John Wood on Why So Much Contemporary Photography is Boring

March 31, 2011 § 28 Comments

The answer is simple and requires no lengthy essay.  A serious photograph is like any other serious work of art—a painting, a poem, a symphony, and so forth.  My use of the adjective serious is to denote a work that bears repeated looks, readings, hearings, etc. and rewards those repeated experiences of it with fresh insights and pleasure.  How is it possible that repeated returns to a work can bring fresh insight?  That happens to be what any art that has lived or will live requires and demands.  I won’t discuss here how this is possible in each of the arts but will restrict myself to photography.

A serious photograph sets the photographed moment apart from all other moments.  Why else capture it!  Much of contemporary photography is boring because it does not do this.  It captures moments that are exactly like all other moments, and so it never rises above the level of banality, the banality of most of life’s moments.  Even if the photograph is printed in brilliant color and is large as a billboard, it is still banal.  Its gross and tumorous dimensions, in fact, exaggerate its banality because they translate it into the crassest of advertisement.  “Look at me,” the work shouts. “I’m so big I’m not just a photograph. I’m Art and I’m worth Big Money.”

One cannot argue that he or she is critiquing, commenting upon, or reflecting upon the banality of modern life by making a picture that is banal.  All life, regardless of when it happens or happened—even in Tang China or the Italian Renaissance—is primarily composed of banal moments.  That is the nature of life unless one has the misfortune to live through a prolonged catastrophe—Auschwitz, the Siege of Leningrad, the napalming of Vietnam.

A serious photograph not only sets itself apart from all other moments but also captures the particularity of its subject—a face, landscape, tree, store front, tool, cigarette butt, pattern of ice crystals—while at the same time revealing its universality.  Again, that is what art does—what art demands and requires.  Without particularity a photograph is but a meaningless generality.  A photograph of a non-descript parking lot that could be anywhere in urban America, whether that photograph is eight feet by eight feet and hanging at MOMA or four inches by four inches in an automotive magazine, is exactly the same thing—a trite generality.  The photograph that captures the particularity of its subject stops us because it lies outside the daily barrage of trite and general images we are bombarded with.  It holds us because it is like no other moment.  It holds us because it has seized its subject as it has never before been seized.

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§ 28 Responses to John Wood on Why So Much Contemporary Photography is Boring

  • Steven says:

    Wonderful!!! A 21st blog!!! I’ve been waiting for something like this!

  • Paul says:

    Thanks for this essay, John…we’re listening.

  • Brian says:

    Bravo John! I’ve been saying the same things for a long time now. I don’t understand why imagery devoid of any content or merit, as far as I can see, is getting accepted as the standard, or worse, even celebrated. What is wrong with images that have content of interest and don’t require an accompanying essay to justify their merit? I see so many images that were equal to the level of work I saw produced in High School, or work that at best looks like poorly executed commercial assignments, being swooned over in blogs. Is it possible that because a very large percentage of those blogging about photography don’t have any real background in photography? So they are impressed by work that never got past the first year of art school, or past that first art director or editor? Why else would these bloggers be so impressed by the ever so overdone portrait on white no seam, or flowers against black backgrounds. And don’t get me started on landscapes, where so much of the work is either a direct rip off of Michael Kenna, or Ansel, or even worse, not having any of the merits of those photographers.

    Is it just that good composition, interesting, even dramatic lighting, and the capture of a special moment are not worth the effort. So much work seems to have all the depth of thought and feeling that a Mars Rover, randomly documenting, would produce if allowed to roam freely on Earth.

    just because you can capture an image and affordably make a huge print out of it doesn’t mean that the image produced has any value. And you’d think that with the incalculable number of images being produced today that there would be a desire to separate the wheat from the chaff, but there isn’t. It seems that photography has become so democratized, that each and every image is considered equivalent. Is this just more of the cult of the amateur that exists in America today? Where mere existence makes one a celebrity, unlike in the past where celebrity was a celebration of accomplishment? We live in a time where the only acceptable elitism is on the sports field. So why celebrate those who have hard earned skills, or operate on a level that sets them apart from the masses, when one can simply disdain excellence and celebrate mediocrity. Mediocrity being the far more common, and therefore acceptable, skill level.

    • Stephen M. Barrett says:

      Well said

    • Simon King says:

      “Is this just more of the cult of the amateur that exists in America today?”

      Equate ‘amateur’ not with mediocrity I prithee – some of the very best images are from amateurs, just as much of the dross is from professionals.

      Mediocrity slate with as much vitriol as you can muster, for this, I shall applaud.

  • John Wood says:

    Brian, thank you so much for your lucid and insightful comments. I agree with every sentence you wrote, and I could have put nothing you said any better than you said it!

  • Jen says:

    There is of course a flip side to your argument John. While I agree that there is a lot of boring stuff out there that focuses on the banal and everyday, there is a reason for this. And that reason is that people are genuinely interested in it. Fair enough, sometimes all you end up with are boring images, but you do also get a lot of interesting images which highlight the fact that whilst the banal is just that, it also has the possibility to be utterly fascinating. It’s a paradox but, hey, that’s life 😉

    I mean, the world would be a very boring place if all the photographers in it were only ever focused on capturing that ‘decisive moment’ and ‘pretty’ pictures.

    • John Wood says:

      Thanks for your comment, Jen; however, I said nothing about “pretty” pictures. Pretty pictures disgust me. And I said nothing about “decisive moments.” I was only addressing the matter of “particularity,” the particularity even of “cigarette butts,” thinking of Irving Penn’s great series, which are anything but pretty yet are examples of serious work. I also refuse to believe “that people are genuinely interested in” banality unless they are driven there by boredom. And if they are, then they should look at some great photographs and be stimulated.

      • Jen says:

        Your refusal to believe people are interested in the banal means that either a, you have only ever spoken to people on the same wavelength as yourself, or b, you haven’t fully studied photography. I have, and believe me, there are hundreds.

        William Eggleston is just one such photographer. Not one of my favourites by far, but he’s pretty famous.

  • Brian says:

    Thanks John, although I fear it was more a lucid rant than purely a comment. It’s just that I love photography and want to see work that inspires me. And instead of the standards getting higher, they seem to be getting lower and that makes me really sad.

  • Jim says:

    This is so true! A photographer in Milwaukee made a statement to the effect that contemporary photography can be defined as work done while the photographer is living which also defines any rules or conventions like those that define pictorialism or straight photography. In addition, a primary distinguishing characteristic of contemporary photography is that it is completely biased against any visual aesthetic. My hat is off to you John!

  • I agree John – most of what I see on blogs, even the popular ones, is trite and uninteresting. There are brilliant photographers that amaze me but they are very very few. Most North American contemporary photography is banal and if that is the messsage of the art so be it – but the word “banal” would be sufficient rather attempting to produce a visual representation of “banality”. Show me imagination and vision that soars above the crowd and that takes me on mental tours to emotional summits and depths I would never conceive. I want to be amazed.

  • Jim says:

    In addition, it is a shame no one wishes to recognize or reward images that do feature some sense of aesthetic unlike most contemporary images.

  • Wonderful expression of my personal feelings I couldn’t put words on. Having read this, it appears clearly now why the reviewing of one’s personal photographs collection results in so few picks, why famous photographs are so special.

    A very interesting find regarding this, is a post (in french) which displays doctored famous photographs with their subject removed. The remaining background is very common and boring, yet the photographer managed to make it so special that we are able to recognize the picture only by its background.

    http://www.laboiteverte.fr/le-paysage-des-photos-historiques/

    Kind regards

  • Stephen M. Barrett says:

    I want everybody with a point and shoot or an expensive DSLR that thinks they are photographers to read this.

  • Bev Short says:

    Quie agree with you mate. I’m always incensed by photographic ‘art’. An ‘artist’ in New Zealand recently had an exhibition that had images of insulated walls before they’d been gib stopped. WHY?!

  • Great simple way to put it! Worth a retweet!

  • Carl MCN says:

    I like what you say here. Although, please try without all the cheesy photo google ads underneath the serious article.

  • JIMMY Edmonds says:

    Dear John

    Thank you for your essay – much of which I think I agree with. However I’m not sure whether you are talking about photography as a practice or photographs in particular – this is important because if the challenge is to single out individual photographs as being better art than others then I fear the battle is already lost. That is not to say they’re aren’t good, bad or exceptional photographs, just that finding them and getting them to an audience is really what counts. So can we talk about finding new photographic practices and the challenges presented by the so called “democratisation” of the digital age. I’d be interested to know what examples you could offer us of serious. momentous photographs that in your mind demand and reward repeated viewings. best wishes
    jimmy

  • Brian says:

    To me there are two main components of an image, aesthetics and content.

    In my view aesthetics is about conveying a feeling, creating a visual atmosphere, understanding the way in which the human eye/brain perceives and being able to interest or excite that eye and it’s beholder. Beauty is most often a means to excite the eye in a positive or moving way. I think most people find that an image that turns something common or mundane into something visually exciting or enticing is a welcome outcome. Beauty and visual aesthetics can affect someone quite deeply. Who out there is not moved by the sunrise and sunset, the stars lit at night or a full moon, a spectacular vista or a beautiful girl? Aesthetically appealing art carries that same power.

    Few people have the experience, talent and knowledge of how design and composition, tone and color affect a person’s perception and mood and how to create that environment on demand. Sure most people know that candlelight is more romantic than florescent lighting, and when trying to stage a romantic dinner will turn down the room lights and light up the candles, but in the vast majority of photography I see, the photographer has made little attempt to address light. And what is a photograph but the capture of light? And few photographs I see today really address composition. At least not in a way to turn an image from documentation into something more inspiring. Beauty is our world seen at it’s best.

    Then we arrive at content. Content is the story of the image. It may tell a story about someone’s life, or a moment of that life, or a moment on Earth. But everything there is on this planet has a story. My sitting at my desk typing this is a story. My breakfast today is a story. Taking the trash out is a story. Do all of these stories merit recording for perpetuity? Yet so many photographs contain stories of equally uninteresting, unimportant occurrences shown is equally mundane ways. Shouldn’t the goal be when capturing a scene to make it something more? Isn’t that the art of it all? Is documenting the most boring minutia of your life really that meritorious?

    One can argue that HCB’s photograph of a man jumping over a puddle is a mundane story, but something about the way HCB captured it, that moment, made it more so. It was partly the aesthetics of the image, but mostly that exact moment. The man suspended over the puddle, his mirror image in sync, but then there’s that tiny bit of air between the man’s foot and his reflection. They are connected to one another but not. And that’s what, for me, turned a mundane scene into something special.

    And today, scenes of the not ordinary (extraordinary seems too strong) have become overdone. Photographs of eccentric and outlandish people, or people in serious distress, or even celebrities, seem soulless, as though just the recording of this outlier is enough and the photographer need not find a better angle or wait on the exact right moment. It seems to be grab it and move on. Just compare W Eugene Smith’s work, most notably Tomoko in her bath to many of todays celebrated “documentary” photographers, who merely shove some poor soul with a deadpan expression in front of a camera and fire a shutter button. The only real inheritor of Smith’s type of work that I see out there is Salgado. He’s from a whole different era. They don’t make them like him or Smith anymore. Because today even in journalism it’s not about quality, it’s about quantity. Stories don’t happen over periods of weeks months and years anymore, and require weeks or months to be disseminated, they’re disseminated instantly, leaving an audience accustomed to wanting and expecting more at a moment’s notice. Our society is accustomed to continuous news scrolls and “breaking news” on TV. We’ve become mass consumers of imagery, gluttons not connoisseurs.

    And now nearly everyone carries a camera with them all the time. Low quality, but always available and endlessly connectable. Just like photography now.

  • Michael Lonier says:

    I understand, I think, the, ah, anger and revolt that seems implicit in this piece and the reactions to it. It’s of apiece of the moment, which seems seized by a variety of inchoate angers, though ironically (perhaps) not that unlike most moments in recorded history. Banal is a funny word, especially when it’s repetition begs the question of it’s meaning. Serious and banal here have been put at opposite poles of meaning and significance, as have particularity and non-descript, and most interestingly, universality and trite generality. Trite, like banal, is apparently self-evidently corrupt (boring), unlike particular generality, which is not.

    Moments are fungible, and unique, all at once. All of them. Kinda depends where you put your attention. Boring is as boring does. Against the flashdance of hi-def production values (esp on CBS where saturation knows no boundaries), of course you are increasingly wanting of being amazed. Don’t blame someone who wonders, from a perspective of momentary stillness, why a parking lot seems to be the climax of ten thousand years of civilization, for that.

    • Brian says:

      Michael it’s not that banal subjects or parking lots are the problem, at least not if you have the vision and ability to make them more than what they are. And that’s the art of it, at least to me. The problem I see is an awful lot of banal and boring subjects photographed with a complete lack of vision or creativity. That the mere capturing of a boring image of a boring scene is sufficient merit.

      Is I may be so crass as to us my own work as examples, which best illustrates my own point of view on photography, there are scenes of beautiful locations, captured and interpreted through technique, to hopefully elicit an emotional response in people. However one can also find more mundane scenes in my portfolio, like sprinklers watering an empty field, grand opening banners at a gas station, a window whited out, and even among the still lifes a photograph of styrofoam cups. How many people passed by those three telephone poles without realizing that it looked exactly like a crucifixion scene from a painting? These are the mundane sights in many people’s lives. The things they see daily and take for granted. However I chose to photograph these scenes when the conditions were interesting, dramatic or beautiful, NOT just when I happened to be there. And I made serious effort to find an angle that was visually interesting and served the image. Those are also the images that I take the most pride in. The image “Prescott Trees” required me flying from NY to Washington state three times in 5 months to get the right conditions there. And while maybe it wasn’t the best that scene has ever looked, I can tell you that it looked better then than the other 53 days I spent there.

      The problem i have with the boring scenes of mundane places, is that little photographic effort appears to be made on the part of the photographer to make these subjects more interesting, as compared to a lengthy written rationalization of why their image is so meaningful. If you really need to explain an image then just how successfully expressive of you is that image?

      So it’s not the subject that is banal or boring, it’s the choices and execution on the part of the photographer that are.

      • Simon King says:

        Whilst I agree with the general gist of John Woods blog the problem I have with it is that is is far too general; he does not explain what (in photography) is boring or banal to him, as it is rarely the same thing for everyone.

        Billboards sized images are cited but he doesn’t say which ones. Is he talking about the likes of Stephen Shore who is not averse to producing images of a non-descript parking lot or perhaps the likes of Gabriel Orozco and William Eggleston who certainly takes images of objects some consider banal. Is he referring to the sort of plethora of mundanity offerred by Wolfgang Tillmans or something altogether different?

        Do such photographers as these produce in his eyes images that capture the particularity of their subject or are these the very offenders he rails against? I don’t know he doesn’t make that clear.

        Art is very subjective, as is what constitutes boring, the mundane and mediocrity, in art.

        For example In Camera Lucida R. Barthes discusses what aspect of each image consitutes the particularity for him, as a personal journey, whereas Susan Sontag (it seesm to me) relegates every photographic attempt at art to futility.

        I cannot fully agree or argue with John Woods blog until he elaborates on it.

  • Lilly M says:

    I agree in part with some of what has been said but it’s just my personal opinion. I do like quite a lot of what would be considered banal photography, but perhaps not for the reasons the artist intended. I will say, however, that the original article and those agreeing with it are getting pretty old and I don’t understand why they insist on subjecting themselves to things they don’t like when the internet and bookstores are overflowing with images that fit their personal prescription of what photography and art are ‘supposed to be’. Every generation of photographic art has upset people who felt that photography was being ruined by new ideas. Probably the work that some of the critics in this column love were hated by previous generations. Contemporary art by it’s nature does not stand still. It’s always moving and people get bored with the same old images and ideas. Banal photography will have it’s day and then be supplanted by new ideas. It’s life and nobody is forcing anyone to look at anything they don’t like. It would also be helpful if some of the critics would post links to their own work so we can see what the photographic arts are supposed to be.

  • Lilly M says:

    After writing my previous message I did look at some of the commenters (and the blogger) and see that it’s the age-old battle between ‘fine art’ and ‘contemporary’ photography. I’ve seen it for many years on the internet and in print and often by the same people. I think a big part of the problem is that the fine art camp wants to take banal subjects and elevate them through craftsmanship. That would be seem to be the opposite of banality. It’s apples and oranges and I just don’t see the point of bringing it up over and over again – unless you are just looking for some free PR.

  • beth says:

    Most contemporary photography is boring- all I ever see at school are students copying Cindy Sherman, Nan Goldin with some wishy washy statement which goes along these lines:

    “I am exploring the notions of gender and identity by the juxaposition of imagery”

    translation: “I am have no ideas of my own, other than to photograph a roommie sat on their bed”

    Or someone going to India and stereotyping the poor – always trendy large format camera- black and white of course despite all the colours. Mind you, 2 weeks in India probably isn’t long enough to overcome jet lag or diarrhea, yet alone understand people.

    Photography is too trendy, elitist with nothing much new to say.

  • The work of Paul Graham is worthy of discussion in this context. He is a highly regarded and well-published photographer who has just won a $150,000 award from the Hasselblad Foundation. His photography consists of themed series, some weightier than others, ranging from photos taken along the A1 (a major English arterial road) to Northern Ireland to the end of adolescence to American street scenes.

    I have struggled to appreciate the photographs either as series or as individual photos. To me, they lack interest, art and ‘particularity’. They seem banal to me, boring even. But if serious critics, Steidl, and the Hasselblad Foundation consider Graham worthy of attention, then I want to learn what the requisite ‘way of seeing’ his work is.

    The Paul Graham Archive can be found at http://www.paulgrahamarchive.com

    The ‘writings’ pages may or may not deliver enlightenment.

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