Photography is a phoenix
(Pio Tarantini, no.64 Blue Turquoise - the inspiration)
Last November, after a TV appearance on one of the most Italian popular cultural programmes, the famous photographer Steve McCurry showed up in Milan for a conference in an institutional setting and was greeted with cheering worthy of a football stadium. Let’s face it, a photographer who becomes a rock star is an interesting sociological signal; it indicates not only that photography is treated on a par with other more consolidated forms of expression, but that it has reached a vast public outside the ghettoes of specialisation where it has so far been “segregated”.
Another important signal is the unexpected success which MIA Fair, the international of art photography fair, has enjoyed since its opening in 2011. This success has been confirmed in subsequent years, prompting Fabio Castelli, the creator and organiser of the fair, to export it to Singapore for Autumn 2014.
These facts contradict the people who have for some time been announcing the death of photography as an art form, above all in the light of technological transformation, which has substituted the original physical/chemical essence with the digital procedure. These issues can all be approached at various levels, from the practical/technological to the conceptual, but they all lead to the burning question: where does photography stand today in the field of documentation and artistic research?
A long-standing debate
The division of photography into the two fields of documentation and artistic research is actually a false problem, but this dilemma remains at the centre of a long-standing debate. The two areas are in fact not so easily separated, because the photography of information and documentation is already in itself a form of artistic expression, without needing any further proofs. In other words, the photography of documentation is part of photography in its function as a trace, a mirror of the world, created through a mechanical, physical/chemical or digital procedure and governed by Man’s eye, intellect and passions, in the words of the ever-acute Bresson.
A further consideration has crept into debates on photography, regarding the lucky intuition of Franco Vaccai, i.e. «that property which photography has of insinuating itself into the artistic operation by means of its mechanical procedure, regardless of the final images: a sort of artistic parthenogenesis which poses the question of authorship».
But without venturing too far in this direction, which deserves a whole chapter to itself, let’s go back to the to the role of photography in contemporary society, reminding ourselves of some developments which have emerged from the most recent studies. Starting from the 1980s in fact, there has been an intense development of theoretical reflection and of the consequent international bibliography. The wish to give events an historiographical order is seen to be inadequate on its own, though necessary. It is important to reflect deeply on the different aspects of photography in society, from its multi-faceted social role to its role in the systems of information, documentation and art, from conceptual analysis to the complexity of its language.
The use of photography today
All this has led to a revolution in the use of photography, which can no longer be merely news reporting in its various forms (from the more immediate, popular ones to the more refined ones – or the exclusive forms of the clubs, the prerogative of amateur and professional photographers). Having come out of the ghetto, photography not only occupies its usual official places but is expanding into private galleries, institutions, and publishing (with rich, varied specific publications); into national or international events and art fairs.
So, while we tend to continue to complain about the presumed secondary role of this form of art and creativity, we can say that despite the presence of TV, telematics and the web, photography is now going through an extremely popular period such as it only ever experienced in its golden age, the 19th century. We are witnessing the consecration of the form of expression which left its mark on the 20th century and, like all consecrations, it risks being too closely dependent on the past, the acknowledgment of something which has already been. And this impression is reinforced by a feature of photography which is actually its purest essence: its faculty of becoming the trace, the proof of something which has been, and which is irremediably lost.
What do we glean from these considerations? That’s simple: experience and prudence in the face of apodictic claims suggest that historical events are more and more complicated and that the changes in the language and the technological innovations connected with them certainly do influence the creation, spread and use of a form of art, but do not automatically determine its end.
And the scope of its language fits into the parameters of analysis which are commonly accepted for the traditional forms of art.
To conclude, at the dawn of the 21st century photography has not only had its status consecrated but, leaving aside its methods and aims, has become an extremely modern visual language which incubates and generates new forms of expression.