She knows, now, absolutely, hearing the white noise that is London, that Damien's theory of jet lag is correct: that her mortal soul is leagues behind her being reeled in on some ghostly umbilical down the van wake of the plane that brought her here, hundreds of thousands of feet above the Atlantic. Souls can't move that quickly, and are left behind, and must be awaited, like lost luggage. William Gibson


There is a kind of jet-lag between our experiences within culture and our theories about culture. Although wide spread (impacting visual culture as well as many sciences), this is particularly evident with relation to photography. While millions of megabytes of photographic information is uploaded to Flickr's online repository, conventional theories of photography are absorbed in critiquing the subject matter of photographs and the history of photography is locked into an out-moded (and frequently discredited) model. The theories don't consider that photography might be more than the resulting product - a photograph; and the history is no more than an articulation of the art-historical model, which excludes most forms of photography. Like William Gibson's notion of soul delay, our concepts of photography are being left behind our immediate experience of photography.

In a recent issue of Artlink magazine, Anne Marsh surveys the current tensions surrounding opposing models of art history and visual culture for critiquing art. Marsh is a supporter of the visual culture approach, which "takes art off its pedestal and makes it do business with a host of other visual media"Marsh 2006 p42. At the core of her frustration with the art history model, which still influences academic art history and art schools, is "a kind of silo mentality" where disciplines remain discrete. This, she believes, is a far cry from what is actually occurring in arts practice:

Any practising artist who is looking out into the world knows that this essentialist paradigm does not address what actually happens in arts practice.Marsh 2006 p42

Marsh argues that the problem with art history maintaining autonomy is that it tends towards essentialism and exclusivism. This is contrary to a great number of the 20th Century art practices and movements that "challenge and critique the institutions of the artworld, its taste-makers, its traditions"Marsh 2006 p42. Lev Manovich has a similar beef. The author of The Language of New Media and Information Aestheticist, points out the inadequacies of a media-defined account of contemporary culture and artistic reality:

The assumption that artistic practice can be neatly organized into a small set of distinct mediums has continued to structure the organization of museums, art schools, funding agencies and other cultural institutions - even though this assumption no longer reflects the actual function of culture. Manovich 2001

In putting forward a case for developing a new conceptual system derived from information culture, Manovich reviews that rather than address the shortcomings of media typology we just keep adding more categories!

New genres, interactive installation, interactive art, net art. The problem with these new categories is that they follow the old tradition of identifying distinct art practices on the basis of the materials being used - only now we substitute different materials by different new technologies.Manovich 2001

Ami Davis adds another aspect to the mix with transdisciplinary arts. Transdisciplinary Art is distinguished from interdisciplinary art by way of Transvergence. Transvergence "demonstrates an attitude that the boundaries separating academic disciplines are restrictive"Davis 2006. Where disciplines collaborate in interdisciplinary projects and disciplines still remain discrete, transdisciplinary pursuits explore common practices among disciplines "transcending conventional notions of what appropriate activities within a discipline are". Davis believes that "the traditional tools offered by art history, a discipline with cultural baggage of its own, need to be re-examined if transdisciplinary projects are to fall within its scope."

Transvergence is an invitation to take an opportunity to rethink art history, science, and the inevitable permeable lines that arbitrarily divide these principles.Davis 2006

Paul Vitz and Arnold Glimcher identify the shortcoming of art history as "its failure to investigate science and technology, which have been the two most dynamic factors of recent history"Vitz & Glimcher 1984 p9. Their thesis of parallelism proposes a direct relationship between modern art and reductionist-analytical science. Parallelism demonstrates "that modernist art begins with the acceptance by artists of the analytic-reductionist approach to painting and that much of the subsequent historical development has expressed the unfolding of this basic principle"Vitz & Glimcher 1984 p9. Reductionism that dominated scientific thought for first half of 20th century is directly linked to the reductionism found in modern art.

Just as the history of modern art has been compromised by art history, so too has the history of photography. The history of photography has essentially been reduced to a history of art photography. Photographs are no longer viewed or assessed "in the context of photographic history but in the context of art history"Kohler 2002 p215. Geoffrey Batchen points out that although 19th and early 20th century historical accounts of photography tend to include an eclectic selection of photographies, throughout the late Twentieth Century "most histories have tenaciously focused on the artistic ambitions of the medium, excluding all other genres except as they complement a formalist art-historical narrative"Batchen 2002 p57. Many others agree that the photographic phenomenon has most commonly been valued by the fine arts model (since at least the 1930's) "that is, by the constitution of a historiography mainly based on great oeuvres and great authors".Gunthurt 2000 p231

Price and Wells say this emphasis on art-historical concerns, together with a new stress on connoisseurship of the photographs as a privileged object, occurred after the Second World War. They believe that the development of art history as an academic discipline and more particularly the increasing influence of art criticism within modern art in the first half of the Twentieth Century influenced the introduction of the art-historical model into photography collection and exhibition. Since a central feature of modernist criticism was to make a clear distinction between high and low culture, for photographs to take their place in the gallery, "they inevitably became caught up with more general intellectual trends and discourses". Wells 2000 p50

Douglas Nickel traces the origins of this photographic/art-historical model more directly to Beaumont Newhall and Helmut and Alice Gersheim. He asserts that what we call the history of photography really began in the 1930's and was written in a way that imprinted it into modernist aesthetics. He insists that the structure of histories written by the likes of Beaumont Newhall and the Gersheim's are indebted to a modernist bias. Nickel argues that Newhall, as an art historian, was only interested in writing an art history of photography, that is, a history of art photography.Nickel 2000

Price and Wells admit that Newhall's The History of Photography and the Gersheims' History of Photography established "a specific canon for the history of photography which has been the basis for further development - or taken as a starting point for challenge - ever since" Wells 2000 p50. These two key texts shift the focus from photographic practice to photographic image. Price and Wells suggest that Newhall's and Gersheim's texts refocused the history to comment upon particular practitioners, canonising photographers as artists.

The art-historical model applied to photography is problematic. It was applied to photography, "even though it does not accommodate photography's many and varied manifestations, which don't belong at all to the corpus of art history"Gunthurt 2000 p231. Price and Wells highlight four major consequences of this canonisation: 1. The praise of particular photographers and their contribution, has obscured changing attitudes towards photography as a set of practices; 2. The focus on male photographers - has overlooked or obscured the participation of women; 3. Extensive discussion on professional and commercial practices, has neglected popular photography or of more specialist fields such as medicine or architecture; 4. It has prioritized aesthetic concerns over broader and more diverse forms of involvement of photography in all aspects of social experience, including personal photography, publishing and everyday portraiture. Wells 2000 p50

Mark Kohler points out that as a consequence of this model, "assessment criteria based purely on photography are no longer valid, which means that technical and iconographic parallels to historic models are now not generally mentioned, because they are not even noticed"Kohler 2002 p215. Nickel finds that with the exclusion of a social history (a history of photographic practices), there is an ambivalence towards such notions as photography as a technology, photography as commerce, or photography as a popular amateur medium. The net result is that we've inherited a bipartite model from these earlier histories " art photography and everything else". Nickel 2000 p229

The almost pathological obligation to attribute the totality of photography's cultural singularity and significance to the photograph and its content and, through them, to the relationships they might have with other images, has created a distorted relationship between photographs and photography, and through it, distorted histories and theories of photography. Tomas 2004 p84

The shift in focus from photographic practice to photographic image has also impacted the theory of photography. Until the 1980's photographic theory, at least in education, focused on the craft of photography referring to "technologies and techniques as in optics, colour temperature, optimum developer heat, etc" Wells 2000 p26 . Critics like Victor Burgin, identified that during the 1970s/80s there was no theory, only criticism, which he considered "evaluative and normative, authoritative and opinionated". Price and Wells add "We might ask to what extent this is different 20 years on".

Two dominant strands of theoretical discourse can be identified Wells 2000 p24. The first focuses on the relationship of the image to reality (and truth); and the second emphasizes the reception of the photograph with regards to the act of looking. This latter approach "stresses the importance of interpretation focusing on the reader rather than the taker" of photographs Wells 2000 p24.

Burgin's own approach is an example of the second strand of theoretical discourse. His photographic theory is underscored by semiotics and psychoanalysis and as such is considered an "emphasis within a general history and theory of representations"Batchen 1999 p10. Like many others including Umberto Eco and Roland Barthes, Burgin's interest revolves around the photograph's ability to produce and disseminate meaning. The photograph is viewed as having an indexical relationship and is typically read as text. The photograph, for Burgin, is the catalyst/focus for the "desire invested in looking". Batchen is critical of Burgin's work suggesting that his version of photographic theory "displaces attention from the photograph itself"Batchen 1999 p11. Burgin "looks through the photograph in search of something that necessarily has its origins elsewhere"Batchen 1999 p11. In other words, the photograph is viewed as a window with which to critique other issues.

The subjectivity of photographs' meanings are also explored through semiotics. Allan Sekula for example, argues "that photographs are before all else indexical signs" and "because of this indexical property, photographs are fundamentally grounded in contingency"Batchen 1999 p9. In this view, the photograph is " a type of representation linked by a relation of physical causality or connection to its objects"Batchen 1999 p9. Photography that moves beyond the indexical and has no connection to object is typically ignored by this type of critique. It denies the possibility that "photographs can be pictures that do not necessarily have to denote anything at all"Weising 2002 p88.

Roland Barthes is well known for his semiotic analysis of visual culture but as Batchen points out, in Camera Lucida, he abandons semiotics as an analytical method in favour of addressing the referential characteristics of the photograph - interrogating "photography in terms of the extent to which the image reproduces reality"Wells 2000 p26. Susan Sontag's focus is on the photograph as a document, in which the photograph is seen as "freezing a moment in time"Wells 2000 p27. This approach, which centres around photography's realism denies those forms of photography that "transcend the play of the real"Exley 1999.

Both strands of discourse are ultimately fixated on the photograph - they are theories of reception, distribution, and the ontology of photographs. There is a fundamental presumption that the sole aim of photography is to produce photographs. Abstract photography, for example, which "usurps the traditional identity and ontology of the photograph"Exley 1999 falls outside of the scope of these theoretical discourses. Even contemporary debates about the impact of technological advances, centres around the photographic image and its indexicality. Tomas asks why our sole focus of photography is the photograph:

A photograph is perceived as an autonomous product that is understood to be complete in itself. Although widely accepted, this focus can appear strange if not perverse should one choose to step outside the convention that the photograph is the basic reason for photography's existence, or for a person to engage in a photographic practice.Tomas 2004 p83

Blair French tells us that "we live now in a moment of multiple photographic possibilities"French 2000 p85. How do conventional theories and the history of photography take into account more recent phenomena like Flickr? As an online repository for photos, Flickr can be viewed as a microcosm for photography today. Personal snapshots exist in the same space as camera-derived photographs, computer-generated images, portraits, experimental photographic practices, abstract photography, early photographic practices, promotional photography, art photography through to soft porn. How does the art-historical model apply to Flickr? How do photographic theories based on image indexicality account for the emergence of the Flickr community? "I am part of the networks and the networks are part of me"Mitchell 2003. William Mitchell believes that we should no longer think of ourselves as "fixed, discrete individuals" but as nodes in a network. This is true of the people and the photos of Flickr. Surely, any contemporary account of photography should be capable of articulating this. Paul Cilliers suggests "the heart of the matter is that our technologies have become more powerful than our theories".

We are capable of doing things we don't understand. We can perform gene-splicing without fully understanding how genes interact. We can make pharmaceutics without being able to explain effects or predict side-effects. We can create new sub-atomic particles without knowing precisely whether they actually exist outside of the laboratory. We can store, and retrieve endless bits of information without knowing what they mean. Central to all these developments are the phenomenal capacities of the electronic computer. It forms most of our tools....Although we know nothing strange happens in a computer, nobody can grasp all aspects of what happens when a computer is performing a sophisticated task - at least not down to the level of switching between zeros and ones. It is simply too complex.Cilliers 2005 p1

So why do these inadequate critiques and out-moded models continue to play such a significant role in photography? How do we account for technological change if our theories are not equipped and our world too complex? Do the old ways persist through "sheer inertia"? And is that because "to put in place a better, more adequate conceptual system is easier said than done"?Manovich 2001 To articulate the desire to impact policy and debate "at moments of very rapid technological and social change", William Mitchell uses the term "real time scholarship."

I see technology as a human process that continually opens up possible futures.....The point is to provide a critical guide to those futures, and to spark debate about the decisions that will produce those futures.Mitchell 2003

Photography is more than the sum of its history; and it extends well beyond the confines of conventional photographic theories and critiques. To explore the multiple photographic presents and possible photographic futures, it is time to engage with Photography in Real-Time.


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