Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Brad Troemel Speaks

"Every time we have a chance to make art, it's an opportunity to organize information in a completely new way. It's strange, watching all of these "online magazines" and communities grab tons of people and put abbreviated portfolios together. It reminds me of Michael Schmelling's series of pictures from Second Life. We created a new universe on the Internet, an entirely new way of organizing how we interact with each other and based it exactly on how we already live. There are so many people with the ambitions of organizing large groups of young people whose work looks like it "has a common thread." They do a better job than these words can in displaying just how limited we've become in our approach. All of these websites are run through the Internet, with few people actually knowing each other in person. Isn't it sad that with all of this information at the tips of our fingers our gut instinct is to find those who are as identical as possible to us? In the way our work looks, in the schools we go to, in our age group? Why is it important to group those with similar results together? Should it not be the opposite? Why does no one want to be the Goth kid in high school unless there's a Goth table to sit at for him or her? We rebel to the point of social exclusion that is still able to comfort us. All of these groups suffer from “Tim Barber syndrome” where the individual efforts of the artists are blurred and decontextualized, as the curators reap the benefits as the creators of attention.

In an age when someone trying to acquaint him or herself with contemporary photography would be overwhelmed with information, the venues of information have become as important as the artists themselves. Ian Svenious, in his book The Psychic Soviet, discusses a similar idea in the rise of the disc jockey’s stardom, “…praised for their taste, the DJ, a talent less individual once relegated to the wedding and bar mitzvah circuit, is now lauded as an indispensable party entity. They use the work of others as their own, cutting out the middle man’s (the artist’s) efforts.”

Just as we have reverted to traditional methods of organization on the Internet, we have reverted to traditional methods of viewership as well, leaving the work of finding “good” art to those more qualified. This laziness has helped define many websites as “go to sources” for young art. The Internet gives us an anarchical opportunity and we give ourselves hierarchy.

There must be a collector’s instinct in photography. The old modernist photographers would shoot every day, and stack their prints together. One stack might be the “street photos of woman” stack, the other the “American flags” stack and so on. Maybe the endless reproducibility and easy creation of photographs tunes people to this way of thinking, of collecting. Maybe the egg came before the chicken, and people who are naturally attracted to collecting see photography as a coincidal hobby. It makes sense modernist photographic curators put together shows like they’d put together their own work. Instead of “here’s my stack of nature photographs” the hard wiring in their brain attracts them to the idea of “here’s my stack of nature photographers”.

This idea of working in series with minor variations from one photo to the next seems redundant to me now. How many photographs does The Americans really need? I’d say one would suffice. Like a baby equally amazed at the shine of a coin every time, photographers tend to be easily amused with the slightest visual variations throughout photography books. Their idea that the whole is essential to illustrate the entirety of the narrative is actually an optimistic translation on the fact that most photographic books are showing different visual perspectives on the exact same idea. Do Brits become greedy, evil consumers by the first Martin Parr photograph or the thousandth?

Much of the work young people are interested in making now is about themselves as exhibited through the parties they go to, the people around them. This is broadly referred to as lifestyle art. This trend among “fine artists” is paralleled with a never before seen mainstream emphasis put on the commercial club photographer’s website. Many of the fine artists scuff at these (employed) DSLR warriors, thinking of them as faux artists, craftsmen serving the desires of the club and the unwitting population at large. The “fine artists” have decided that shooting with film, more strenuous editing and printing their work out has put them in a different camp altogether, completely separate from the despicable club photographer. They think their work cuts to the essence of the person in their portraits, that the club photographer’s posed portraits are hokey and only show the surface of someone. Fine art party photographers fail to see that their work functions in what could be described as an even less accurate representation of a person’s “true self”. The club photographer works through a very strict aesthetic regimen. Nearly every photograph is taken from the front with a flash in the dark. This seriality lends a kind of objectivity to their practice, one absent from the “fine art” party photographer. The “fine art” party photographer’s moody lighting, cropping, and editing are all increases in subjectivity, decisions that obscure.

My ideas of what the fine art party photographer thinks and how they function divide into two camps. My first inclination is to think of the fine art photographers as an artistically conservative group, priding themselves on tenets of tradition and modernism (point and shoot film cameras, grain quality, the artist as visionary hero; the only one who “gets” the party visually). This idea of priding yourself as a visionary is central to fine art party photography. Their photographs are not about parties, but of the party they went to. Their photographs are not about partygoers, but portraits of people at the party. They are still inside of the party, artistically and literally. They firmly believe in modernist ideas like the ability of the camera to catch truth. It is quintessential they show up to the party and shoot instead of re create or stage images because it is their belief that the party, or the intoxication of its participants, allow them a brief moment into un-constructed truth. Their presence is part of a larger construction of party identities to which people respond in an identical manner as when a group of people in a club knows there is a club photographer present. People use the party photographer’s identity construction (the prophet who shows the masses the intriguing mystery of certain people) to form their own identities. Maybe you’re the girl who will get a little more naked if there’s a party photographer around, hoping the photographer around will notice you and give you fame on their website. People are acutely aware of what they’re presenting themselves as, so the chance to be on the wall of a gallery is seen by young people in the way that corporations use billboards.

My other inclination is to think of fine art party photographers, and so many other photographers in general, as glamorized graphic designers. They have found a visual aesthetic and are all combating each other to find who can hone it to a T. Graphic designers glamorize the mundane, rendering what is otherwise visually boring sleek and chic. What is more boring than life itself? If you can make your life interesting you are the best of visual liars, the best of graphic designers. Their allegiance to refining this aesthetic invented by Larry Clark and Nan Goldin is exhibited in everything from their arch-conservative ideas on what cameras are acceptable depicters to recycling the visual conventions that made those before them original. Like a group of designers bickering over Helvetica serifs, they cling to their Yashica Ts and Contaxs as though the cameras themselves were the link between their mind and great art production. If that’s not modernism I don’t know what is. Using recycled visual conventions and devices to show the singularity of your life is a contradictory effort destined to yield dismally similar results.

To back up a bit, let’s question the very idea of these groups and aesthetics. Why is it that people are attracted to making kinds of art? To joining art teams, in a sense? Why is it that, at a time when more people on earth are economically liberated to be able to make whatever they want in whatever form possible, America’s middle class has decided on a loyal obedience to the photographic medium?

Beuys said everything is art. With so many opportunities to choose to make only photographs in this day and age is like being given a blank check and asking for a five back. I don’t think it’s possible to represent all of life’s nuances through one piece of art, or even one medium.

The new rise in photographic modernism can be blamed on the two largest motivators for the human race- laziness and fear as inspired through the Internet. The Internet has provided a generation of photographers’ comfort in being able to find a “version” of themselves all around America; some other 20 year old undergraduate in another major city, going to another major art school, going to similar parties with people who dress similarly. This is called comfort, a stimulus for laziness and the antithesis of fear. Seeing “you” elsewhere gives you comfort that you aren’t alone, that your art instincts are good and natural because people you don’t even know are doing the same thing. Attention can be comforting, and with so many opportunities to gain fame through organizational websites like Flickr all the way to the more refined group efforts of Fjord, it’s going to cause fear to try something new. The Internet is a passive platform; you can use it to find one thing infinitely or infinite things infinitely. I’m disappointed so much of my generation has decided to look at one thing infinitely- themselves."

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