What is photographic research? A seemingly straightforward question begs a straightforward answer, but so often begets instead many more, less straightforward inquiries. How does one begin to answer a question which rests with such apparent ease on such unresolved terms? What is photographic research when the question of what photography has become (is becoming, will be) still seems so unclear. Not just unclear, but uncomfortable, a question which might have answers waiting in the wings, but answers which many are unwilling to call upon for fear that these understudies might upstage those they replace. Survey the fields of creative photography, from art to documentary, and you will observe many unwilling even to consider the proposition that photography has become something profoundly different, alien, to what it has been for the previous one and half centuries. Turning away from it’s new physical immateriality, technical subjectivities, it’s now truly infinite reproducibility, it’s increasingly networked and automated state, many people prefer to continue to invest themselves in an idea of the medium which feels as anachronistic as the telegraph. Analogue film, luscious prints and beautiful books of photographs are on the rise again, a trend often explained as being the result of a renewed interest in research and process, but which I often suspect in fact belies a deep conservatism, a regression less than a revolution. These things were photography once, but they are manifestly not photography now.
This problem of an unwillingness to engage with, let alone embrace, photography’s changes might seem to be a purely an academic, theoretical one, but this question of what photography has become is bound up in the far larger question of what photography is for. That, at least in the fields with which I am concerned, is the purpose of illuminating, explaining, or provoking the critical issues or our day. Ours is a world full of known unknowns, and unknowable knowns, where so many of the things that urgently need to be rought into the light are constructed (by accident or intent) to elude what we would traditionally think of as the sight of the camera and the explanatory power of a photograph. Make no mistake, photographs can change the world, but their capacity to do so is unpredictable, limited by their ability to reveal or suggest, and this ability for change always has as much potential to be regressive as it does positive.
Conversely ours is a world where issues rarely exist in isolation, but come in concert and find themselves interwoven, interdependent and networked, more so than ever before. We must speak urgently of environmental collapse, but how can we do that without thinking also of globalised capitalism, and how in turn can we understand that without analysing the politics and culture of the societies that allow it. The old photography is spatially, temporally and conceptually micro, but more than ever before we face problems that are manifestly macro, that reach beyond the horizons of individual perception or comprehension. Systems that are massive, complex, and interlinked defy explanation within the four sides of a print on a wall. In the face of this world and it’s challenges, even had photography not mutated as it has over the last three decades we might have found before long that we needed to change it ourselves to meet these new problems. As it is the changing world has in turn changed photography, but it has not yet it seems sufficiently changed us.
In this context then what is photography research? It becomes both a way to answer some of these questions, and in the absence of a convincing new definition of photography also a surrogate which in many ways more important than the resulting image. The photograph becomes more than ever a sort of token or gesture, a visible marker concealing the mass of ideas and information that loom beneath it like the inverted abyssal mass of an iceberg. To make one final metaphorical mix in a text plagued with them, let us leap from ice to fire, of a sort. The mystical priest-philosopher-poet of photography is best remembered for one essay, (attached to university reading lists across the land by lecturers who often appear to have never seriously read it). By contrast his most interesting work, itself a monument to unfinished research, moulders in its incompleteness. An attempt to potential reinvent history, within its pages was written that ‘knowledge comes only in lightning flashes. The text is the long roll of thunder that follows.’ Photographic research is maybe something like this in the reverse. It is the thunder rolling long, drawing back slow or fast until it comes to coalesce in the lightning flash of an image, and perhaps, eventually, in a new photography.
This is an expanded version of a very short essay written for A Photography Research reader, published in conjunction with the UAL staff research exhibition. The exhibition continues at Camberwell Space untill December 16th.