Post-photographic Photography

April 28, 2011

First, housekeeping: I’ll get to the queer landscape and extra masculinity stuff in a while.  I just had surgery and am sort of babysitting my five-year-old niece part-time and am kind of worn out.  Extended periods of walking are still tough.  Also I wrote a 1000-page novel in four months.  And an essay that may land at a big magazine, and maybe 30 new poems.  I’m kind of tapped.  Anyway.

I did want to write something re: the coincidence of something about my own work and a great talk you can hear over at iheartphotograph by Fred Ritchin (scroll down to the OJ photos) about (in a news context) how we’ve entered an era of post-photographic photography, an era where manipulation has replaced production and authenticity has been shifted from professionals to amateurs.  It’s well worth watching both parts, as well as Laurel Ptak’s talk at the same conference where she talks about blogs as curation (and shows one of my photos, weirdly, in a powerpoint).

The coincidence is that I’ve been talking post-photography with a friend and I had recently visited my own site and noted that if you break down the divide between work produced on a flatbed scanner (and manipulated) and actual camera-based photography it’s about a 70/30 split and is sliding toward the scanner the further I get from the legitimization of school.  I’ve just lost touch with a belief that going out into the world and “capturing a moment” is going to somehow produce something more meaningful than what I can produce/control myself with image and text.  I’m not sure when this happened, and the reasons why are more personal than professional, but I could easily call my work “post-photographic” without any eyelash batting going on.

That begs the question of what exactly “post-photographic” means.  Rather than offering Richtin’s great doc-photog take, my own take is that it’s where the means of output is photographic in nature regardless of the means of input.  All you need is a digital file now and you can produce a photographic print of anything regardless of whether you ever touched a camera.  (You can even have digital files rendered as film negatives.)   The scanned and manipulated butterflies I’ve been showing here are case in point; if these ever were produced for a show, they would be printed (and framed) as photographs; they’re not drawings and they’re not “original” work and they’re not photographs either though they attach themselves to that means of production partly because of mehcanical means and partly because I’m considered a photographer.  Whatever that means nowadays.

Talking with my friend I also brought up even the shake-up of this, of the ultimate demise of the photographic print in favor of, another friend counters, high-res flatscreen monitors.  Friend 2 is completely convinced that this is the future, and he talks a good game about portability and beauty and ideal viewing situations, but I still think unless/until you can edition a digital file, money is money and prints are saleable objects.  It goes without saying that the backlighting of the screen would show off any photo better than any print ever could, but unless/until you can replicate those means of production and collectors start switching out art on 8×6′ flatscreens instead of buying prints we’re going to remain in the weird era we’re in now where you can make a photographic print of anything, regardless of whether it’s a photograph.

What that means for my own work is both that for now I’m “trapped” in the world of the printed file, unless I move to video, which I find sort of lackluster, and that with my limited camera means and limited scope of projects that call for the box with the lens I’m probably going to produce more work even further divided from conventional photography, which if you’re talking crisp large-format film negative stuff of The Outside World I never had a taste for either.  And what’s left is vernacular photography, point and shoot, and millions of people already own cell phones and point and shoots.

So where does that leave us?  It leaves us with a medium with a huge operational split between image production and photograph production, and I’m not sure quite yet what that means or where it’s going.

Some post-photographs, part of a larger conceptual project on mental illness:

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