Writing on photography

On photography and Photography

This piece is a little different from what I normally write, in that I’m writing it not so much as something intended to be useful or particularly interesting at the moment of publication, but as something which might be useful to refer back to in the future in the course of other discussions. What I want to try and do here is to make a distinction between ‘photography’ and ‘Photography’. The idea of writing a post around the capitalisation of a single word might seem like a strong sign that Disphotic has started to run dangerously low on more important issues to discuss, but the motivation for writing this post has been forming for some time, and I hope will seem valid when I explain it. Like others I find talking about photography is made difficult because the word has come to encompass such an enormous set of processes, practices and cultures. We are now ‘all photographers’ but in an ever more image saturated world not all photographs are created equal, nor do all images function the same in the way they are produced, circulated, or consumed.

Like photography, writing is a tool and tools need to suit the tasks for which they are intended. It’s becoming increasingly important for me to find a shorthand which makes it possible to distinguish between certain types of imagery when I write, without getting side-tracked into definitions. That is part of the reason for writing this now, as an attempt to refine and define the language I use and to create an accessible explanation I can refer back. Towards definitions then. When I write, talk or think about photography I increasingly make a silent distinction between two types of photography, categories which undoubtedly intersect and overlap but which I still find useful as a way to distinguish and sort the photography I might be looking at in that moment. The first type is ‘photography’ in the sense of the mechanism and media of photography. This is an enormously broad definition encompassing anything which we might technological or conceptually recognise as a photograph, from large format photographs to CCTV stills, to experimental forms of light based image making, and perhaps even beyond that into realms which are still staking their claims to be recognised as photography (or not). By this first definition anything that looks and functions something like a photograph is probably ‘photography’. This obviously constitutes the great mass of wild photographs out there in the jungle that is our visual culture.

The second definition is ‘Photography’ in the narrower sense of image making as a far more authored practice. This encompasses the type of photography that appears in galleries and photobooks, in magazine photo essays, in fashion catalogues, online slideshows, potentially anywhere else where the image has been thoughtfully constructed, selected or organised by a person to achieve a well defined impact. Something needn’t necessarily be produced with intent to qualify as ‘Photography’. Imagery can also undoubtedly change in status from one to the other, for example through the act of being repurposed, with ‘photography’ from relatively mute automated sources like webcams becoming ‘Photography’ in the way that these images might later be reworked and repackaged to serve a particular purpose or make a particular point. To continue the rather needless ecological metaphor one might view these Photographs as tamed images, or ones raised in captivity, in contrast to the still wild photographs previously mentioned.

This ‘Photography’ constitutes a small fraction of the much larger field of ‘photography’ and I appreciate that the definition of the former is vague, the scope of the latter enormous. I still find them useful to think about though, because while we are getting closer to the point where we are all photographers in the sense that photography and the creation of images is a vital part of more and more interactions, we are of course not necessarily all Photographers, and we might shift from one status to another in the course of a moment in the way we use photography. Despite making that distinction, these definitions are not really about the status of the image maker, and they are certainly not about trying to reclaim some sort of prestige or distinction for those who produce much more authored forms of photography. Equally making this distinction is not about making a value judgement, that ‘photography’ is inherently more or less interesting than ‘Photography’. In different circumstances and discussions either might be interesting, or equally not interesting. This distinction is simply a tool for my use within the context of my writing, a tool that feels for the moment like a useful one to have prepared and ready to employ the next time I find myself trying to manipulate and separate the subgroups contained within the increasingly boundless limits of ‘photography’.

About the author

Lewis Bush

Lewis Bush works across different media and platforms to make structures and cultures of power visible. He has exhibited, published, and spoken about his work internationally, is acting course leader of MA photojournalism and documentary photography at University of the Arts London, and runs workshops from his studio in London. From September 2020 he will be an ESRC funded PhD candidate at the London School of Economics researching automation's impact on visual journalism.

1 comment

Writing on photography