The recent glut of photobook purchases continues…

Charlotte Cotton’s Photography is Magic is something of a departure for me… I have a variety of photobooks: personal projects; documentary stuff; straight photography; art photography; experimental stuff; etc. But Photography is Magic is different… It’s nominally photography, but most of the photographs look like documentary evidence of performance art, like photographs of sculpture, or like purely digital constructions, and I’m not really sure what to make of this book or the work in it, and will have to think some about how it fits into my personal practice…

Charlotte Cotton is one of the champions of contemporary photography and the various guises under which it operates. In her words, “Photography is, and has been since its conception, a fabulously broad church. Contemporary practice demonstrates that the medium can be a prompt, a process, a vehicle, a collective pursuit, and not just the physical end product of solitary artists’ endeavors.”* At worst, Photography is Magic exemplifies this view: the vast majority of the images in the book appear to reproduce art works created with tools that are also used to manipulate photographs (Photoshop, for example), and may take cut-up bits of photographs or start life as a negative or raw file, but the end product more closely resembles painting or sculpture than photography.

It’s all well and good to open up media to new ideas and new modes of working, but I wonder if lumping together Michele Abeles, Anne de Vries, and Sam Falls with, say, Paul Graham, Huger Foote, and Laura Wilson, may do a bit of a disservice to Abeles, de Vries, and Falls by failing to recognize the wide variety of media they employ to create their work. Graham, Foote, and Wilson, however different they might be, all start out with a camera of some sort, and wind up with a print or a book or an exhibition (or all 3); Abeles, de Vries, and Falls might start out with a stack of photographs (or, more likely, a group of digital files) and then cut, slice, layer, and photoshop, then maybe project them onto a canvas and paint the result, or laminate a giant head with a photograph of a head, chop it into bits, and put some audio and video with it and have a whole sculptural installation going.

Maybe I’m too closed-minded, maybe the patriarchy and white supremacy into which I was born and from which I benefit have so colored my thinking that I feel that everything must be forced into tiny, narrow categories. That said, as noted by Cotton, photography is famously broad: there are calotypes, photograms, scratched polaroids, master printed contact prints from 8″x10″ negatives, tintypes, digital projection, even film and video, and so much more. And then there are mug shots, kindergarten portraits, glamour shots, the carney with the crack & peel polaroid (now digital camera and 4×6 printer) at the county fair, the hipster with a leica on the street, and, say, Pete Souza or Dan Winter. I could go on: photography is “a fabulously broad church.” So why lump painting and sculpture and performance and decoupage and and and all together with it? Photographs, in my very narrow view, start out as light that reflects off of some physical stuff in the world, and is captured by a piece of film or silicon. Sometimes, these are later printed out, but mostly, here in the early 21st century, they just shine briefly from a screen somewhere and are soon forgotten.

But I digress.

Photography is Magic is sort of a survey of contemporary artistic practice from emerging artists that has some tangential relationship to photography. It’s a great resource for exploring what people are getting up to in the Fine Art world and for exploring new mediums, plus it has a thorough introduction from Ms. Cotton and brief artist statements from many of the artists in an appendix at the back, both of which I should really read before commenting on further.

So I took my own advice and I went and read the introduction—like I probably should’ve done before starting this review or making any comment at all, but oh well—and it gave me a better idea of what Cotton is up to with the book. First off, it’s an attempt to show the ways contemporary artists are working with photography, photographic tools, and the photographic detritus in the post-Internet age:

Among the topics under investigation are: the extent to which technologies themselves are “authoring” the images we see, how the movement and behavior of so many of the images currently being generated can be considered forms themselves within art, and how the pervasive automation of photographic rendering has made software the dominant photographic medium.**

So it’s not really meant to be a traditional sort of photobook in the first place: the artists under consideration are making works for the gallery, not for the bookshelf, or really for viewers/collectors like me. And if they’re not interested in photobooks, they’re probably also not interested in so-called ‘straight’ photography, at least not as a finished project. They’re after experimentation and mixing of materials and techniques. The traditional sphere of photography is fairly well mapped: there are still many photographs to be made, but the technical bits are more or less sorted out. The artists it Photography Is Magic surely know their tools inside and out, but their aim is to make something new and different, in a new and different way. As she says in her introduction, “Photography Is Magic privileges the potentials of ideas over the virtuosity of individual authors or the perfections of techniques and mechanisms…”***

I spent some time looking a bit closer at some of the works, and I think what I first assumed were photoshop collages are actually still lifes, maybe in something like the New Formalism vein. See, for example, Michele Abeles’s Red, Rock, Cigarettes, Newspaper, Body, Wood, Lycra, Bottle, from 2011. I think that could be made fairly easily in the studio, and I believe much of Abeles’s work was… it was just made to look like it was a photoshop collage. Other works of hers are more obviously digital collages, or more obviously photographs, but perhaps it’s wrong to separate her work so forcefully from that of, say Hulger Foote, and perhaps it’s wrong to separate some of the more obviously sculptural things from photography too…

As far as photobooks go, I can’t really recommend this: it’s not a photobook. But if you’re interested in what Contemporary Artists are doing with photographic tools and techniques in the first decades of the 21st Century, then Photography Is Magic is a window into that.

*Cotton, Charlotte. “Nine Years, A Million Conceptual Miles.” Aperture. Accessed 14 February, 2016.
**Cotton, Charlotte. Photography Is Magic. Aperture, New York, 2015. p. 5.
***Ibid. p. 3

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