There was a photography contest and I had predicted the winner. I was pleased. ‘You see?’ I thought. ‘I get it. I get photography.’
There was another contest and lo and behold! I did it again. Someone said: ‘You have a gift’. And I thought: ‘You know, maybe I do’.
Then there was yet another photography contest. Yes, my foreign listeners: The Netherlands may be a small country, but we do love to win. And in order to do so we organize a lot of tournaments, so no matter what your skills are, you can always win something.
Well, this time – I guess it comes as no surprise: I was right once more. Someone who was pleased with the winner came up to me and said: ‘You see? How could we have been wrong? There exists something like an objective form of quality in photography after all.’
And that’s when I started to get suspicious. I started to doubt myself.
Well, yes: maybe I should have arrived at that mental state a little bit sooner. But I reached it then and there. And I asked myself: Is there really an objective form of quality? Was that the reason I had been right three times? Because I had recognized this quality, together with the people who were in the juries, the talent scouts, the gatekeepers and everyone who participates in these contests today?
I hoped that this was the case. I hoped that the winners were all genuine winners and that everyone we celebrated was just as objectively good – because I liked their work.
But at the same time a voice in the back of my head said: What if we were all wrong? What if this so-called objective quality is just something that we, within the world of photography, have invented ourselves?
What if we, the ones that are professionally engaged in photography, writing, blogging, thinking, talking about it, making exhibitions and scanning the internet for new talent all the time – what if we have subconsciously decided that we automatically know what this quality is? That we recognize it from a distance, because we can read the visual language that we ourselves have proclaimed?
What if we just move in circles, awarding the work we have praised so highly, without ever asking ourselves why?
I decided to pay closer attention every time I saw something that I liked. Or thought I liked. And then ask myself how many times I had seen something like it before.
Every time I saw – for instance – a plant in a pot; a funny shaped bush with one cloud above it; a radiator;
a power socket with a loose hanging electricity cord on a flaked wall with a kitschy picture of a snowy mountain; a worn-out mattress; flowery wallpaper with matching drapes and couches; a constellation of colourful geometric shapes, preferably blocking someone’s face on an old black-and-white photograph; sewing and stitching on found footage; a girl, sticking her head in the water or hanging upside down from a tree branch, looking all angelic; tilted lens harbours and amusement parks; installations of wooden poles, garden chairs, electricity cords and large amounts of tin foil – every time I encountered these photographic scenes, every time I could pinpoint something I had seen before and felt attracted to, I asked myself: ‘But why exactly?’
I have to. I am supposed to be a critic. But the thing is: I believe that the world of photography has become much smaller than it used to be, even though the amount of photographers seems to be growing with the hour.
Lately someone asked me what I liked about photography.
Well, I said, the thing I like the most is that it is so extensive. Photography represents a lot of different things and subjects, from the chicken breasts that are for sale at your local supermarket to people fighting in the streets of Aleppo, from fashion spreads in magazines to backbreaking reflections on reality. I like the fact that photography always resonates parts of the real world, while at the same time also reflects on itself, by constantly asking of the viewer if what he’s looking at is actually true and to what extent.
But it seems that this second characteristic, reflecting upon itself, has become more important than the first, telling us something about the world, no matter how small the subject. It seems that a lot of photography is only reflecting upon other photography that is reflecting on other photography that is reflecting on a common acceptable visual language. Something that used to be original, but now relies heavily upon formal values.
I was alarmed by the text of Glenn Ruga this last spring. Ruga, a photographic researcher who assembled an exhibition at the New York Photo Festival (an exhibition I did not see, by the way), wrote about the thin line between documentary and fine art photography, saying that documentary photography handed over part of its content and got some of these formal elements in return. Because that’s what the market wants, that’s what we want, apparently: form. And so, Ruga says, documentary and fine art photography are starting to look very much alike.
But how can we talk of quality, let alone objective quality, when we are always looking for the same thing? How can we praise ourselves at choosing the best photographers when we can’t even answer the question why their work stands out of the crowd? That shouldn’t be possible.
Looking back I can now say: Maybe it was not photography that I was getting – it was the mechanism behind it instead. Maybe I should just start over every time I look at a set of pictures.
I don’t think there is an objective form of quality in photography. That’s just something we hope for every time, so we don’t have to explain why. But we should.
Op de foto: fotolawine van Erik Kessels voor Foam: What’s Next, november 2011