Photographing Haystacks

Photography is going through an identity crisis. It hates itself, the way it looks, what people think of it, the ways it makes money, its advanced age, whether it’s obsolete or not. Artists rarely describe themselves as photographers because the commercial profession with the same name is currently casting somewhat of a scandalous stigma onto the medium. Facebook paparazzi have flooded digital spaces with images of narcissistic self-indulgence derived from what they see in advertisements and on TV, effectively making everyone with a phone a professional in the industry. What has resulted is a vast division between who distances themselves from photography’s affinity for depiction and who doesn’t.

Members of the “Pictures Generation” expanded on depictive investigations begun by artists the at Bauhaus, and recently Walead BeshtyTacita Dean, and Liz Deschenes have led similar efforts. Two artists working now, Letha Wilson and Sara Greenberger Rafferty, are taking photography apart, piece by piece, to investigate how its form relates to objecthood, reproducibility, distribution, the creative impulse of the artist, presentation, and perpetual change. Their work wouldn’t even be considered photography by most standards.

Photographers rely on depicting things to make money. Their talent comes from how well they can uphold commercial standards, which can range from objectifying humans toward selling products to the seemingly altruistic documenting of important events. They utilize depiction to convey a specific idea, and in doing so, the camera acts as a surrogate individual with an objective opinion that’s separate from the button pusher’s. Advertisements and news publications want you to think a photographer is somehow not involved with the images you see, as if there’s some version of reality where important events aren’t influenced at all by a pointed camera, models with perfect skin and chiseled features are always gazing alluringly, politicians are perpetually smiling, and constant surveillance yields more criminal convictions.

In The Pencil of Nature, a book self-published by William Henry Fox Talbot in 1844 containing some of the first photographs and writings on the medium, a caption for a piece titled Articles of China reads, “And should a thief afterwards purloin the treasures—if the mute testimony of the picture were produced against him in court—it would certainly be evidence of a novel kind; but what the judge and jury might say to it is a matter which I leave to the speculation of those who possess legal acumen.” Offering those with legal rather than aesthetic acumen to determine the image’s veracity acknowledges skepticism toward the medium’s ability to depict reality. Aesthetes know images are contrived, so by appealing to legally minded people Talbot subverts skepticism by promoting its depictive superiority among drawing-based copy processes. The idea that photography depicts half-truths is common sense today, because now everyone is familiar with scandals involving doctored UFO and Nessie photos and lawsuits against ad companies that retouch away too many skin imperfections.

It’s difficult to imagine a world before everyone lost trust in photographs. Inhabitants back then must have resembled babies inputting information at face value, having not yet learned ageist lessons conveyed only after years of discerning truth from fabrication. And such a notion illuminates how drastically the advent of the medium affected art theory. Modern painting may seem altogether new considering Talbot photographed haystacks roughly fifty years before Claude Monet painted them. The germinations for abstraction in painting seem practical when imagining a time that saw representational authenticity transition from being a human’s job to a machine’s.