The death of photography is rapidly becoming a weekly pronouncement, it seems. Earlier this Fall, I interviewed Bill Jay for PDN online magazine (to be published soon!) at his home in San Diego where he mentioned being misquoted about the “death of photography” and just last week, critic Peter Plagens published a piece for Newsweek magazine, titled “Is Photography Dead?”
Well, the answer is Yes. Or at least, this is what Stephen Bulger indicated to me when he announced his first exhibition of 2008, The Death of Photography. Stephen asked me to contribute a short essay for the catalogue which is forthcoming (and will be available for purchase directly from the gallery).
What I’m posting here is the twice-as-long text of the essay which I wrote for the catalogue. In order to read the finished piece you’ll have to buy the catalogue!
THE DEATH OF PHOTOGRAPHY
An exhibition at Stephen Bulger Gallery. An essay by Darius Himes.
I still vividly remember my first summer home from college when I discovered the family cat sitting quietly under a bush in the back yard, its face gaunt and breathing shallow. Death was hovering around her, and the care with which the vet euthanized her and placed her curled body in a box has stuck with me. But that was Iowa farm country, and death was everywhere, as was life, both preceding and following death as naturally as dawn follows the night.
That was the summer of ’89. I was listening to A Tribe Called Quest on vinyl, REM on cd, and Morrisey on cassette. I wasn’t wearing parachute pants any more, but I was growing my hair out. The Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Spanish author Camilo Jose Cela that year, Lee Friedlander (who hadn’t yet appeared on my radar screen) had just published Like a One-Eyed Cat, and the freshmen who entered Photo 101 classes this past Fall had just been born.
That school year, I had been studying photography with Bill Jay, William Jenkins, and Mary Anne Redding at Arizona State University. They awakened me to a life in photography, and thankfully, they are all still alive themselves.
But photography is not. It has since died. Or at least, that’s what Bill Jay told me the other day when we were working on an interview together about a new book of photographs he has just published.
“This past summer,” Bill related over a diner breakfast, “a British magazine did a profile of my photographic life in England, which ended really when I left in 1972. They quoted me as saying that “I was very disappointed not to be at the birth of photography but I am pleased that I was present at its end.” Bill chuckled at the absurdity of the thought. “I don’t remember saying that at all! But now that I’ve been quoted, I want to write a piece about why I must have said it. I think the “end of photography” has been happening over the last 30 years…”
“What do you mean by “photography”, Bill?” I asked, and he came around to the changes in the family-like aspect of the community. “It is the end of the medium as an international fraternity of like-minded people who appreciate the unique characteristics of photography. That has almost disappeared. There is a sense that there are no masters, no standards by which to judge the merit of a photograph. I am not disparaging that, but I think it is interesting. People running the galleries and museums are not practitioners, like they once were. And I am saying that photography as a unique enterprise is over.”
The history of technology from the mid-19th century forward is, as we all know, a litany of birth and death. It is rumored that the US patent office infamously toyed with closing in the early 1840s, stating that “everything that was going to be invented already had.”
Shortly thereafter, photography was born to a handful of scientists and intellectuals”a group of “men of letters” that indubitably included women as well. By the time William Henry Fox Talbot (b. 1800) and Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre (b. 1787)—the two best known of the founders—had passed away, it was the 1880s, and over a hundred distinct photographic techniques had already come into existence. Photographers were producing calotypes, collotypes, woodburytypes and, of course, daguerreotypes, along with brown, blue, purple, and gold-toned prints. Egg whites, gun cotton, piss, glass, paper and metals of all sorts found their way into the pantheon of materials that made up the photographic arsenal. Into the 20th century, that list only continued to swell. As the number of photographerâ€™s studios and expeditionary surveys to remote locations of the world flourished—and the public’s appetite for views of themselves and their surroundings grew—so did the businesses catering to and providing photographic equipment and materials.
And as with any business enterprise, it was inevitable that, one by one, some would begin to die off.
Over the last decade, Alison Rossiter has been collecting unprocessed samples of photographic material—including both films and papers—from each decade of the 20th century. She processes (or has others process) these materials as they were intended, but she does so without exposing them to either an image or light of any kind.
This would have been an inconceivable artistic task in the late 1980s. What would have been the point when Azo, Kodabromide, and graded gelatin silver papers of every variety were still widely available and the norm? But at this point in our history, as news of the folding of company after company arrives in my inbox on a weekly basis, the sheer subtlety and variety of photographic surfaces and materials is lovely to behold. It both honors the material support of the medium and makes one aware of what has passed before, and now, sadly, has passed away.
A certain type of photography has definitely died.
Michel Campeau’s elegant, color photographs of darkrooms are a memento mori to the physical spaces in which these extinct photographic materials were used. The thoughtfulness that photographers put into their darkrooms—and which comes across in Campeau’s photographs—reminds me of the One Picture Press book by Bill Jay about Bill Brandt, the great British photographer. When visiting Brandt in his home, Jay asked to visit his darkroom, to which Brandt “sternly refused.” “What is it?” Jay asked, “The holy of holies?” Brandt simply answered, “Yes.”
Once, while traveling with a photographer from Rochester, NY, a fellow artist we encountered from one of the former Soviet satellites joked that my friend was from Kodakistan. Kodak, established in 1892, has, of course, been synonymous with photography for over 100 years, one of the true empires of the modern age. The large-format color work of Robert Burley centers on the dissolution and dismantling of a part of this last photographic empire: the 100 year old Kodak plant in Toronto.
In the common vernacular, we allude to death and killing in innumerable ways and shades, with the casually proclaimed “I’m gonna kill you” being one of the most exaggerated and blatantly misused prefatory phrases in English. He’ll just die when he hears this,” being another outstanding example.
Both physically and metaphorically, every- and anything can and will die. Batteries, engines, careers, romances and dairy products all expire on a regular basis. The French refer to orgasms as “little deaths.” And for every feeder goldfish and pair of gerbils sold, there are just as many children across the continent that learn about little deaths far before they know about the French variety.
Death, it would seem, is all around us. Only one of the bands that I listed above is still performing together, and the fashions I was wearing then are thrift store fodder now. Cela passed away in 2002 and Friedlander’s book is long out-of-print—all these major and minor deaths.
But to look at things this way is to stray into the realm of nostalgia about “the way things were.” To a very real extent, we have photography itself to blame for this. Were it not for the existence of photographs, we wouldn’t know what it looked like “back in the day.” The “Kodak moment” has fueled the modern affliction of extreme sentimentality for things past. Perhaps the urbanization of North America also has played its role, to the extent that the life cycle of house plants and pets is the extent that most people are in real contact with births and deaths.
Saying that death is all around us is as much a truism as saying that life is all around us. They go hand in hand.
There is precariousness to the revolutionary qualities of this medium. As photographers, we rely on a worldwide industry for the tools of our trade—no one among us can whip up a batch of Ektachromes at home, or call down to the corner store for a batch of Polaroids, or forge a f/5.6, 150mm lens in our workshop. We are at the mercy of the industry.
And that industry is in rapid flux. Unlike many other trades, a working commercial photographer cannot simply buy some equipment, develop his skills, and pursue a career for 30 years. Now, on the average of every 3-4 years, the equipment and software that one has recently mastered must be completely replaced and relearned. You cannot just own a camera, but you must have all of the attendant hardware and software to run the camera and process and store its images.
Artists in other disciplines have the luxury of mastering a skill in tandem with a particular instrument and then using that instrument for the remainder of their career. Imagine the uproar that musicians, of all sorts, would feel if they were forced to sell they’re Steinways and Stratocasters every four years and to then be forced to learn the nuances of a completely new instrument that used the musical principles of the previous instrument only in a cursory manner. On top of that, throw in the destruction and reprinting in a different language of all sheet music every decade. Something along those lines has been happening in photography.
The control of photographic materials and their availability is something that is completely out of our hands, making nostalgia over commercial products risky business. Steam trains were a glorious, revolutionizing invention, yet, how many of us pine for such travel? The Edsel, the Packard, International Harvester, and Concord were also cool at one time.
Preservation and knowledge are another point entirely. On a surface level, knowledge once gained is never lost, especially in our present age of recording. Yet, as Robert Burley points out, there is a sinister irony in the current situation. Trade secrets within the photography industry have left the community with a void of accessible information on how to reproduce the very methods of reproduction that humanity has come to rely on.
The current surge of interest in “alternative photographic processes” is possible in large part precisely because the chemical formulas are simple, handmade, and above all, written down. You or I or our great grandchildren will be able to make platinum prints just like the founders. The same is not true, or has yet to be seen, for the sheer number of copyrighted, company-specific products that are rapidly disappearing from the shelves of camera stores worldwide.
Perhaps the photography we have known will return to its beginnings: a rare, magical craft clung to by a cluster of devoted men and women who hover in that middle gray (was it Zone V or VI?) between the arts and sciences.