A Slight of Hand: Photography is Magic

These is no doubt that the shift from analogue to digital forms of production have had a massive impact on how we use photography – and, consequently, on how we think about the medium, because, of course, these are two sides of the same coin. The ways in which photography is employed define, though don’t necessarily proscribe, how we understand what the medium is capable of. This shift has been felt in diverse ways, with more general uses of photography being affected rather differently from how photography is treated in the confines of art institutions. But even here thinking about the medium has seen a considerable reassessment in light of digital technology’s impact, with artists seeking to both incorporate new technologies and to make sense of what they might mean for our thinking about photography. Charlotte Cotton’s Photography is Magic attempts to survey where the work in this vein currently stands and to provide something of an organising rationale for the kind of thinking that broadly defines the field, one that is laid out by the book’s title. It is immediately apparent that the perceived malleability of the image as it exists in the digital realm is the starting point for the majority of the work being surveyed. What perhaps isn’t so clear from Cotton’s account though is what this work might have to tell us, about photography or the technologies that now constitute it.

Of course, photography has always been open to techniques of manipulation; composite images are among the first examples of photography self-consciously positioned as art in the medium’s history. But the kind of ‘manipulation’ at stake here is not intended to create an image that convinces as a traditional photograph; the aim is not to make a ‘new’ picture at all. Instead it is a sculptural intervention in the material of the photograph itself, which is now, paradoxically also a kind of immateriality, because its (assumed) ties to any prior reality – to the ‘real’ world – have been broken, or never even mattered to begin with. The digital image doesn’t exist as a purely physical entity; it can now be treated as a kind of virtual space that is cut into and remade at will, demonstrating Cotton’s editorial thesis that the medium is presently characterised by nothing so much as a slight-of-hand, that slippage between visibility and, for want of a better word, absence, that is at the heart of any trick: now you see it, now you don’t. Once it becomes possible to intervene in this virtual photographic space, to reshape or entirely transform it, then it seems obvious that many of our conventional ideas about photography and its connection to the world simply don’t apply. In a way, photography as we knew it doesn’t exist anymore – potentially, at least, because most of the uses photography is put to actually look a lot like they’ve always done, except in new guises or contexts.[i]

Cotton’s working definition of ‘magic’ here is not confined to a specific set of practices, but rather the kind of mental space created by the image, just as, so she tells us, the magician creates a kind of imaginative arena in which the trick can operate. Furthermore, artists, like magicians, rely on exploiting or undermining the expectations of their respective audiences in order for their work to be successful – to carry off the illusion. It must be said, however, that grounding this definition in the uncertain landscape of contemporary photographic practice proves less than straight-forward, though the impact of digital technology is nominally at the heart of it. Cotton pointedly locates this ‘magic’ after the impact of those technologies had already begun to be felt and integrated by photographic artists into their work. She states, “At this point, the notion that art photography could be separated from the empirical mass of contemporary image production simply by virtue of its craftsmanship, use of particular apparatuses, or the viewing context of the gallery walls alone began to seem fundamentally beside the point.”[ii] But it is clear that this shift is not only related to changes in technology and in fact has a far older legacy than the majority of the work surveyed, which at any rate was almost all made after 2010. Many of these perceived changes have their roots elsewhere, both historically and materially.

While the 21st Century has undoubtedly seen a considerable blurring of boundaries between different modes of photographic production, with artists able to employ far-flung vocabularies and styles with an ease that has certainly been enabled by changes in technology, both the recognition of these possibilities and ways of making use of them can’t be confined to a recent (technological) shift. They are instead the culmination of a long process that has occurred within the discourse of photography, visible, to take only one example, in how conceptual art made ready use of seemingly ‘vernacular’ forms such as the snapshot, and also in the wider spheres of image production, which had become increasingly diffuse even before the introduction of digital photographic technology. Cotton is, of course, right that this technology changed everything, but where she appears to locate both the causes and indeed, the effects of that change are much less self-evident. The same can be said for the assertion that, “the process of photographic capture, crafting and formal resolution is now about active choices.” (pg. 8) Again, these specific changes – if they can all be called that – are not inherently the product of specifically new technologies or ways of thinking about photography, but in this case can be applied with equal validity to the medium at almost any point in its history. Everyone making a picture has choices and they make them actively, whether or not the picture is destined for Instagram or the walls of a gallery. Artists might necessarily be more conscious of those choices, but that doesn’t make then any less ‘active’ in other contexts – and at other times.

A further issue arises with how Cotton frames the burgeoning institutional narrative around the work – or perhaps better, mode of working – that is being surveyed. At one point she decisively rejects any way of thinking about the medium’s history that privileges the art-historical, implicitly modernist approach of classifying the supposedly unique stylistic ‘voice’ of a given artist, which she describes as “a preference for unique works art, “signature styles” and consistent methodologies that allow viewer to distinguish one creator from another.” (pg. 5-6) In this she is relying on well-established arguments that critique the canon-building tendencies of a narrative that is shaped around the output of individual (usually male, white) artists who dominate both the marketplace and the museum. But the limitations of her underlying premise mean that Cotton is obliged to make a version of the very same stylistic, canon-building argument in support of her own selection, even if its terms suggest a somewhat more contemporary set of concerns: “We can now recognize individual artists’ signatures through their repeated navigation and articulation of the dynamic behaviour of photographic culture at large.” (pg. 10) Though parsed in terms of critical rather than merely aesthetic distinctiveness, there is no mistaking the basic similarity of these criteria, which perhaps arises because the work under consideration isn’t quite so new as the incorporation of digital media would suggest, but instead repeats familiar considerations of medium-specificity, transposed to the digital vernacular.

It is obvious that Cotton has assembled a very comprehensive overview of a rather crowded field, one that will serve as a valuable reference for anyone interested in the key players of at least one dominant strand of contemporary photographic practice. However, most of the work surveyed still clearly depends on the notion that photography is the product of very definite conditions or constraints that define its existence. There is, ultimately, nothing ‘magic’ about it. Technologies and their uses have histories that can be revealed and questioned, which is what the majority of this work sets out to do. How successful they are in this – or how worthwhile the effort might be – is not something that Cotton is actually in a position to address, precisely because the defining rationale of the book so thoroughly side-lines any conception of the medium as being the sum of those uses, treating it instead as a (metaphorically) occult process, the inner coherence of which cannot, almost by definition, be legible to its audience. Yet this is the exact opposite of what much of the work included appears to be doing, which is laying the process itself bare, telling us, in effect, how the ‘trick’ is worked. This latent conflict between the editorial scope of the book and most of the work featured doesn’t entirely undermine its utility, but certainly calls into question the likelihood of our being able to understand it within such a framework.

The perceived split between those practices that have merely incorporated the means of digital imaging within an established methodological scheme – that is, making the kind of work that might have been possible at any time, but digitally – and the practices that engage critically with both the effects and the means of this technology, calls for another rhetorical manoeuvre that is in many ways emblematic of the deadlock that photographic criticism so often finds itself confronted with. Of the first category Cotton says: “Serious questions were raised about whether the hard-won identity of the medium of photography – as able to transcend its mechanics in the hands of artists – could be sustained in the monolithically (and all too democratically) automated character of “the digital.””[iii] (pg. 6) Leaving aside the in itself questionable assertion that art photography somehow rejects the inherent conditions of the medium, Cotton compares this premise to the nature of the practices surveyed, which instead of pursuing “an essentially static idea of how photographic art could be made and read” (pg. 6) is the work of artists who “deploy destabilized practices and explicitly iterative dynamics to create photographic objects and gestures that are intended to be experienced in this moment of a decidedly flattened – even horizontal – image hierarchy.” (pg. 9) It will be seen, however, that both of these definitions revolve around fixing a particular notion of what photography is, its nature as a practice, even if that ‘nature’ is seen in contemporary terms as being no more than its own basic instability. One orthodoxy comes to replace another.

The difficulties with Cotton’s argument, whatever can be said for her curatorial acumen, illustrate the long-standing problem of incorporating photography into a mode of thinking where its essentially shape-shifting qualities must be given some firm critical outline, despite the seeming preference for categorical instability that these artists project. It is this critical baggage that needs to be addressed as much as the possibilities that have been opened up by digital media, precisely because it leaves us with no means of placing this work in the wider context of technological change, just as the central metaphor Cotton has employed, that of photography as magic, serves to obscure as much as it clarifies. It is fortunate, then, that the value of the work does not depend solely on this interpretive lens, though how much of it will continue to hold our attention when these now current debates have lost their relevance remains to be seen. Perhaps the most we can say is that a concern with what photography is, what defines its nature in the context of the apparently fundamental changes that have been wrought by digital technology, risks merely repeating old queries about the ‘limits’ of the medium, while supposedly questioning its contemporary iterations. Investigating what photography ‘is’ ultimately seems a less productive endeavour than asking what it can do – and what we might still do with it.

[i] There is very little practical difference between a family album and Facebook album, for example, except in terms of its networked availability, which is still, I admit, a significant consideration.

[ii] Charlotte Cotton, Photography is Magic, Aperture, 2015, pg. 8. Cotton’s line of reasoning here also has the perhaps unintended effect of making anyone who is not actively critiquing or deconstructing the medium, but ‘merely’ taking pictures, seem downright reactionary. Further citations are noted in the text.

[iii] Cotton’s account of art photography’s history has a fairly schematic quality to it. The shift away from ‘pure’ photography is older than she acknowledges and need not be seen as synchronous with the impact of digital technology at all.


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