Photography as Work: Stephanie Schwartz Questions the Utopian Potential of Digital Photography

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The recent wave of protests in the Middle East has markedly reinvigorated long-held debates about photography's utopian promise. Across the mainstream press and on a slew of new websites dedicated to citizen journalism, amateur photography is once again being championed as a weapon of revolution. Cheap, malleable and automatic, photography in the digital age has spawned a new cadre of citizens ready and eager--to erode the separation between production and consumption. By taking photographs on mobile phones and uploading them to user-generated content (UGC) platforms like Facebook, Flickr and WeMedia, ordinary citizens are now able to create and spread the news. Or, more to the point, what is left out of it. As the promoters of the 'Street Journalism' online newswire Demotix suggest, 'News by You' has finally trumped 'All the News That's Fit to Print'.

Some among us are suspicious of the indymedia revolution. Do celebratory declarations about the new demos, the concept from which Demotix takes its name, ring hollow when we consider that more than half of the world's population has never used a mobile phone or logged onto a website? The issue of access to technology aside, has the emergence and subsequent fetishisation of digital photography effaced the very claims of realism upon which the promise of the photograph's revolutionary potential was based? It is the latter question that hangs over A Hard, Merciless Light: The Worker-Photography Movement, 1926-1939' now on view at the Museo National Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid. Curated by Jorge Ribalta, the exhibition, which brings together an amazing array of documents (photography, film, posters, books and illustrated magazines) from a period when reporting was inimically tied to the index, asks us to measure the euphoria of the digital revolution against the lessons of the analogue age. In a recent interview for Foto8, Ribalta insisted that the current debate 'tends to naturalise an anti-realist discourse concerning photography', adding: 'Its effect is to erase the documentary power of photography, which is precisely the political potential to link art to transformative radical politics.' In other words, are 'we, the people' even less prepared today to stage a revolution? In 'Universal Archive: The Condition of the Document and the Modern Photographic Utopia', an exhibition tracing a history of photography from the medium's invention through its reformulation in the 1970s and again today, which he curated for the Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona in 2008, he similarly asked: has the spectralisation of digital photography trivialised the document?


Raising these concerns in the museum is no easy task, and not simply because the organisation of an exhibition dedicated to reintroducing class-consciousness into our histories of Modernism might not necessarily draw visitors. The promise of digital photography has not only transformed the way in which 'we' navigate image culture, it has fundamentally altered our institutional histories of photography. If photography matters more today than ever before, to borrow Michael Fried's refrain, it matters as art. In the digital era photography may provide the possibility for the amateur to have a say, but it has also been used to overturn the museum's long-held suspicions about photography's mechanicity. Exhibiting large-scale, often singular and expensive photographs by such celebrated photographers as Thomas Struth, Jeff Wall and Thomas Demand, the museum, as Julian Stallabrass recently argued in 'Museum Photography and Museum Prose', has conveniently reskilled and redefined photography as a plastic art. Contrary to popular perceptions, it seems that the professional photographer has surely not lost any ground. It is this binary opposition between the amateur and the professional that 'A Hard, Merciless Light' seeks to historicise, and it does so by reminding us that amateur photography was born out of, not created in opposition to, the rise of a conservative, mediated public sphere. …


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