By Joerg Colberg
You might have noticed that certain topics serve as strange attractors of contemporary photography discussions. They just keep going (or coming back), again and again. There is nothing particularly wrong with this per se, because there are quite a few topics we still need to figure out. But those topics aren’t the one frequently discussed. Instead, it’s Instagram and whether or not that’s helping or hurting photography, or Google Street View and whether or not that’s even photography. You get the idea. To be honest, what frustrates me about those kinds of discussions is not that I don’t want to talk about Instagram or Google Street View. I do think there are quite a few aspects that deserve to be discussed. But there are only so many articles I can take about whether or not Google Street View is photography or not, or what “curation” might mean in the digital age. How about talking about the merit of that work? (more)
Just to give one example, how come Doug Rickard presents his Google Street View images as a “New” American Picture, and nobody asks whether that’s actually true? What is new about them? How come nobody starts poking behind the pixelated aesthetic to see what we’re actually looking at, to see whether any of those claims made about the tradition of street photography, say, make sense?
Mind you, this is of course just what I am interested in. I don’t look at other people’s Google Street View images to see Google Street View images, because frankly, I can make my own, thank you very much. I’m looking at other people’s Google Street View images to see whether any of those artists is telling me something I didn’t think of before, something that might move me, in whatever way. And I do believe that there actually is something to be gained from doing that.
How can one go about that, though? Mind you, I’m fully aware that writing about photography can be a most tedious endeavour, especially online, where nobody wants to pay a cent for anything and where it’s more important to stir up a quick debate about some drama, about some scandal or controversy. But that aside, assuming one has convinced oneself that one wants to or needs to go about it, how can this be approached? It seems safe to say that there really is no recipe. But there might be different approaches, and I have spent a little time thinking about mine – trying to understand why I do things a certain way.
The very question I ask myself when looking at some photography, or maybe more accurately when starting to think about writing about some photography is “Is it interesting?” I’m sure a lot of people will think that’s possibly the most vague question to start out with, but it’s a very useful litmus test: Is it interesting? There’s a lot of photography that, frankly, is not very interesting at all; and when you are going to devote hours of your time writing about it, it better be interesting.
Note that when you ask whether something is interesting you don’t ask whether it’s good or bad. Something can be good or bad and interesting at the same time. The moment you realize something is interesting, a threshold has been crossed: Something that’s interesting invites you to engage with it. And I firmly believe that good writing about photography should engage with it (instead of, say, regurgitating the press release).
The next question then is: Why is this interesting? Turns out this is the wheat-and-chaff question, at least for me. If something is merely interesting because it employs some interesting technology I usually toss it aside right away. I’m not very interested in writing about technology. Plus, as I indicated above, there’ll be enough articles about that topic anyway.
This brings us into the fun territory then: I know something is interesting, and it’s not just some cool technology. What exactly is it then that’s interesting about some body of work? Here, finally good and bad enter: Is this good or bad? And if it’s good or bad what makes it interesting? Crucially: Do these photographs tell me something I didn’t know before? Or do they merely reconfirm my own beliefs?
Mind you, the “new” here is not the shiny new. There is a reason why after all these years, people still write about love (or create photographs or music or whatever else about it): It’s really not a new topic at all. But there still is that vast field of opportunity where you can say something new, bring something to the table that shines new light on it, explores or expresses love a bit more.
I’m looking for that kind of new in photography. The new in the sense of “this is brand-new, we have never seen anything like this before” tends to wear off rather rapidly, and often (usually?) there is little underneath. This particular new unfortunately has come to dominate our consumption-based culture, it drives most of our media. I’m personally not so interested in that. The “we haven’t seen this before” usually has no lasting power, because the next day it becomes the “Oh, we saw that yesterday.”
And combining the new – the one that shines a new light on something, the one that has me reconsider what I take for granted – along with the judgment that something is good or bad is what makes me write. There, I said it, there’s judgment involved. But I believe that good writing asks for judgment: Have an opinion already! Make sure there actually is something at stake!
Just like good art is centered on the fact that there actually is something at stake (photography where there’s nothing at stake inevitably just isn’t interesting), good writing must not shy away from taking a risk.
However, my writing is just that: My writing, the writing that’s coming from me, of course is based on my judgments, which can be – and often are – ridiculously flawed. That’s just the way it is. I know that that’s the case, and I do it regardless. I don’t want to be flawed, and every piece of writing brings me a little bit closer to being slightly less flawed in that particular aspect I was writing about (while, possibly, bringing me much closer to be flawed in all kinds of other ways).
But I do believe that to produce writing, hopefully good writing, one needs to be able to lean out of the window and just live with the risk of making a fool of oneself. Here’s the thing, the moment you don’t want to just write about the usual controversies online, the moment you want to steer a debate to talking about merit – that very moment, something is at stake, because inevitably a lot of people will disagree with you.
But we need to talk about merit, not because to establish merit (that’s not to interesting to me – it’s like handing out prizes), but to bring us all a bit closer to having thought about that particular topic. What might the merit be? Even if I disagree about the merit people see in something, why do I disagree? And that’s what we need in photography: A closer, a better understanding of what we’re looking at, way underneath the surface of “is this photography?” or “is this ruining photography?”.