Genre, practice and value: Week 9 reflection

I don’t want to define my practice in terms of ready at hand photographic genres (landscape, architectural, abstract, social documentary, still life, portrait, street and so on). In part this relates to where I am in my photographic (re)education, and the need, at this point in time, to resist being constrained by a tight association with any given approach to photographic image making. On the positive side, this gives me the space to explore and learn. Negatively, the lack of a defined (or definable) genre-related community places limits on productive critical engagement with, and induction into, a community of practice (as described by Lave and Wenger, 1991). More profoundly and productively, perhaps, evasion of association with a genre, or with a school or approach, allows greater dynamism in the development of practice, and openness to photography’s integration with, supplementation of or subjection to, other disciplines and domains of practice in addressing complex and enduring issues in inter-disciplinary collaboration. It does not, though, free me of the obligation to position my work within the field of photographic arts, and to demonstrate knowledge of and respect for appropriate schools of and approaches to photography (there’s a possible footnote here relating to Billy Childish, and ‘Stuckism’, and the personal and professional consequences of relatively unmediated engagement with the production of art and resulting outsider status).

The ubiquity of digital image-making sharpens our awareness of a need to distinguish between, and address constructively, the forms of understanding of photography from within the discourse and practice of photography, and that from outside (both from other disciplines and areas of practice, and what we might call ‘popular’ conceptions of photography). The proposal to attempt to construct a shared understanding of quality (or value) made by Francis Hodgson seems excessively limiting, perhaps even dangerous, in this respect. Whilst recognition of the possibility of accusation of elitism is evident, the longstanding, and, depressingly, enduring elitist distinction between ‘high’ (deep and worthy of attention) and ‘low’ (trivial and fleeting) culture is invoked, and little is done to mitigate its divisive effects. How is the ‘we’ that has the authority to determine quality constituted? And what are the consequences of alternative conceptions of quality? And who polices attention, and thus underwrites value? The importance of an absolute (or as near as possible) index of value is clearly of interest to auction houses, galleries and collectors, but mis-recognises the nature of artistic practice in relation to the multiplicity of contexts within with images are produced and circulated (and the forms of production, circulation and exchange). In simple terms, the fundamental flaw is that images are assessed apart from their contexts, and assigned a place along a (supposedly neutral, though in practice culturally loaded) continuum of relative worth (and thus treated as the same in all but value). Rather than the creation of an index of value (akin to an international standard in relation to service, manufacture and measurement), value in the arts might, more appropriately and constructively, be seen as dynamic, contested and contextual. Within and across contexts, the attribution of value (and what is worthy of attention) is a practical accomplishment, within which the possibility of alternatives is always imminent. It is not that there is a lack of agreed criteria for judging the quality of a photographic work, as implied by Hodgson, but rather that there is a multiplicity of sets of criteria, which vary according to context and interest. And it is contestation and debate within, and tensions between, these socially and culturally contextualised sets of criteria that, in part, ensures dynamism in the arts and creates the space for, and ensures the possibility of, creativity.

For me, then, at this moment, image making is a means of address that provokes alternative ways of apprehending and understanding. To that end I am both interested in advancing my own image making, and exploring image making collaboratively with others in investigation of common concern. That collective endeavour brings to the fore tendencies in relation to genres. My own explorations of place have tended to exclude human figures (though human activity is clearly evident), highlighting a ‘lack’ in relation to what might be considered documentary photography or portraiture, for instance. The creates the opportunity to expand my practice. The focus and coherence is provided not by the photographic genre, but by the underlying intent, and the mode of operation, which warrants more careful consideration and development. Whilst I am comfortable in identifying with post-representational forms of photography, the collaborative endeavour brings representation back in (through, for instance, the interests of others in utilisation of photography’s indexicality to represent and persuade). Just one of many creative tensions.

Lave, J. and Wenger, E. (1991) Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.