Thursday, March 17, 2011

Cotton, Democracy, and Foam

"I'm genuinely concerned about the number of young people that are pursuing degrees in photography, presumably thinking that the success criteria in this medium stems from joining the canon of photography as contemporary art, and then make a living out of that position. Such aspirations are founded upon a disingenuous idea - that photography is democratic, and therefore everyone has a fighting, almost entrepreneurial chance to be a leading light in this 'democratic medium' - when in fact both these aspirations and the art market are not democratic whatsoever, but are about being the one lifted from the many."

Well said, Charlotte Cotton!


bryanF said...

Shuman's response is more interesting.

"I think photographic education has reached a crossroads. One direction leads down the vocational route - whether that's training people to be jobbing photographers or art careerists - and there's a lot a pressure for it to go this way, promoting photography as a commodifiable skill. The other direction, which I think could be much more promising, is that instead of the focus being on a career in photography, the focus could be on the subject of photography itself. This medium is rapidly becoming one that parallels the written word in many ways - it's embedding itself within culture, and within digital culture in particular, as an important form of communication, with its own vocabularies and variations, its own visual languages, dialects, grammars, accents, applications, and so on. But when people choose to study subjects that centre on the written word - Literature, Classics, Philosophy, and so on - their intention is not always to be the next great novelist, philosopher or epic poet; their interested in trying to understand how a particular medium has been used to communicate ideas. If this approach could be applied to the photographic medium, both in terms of its historical and critical studies and in relation to students' own practice, it could be incredibly liberating. Instead of it being a discipline, photography could become a fully-fledged subject. I think that expectations would change dramatically if it was approached in this way, but of course it's scary for institutions to promote a visual medium as something other than 'Art'. For me, it possesses incredible promise as a subject - just because it's a visual discipline doesn't mean that it has to sit exclusively within a fine-art educational construct or context."

Blake Andrews said...

Yeah, I suppose photography will always suffer from identity crisis. Is it art? Documentation? Craft? Discipline? Subject? Meanwhile, half the world has cameras which makes the situation even messier.

I like where Schuman is going with this. I hope photography expands as a subject, but only on condition that the study of photography not supplant the act of doing it. Shoot first, ask questions later. In that order.

Simone Alexandra said...

As an art photography student i can't help but feel a little offended by Charlotte Cotton's statement and i really really tried not to be. The thing is I've studied at a couple of different schools now and the first and only constant thing my teachers taught were that a) Probably only 5 % of the class would be professional photographers and b) that if we wanted to be among those 5% we should be prepared to work hard and not make any money.
Talk about depressing and demotivating.. The thing is most of the people I study and have studied with dont give a damn.
Instead of taking the road Charlotte has taken you could also say that there is a large number of young photographers who have immense love for the craft and the art of photography and they want to be part of it at any side of the table. No disillusions.
Maybe the issue is that there's been a shift and somehow people have different reasons to do what they do now and there is also a considerable amount of DIY spirit, all I can say is that I don't think Charlotte has any reason for concern and really why would anyone spend time worrying about something that is pretty much void. There are so many amazing things happening in the art photography world right now that this in itself is a bit offensive.

Im gonna go reread my copy of The photograph as contemporary art now.

Stan B. said...

Simone- I heard the same speech when I attended SVA for one year in the mid '70s. And just as it did then, the same applies now- can you afford not to give a damn? Ol' Charlotte doesn't need to be concerned, trust fund babies don't need to be concerned- people counting every penny for their education and career need to be concerned about the choices they make and how it will help get them where they want to go. More than ever...

Simone Alexandra said...

Well I guess my point isn't so much about the money as it is about being concerned for people who are probably more aware of the issues than anybody else.
I dont come from a wealthy family by any means but yeah any art school definitely attracts a fair number of those people. Im not speaking for them though.
Maybe theres a generational rift here. All i can say is peoples priorities are different now meaning its more about substance than monetary funds, and no i don't mean that people don't want to make money it's just not as vital to the choices you make.
Another important thing to point out is that most of the people Im studying with me included are already working in the field as editors, curators, assistents, gallery attendents, commercial freelancers etc... Why would anybody worry about that its nothing short of amazing.

Blake Andrews said...

What must struck me in Cotton's quote wasn't about the financial dynamics of education. It was the shifting nature of the road to achievement.

I probably sound like an old fogey but 50 years ago photographers made it by sheer gumption. The field was relatively unestablished, with few educational programs.

Now we have all sorts of MFA and BFA programs, which is great. But the problem is those programs have become sort of gatekeepers to success, at least for art photography. You almost have to go through them, which becomes a vicious cycle as that fact pulls in more students, and so on.

I'm not sure what the solution is, but I would like to see more of a mix of photographers just finding themselves on their own with less of a path established in front of them. Or put the path there but let it be one among many.

Christian said...

I would like to see more of a mix of photographers just finding themselves on their own with less of a path established in front of them. Or put the path there but let it be one among many.

Well said.

Stan B. said...

Being a "professional" photographer, was always about making money. The educational and structural hierarchy that is also now very much in place throughout is because the art arm of the "business" has also been formally codified and structured into a money making machine from school to gallery to publication. Interestingly, it was also in the mid '70s that SVA (and I suspect many other art schools) made it mandatory (for better or worse) that their photography instructors be academically certified- not just professionals.

Of course, now we have the internet, self publishing, etc to provide some modicum of balance to yet another rigged system, and there will always be the hallowed few whose vision is so unique that nothing will get in their way. For those that can afford it- follow the preapproved path to enlightenment, and 5% success.

Russell said...

I worked as a community photographer in the early to mid 1980s before doing a three-year BA Degree in Photographic Studies. Now, over 20 years later, I've started taking photographs again on a fairly full-time basis. Oddly, I'm grateful for those three years at college all those decades ago. But all that lost time ...

Todd Walker said...

I find it a bit astonishing that there isn't even a single comment on that post over on the Foam site.

I agree with Bryan in liking Shuman's response. While there are an enormous number of people learning and training for a photography or art career, they are wildly outweighed by the number of people now taking up photography as a simple form of self-expression, no different than literate people are able to write without feeling pressured to make a career out of it. The same cannot be said of the other visual arts, can it?