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bending the frame

14 october 2013

At the heart of Fred Ritchin's thought-provoking Bending the Frame is anxiety over the profession of photography. When billions of people carry around in their pockets picture-making technology that Ansel Adams would have killed for, what kind of role exists anymore for a professional photographer?

Indeed, news photographs and videos, in 2013, are more likely to be the work of amateurs than professionals. Not only do the amateurs have the pros enormously outnumbered, but by the time the pros learn about news, the amateurs (who are always already on the scene) have taken thousands of images, and sent them around the globe via networks that make wire-photo services of fifty years ago look like the Pony Express.

Not only is such an information economy unforeseen and uncharted, but it will no doubt change even in the next 3-4 years in ways we can't imagine. In fact, Ritchin cites one estimate (145) that print newspapers will cease to exist in the U.S. by 2017, and thus their still-considerable markets for photography will cease to exist along with them.

(How often, even now, do newspapers pay for pictures? Twenty years ago, my local newspaper used to send professionals out to collect images for its "Click!" society page. In recent years, they invite people to send in their own images. The paper saves money, people see their pictures [in both senses] in the paper, and the public finds out about a wider range of events. A win-win-win situation – unless you're trying to make a living by taking pictures.)

Yet one of Ritchin's theses is that the more news photos change, the more they stay the same. A square with a caption, on top of text; at most avant-garde, a slideshow: that's how we see news photos in 2013. Such images can take on an eerie sameness:

In the field of photojournalism the visual vocabulary has particularly stagnated, with national contests rewarding many of the expected clichés, and international competitions and some of the well-meaning workshops establishing standards, mostly implicit, so that work by indigenous photographers comes to resemble imagery by foreign standard-bearers. (51)

In addition, most people filter the images they produce, in the 2010s, through some sort of program, application, or network. We cede control of our pictures and their distribution to Flickr, Tumblr, Facebook, Instagram, and many lesser players in the image-app business. Professionals are loathe to give up the control they once associated with individual darkroom technique, of course. As Jean-François Leroy says,

"As long as you don't have control over the image, I don't believe it has any value. No one can pretend that the photographer retains control over his images when using Hipstamatic. I find that this type of application tends to standardise photography — you're not shooting your own image, you're shooting a Ben Lowy image." (68-69)
But wasn't it ever thus? News photography purports to take us somewhere immediately, without reflection or staging. But as Errol Morris has noted, is subject to severe editorial intervention. Ritchin shows that photojournalism is heir to the same dynamics of branding and message that commercial photography involves. Non-governmental organizations like the Red Cross and UNICEF (107-109), which depend on images for fundraising, maintain complex and ever-adapting brand guidelines for the photographs they disseminate. This corporate control over images is one more factor that leads to the monoculture of news photography in the digital age.

What's a photojournalist to do? Much of Bending the Frame is devoted to cataloguing projects that defy convention and reshape the narratives and social roles of news photographs. Most of these projects are not sold to media; they're funded by grants, academic appointments, gallery shows, commissions, and other kinds of postmodern patronage. Ritchin's illustrations attempt to convey some of the scope and texture of these projects, most of them from zones of war, oppression, and famine. Many are metaphotographic, in ways that align rhetorical interventions with trends in art photography (including that newly dominant artform of the 2010s, the video installation: as in the project "Question Bridge: Black Males").

Susan Meiselas's "Reframing History" is illustrated by means of photographs of photomurals in Nicaragua that attempt to bring suppressed history into public view. Photos of photos also figure in JR's "28 Millimeters, Women Are Heroes," where enormous photographs stare into space above shantytowns. Mashups are frequent, as in Jennifer Karady's surrealistic "Soldiers' Stories from Iraq and Afghanistan," where images juxtapose the homefront and the warfront.

Possibly most impressive among some very inventive work is Gustavo Germano's series "Ausencias," from Argentina. Germano's concept is simple: find pictures from the 1960s and early 1970s, and then recreate them in 2006: have the original participants stand, sit or run as they did 35 years earlier. In each 2006 photo, one of the participants is missing: well, that's life. Until you realize that this life is in Argentina, and these are people who shouldn't be missing.

Germano's photos strike me as some of the least ambiguous in Bending the Frame. Yet even they have their complexities – and their obvious mysteries. Ritchin realizes that photography is never unambiguous in its rhetoric.

The photographer need not explain clearly, but can share his or her impressions with other viewers who might be able to help figure it out. Images containing ideas not yet sufficiently explicated, based on the photographer's knowing or sensing that something important is happening, can be construed as invitations to a reader to join in the search for meanings. Thus the image becomes, in a sense, open source. (50)
I'd just add that images continue to be "open source" even after some interpretive communities think they have them all figured out.

Ritchin, Fred. Bending the Frame: Photojournalism, documentary, and the citizen. New York: Aperture, 2013.