Photography, as a subject and an object of study, needs a new and contemporary language which will articulate what it is now becoming. The problem of how to meaningfully speak about photography occupies almost every aspect of its study and understanding. But this problem could be, usefully, reframed into one that considers how meaning itself emerges from photography. By turning our attention to meaning, we create a range of positions from which we then interpret what we see. These positions might include those of the modernist thinker, the postmodern deconstructionist, the feminist, the critical or cultural Marxist, the new materialist, the communication theorist, the butcher, the baker or indeed the candle-stick maker. Meaning then becomes a central but unanswerable question. And if meaning reveals itself to be so complicated to grasp, then what is left are the formal aesthetics of what we see. Discussion about what we see should, in theory at least, be relatively consistent. It should not bring about the kinds of subjective contradictions that the search for meaning usually reveals. Unfortunately, this is not usually the case. Instead, aesthetics becomes the very ground of subjective taste.
Subjective taste – whether we like a photograph or not – affects almost every genre or type of photograph. No matter what a photograph depicts, some people will like what they see, while others will not. The photographic subject matter that often appeals to analysis its form over its meaning is landscape photography. Typically, landscape photography invokes a kind of romantic descriptivism, that results in the end of any further, useful, analysis. Photographs of landscapes tend to be reduced to becoming abstract expressions of equally abstract feelings and emotions. This way of understanding the landscape amounts to an impressionistic rather than analytic judgement. How we relate to landscape photography emerges, largely, from subjective opinion and, as such, is impossible to verify empirically.
While it may show the land and even people in the land, what landscape photography does not do is ask what are the characteristics that connect people to any particular landscape? It may well be time, in the context of contemporary photography at least, to accept that most visual depiction rarely frame good questions nor propose any useful answers. Instead, the focus and central concern for photography needs to be how we represent the un-representable rather than how to create ever more realistic portrayals of reality. The shift of a genre like documentary photography to become a form of art practice has meant that what we are shown in a gallery are depictions of the world that have already been given to us before in the media and on TV. Similarly, when landscape photography is re-contextualised as an art practice, it is because it often depicts the photographs we have already seen so many times before as postcards, calendars, jigsaws, Instagram feeds and in photography competitions.
Photography really needs to renew itself in every way. In order to do this it may begin by asking what is it that is specific to photography? But it should end by asking why is something like a photograph even necessary?