End of history - end of photography?

Photo © Ulf Fågelhammar

In these days it is almost impossible not to think of Francis Fukuyama who in his essay "The End of History?"(1989) wrote:

"What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government."

I will not try to analyze this further but as we are witnessing a huge financial crisis and an accelarating global recession it is quite depressing to think we have already seen the endpoint of mankind's ideological evolution.
But in 1989 the words of Fukuyama perhaps made sense? In any case his ideas were widely referred to and even celebrated. The fall of the Soviet empire was a great victory for people of many countries who could look forward to a brighter future. The "Western liberal democracy" seemed like a decent alternative to Soviet totalitariansim.

Photo © Ulf Fågelhammar

Fukuyama's ideas emerged in a historical context. Let us try to make an analogy to photography. Interviewed by the Guardian in March 2004 David Hockney describes photography as "a dying art form". He argues that modern photography is so easily altered that it can no longer be seen to be true or factual. He also describes art photography as "dull". (The camera today? You can't trust it. Hockney sparks a debate)

So here we go. In 1989 we saw the end of history only to be followed by the end of photography in 2004. Well, at least if we agree with Fukuyama and Hockney.

Photography could be about everything. But every single photograph is about something. If you do not beleive it, try to capture a photo about nothing. There are indeed some very tough challenges if you decide to give it a try.

First of all there is a world out there, independent of your mind - when you press the shutter you will capture a fraction of that world. Secondly there will most likely be somebody viewing your picture and even if you argue that the picture is about "nothing" the viewer may see a ghost, a cat or even a hedgehog. Even worse, somebody may use your picture to prove a point or use it as propaganda.

Photo © Ulf Fågelhammar

Hockney suggests that modern photography no longer can be seen as true or factual since there are so many ways to manipulate or alter the original caption. I think he has a point, but on the other hand - has photography ever been an entirely reliable witness in depicting events and things in the surrounding world?

The photographer makes choices depending on his or her intentions, experiences, aesthetic preferences, assignments etc that will affect the outcome of the photograph. That is the first selective phase in creating an image. The second stage is selecting how to process the picture and where (how) to present it to the viewer.

In this process you have to consider the subjective decision made by the photographer, his or her assigner, the curator, the editor etc.

Photo © Ulf Fågelhammar

Taking in account all of this I still consider the photographic image as a formidable "eye witness" to what is going on in the world and in our minds. It has the potential to trigger our imagination, to enlighten and touch us, to make us better understand the nature of our communities and nature itself.

I am optimistic about the future of photography. The problems I can detect from my relatively limited knowledge of the art form as a whole has to do with the process of selection as described above. The every day visual "landscape" that we meet in magazines, ads, newspapers, web sites etc. is often quite discouraging.

Photo © Ulf Fågelhammar

There is work to be done in trying to improve that visual landscape. I will try to do my small part in these efforts on 591 the coming year. Even if we are not experiencing the end of history or the end of photography we are approaching another year and the end of 2008 according to the Gregorian calender.

The Persian New Year starts on March 21 and The Chinese year of the Ox, 2009 begins on January 26. There is no absolute truth. Take care out there.


cafe selavy said…
Truth. There is the sticky wicket. Hemingway's fiction is more "true" than what passes for "objective" reporting. Lady Brett Ashley is "truer" than almost any woman we've never heard of. Hockney's paintings are "true" though they manipulate light, texture, color.

I like Hockney, by the way. He is no curmudgeon. He must have had a bad salad that day.

If I have to choose between what is factual and what is true. . . well, maybe I shouldn't say.
Anonymous said…
I've been reading Susan Sontag...interesting sermon this week, Mr. Urbano!

br said…
good questions for photographers. ! i think of photography as being between real-fiction. the context of presentation decides the value of the image. internet came after...Hegel. : )