Photography and Anti-Intellectualism

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 I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art, John Baldessari, 1971

In a recent post on his blog Grant Scott argues that photography is a democratic global language and takes aim at the ‘powerful cabal’ of practitioner-educators who try to protect photography as something special, failing to equip students with the skills to survive, and punishing those who refuse to fall into line with their view of what good photography is. I agree with the ethos here and there is nothing productive about courses geared to churn out identikit students without the skills to make a living or the intellectual independence to make their own work and continue their creative development after their studies end. But there are also quite a few issues in this piece which need discussing in more depth, and which in some cases need challenging.

Major ones are the two assumptions in the title of the post, which I don’t really want to dwell on in great depth because I’ve already written about them both in past posts and may well do so again in the future. The ideas that photography is a language and democratic are both laudable aspirations, but repeatedly saying these things doesn’t make them true. Photography is not a global language, at best it is many languages understood by the many different groups who use photography in very different ways. The idea of photography as a global language takes no account of the complexities of what different images and symbols mean in different cultures and to say nothing of the need to simultaneously understand the customs and conventions that take place behind the creation of images in order to be truly ‘literate’ of photography. Likewise in terms of the democracy of photography, while the medium has certainly long had democratic potential I would argue that potential is still on it’s way to being fufilled and it remains primarily a tool of elite individuals, groups, and societies. Photography’s history to date has in fact often been the very opposite of democratic. It’s been oppressive, totalitarian and hegemonic.

What I really want to address though here is Scott’s concern with a particular sort of photography education. Again this is an area well worth scrutinising, and from my perspective photography education has its share of problems which need to be addressed through open discussion among teachers, students and the photography industry at large. It’s absolutely a problem when teachers take the approach of trying to shoehorn their students into making the same work as their own, and photography education at its best ought to be a space where students are free to be taught, learn and experiment in whatever direction they want within a framework aimed to steer them towards an independent career. But in connecting these problems with educators who make work which is ‘obtuse and deconstructed, supported by and clothed in a thick cloak of verbose socio-political language’ what Scott seems to be trying to do is to rather awkwardly lay these issues at the door of those who are interested in the intellectual side of photography, without acknowledging that there are bad photography educators of all bents, including those who are dogmatically interested only in the commercial and technical aspects of photography.

To me this criticism of what you might call ‘thinking photography’ is resonant of a barely latent anti-intellectualism in many sections of the photography world, an often quite inarticulate rage directed at people who want to talk about the ideas on which photographs rest, as well as actually making images. Abbas Attar (a photographer who I’ve long admired) once said that ‘young photographers think too much. If I did all that thinking, I would never go out and shoot anything’ which rather sums up this attitude for me. Referencing a famous quote from Magnum founder Robert Capa, photographer and educator Tod Papageorge offered a nice if unintentional rejoinder to Attar’s comment when he wrote that ‘if your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t reading enough’ [this quote was attributed to Papageorge by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, Papageorge maintains he never said it. A tip of the hat to Adam Bell for that information]. Ideas certainly are sometimes poorly articulated, even by the people whose job it is to do just that, but some ideas are also just bloody hard to express. Their being so does not mean there is some sort of conspiracy to over intellectualise, to create privileged territories for academics and their favourites. To suggest otherwise and to imply that these sorts of discussions are irrelevant is I’d argue just a total abdication, a failure on the part of the accuser to engage with ideas which are hard.

Among certain sections of the photography community it’s fairly routine for terms like ‘artist’ and ‘academic’ to be used as terms of insult intended to suggest the target is hopelessly lost in their own esoteric field of inquiry, regardless of whether anyone else is concerned by it or not. Whatever you feel about artists and academics, the one thing you have to acknowledge about even the tallest ivory tower is that occasionally something drops out of it and falls to earth with a resounding crash. Academia might be a domain of people fixated on niches, but those niches widen out into things which later have enormous benefits for the rest of us. Scott’s piece is confusing in this regard because at one turn he seems to praise the mass of non-professional photographers for producing images without concern for ‘peer review’ (except what is an Instagram or Facebook ‘like’ but a mechanism of peer review?) while in the next breath criticising practitioners who are unconcerned that their work isn’t relevant to the great bulk of these normal people but only focused on institutional rewards and funding (i.e. their peers).

And now for the tough test, should we make the work that matters to us, or should we make work we think audiences will respond well to? The answer of course depends entirely on circumstances. If I do a job for a client, as I was before I wrote this piece, listening to my audience becomes pretty essential if I want to get more work. If I want to make photographs for myself, to see what I can do or where I can push my ideas, then broad audience response is much lower down the list of priorities. Throughout history not worrying exclusively about mass appeal has often been what has made for provocative, beautiful art work. As I said at the start of this piece, I agree with the Scott’s basic point that there is nothing useful about courses geared to churning out identikit students without the technical and intellectual skills to satisfy clients and themselves, but nor is there any value to being anti-intellectual for the sake of it, however easy the target and however fashionable it might be to do so. The fact is there are many gatekeepers in photography, and a career in the field often unfortunately ends up being to a lesser or greater extent dependent on these people. However not all gatekeepers are the same, the gates they keep are not all the same size, nor do they all lead to the same rewards for those allowed passage through them. Depending on where you stand Scott is a gatekeeper, and loathe though I am to admit it I have to acknowledge that I am one as well. That’s a fact something we both need to be conscious of, working actively to counter it in our deeds and words, and opening the gates we ward to as many people as people. Unfortunately this sort of reverse snobbery and anti-intellectualism is as bad at doing this as is the worst academic obfuscation.

7 thoughts on “Photography and Anti-Intellectualism

  1. Great Post Lewis, This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. How do we make a democratic mode of photography when showing work to communities, how to we include the audience in a visual language without losing what the project means to us. Thanks for summing this up so well and again great blog!

    • Thanks Joanne. As I think you’ve noticed, I do believe photography can live up to some of these aspiration, but as you say we need to think very hard how about to get it to do that, and we have to always be guarded about the possibility of things going the other way.

  2. To add further clarification to Tod’s alleged quote – if he did say it, he was surely referring to literature, not theoretical reading. While he did encourage (and require you to show proof of) an active intellectual life, he would be the first person to cut through any sort of ‘discursive theoretical layering’ that was not supported by what pictures were on the wall. Tod would agree with Attar’s comment.

  3. To some extent I sympathize with Scott’s position. My work is mostly narrative in nature and find that right now there almost no opportunities for this type of work in festivals, portfolio reviews, etc. because it doesn’t fit the “photography that talks about itself” genre in vogue among current curators. I understand the resentment.

  4. Grant Scott’s article was rather polarised into the artsy elite versus the applied photographer and made me sceptical: after 35 years in higher education I’ve heard the vocational versus intellectual arguments in lots of disciplines and I know that there will be more shades of grey than he suggests. Do we teach students to earn a living or do we teach them to think? is a continuing argument in universities as well as government. Well done for disputing some of his assertions. I thought I’d have a look at the employment rates after graduation on http://unistats.ac.uk/. I only compared 10 of the larger courses, not all 130 institutions, but of the ones I did look at I couldn’t help noticing that the University of Gloucestershire didn’t score particularly highly on this metric that seems central to Scott’s case, so I remain unconvinced by his arguments and more in favour of yours.

    • Thanks Malcolm, interesting to think about it from a statistical angle. I definitely don’t have all the answers, I just base what I say what I see and what I’ve experienced first hand, and that has been that for the most part when you combine practice and ideas in the right way they nurture and support each other.

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