In the present state of contemporary art practice and theory, it would seem there has been a call for the reframing of photography as a medium. As an object of flux since its invention, photography is understood today as a still evolving and expanding set of materials. In discussing the future and continuation of photography one must consider it in the widest possible sense of the word. Perhaps its use as a medium-specific practice is at stake, however in our current post-medium condition, photography as an expanded field is more vital than it has ever been.
To begin with a quote from George Baker in his essay Photography’s Expanded Field, “..we should not retreat from the expanded field of contemporary photographic practice, rather we should map its possibilities.”(2) Everywhere one looks today in the world of contemporary art we can see an emergence of artists exploring new levels of art-making, unbound by medium-specificity. Baker acknowledges this period, not as one where the medium has come to an end, but where a constant remapping and understanding of an expanded field is necessary(2). It is important for artists working in the field of photography to consider possibilities that extend beyond medium-specific practice, and congruently the problematic, perpetual revisiting to that which has already been explored.
Where some might decry the photographic object’s integration into a greater collective consciousness as a loss of purity, we must understand photography as a cultural field beyond purely aesthetic dimensions. As art theorist Rosalind Krauss clarifies in Sculpture in the Expanded Field, modernist notions of medium-specificity are not to dissipate but to expand into a cultural situation whereby both artist and world “would stand in new, formerly unimaginable relations to one another.”(2) This universe allows contemporary artists to occupy and employ many different mediums in a given logical space. In this view it is helpful to understand photography as one form related to many others, looking at all of the forms it can take versus defining it by what it is not.
Surely, an expanded model of photography does not delineate a complete rejection of its roots. Even Krauss understands the significance of the historical properties of media. In her essay Reinventing the Medium, Krauss states the need for the idea of the medium “to reclaim the specific from the deadening embrace of the general.”(5) In many of her writings, Krauss continually refers to artists such as Ed Ruscha, James Coleman, and William Kentridge as ‘knights’ of our post-medium condition. This knighthood can be seen in their persistent mining of nontraditional vehicles for expressive potential, and the ability of these artists to move freely among any form that suits their practice, often times inventing new resources for artistic interpretation that could not have been previously anticipated (4).
The idea of the invented medium is interesting as it inevitably brings with it the question of what is required to actualize a new medium if anything in principle could suffice. Now more than ever, artists are engaging with a broad range of materials to create works of art that might have not previously been recognized as art at all. This erosion of disciplinary boundaries is what Krauss rejects with her harsh critique of conceptual art, while using this position as an argument in support toward a medium-specific, expanded field. That is to say, a field that is “exploring specific aspects of pre-existing art forms either alone or in combination,” a ‘differential specificity’ that is not completely ruptured from its traditional form(5). With this in mind, there are existing forces in both the institution and the industry of art and photography that resist this post-media shift as a point of continuity. Artist and scholar, Waleed Beshty touches on this in his response to the questions of photography’s obsolescence, stating that it is less a crisis for the medium, so much so, as it is a crisis for the institutionalization of art itself(3).
The institutionalization of a media is a multi-faceted issue to consider as one evaluates the potential for the expansion of photography in face of its stagnation as a medium. In Beshty’s response to this quotidian question he announces, “…a medium is always relational, and the attempts to isolate and treat it as discrete is to institutionalize it.” He goes as far in his essay as to boldly label Rosalind Krauss’ and George Baker’s expanded models as constituting “a defense of the institutionalized categorical delimiters of art historians, curators, or critics respectively,” and denoting this perceived crisis to an issue as mundane as paying the bills(3). Though Beshty makes a vital and valid point, would a complete disintegration of departments within institutions reduce art-making to chaos? Such a free-formed structure might cause the medium to completely vanish, reverting back to conceptualist notions of art as “idea”. Without a historical background to draw from, we would not be able to address contemporary art on the levels of its success. In response to such what if’s and if so’s, Krauss recognizes the importance of a more complex acceptance of medium-specificity. She sees the utility of learning the history, process, and given techniques of a medium in order to capitalize them in the greater pursuit of expanded exploration.
In support of a reframing of the institutionalization of mediums, we can still consider restrictions within the organizational structure that are working against even an expanded field of a medium. Educational systems condition young artists to rely on the given restrictions within programs such as Adobe’s creative suite when, perhaps, the artist should become the programmer versus the programmed. It is interesting to imagine the artistic possibilities individuals might contrive if given control at the most fundamental levels. Programs such as Max MSP and Arduino begin to realize the artist as the programmer making opportunities for expansion nearly unlimited. With new advances in technology everyday, artists are steadily pursuing more interesting, nontraditional vehicles for expression.
The traditions of photographic practice’s relevance to contemporary art and theory has been over for some time now, but photography itself is thriving. Baker spoke of this forward movement in a short response essay, looking at our contemporary moment as one that promotes “major rethinking and reorientations of photography, in both theory and practice.”(1) For him, working in photography’s expanded field involves both a thrust forward toward new technologies and a form of return to lost or forgotten potentials of photography (1). So now, we can call to an end the narrow scope through which photography has been understood by. It seems relevant, now more than ever, to allow Nancy Davenport’s swirling lines to lead us into expansion. In every direction (2).
(1) Baker, George. "Is Photography Over?" SFMOMA. 2010. Accessed March 13, 2016. https://www.sfmoma.org/watch/photography-over/.
(2) Baker, George. "Photography's Expanded Field." October (114), 2005, 120-40.
(3) Beshty, Waleed. "Is Photography Over?" SFMOMA. 2010. Accessed March 13, 2016. https://www.sfmoma.org/watch/photography-over/.
(4) Costello, Diarmuid. "Automat, Automatic, Automatism: Rosalind Krauss and Stanley Cavell on Photography and the Photographically Dependent Arts." Critical Inquiry 2012; 38(4), 819-854.
(5) Krauss, Rosalind E.. 1999. “Reinventing the Medium”. Critical Inquiry 25 (2). University of Chicago Press: 289–305. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1344204.