There is a quality in photography that I call ‘thereness’. It’s when someone just nails it; that sense, as James Joyce wrote, when you have a sudden revelation of “the whatness of a thing, the moment in which the soul of the commonest object… seems to us radiant”.
I wrote an essay on “photography’s quiet genius”. There is a widespread attitude that just to make a photograph is not really art. So it becomes necessary to make it ‘artistic’ by tricking it up in all kinds of ways. It used to be called Pictorialism, and is still very much with us. The quiet photography idea [first published in 2000 in the catalogue for How You Look At It, shown at the Sprengel Museum in Hanover] was a meditation on how this is unnecessary.
Postmodernism has produced some memorable imagery. But it has also produced a lot that’s mediocre, where you might say, to paraphrase Grayson Perry, ‘Great theory, but crap art’.
The term ‘conceptual photography’ is frequently misused. Many so-called conceptualists don’t have a concept worth talking about but the best, like Christian Boltanski or Sophie Calle, take a simple ‘concept’ and make it resonate with complex and wide-ranging implications.
There is an essential quality to a photograph. It has nothing to do with genre, style or approach, but with attitude. I don’t care whether it’s documentary, arty, or conceptual – if it doesn’t deal with time and history in some way, the author is throwing away the one thing that photography can do better than other media.
We aren’t necessarily moving away from that essential quality. Maybe there’s more inconsequential Pictorialism. That certainly seems so at the photofairs, but it was ever thus.
There are also a lot of good photographers around; unflashy photographers who don’t always get the attention. There’s this pressure to be ‘new’ rather than good, but to be good is to be new.
There is one particular quote that sums up photography for me. Lewis Baltz nails it: “It might be more useful, if not necessarily more true, to think of photography as a narrow, deep area between the novel and film.”
I hung out with Garry Winogrand for three days in LA. I asked him how he approached teaching photography. “I show the kids the work of Atget, Walker, HCB, Lee, Diane, and myself,” he replied. “And if they don’t understand what photography is all about from that, then fuck ’em!”
Photobooks matter more than ever. At any photography fair you see a big divide between what is in the books and what is on the wall. To me, the photobooks are infinitely more interesting.
The book I keep returning to is American Photographs. Walker Evans’ photographs and Lincoln Kirstein’s didactic text present a viable antidote against Pictorialism – which they both loathed – and set out a plausible model for straight, modernist photography.
I am very pleased about the success of Laia Abril’s On Abortion. Too many photobooks are over-designed and over-complicated. This book deals with an important subject in a complex way, but judges everything to a nicety.
There won’t be another volume of The Photobook: A History. After the third edition, Martin [Parr] and I decided that there won’t be a fourth, because others have taken up the reins – such as the recent How We See: Photobooks by Women, and the work Manfred Heiting has done on various countries, such as his latest, Czech and Slovak Photo Publications, 1918-1989.
When I relax, I listen to music. It’s mainly opera, modern jazz, and Bob Dylan. I watch Inspector Montalbano. And I go to restaurants, preferably in Italy.
I get angry sometimes. Especially when Tottenham Hotspur lose a match (and the converse, the Arsenal win one). Or the Yankees not winning the World Series (and the converse, the Red Sox winning it).
I have no idea what the future of photography will be. But to paraphrase Lincoln Kirstein [writing in American Photographs], “Always, however, certain photographers with a creative attitude and a clean eye have continued to catalogue the facts of their epoch.”