The Difficulty of Diffusion
by Ramón Esparza
What is the place of photography in the cultural panorama? I will not try to give a definitive answer to this question, since this would mean the implausible task of ending - with one stroke of the pen - a debate about the very nature of photography, a debate which has lasted throughout this century. To paraphrase Règis Durand, who poses this problem in discussing the possibilities of establishing a history of photography, if the twentieth century began with a debate about the artistic possibilities of the genre, as we reach its end we should ask if photography has not become the art form of the century.
To ask about the nature of photography is like asking about the nature of painting. Richard Wollheim, addressing the latter question, bases his reflections on the idea of ur-painting, which is to say proto-painting. But if this initial act consists of nothing more than painting a surface, what difference is there between the artistic painter and the industrial painter? The same question of an ostensible essence, so dear to modernism, may be posed in relation to photography. Is there a photographic essence? The impossibility of responding to this question, in the light of the disparity in uses and viewers' attitudes in respect to photography, undoubtedly produces the disparity we find in analyzing the printed media for its diffusion.
Let us, at the outset, leave to one side the division of the field of photography which is caused by industry. In the final analysis, the goal of industry is the sale of technical equipment and consumer goods, although in this category we need to place not only film, paper etc., but also situations. Magazines for hobbyists and professionals teach not only how to take photographs but also, fundamentally, the nature of photography.
Beyond the large field of economic and consumer activity, we are left with those uses and receptions of photography which tend towards the artistic, although this raises new doubts, since this artistic attitude has always been mixed with the commercial or utilitarian in the photographic world. If one of the characteristics of the twentieth century has been the extension of aesthetic concepts over the sphere of the utilitarian (beginning with the applied arts and ending with the contributions of advertising, like packaging), the area where this crossover has been most intense is probably photography.
So the simple fact of leaving the purely industrial and consumerist does not mean that we are entering a more homogenous space (merely a more interesting one). The disjuncture, above all in those spheres where the development of an artistic attitude is most evident, is one between a style of photography which I will call à la francaise, and another which is more contemporary. The latest issue of Rencontres (Arles, France) is a good illustration of the first type: a conception of photography which, in absolutely modernist fashion, aspires to the pursuit of the language and aesthetic developed by photographers between the 1930's and the 1960's, with Cartier-Bresson and Minor White as key examples. For the defenders of this position (ranging from the current artistic director of Rencontres, Gilles Mora, to the director of the Cabinet des stampes at the Bibliotheque Nationale, Jean-Claude Lemagny), this is a kind of photography which 'has to be done', the last stage in the development of the medium, the ne plus ultra.
Needless to say, this conception of photography has firm allies in the group whom a priori we have left out. It is diffused both by this commercial type of medium (the French Photo and its equivalents would be the principal example) and in some weekly magazines which hope to assume an artistic aura in this way. The magazine of El Pàis, in Spain, regularly publishes the photographs of Sebastião Salgado, thus confirming the old 1950's aspiration to a symbiosis between photojournalism and art. Since the ultimate goal of these publications is the vulgarization of the idea of the artist ('You can do it, too!') this relationship is not strange. Photo belongs to the French press group Philipacchi, which at the same time edits the weekly Paris Match and which has traditionally divided its attention between documentary reportage and glamour photography: two areas which easily capture the attention of the consumer.
So it is paradoxical, if not strange, that in France one has to go beyond the photography magazines to find a contemporary style of photography. Art Press is doubtless the obligatory reference, completing the panorama of visual creation in the land of Camembert. Its pages offer not only up-to-date information on the activities of the gallery world, in relation to photography, but also articles of criticism and interviews with the artists du jour. What Photo is to Arles, Art Press is to Cahors: the printed medium for two divergent ways of understanding the field of photography which find programmatic expression in the Maison Europèenne de la Photographie and the ideologically cutting-edge Centre Nationale de la Photographie, now directed by Règis Durand.
In Spain, the situation is slightly different, since an old version of New York ambitions continues to be published here. Photovision, the magazine founded at the beginning of the 1980's by Joan Fontcuberta and other artists, maintains his particular vision of photography. It is less a publication reflecting the panorama of visual arts in Spain than a manifesto, visually and ideologically sustaining the aesthetic principles of a group of critics and creators. If the magazine was born in the spirit of the American Aperture, its narrow ideological stance has closed it to other creative tendencies. For this, we have to look in other publications which move between aesthetic creation and the kitsch of the aficionado: FV and La Fotografîa are two publications which follow a norm established by those of the seventies: a miscellany in which, without totally abandoning the market, they bring to their pages the work of young photographers, although without any well-defined criterion. Beyond this, the art magazines have brought currently exhibited work to their own pages, and even carry it rather frequently on their covers. Lápiz was the pioneer in this opening-up, followed by later magazines like Arte y Parte. Lápiz has the honour of having recently launched the debate in Spain about the holding of the photographic festivals which are proliferating in Europe either biannually (Barcelona, Vigo) or annually (Madrid).
The Italians are not so lucky. The disappearance of the magazine Fotologia, published by the Museo Alinari in Florence, leaves the field of photography in the hands of the only publication about the genre to have a moderately serious editorial policy; Zoom, which has inherited the principles of the 1970's but has also been able to find space in its pages for modern artists like Sam Taylor-Wood, Ann Gaskell and Vik Muniz, is an intelligent mix of art criticism and glamour photography. I would also like to draw attention to a strange publication on the Internet. Private, which defines itself as a quarterly photography magazine in black, white and text, approaches monographic themes (the last issue was about China) in a way which is reminiscent of the old model of the photographic essay.
And what about ideas? If the diffusion of images is difficult, the diffusion of ideas and reflections on the medium of photography is almost impossible. Now that the old Cahiers de la Photographie (founded by Gilles Mora as a cornerstone of what we have called photography à la francaise) has faded away, the field of theory is restricted to university publications (France is one of the few countries which continues to be concerned with structuralism) and a resurrection: the bulletin of the Sociètè Francaise de la Photographie which, in the five issues published in this new era, has become a solid support for essays - usually historical - about photography. In Spain, this kind of reflection is shared between Photovision, whose limitations I mentioned earlier, and Papel Alpha, a magazine which despite being published by a university (Salamanca) avoids having an excessively academic character, and addresses more interesting aspects of the present-day European scene. Dedicated fundamentally to the essay, Papel Alpha incorporates in every issue a portfolio by a photographer whose work is related to the current theme. Assuming the need to function as a means of diffusion in a double sense (diffusing ideas about photography abroad to Spanish-speakers, and reflection in Spanish beyond Spain), Papel Alpha has become the necessary bridge between the still-weak fields of the history and the theory of photography in Spain.
In Italy, the disappearance of Fotologia has left thought on photography without a specific means of diffusion. The fact is that in this country, the weight of tradition is so strong as to suffocate any interest in contemporary art. Nonetheless, reflections on photography find support in other publications, like the prestigious Italian journals of architecture, which are always attentive to the evolution of one characteristic theme in recent Italian photography: the landscape. Lotus, Abitare and Casabella regularly publish essays on this theme and reflections on the contemporary concept of space.
Translation by Simon Doubleday