The future of photography
The future of photography
The future looks grim:‘ça a été’
‘Ça a été’. It may well be the most frequently quoted phrase in photo related
essays from the past twenty years. Editors on the board of Perspektief
magazine (1980-1995), quoting Roland Barthes’ famous words were to bring
a box of beer to the next meeting. As the magazine no longer exists, I go
unpunished, using his words here again.
But photography no longer exists, either. At least not for what it used to stand
for: evidence of a physical setting in front of the camera, recorded onto an
analogue, physical carrier. The vast majority of images that reach us today
are digital, either digitized through scanning or born digital with the latter
category getting more dominant every day.
In 2001, turnover in digital camera sales was larger than of analogue models.
Last year, for the first time, in unit numbers, more digital than analogue
cameras were sold, not even counting the numerous devices such as cell
phones, PDAs or US smart bombs that sport a built-in digital camera. ‘Ça a
été’, the analogue image.
Does the credibility of the photographic image end with that as well? It really
depends how one is looking at this issue: the meaning of a photographic
image has always been subject to the context it was presented in. Benetton
sold child fashion with the image of the bloodstained clothes of a fallen
Bosnian soldier, Nobuyoshi Araki’s pictures for a beer campaign were pulled
into the art market to mention a few examples from the last decade.
The future looks bright: no more photographic evidence!
Of course, a digital image can be manipulated a lot easier and a lot more
perfect than an analogue one and will not be so simply, if at all, discovered. A
digital copy is, per definition, identical to its original. Protection in the form of a
digital date stamp or electronic copyright watermark is unreliable. If well done,
the components of a composite photograph are impossible to identify. Thus
the trustworthiness of the image resides entirely with the context in which it is
presented, such as the nature and the reputation of the medium it is published
in. The status of the photograph as evidence should therefore be considered
as equal to written content, to text based journalism. This has proven to be
difficult to handle for well-trained judges; it may take a little longer for the
average newspaper reader. Even the most conscientious picture editors have
a hard time judging the trustworthiness of the digitally received material. With
the economic pressure that is part of today’s commercial publishing, a
mistake is easily made.
The future looks grim: how to take a picture of digital reality?
Yet, more fundamental changes are taking place. It is not just the medium that
has become digital, it is reality itself. More and more time is spent behind
screens connected to computers that rely people real-time with ever
expanding and faster networks. A growing number of people are behind a
computer or TV screen longer than they spend doing other things.
One sided? Again, it all depends on the perspective taken: the internet is an
area for shopping, playing games with people, listening to music or radio
stations from all over the world. Chatting, participating in on-line debates,
newsgroups and having sex (safe!), it all belongs to everyday life on screen
turning the Internet into a parallel digital society that both in a cultural,
economic and social sense is competing and interacting with the physical
society that we were confined too for so long!
One problem though: a camera, albeit digital or analogue, cannot be taken
onto the Internet. So how do we keep informed about what is going on there?
How do we get opiniated about the power processes and in this society? As
this space exists on the basis of interconnected computers, computers are
also the most likely tools to take on the role that cameras have in the physical
world. This implies that, on an abstract level, photography and
photojournalism will, in computer jargon, have to be ported to the computer to
fulfil the essential role that classic photojournalism has played for democracy
in the modern society.
The future looks bright: cut and paste!
"Red Alert - Hale-Bopp Brings Closure to Heaven's Gate" read the headline
on the homepage of Higher Source, a California based new age sect in the
late 1990s. The first time I saw this page, was when it was published on
March 28, 1997 on the cover of NRC-Handelsblad , a leading Dutch
newspaper. Soon after, the image was recognized by Internet journalist
Francisco van Jole, as the first Internet photo ever. The 39 physical bodies of
the sect members that had been the result from the group suicide, made the
image leapfrog from the digital world into the physical one. All the NRC-editors
did, was a matter of cut and paste.
It is both extremely interesting as well as relevant to speculate about the
ultimate camera-less image that reports about processes taking place in the
digital society. No camera, no carrier, no (physical) reality: the ultimate‘ça a
été’. The homepage, embedded in a journalistic text, printed on the cover of a
newspaper, relies in a wonderful, imperfect way past and present, the digital
and the physical that no living human being can escape from. As long as we
have bodies and need roofs over our heads, the hybrid character of the media
will fit our cumbersome hybrid existence.
The future looks grim: youth and objects
Parents, educators and politicians are aware of the fact that recent
generations hardly read books. They rather spend time behind a computer
screen, playing games, chatting on-line, downloading music and films. TV, the
book killer of the past generation, has lost it’s dominant position and is
changing it’s strategies, integrating interactivity with the audience through the
use of the computer via internet or of mobile telephony using SMS, trying to
turn the tide. Reality TV and soaps alone, are not enough to keep viewers’
Museums collect objects or documents as objects, such as photographs,
historical, technical, aesthetical. Why would future generations pay for these
costly organisations that cherish these relics from the past? People are
swamped in a media rich environment (poor in a different sense, some would
argue….) where electronic images are omnipresent. Why bother about
collecting images, so hopelessly connected to vulnerable objects, that are
confined to specific places when one can download images that fulfil some
specific need, anywhere and at any time of the day? What is so special about
photo-objects, that one would spend large amounts of tax money collecting
and keeping them?
The future looks bright: media democracy!
Luckily we have politicians that confront the professionals in museums with
the man in the street. Museum professionals tend to be amateurs in their
dealing with audience due to their often one-sided expert fascination with the
objects of their study. Politicians tend to be professionals who do not only try
to understand the man in the street but also try to influence public opinion in
order to be able to control their own presence in the political arena. We used
to call this propaganda, nowadays some are calling it media democracy.
In 1984, the American media sociologist Ben Bagdikian published his book
The Media Monopoly describing the alarming political influence of media
conglomerates. Bagdikian showed that at the beginning of the 80s half or
more of the US media industry was controlled by only 50 corporations. For the
revised second edition, appearing only two years later, that number was
already down to 29. Bagdikian predicted between five and ten giant media
combines for the mid-90s, a number that has proven to be quite accurate. To
European observers it all sounded a bit eerie at the time: typically American,
not our cup-a-tee.
Because it was so American, anti-trust legislation was slow to be put in place.
So we caught up, even overtook them. Needless to remind you, that Italy is
the current champion: the country is run by a prime minister that owns some
50% of the commercial TV channels and a major part of the printed press.
If media-wise Italians ever manage to get rid of the Berlusconi-clan, they will
have to add another national holiday to the already well-filled calendar of
The future looks grim: politics and art
Of course, there are politicians and politicians. Some are good, some are bad.
The same goes for museum directors and curators. In Europe, most of their
institutions depend on the government for their funding, private money is no
more than a welcome extra. As a result, politicians have something to say
about museums, we are talking about public money after all. Should a political
majority ever wish to have a national referendum on state support for art
museums, I fear most would have to close down. There is only limited popular
support for these institutions, they rely heavily on the consensus of a sociopolitical
Will this situation get any better with future generations of voters? I am afraid
not: as we noticed earlier, young people grow up in a world dominated by
electronic media and spend their time predominantly in cyberspace. If
museums do not change their attitude, the gap between the virtual present
and the physical past will only grow.
In many European countries politicians have started hammering on youth
issues, pointing at an upcoming generation that is not only subject to the
changes described above, but that also has a staggeringly different cultural
background as a result of global migration and who do not feel addressed by
the policy of most existing cultural institutions. On the whole, art organisations
have been painfully reluctant to respond, defensive, hoping for this political
storm to blow over, as so often in the past. What we have at hand, however,
is not an act of political will, of opportunistic political thinking with the next
elections at stake, but a matter of demographics and major cultural change
that politicians are trying to address.
The future looks bright: photography finally part of the visual arts!
For decades, photographic activists in Europe have been fighting for the
recognition of their medium, as a serious form of (applied) art. The lobby was
a mixed bag of interests bringing together photographers whose work had
more to do with an echo of the nineteenth century’s photo salon than with art
(made with a camera), photojournalists, fashion photographers and an
occasional art historian with a usually self-developed knowledge in
In most European countries this has materialized into specialized
photographic organisations of different size and statue, from museums to
institutes, from magazines to programmes for commissioning work, festivals,
etc. Some have consciously focused on specific areas of photographic
production like photojournalism. Most try to cover photographic art, whatever
they define this to be. Although individual cases may look problematic, the
total of these initiatives covers quite nicely the variety and multitude of
photographic production at large. Looked upon with this perspective, it has
also brought a thorough understanding of the medium and a solid base of
But for whom? At occasions, one gets the impression that the information
remains confined to photographic circles. In the Netherlands e.g. reviews on
photography in the leading newspapers are written by general art historians
with a far too limited view on the scope of the medium, focusing almost
exclusively on the relation with visual art, thus misinterpreting the majority of
the work that is being discussed.
And how on earth was it possible that Okwui Enwezor’s courageous
Documenta 11, dealing with the notion of the documentary and the archive,
showed so many weak examples of photographic and video projects?
Is it a lack of ambition among photographers, photo historians and specialized
curators that they cannot make the jump to the much vaster world of visual
arts? Or are they unwilling to free themselves from the marginalized position
that they have fought against for so long but which also gave them a lot of
freedom thanks to the limited responsibility that makes an integral part of that
position? Or do they sincerely mistrust the sudden, hyped and often cyclic
interest of the market driven economy that the visual arts are part of?
Possibly it is just a matter of catching up for us, Europeans. As we know,
museums in the US have collected photography for much longer, so did
private collectors, shaping a larger and more mature photography market that
hardly discriminates between photography and other visual arts. In 2003,
photo historian Adam Weinberg was appointed director of the Whitney
Museum in New York. Would it be just a matter of time, then?
The future looks grim: close photographic institutions!
Anyone with more than an extremely shallow knowledge in photography can
be stupified when confronted with the sudden, phenomenal interest in
photographers such as Andreas Gursky, Thomas Ruf, Thomas Struth (all
pupils of Bernd and Hilla Becher) or Rineke Dijkstra. The awareness of
nineteenth century engineers photography or the work of August Sander e.g.
turns these photographers into meaningful contemporary classics, if you will,
but not into the revolutionary artists the art world is claiming them to be.
Yet their presence in the market, the media and the arts has more than once
been the reason for claims that specialized interest for photography,
educational, institutional, in the media or otherwise is a thing of the past. That
one could close down the institutions that have been established in recent
years or that are, in some cases, still in the works. Nothing could be more
dangerous for a thorough understanding of photography. A medium that is as
much linked to the everyday as it is the world of visual arts, to science as
much as journalism, to advertising as much as history, technology,
entertainment, architecture, cinema, etc. Of course, this vast terrain cannot be
covered by specialized institutions alone. It is, and always has been, the task
of extremely different organisations and individuals, from art museums to
newspapers, from historical societies to universities to research labs.
The mapping is of this phenomenon, however, formulating the differences in
use, linking the practices, analyzing the cultural, political, social and artistic
role of the medium can only properly be done by specialized photo institutes.
The successors of the Becher pupils and Rineke Dijkstra will benefit from the
richness of the insights developed here. Even people in the art world,
curators, critics, not to forget marginalized art photographers, may begin to
understand the intertwinement of any kind of photography with the medium at
large, not the visual arts alone! The recent, and possibly temporary, interest in
photography from the art world should therefore be used politically to expand
its independent base rather than to disappear in the limited notion of the
visual arts alone.
The future is bright: the object as experience
What one should be aware of, is that existing interest in photography from the
world of the visual arts, cannot be seen independently from the interest in
other more recent ‘new’ media such as video and computer related art.
Playing the card of the visual arts will work as long as the visual arts remain
interested in photography and will not turn to, let’s speculate, ‘new drawing’.
It is, therefore, necessary to broaden the public base for the medium by also
developing another audience, an audience that is less prone to the hypes of
the fine arts world and will see the relation with the visual arts as one of the
possible relationships, rather than the prime measure for validation. Or, in less
defensive terminology: an audience that is capable of judging the value,
based on an overall experience with the medium.
Time to turn to the youth again. They may not read, they may be individualistic
and spoilt. Yet, they are also non dogmatic, media savvy and curious to have
new experiences. So anyone who is capable of touching upon one or,
preferably, more of these qualities is capable of making a start addressing his
new audience. The target being not only to develop photography based
support for a photography place, but ultimately also creating a genuine
interest in the photographic object that still forms the core of most collections.
How can this be done? Some would say, it is thanks to the absence of a
collection, a permanent space and an operational subsidy (all to be
considered burdens?) that project based production organisations such as Art
Angel in the UK or the company I am directing, Paradox in the Netherlands
have been more successful as innovators dealing with these issues than
established institutions. Speaking for Paradox, I can only say that based upon
an interest in the interaction of artistic, social and technological developments,
we have created a number of events that tried to attract another audience
(without necessarily scaring of another) by creating adventurous exhibitions
that made use of multimedia, by commissioning works for public spaces
(including the Internet), producing films, etc. In general, these projects can be
characterized as ‘media rich’: most made use of a combination of old and new
technology, combining film, print, projection, books and websites, enabling the
audience to combine elements according to their own liking or interest and
compare the nature of the content carrier.
The future looks grim: the end of the individual
Among the best examples of multimedia installations from recent years, are
Stress by Bruce Mau Design and Solid Sea by Stefano Boeri / Multiplicity.
Stress, a multi-screen projection dealing with the underlying ideology of
(post)modern times, was part of EXPERIENCE , the main exhibition curated
by Frits Gierstberg and myself in 2003 for the Foto Biennale Rotterdam.
Solid Sea was shown at Documenta 11 (2002) where the compelling
installation confronted visitors with the tragic story of a ship full of migrants
that sank in the Mediterranean in 1996, leading to the largest sea grave in the
Mediterranean after World War II.
It is definitely not a coincidence that both pieces were there result of the
professional, multi-discliplinary collaboration that both artists are used to in
their practice but that has no real tradition in the world of art or photography
where the romantic notion of the artist as a solo operating genius is still
Yet, I have a strong belief that it is teamwork that is necessary to develop the
projects that will make photography survive. It is my experience with Paradox
projects such as >Play, Go No Go or East Wind West Wind, that incorporated
graphic and web designers, audio artists, exhibition architects, social
researchers, journalists and filmmakers. They all contributed to a project that
was started by a photographer (Carel van Hees, Ad van Denderen, Bertien
van Manen, respectively). In terms of the multi-discliplinary teamwork, it has, I
am sure, been no different for Stefano Boeri / Multiplicity (incorporating
photographer Francesco Jodice) or Bruce Mau Design.
Remarkable in many of these cases is that the photography the production
was based upon, was not experimental at all: classic documentary black and
white stuff in some cases. Thanks to the innovative character of the
presentation however, it looked totally to the point, fresh and contemporary,
building a bridge between a young and an older, sometimes expert audience.
People have argued that photographic exhibitions turning into multimedia
experiences are leading away from the very interest of the work itself. If done
in a careless way, this can be true. But it also goes for the umpteenth print
exhibition with frames hanging on a white museum wall. Any presentation
format is to be based on a carefully made, yet fundamental communication
choice: who is it that I am trying to convey what message and under what
This may lead to book only projects, interactive on-line communities,
installations featuring still and moving images and sound, and last but not
least, but well staged, prints!
The future is bright: the next best thing
In a recent interview, the now 75 year old Dutch poet Remco Campert was
questioned about the role of sexuality in his life and work. Part of his answer
came down to the following: ‘if ever, something that feels better than making
love, will be invented, I think I will still be practicing it alongside’.
Cinema, TV, video, web cams, the Internet, have not been able to kill the
need for still images as we tend to link memories to stills rather moving
images. Part of that phenomenon is due to the naive, historically embedded
belief that a still image is stable and a moving image is volatile. Should
evolution, training or education ever turn us into beings that do no longer
make the difference, we will probably act as Campert: practice [photography]
alongside [another medium], because we love it too much.