Democracy Tuesday October 25, 2005

Photography is the ultimate democratic art form, sanctioning everything and everyone with potential significance, allowing everyone to construct an individual view of their world and its particular histories. Apparently, George Eastman chose the name ‘Kodak’ because it could be pronounced by anyone in the world, and photography rapidly became the most widely practised form of artistic expression – if you include within that the social and domestic imagery in a million offices and albums. Everything is potentially “a Kodak moment”, although their other slogan “you press the button, we do the rest” is a worrying presumption of responsibility, a commercial colonisation of individual process.

The photograph has always had a dual status, an object of attention which is partly a source of information, and partly a fascinating or loved object: placed carefully in frames, albums, and occasionally in wallets. In relation to the sea of images, billions of photographs all around the world, a tiny proportion of work has determined the terms of reference and frame of meaning for the history of the photograph. I acknowledge that some of this work is beautiful, accomplished and inspiring; I’m the first person to admire Cartier-Bresson, Ansel Adams, or even Charlie Waite, Geoff Cornish and Jeff Wall. But we also live in interesting times, marvellously irreverent when anyone starts making moral or hierarchical distinctions: we have the intellectual weapons of deconstruction, postmodernism, and a vigorous affirmation of the traditionally marginalised, the ignored, the socially oppressed or disempowered. All photographs depend on a series of historical, cultural, and social contexts. The meaning and efficacy of an image is always dependent on the context in which it is read.

I have a list of about twenty photoblogs I view daily, and also cruise www.photo.net and www.flickr . Some of the photos you find on the democratic internet are just as interesting, beautiful and accomplished as any photo from the canon of traditional Masters. Although I have to admit – and be candid – in saying that much internet based photography is relatively banal and uninspired. As with the blog, so with the photoblog: much of the fun and interest derives from the medium and its social and interactive capacities; this is not photography per se, but a cultural activity in which photography is located. That is, a picture of what you ate for breakfast is fun and interesting within this astonishing, now taken-for-granted medium where such a presentation is possible. I used to follow blog culture, discovering who the internet celebrities were and reading what they had to say about the phenomenon. One of the core debates concerned the quality of the writing and thus the literary or content-value of the blog, and traditional journalists would dismiss it on those terms. The defenders of the blog argued that its literary quality was not the reason, value or rationale for its existence. Science fiction writer William Gibson once announced that he would not write an online journal or blog because it filtered off his creativity and diluted his inspiration. It was better to rein in his expressive instincts, allowing them to gestate and develop within his imagination and not on the internet. The internet is an imaginative space – the “consensual hallucination” of cyberspace, like a playground and representation of the psyche; how it locates in the greater scheme of human capacity, imagination – and photographic culture – has yet to be seen. I once read a photoblog comment where someone declared their favourite photographers to be well known photobloggers: not Cartier-Bresson, or Adams, or any of the traditional canon. In terms of postmodern theoretical deconstruction, this was notable and valuable as an expression of new world democracy. Cyberspace, the 24/7 VDU gallery had replaced the traditional routes of viewing and appreciation. In some respects, it is superior and more interesting than expensive art books and galleries: why bother with those when your monitor is like a huge slide viewer, and convenient portal onto worldwide photographic activity. We don’t need the elitist, capitalist, commercial context any longer; what we have is punk rock photography. Although I refer to this with some ambiguity and reservation because punk rock was always sociologically and politically interesting, sometimes musically interesting, but sometimes not.