Adam Bell and Charles Traub, eds.
(University of California Press, 2015)
Humans take several billion photos each day, approximately two billion of which are uploaded online. It’s estimated that more than 800 billion photos were taken in 2014, and this year we’ll likely pass the one-trillion mark. From this vast ecosystem of images, growing and changing constantly, a new photographic language has developed. Photography’s increasing democratization means that we all use this language, even if we’re not aware of it. Adam Bell and Charles Traub, the editors of Vision Anew, suggest that most of us aren’t, or are at least undereducated in the implications thereof.
Together, the essays in Vision Anew constitute a treatise on the current state of the “lens arts,” a medium that, while not so subject to the proclamations of death as others are, nonetheless faces a perpetual identity crisis. Indeed, that’s been one of the most defining parts of its development as a medium. Coming of age during a time in which every other form of art making was deconstructing itself, photography has had an uneasy assimilation into the traditional codifications of a pre-20th-century art world. This ontological discomfort is exacerbated by the sheer speed at which photographic technology moves, which tends to outpace the medium’s ability to reevaluate its sense of self. Bell says:
If the tools do not stay the same for more than a generation, how can we define what we do? How do we master our medium? How do we delineate and describe a field of practice that is constantly evolving and growing? In many ways, our obsession with photography’s demise and progression is as closely tied to notions of modernist artistic and technological progress as to the medium’s technological nature.
Combining the writings of forty-three different artists, writers, and theorists, Vision Anew confronts this old issue from the vantage of an increasingly image saturated historical moment.
The collection’s greatest achievement is its range, covering a variety of disparate voices. Included are canonized forebears like Hollis Frampton and László Moholy-Nagy, contemporary big-name artists such as Doug Aitken and Alec Soth, and a bevy of lesser known theorists and practitioners. The book is organized thematically, its essays, interviews, and illustrations divided into sections, from an introduction to the “evolution and history of the camera recording” to a dissection of the newest and most progressive of forms the medium has taken.
There is an overarching interest in how the properties that have traditionally defined photography have changed. There have been changes in photography’s relationship to copyright, as described in an excerpt from a recent monograph by photographer Ken Schles, in which he contemplates whether or not his work belongs to him. The distinction between still and moving “photographs” is also changing. In his essay, “Stillness,” theorist David Campany argues that today there is little difference between still and moving images: virtually every image-capturing device today is capable of recording both, and our understanding of photography as static is constantly being undermined.
What’s more, the lens art’s relationship to time is shifting. In discussing his work The Clock (2010), Christian Marclay points out that the contemporary experience of time has become paradoxical in a sense—we are always striving to make our lives more efficient but never having time to do so. “We are very conscious of time in ways that we weren’t before,” he writes. “We used to have to wait for a letter to arrive by post, and now if your computer server is slow, you get very impatient.” Through our preoccupation with speed, images have become our most efficient vehicles of communication.
The medium’s democratization has also had a drastic effect on the way we use images. In his essay “Sharing Makes the Picture,” Barry Salzman points out that photography “has always been […] a social medium driven largely by the need to share one’s experiences with others.” That hasn’t changed; what has changed is our access to these images: through the Internet, photography’s capacity to share experience is greater than ever. This idea informs the spirit of many of the pieces collected here, from an interview with Trevor Paglen about surveillance and the information content of photographs; to a Charlie White essay about the unique shapes online images now take, including memes, gifs, selfies, and anonymous pornography; to an excerpted blog post by Ai Weiwei.
With the internet’s democratization of image accessibility, and photography’s popularization through social media, the value of any given photograph has taken on an unavoidably social value: The visibility of an image is determined both by its popularity and its subject matter. Traub wrote in 1997 (in a manifesto that closes the book), “We can only conceive of the postmodern image as a child of multimedia that reflects the spirit of our time, without hierarchies and authoritative voices.” The democracy of the Internet has offered photography, and its users, a means of subverting traditional hierarchies and authorities.
The term “lens arts” is, in itself, a democratic gesture, but perhaps it is not quite democratic enough: One of the book’s principal arguments is that image-making is no longer defined by the camera; the boundaries of the medium have extended beyond traditional photographic and cinematographic tools to include cell phones, scanners, drones, satellites, software, and even Google Street view. But what else to call it? The medium’s inability to find the language to accurately describe itself, perhaps more heightened now than ever, only highlights the need for visual literacy. Through its variety of voices, Vision Anew doesn’t promote a new language to define the medium, but dissects the languages that the medium itself has created.
TAYLOR DAFOE is a writer and photographer based in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared in Afterimage, artnet News, BOMB, Elephant, Interview, Modern Painters, and Photograph Magazine, among others.