“If pictures teach us how to desire, they also teach us how to see - what to look for, how to arrange and make sense of what we see.”
It seems at best impractical to insist on the doctrinaire distinction between ‘documentary’ and ‘conceptual’ photography, at least when considered against the more pressing (and perennial) urge to find ways to visualise contemporary life. Form explains only so much, and the little that it clarifies can as easily reveal commonality as medium-specificity, or stable conventions of genre.
Leo Steinberg wrote about the instability of Clement Greenberg’s modernist convention of reflexivity in painting, and in many ways his argument can be used to outline productive areas of overlap in contemporary photographic practice. (Overlaps which are at best hinted at briefly, rather than sketched out in this short post).
"It is a provincialism to make the self-critical turn of mind the sufficient distinction of Modernism; and once it is understood as not its peculiar distinction, other distinguishing characteristics move into focus and demand re-definition: the specific look of contemporary abstract art—its object quality, its blankness and secrecy, its impersonal or industrial look, its simplicity and tendency to project a stark minimum of decisions, its radiance and power and scale—these become recognisable as a kind of content, expressive and eloquent in their own way."
Perhaps a more fruitful way of looking across genre (or form) and back toward content is to consider the above images in the light of this argument by Mark Fisher, from his book Capitalist Realism (2009):
"Capitalism is what is left when beliefs have collapsed at the level of ritual or symbolic elaboration, and all that is left is the consumer-spectator, trudging through the ruins and the relics.
Yet this turn from belief to aesthetics, from engagement to spectatorship, is held to be one of the virtues of capitalist realism. In claiming, as Badiou puts it, to have ‘delivered us from the “fatal abstractions” inspired by the “ideologies of the past”’, capitalist realism presents itself as a shield protecting us from the perils posed by belief itself. The attitude of ironic distance proper to postmodern capitalism is supposed to immunize us against the seductions of fanaticism. Lowering our expectations, we are told, is a small price to pay for being protected from terror and totalitarianism.” (emphasis mine)
Senior Alicia Helm, exhibiting work in the 2014 Photography BFA show POWERWASH on May 2nd. That’s in just two days!