A Predictable Trend in Photography Criticism
There’s an article from PetaPixel that’s currently making the rounds on social media, called “A Disturbing Trend in Photography.” In it, long-time photographer and photo educator Neal Rantoul makes the argument that the art photography of today is heavy on words and light on quality. He says:
Go to a graduate thesis show and take a look. The students are concerned with issues of identity, gender, developmental and emotional positioning, posturing, physical and emotional abuse, cultural and societal pressure and assumption, human rights, sexual identity, and on and on. Each of these ideas and many others takes on a personal relevance and importance square in the photographer’s aim, as though there is a catharsis that when shared it is assumed to have relevance to others who are there looking at the work. Of course, much of this is narcissism, self-absorption, even making work with blinders on.
Rantoul lays the blame for this trend on the ubiquity of contemporary MFA programs and the increasing ease with which modern camera technology allows us to produce “stunning results” without any real mastery of the craft.
In the five days since the article went live on PetaPixel, I’ve seen a great number of my peers sharing it on their various social media feeds, talking about how great it is, how well written, how spot on the argument and observation. The thing is, there is nothing unique or even particularly unusual about Rantoul’s piece—I’ve literally been seeing pieces like this shared about once a month for as long as I’ve been following photography.
If there’s anything that artists and art critics love besides the art they favor, it’s complaining about the current state of the art world. This is a long and storied tradition going back hundreds, possibly thousands of years, so there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about the fact that it’s still happening now. And, really, I don’t need to pick on Mr. Rantoul too much—even if he’s not advancing any new ideas in his piece, it’s by no means the worst or most strident of the bunch.
Generally speaking, thinkpieces decrying the state of contemporary photography make some combination of three basic arguments:
- Art used to be much better than it is now (e.g. in the 80’s, in the Modernist period, in the Renaissance, etc.) and the current trend is dangerous or disturbing.
- The art establishment has suckered the critical or art-making populace into believing that the new style is important, but it is ultimately empty. (I call this the “Emperor Has No Clothes” argument.)
- Artistic practices no longer pay proper respect to traditional constraints, and they should. (e.g. “If a photograph requires words or explanation, then it is a failure,” or “Photoshop is ruining photography.”)
Now, I can understand the appeal of arguments like this, particularly if one feels his or her own interests are not reflected in the tastes of the art establishment. My main problem with them, though, is how ahistorical they are.
The tendency to look backwards with warmth may well be innate. Certainly people have been doing that about art as long as there has been art. But go back to any historical period, and you will find people talking about how the current trend is garbage. Back in the 1980’s, Robert Hughes told everyone he could about how stupid and shallow Andy Warhol and his art were. In the 1960’s, John Canaday regularly took to the pages of the New York Times and alleged that the popularity of the Abstract Expressionists was only due to the art world having brainwashed the public. And from the 1890’s until his death in 1948, Royal Cortissoz used his position as the art critic for the New York Herald Tribune to loudly denounce the egotism of the anti-traditionalists—he particularly hated the Modernists, claiming that they were “ruining the younger generation.” And so it goes, throughout history.
Even were we to limit ourselves to viewing art’s past with modern sensibilities, it’s extremely unlikely that any previous period was any better, considered as a whole. We must bear in mind that history is always written with an agenda, that we are only ever presented with the parts of the story that are considered worthwhile. In the context of art, time acts like a sieve in which only the great or important work remains in the narrative; the landfill of history is full of art that no one cared about. It’s not at all a matter of apples-to-apples when comparing the greats of yesteryear with any random student of today. Rantoul does this explicitly: he names Frank, Friedlander, Callahan, Sommer, Baltz, Cartier-Bresson, and Ansel Adams as his exemplars of photography’s golden past while holding up a hypothetical “graduate thesis show” as the opposing side. But, honestly, how many people at any point in history were doing great work in their early 20’s? I somehow doubt that “20 or 30 years ago” college kids were regularly making revolutionary art, and even the ones who were making interesting work were likely not widely accepted by traditionalists. It’s also worth noting that most of the work we know best by the men he listed in the context of “20 or 30 years ago” was really made 50 or more years ago. This, too, speaks directly to the idea about the curation of history. We may notice a surplus of bad art today, but wait fifty years and people will only remember the good.
But what do “good” and “bad” even mean? If artistic quality were in any way objective then you would expect opinions about it to remain relatively static. Yet though, for example, John Greenleaf Whittier was hailed in his own time as one of America’s most important poets, he’s seldom read today. And Van Gogh, on the other hand, famously died penniless and obscure, and is now considered one of the most important figures in Western art history. Tastes change, the avant-garde becomes tradition, and perhaps the only constant is the grumbling about how far standards have declined.
It does appear to be true that art photography today is largely concept-driven. I would also agree that the favored visual aesthetics of the present are different from what they were two decades ago—though in that respect I think you’d be hard pressed to find any time since the Renaissance when that wasn’t the case. Many photographers who came up in the film era now find their preferred methodologies to be out of favor, and I can understand why that would be frustrating. But any explanation of a major art trend that relies on blaming art-school groupthink or assumes that the new generation is simply vapid and narcissistic—both of which, not coincidentally, function to prop up the traditionalist viewpoint—is ultimately an exercise in self-soothing, not intellectual rigor.
What, then, does explain the new currents in the artistic ocean that so discomfit Rantoul and so many other people who write about photography? Questions about art movements often prove difficult to answer conclusively without the benefit of hindsight, but I have a theory, which in many of the details is not too different from Rantoul’s. As he points out, modern tools have, indeed, taken much of the technical challenge out of producing a traditionally beautiful photograph. But when neither long experience nor virtuosity is required to produce technically perfect work, the result is that technique tends not to remain very impressive or even interesting, and the generation of artists following a wave of technological upheaval tend to start looking for other things to do with their medium. There’s a certain irony here that photographers are now finding so much to complain about in the digital age, because it was the invention of photography, itself, that spurred exactly the same sort of innovation in painting.
It’s fairly well-accepted by art historians that the advent of photography directly led to the increasing use of abstraction in painting. Once painting was no longer the quickest, easiest, or most cost-effective way of producing an accurate representation, representation quickly lost its preeminence as the determiner of quality in art painting. Photography was invented in the early 1800’s, and by the middle of that century it had largely replaced painting in the realm of portraiture. And it’s by no means a coincidence that at exactly that time, the dominant Romanticism of Western painting began to give way to Impressionism, which in turn led to Post-Impressionism, Modernism, and so on. Nor is it surprising that as the painting aesthetic changed, the traditionalists pushed back—critic Louis Leroy famously said of Monet’s Impression, soleil levant:
Impression I was certain of it. I was just telling myself that, since I was impressed, there had to be some impression in it — and what freedom, what ease of workmanship! A preliminary drawing for a wallpaper pattern is more finished than this seascape.
That line was written in 1874, but you see the same sentiments about egotism and shoddy technique in Rantoul’s piece from last week.
To me, this suggests not that photography is in some sort of decline, but rather that we are in the first stages of a new artistic revolution. It may well be that what’s to come in the next few decades will leave even the bright-eyed idealists of today behind, but not only is there nothing we can do about the inevitability of change, it’s not actually a bad thing. After all, as revolutionary as Monet and his Impressionist friends were, it’s still hard to imagine them immediately embracing the work of, say, Jackson Pollock. We somehow manage to have room for both in the canon, though.
Extended artist statements and conceptual series may fall out of vogue at some point, but when and if that happens it will be because another new trend has replaced it. I don’t know what that will look like, but what the future thinkpieces will say about it is not in any doubt.
As some of you may know, I've been working on a small edition of handmade artists books for my series "Sheets: A Love Letter." I'm still finishing work on that set of books, and I'm very pleased with how they're turning out. The one problem with handmade books, though, is that due to production costs and the amount of labor involved in making each one, I can't make them as affordable as I'd like. So, following up on a suggestion I got from Aline Smithson at a portfolio review last fall, I've decided to self-publish a softcover version of the book.
The new softcover book was designed by me and printed by Edition One Books, who were very easy to work with; I would definitely recommend them for anyone looking to for a short-run printer. The edition is 100 books, and each will be signed and numbered.
If you'd like to buy one, you can pop over to my online store, where they're available for $25 each. Patreon subscribers at any level also get 20% off, so don't forget to use your discount code when checking out if you're a subscriber.
A few more detail shots will follow at the end of the post. Thanks so much to all of you who have supported me over the years. It really means a lot to me.
Authenticity, Fiction, Truth, Lies, and Jenny Lewis
I’ve been a little obsessed with Jenny Lewis lately.
I should back up a bit. A while ago I was out for one of my morning runs, listening to one of the one of the “workout” stations on Spotify. Most of the songs that came on were fairly terrible, but the rhythms were all propulsive enough to keep me chugging along. Some awful pop nonsense faded out, leaving nothing but the sound of my footfalls and labored breathing for a moment. Then a few chiming guitar notes rang out of the silence, a quick tempo drum beat kicked in, and there was Jenny Lewis singing about how she’s bad news.
I don’t know if it’s a great song. But there’s something about the way she sings it that makes me believe. “C’mere!” she shouts to her lover, her voice forceful but wild, maybe desperate. The guitar growls in answer and the drums stutter in syncopation like someone tripping over their own feet. I’m drawn in, and I can’t help but wonder: did you do this? Did this happen?
A few months after that morning run, a Facebook friend recommended her solo album, The Voyager. “I can’t stop listening to it,” my friend said. I promptly added the album to my “To Investigate” playlist and forgot about it until last month, and now I can’t stop listening to it either. Throughout the ten songs, Lewis seems to be struggling with regret and disillusionment, the pain of seeing what your life is as you head into middle age, and how it’s different from what you might have thought.
There’s only one difference between you and me
When I look at myself, all I can see:
I’m just another lady without a baby.
I used to think you could save me,
I’ve been wandering lately
Heard she’s having your baby,
And everything’s so amazing
How could I resist her,
I had longed for a big sister
And I wanted to kiss her,
But I hadn’t done that
And, again, I want to know: When you wrote this, were you remembering or imagining? Are you singing in your voice, or someone else’s?
But why? Why do I care? Do the emotions mean more if they are drawn from her own life? And, if so, how does that work?
Almost all of my own work—and certainly the work that has resonated the most with viewers—is about myself. I try to reach for something other people can relate to, but I do this by showing things that are particular to me. And, thinking over my favorite work from other photographers, much of it is drawn from highly personal experiences. Judith Fox’s I Still Do. Andi Schreiber’s Pretty, Please. Duane Michals’s The House I Once Called Home. Rebecca Norris Webb’s My Dakota.
And yet, as much as I seem to value “honesty” and “authenticity” in music and photography, the same isn’t true for, say, books or movies. Of course there are autobiographical examples of each that I love, but I don’t love them more than my favorite works of fiction. Michael Ende never literally visited Fantastica, and yet that doesn’t diminish my feeling of wonder when I read The Neverending Story. Rick Blaine never had a club in Morocco, but the end of Casablanca still puts a lump in my throat. In fact, one of the things I have always said I most admire about novelists is their ability to bring things into being that never existed before, through the sheer force of their imaginations. If they can get me to feel something, that’s real, whether or not the events of their stories actually happened.
Why doesn’t this hold for songs or pictures, then? Mind you, there are fictions in lyrics and images that I enjoy, but the ones that stick with me the most, that I keep coming back to over and over, all of them come from life. Photographs need not be straight or documentary, and lyrics need not be literal, but the driving impulses behind my favorites of each are nearly always emotions and experiences that the artist really lived.
Is it a question of immediacy? A movie is populated with people you know are actors, and words on a page need you to interpret them, to picture them in your head. But when a singer says “I,” it’s hard to hear a persona in that, at least the first few times you hear it. And when you look at a photograph, it’s hard to get past the notion that what’s in the image was really in front of the camera, that the photographer was really there in the room. In either case, there’s room for fiction and lies, and interesting work can and has been made that plays on the audience’s ingenuousness, their expectation of honesty. But then the experience becomes intellectual instead of visceral. There’s value in that, too, but it’s never what I return to more than once or twice.
So then, where does that leave me with Jenny Lewis and her songs? I don’t know if she made them up or not. If I were to find out one way or another, would I care about them more or less? I’m not sure. Authenticity and honesty in art certainly don’t require literal truth. I’m reminded of a bit of advice that photographer James Luckett gave his students about writing an artist statement:
You have no duty to the facts. Your loyalty is to the honesty of your ideas, emotions, dreams, desires and needs; what Werner Herzog calls the ecstatic truth. That is your goal.
If what you’ve felt is real and you’ve put that into your work, then the work is honest, whether or not it depicts actual events. I like that idea, and I certainly can’t argue against it as advice for an artist. As part of the audience, though, I still haven’t made up my mind. But I suppose if the beat is propulsive enough, I’ll keep running.
Thoughts On (My) Photography
"A photograph should be more interesting than the subject and transcend its obviousness."
That's a quotation from photographer Jeffrey Ladd which has been making the rounds in photoland, due in part to the fact that Jörg Colberg highlighted it in a blog post a few weeks ago. It's also something that a reviewer repeated to me (somewhat exasperatedly) during my session with him at the Medium Festival of Photography this past weekend.
I met with twelve people during the portfolio reviews, ranging from museum curators to creative agents to bloggers to gallery owners. I also got the chance to show my photographs to a few dozen others via the open portfolio walk and the Open Show presentations (the latter of which my friend Jonas was kind enough to invite me to take part in). The responses I got ranged from tepid to breathless. Some people found my pictures cute; others found them poignant. One reviewer complimented me on the quietness of the images; another said I needed to give him a reason to care. Several told me that I needed to make the work more universal, while others talked about how relatable the emotions and experiences were that I was trying to convey. One told me that I should study more; another said that I don't need to keep aspiring to the level of the photographers I admire, because I'm already there.
I admit, that last one was (and is) a bit difficult for me to swallow. I don't think of myself as a "real" artist, nor do I think of my work as anything special. Getting back to the quotation I led with, it's always been difficult for me to judge whether or not the pictures I make (or the things I write, or anything I do or think) are obvious, because everything I do is obvious to me. In general, I'm always surprised when anyone wants to talk to me or cares what I say or do. I almost never feel like I belong, or that I or the things I do will be important to anyone besides me.
(I can feel my in-laws rushing to say something nice about me here. I appreciate the sentiment, but I just want to make it clear that I'm not fishing for compliments. How I feel about myself and my work is almost entirely a product of my own insecurities, and is not at all rational. As proof: I crave validation, but receiving it makes me profoundly uncomfortable.)
During the second half of the festival I got to see some amazing lectures from a diverse group of photographers, all of them working in profoundly different ways toward different goals and exploring different themes and subjects. Chris Engman and Soo Kim are doing utterly brilliant work exploring the very nature of photography. Matt Black, Virginia Beahan, and Jess T. Dugan are engaging with important social and political issues in deeply humanist ways. And on the one hand I was genuinely excited to see their work, both as an audience member and in taking away new perspectives as an aspiring artist. But, me being me, it's hard not to look at what they do and be overwhelmed; by comparison, my own photographs and the themes I'm dealing with feel small and obvious and trifling. These are people who are dealing with complex questions about art and the medium of photography, or exploring critical real-world issues like gender, sexuality, the representation of marginalized communities, environmental sustainability, water use, poverty, economic inequality, and international migration. The only things I'm looking at are my relatively comfortable life and the inside of my own mind.
Not everyone who saw my photographs connected with what they saw, but some did, and did so very strongly. I tend to concentrate more on my failures than my successes, and so the fact that some people find my pictures boring or perhaps even self-indulgent makes me question what I'm doing. But the truth is that I'm aiming at a very specific set of emotions and experiences with my photographs, and even if those emotions and experiences might be recognizable, they're not ones that are going to matter to everybody. And that's OK, because I'm not really talking to those people. Moreover, I don't have to be talking to them. I always recognize the legitimacy of specificity in other people's work; I should be willing to do the same with mine.
When people ask me about my motivations in creating my work—as many people did over the course of the four-day festival—I always say that the artists who have most moved me are the ones in whose work I have seen something of myself. Something that I can relate to, that lets me know that someone else is going through the same things I'm going through, and thinking about the same things that I'm thinking about. That those artists, through their work, make me feel a connection to something bigger than myself, and help me feel a little less alone, a little less afraid. I say that this is what I want to do with my own photographs and writing. I think it's time to really live up to that statement, to own it. And that means accepting that I have a right to my own voice, and to believe in what I'm saying.
I still have a lot to learn—I always will—and it will always be important to me to maintain a sense of humility. I don't think I will ever stop being nervous or self-conscious about my work. But I'm coming around to the idea that this stuff of mine has its place in the world, and I'm cautiously optimistic about the future.
2013 Print Sale
Last year's print sale went fairly well, so I've decided to have another one. For this year's sale, I've selected a completely new set of images, all shot within the past year.
- Prints are available on two sheet sizes: 8" x 10" and 16" x 20".
- 8" x 10" prints are $100
- 16" x 20" prints are $300
- All prints are archival inkjet prints on Hahnemuhle Photo Rag 308 paper (matte finish)
- Prints are signed and numbered, with edition number noted. (see below)
- Prints are not mounted or framed.
- Domestic shipping via UPS is included in the price.
- International shipping is available at an additional cost.
- Orders shipped to California addresses will have state and local sales tax applied.
- Orders must be paid via Paypal.
- Rather than printing and shipping each order as it comes in, I'll be collecting orders through September 30 and then submitting the entire run to the printer at once. I expect orders will start shipping in the second week of October.
A note about editions: All of these images are new and have not been sold before. This will be an open edition--I will print as many of each image as are ordered, then the edition will be closed. However, I may offer subsequent editions of any of these images in the future. To distinguish this edition from any potential future edition, these will be marked "1st edition" along with the edition date and print number within the edition. Also, the two sizes available constitute separate editions, so the numbering will be separate for each size.
[Ordering info removed.]
Looking forward to hearing from you!
[Editor's Note: I've pinned this post to the front page for the duration of the sale, but new updates will continue to be posted below.]
For the first time ever, I've decided to hold a print sale. From today through the end of the month I'll be offering the 18 images you see below, so if you've ever thought to yourself "Hey, I really wish I could own a Mike Sakasegawa print," now's your chance. I'm including images from several ongoing series as well as a bunch of singles. (Note: you can click on each image to see a larger version.)
- Prints are digital C-prints, sized as noted above, on Fuji Crystal Archive paper.
- Prints are signed, uneditioned, and unmounted.
- All prints are priced at $60 US.
- Orders that will be shipped to California addresses will have sales tax applied.
- Domestic shipping via UPS is included in the price.
- International shipping is available at additional cost.
- Orders must be paid via PayPal.
- Rather than printing and shipping each order as it comes in, I'll be collecting orders through August 31 and then submitting the entire run to the printer at once. I expect orders will start shipping in the second week of September.
[Ordering info removed.]
Looking forward to hearing from you!
The Sartorialist's Visual Life
The Online Photographer this morning ran a piece about this video from Intel's Visual Life series, featuring Scott Schuman from The Sartorialist. I can't say I was familiar with Schuman before, but listening to him talk about his work and see how he works, it really resonated with me.
About a minute and a half in, he says this:
I feel very lucky to get to have part of my day leading a visual life. It takes X amount of time every day just to make the blog work, just to get everything going and get all the business of it done, but then the real joy of it is having those four or five hours a day to go out and just be in the world that you're in, see it, keep your eyes open and really relate to what you're seeing, react to what you're seeing.
Hearing that, it just clicked with me. That's exactly how I feel when I go out shooting, especially when I shoot street. There's a feeling of presentness, of groundedness, of connection and, yes, joy. Of just being thrilled to be in the world and get to see it and be a part of it.
It's also got me to thinking about my own approach to photography. The interesting thing about Schuman--and what makes his site so popular, I imagine--is that he's not focusing on photography; rather, he uses photography to focus on fashion. It's exactly that kind of particular point of view and direction that makes great artists interesting, and it's something that's definitely lacking from my work.
I've always suffered from a lack of focus. I'm interested in a lot of things. Even just within photography, there's no one subject or style that I like, no unifying theme to my work. I think that's a big part of what's holding me back artistically.
My Latest at Life As A Human: Every Picture Tells a Story
"Every Picture Tells a Story":
Over the past six months or so I’ve been reconnecting with my love of photography. It’s been an exhilarating time, learning different techniques, practicing composition, and shooting, shooting, shooting. In order to develop my own style, one of the things I’ve been doing is to study the work of past and current masters, and what I’ve come to realize is that the images that resonate the most strongly with me are those that tell a story. With that in mind, I’d like to tell you the story of one of my recent photos.
My Latest at Life As A Human: The Most Photographed Child In The World
"The Most Photographed Child In The World":
If you are, like me, the parent of a young child and given to being a little shutter-happy with your camera, it’s quite possible that someone has referred to your son or daughter as “the most photographed child in the world.” I most often get it from my parents or in-laws, usually just after I’ve lifted the camera up to my eye. I was reflecting the other day on that phrase and it struck me that it’s kind of lost its meaning in the age of the digital camera.
5 Reasons I Shouldn't Buy a Nikon D700
1.) I don't have a spare $2,500 just lying around. Even if I did, that would only get me the camera body, and none of my current lenses work well with full-frame cameras.
2.) Even if I did have money burning a hole in my pocket, that money would be better spent on things like lights, light stands, gels, lens filters, and so on.
3.) I haven't reached the limits of what my current camera can do. I take some decent photos, but I'm still getting a feel for exposure, dynamic range, and so on. The limitation on my photos right now is me, not my D40.
4.) I just got two new lenses for my birthday, neither of which work with the D700. I really should spend more time with what I have before I move on to something new.
5.) A better camera won't make my pictures better. What makes a great photograph is composition, subject, and lighting, not gear.
I've been repeating this list to myself for the last several weeks. It's going to stick one of these days.