The revolution “that has not happened” – yet?

Digital photography: the revolution “that has not happened” – yet?

Jörg Colberg presents wonderfully understated flick-through videos of photobooks on YouTube. And on the Conscientious weblog he regularly presents reviews of photobooks and on Conscientious Extended he offere further posts on photography and photographers. On that site (June 12, 2012) he put out a challenging post, asking why the advent of digital had not provoked more of a revolution in photography.

It is a stimulating read but perhaps not as provocative as Jörg himself hoped. I think this is because it takes in too many targets at once: the present waves of nostalgia are not quite the same thing as the “conservativism” that Jörg feels photography as whole suffers from. Jörg reminds us: We’re all photographers now. Every photo has already been taken. Much of what is called “new” is no more new than a detergent that has been repackaged under the slogan “NEW!” and asks: Where is the photography after photography to come from?

There follow some rather vague complaints about the way technology produces a kind of ersatz-newness. I am not sure enough of what exactly Jörg has in mind to be able to offer comment. Instead I want to start my response by doing a riff on Jörg’s comparison of photography with music. In particular, I want to pick up on a clever comparison in the last line of his blog: the search for the new within jazz and the persistent popularly of Dixieland.

In music a digital evolution has indeed given us a range of new possibilities: digital enhancement, sampling, piracy, synching and stretching sounds in new ways. But has it really changed the way in which we listen ? Perhaps we are still a generation away from learning whether the generation happy to walk through crowded streets plugged into Mp3 players will really expect something different from music.

Before computers made much of an impact, early synthesizers emulated older, analogue, instruments while at the same time making us accustomed us to new, techno sounds. And they still required a good deal of skill to play well. Manipulating music digitally on a computer is an even more complex process. It is not difficult to understand the skill and discipline involved. And in the analogue world, anyone who can coax magic from a fiddle / violin still has a huge aura.

Music (and dance) might seem really democratic, accessible forms of creativity but photography is not only more accessible. It is actually easier. “You press the button, we do the rest” promised Kodak in 1905. This meant that from the first we learnt to appreciate and to find room in our albums for even our mistakes. Accident, chance, experiment, even risk were built into the medium from the time of the first Box Brownie.

Jörg likes Kraftwerk, the German 1980s techno-pop band. I think that they are meant to be an example of something new that heralded a technological revolution (or at least innovation). Well, I am not sure. I liked Kraftwerk… then… in the 1980s. They were fun. Not radical. Just fun. Bahn, bahn, bahn, on the Autobahn... They tapped into the connection between music and motors, the ‘muscle’ of mechanical rhythms… They weren’t challenging or mind-blowing. Their rhythms were really old-fashioned. They were fun. And successful. They spawned imitation and, along with that, also innovation.

But imagine a technology that really made all existing, analog, musical instruments easy to play. I suspect that the musical equivalent of Flickr would be filled with quite a lot of Dixieland. And doesn’t YouTube have an awful lot of teenagers re-inventing Heavy Metal?

In Huddersfield, not far from where I live, they hold an annual festival of new and experimental musicAudiences for such music are tiny and I am not sure that it is that kind of experimentation that is pushing music forward. In fact, thinking about music makes me pause for thought: does music need to be pushed forward? Does any art need a sense of direction anymore? We are curious about change. We admire innovation but I am really not sure that the very notion of a “forward” has not itself past its sell-by-date.

Having vast libraries of music is now something which not only the rich aspire to. Most music collections range across time and place. It is not just that “world music” has grown in popularity but access to more music has educated listeners to the importance of cross-fertilisation. Fusion is one of the most beloved words in the music world.

The past is another country. They do things differently there.
L. P. Hartley

Perhaps the real revolution is in the geography of the past. It does not recede from the present at quite the same pace as it did through most of the 20thC. Why should this be?

Well, partly we no longer believe in technology in the way we once did. Jörg’s disappointment with digital photography seems itself nostalgic. That kind of hope was surely more or less exhausted by the 1960s as the last waves of late Modernism were circulated at the height of the Cold War.

And the ideological hopes, fears, and divisions of that period have been transformed, haven’t they? No, we have not seen the ‘end of ideology’ but the divides of our century do have different feel, don’t they? The proliferation of archives of every sort means that history is less easy to transmute into myth. Hope has lost some of its innocence.

Revolution? What revolution?

The idea that art must push forward is a legacy of the ideological struggles of the last century. There really was an “avant-garde’… many, in fact. Left-wing, right-wing. Photographic history was dominated by exiles of one sort of another. A Hungarian wave of photographers fled the first Fascist revolution in 1920 (Kertész, Brassaï, Munkácsi) and supplied the first photomagazines (key figure: Stefan Lorant). The Soviet avant-garde, the Bauhaus. Artist ambition and political hopes (and fear) were so closely bound up in that period.

In my last post on Atget and Kertész I wrote about the wonderful moment in 1927 when the Surrealists discovered the antiquated majesty and mystery of Atget’s prints AND the extraordinary possibilities being explored by Kertész and the new Leica 35mm camera. Actually Kertész had anticipated the innovation of the Leica. He had dreamt of and conjured up the kind of candid, vital camerawork which it made easy. Kertész’s 35mm revolution extended across half a century.

Kertész elaborated so many new possibilities. Before WW11 overtook them he, and Brassaï and Cartier-Bresson and their kind, had marked out the new geometry of photographic space and compiled a huge thesaurus of photographic visual elements. They had completed the primer in the photographic language we have been ‘speaking’ ever since.

And, if you want to communicate, you do need to respect – conserve – the language, the tradition. Even if your aims are experimental.

Jörg updated his thoughts H E R E and, then, on Twitter appealed for contributions to this debate. This is has been mine.

What happened to the artistic ambition in the medium? Why is so much of that ambition directed backwards, towards the photographic past? Where is the drive to go forward?

Jörg, we love the achievements of the past because it was tied to such huge – and as it now seem, naïve ambitions. Jörg complains of contemporary photography…

… it seems so free of ambition. Or maybe more fairly, the ambition contained in that approach seems to be so, well, small. Where’s the passion… ?

Jörg, there is plenty of it about. It may be hard to distinguish from the flood of imitations that clog up the distribution channels. But it is out there. Beautiful work is being done. Bill Viola and Sam Taylor Wood have both made me cry. Are they the way forward? I am not looking for a way forward, Jörg.

Let me finish with a few further thoughts on why “forward” is not necessarily the way to go.

Revolutions, as Walter Benjamin reminded us, are a leap into the past. (Tigersprung ins Vergangene.) Most revolutionaries are, in one way or another, fundamentalists… demanding a return to fundamentals. Re-collection… I will leave that thought there…

And then real innovation does not ‘push back the boundaries’. But it does often mark out those boundaries. And then that leaves it to the future to go over the terrain so marked out. James Joyce’s Ullyses is an encyclopaedia of innovations and experiments which novelist ever since have been able to plunder and re-apply. Whole prize-winning novels have been spun out of applying just one of his innumerable experiments consistently across a whole novel.

In photography, too, the greats of the past seem so much more radical than those of the present. To be a true innovator it is necessary to grasp that there is in the past so much with which we still have to catch up. That is the beauty of experimentation.


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