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Trope: The Well-Made Photograph

Ryan McGinley “Everyone Knows This is Nowhere,” 2011, cover.

Ryan McGinley “Everyone Knows This is Nowhere,” 2011, cover.

Stuck indoors in the the air-conditioning during the July 2012 heatwave in New York, I began to explore a set of issues I’d contemplated for several years: the stupefying similarity of much contemporary photography, especially certain endlessly reiterated image structures and project formats.

This series had its inception a few years back when a photo magazine invited me to join other contributors by sending in a short essay on the theme of “How to Photograph.” I’d consider it presumptuous of any critic to instruct artists on how to make their work, but it struck me as an occasion on which I could offer a few personal “musts to avoid.” So I sketched some notes toward an article titled “How Not to Photograph (If You Want My Attention).”

Catherine Opie, exhibition catalogue, The Photographer's Gallery, London, 2000, cover.

Catherine Opie, exhibition catalogue, The Photographer’s Gallery, London, 2000, cover.

The deadline for that invitation passed, and the article fragments just lurked in my “In Progress” folder until I decided to develop the idea in this cluster of posts. You could consider that the alternative title for this series, which you’ll find via the links below, the most recent first.

  • Trope: The Well-Made Photograph, 7 (9/6/12): In which I discuss George Orwell’s comments on the corrosive effect of clichés and provide additional examples of the increasingly popular (and populous) “Doppelgänger” trope pioneered in the early 1870s by O. G. Rejlander.
  • Trope: The Well-Made Photograph, 6 (7/22/12): In which I review the structural elements of one primary trope, suggesting that Robert Mapplethorpe, Nadar, Bernd and Hilla Becher, and Walter Chandoha have more in common than one might think. Plus reports of trope outbreaks at the Arles festival and Houston Fotofest International. Concluding with an explanatory note from my opthalmologist.
  • Trope: The Well-Made Photograph, 5 (7/19/12): In which I recall at length the introduction into the curriculum of the BFA photography program at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts of a senior thesis project, with accompanying public exhibition and catalogue, and recount the consequences thereof.
  • Trope: The Well-Made Photograph, 4 (7/15/12): In which I expand on that diagnosis by analyzing the consensus-driven basis of thesis proposals, the imperative of committee approval thereof, the mindsets of the arts-education bureaucrats who administer and teach in today’s photo-ed programs, and other such matters.
  • Trope: The Well-Made Photograph, 3 (7/12/12): In which I compare the development of the generic photography BFA/MFA program with the concurrent rise of the creative writing BFA/MFA program, dragging in irrelevancies ranging from the “One Great Vat Theory of Wonton Soup” to the idiosyncratic musings of the late Glenn Gould, proposing that the tediousness of contemporary work in photography stems from its conceptual basis in the failure-proof BFA and MFA thesis project.
  • Trope: The Well-Made Photograph, 2 (7/8/12): In which I suggest that the formulaic photographs and photo projects of our time have a kinship with the formulaic “well-made play” of the 19th and 20th century, describe the international prevalence of certain visual and infrastructural forms, and introduce the eccentric notion that the photo-education system may have something to do with this.
  • Trope: The Well-Made Photograph, 1 (7/5/12): In which I open a discussion of the root causes of the unbearable sameness of much contemporary photographic work.
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