Books

An Out-of-Focus Look at Post-Photography

Robert Shore's 'Post-Photography: The Artist with a Camera' (all photos courtesy the author for Hyperallergic)
Robert Shore’s ‘Post-Photography: The Artist with a Camera’ (all photos courtesy the author for Hyperallergic)

Tacking “post” onto a word is one of those art world tricks that’s routinely wielded to great rhetorical effect, but has little denotative meaning. In much the same way, Robert Shore’s book featuring the term, Post-Photography: The Artist with a Camera, jumps off the shelves with its punchy title but fails to provide much substance. It’s a beautiful publication brimming with conceptual promise, but it’s better employed as a coffee-table book.

Post-Photography, put out by Laurence King Publishing, surveys over 50 contemporary artists, many of whom are photographers, some of whom simply incorporate photographic images in their work. Joachim Schmid repurposes found or donated family photos rather than taking them himself. Richard Mosse uses a rare infrared film to document the war-torn landscape of Congo. Erik Johansson relies on digital post-processing to turn his otherwise conservative photos of everyday scenes into surreal images.

Richard Mosse spread from 'Post-Photography: The Artist with a Camera' (click to enlarge)
Richard Mosse spread from ‘Post-Photography: The Artist with a Camera’ (click to enlarge)

Divvied up thematically, the artists get about 500 words each and a smattering of their work reproduced on subsequent pages. The book’s five chapters explore their varied relationships to photography, beginning with the furthest degree of removal from actual shutter-button pressing — the appropriation and manipulation of existing images. The chapters progress unsurprisingly from there, incorporating the usual tropes of hyperrealism, pictorialism, underwater photography, etc. The final chapter, on photojournalism, delivers the best exemplification of technology’s impact on photographic practice — iPhone pictures, transposed images, the construction or retrospective alteration of specific shots — but leaves the book ending on a tired, ‘what is art anyways?’ note.

Much of the text, especially in the chapter introductions, reads like a gallery press release — a broad-strokes summary of the concepts at play, heavily adorned with poignant quotes from the artists. (This promotional writing style might have something to do with the fact that Shore’s previously published books include 10 Principles of Advertising and Bang in the Middle, a salutary travel narrative of the British Midlands.) In Post-Photography’s introduction, which is the only place Shore maintains a more authorial voice, he casually identifies some of the major sociological and technological shifts that have contributed to the “moment” of post-photography, namely the digital democratization of the camera, the resulting exponential creation of images, and their pervasive online existence. He writes:

If you’re a photographer you might be tempted to conclude that the world-out-there is now so hyper-documented that there’s no point in taking your own pictures any more. Understandably, in this context, found imagery has become increasingly important in post-photographic practice, with the Internet serving as a laboratory for major experimentation in image-making. Sharing is a key word of the digital age, and appropriation—or “stealing” as some prefer to call it—is a leading post-photographic strategy. The online environment is a key hunting-ground for acts of creative, transformative borrowing.

This is a recapitulation of issues identified over two decades ago by the late MIT dean of architecture William J. Mitchell. In his book The Reconfigured Eye: Visual Truth in the Post-Photographic Era (1992), Mitchell not only pioneered the term “post-photography,” but also predicted the drastic shift in the use of photographic images due to the rise of digital technology. Yet there are no direct references to Mitchell or his groundbreaking theories anywhere in Shore’s text.

Noé Sendas spread from 'Post-Photography: The Artist with a Camera'
Noé Sendas spread from ‘Post-Photography: The Artist with a Camera’

If Shore was hoping to offer an addendum to Mitchell’s work by looking beyond the practice of photography proper, citing artists who incorporate photographs or subverting the medium entirely, he’s still 10 years too late. George Baker’s 2005 October essay “Photography’s Expanded Field” used a Kraussian model to demonstrate the enlarged arena for photographic interplay. Citing artists like Zoe Leonard, who often collapses photography into sculpture and other media, Baker argues that the era of photography is not over, just changing.

Jorma Puranen spread from 'Post-Photography: The Artist with a Camera' (click to enlarge)
Jorma Puranen spread from ‘Post-Photography: The Artist with a Camera’ (click to enlarge)

Much has changed even since Baker published his essay, especially with the rise of image-based social media sites like Flickr and Instagram, the likes of which Shore is quick to mention in Post-Photography:

The mythical excesses of the analogue masters of the past…now seem positively modest compared to the snap-and-show behavior of the average amateur today armed with a smartphone, a Tumblr or Instagram account, and a desire to make a photographic record of his or her every second on earth.

But he fails to include many artists who are overtly engaging with these platforms. And if Shore’s interested in using “post-photography” as a term for the expanded field (which it seems he is), then he would do well to also look at how these swirling internet images are influencing more traditional media like painting, as evidenced in Richard Prince’s recent Instagram paintings.

In all fairness, it may not have been Shore’s intention to write a seismic theoretical tome that would change the way photography is understood in the wake of the field’s digitization and internet boom. But that’s what the field needs. To disregard the literature that already exists on the topic while relying directly on its vocabulary, as Post-Photography does, seems disingenuous and even lazy.

Jonathan Lewis spread from 'Post-Photography: The Artist with a Camera'
Jonathan Lewis spread from ‘Post-Photography: The Artist with a Camera’

It’s ironic that throughout the book Shore’s primary concern is digital image reproduction in today’s day and age, yet we’re left with 250 pages of reproduced images and outdated, regurgitated information.

Robert Shore’s Post-Photography: The Artist with a Camera, published by Laurence King Publishing, is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

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