25 Years of American Photo: The Indecisive Moment

Luigi Ghirri
Rimini, 1985, from "Paessagio italiano" (Italian landscape); from It's beautiful here, isn't it? (Aperture, 2008)© Luigi Ghirri—Courtesy the Estate of Luigi Ghirri

For our 25th anniversary issue, we asked photo experts to weigh in on the most important trends of the past quarter century, a time of incredible transformation in photography.

It’s beautiful here, isn’t it? That’s the question posed in the title of Luigi Ghirri’s first book published in America (Aperture, 2008). The diffident affirmation characterizes the work of the photographer himself, but it also illuminates the quest of a new generation of photographers who are trying to navigate between the digital exchange of pictures and the photographic object itself and between irony and kitsch.

The young photographers I am thinking about have grown up as the first generation to experience nearly total digital immersion, trafficking images (let's not call them photographs just yet) made with a range of tools—cell phones and smartphones, point-and-shoot film cameras, Polaroids, and medium-format cameras—across a variety of platforms. In a sense, they represent the biggest generation gap in the history of photography. Compared to the work regularly displayed in American Photo now, for example, even in its Instagram feeds, these photographers seem to eschew ambition—professional, political, aesthetic, or otherwise. They are unconcerned about consigning the majority of their images to oblivion, engaging in a check-this-out immediacy that contradicts Roland Barthes' description of photography as a memorial practice. For the most part, they also decline the moral seriousness and intensity of the best photojournalism that has been showcased in this magazine since the 1990s.

Perhaps most interestingly, these new photographers move back and forth easily between two and three dimensions. They don’t see the photograph and the photographed—what’s personal versus what’s presented—as exclusive domains. Anything might go up on a wall or nothing; some images want to become photographs and live in three dimensions, and some don’t. These image makers are fully aware that, on a strictly aesthetic level, all the pictures have already been taken, and indeed are taken over and over again every day. In that sense, these image-makers are far closer to the ironic stance of Roe Etheridge than they are to the democratic forest of William Eggleston.

But these young photographers are not paralyzed by self-awareness, and they know how to forget, especially if there is something they respond to. This may be what separates them from previous generations of photographers and why readers of American Photo and serious museum-goers may find their work challenging. Just because someone else has made a great picture (or a bad one) of something doesn't mean it can't be shot by someone else. I was surprised by this recently when I noticed the prevalence of images of swans on the Internet. It's a hackneyed subject, and yet emerging photographers Corey Olsen, Sebastiano Arpaia, Bridget Collins, and others have all shot more or less the same picture. And yet each one found something slightly different. They all saw something there that eludes cliché, or perhaps flirts with but doesn't fall into it. Likewise the portrait, which, having granted to its subjects maximum visual autonomy (thanks to the Düsseldorfers), is now free to discover other aspects of human appearance, including the often hilarious play of expressions. In the portrait galleries of Molly Matalon, Sam Clarke, Caroline Tompkins, and others, ideology and psychology have been replaced by simple affection. That may seem a modest goal—hardly Cartier-Bresson's decisive moment—but it is a sentiment the world could use more of.

Lyle Rexer is a curator, critic, and faculty member of the School of Visual Arts, New York.

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