Due to the my own college project becoming very much rooted in the role of the archive within the world of photography, I’ve become dependent on the collection as a format for keeping my interest in a project. Experiences that I’ve had where something unfolds over time, how rewarding that can be, is why I find the archive system as possibly the most fulfilling of any form.
But this focus on the body and the role of the series has devalued a lot of contemporary work for me. The onus is no longer on developing a project over time. Instead, we are implored through social media to share everything as it happens, including artistic works. Few use this system effectively. It’s possible to show a project being constructed over time but that option is rarely activated. The current trend in photography is to create the single image, and rely on the instant gratification that comes from attention online to keep an artist making work.
As such, the role of project based art photography has achieved minority status. Not including posthumous collections of miscellaneous snapshots and simple genre-categorisation, the artist has simply lost it’s value of building a thematic or issue based body of work.
So what role does the archive have now? Surprisingly, though not generally undertaken by artist themselves, they have found a new home in the pastime of the daily blogger. With the decrease in popularity in making a series of work, the archive has flourished in the form of secondary curation. The Tumblr format of blogging has given everyone the opportunity to be the tastemaker. Somewhat disregarding the external status of accomplished collectors, curators and archivists, the blogging system has built it’s own hierarchy of respect in the form of ‘internet celebrities’ and art critics. The user controls the archive, the user defines the structure and the user can build anyone up to be influential and seemingly important.
The single image has popularised this form of instant curatorial strategy, as the user poses the question ‘Will this look good on my blog?’ and within an instant can acquire the image for their own personal web gallery. Meaning and issues arising from projects are condensed and become easily digestible for the single image. More importantly, they become adaptable depending on the context of the webspace. The respect gained from being featured on certain places, such as Winslow Laroche’s Je Suis Perdu or Canadian trend-setters Blood of the Young, can be transferred into other areas such as personal website hits, professional opportunities and inclusion in physical exhibitions worldwide.
What has occurred is simply a foreshortening of the photographic process and a broadening of it’s inherent inclusion barriers. The ability to craft effective single images is the number one lesson to learn for contemporary artists. The disposability of the image is a major flaw that is worked around through consistent updates and a dependency on the nature of ‘reblogging’. The series has lost it’s place at the forefront of the medium and it terrifies me to no end.
Personally, I find it difficult to judge an artist on the single image. It says nothing of their work ethic, their intentions, their direction or identity. It’s possible to view the entirety of single image artists as one stream of work. The individuality that comes from project based work is irreplaceable but the value of a work and the efficiency of it are two different things. Right now, we’re figuring out the preference of the everyday user.
‘The series has lost it’s place at the forefront of the medium and it terrifies me to no end’
A very apposite take by Alex Sinclair on the situation of contemporary internet-based photography / exhibition. Particularly the observation ‘the ability to craft effective single images is the number one lesson to learn for contemporary artists’. Though I have to say that far from being ‘terrified’ by the diminished authority of the archive or series, I feel liberated.
Anyone who’s talked to me irl will know I fully subscribe to the post-structuralist views of people like Roland Barthes; that the meaning of an artwork is made by the viewer and the context of reception, not by the context of its production. The transference of significance from artist to viewer isn’t a new concept or method, nor is it avoidable. It’s simply been intensified and recognised thanks to the endless and inherent capacity of the Internet to reproduce and decontextualise imagery.
To submit a photograph to part of a series is to limit the possible meaning of that image. To allow the photograph to be removed from the series (deterritorialised through reblogging, and so on) and recombined in other series is a liberatory act, a freeing of personal expression. Clearly, the deterritorialisation of meaning makes judging the work ethic, intentions, and identity of the photographer harder, but this is my point; the biographical details of the artist are not necessary to understanding the significance of the image, as the meaning derives from the viewers own experience - they cannot be told by the artist or the critic how they ought to feel.
By removing a photograph from a series we do lose the temporal development. But the significance of temporal development can be discounted as the site of meaning is moved from production to reception. The only way to approach this is rhizomatically; instead of asking ‘is it art’ by tracing the creators’ development of the work, we ought to ask ‘what is this art for’ by looking at the relationship between works - how the photographs are used by viewers in their role as ‘personal curators’ / ‘tastemakers’ / and so on.
It’s by asking ‘what is art for’ that we can end the solipsism of much contemporary art, and begin applying a critical eye to the wider world. In short, the role of the critic as tracer of biography and development needs to be rethought.