The Genius of Television
The Genius of Photography - Wall to Wall Productions / BBC
Review by Daniel Jewesbury
This new series has been trailed by its production company as ‘the first comprehensive history of the most influential art form of the present day’. This claim might seem a little grand, but, amazingly, no major TV series, until now, has looked at the medium in quite this depth or detail. This is, then, an important moment for photographers, for historians of photography and other scholars in the field of visual culture. Not since John Berger’s still-influential Ways of Seeing and Another Way of Telling has photography received this much serious small-screen attention.
The Genius of Photography comprises six one-hour considerations of different aspects of the medium. This is, self-consciously, not ‘the history of photography’ nor even ‘the histories of photography’: the idea of a single history is replaced, after the introductory first episode, Fixing the Shadows, with a set of more or less parallel, non-chronological themes. While these are often engaging, they can seem randomly chosen, and range widely within their topics: Documents for Artists considers the taxonomical impulse in photography, and its development in the early twentieth century; Right Place, Right Time? considers various approaches to Cartier-Bresson’s idea of the ‘decisive moment’ but also branches off to consider war photography; Paper Movies is about the photographic journey (‘Any photographic journey worth making still demands blood, sweat and tears,’ we are told in Right Place, Right Time? yet here we see Martin Parr and John Gossage on the road together and the trip seems reasonably harmonious); Snap Judgements looks at the market, and at digital photography, and at artists reviving nineteenth-century techniques. This approach calls to mind a trend amongst galleries and museums to rehang their collections along thematic lines. The resulting juxtapositions can be enlightening: here, however, the focus is so broad that the programmes constantly seem in danger of losing both their thread, and our attention.
The format is familiar enough: we get the requisite authoritative talking heads, but instead of a presenter from the field giving us the benefit of their overview, an anonymously-authored script is narrated by ex- Holby City actor Denis Lawson. The interviewees’ best sound bites are threaded together with this voice-over, while the rostrum camera pans over the work being discussed, and the incidental music nowadays judged necessary to direct the viewer’s response underlines the gravity, or levity, of the subject in question. To a great extent, of course, the manners and style of contemporary TV largely dictate at the outset what will and will not be seen here, and, caught in the repetitive stylistic mores of today’s programme making, the series is visually unremarkable.
So what, then, is the genius of photography? Each programme revolves primarily around biographical snippets on the featured photographers, which are then brought to bear on a selection of the work they produced. One quickly realises that what is being explored is the ‘genius’ of these individual great personalities, each of whom have heroically confronted, and tamed, an enigmatic, capricious, unfathomable medium, imprinting indelibly their own unique ‘genius’ upon it.
Beyond this, the programme can’t decide what it is. It dabbles in a little technological investigation (it’s explained, for instance, that the invention of the hand-held camera changed the content of photography by allowing the photographer to take pictures from different points of view); it goes in for rather a lot of expert ‘interpretation’ (Philip Jones-Griffiths pontificating as to why Cartier-Bresson’s Behind the Gare St Lazare is ‘the greatest photograph of the twentieth century’); it tries to restage some historical and contemporary arguments within photography (Tony Vaccaro vs. Robert Capa on the correct approach to war photography; or Walker Evans vs. Dorothea Lange on how to photograph the dirt-poor of the Depression); it even plods through some straight chronological history (most confusingly in its treatment of photography’s use by totalitarian regimes, and simultaneous clever ability to expose the ‘rigidity’ of democracy). At no point can it decide on a methodology for exploring photography, of any kind. What rises to the surface is a vague, naive humanism: the belief in ‘photography’s ability’ to show the decency, or resilience, of ‘ordinary innocent people’
When, awkwardly, figures crop up who confuse this humanistic narrative, the series tries to incorporate their ‘genius’ without abandoning its own basic position. Cindy Sherman’s work is discussed by various contributors (including a real philosopher, Arthur C Danto). But when Colin Westerbeck explains, eloquently and succinctly, the postmodern challenge to the authenticity of the image, the narration undercuts him. ‘You don’t have any inherent humanity in the postmodernist analysis of things,’ Westerbeck offers, ‘We’re all composites of a lot of myths and narratives written by other people.’ Immediately, Sherman’s work is introduced to the viewer with the words, ‘But you can still dress up. Which is what artist Cindy Sherman loved doing. She turned a familiar children’s game, dressing up as someone else, into art, by photographing the result… Who is this? Marilyn Monroe? Cindy Sherman as Marilyn? Or the real Cindy Sherman?’
Such idiotic, patronising oversimplification, glib and portentous in equal measures, is not uncommon in the series; it’s noteworthy because it leads us to the other Big Problem with The Genius of Photography. In the whole series, the viewer encounters a total of six women photographers: Sherman, Nan Goldin, Hilla Becher, Sally Mann, Diane Arbus and, fleetingly, Dorothea Lange. Lange is described disparagingly as just another ‘mainstream photographer’ during the discussion of Walker Evans. The other four women are all discussed in the episode entitled We Are Family. Admittedly, this title is approached broadly, and with some irony, but whatever the programme-makers did, or more likely didn’t, want to say about feminist accounts of image-making, or about individual women as photographers in their own right, this is at least unfortunate. At worst it frames these artists resolutely within the realm of the domestic, for no apparent reason other than their gender. No feminist interpretation is offered of the work of Mann, for instance, and after the account of Sherman described above, there’s a further hint that for all her cleverness, her work mightn’t be that significant, in the words, ‘When we face the final frontier that is the mirror, is there really no-one at home? Just a collection of clichés that we’ve picked up along the way? For some, photography is still the medium that engages directly with life, exploring it, exposing it, sometimes even preserving it.’ Sherman’s challenge to the image is beyond the pale, and we are returned, reassured, to warm, fuzzy humanism.
The programme deals with forty years’ theorisation of representation in roughly seven minutes. The only mention of the idea of a ‘male gaze’ comes inadvertently in a reference to Garry Winogrand, who we are told was ‘perfectly happy to leer at women, with his camera and without’. This is not to suggest that feminist or post-structuralist accounts are the only ways in which to consider photography – but should a series of this scope really deny so completely that they even exist?
In this way, the ‘genius’ of photography, which is essentially its magical, mysterious ability to show us who we are, to capture our souls, to reveal our characters and so on, is constructed as heroic, driven, maverick, obsessive... and male: W. Eugene Smith, William Klein, Robert Capa, Evans, Joel Meyerowitz (again and again – Meyerowitz features centrally in all six programmes, offering expert opinions at every turn) and so on.
The programme falls into those bear traps that await the careless historian with embarrassing regularity, most particularly in its retrospective reading of prophetic meaning into an image. Philip Jones-Griffiths even tells us that Cartier-Bresson was ‘the Nostradamus of the early 30s, who predicted what was going to happen to Europe in that one image’; Diane Arbus’s photograph of a New York kid pulling a grotesque grimace and holding a toy hand-grenade, the narration tells us, is ‘funny, tragic and ghastly... [and] seems to announce a decade of crazed violence kickstarted only a year later with the assassination of JFK’; Leo Rubinfien, musing on a photo by August Sander from the early 30s of a German woman with her child and dog, ruminates that ‘in the expression of the face of the mother is knowledge of something much more, that she won’t tell us about, that she can’t tell us about. And I sometimes feel... this woman, about whom I know nothing... is saying, to me, the viewer, there’s nothing you can do to help me… Help me in what way? Save me from what? Protect me from what?’
In the absence of any overarching theory of representation, or any particularly thorough account of the competing theories, what we get is a lot of this kind of subjective speculation presented as expert knowledge. The interpretation of images is never presented as just that – interpretation – but is always privileged as somehow objective, as if Meyerowitz and company have access to the ‘real’ meanings. This apparent lack of rigour on the programmes’ part could be harmless enough if it were just that, but the cumulative effect of this parade of talking heads giving us the benefit of their decontextualised insights is that the series becomes a defence of connoisseurship. Far from initiating the novice into understanding the medium, or making judgements about it for themselves, the whole process is mystified even further. At one point, the programme-makers self-consciously revel in this mystification and inexplicability, when we see William Eggleston, uncomplicated man of few words, swatting off questions from a febrile crowd of photo-enthusiasts, the sequence ending with Eggleston declaring to one of them, ‘I regret that that’s one of the stupidest questions I’ve ever been asked’.
A contributing factor to this mystification is the programme’s refusal to deal with the mundane aesthetic or compositional choices made every day by photographers. As in so many previous accounts, we work backwards from the individual image, and try to divine its ‘meaning’ from its surface, rather than seeking some understanding of why one plate, or exposure, or framing, or combination of colours, or particular overcast grey sky was thought to be important, or more pleasing, or more interesting to the photographer. Joel Meyerowitz is allowed to come tantalisingly close when he discusses his approach to composition, but it’s impossible to enlarge upon what he explains since no discussion of the development of theories of ‘composition’ has been given in the preceding three-and-a-half hours. Similarly, Richard Billingham tells us that ‘all photography is exploitative. The only thing you can do is to try and make the photograph so artistically good, you overshadow that exploitative element…’ But no-one thinks to explain what ‘artistically good’ means, whether it’s an absolute, objective term, or a subjective, stylistic choice. Why do Billingham’s photographs look like cheap snapshots, and why is this apparently just as ‘valid’ as Gregory Crewdson’s hugely expensive digital constructions?
Television has taken a long time to turn its attention to photography in anything like the depth the medium warrants. The result is slapdash and whimsical, neither a real history, nor a guide to its contemporary forms, nor even a proper account of its most important practitioners. How long will we now have to wait for a comparable series to be commissioned again?