With numerous titles examining contemporary art photography aimed at students, committed enthusiasts and auto-didactic collectors, Lucy’s Soutter’s significant contribution to this area entices would-be readers with its open and ambiguous title. Superficially, Why Art Photography? is in proximity to bestsellers by the likes of Bright, Cotton, Campany and Fried, however, its publisher (Routledge), and its portability, locates the book very much within an academic, rather than a broader, readership. Bookshelves and coffee tables will breathe a sigh of relief at the book’s slight frame and format and the predominantly modest, monochrome reproductions. Moreover however, rather than exuberantly and briskly perusing the contributions of dozens of practitioners throughout each chapter, Soutter refers to relatively few artists and photographers overall; instead selecting around four oeuvres or bodies of work as case studies for critical analysis within the six discrete essays focussing on genre, objectivity, the document, authenticity, spectacle, and post-photography. Those wanting to know more about these areas, or the practitioners cross referenced, will certainly find these discussions highly informative, as well as the extensive signposting of further essays and resources throughout the generous endnotes.
Unlike the majority of academic writing on the subject, the frequency with which Soutter touches upon the market for art photography is refreshing. This isn’t explored specifically, but the numerous references remind the reader that economies coexist alongside the critical discourse, and any efforts to further the understanding of the overlaps between these two often segregated spheres are welcomed. Given though the significance of cultural consumers and collectors to the sustainability of contemporary art photography – not to mention the course of its progression – the audience is plainly students of photography (those on postgraduate programmes and at later stages of undergraduate programmes) as well as their teachers. Soutter frequently draws upon her extensive experience in the classroom and as an educator, I found this useful. Likewise, the transparency of the subjectivity of some of the analysis and conclusions, articulated in the first-person, was engaging, although others may find this unorthodoxy distracting.
Whilst the role of education institutions broadly is clearly of great importance (as well as specific schools such as the Düsseldorf, which is explored in the chapter on ‘Objectivity and Seriousness’), there is a danger of playing into the hands of those critical of the intellectual elitism of contemporary art photography. Whilst this title doesn’t present itself as primer on the subject, there might have been an opportunity here to examine the relationship between education, practice, and its consumption in greater depth. Given the clarity and accessibility of the writing, Soutter is well equipped to connect these three, at times antagonistic, territories.
The final two chapters appear to be the most extensively revised parts of the book, where photography’s relationship to performance, installation, and institutions and contexts outside of the gallery are explored. These topics might have been better addressed somehow at the forefront of the book, perhaps alongside the topic of ‘Selfie culture and social media’ that is discussed through Amalia Ulman’s Excellences and Perfections series. The responses that the essays offer to the book’s title tend to focus on the myriad themes examined by its practitioners, the specificity of the medium, and its self-consciousness in relation to other media and their institutions. However, given the status of the photographic image globally – as the default mode of communication (even more so in the half decade since the first edition) – and the increasing challenges viewers and consumers face discerning between what is art and what is vernacular, the case for why we ought to bother with art photography might need to be made even more urgently.
– reviewed for Photomonitor by Jesse Alexander