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Slow down: Re-approaching Photography - The Open College of the Arts
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Slow down: Re-approaching Photography

If one part of contemporary photography gravitates towards the ‘serious’ and complex- cameras with more features, more choices, more add-ons, more…. faff- another positively sprints in another direction. In the 21st century, cameras are bolted on to any number of digital devices that have become fairly essential to the smooth passage of everyday life, and you needn’t know anything about the ‘science’ of photography to routinely produce eye-catching photographs. As a consequence, photography is simply much more present than it has ever been and, at least from a technical perspective, taking photographs has never been easier. The brutal simplicity that cameraphones, compacts et al have brought to the medium could scarcely have been imagined by Kodak when they first produced the Box Brownie.
The increasing ‘everydayness’ of photography- a key theme in new course Re-approaching Photography– hasn’t been universally welcomed. Antonio Olmos is especially unforgiving: ‘Photography has never been so popular, but it’s getting destroyed. There have never been so many photographs taken, but photography is dying’. You may or may not agree with this, but Olmos is certainly right that photography is booming, at least in terms of the volume of images being produced. Indeed, how many photographs do you suppose have been taken since you started reading this post? A few thousand? A few hundred thousand? Several million? Probably more than anybody could ever possibly hope- or want- to view.
If the ‘production’ of photographs has skyrocketed, what, as Re-approaching Photography also asks, about their ‘consumption’? While photographs are to be found in a wider range of spaces than ever before, David Bate doesn’t think that we’re necessarily spending any more time contemplating them:

Most of us experience photographic images ‘in passing’, a fleeting glance and an occasional stare as we go about our business, walking down a street, turning on a screen or looking at a magazine page…. [A]lthough photographs surround us in our daily lives in so many spheres of cultural activity, we are rarely very conscious of them.

When we are conscious of a photograph that’s entered our day to day life, it might come down to a snap value judgment: do I ‘like’ it? Is it ‘useful’ in some way? Does it ‘tell’ me something that I need to know? Perhaps, if David Bate is onto something, we’re increasingly likely to think that a photograph ‘speaks for itself’.

Re-approaching Photography is broadly interested in slowing down the process of looking at photographs. Making sense of a photograph is often seen as an ‘obvious’ and instinctive activity, but the course takes as its starting point the fact that even the most apparently straightforward of images can be more complex than might be assumed. Who ‘owns’ what a photograph means? How can a photograph that ‘said’ one thing at a particular point come to mean something else further down the line? What is it exactly that causes the same photograph be interpreted in radically different ways? And if a photograph as famous as Kevin Carter’s Sudan Child is good enough to win a Pulitzer prize, how can an online algorithm give it a 0.0% ‘awesome’ rating?
Re-approaching Photography also explores a wide range of issues in contemporary photographic practice, including ‘atrocity’ photography, cameraphones, technology’s impact on the medium, what it means to be a photographer in the 21st century, and the ‘film revival’. The course launches this month and can be studied in bridging and Foundations versions.
If you’re brave enough, you can upload one of your own photographs to the algorithm that didn’t think much of Kevin Carter’s image.

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Posted by author: Andrew Fitzgibbon

One thought on “Slow down: Re-approaching Photography

  • In fairness, why would we expect an image analyser designed to assess stock photos to have the same parameters as the Pulitzer Prize?
    Carter’s image is many things – tragic, heart-rending, perhaps even slightly disingenuous if his account of the image is to be believed, but ‘awesome’ – in a stock photography sense – probably not.
    Or maybe that’s the point of the course 🙂

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