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.