Photography’s Third Age

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Quo vadis, photography?

Where is the medium going? Aside from the obvious technical developments, though facilitated by them, there are significant shifts in who makes a photograph and why.

It is my view that the medium of photography is entering its third age.

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The first age of photography was about bringing distant things near. Photographs allowed the rising bourgeoisie in Europe and America to see the far-flung places of empire and trade. It had the engagingly paradoxical effect of making these places more real while creating a romantic image of the exotic. This suited the later 19th-century taste, which blended sentimentality with industrialisation and an aggressive expansionism. Photography also spanned social gulfs, bringing the plight of the working poor and unemployed to the attention of the affluent and increasingly politically empowered middle classes, leading in time to major social reforms.

Following the war in Europe of 1914-1918, there was a tectonic shift of social, cultural and emotional life. The recent past was seen as functionally and ethically bankrupt and a forward-focused modernism became the order of the day. Everything began to change rapidly; new architecture, fashion, means of transport and social structures quickly emerged. As things changed, the photographs of the previous century became invested with the aura of memory, of memorial. During the 20th Century there was a growing sense that photographs always presented times past, times lost. By the second half of the century and the theoretical hothouse of Postmodernism, writers such as Roland Barthes claimed that photography was inextricably tied to memory as a reminder of our own mortality: of death. Photography was understood as a fundamentally melancholy medium.

However, as the 21st century dawned, technological developments in digital imaging and network telecommunications are leading to a further conceptual shift. Photographs have dematerialised. They are everywhere and nowhere. Images are no longer fixed objects of archive; they are fragments in a mass and widely dispersed visual exchange. Images made on a mobile phone (cell phone) are not about archive but about immediate communication. They are part of a mass conversation, about connecting people in the moment. As such, I believe they mark a new and exciting stage in the history of photography, one that links the medium not with distance and death, but with connection and life.

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So far I have considered the image, what of the maker?

In the 19th Century, photography (especially that of the travelogue) was the province of the amateur of independent means. The 20th century saw the establishment of the professional and with it the professionalisation of the roles of photographer and of artist. As mass mediation divided the community into a small group of active producers and a large group of passive consumers (creatives and couch potatoes), professionals were seen as the only legitimate producers of our visual culture. They formed guilds and sub-sets and energetically defended their professional territory. Meanwhile, meta-industries arose in the form of multinational media companies to effect and control (and profit from) the one-way flow of imagery.

However, in the 21st century we see the rise of what has been called the ‘pro-am’: a person applying professional standard skills without seeking to build their livelihood upon them. These are not simply hobbyists, making naïve works for their own uninformed pleasure. These are people creating high quality work that is dispersed widely (via the internet and other low-cost communications networks). Some simply entertain while others add substantially to the collective community value. (Remember that the basis on which the internet operates is itself a massive platform developed by countless individuals without payment or attribution.)

These shifts in production, dissemination and understanding of photography and its descendants inevitably mean that we must reevaluate and reconceptualise our ideas about what constitutes our public visual culture; the visual debates of the contemporary public sphere. It is this challenge and the shifting geo-political map that led to the formation of Cultural Development Consulting less than a year after the symposium was staged in China.*

One thing is clear: in this unfolding conceptual moment we must think with open minds; we must be prepared to let go of comfortable habits and cherished beliefs; we must engage with the world as it is and as it is becoming. I believe that this is a profoundly positive time: one of conversations between communities and not just between specialists. One that crosses national and cultural borders, and recognises the deep connections we share as human beings.

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* This article is a concise outline of a paper Alasdair Foster presented at a two-day symposium on the conceptual boundaries of contemporary photography held in China in 2010.  The first day of the symposium had considered the contemporary geo-cultural state of photography and focused on the current situation globally. The second day considered the medium’s conceptual boundaries and focused on the future. While other speakers considered the contemporary state of conceptual photography, this paper focused on the specific question of the symposium: the conceptual boundaries of contemporary photography.

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Images (from top down):
Antonio Beato (1825–1903) Travellers at the Great Pyramids (detail) c1870
Uncredited photographer Children working as coal miners in Pennsylvania (detail) 1911
Uncredited photographer The Chrysler Building, Manhattan (detail) 1932
Alexander Gardner Lewis Payne (co-conspirator in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln – detail) 1865 overlaid with text by Roland Barthes, who discusses Gardner’s picture of Payne at length in his book Camera Lucida (1980)
photo © Benedict Foster
photo © Benedict Foster
Reconstruction of a mid-19th-century photographer at work (right) and his assistant is working a portable darkroom for the wet plate process
Weegee (Arthur Fellig, 1899–1968) The Boys Were Busy (detail) c1945
Evert F Baumgardner Family watching television (detail) c1958
photo © Benedict Foster
photo © Benedict Foster

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  • The majority of the texts on this site are by Alasdair Foster and represent his opinions. However, in order to facilitate a useful diversity of views, some texts have been invited from artists and colleagues around the world, while others appear as independent comments. These opinions and comments are not necessarily those of Alasdair Foster or Cultural Development Consulting (CDC). All data and information on this site is provided on an as-is basis. While every effort is made to be as thorough as possible, neither Alasdair Foster nor CDC make representations as to accuracy, completeness, currency, suitability or validity of any information on this site and will not be liable for any errors, omissions or delays in this information or any losses, injuries or damages arising from its display or use.
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