The current retrospective of conceptual photographic forebear Victor Burgin (Ambika P3 Gallery, London until 1 December) combined with the recent announcement of nominees for the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize 2014 and the Family Politics show (until 8 December) at the Jerwood Space London provides a timely opportunity to re-examine the conceptual approach to the photographic medium. Brighton-based photographer and gallery owner Matt Henry argues that the roles of narrative, aesthetics and intuition need to be celebrated and valued – not sidelined.
As photography has moved from the pages of magazines onto gallery walls, it’s been forced to compete with the world of conceptual art. Here research, analysis and self-reflexivity (art about art) supersede aesthetics, narrative, and intuition. An image that inspires wonderment at first glance is rarely accorded the same level of respect as one that features concept-laden text that explains how the work interrogates time, or challenges the notion of authorship, or explores the fragility of memory. This approach contains within it the implicit questions: Why are you doing what you are doing? and How does it contribute to the development of the medium? It’s an approach to art that assumes that, like physics, there’s a level of advancement to be made through persistent inquiry.
The ‘concept’ here then is the goal and often at the expense of everything else. But just how dense or how useful are these concepts once unravelled? Take Deutsche Börse nominee Richard Mosse’s exploration of the Eastern Congo. As brave as it is, is it really anything more than a documentary series that happens to have been shot on infrared film (turning large parts of the image pink) with a bit of sound layered over the top? Or is it, as his website blurb claims, an attempt to explore aesthetics in a situation of profound human suffering that brings “two counter-worlds into collision: art’s potential to represent narratives so painful that they exist beyond language, and photography’s capacity to document specific tragedies and communicate them to the world.” If you want to have a debate about whether or not it’s moral or useful to stylise images of suffering, let’s have it. Turning images pink is not an argument or a solution.
Then there’s nominee Jochen Lempert, who first studied as a biologist before turning to photography in the early 1990s. His work presents a sometimes interesting study of the animal kingdom, perhaps even an insight into the mind of the naturalist. Yet Eva Schmidt, the Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, claims that Lempert offers: “an approach to nature that is equally phenomenological and poetic, never forgetting our perspectives as observers, the medium, or the context of the presentation.” This just means that he tries to make nature look good in the process of documenting it and that he’s also thinking about his audience, the fact he’s using a camera and how the work might be shown. Isn’t this the very minimum required of any practising photographer?
Now you could argue the latter is just curatorial guff designed to hype the work, or justify the curator’s salary, as Grayson Perry suggested in his fantastically revealing BBC Reith Lecture series. And you might also claim the selection of the above examples is a little disingenuous, and that there is conceptual dictum out there that makes more interesting sense. What you can’t claim is that this intellectualising doesn’t have an impact on the work that’s being produced. Photographers keen for shows, awards and bursaries are increasingly driven towards this dry, theoretical approach. If it doesn’t have some form of investigative theory that offers something new to the art world game, then it’s not worth making at all.
Witness photographer Taryn Simon’s leap from the lush An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar to Image Atlas; a list of popular images found on search engines that, according to Taryn: “interrogate the possibility of a universal visual language and question the supposed innocence and neutrality of the algorithms upon which search engines rely”. Or how Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin (last year’s Deutsche Börse winners) are fêted for putting images into the Holy Bible to: “question the clichés at play within the visual representation of conflict”. Or how John Stezaker (Deutsche Börse winner 2012) is rewarded for sticking together found celebrity photographs to: “create hybrid ‘icons’ that dissociate the familiar to create sensations of the uncanny.”
This isn’t an argument that production values alone are the measure of depth, or originality, but that the left-brain rationality which is so important to conceptual photography is not the best way to judge a body of work. If we view photography instead in the context of other art forms, the analytical approach might seem a little strange. Music, at its most intuitive produces a physical response to a set of carefully choreographed vibrations. Most musicians would struggle to articulate exactly why they string together a range of chords in a particular way or choose to finish a track with a thirty-second guitar solo. It just sounds good. It feels good. It expresses something from within. And you’d hope someone somewhere is made of similar stuff so that they might well enjoy the results. This is not to say that music isn’t created in context or doesn’t require originality but that its creation and reception needn’t be based on intellectual inquiry.
Even with literature or cinema; mediums that incorporate more rational thought in their use of narrative, is it fair to ask the author or director the usual questions levelled at contemporary photography: What’s the point of the work? What’s it trying to achieve? Or how does it move the medium forward? For many artists working in these genres the creation of the work is an end in itself. While they might return to particularly personal themes, they rarely make choices that are designed purely to ‘interrogate the medium’, even outside of the Hollywood model. Instead they wrestle with the fabric of life and in the process hold up a mirror to their audience that might equally inspire, horrify, educate and entertain.
There’s a reason that many contemporary video artists are making the shift to traditional feature film (and having great success if Steve McQueen’s Shame is anything to go by). The many levels on which cinematic story-telling can work leave concept-driven installations looking rather one-dimensional. And the tools available to cinema are better able to produce visually arresting montage that taps the same emotional, intuitive and imaginative areas of the brain that music can so readily access. Photography as a medium is also capable of telling stories in an infinite number of ways, and all the while using colour, shape, texture and form to electrify and seduce. Free from a conceptual base and left to trust its intuition, it’s in narrative and aesthetic play that photography can really soar.
About the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize 2014 The four artists shortlisted for the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize 2014 are Alberto García-Alix, Jochen Lempert, Richard Mosse and Lorna Simpson.