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A Brief History of Photo-Isms.

Jun 19th, 2020 • Uncategorised

A Brief History of Photo-Isms.

In his 1964 book Understanding Media Marshall McLuhan made the statement “The Medium is the Message”

“Meaning that the form of a message (print, visual, musical, etc.) determines the ways in which that message will be perceived. McLuhan argued that modern electronic communications (including radio, television, films, and computers) would have far-reaching sociological, aesthetic, and philosophical consequences, to the point of actually altering the ways in which we experience the world.”

Romanticism and the descent to Camera Club Pictorialism
In the beginning of photography, after the amazement of the detail available in a Daguerreotype, the medium attempted to become art by imitating the already abandoned Romantic art of that time.

Sadly there are still people doing this by using pinhole cameras or Cooke Portrait lenses and printing with cyanotype, gum bichromate or bromoil, some even go to the madness of wet plate collodion.  This is the Alternative Process movement, which we can thankfully ignore.

But it gets worse, the tradition of Camera Clubs and Photographic Societies was to follow Pictorialism, to make pretty pictures utterly devoid of meaning.  Pictorialism is still the main fare of these societies.  Locally it is manifest in the offerings of the Manjimup and Pemberton camera club exhibitions - Dreadful stuff made worse by unskilled application of Photoshop, like lipstick on a pig.

Modernism
In the 1920s Modernism gave photography the freedom to be itself, freeing it from the need to imitate “Art’ and gave it clarity and direction.  The photograph could now exist as a thing in itself beyond trying to be Art or being merely a representation of something.  Modernism also gave auteur status to the photographer, an almost spiritual intermediary between subject, the viewer and the photograph.  This, of course, gave rise to some seriously pretentious writing from otherwise great photographers and teachers, Minor White an obvious example, as a photographer and teacher he was great, but his writing . . .

There is a misapprehension that Modernism in photography refered only to the use of large format cameras and contact prints, the Czech, German and American traditions.  In reality Modernism includes the wealth of 35mm work from Europe, dominated the French tradition of Cartier Bresson and others.

I include the superb documentation of the Vietnam War in this section.  In addition to the unfortunate aestheticising of anguish and destruction, photography did raise awareness of the stupidity of this war in a way the USA military at that time did not comprehend.  To some extent it could be argued the Nikon F was an effective weapon in the revolt against that war.  The only lopng term effect of Vietnam war photogreaphy has been "embedding" of journalists and the actiive targeting of them to stop the truth getting out.

Postmodernism
In the 1970s, Postmodernism gave everyone the right to claim artistic equality, and the auteur was the first against the wall.  It was the age of irony and cynicism.

Here in Australia photographic Modernism was long and well established, as can be seen in the work of Olive Cotton, Max Dupain and Wolfgang Sievers.  But I am referring to the 1980s.  In Sydney there was the Australian Centre for Photography, which is possibly still there, and possibly with its typically Sydney self-aggrandising title, in Adelaide was the Developed Image Gallery guided by Kay Johnston and in Perth the friendly, mutually supportive and almost folksy Photography Gallery of WA, formed by Paula Shewchuk and Les Allister.  This later mutated to the Perth Centre for Photography, which I am told still exists in some form.

Much of the photography shown in Australia at this time was an extension of Modernism with elements of Postmodernism influencing its development.  In Western Australia there never seemed to be a sudden change, more a gentle merging and transition from Modernism to Postmodernism.  (My own practice by 1994 was forest based and became strongly enviro-documentary and political.  I lost touch with moves in Perth and Art in general.)

It as during the time of Postmodernism that the photography of the female nude by male photographers was called into question.  However, while right about the frequent placing of women in a submissive role, the whole arument went too wide so that now, in a time of Christofascist repression there is no differentiation in the broad mind-space between portraits of naked people and violent pornography.

Post Postmodernism and Metamodernism
Postmodernism as been pushed aside by Post Postmodernism or Metamodernism.  Meta(modernism) basically should mean a mode of photography referring to itself and to Modernist practice.  But I have only just got my head around Postmodernism, so I will stop at this point and quote Luke Turner

"Whereas postmodernism was characterised by deconstruction, irony, pastiche, relativism, nihilism, and the rejection of grand narratives (to caricature it somewhat), the discourse surrounding metamodernism engages with the resurgence of sincerity, hope, romanticism, affect, and the potential for grand narratives and universal truths, whilst not forfeiting all that we’ve learnt from postmodernism.

Thus, rather than simply signalling a return to naïve modernist ideological positions, metamodernism considers that our era is characterised by an oscillation between aspects of both modernism and postmodernism. We see this manifest as a kind of informed naivety, a pragmatic idealism, a moderate fanaticism, oscillating between sincerity and irony, deconstruction and construction, apathy and affect, attempting to attain some sort of transcendent position, as if such a thing were within our grasp. The metamodern generation understands that we can be both ironic and sincere in the same moment; that one does not necessarily diminish the other.

The use of the prefix meta here derives from Plato’s metaxis, describing an oscillation and simultaneity between and beyond diametrically opposed poles. . . "

Luke Turner
From his essay Metamodernism; a Brief Introduction,
January 2015
. . . except I don't quite get "moderate fanaticism"

Enter the Smart Phone
However, with the above proviso noted, I feel the ultimate tool of the late Postmodernist and Post Postmodernist/Metamodernist photographic practice is the Smart Phone.  The power and speed of these devices is breathtaking - as well as being a mobile telephone, these small devices contain a still and video camera, a sound recording function, small picture, video and sound editing programmes and the means to publish or exhibit the results to Youtube, Instagram, Twitter or any other web publishing outlet.

However, these on line “galleries” are without curatorial oversight, so there is no limit to quantity or quality. (I am not referring to the average person sharing pix of parties, children or breakfasts, it is their phone and their choice to use as they see fit.)  This lack of curatorial oversight has led the standard of on-line photography to be too open and egalitarian and the bulk of on line exhibited photography shows very little incisive, pertinent or questioning work.  This plethora makes finding the good work difficult - for people with the impatience I possess it is totally impossible.  The odd thing here is that Facebook will excise an image of a human nipple but allow the shooting a man in a car park.

(I grew up in the 1970s with magazines like Photography, under Norman Hall; Album; Creative Camera; Aperture and Camera Lucerne, so I was spoiled, and the taste of the various magazine editors was diverse enough to avoid a synoptic view of photography at that time.)
 

 

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