Monday, 24 September 2012

Thinking about Conceptual Photography - The Source Films

The Source website's three films about Conceptual Photography are going to be one of those must-sees for anyone wrestling with their own definition of the genre.  In fact, I am mightily sorry that they only started sharing them in August, as I could have done with the input last semester when working on 'Threshold', the University of Wales, Newport Documentary Photography unit... 

Film 1 starts with a question – Is Conceptual Photography a movement, a working methodology, a historical tradition, or none of these?  By the end of Film 2, the viewer is still not quite sure.  They've cleverly managed to ask the questions, offer a range of answers and then leave it up to us to make our own decisions.

There's a decent section all about the origins of the term when applied to Art practice, which is worth watching to understand the historical context.  Between the critics, Dr. Lucy Soutter (RCA) and John Roberts and the artist John Hilliard, an impression is created of individuals and groups playing with all sorts of methodologies, techniques and ideas, to come up with work that defied definition according to the critical voices of the day.  And we're back in the 1960s and 1970s, if you want to imagine the scene.

Although the past is important, and the context should be central to any discussion of art and culture, for the purpose of this little summary/reflection, I am not going to go any further with the background stuff.  For that, you really need to watch the film.

'Conceptual Photography' exists in opposition to other traditions and is, 'anti-humanist', 'anti-aesthetic' and 'even anti-photography'... So starts, Film 2. The basic premise is that Conceptual Art is about thinking... thinking and planning...  The criticism that is often levied against Conceptual Photography by those of us who just don't 'get it', is that the work is obtuse, narcissistic and too much about the idea and not enough about what is physically there in front of us.  Both Soutter and Sean O'Hagan (The Guardian's art critic) agree that there are areas of difficulty between the viewer and the work.  O'Hagan offers, 'Always start with the premise: There is something interesting here, maybe I'm not getting it.' Soutter assures us that whilst the photograph might seem to be of a man walking a hyena on a leash, it's worth working a bit harder to try to access 'the rich layering of ideas and concepts'.  It's about seeking to access 'the idea, motivation, historical references and inter-textuality' within any given photograph.

At this point in the film, I was started to get just a little steamed up.  All of this talk of being put in a position by the photographer/artist (we'll come to that distinction a bit later) that requires me to do quite a bit of work to understand what they are up to, well – isn't there a bit of a power imbalance there?  A hierarchy of knowledge and understanding?  I don't mind a bit of work, and I always am keen to learn new things, but what if I fail, what if I don't appreciate the exact historical reference or see the inter-textuality...

Luckily, the artist, Suzanne Mooney rode up on her metaphorical white charger, branding the shield of truth and common sense, with her battle cry of, 'The term Conceptual Photography is actually quite derogatory to other types of photographic making... It assumes that you aren't thinking, not researching' etc etc.  She goes as far as to name Documentary Photography as evidence that photographers other than the 'Conceptual' ones actually do think, question, consider...  (In my notes, I did actually pencil, “GOOD GIRL Suzanne!' at this point.)

There is a brief mention of Alan Sekula, Victor Burgin and Paul Graham as the narrators start to move through the 1980s (again, check out the film to find out specifics).  The basic message though is that Conceptual Art and Photography was being driven by commercial and gallery interests.  People made it, critics were interested in it, audiences started to look at it – because an actual monetary value was associated with the work.  There was a separation between the humanist thrust of other photography and the mammon thrust of Commercial, I mean, Conceptual Photography.  As Soutter identifies, Conceptual Photography was/(is?) anti-personal, anti-emotional and anti-subjective.  (I don't know about you, but little bells are ringing here.  Isn't a lot of 'conceptual work' based in the personal, emotive and subjective?  Answers on a postcard please...)

A slide pops up with the question, 'Where are we now?' and the answer offered is that, 'Complexity on its own has become a value...'  O'Hagan, who thinks that work HAS to have a humanist thrust (even though he knows this is probably an old-fashioned idea) says that 'the idea over-rides everything else'.  We are now dependent on accompanying text to enable us to access the work.  Photography that needs text, is not speaking as photography.

The final film, released on September 18th brings the viewer up to the present.  Much air time is given to the darlings of the Conceptual Documentary world, Broomberg and Chanarin and I would love to know whether viewers end up on the side of their call to photo-revolution, or on that of Sean O'Hagan who accuses them of gross arrogance...  But once again, I am ahead of myself...

I enjoyed Chanarin's opening gambit: 'There is no such thing as Conceptual Documentary.  All photography is it or isn't it.'  (Notice Chanarin looking fondly on in the background.)  

Louise Clements, 'curator', doesn't use the term at all.  In fact, she switches between 'Photographer' and 'Artist'  and herein lies another sticky one...  Cue little cross moment as she goes on to say that this title is tricky as it is all to do with how one perceives their approach to photography.  If you are an artist, you 'deal with ideas', or if you are a photographer, 'you know about your machine'.  SHOOT HER NOW.  SHOOT ME NOW to stop me shooting her.  SHOOT someone, anyone who still thinks like this!  Bloody hell.  Really?  (Go back to the observation made by Collins earlier about derogatory perceptions about photography that isn't conceptual...  Well done, Source for cleverly editing these two separately.)

The only hope for me in this little section came from O'Hagan's point that 'we may get to the point when Conceptual is the new orthodoxy and that something like Documentary seems quite radical.'  He goes on to say that the sub-genre, of Conceptual Documentary is a bit slippery, he has 'yet to find a decent definition'.

The final section of Film 3 looks at 'Conceptualism and Photojournalism' and uses Chanarin and Broomberg's 'The Day Nobody Died' to explore the contradictions between the forms.  O'Hagan thinks that the work, made in Afghanistan is arrogant and disrespectful, and C & B think that it is subversive and political.  It is interesting that Source has chosen to end the series with this debate and I am not going to spoil it for you with the finer details...  Go and watch it and then let me know what you think!  For me, the lasting message seems to be about the potential of Conceptual Photography, especially Conceptual Documentary or Conceptual Photojournalism to challenge power structures.  Could this be a call to arms?  It's definitely the continuation of a debate anyway and one that isn't going to go away, as long as there is a market for this type of work.