Rereading Photography Theory of the Eighties
Jean Baird Nottingham Trent School of Art & Design email@example.com
Jonathan P Watts Nottingham Trent School of Art & Design firstname.lastname@example.org
Two years ago, in an article titled ‘The World’s Most Amazing 100% Awesome Photography Theory’, published in the journal Photographies, the academic Sharon Harper identified how photography undergraduate courses had ‘not developed the scope of its subject matter or developed its theoretical horizons sufficiently’.
Harper argues that the legacies of photography theory’s engagement with semiotics, psychoanalysis and Marxist thought continue to be the critical credibility that higher education courses trade on today. This characterisation of photography theory is exemplified by the canonical 1982 anthology Thinking Photography, edited by Victor Burgin. In fact, Harper continues, its methods of analysis and ideological critique are now limitations to the development of academia and pedagogy. (Harper is not alone in critiquing photography theory of the 1980s.)
Burgin, however, cared deeply about developing an account of the production of meaning of a photograph within everyday social institutions located within specific histories, recognising the importance of identifying cultural context and its everyday uses, not just within fine art, but also advertising, journalism and domestic spaces.
Thinking Photography worked with some notion of the photograph’s specificity, which is now, as it has been for some time, more imprecise in an age of wild media convergence of the accelerated networked image (Daniel Rubinstein and Katrina Sluis). We might not need the specificity of the photograph Thinking Photography presumes, but we do need its rigorous critical thinking. What are its legacies? How can we reread it today in our supposedly post-ideological times? What are the implications for photography education, which increasingly emphasises ‘professionalisation’ – gearing one up as an agent of/for cultural production? In such a space, critical theory is deprived of its agenda.
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Deadline for submissions: Monday 5 November 2018