How does the market for photography distort the meaning within images, creating its own narrative in the process? As photographers, we are often expected or sometimes even required to sell the work that we make. Selling photographs though can be precarious, as when an image becomes a commodity it can often affect the inherent meaning of a photograph. I would argue that the market often destroys the social value of photography. In the market the photograph’s ability to describe is lost in a myriad of abstraction brought on by the process of becoming a commodity or a ‘work of art’. So what are the effects of the market on artistic practice in photography? In some cases these effects may be hidden as the subject matter is often driven by the market for photographic art, meaning certain views never get across if they conflict or challenge leading ideologies. Naturally, if a photographic practice is solely driven by the market it underrates the social value, or worse, it consumes it through a process of abstraction. The issue of abstraction can be traced to the museums’ handling of images. Museums often believe in the power of the single image or the myth of the author. Both David Cunningham and the late Allan Sekula have written in detail about how abstraction takes place so I won’t start elaborating in great detail here. In brief, abstraction is the process of value becoming abstract or immaterial. If we take a piece of art valued at 20,000 dollars or euros, for example, that piece of art may have no material value but is dependent on capitalism (an abstract concept) to give it value. Abstraction is at the base of capitalism, as abstraction transforms an object into a commodity, giving it exchange value. It is abstraction that separates the photograph from its ontological properties, according to Cunningham, “in order to free itself from its traditional representational functions, more often than not in the name of becoming ‘art’.” In becoming ‘art’, the photograph depicts the world as something to be ‘looked at’ rather than ‘understood’. If just ‘looked at’, the photograph becomes an abstraction, slipping into the space of the commodity. In order to have the desired effect of revealing something, it must be ‘seen through’. As Cunningham argues, “a simple ‘reproduction of reality’ tells us nothing of reality itself.” Cunningham continues that “true reality has slipped over into a functional reality.” Such a thing reveals an inadequacy of photography. Its inability to only depict functioning reality. Functional reality, a reality which has been built to serve the needs of capital, does not reveal the social relations of the spaces and subjects it depicts. Through the process of abstraction, the single photograph rises to the surface and becomes part of a functioning reality, thus also failing to represent the social relations in which it may be depicted.
What bearing does the above have on us as photographic practitioners? I think Lewis Bush ‘s recent review of Don McCullin’s retrospective at Tate Britain is a good example of some of photography’s issues. In the review, Bush points out that “photography is by definition unrivalled at showing things, but it is also terrible at explaining them.” The spaces, objects and people that appear in photographs require some context. In the absence of context, images may become objects for a commodity-driven market for art. I believe the opportunity photography provides as a social tool to unwrap the workings of the functional reality of capitalism requires us to be a bit more creative in how we present works. The creativity may vary from using other types of images, research or various artefacts that help support the overall narrative of the work. Such materials can assist in completing the picture that we are so often trying to construct and assist in creating a narrative that remains close to the intended one.
Lewis Bush, ‘Nihilistic Photojournalism? Don McCullin at TATE Britain’, Disphotic, http://www.disphotic.com/nihilistic-photojournalism-don-mccullin-at-tate/
David Cunningham, ‘Renouncing the Single Image: Photography and the realism of abstraction’ in Photographies, 9:2, p.147-165, 2016.
Clement Greenberg & Thomas Crowe (eds), Modernism and Modernity: The Vancouver Conference Papers, Allan Sekula, ‘The Traffic in Photographs’ and ‘Discussion’, (Nova Scotia, The Press of Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 2005)