Beer & Tomato Juice by Ron Jude

About eight or nine years ago, someone asked me what I thought was happening at the heart of contemporary photography. This is a question that, despite its call for oversimplification, I’m accustomed to hearing, and I usually have some sort of answer for, however reductive. At that particular moment, I was stumped. I had no idea what was going on in contemporary photography — it was a little embarrassing. If there were any dominant trends I couldn’t spot them. If there was a focused discourse, I didn’t know what it was about.

Photography was afflicted at the time from what I call the “post-Gursky hangover,” brought on by a decade of grandiose excess that was, in many ways, good for the medium, but also had its consequences. This period of ascendancy was good because it brought photography to the center stage of contemporary art (and, honestly, I liked a lot of the work being produced, including Gursky’s). Photography enjoyed high visibility and new relevance in this era, resulting in a plethora of exhibitions that challenged photographers to open their discourse to broader art world concerns. But by 2003 or so it was like photography had collapsed under its own weight, due to the new expectation for it to hold its own in the blue-chip marketplace. In the course of achieving the status it always wanted, photography lost its way and was rudderless. Of course, there are exceptions to my broad-stroke assessment of this period of post-Gursky malaise, but in the most general terms, photography seemed in stasis.

It was exactly during this period of stasis that something incredible was quietly happening. Photographers started taking matters into their own hands by publishing their own books and the books of their peers. There was a ground-level surge in work that struck a balance between conceptually based photography and traditional concerns. It was a new paradigm that emphasized modest means and scale over market-driven bloat. Independently published books became a way to provide structure and context to photographs, and to disseminate work and find an audience while circumventing galleries and the established publishing world. Photography was new again, and there was something invigorating and subversive about stepping out of the gallery and museum validation queue.

The graduates of the first class of the Hartford Art School limited residency MFA program are among the first generation of photographers to obtain their degrees with this new climate and attitude firmly in place. Paradoxically, as good as they are at making compelling individual images, they tend to think in terms of books and installations, which favor larger programs over singular photographs. As such, the whole is almost always greater than the sum of its parts. In this, they represent a new breed of image-maker whose intricate and complex work, although comfortable in the marketplace, is not in service to it.

For the past five years or so when I’m asked what’s happening in photography, I’ve had a one- word answer: books. Now I have a slightly longer answer: check out the photographers coming out of Hartford. Terribly reductive, I know.

Ron Jude
Ithaca, NY, 2012 

(The work he refers to is on view in the exhibition, What Happens When You’re Lostopening TONIGHT at 25 CPW in New York City. More info here and here.)

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