New Visions: Capturing the Latest Thinking on Contemporary Photographic Culture
A report from Annebella Pollen on the launch of her latest book, sponsored by Creative Futures Brighton
The Creative Futures-funded panel discussion and book launch of Photography Reframed took place on 10 October 2018 in the newly-refurbished lecture theatre on University of Brighton’s Edward Street campus before a standing-room only audience. Three guest speakers joined the book’s co-editors, Annebella Pollen (University of Brighton) and Ben Burbridge (University of Sussex) – Sarah Kember, Professor of New Technologies of Communication at Goldsmiths; Duncan Wooldridge, artist and writer and Course Director of Photography at Camberwell College of Arts; Francis Summers, artist, writer and Acting Course Leader for Photography and Fashion Photography at University of the Creative Arts. Appropriately for Creative Futures, the presentations and discussion used the book’s subtitle – New Visions in Contemporary Photographic Culture– to consider new ways of thinking about new photographic forms and practices, and where these might lead.
Burbridge led the presentations by providing backdrop about the origins of the book in the work of the Ph: Photography Research Network. This cluster of around 40 early and mid-career photographic scholars and practitioners first began meeting around 2010 at the instigation of Burbridge and Olga Smith, both then PhD students at Courtauld Institute of Art and Cambridge University respectively. The network, which welcomed any PhD student with an interest in photography history, theory or practice, initially met monthly, for informal sharing of work-in-progress, at The Photographer’s Gallery. An AHRC network grant enabled the development of a website and a more formal identity, and as a consequence of this, the group came into contact with the curator Charlotte Cotton, then newly-appointed to the role of Creative Director of the Science Museum’s new Media Space gallery. Charlotte recruited Phto create online content for Media Space under the concept of EitherAnd, signalling more generous ways of thinking about photography that don’t require it to fit into merely ‘this’ or ‘that’. The interdisciplinary approach suited the group’s diversity of methods, and also the changing medium of photography itself. Over the following years, with a generous budget of £10,000, the group collectively commissioned and edited conversations, essays and artworks alongside symposia and other events to build dialogues with historians, theorists, anthropologists, artists, picture editors and campaigners. Always the intention was to think about photography in its wild and mercurial complexity and especially through its new ways and means.
From this fertile ground, as Burbridge explained at the launch, Photography Reframed emerged, as a reflective reiteration of selected, revised and regrouped commissioned material and responses to it. These were clustered into new themes and bookended – reframed, if you will – with new content that looked at the political, institutional and technological contexts of the original project, and considered how much had changed. Huge global upheavals, many with photographic implications, had taken place between in the space between the project’s original idea and final fruition. These included, for example, highly-charged debates about migration that focused on the widely circulated image of the drowned Syrian toddler, Alan Kurdi, and the way that photography as a tool of surveillance and of documentation had shifted fundamentally in new cultures of protest. Both areas are the focus of chapters in the book. Similarly, major photographic institutions have come and gone in recent years with dramatic changes in public funding and changing priorities. On the same night we held our launch in Brighton, the V&A were welcoming patrons to the launch of their new multi-million pound Photography Centre. As we reflected in the book, Photography Reframedwas part of these institutional ebbs and flows. Finally, social media and new digital communications have moved apace in the last decade; both the book and the discussions provided pause for reflection on ubiquitous computing and the ‘everyware’ of new technologies.
Wooldridge’s talk opened by reflecting on the creative work he commissioned from artist Penelope Umbrico – a series of photographs of televisions on the American second-hand selling site, Craigslist. These initially appeared to be functional images of blank screens – images of nothing, as Wooldridge put it – but became rich with hidden meaning as each frame is scrutinised and as intimate reflections of sellers came into view. Wooldridge used the motifs of looking-up and looking-down, looking-out and looking-in to frame a ‘new vision’ that paid a debt to the theories of the same name from Bauhaus photographer, Lazlo Moholy-Nagy. In the twenty-first century, this standing-back and zooming-in leads, on the one hand, towards vast-scale imagery that attempts to encapsulate new photographic accumulations, and on the other, to the fine detail of artworks based on immersion into a single pixel.
My own presentation continued these themes by looking at contemporary photographic anxieties shared by both elite critics and the popular media, that is, that there are too many photographs in the world. I showed a looping reel of screenshots as a sample of the scope of concern while questioning the basis for the claims, many of which seem to emerge from class-based worries that there are not only too many photographs, but also that there are too many photographs of the wrong kind. The assertion that we are drowning in images is as old as photography itself, and it embodies enduring fears about mass culture. I argued for old ways of looking – closely, patiently, deeply – to be part of any new vision.
Summers then outlined new philosophies for thinking about visual noise and about new photographic velocities, about machine-made images and about image-bots. Drawing on the work of Hito Steyerl and Jodi Dean, he reflected on what we might learn from the poor image. These kinds of photographs have been described as illicit fifth-generation bastards of original images that circulate endlessly; they are the bread-and-butter of the internet and, as Summers argued, we need new tools for new times to interpret them.Finally Sarah Kember concluded the discussions by reflecting on how photography is ever more embedded into technological systems yet ever harder to see. She noted, however, that we should not throw more tech at the problems caused by tech. Just because we now talk about photography in terms of algorithms, she argued, this doesn’t mean we should no longer speak about meaning. Kember also showed that the newest visual technologies – such as facial recognition – are steeped in sexist and racist ideologies that can be directly traced to earlier eugenic uses of photography. New visions require looking back as well as looking forward.
The Photography Reframed discussions provided a valuable opportunity to share and reflect upon new work in photography studies, and also to gather photographic communities together from near and far. It was gratifying to see so many students in attendance – from BA, MA and PhD levels – and to see colleagues from across departments, and from across the city’s two universities (and beyond), together in discussion in one room. The event provided a space to reconvene contributors and collaborators from across the various iterations that make up the many layers of the book, and to draw new colleagues into the on-going conversation. Photography’s communities are expanding and the size of the audience showed how many are invested in it in grappling with its new challenges. Photography will not stay still and our methods must move with it.
Photos: Ally Lethbridge
This post also appears on the University of Brighton’s Creative Futures Blog