MODULE 4: INFORMING CONTEXTS. WEEK 6.
This post reflects on the questions we’ve been asked in this week’s Module assignment work regarding whether we think we can be original anymore as photographers.
I’m not a huge believer in the pursuit of originality. I don’t think there is any point. Outside of the totally unique mixture of oneself (history, family, experiences, interests etc) that might be present in a photographers practice, I think it is almost an impossibility to create photographic work that is entirely original.
It’s not even in any way unique to call oneself a photographer these days. Everyone is. The plethora of digital image-making, from the most personal of environments to the biggest commercial operation, is a marker of this. It is a visual overwhelm which David Bate reflects on in his discussion on the scopic drive in Photography – The Key Concepts as a result of which we can no longer ‘understand the visual condition we are in’ (Bate, 2016, p. 214) **.
Indeed, is it not the case that technology itself is the originator these days of much of our visual understanding and creation? Where a new device, algorithm, or software programme offers a fleeting novel vision at the cutting edge of tech development; the tool itself offering the ‘originality’ and frequently doing the work of new visualisation whilst the content is not so unique. Then imitation (or trend) is also just around the corner; think of drone photography which, just a few years ago, offered a ‘new’ way of seeing to the general public (anyone connected to the military had seen this way for years beforehand) but has rapidly become another over-saturated visual language. This is not to take away from the pleasant, interesting images created or the creative aspects of the practices my statement covers, I’m just making a point that, as the old adage says, there’s nothing that is new under heaven (and in the digital age even less so).
What intrigues me far more than a quest for originality is, as John Berger states in Understanding A Photograph , ‘the quality of the quotation chosen’ (Berger, 1967, p. 89). Berger’s lucid discussion here is framed in the context of how a photograph is made, in that it is ‘quoting’ from life; the photographer is making a deliberate selection: ‘A photograph quotes from appearances’. He goes on to say: ‘The ‘length’ of the quotation has nothing to do with exposure time. It is not temporal length’, Berger sees the difference in ‘the narrative range. . . It is not time that is prolonged but meaning‘ (my italics). He is making a case for the importance of ideas in a photograph, the depth and breadth of which changes from image to image dependent on the ‘quotation’ of life present in the image. Those ideas go on to ‘articulate a set of correspondences which provoke in the viewer a recognition. . . This recognition may remain at the level of a tacit agreement with memory, or it may become conscious. When this happens, it is formulated as an idea’ (Berger, 1967, p.90).
It is this experiential process that I would like to believe my work can achieve for both the viewer and myself. At least that is my aim. The pursuit of complete originality in photography is for fool’s gold, but the quality of narrative and ideas is, in my opinion, not. They might be all we have left in the future of photography in any case, especially as artificial intelligence threatens the very nature of image content and, by extension, human connectivity.
** By way of synchronicity (and to underline my point), as I was writing this, my Youtube account informed me there was a new video by the ever-insightful Ted Forbes on his Art of Photography channel. He is taking a look at Sony’s new mobile phone cameras. Forbes says explicitly: ‘We communicate with a visual language more than we ever have in human history.’ I’ve linked to his video below; though it is a tech review and not a critical discussion, it clearly makes my point for me .
REFERENCES & RESOURCES
Bate, D. 2016. Photography – The Key Concepts. London: Bloomsbury.
Berger, J. 1967. Understanding A Photograph. 21st edn. London: Penguin.
The Art of Photography. 2020. Sony Xperia 1 ii: A9 in a Smartphone. [Camera review]. Available at: https://youtu.be/7WdTwiQZtTs