A CERTAIN RECOGNIZABLE LOOK

Cities sometimes spawn, support and become known for a specific approach to, and aesthetic of, photography. Something about that city (an influential teacher, a certain demographic makeup, right time/right place, etc.) causes photographers there to produce work that has a certain recognizable look, feel and politics. That approach goes on to influence other photographers, in other places, and, thus, affects the history of photography. Think of Dusseldorf, think of Vancouver, think of Tokyo.

In  Kapital City a certain look, feel and (lack of) politics seems to have emerged. It’s not significant (or modern) enough, in terms of the ongoing history of photography, to become internationally influential, but nonetheless . . .

In a nutshell, and speaking generally, narrative (of almost any kind) is eschewed in Kapital City, the photographers here preferring instead to aim for beautiful aesthetics and a swell surface . . . a slick one dimensionality seems to be enough. And not that many photographers here go out into the world. Instead some aspect of the world is dragged into a studio and shoehorned, risk-free, “into an inert mannered emptiness, where objects and portrait sitters are painstakingly selected and framed, but still fail to elicit any meaningful reaction”, as Loring Knoblauch writes about a certain strain of contemporary photography. Along with (or because of) that, there seems to be a general lack of interest in current affairs and the histories, big and small, that are made day to day. That is: politics in almost all its forms is pretty much ignored (barring the highfalutin politics some attach, through specious reasoning in their artist statements, to their anodyne images).

I can sometimes be sort of seduced by the surface of some of these photographs but beyond that . . . well, there’s not much beyond that. (And, yes, of course there are photographers here who are doing complex, smart, nervy work; work where something seems to actually be at stake.)

So what do you do if you live in a city where the prevailing taste in photography makes you want to clear your throat?

First of all, I recognize that there are many grey areas within anything one would like to categorize. And it must be said that work I find facile, cliché, sentimental, simplistic, fetishized, might move someone else to tears (and win awards). So be it. I’ll give you that. I also admit that I have limited insights (some would argue: very limited) and I have bias (some would argue: a lot of bias). But I’m just not into blind acceptance.

Anyway, if you’re like me, the stupid me, you’ll try to change things. You’ll tell people that if they don’t just settle for what comes easily and for the obvious, photography can be about more than what’s readily available on the surface. You’ll tell them that if they embrace challenge and discomfort their work will have more complexity and nuance. But it’s a hard-sell because most people are very comfortable with their comfort.

(It must be noted that just about any discomfort experienced by photographers is usually quite temporary; they can almost always drive their car back to their house, have dinner, watch television and climb into their own bed.)

If you’re like the less stupid me you’ll try to find fellow travellers in your town, get together with them and compare notes. But mostly you’ll  find photographers around the world who are doing work you respect, you’ll reach out (most, if properly approached, are quite sympathetic) and compare notes, ask for (and maybe even take) advice. You’ll embrace the power of your convictions, and let the chips fall where they may. Thus you find community, thus you advance.

I’m not promoting the idea of living in an echo chamber. I think you’ll find that the photographers who are interested in the challenge of creating complex work through a process that embraces failure, discovery, politics and confusion, photographers who want something to be at stake in the creation, meaning and distribution of their work . . . those photographers, when you get together to discuss, will not pat you on the back and say, good work, let’s order another drink. They’ll challenge you because they challenge themselves. It’s in their makeup.

If that’s not your cup of tea, by all means go along with the status quo. People will love your pictures.

Author: Tony Fouhse

Tony is an Ottawa-based photographer.