The Universal Photographer

Anne Geene and Arjan de Nooy, Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, Projects Gallery, 15th December 2018

A one room exhibition dedicated to the ‘universal photographer‘, a project by Dutch photographers Anne Geene and Arjan de Nooy.

They have aligned found images with trends in photography over the lifetime (1955-2016) of the fictional universal photographer, who becomes the embodiment of responses to changes in photographic technology, an unfolding life-course and trends in art and photography (practice, theory and critique). The primary outcome of the project is a book, which includes extensive quotes from the work of major theorists, commentators and artists relating to the forms of photography covered, and fictional quotes about the work of the universal photographer and their work alongside a biography of the universal photographer (the pdf of the book can be downloaded here). It’s an impressive and entertaining project, and an exemplary exercise in post-modern irony. The project guides the viewer through the development of art photography and theory over the past half century, raising questions about the relationship between esoteric art and everyday life (the images are very much ‘everyday’ and naive, but articulated with the evolving art practices of the time) and rendering both faintly absurd, and strangely engaging, in the process. The project thus speaks both to the gallery visiting public and the to art world, questioning the relationship between the visual products of both. In presenting the work of the the universal photographer as art, the work also pulls art into the everyday and opens it (and the associated academic and artistic commentary and analysis) to common scrutiny and assessment.

In looking at the images, it is not a case of ‘we could have done that’; we actually did do it – these are our images, from our photo albums and boxes of family, event and holiday prints. In my own project, I have created a degree of insulation between forms of image making: this work removes that insulation in a gallery space and plays with the distinction between the sacred and the profane. And it’s all shot through with dry humour and parody. In the development of my project, it’s clearly important to the think about other mechanisms for bringing these different domains of practice into the same space and into constructive critical dialogue.

Geene, A. & A. De Nooy. 2018. The Universal Photographer. Rotterdam: De Hef.

Literacies and photographies

Steff’s use of (and preference for) the term ‘photographies’ (rather than photography) in the introductory webinar brought to mind the genesis of the use of ‘literacies’ rather than literacy. It also resonated with my concern (expressed in earlier posts) about the tendency to abstract the idea of photography from the contexts of production and circulation of images, with the effect of treating very different practices (for instance, casual mobile phone images of events on the one hand and commissioned photo-journalism on the other) as the same (in the sense that they are both ‘photography’). This tendency is particularly marked (and unproductive) in debates about the threat posed to professional photography by the ubiquitous production and circulation through social media of high resolution images, and the development of AI systems to select and edit images.

The dismantling of a singular view of literacy began with the exploration of social literacy, through social anthropological style studies of how, and where and for what, people use literacy, or engage in ‘literacy practices’ (see, for instance, Grenfell, 2012; Heath, 1983; Street, 1995). The study of literacy in practice brings to the fore the multiplicity of forms of literacy, each distinguished, and shaped, by the social context and the purpose of reading and writing. The study of literacy in different cultures and contexts not only raises questions about the extent to which a single term adequately describes a multiplicity of forms of practice, but also makes clear that these (literacy) practices involve engagement with and production of more than just text (sound, image, video, media, gesture and so on). So we have multiple literacies both in relation to the uses and contexts of literacy and in relation to forms of literacy (beyond just text). Hence, literacies, not a singular (cognitively defined and culturally invariant) literacy (commonly called the autonomous model of literacy, see Street, 2003) .

Likewise, photography is used in a variety of ways, in different contexts and for different purposes (culturally, socially and economically). Forms of photography (in terms of modes of production, technology and circulation) have also diversified. Hence, photographies.

This immediately raises the question of the relationship between different photographic forms, contexts and practices, the establishment and maintenance of hierarchies within and between these forms and the need for critical visual (photographic) literacy (for both consumers and producers of images). The point of this post, though, is to reinforce the idea of multiple photographies, and to form synergies with the study of the social basis of other areas of practice, such as literacy. My project proposal involves three forms of image making, which in themselves constitute three different ‘photographies’ (as social research tool, as advocacy and as art) and therefore provides a context for further exploration of these relationships.

Grenfell, M. 2012. Language, Ethnography, and Education: Bridging New Literacy Studies and Bourdieu. London: Routledge.

Heath, S.B. 1983. Ways with Words: Language, Life, and Work in Communities and Classrooms. Cambridge:Cambridge University Press.

Street, B. 2003. ‘Autonomous and ideological models of literacy: Approaches from new literacy studies’. Current Issues in Comparative Education. 5. 1-15.

Street, B.V. 1995. Social Literacies: Critical Approaches to Literacy in Development, Ethnography and Education. London: Longman.