1. Is Photography Over?
Published: 03.03.2014
in the series Is Photography Over?
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A few years ago, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art held a conference about photography – for a photo conference, it had the odd title “Is Photography Over?.” Curators Sandra Phillips and Dominic Wilsdon posed the question as a challenge to panelists, audience members and the world at large. The two-day symposium was an attempt to shake up conventional institutionalized discourses about photography and to be an opportunity to think about what, if anything, has “changed” about photography over the last decade or so.

From my point of view, the fact that the world’s leading photo-curators would even pose such a question turned out to be more illuminating than most of the symposium’s content. Wilsdon and Phillips’ provocation reflects a deep-seated uneasiness among photo-theorists and practitioners about the state of their field.

To me, traditional approaches to doing-photography and thinking-about-photography feel increasingly anachronistic. Looking out at the photographic landscape that surrounds us – the world of images and image-making that we inhabit – it seems obvious that photography has undergone dramatic changes in its technical, cultural, and critical composition. These changes are difficult to make sense of within photo theory’s existing critical and practical framework; hence the question “is photographer over?”

In the first instance, the rise of digital photography and image-processing software has fundamentally altered the craft. Digital cameras are cheap and ubiquitous; image-processing software (whether on-camera firmware or applications like Photoshop and Instagram) has made it extraordinarily easy to produce an image-quality that was previously only possible with years of specialized  training in equipment, shooting technique, and printing methods. The de-specialization of photography is an area of much concern among curators responsible for sorting out what’s worth paying attention to, and to practitioners who’ve seen their ability to make a living get much, much harder (witness the near collapse of photo-journalism as a profession). In this sense, perhaps the advent of digital photography and automated image-processing means that the traditional craft of photography is largely “over.”

On the cultural side, the digital “revolution” has meant an upheaval in the photographic landscape. What is the place of photography in society when there are now well over 250 billion photographs on Facebook (with an additional 350 million added daily), where the average person sees over 5,000 advertisements a day, and where photography has come to inhabit the very core of our “technological a priori.” Photography has become so fundamental to the way we see that “photography” and “seeing” are becoming more and more synonymous. The ubiquity of photography is, perhaps ironically, a challenge to curators, practitioners, and critics. Why look at any particular image, when they are literally everywhere? Perhaps “photography” has become so all-pervasive that it no longer makes sense to think about it as a discreet practice or field of inquiry. In other words, perhaps “photography,” as a meaningful cultural trope, is over.

The landscape of traditional photography theory and criticism is in a similarly contorted shape. On one hand, the digital revolution and landscape of ubiquitous image-making has created a situation where curators and critics specializing in photography have to define the field exceedingly narrowly in order to have an ‘object’ of discourse at all. In order to have anything to curate, critique, or discuss, a very small slice of the photographic landscape has to be carved out and isolated for discussion, such as “fine-art” photography, “documentary” photography, “historical” photography, even “analog” photography. As a consequence of narrowing the objects of inquiry so dramatically, the critical discussion around photography ends up inevitably admitting only a very small range of photographic practices into its purview. Consequently, critical discussions take shape around a small range of photographic images and practices which are extreme exceptions to the rule. Photography theory and criticism has less and less to do with the way photography is actually practiced by most people (and as we will see, most machines) most of the time. The corollary to this narrowing of the field is that traditional conversations and problems of photo theory have become largely exhausted. Simply put, there is probably not much more to say about such problems as “indexicality,” “truth claims,” “the rhetoric of the image,” and other touchstones of classical photography theory. And what remains to be said about these photographic “problems” seems increasingly extraneous to the larger photographic landscape that we inhabit.

As a matter-of-course, the state-of-the-field that I’ve described in a few hundred words here is blunt, without nuance, and bombastic. There are, of course, numerous exceptions to the broad outlines above. My point in doing this is to simply sketch out some possible reasons for photography’s leading thinkers and practitioners to ask whether “photography is over.” Given the dramatic changes that have taken place in the photographic landscape over the last decade or so, it seems perfectly reasonable to ask whether a traditional notion of “photography” is over.

But if a traditional understanding of “photography” is ill-suited to making sense of the 21st Century’s photographic landscape, then how do we begin to think about what “photography” has become and is becoming?

Over the next few weeks, I want to begin thinking about how to begin thinking through the 21st Century’s emerging photographic landscape, and the ways both photographic practices and photographs themselves are changing. To do that, I want to start from the beginning by developing an expanded definition of photography, and exploring the implications of that expanded definition.

I’ll start by introducing the idea of photography as seeing machines and explore questions such as: How do we see the world with machines? What happens if we think about photography in terms of imaging systems instead of images? How can we think about images made by machines for other machines? What are the implications of a world in which photography is both ubiquitous and, curiously, largely invisible?

Without question, the 21st Century will be a photographic century. Photography will play a more fundamental role in the functioning of 21st Century societies than 20th Century practitioners working with light-sensitive emulsions and photographic papers could have ever dreamed. So while in one sense photography might be “over,” in another, it’s barely gotten going. And we haven’t seen anything yet.

Stay tuned.

16 comment(s)
Thorney Lieberman
Posted 03.03.2014 at 17:43

The "problem" facing photography today is just an exacerbation of the dilemma it has always faced. The proliferation of cameras in everyone's hands has resulted in a quantitative rather than qualitative change.

Photography has been stuck being "about" subject matter. Painting, for example, has not been about its subject matter for centuries; it is "about" paint, surface, color, illusion, many things, but rarely subject matter.

When you have millions upon millions more people with cameras, taking portraits, landscapes, still lifes, then "serious" photographers' work gets buried. The answer? Simple. Do what "art" has always done: transcend the chatter of the masses. In this case, look inward, look at the "meaning" of the photograph. Don't try to take a more beautiful landscape; you'll get lost in the noise.

Posted 08.03.2014 at 15:44

This is bang on. A very wise and succinct comment!

David Travis
Posted 06.11.2014 at 17:38

Yes, photography is not just about the subject in front of the camera. It is about its medium (including the larger question of how the photograph came into being) and, importantly these days, it is about the ideas that stimulate and at time straight-jacket the resulting photograph.

Vic Wright
Posted 04.03.2014 at 03:23

To Thorney Lieberman, Amen, Amen Amen. Photography that doesn't transcend the subject matter to evoke an emotional response is no better than the million drunken selfies posted on Facebook everyday.
It has to be about more than content or it will get lost.
That being said, real images of Bigfoot will still sell really well even if they fail on almost every other photography level.

Nils Plath
Posted 04.03.2014 at 22:47

Raising the question if something is over, quite often serves as a clever way of indirectly stating that the show must go on and the end is actually out of the question. Asking "Is Photography Over?" most probably follows this well-established rhetoric principle. Therefore, it seems more than appropriate to repeat the question at the beginning. A beautiful and promising starting point ...
To give my thoughts to follow somewhat of a general direction and for later a sense of continuation from the start, allow me to take only one clue from your nicely opening tune "For Photographs, It's The End Of The World as we know it..." (At this point, I'd like to withstand the temptation to discuss if there really is or even has ever actually been such a notion as a “traditional understanding of “photography”” now being called obsolete, or if this announced overcoming of concepts of the past is in itself a rather dated expression of the modernist idea of progress. While saving a debate on the issue, and the fine art curator's headaches, for another academic panel discussion, I find it rather promising to give attention to what was underlined to be a question of central importance here: “How do we see the world with machines?” I am really looking forward to pursue this path of questioning.)

When reading this first outline or mapping, I noticed that a particular word featured prominently and was very frequently used to delineate the presence of the 'photographic': the word "landscape." Most likely not a coincidence that it showed up almost a dozen times as a metaphor: as in "the photographic landscape that surrounds us", "the landscape of traditional photography theory and criticism," "landscape of ubiquitous image-making," et. al. ... Landscape, a word first recorded in the English language at the end of the 16th-century, which was borrowed as a painters' term from the Dutch 'landschap' referring to paintings of inland natural or rural scenery. Representing a prospect of the 'land' (i.e. meaning just waste or open country in its Middle High German origin, later also covering territory in a more political sense) taken in at a glance from one point of view, the compound word contains meanings of great importance to the construction of personal, political, and place identity. It is this very landscape – an idea turned 'image' made of pictures – in which we move around and try to find orientation in. No way to get outside its frame. The word's etymology might serve as a helpful reminder here: 'Our' world, as the place we inhabit, is one actually not just captured by image-making machines, but a space constructed with the help of tools for perception from the very beginning. Every landscape in view is in fact a multiple creation of machines: made and measured by them, and manufactured, viewed, framed, and distributed from one place to the another via pictures (see: Scott MacDonald's seminal study: The Garden in the Machine. A Field Guide to Independent Films about Place, 2001). An aesthetic and epistemological notion turned pictura, today's landscape(s) thus still connects with the gone pastoral of the past (see: Leo Marx: The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America, 1964). And, while marked by territorial claims as well, thereby it remains as such a powerful image to this very day – as reflected nicely by the most recent colorful and glossy photographs of NSA office buildings for instance (or by the great number of photographs of the many sites & structures collected and catalogued over many years by the Center for Land Use Interpretation, Los Angeles, http://www.clui.org/). As such, landscape still provides us with a sense of time, historical as well as one in the present tense. That's what photographs still can make us see, even if we have to look beyond what they show (see, for instance the ad image for a drone by Titan Aerospace, on view on a blog announcing that Facebook is looking into buying this drone manufacturer: http://techcrunch.com/2014/03/03/facebook-in-talks-to-acquire-drone-maker-titan-aerospace/)

Nils Plath
Posted 04.03.2014 at 22:48

When prompted to think about the above mentioned “images made-by-machines-for-other-machines,” thus of security camera footage, face recognition software, and satellite imagery, strangely enough or not James Benning's landscape films came right to mind. Masterworks in the perception of time and sites. His cinematic work produced over the course of more than four decades combines a somewhat rigid aesthetic (in the tradition of structuralist film) with a highly sensitive and sensual understanding for the character of the locations felt and depicted (see: "Nightfall" (2011), http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7cknb3l96ls&list=PLHshpmYhH6JliaqtvRyRX2RdWAAFACmCp&index=159). Benning's moving stills (that blur our preconceived understanding of motion pictures, and therefore inversely that of the photograph as a single still image!) force upon the viewers in the movie theater selected cut outs from impressive or sometimes even just dull landscapes, nowadays (re-)produced in HD, and unleash a visual power when placing one while viewing in the midst of experiencing landscape and the space of perception simultaneously as an uncanny study in the self-perception of the passage of time. (This unsettling perception of 'given time' also still being the strongest trait of "photography" up to date, be it a snapchat pic, a so called canonical works by Ansel Adams for instance, or any anonymous picture from the image pools of industrial photography.) Benning's films also contain narratives of the various cultural, political, economic histories of the landscapes playing the lead in his films (which are not to be mistaken with documentaries). Stories of territorial conflicts, utopian futures and dystopian pasts being told. When pointing back to a time before the “closing of the Frontier” (Frederick Jackson Turner's argument from 1893) that predetermined the future course of the country most of Benning's films portrait, the United States of America, they also describe histories that would subsequently enable an ideology of new expansions. Foremost of all the venturing into space, the New Frontier, and via a network of satellite the conquering of the entire globe from the sky – or rather, in Stewart Brand's term: of The Whole Earth. Benning is a scout and archeologist looking for invisible traces in a visible world who makes the viewers of his films experience what they cannot see, but experience – the passing of time –, while presenting images that do not re-present but of create a sense of place where something invisible is present. (Some of Benning's films have been released on DVD in the excellent edition series of the Film Museum Vienna: "American Dreams (lost and found )" (1984) and "Landscape Suicide" (1986), "Casting A Glance" (2007) and "RR" (2007), "Deseret" (1995) and "Four Corners" (1997), plus the California trilogy ("El Centro Valley" (1999) , "Los" (2001), "Sogobi " (2001); with more to follow. At present, the Kunsthaus Graz (Austria) exhibits Benning's first museum show: www.museum-joanneum.at/en/kunsthaus/exhibitions/james-benning-1; more of his visual works can be seen until mid-April in an in the exhibition at the gallery neugerriemschneider (Berlin): "decoding the passed.") Exemplary as they are, Benning's films can also be seen as very private investigations into various alternative, oppressed, marginalized cultural (and thus political) expressions within the greater American texture; making visible the often overlooked divergences, counteractions, outsider traditions within it. As in one of his latest films, "Stemple Pass" (2012 ), a calm portrait of the seasons in the California Sierra and a silent homage to Thoreau's Cabin, as well as an exploration into the distorted world views of Theodore John Kaczynski, aka the Unabomber, who retired into a hermit existence (in Montana) as a Neo-Luddite turned domestic terrorist (see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xdx5hY-KsMQ&list=PLHshpmYhH6JliaqtvRyRX2RdWAAFACmCp , http://artforum.com/words/id=30645).

Ultimately, and for a start, there is the question what's left (for scouts and archeologists in our present day and age): What forms of resistance to the image regimes are feasible, when being inescapably entangled in the paradoxes brought to us by the modern age? When there is no vista point from which to make the claim to have a synoptic view? How to dismantle the machine when all of our information we receive with the help of that very monkey wrench? When the machines available to put to use are the ones that monitor very step of our actions, or so the will (to power) of state apparatuses whose ultimate goal is to attain absolute knowledge. That is the very landscape we find ourselves in, as a simultaneously very historic as well as all current state (and a very uncertain future to come). (This as my cursory explanation to come to terms with the discovery of 'landscape' as word and concept in an outline that prefigures apparently something completely different when addressing the issue of “photography now.”)
And in the meantime, while waiting for more to come, just an idea to entertain ourselves: Why not try to juxtapose some images from the various sources that we have learned to call “photographs,” to see what happens and to let the differences speak? They might tell us something about our perspectives, vistas, prospects, yesterday's and today's. How about this: http://www.fas.org/irp/imint/ds_04.htm (Al Madinah-28 January 1991. Vehicles bypass a bomb-crated bridge using a newly constructed-causeway. Implemented by Sara D. Berman. Created by John Pike Maintained by Webmaster , Updated Wednesday, May 14, 1997 2:55:48 PM , Desert Shield / Desert Storm) versus this one: http://www.getty.edu/art/gettyguide/artObjectDetails?artobj=136935&handle=li (William Garnett: "Trenching Lakewood, California" (1950), gelatin silver print 7 5/ 16 x 9 7/16 in; one of the images that turned the then still unknown photographer into a household name in aerial photography, and among the ones reprinted in the paperback edition of D.J. Waldie's wonderful suburban memoir "Holy Land" (1996), a translucent prose narrative of life in Lakewood, California, the prototypical post-World War II suburb Garnett surveyed from above).

Bruno van den Elshout
Posted 05.03.2014 at 10:43

Dear Mr Paglen,

I read your article 'Is photography over' with pleasure and interest, especially when you formulate this question:

I’ll start by introducing the idea of photography as “seeing machines” and explore questions such as: How do we see the world with machines?

I have explored this question rather extensively as part of my project NEW HORIZONS, for which I built a machine that allowed me to photograph the North Sea Horizon for one year, 2012, at every hour of every day. 8.785 photos of exactly the same view.

Doing so poses a very interesting challenge in how to give the resulting images the relevance they deserve - a challenge that is widely shared within the photography field as a whole but culminates in a project that has a kind of systematic randomness to it.

I would be happy to elaborate on this theme and tell you about my experiences.

Also, I would like to let you know that I am working on an ambitious book publication project, inspired on the abundance of images we collected and the (largely undervalued) qualities of the horizon as a phenomenon in the time we live in.

Please let me know if I can be of any support to your investigations.

Timothy Stuart Wee
Posted 05.03.2014 at 11:14

Firstly, I'd like to start off by saying I really enjoyed reading this.

I personally like to think of the 'photographic landscape' as an ecosystem of sorts.
You mention that 'Photography has become so fundamental to the way we see that “photography” and “seeing” are becoming more and more synonymous.' So perhaps to look at Photography through the lens of biology would be useful?

Looking at photography today, I've been prompted to conceptualise it as a super organism, much like an leaf-cutter ant colony. Most species of leaf cutter ant have symbiotic relationships with a particular fungus that they cultivate. They form trails throughout the forests cutting up leaves to bring back to the nest, the leaves are then fed to the fungus which in turn produces protein and sugar from the leaves. We can think of cameras today like the ants expanding across the world, capturing bits of the world to feed our fungal desires that is cultivated in/on the world wide web, all this of course is made possible by wireless data networks.

I hope this is useful to you.

Stephen Dawber
Posted 05.03.2014 at 18:26

All very interesting - thank you Mr. Paglen!

Maybe when you speak about "seeing machines" you are referring to an expanded idea of the photographic? If so, this seems to be an excellent conception. It may be that the digital turn involves a paradoxical movement of simulataneous diversification of media (across different platforms) and unification (through the mediation of digital code). And if we are lucky this will have a profound impact on the way we recount photography's histories.

Photography is not over, just the very narrow museal (and market) conception of photography (and in America this has historically been very narrow). Of course, the museums will find an expanded version of photography, but whether they can contain it in quite the way they used to is an interesting question. I notice the ICP is now asking "What is a Photograph?" - another attempt to define a museal conception of a now vastly distributed "medium" (ahem). http://www.icp.org/museum/exhibitions/what-is-a-photograph

But the most creative institutions never need to pose these questions...

Paige Koritz
Posted 07.03.2014 at 20:55

This article was very interesting. It gave me a perspective on how much photography has really changed. Although, I do not think that photography is "over". Someone must have talent to create a sincerely beautiful picture with good depth of field, ISO, Shutter Speed, ETC. The ability to create a beautiful image has become easier but that does not mean that people can create a professional quality photograph. The joy of photography has opened up to more people, which is a good and bad thing.

Posted 19.03.2014 at 05:31

Any chance we can get some specific insight from the human geography side? I'm curious to the post-industrial image making mechanism of GIS in this context. This thought experiment starts off a little loaded as art for art.

Jan Lipton
Posted 25.03.2014 at 11:56

Dear Trevor

On the occasion of the exhibition in the National Portrait Gallery in London, Elle Blakeman interviewed David Bailey . The interview is capturing Baileys personality very well. In his own way Bailey gives his clear view on the topic you raised in this blog.

“The interview”, Elle Blakeman, The Mayfair Magazine #30 , March 2014:
EB: How do you feel about the changes in photography since you started? Photoshop for example?

DB: Photoshop’s nothing – it isn’t anything. There’s no difference between photography and painting and Photoshop’s just another paintbrush. Don’t you think Raphael used Photoshop? You don’t think when a bourgeois said, “Go and paint that girl in Portugal”, they came back with a realistic painting of that girl? You think they came back and showed her dandruff, herpes and dermatitis? There’s no difference between a Raphael and a Photoshop picture.

EB: What about the amount of photographers now, as everybody now has a camera?

DB: That’s alright, everybody has a paintbrush.

EB: Are you open to it?

DB: Well what are they going to do. They can take only one great picture in their life. I’ll do two.

EB: So you’re still winning?

DB: I only have to do one extra one.

The exhibition demonstrates the difference between the mass photography and the Bailey’s art. And it is not just for his brilliant technical skills. Some of his later photographs have been taken with his mobile! And a photograph showing David Bailey taking a “selfie”, together with Andy Warhol in 1972, long before “selfie” was invented. In his stretched arm he does not hold a mobile but a motor driven F2. 40 years ahead!

Posted 01.04.2014 at 15:23

As a professional photographer, I see two main behaviors among my clients about photography. For some people, photography should just be a mean of reflecting reality, an event that is for example occuring before their eyes. This perception is mostly brought by the instantaneity of photography with smartphones and connected devices.

On the other side, and maybe for a minority in today's society, photography is still looked as an art form, with techniques and creativity to master to obtain good shots. Those people are more educated about photography and mostly good photography.

Photography's life or death all depends on who you are talking to according to me.

david alan harvey
Posted 08.08.2014 at 18:45

saying that photography is over is like saying spoken written language is over just because everyone can read it , speak it , write it...sure photography is now a common language...the world's ONLY common language...this is exciting!! it is quite clearly primal....yet how many playwrights, and poets, and novelists are there with any commonly spoken language?

human nature by now has shown us there is no such thing as a "mean level"of anything...some will always rise above any mean level....technical equality is all that has happened...and having been one of the ones who "had to learn it the hard way", i welcome the tech advances....allows me to speak more easily...yet the words, the pictures, must still be chosen very carefully to create anything meaningful....

collector print prices and special edition books are selling at an all time high...photo workshops and seminars as yours have packed houses...who cares if there are 20 billion pictures on FB? that is a meaningless statistic in the world of art where the mediums of paint or stone or words are always plentiful....

thanks for this discussion..for sure a good one!!

cheers , david

Jonah Calinawan
Posted 11.09.2014 at 13:49

Your comment about "I’ll start by introducing the idea of photography as seeing machines" reminded me of Vilem Flusser's book entitled, "Towards a Philosophy of Photography" wherein he describes the camera as an apparatus:

"The camera has been programmed to produce photographs, and every
photograph is the realization of one of the virtualities contained in
that program. The sum of those virtualities is large, but not
infinite. It is the sum of all those photographs, which may be taken
by this camera. Granted, a camera may take, almost infinitely, the
same or similar photographs, again and again and again — but this is
not very interesting. Such photographs are "redundant": they carry no
new information; they are superfluous."

The job of a photographer then, is to override the camera's program or to work around it. As Flusser puts it:

"The photographer is committed to the exhaustion of the photo-program,
and to the realization of all the virtualities contained there. The
program, however, is rich and nearly impenetrable. The photographer is
committed, then, to discovering hidden virtualities in the program. He
handles the camera, turns it around, looks into it and through it. If
he looks through the camera into the world, he does so not because he
is interested in the world, but because he is in search of the yet
undiscovered virtualities in the camera program enabling him to
produce new information. His interest is concentrated on the cam-era,
and the world "put there" is a pretext for his realization of the
virtualities contained in the program. In sum: he does not work, he
does not aim at changing the world: he looks for information to be
realized in a photograph."

Experimental photographers therefore are looking for ways to express an idea outside of (or despite of) the camera's program.

Is photography over? My personal take on it is I don't think so. Just like the inflationary universe, photography is also expanding.


David Travis
Posted 06.11.2014 at 17:42

Yes, most people from the invention of photography view its results and subject matter (what was in front of the camera). It is equal about two other things: it's medium (how the photograph came into being) and an overarching idea that shapes the photographers' attitudes, thoughts, and strategies. All three must be considered and in different periods one may dominate the various fields of photography.

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