> Understanding our Visual culture
> Mediation and Acceptors to Creators
> Brands and Rarity?
> The Slipperiness of Digital
> Culturally Confident Messaging
> In Spite of the Authentic
> Writing for the Broadsheets
> Photography Remains a Cottage Industry
> Most Images are Valueless
> After the Big Bang do we only have camera operators?
> We have got to a very odd position
Francis Hodgson is a photography critic for the Financial Times, Professor in the Culture of Photography at the University of Brighton, and the former Head of Photographs at Sotheby’s, London. A specialist in photography of many years standing, he is unusual in having worked at a senior level both in the cultural and in the commercial aspects of photography.
Francis was for some years the manager of the print room at The Photographers Gallery in London. He later founded and directed Zwemmer Fine Photographs, a gallery specialising in photography, and has worked with several other galleries.
Francis was also director of photography at Photonica, a major stock image library, where he was responsible for opening up the stock photography market to more artistic photography than had been considered possible. He was also at one time director of content at Eyestorm, the online art dealership. He has acted as representative and agent to photographers, and has been a writer and broadcaster on photography for many years.
Understanding our Visual culture
FH: I find myself concerned, as the new evolution of photography blends all sorts of points of views together, that the old photographic culture is beginning to be dissolved.
There is a phrase that I have been using rather a lot, and I hope it resonates with you. I worry about the “Digital Soup”: that, increasingly, people are expected to be adept at the whole Mac culture. It no longer matters so much whether they come from a sound background, a journalism background, a photography background, or what have you. Gradually we are losing each separate chunk of all that as no longer very relevant.
The old crafts of photography, which were anchored in a 150-year-old cultural rooting, have very quickly been dissolved into a shallower digital rooting, which has got a 10-year-old background and which leans much less on previous culture. This comes from the culture of sampling in music 20 years ago. It became possible to say, “I am a practising musician” without any culture in music. That little cultural shift is most important. It is now possible – indeed it is quite common – to be a photographer without being literate in photography. That leads to all sorts of misapprehensions about what it means to archive pictures, publish pictures, distribute pictures, and so on. That is where I thought we should start…
NFS: That is perfect. Your column in the Financial Times provides an influential voice on photography, and hopefully will provide an important perspective to NEWFOTOSCAPES. It is true that we should not forget our lineage, but equally we must locate it in a broader context to help us achieve our future potential.
FH: Remember, I used to work at Sotheby’s. Central for me, or at least to one aspect of my interest, remains the object itself. I do think that a photograph is something very, very different when it has a physical corporeal actuality. A lot of how a photograph came to be is visible in how it physically is.
At the deep core, I believe that photography is about communication. If you are trying to communicate something at any serious level, there has got to be a shared cultural… it is not quite ‘language’. That is not quite the right word, but let’s call it ‘language’ for the time being. An artist who sends things out into the world, asking people to use all of the resources of their visual culture to make sense of it, but who does not herself put deep visual culture into the output of it, is asking too much of viewers.
My worry, if you like, in that first paragraph that I gave you, is that the very traditional Brassaï night-time photographs of the street in Paris are interpretable by people with a shared culture to Brassaï. By diving into your own visual culture, you can make sense that he has dived into his culture, and there is a meeting.
Where it is not clear which culture the originator has mined before making an image available, either by un-archiving it or otherwise re-releasing it, whichever modern form we are talking about, then it is impossible for the receiver of that picture to receive it fully.
People are being asked still to use rich and complex resources of a visual culture to unpick images, but the people who are sending them out are not using rich and deep resources of visual culture to offer them up. You get miscommunication built into the systems themselves. That is a bit of a worry. It is a bit alarming.
On the other hand, the old-fashioned version of it was very traditional. It was rather tied to distribution mechanisms. If you read Picture Post or Life magazine, you expected a certain kind of imagery.
If you saw again a picture you first saw there in a museum 30 years later, it had become a very different thing. We understand that. That is okay. Pictures had that shift, much more than any other medium of communication… There is no context in which a pop song doesn’t look like a pop song; But there are contexts in which photographs don’t look like the thing they were sent out as. They change much more.
If you pick up a novel by Thackeray and you read it on a train or you read it in a class, it still has the same basic cultural weight. That is not true of photographs. It is very important that photographs actually change. Even if you only see an excerpted bit of a theatre on YouTube, it still has the platonic idea of the theatre all over it. That is not true of photographs. This great suppleness that digital has offered people, has come at a price. The price is that the context of the photograph, which was so important to how we used, received and read them, is now more slippery than ever.
There are various huge pleasures in that shift, but there are risks and dangers in it, too.
Mediation and Acceptors to Creators
NFS: Pleasures, like your recent observations on autochromes?
FH: Yes, autochromes have come back into fashion, and the reason they have come back into fashion is that now we are used to looking at photographs on a screen.
The idea of things being backlit is comprehensible to an iPad user in the way that autochromes had not been comprehensible for 100 years. Autochromes were weird. You always saw them in a book and you could not understand why they were magical. Only when you went to the V&A could you see one on a light box and ‘get’ these things. Now, everybody sees them the way they were meant to be seen.
NFS: That article perhaps acts as a reminder of how the object is changed when mediated by the screen. There is a nice collusion of traditions which when they come together they offer up something new?
FH: Of course. I hear that and in fact I am inclined to agree that it is on the plus side of the ledger. It used to be that the various contexts that photography reached us in were themselves very familiar tools. It was a magazine, it was a book, it was a poster, or whatever it was, but you knew that the photographs formed a part of the channel whereby pictures reached you, which was a defining part of the job that the pictures were doing.
A picture, which might have great cultural breadth and depth, was only using a bit of that when it was being used in a poster. It was using more of that when it was being used in a magazine. When you are looking at pictures on a tablet, even if you know how to reinvent that former context, the real context remains yours. My delight is that much more responsibility now sticks with the receiver of a photograph, to the point where I am now beginning to argue that the receivers (users, consumers…) of photographs are more important in doing things to them than the photographer. That is an incredible point to reach.
NFS: And in terms of doing things, you mean reproducing?
FH: More than that. If you like, the dominant tendency for the acceptor of the picture at the moment is the reworking and remining of things which are wrongly called ‘archives’. Many of the ‘archives’ that are mined for great interest were not archived by anybody. They are just piles of pictures. There is no fixed context attached to a picture other than the new one that I give to it when I push it out into the world again. That context is no longer dependent on the tablet, the book or the poster. It is to do with an intellectual cloth that I give with the picture. There are many examples of reattributing pictures to a new context where that becomes more interesting than the former context (or the contexts in the plural) that they had. That is a result of the digital revolution, but it is one which is very poorly understood at the moment. My sense is that if you are a subscriber to the New York Times, the pictures arrive at you, ready for you to turn them into something; whereas, they used to arrive at you with a New York Times imprimatur on them saying, “Here is your picture of the day.”
If you go for a walk on a beach and pick up a piece of driftwood, no creator is involved in the pleasure you get from that piece of driftwood. As a receiver, you are your own artist. Equally, of course, there is no expectation of it communicating to you. There has always been an element of that in photography. The most obvious example of that is ‘happenstance’. If you found a picture – wherever – which happened to look like your deceased great-grandfather, it would move you in ways that were not in the control of any photographer. It would move you for reasons that were internal to you. I think that model has become the general model in content in photography. It is no longer much to do with what it was before. Have you seen Want: Kasmin’s book of postcards, on beggars from around Europe?
NFS: As in the Art Dealer?
FH: Yes. John Kasmin. The book is a collection of early postcards of beggars, but really put into the context of this famous art dealer with his own quite exceptionally broad visual culture. These things acquire tremendous traction which they never had as post card studies of beggars. That is the new model of message holding. The old idea was that somebody wanted to say something to you, and the new idea is that all pictures come to you equally and you can make something of them if you wish to. That seems to me very, very new. That is digital.
Brands and Rarity?
NFS: Are the current shifts affecting perceptions of value within photography?
FH: My thoughts are (no doubt like your own) not yet fully formed in that area. I would say this. The old values in photography were essentially, craft values. A picture was valuable because it had a long apprenticeship behind it and it had the kudos of an editor, owner or a distributor putting an imprimatur on it. Those values were cobbled together from things – borrowed from painting, borrowed from ordinary crafts, and borrowed from silversmithing or engraving. That is under threat. If you look, there has been a vast split between the new values ascribed to photographic art and the low values that still remain on photographic trade and commerce.
Superficially, at one and the same time, the Corbis model of a picture, selling many times but for small amounts of money, is competing with a picture allegedly selling very few times but for huge sums. As it happens, I don’t think that the latter model is quite true, and this is something which is complex. If you care to hear, my thought is that the art model, where we are told that such and such a picture sells for $1 million or more, is not quite so. The reason it is not so is because it used to be that rarity was the great motor for value in the art world. It is not anymore.
Now, there is a branding phenomenon which has pushed rarity to the side. To be very crude about it, if you look at Warhol’s ‘Silkscreens’, there are only very few purple Elvises. You have a purple Elvis, I have a green Liz and he has a red Queen. Actually, there are really quite a lot of the branded ‘Warhol Silkscreens’. The limited edition which was supposed to base its appeal on rarity has been split. There is a limited edition, but there are an unlimited number of variants of that edition.
If you buy a Ferrari and I buy a Ferrari, they purport to be pretty rare compared to Mondeos, but they are not actually rare things. My Ferrari is the same as yours, basically. The rare one, which would be the handcrafted motor car, made by a bloke in a garage on his own, may be a better car than a Ferrari, but you will never get it sold because there is no branding on it. That is what has happened in the art world.
I think there are something fewer than 50 Vermeers in museum collections. Vermeers are really incredibly rare. He did not paint very many pictures. There are hundreds and hundreds of Rineke Dijkstra pictures of teenagers, because even though each one is restricted to 6 or 10 or 15 or whatever in the edition, actually it does not much matter to most owners whether they have one or another. There are few in the edition, but lots in the ‘Super Edition’. That is a model which has not been digitised. That is a model which purports to be derived from things we’re well used to: the limited supply that existed for editioned bronzes, for example, but re-worked to fit an era in which branding is far more important a motor than rarity.
NFS: You mentioned that low values for commerce and trade have remained?
FH: The commercial model, the Getty Images model has been digitised. It is really quite difficult now to say there is great value even to a fashion photographer because his client sits over the screen and edits as he goes. Again, it is the receiver of the pictures who ‘controls’ them, and in a very real sense authors them. In the commercial context, there is a more formal badge: “I am paying for this, so I am the receiver with a title”. The art world still has the old values stuck within it; whereas, the other distribution methods for photography, taking their lead from Flickr, where there is almost no value to things and they are free to be turned into whatever anybody wants to turn them into, show the new values.
It used to be that people worried whether photography was an art form or not. Fine: it won that battle a long time ago and there was no problem identifying that some photographic activities were assuredly artistic in nature. Now, photography is merely content that goes down a number of different channels and only the most traditional channel – which is itself branded through Sotheby’s, Christie’s and the gallery network – still has the old habits attached.
The Slipperiness of Digital
NFS: Are you comfortable with the pluralities associated with photography?
FH: I revel in those pluralities, but I think the difficulty comes when a treatment slips from one to another without it being clear that it has done so. I absolutely love the idea that a picture can be all things to all men, and I note that it is the vindication of 150 years of photography being thought to be marginal, which it clearly is not any more and has not been for some time. But I did like the idea that things were defined by the channel in which they were. I did like the idea that your Brassaï on a book cover was different to your Brassaï in a museum. Now that these things slip and slide from context so easily and so quickly and with so little signposting, I worry that their very rich communication power is diminished because people have to see “the lowest common denominator” or “the easiest reading”. It all comes back to something which I thought had long gone, and as it does so, photography’s status in each context looks like the junior partner. Photographs are becoming once again dependent on the words that go with them in each context.
Professionally, I am a reader of photographs. I am a specialist reader of photographs. I have spent a long time saying to people: “You don’t need words to go with them if only you read them carefully enough.” That does not seem to be the case anymore. Much more than I expected, the digital revolution has put words in the forefront and has reduced pictures to a job illustrating whichever concept fits them at any one time. That is a retrograde step that I was not expecting. Your Walker Evans was completely able to stand without a caption, or with only the slightest kind of caption, but everybody who read a Walker Evans ‘Subway’ picture knew the context, the love and affection for mankind of the photographer, and the slightly sneery curiosity. Everything was in the pictures.
Now, if you look at Mishka Henner reworking things off Google, nothing is just in the pictures. They have to stand with their own explanation. That is a little bit of a regret to me. I suppose the graph that I would draw you, if you don’t mind my saying it this way, as it is a bit crude, is to say that through the last 50 years of the 20th century, photography was by far the most important medium of communication that there was. It was far more important than prose, far more important than the cinema. Photography was the shared culture of everybody. Perhaps the only equivalents would have been the other great hybrid media, music and architecture, which everybody was free to understand in the same way.
Photography, of course, has diminished a little bit in importance because it has been pushed out of the way by younger cousins in imaging, of which the late model, cinema, is one, but there are lots of others, including video games. What I did not expect was that as it has come away from the forefront and is less avant-garde, photography has reverted to its 19th century position of constantly needing explanation with it. That is because of this slipperiness of digital. We are no longer able to rely on a photograph being what it is in a context because its context won’t be the same as that from which is being received.
Culturally Confident Messaging
NFS: But equally is the photographer not more responsible for understanding the context of the work that they are making? Previously, the decisions over a contact sheet would’ve be made by the picture editor in the context of their magazine; whereas now, in this multiple channel scenario, there is not only a changing of relationships with the audience based upon their preferences as receivers but also the channels they tune in to. Therefore the photographers own brand has the potential to become the draw not the magazine?
FH: I suppose that a very tiny minority of photographic practice has the kind of articulacy turned towards the subject matter that you are describing. The majority are no longer quite sure what it means to be a ‘practising photographer’ The academic world, for example, demands they are now ‘researchers’. There is an uncomfortable squeezing together there.
Going back to your principal point, there are huge numbers of people putting out pictures for some kind of communication purpose, through Pinterest, Flickr or Instagram or whatever, who are not in any real sense what we would have once thought of as being ‘publishing photographers’. They are just people who have got something to say. They do not conform to the pattern that you have just described. They do not have articulacy about their subject matter. They have a desire for immediacy and they have an urgency to say things and hear things said. They do not have a fully rounded treatment of the subject. I have been writing for some time that we need a new category. The operation of a camera is not necessarily photography. The category has grown wider than most of us have noticed.
NFS: How do we deal with that sense of cohesion with photography in that ‘attention economy’, then?
FH: Photography is so broad that it is rather surprising that it has grown its own cultural norms. The phrase that I use a lot is: “Photography is a very ordinary cultural activity. It responds to analysis.” We used to think it was not so. People use these very odd words about photographs. They go, “It’s great,” or “It’s crap,” but they don’t analyse things in the way that we do for a pop song or a movie. The standard response to culture is to see how it stands up in an analytical way, even if you are not a scholar. Even if you are just going to the movie with your friends, you come out and have a discussion, which takes for granted that you have a bit of movie culture. That is the analysis. That was not so with photographs years ago.
The power of advertising photography was very largely to do with the way it came under people’s skin. They did not know that it was open to analysis. We went through that: late-stage 20th century art- or near-art-photography was very knowing. Practitioners became knowing about the analysis that would be made, and you got the growth of ironical, savvy and fly uses of pictures.
We have reverted, in the digital age, to a vast majority of non-fly usages. There are, of course, practitioners in art schools and derived from art schools who are pursuing that line, but they are a tiny proportion of what has actually been happening in photography, which is the reversal away from culturally confident messaging. For example, I look at thousands and thousands of pictures of an environmental kind to do with sustainable development because of my involvement with the Pictet Prize. The elite professional communicators that I am seeing for the Pictet Prize are certainly using a cultural confidence that their viewers will know what they are talking through the way they talk about it. But in general, digital photography is pushing cultural ‘elitism’ to one side and reverting to a place where photography was many years ago, in the development of its culture, of being useful as illustration, very rapid, very light, and very thin of the kind of messaging it did possess.
In Spite of the Authentic
NFS: You feel it is losing its power?
FH: Yes, I am seeing that it takes an active effort by a certain kind of practitioner to hold on to that power; whereas what I had expected would happen now, when I was looking forward some years ago, would be that digital would share out that cultural power more widely. I am not finding that it is so.
By the way, we keep using this word ‘digital’ as though somehow the means of manufacture of pictures were solely at issue. It is not, nor just the fact that it is digital transfer. It is the fact that there is a new audience that receives its pictures mainly digitally. It is not: “Digital photography has done this or become that.” It is just that the audience now has digital culture rather than what went before.
It is reminiscent of a strange debate some 30 years ago, called the ‘Authentic Music Debate’. Very loosely, the idea was that you could play Beethoven better if you could get authentic instruments and train people to play them again. Instead of playing a clarinet, you would play a basset horn, a serpent or one of those things. Quite a lot of recordings were made and there was quite a fashion for authentic music. It still goes on, to some extent. The problem, as you will immediately guess, is that authentic music presupposed that the ears of the audience were cleansed of having heard anything since they had heard their Beethoven. Of course, you cannot do that.
Beethoven’s version of a piano was that thing called a ‘fortepiano’. It was a wonderful thing, actually made by Broadwood in London. But a fortepiano sounds weak to anybody who has heard a modern Steinway in a concert hall. Even though you were playing the right thing, and no doubt playing it very well, you could not cleanse the ears of your audience from the sound of a concert Bechstein or a Steinway. That is what is happening with photography. The attempt to hang on to the culture of photography is beginning to look like archaism. It is beginning to look like a self-indulgent hobby, almost, for a certain number of people who are interested in that culture, like me; whereas, with the tremendous blasting forward of rapid dispersal, lightweight, thin-value, quick-dissemination – but also quick-forgetting – the new photography is a bit like what happens in spite of the authentic music debate.
Writing for the Broadsheets
NFS: Surely, this is the time for optimism and to delight in the pluralities of photography and see the forthcoming challenges as a series of opportunities and possibilities. It is important that, as educators, we understand our responsibility to find the relevance and the appropriate spaces to ignite that passion, as you say, in the ‘new life of the light fantastic’.
FH: I complete agree with that, but we are working with a very small proportion of the available material, even to get hold of somebody who wants to be educated in the way that you are describing. I am very glad to write sometimes for the Financial Times (FT), it is a huge privilege, but of their readers, only a proportion read that section, and of the proportion who read that, only a proportion of that were concentrating at the time, and of the proportion who were concentrating etc… With the best will in the world, you are looking at tiny numbers of people. I’m not sure how one can measure traction anymore, whether things need to get recirculated on the Internet, or whether on the contrary they have more heft offline.
NFS: It is that additional circulation and dialogue enabled by the Internet that is fascinating. Surely, it is not solely the brand of the FT that is the potential draw for new audiences but your voice and ‘brand’?
FH: Of course. You used the word. I am, at a very modest level, and at an unsuccessful level, a brand. That brand takes its form in whatever context I appear. The FT, Brighton University, the Pictet Prize or my own blog are all manifestations of the idea that people might be interested in that kind of attitude to photography. I made a speech at the Huis Marseille last year talking about how ‘quality matters’. I was and am still concerned that there are not shared standards of excellence in photography. There is not a shared vocabulary of quality in photography. People don’t know how to agree what’s good. That’s an amazing observation for a mature medium.
There is an interesting groping for standards of excellence by a very small number of people, like some critics, like myself, and some analysts. There has been a spectacular failure of trickle-down in photography. In every other art form that I know anything about, there is plenty of good academic thinking and writing about the thing, and that takes a light form when it reaches the customers, the consumers, the practitioners and the users. Not in photography.
At an academic level in photography, there is a lot of very interesting stuff being worked out, but that stuff does not reach even professional photographers much when they go about their business. That is why when I started years ago I was so interested in starting to write for broadsheet papers and not for specialist photographic journals. My sense then – and it’s still my sense – was that it was not that there was a shortage of cultural thinking of good quality and of a high level out there; it was that somehow the channels by which it reached the people who might put it to use were blocked. People receive photographs without knowing whether they are highly crafted products of a refined culture or whether they are accidental. That is not so in other media.
If you walk around Leicester Square at 10 o’clock at night, there are lots of people discussing films, arm in arm on their way to get a hamburger or the Tube. They may not be scholarly, but they know their places in a shared culture with confident certainty.
At the very minimum, they know what they were watching. Was it a European auteur complicated thing or was it an American car chase thing? I’m not even sure that level of confidence is shared in photography. I often see people using photographs without the faintest idea that they are any kind of cultural artefact at all. They just… are.
NFS: The approach you are describing here requires a certain level of patience, concentration and training?
FH: I don’t see us as training photographers anymore. There is no way that in the 600-odd photography degree courses in this country, with each of them producing 40 people a year on every course… say it’s about 24,000 students a year? They are not going to be photographers. What they will be are people with a new understanding of analysis of the principal culture that they have, which is visual. That is really wonderful and that is a really exciting contribution to make to a society.
Photography Remains a Cottage Industry
NFS: Is there an overarching sense that there has been a lack of investment for photography?
FH: I think I would draw you a slightly odd picture, which is that in spite of one or two examples, like Getty, most obviously, photography remains a cottage industry. Everything else that you are likely to talk about in the big cultural sphere has been handed over to these monolithic corporations which have very tight control over the marketing and the branding. They have very tight control over distribution because they own the channels. Publishing companies, film companies, TV companies, even things like opera houses, they’ve all come very much to look like big corporate monoliths. Even universities, of course. There is no such thing in photography. Of course, one has to think carefully about Getty, Corbis and those people, but the way I explain them is to say that I think that they are still amalgamators of lots of different brands. When you buy Getty, you are actually buying Rex Features, Photonica or whatever it is. I don’t see that there is yet a Getty house style in the way that there is a BBC house style or a Random House style or an MIT house style…
Photography remains a cottage industry. Add to that what you are describing, which is the tremendous new ability for everybody to make and distribute pictures through easily-available channels, and you have a reversal back to more cottagey, if I can put it that way. Of course, my cynicism kicks in to start saying, “Well, actually, Flickr, YouTube and even iPhones belong to people who control the distribution more than we think they do.” Even though you think you are 19 and are sending a message to your friends, actually, you are sending it down channels that are controlled by ‘megacorp’ in a way that you don’t really realise that they are.
NFS: Yes, as we saw recently with Snapchat…
FH: Exactly. Facebook and the rest are forever being caught doing this.
NFS: Which is why it’s important that creative producers, as much as fulfilling their desire to feed the network, are equally aware of the implications of their actions brought about by the policies employed more often than not by the ‘free’ corporations on the Web.
FH: I agree.
Most Images are Valueless
NFS: What happens if we stop seeking to control the image on the Web, i.e. establishing copyright and consider instead where is the value?
FH: You could make an argument which goes this way around: Most images are valueless. There are too many of them, they are sent out in too cavalier a way, and they really are not very interesting things. For an image to acquire value is a judgmental development made by somebody voluntarily, and normally by the receiver nowadays and not by the ‘outputter’. The outputter hopes that pictures will be taken seriously, but actually the revolution is that it is now up to the receiver to do that or not.
The locus classicus to see all of this is in Marvin Heiferman’s book, which is called ‘Photography Changes Everything’. Very brilliantly, Marvin works out that pictures now only mean what the person using them wants them to mean. The fact that a picture might have come from somewhere – say the Smithsonian – before being used, or that it will go elsewhere afterwards, is not the point. It is what it is because somebody uses it to be that. That is an anti-cultural phenomenon if you understand culture as being the valuing of those accretions of meaning and of heredity.
If you like, all culture is historical, and photographs are increasingly divorced from history.
NFS: In Fred Ritchin’s piece for Marvin’s book, he talks about the potential of the photograph to draw together those histories, traces as additional layers of information.
FH: Ritchin is very interesting but he is still dealing with that minority of actively committed transmitters that I am talking about. The majority of photographic activity has not been volunteered to be cultured in that way. That is our problem. To treat culturally of things which are only dragged to culture by the scruff of the neck is to slow them down tremendously. Actually, the way I think about pictures is really one picture at a time. Does it respond to the analysis I need? Then, does the series respond? Then, does the making of series like that? It is a very slow process.
What I am finding is that pictures are being re-output, and the chain of interest drops away each time. If something was done on Google Images and then some kid at Goldsmiths’ puts it out again, and then somebody puts the thing into a book, each time, the first output falls away. That is not the old model of the recycling of images.
It used to be that Man Ray’s ‘Violon d’Ingres’ was much more appreciated when it came in the book with in the background some tale of Man Ray having done it, with some tale of Ingres having it done before, and with some tale of Kiki de Montparnasse being a whore with a heart of gold and all of that stuff. The tale survived each reissuing, so that a picture had some of its own previous history as part of its cultural wealth.
I don’t see that so often anymore. You have to go looking for that in words again. It used to be that pictures could be allusive, could cite things, or could refer to things, internally. Indeed, and I am sure you have seen somewhere, I have written about the great dangers of internal captions in pictures. It is a particular thing of my own.
I worry about words in pictures because words are easier to receive than pictures, but that is what is happening with the new, rapid re-dissemination of pictures. What you re-disseminate is an illustration to new words. It is the same picture, but the words are different each time. That is new. In my role as an educator, that is what I am trying to teach people to deal with. If you like, it is a form of institutional cynicism.
Were you to want to write a novel about London, you would read Our Mutual Friend and be able to refer to Dickens. Clearly, some of the weight of Dickens would survive in your new novel. That is the old model in the visual arts, but I don’t think it works in photography anymore. Now, what happens is you quote Dickens, you put him in a new context, and you tell us what that new context is. Dickens has fallen away and what you have is a new context, illustrated by the same picture.
That, I do think, is very new.
I am expressing it clumsily, but I hope you see that there is a real cultural shift between things accreting: meanings, allusions, fringe meanings, quotations, references… and the new version, which is where the picture is ‘certified good’, used to have meaning, and now has good branding of its own, ready for a new use.
After the Big Bang do we only have camera operators?
NFS: Which is why your voice is important for NEWFOTOSCAPES, your own description as a “specialist reader of photographs”, very much acknowledges the craft of reception. I do wonder how this sits for the young photo-enthusiast as this is not the world that they know and for many of them this may not be where photography came from for them either?
FH: You are absolutely right and I do not disagree with that. We quite rightly describe mine as a specialist profession. I am a reader of pictures, and I am a pretty experienced and good reader of pictures. That is bringing added value to a tiny proportion of the super pictures that are out there. What I do is give examples of that slow-cooking culture, which is nearly 200-years-old, the photographic culture. That itself, of course, has roots in previous visual cultures and also has roots outside photography in anthropology, in Lavatarian physiognomy, for example, and in a wealth of other stuff. I have always loved the way that to be interested in photography is both a licence and an obligation to be interested in anything at all. There is nothing which photography doesn’t touch somewhere.Photography absorbed a lot of culture that was not part of itself. Then, there was a Big Bang and photography touched absolutely everything. There is no discipline that we deal in that is not affected by photography.
In places like medicine, we used to think, rather dimly, that photography was a good way of making memoranda. Very quickly, it became clear that photography was a central diagnostic tool with scanning, X-rays, later scanners… The explosion actually changes the things that it touches. Photography does not arrive in disciplines and just become an extra tool in the toolbox. It profoundly changes anthropology, politics, and pop music… wherever it has landed. They are all hugely changed.
If that is so, the question then becomes: “What is left in the middle after the Big Bang?” Photography used to be a defined activity. There was a bloke with a mahogany and brass tripod doing what we know. It is not any more, and it is not at all clear to me that we are using a word which corresponds to people’s perceptions of their practice when we say “photographer”.
I have started using expressions like ‘camera operator’ to make the distinction. In the movie business, there are camera operators. There are lighting cameramen, who are different, and correspond to what we would call a ‘photographer’.
It is a trivial example, but you will see exactly what I mean. The fellow who just ticketed your car while you have been talking to me takes a picture dozens of times a day. He is a professional user of cameras – indeed, his pictures have to quite literally stand up in court – but he is not what we would call a ‘photographer’. The same with the estate agent who takes those pictures just before he lies to you about the house that you are going to buy. He takes hundreds of pictures a week, that guy, and they are commercially integral to him but he is not what I call a ‘photographer’.
We have got to a very odd position
NFS: Yes. It does boil down to the purpose and the intent when you are taking that picture, the man snapping my car getting clamped is very much an evidential thing. What about those photographers or people working with the emerging photographic technologies still early in their genesis? It is equally important is that our vision does not become blinkered by the baggage associated by the provenance of the two-dimensional object? With inventions such as the Lytro, light field cameras, which is exploring the scientific nature of light. Conceptually, that is an incredibly different entity. As soon as the receiver can start moving through an image, the ability for the photographer to re-envisage new storytelling methods becomes different?
Actually, I think those spaces to explore the potential of what photography can be, become really interesting.
FH: Isn’t it always true that the analysis and the patient unravelling of how it worked always lagged behind exciting new departures by the daring?
When your new Canon was launched in 1962, it could do things that no photographer yet knew that he wanted to do. Somebody in a lab invented a very fast flash or whatever they did. I don’t think there is anything new in the idea that the technologies leave scholarly persons trailing in their wake trying to work out how they do what they do. I am happy with that. That is true in any art form: that there are daring practitioners kicking everything down and that there is the steady craftsmanlike analysis taking place behind, which goes, “Aha, you did that, not that.” That is clear enough.
I wish that I thought that the new mass use of photography was daringly kicking things down. I don’t think it is. I think we have got to a very odd position.
NFS: Did you think that has ever occurred?
FH: Yes, I do think for instance that advertising culture in photography very much capitalised on what people’s family snaps looked like, for example. They looked like that because they were not very good photographers. I think it used to do that, but I don’t think it does any more.
NFS: Has technology enabled an increased sophistication in mass image production? It is interesting that both Kodak and Instagram had that shared desire to eliminate operator failure.
FH: I am a bit hesitant. The reason I am is that I think that the Instagram world is not really about communication. It used to be that if you had a Brownie, you were trying to say something to somebody. With Instagram, you are not. You are simply adding something to a verbal message. Instagram goes with short sentences and short words.
NFS: Yes, but can the same not be said of the annotation underneath glued photograph in the family album?
FH: Modern family albums are very odd. Modern albums are hard drives full of pictures and metadata which nobody knows what to do with, precisely because their words don’t sit very easily with them.
I guess I’m saying that all photography, at some level and however non-scholarly, used to be aimed at communication. Now, it does many things which are not really communicative. It marks territory or marks presence. It lists, identifies, and so on. These are not the effort of somebody to persuade or tell or argue. They are qualitatively different. I don’t think you entirely agree, but that is the position I have reached.
NFS: It may just take some time to comprehend, rightly or wrongly, it may take just that little big longer. What is really important is that new audiences and producers are invited into this discussion.
FH: You are absolutely right that we do need to do these things slowly, but I think I would wager that I could find something interesting to say about any picture at all, and so can you. Doing that does not necessarily elevate that picture from ‘non-cultural’ to ‘cultural’; nor does it elevate the creator from ‘non-communicator’ to ‘communicator’.
NFS: Passing on that skill and that ability to read…
FH: Is of great, great value. Absolutely, it is.