Photography As an Eclectic Specificity

[Fall 1994]

by Marcel Blouin

Over the past 10 or 15 years, the medium of photography has found its way into the fields and definition of visual arts, contemporary arts and post-modernism. Not only did photography find its way, but it acquired both a privileged and considerable place in contemporary artistic production.

Its letters patent of nobility go hand in hand with its relatively recent acceptance, and with its recognition as the vanguard amongst other artistic mediums: painting, sculpture, printmaking, etc. Recognized, analyzed, and scrutinized, photography has been in the forefront of numerous publications. It has become a full-fledged visual art form. Clearly, those who have not yet understood this are still unaware of the fact that the earth rotates around the sun. It seems that photography is opportunistic, that for the past 10 or 15 years it has appropriated at will the terms “visual arts” and “contemporary arts” in order to legitimize its status, and that now…

Opportunistic? In pursuing its development and its ascension, photography is no longer willing to satisfy itself with simply being accepted into the realm of visual arts. Photography is ambitious. It is now questioning whether or not it has more in common with the so-called traditional visual arts than with film, video, media arts, new technologies, literature or philosophy.

We have but to think – and I insist, this is merely an example -about the fact that new technologies have made it possible to visualize still images on a cathodic screen. Compared to moving images, cathode dedicated still images are underplayed, scarcely used. This is precisely where we are at today: proceeding to introduce the cathodic screen both as support and creative space for the visualization of still images. Without a doubt, photography is the closest kin to still images; an elder sibling rather than a parent.

Must we recognize photography’s specificity? For approximately ten years or so, many of us have tried to revise photography’s isolated status by introducing it as an equal into the field of visual arts. Why, then, are we now trying to revive its autonomy? Because photography has evolved, is now stronger than it was, and because the world in which we live has changed. The question is one of expansion rather than reduction. Photography has expanded through its borrowing and sharing of other forms of artistic expression; through its affinities with the electronic still image; through its slips into painting, sculpture, literature, theatre and poetry. It has thus sought to be open rather than closed and, paradoxically, it is precisely because of this openness that it must seek today to regain its specificity: what makes photography a specific medium is its openness, not its self-sufficiency.

Should our universities dedicate entire departments to photography? Should there be museums and galleries exclusively committed to photography? Should the Canada Council and the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec endow photography with a specific status? Should the grant requests put forth to these same councils be reviewed by peers, that is by those who see themselves, wish themselves to be, and are recognized as photographers or as artists using photography?

Let it be clear that I am not trying to suggest that photography is no longer a visual art form. It still is, and will undoubtedly remain so. The question is simply that it no longer wishes to be content with that status alone. What I am stating, in light of the present-day social, artistic and technological situation, is that photography is no longer merely a medium amongst others in the field of visual arts. It shares at least as many features with, for example, the media arts. Photography has become a cross-roads with numerous entries and unforseeable exits, to the point that to enumerate them all would be an impossible task. The artist observes, scrutinizes, translates, transforms, and transmits his or her vision of the world in which we live – an ultra-mediatized world. The role of the image – still or photographic – has gained considerable importance, it has become capital. It has undeniably affected our consciousness, and I am tempted to add – ironically perhaps – our unconsciousness.

This insistance on the importance of photography is not to be understood as a corporatist or sectarian stand against other forms of artistic expression. Let us think instead in terms of eclecticism. The purpose is simply to recognize the importance of this hybrid medium which, due to a mere historical fluke, finds itself at the cross-roads of contemporary art, of the media-oriented society in which we live, and of new technologies. By no means, should this diminish the importance of other disciplines. However, we cannot help but realize that photography, along with its inclusive counterpart – the still image – are now of chief importance to the richer developed countries, and on a wider scale, to the global village, a village at once longed for and feared. Longed for by those who plan on being key players in this “new world”, feared by those who already see themselves as victims of a network of idea and information exchange for the benefit of a select group. Anyhow… One last caution. In no way am I seeking to vindicate new technologies and the information highway, I am simply trying to position photography within what is being constructed before our very eyes.

Let there be no confusion. I do not share the views of those who, nostalgically, preach the narrowing down of the artistic and administrative definition of photography. I refer here to photography as understood in the context leading to its autonomy, when efforts were being made to grant photography the status of a so-called “classical discipline”, with its distinct photographic genres (portraiture, landscape, photojournalism, etc.). This, of course, being prior to its liberation from confinement, prior to the termination of its limitative cataloguing, enabled by its noticeable entry into the field of contemporary art. I am thankful to the artists who have used photography and who will continue to do so. I am equally grateful to the theoreticians who have meticulously studied and analyzed photography, and who will do so again. They will be addressing new questions, arising through the presence of computer technologies, and of a new rapport with our manner of capting, transmitting and communicating our perception – our construction – of reality.

But as I have already mentioned, photography, at the risk of losing participants along the way, is no longer able to slow down. While photography’s opportunistic “visual arts horse” is not out of breath, it is lacking the necessary strength to pull along the weight of this medium’s ambitions. The very fact that the “photography stage-coach” is now harnessing itself to other horses allows me to state that photography is current, rather than simply being a current-day art form. It is photography’s specificity that causes it to be a particular type of visual art. Its inherent multiplicity and eclecticism define it as a cross-roads rather than a junction, as the hub of an evolving world, as a still image, rather than a spoke of the “visual arts wheel.”

For these very reasons, specifically because photography – the octopus – has become a cross-roads medium, I am inclined to endorse the following statements: yes, our universities should claim entire departments dedicated to photography; yes, photography should be considered as a specific medium by the Canada Council and the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec; and finally, yes to artist centres and museums solely dedicated to photography. With regard to this last point, I wish to add that although I call for the opening of museums exclusively committed to photography, this does not imply that museums already in existence should not exhibit or collect photographic work. Photography is not monolithic. Instead, let us advocate its defining characteristics, its tentacular ways, its generosity, its multiplicity and its hybridity.

From time to time I hear: Oh! I see, it’s not visual arts in general that interests you, but only photography. Then, I shiver.

Are statements such as this one addressed to people from the film, theatre or dance milieu? But never. You are only interested in theatre…, that seems like very little in light of the vast world of art. Needless to say that the utterance of such words would be sharply reproved. Photography, or rather, the world of still images, is in the midst of broadening, of becoming just as hybrid and interconnected with the multiple dimensions of our media, philosophical and artistic realities as film, theatre or literature. Do you honestly believe that artists from the theatre milieu would be willing to have their grant requests reviewed by dance or visual arts specialists? Why then, would the same logic not be applied to photography? It is important that the juries assigned to photography projects be formed by peers from the photography milieu. The jurors should be aware of photography’s history, of its particularities, and of its widely diverse current trends; they should be able to situate photography not only in an art historical context, but also in light of the new venues with which it is confronted.

Meanwhile, to crown all paradoxes, photography in Canada is losing considerable ground. The Banff Centre for the Arts is abolishing its photography programme, and the Canada Council’s Arts Awards Service has recently dismissed the person in charge of photography, an employee of 22 years. At the Canada Council, photography has lost its status as a separate entity. They assure us, however, that projects submitted by photographers will continue to be reviewed by artists working in the field of photography. How long will this last? The Council’s step by step logic is counting on the disappearance of photography’s administrative presence over time. It wishes to dissolve photography’s specificity into a common administration with other mediums that falls under the heading of Visual Arts Service. The reasons put forth to justify this restructuring are budgetary restrictions. What are we to make of this? We are all aware of the fact that, for several years now, Richard Dennison, head of the Council’s Arts Awards Service, and Monique Bélanger, the agent assigned to the photography service, have been at odds for reasons unknown. Clearly then, this administrative reorganization seems more like a settling of accounts than a structural transformation that takes into consideration the current state of photography in Canada. The photography milieu is not ready to accept such a set-back, and particularly not for obscure reasons.

Photography and the still image now occupy a primary position in our societies, and more specifically, in the field of contemporary arts; precisely where the most acute and revealing questions with regard to our post-industrial life style are being formulated. Phenomena appear to be superimposed, augmented and added on rather than replaced. Similarly, photography is not a replacement for one or more existing mediums, it is an addition. The place occupied by photography is by no means the outcome of a well-orchestrated lobbying, it is simply the result of a historical context. And whether this situation progresses for 10, 20 or 100 years matters little. The point of departure is today. That is all we can be sure of, and we must act accordingly. The stakes are much too important to leave these decisions to misguided, or worse yet, ill-intentioned civil servants.

The Canada Council’s photography service should not be made to disappear. On the contrary, photography deserves special attention, as we have recognized its ontological status as being specific. Claiming its own historical continuum, photography is founded on a distinct language and rhetoric. It has generated specialized institutions and events: amongst them, the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography, over a dozen Canadian artist-run centres dedicated to the promotion of photography, and le Mois de la Photo à Montréal.

We live in a world both complex and multiple. It is in this particular context of specificity and multiplicity that photography finds its niche. When classifying, categorizing and rationalizing, the technocrats responsible for managing and administrating artistic programmes must take into account what constitutes the basis and defining limits for the development of the arts on a nation-wide scale. Hardly a small task.
Translated by Jennifer Couëlle