Jörg Colberg’s recent blog post about the role of process in photography makes a good argument that the artistic value of a photograph is not dependent on its process. A bad photograph is still a bad photograph, even if it is made on large format wet-plate collodion. Colberg says that the rise of Instagram and similar things as having done “a huge favour” for him as a writer and teacher, for allowing people think of processes like tintypes as “filters” and to pay more attention to the content and meaning of the image rather than judging it on its style.
Colberg is clear to separate monetary value from artistic value, and this is important, because photographs are often evaluated on that monetary basis. Photography is a strange thing in some ways, with the medium promising infinite reproducibility while its market provides limited editions and finely crafted rare objects. Photographers have to make money from their work, so I’ve no objection to that, but what this means is although I can probably never own an original print-object of major significance I can still enjoy it as a reproduction in some book.
[Silver and Light, a short film about Ian Ruhter’s project travelling around America with his large wet-plate collodion campervan camera]
Photographs can have value as craft objects as well as visual texts. Certainly to see a nice print live on a gallery wall is a great thing in itself, but this is not the limit of what photographs are. It’s possible to admire a photograph for how well wrought it is, but this is different to admiring it for what it says. Part of the amazement with which people approach the work of Ian Ruhter is about the sheer dedication he displays to the construction of his large and unique wet-plate metal pieces. [update 25 Mar 2013: Just noting that in his case I think his pictures themselves are strong too] There can also be a pleasure in the effect, in the ostranenie or defamiliarization of the world that a particular style provides, a way of looking at the world in a new way. But I’m maybe confusing things here: a real tintype may look identical to a digital tintype filter and defamiliarize the world in the same way, even though the actual processes are quite different. Nevertheless, as Colberg points out, sometimes the process does contribute to its meaning (he uses Sally Mann’s Proud Flesh series as an example, with the deteriorating surface of the collodion photograph being “a metaphor for the fragility of the flesh”. I’ve discussed Sally Mann in similar terms elsewhere. So for the viewer, the craft of the photograph sometimes contributes to the meaning of the photograph. I love it when this happens. But it doesn’t always. And Colberg suggests that it happens less than I might think.
There is another distinction we can make, aside from the monetary/craft/artistic one, and that is the significance of process from the point of view of the photographer rather than the viewer. The photographer Deborah Parkin tells us on her blog (via Colin Pantall) that, suffering from depression, she found it invaluable to work deliberately and slowly on a wet-plate process as a means of finding joy and absorption. She acknowledges that the resulting pictures, especially as seen on the web, may appear no different to ones generated in hipstamatic, but that the process nevertheless is a crucial one for her.
Even though there may be no difference to how we view pictures, even if we can’t tell from looking whether a photograph was made with a plastic camera or a digital app, the process still influences the outcome. For some photographers it might mean the difference between having some pictures or none at all. It’s like a writer using a particular language — sometimes, as with Samuel Beckett writing in French as an aesthetic strategy or Ngugi wa Thiong’o writing in Gikuyu as a political one, and sometimes because that’s just what the writer knows. Photojournalist Benjamin Lowy is gaining a reputation for his Instagram pictures; his reason for shooting this way is the more liberated approach he is able to take and the “happy accidents” that sometimes arise from the spontaneous shooting. In most cases it doesn’t matter if the images exist on the page or the phone, and it doesn’t matter if they were made with iPhone or Hasselblad. But with pictures like Lowy’s it matters that he got them in the first place. How we look at pictures once they’re made is a different issue. That we can separate the two things, or that we sometimes have trouble doing so, is an indication of the complexities of photography.