurous photographers have devised a portable darkroom to overcome the limitations of wet plate photography so they can work on location pushing the process and opening it up to other forms of subject matter. The other issue is wet plate photography requires a long exposure due to the sensitivity of the medium under UV light. The resulting work is usually of immobile portraiture or still life, there are few examples of landscape but very little depicting modern society and its subject matter which is always in a constant flux. Wet plate photography has taken on certain pictorial mannerisms, people look like cowboys or indians, the imagery captured seems to have a gothic like veneer which some may like but I struggle with. That said even after listing a series of issues with wet plate photography when you actually see a plate the quality of the print and its definition it is quite bind blowing, there is no grain and no film or digital output I have seen to date comes close in the quality of the image. Wet plate like any craft orientated process needs to be taken out of its comfort zone, engage in the now and present, find new subjects and not used just for the effect and filter, a method and process over content and subject. A couple of other photographers besides Sally Mann who are pushing wet plate as a photographic medium are Ian Ruhter are http://ianruhter.tumblr.com and Joni Sternbach http://www.jonisternbach.com both have taken the process out of the studio, both are embracing everyday life, both try to go beyond the usual stylistic clichés that can burden alternative process photography.

Joerg Colberg also looks at the work of Ansel Adams and his monumental landscapes, he is a little bit hard on  the work of Ansel Adams but in an understandable way. I think the problem is not so much with Ansel Adams but the photographers who followed and aped his ‘style’ and slavishly following to the zone method of working and an obsession with a certain depth of field to capture the ‘vista’ with little thought for pushing and questioning content or context. A photographic style that is similar in mind set to that of the national parks that most of the photographs were taken in, a style and a landscape that is frozen in time, unaltered and pastiched, removed and fenced off from the chaos of modern society. The black and white photographs of Adams have now been superseded by digital colour photography of sickly coloured sunsets, rivers frozen in motion, landscape porn for the empty headed and unimaginative. Ansel Adams’s work was once deemed radical as he sought to raise environmental concerns through his landscape photography has become trophy destinations for an army of amateur photographs that seek only a postcard likeness of a place.

I am ‘guilty’ of using process in my own work for effect sometimes, I am a sucker for technology old and new be it cameras or computer imaging, I am a resolution junkie and yes I am guilty of zooming in 100% knowing what I see will never be seen in a print. I enjoy using all forms of technology be it kit or process but in the service of the subject and concept to produce interesting and challenging images rather than using it to gain a stylistic look or effect and to try a make indifferent work somehow better. How do you balance the subject, the process/making and concept to define your practice and imagery, can you truly make the technology and processes of photography the servant of your ideas and should you? One issue with photography is it is a relatively a new medium and it has been driven by technology advances born in the industrial revolution and has changed at a rapid pace, I would say it is the most technology orientated of all the art forms and we have reached an interesting point where we need to perhaps balance this technology with the creative intent, with being human in the digital age. Some contemporary art photographers have gone to the extreme and refute any mention of process in their work as to do so would be deemed crass and anti-intellectual, while others are nothing but process in the work and discussions about it, they are part of the mechanics, a machine operator. These new technologies keep on challenging us and the medium of photography, some choose to ignore current imaging technologies by either choosing a conceptual ivory tower or return to a pre digital past and immerse themselves in a craft oriented process but I feel we need to have a balanced dialogue between technology and the creative practice.

In trying to help myself steer through all the contradictions, dead ends, possibilities of contemporary art practice and by extension photography I have created a holy trinity of the three main elements of creativity that might help me frame my creative work and they concept, subject and process/make in no particular order, I hope that neither one element will dominate the other elements in the hope to remain open to all possibilities. In the next part of the essay I wish to look at the pitfalls and also the advantages of trying to interweave the different elements of concept, subject and process/making in the creative process.

Lets deal with concept first, alone can led to dogma and something that can be boring visually, an art without form or humour, too earnest for its own good. In art schools today the emphasis is on soft skills rather than hard skills, students can easily think up of an idea and devise a concept but struggle to execute and make it in a persuading manner and instead to compensate for the lack of hard skills bad painting is now championed and the ready made is king. Concept alone can also be limiting not only emotionally but also visually, the quest for intellect can be at the expense of the instinctual and curiosity. But when a conceptual underpinning is carefully interwoven with making and process interesting and new narratives can be derived, a heathy questioning of what makes us human and how we interact with each other and our environment. In photography it can help define a project, a subject, and it also can help us understand how things tick and form new insights our work and offer interesting distillations from the residue of the subject matter and the making processes.

Concept driven photography or ‘set-up’ photography can offer new possibilities but it can be stilted and dry which sometimes becomes an aesthetic creed, an intellectual territorial scent mark, that said in the hands of an artist like Man Ray it can be playful and poetic. Reading Tod Papageorge’s Core Curriculum published by the Aperture Foundation I came across a reprint of an interview by Alec Soth of Tod Papageorge that was first posted on Alec Soth’s blog http://alecsothblog.wordpress.com on the 11th of July 2007. Tod Papageorge noted in the interview that he has seen new possibilities in the ‘set-up’ photograph in his students at Yale University but noted that “the set-up picture is that it leaves the matter of content to the imagination of the photographer, a faculty that, in my experience, is generally deficient compared to the mad swirling possibilities that our dear common world kicks up at us on a regular basis” continuing with this train of thought Tod Papageorge concludes “believing that the mind-constructed photograph almost necessarily leads to illustration, the very epitome of aura-art.”

It reminds my of my past painting practice and the ‘set-up picture’ ahas an image that was a artefact of my imagination rather than something chanced upon which I currently do in my photographic practice, something that was internal rather than external, that of the studio rather than being outside and on in situ. Concept driven photography might be about control and being distant and safe from the chaos of the outside world, the artist is centre stage of things rather being just a bit player and engaging with other things beyond their own conceits. I have done very few ‘set-up’ photographs and they have been mostly still-lives, the work done to date holds very little appeal for me being a bit too contrived, the confines of the studio are for me too limiting and I prefer to work outside in the world with all it chanced distractions. My own imagination has little compared to what I happen upon in the ‘real’ world and the sheer mind-boggling wonder of the everyday. That said photographers like Jeff Wall, Gregory Crewdson, Cindy Sherman, Thomas Demand and Boyd Webb to name a few have moulded their subject to their concept in interesting ways, the set-up picture in their hands has offered new narratives and possibilities. The interesting thing looking at some of the art ‘set-up’ photography is that it has a very high technical standards that are not dissimilar to that employed in commercial product photography where the intent is to sell a product through visual mass consumerism and advertising.

After a couple of paragraphs considering concept lets look ‘subject’ alone devoid of concept and process, could subject based photography be the type that is uploaded and viewed on social media sites like Face Book and Tumblr and their main purpose is one of instant and deposable visual communication. The photographs are usually taken on the so called ‘smart’ phone and the images can be fun and insightful. The smart phone is the new Box Brownie of our time capturing intimate lives of family and friends but the photographs can also be aimless, careless and artless. Citizen journalism, a new buzz word built around an idea that anyone can now photograph world events and publish them at all times and in all places simultaneously, a future were news made and shaped by the viewer. But with this deluge from the digital capture there is often has no tense or meaning, no contextualising and little in the way of framing or composition, just an innate need to communication visually everything and nothing and the important issues of our day can be lost in the flood of trivial and empty headed imagery that swamp our senses.

The subject can also be the source of the emotion content of the creative act, the reference and anchor or the story and the narrative of the human condition. To fully understand a subject we have to rationalise it, to put it in some kind of context so that it becomes more than just a description and a simple illustration and have something of substance. The response to a subject can be measured or it can be intuitive. A subject can be the story or be part of a story, something by association. In photography I am interested in how I engage with a subject and how I capture it, Eva Arnold said in an interview with the BBC about the relationship between photographer and subject “it is the photographer, not the camera, that is the instrument”. If we work on the principle that the photographer is the instrument that defines how a subject is capture, not only the photographers eye but their very presence can change the dynamics of the situation and the subject. A subject is not fixed and it is in constant change, its very flux makes it apt for the medium of photography. What concept brings to the subject is meaning and context, process and making brings form and realisation, to make it available to others to see the subject and respond to.

Lastly lets look at process which alone can led to mannerism, a fetishism with technology and the object, the production of infantile and unimaginative imagery. But learning a process well can allow for more thoughtful photography, the fundamental techniques in photography of knowing aperture, shutter speed, focal length, composition and light can capture a subject in a new ways and push what was thought possible when capturing a moment in time. It is interesting when you see a professional photographer use a smart phone, the resulting images hold and captivate you, why, they know how to engage with a subject and frame it in an interesting way, they know the language of their medium and bring insight and invention to this new device.

It is a careful balance all the above elements; concept, subject and process that make an interesting photograph for me, just to snap shot a subject or be singular in objectifying and conceptualising the medium is not enough for me. Photography’s technology is inherently utilitarian and its application is open to all, being open to all has undermined the medium to some and viewed it too unworthy to be considered an art form, the art world like the craft community sometimes has an irrational fear of technology and the unskilled, something that is not unique. Some photographers have over compensate the assumed simplicity of photography be employing complex working practices, rare materials, overt craft processes or sought high minded conceptual theories to validate their work to their peers. The idea of photography as object has always been present in photography but I feel it has taken on a new emphasis in the age of the digital, seen as either as a craft orientated approach to validate a medium in reaction to the deluge of imagery on the web or as a conceptual re-imagining of the photographic process as employed in ‘set-up’ photography.

I will leave this post now as I need to off and ponder on things further that have been thrown up whilst writing and investigating this article but at least it is a start at looking at certain issues that are making me pause every now and again.