Sean O’Hagan has been writing about photography for well over a decade, including a long-running column in The Guardian titled “On Photography.” Before that, he primarily focused on music while frequently interviewing other cultural figures. He has been recognized with numerous awards for both his interviews and his criticism. O’Hagan has also collaborated on a number of photobooks, contributing written introductions as well as a sharp and discerning eye.
We are very proud that he has agreed to be a member of the jury for our Emerging Talent Awards 2017. In this interview, conducted via email with LensCulture’s managing editor Alexander Strecker, O’Hagan talks about the “game-changers” in photography, his mission to have the medium taken seriously, and the challenges faced by creative individuals in today’s radically changed landscape. We have accompanied his insightful words with some of our editors’ favorite images from the winners of last year’s Emerging Talent Awards. Read on for more—
LensCulture: You studied English as an undergraduate. How do you think this background informs your approach to photography? In other words, what is the connection between the literary/narrative and the image?
Sean O’Hagan: I think it was more that the English degree taught me how to write concisely and, I hope, clearly. And to be attentive—the idea of a “close reading of the text” was paramount. I often point students towards George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language” where he points out his hates: “bad habits,” “pretentious diction,” and “meaningless words.” He writes, “In certain kinds of writing, particularly in art criticism and literary criticism, it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning.” That still stands today. I think photography students should be taught how to present their work clearly and concisely in their texts, however conceptual their ideas.
With regards to visual narrative in comparison to literary narrative, that’s a difficult one. Often photographs depend to some degree on the text that accompanies them. At the moment, I’m interested in the limits of photography, because I see so many photobooks that are, unwittingly, about that. I often think some photographic ideas would be better served in a book or a film. Photography alone cannot evoke it.
One approach is simply adding more text. I’m not sure that’s effective though. Alec Soth once said, “Words can easily ruin pictures.” That is so true. It’s a tight-rope walk: editing, sequencing, where to begin and end a series. The idea of visual narrative is something I became acutely aware of when I witnessed an art director completely rearrange a sequence I had made with a photographer. We had labored over it for days and he created a new narrative in about 30 minutes. Just by removing some images and rearranging others, a new story emerged. It really flowed, too. Once I got over the shock, I liked what he had done. The photographer really didn’t. There was a stand-off. It was a kind of revelation for me, though: someone could see the same series of images in such a radically different sequence. The art director had an acutely visual mind for colors, composition, details. It made me think how collaborators are so important. It can be extremely painful for photographers to kill their babies, but it has to be done.
Returning to text: I like when text does not attempt to explain the images or provide a parallel commentary. It could be a short story or a series of oblique fragments or a poem. I spoke to Alec Soth recently about poetry and photography (since he puts up so many poems on his Instagram feed). He said something along the lines that both are trying to express the ineffable.
I wonder if a photograph can express, say, regret, sorrow, or loss in as powerful a way as a poem or a piece of music? Personally, I think not.
LC: You cite Joan Didion as a major influence on your writing. But which writing was specifically formative for your appreciation of photography—either from another critic/thinker or from the photographers themselves?
SOH: I’ve said this before, but I’m always surprised by how many great photographers are great writers as well. Diane Arbus and Danny Lyon spring to mind. And Robert Adams in a different way; he’s quite old-fashioned, but I like his calmness of purpose. I liked the collection of Luigi Ghirri essays that Mack published recently. As Ghirri wrote, “[photography] concerns the deep layering of image and perception.”
I do believe that wasting time is integral to creativity, as is boredom, daydream and reverie.
For the classics, Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes is still key—though I don’t quite bow down to it to the same degree that I did when I first encountered it. It’s a book of memory and mourning, really, for his mother. Everything he writes about the medium is viewed through that prism, which makes it so brilliant—but maybe also a bit distorting. I rediscovered Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes recently and was taken by the tantalizing captions that accompany the photographs from his family album. Underneath a portrait of his grandfather, he writes, “In old age, he grew bored. Always coming early to the table (though the dinner hour was constantly moved up), he lived further and further ahead of time, more and more bored. He had no part in language.” So much information about the guy’s character in those few sentences! It goes back to what I was saying earlier about the image often being dependent on just the right words—and just the right number of words.
I have just returned from Zagreb, where I traveled for the excellent Organ Vida Photo Festival. One of the other speakers was David Bate, so I’ve been checking out his writings lately. I have also been approaching, with some trepidation, the writings of French philosopher Jacques Ranciere, whom Bate referred to in his talk. It’s tough territory: the philosophy of representation.
More than anything, though, I am just inspired by good writing. It doesn’t really matter to me what the subject is. I’m more likely to be taken by a Philip Larkin poem than a theoretical essay on photography. That’s my literature background, I guess.
LC: Visually, away from the written word, were there a few photographers who first opened up your eyes to the power of the medium? An “a-ha” moment, a game-changer? What happened?
“William Eggleston: Ancient and Modern,” curated by Mark Holborn, in 1992 at the Barbican Art Gallery, London.
“The Devil’s Playground” by Nan Goldin at the Whitechapel Gallery in 2002.
“Cruel and Tender” at The Tate, London in 2002.
The first two are probably self-explanatory—two giants of photography doing what they do, showing us the everyday anew. The third was just such a brilliantly curated group show. Not conceptually over-curated like so many shows today.
In terms of photobooks:
Ray’s A Laugh by Richard Billingham (published by Scalo in 1996)
Love on the Left Bank by Ed van der Elsken (1954)
Brooklyn Gang by Bruce Davidson (1959)
The first was my “game-changing” photobook! It showed that you can photograph what you like, how you like, so long as you have an eye. It just blew my mind and opened me up to the possibilities of photographing what is right before us.
The other two masterpieces are observations about nascent youth culture in the 1950s. Ed van der Elsken is just so ahead of its time: semi-fictional, narrated, directed, but not staged. Perfect setting: Paris’ St Germain des Pres! Perfect subject: Vali Myers! And the photographer’s immersion in the subject: “I report on young, rebellious scum with pleasure…I rejoice in everything. Love. Courage. Beauty. Also blood, sweat and tears. Keep your eyes open.” That’s it, right there.
Finally, Brooklyn Gang is a document of inner-city youth culture at a time before the term had even been coined. It is also a requiem for a bunch of Italian-American kids who bonded and, for a time, found a kind of community that had been denied them elsewhere—at home, in the church, at school. There is something about the ease of the people in these pictures that is timeless—they seem at home and alive for his camera, with no self-consciousness.
So many others, too little space. Christenberry, Gedney, Fukase, Abbott, Evans…
LC: You started out interviewing musicians before you shifted to photography criticism. Are there resonances between the way photographers and musicians see the world? Is there a creative mindset that is universal across art forms?
SOH: I think great artists are alike in many ways, whatever their medium. Music tends to be more collaborative, though, and songs enter the collective public imagination in a way that few other art forms do. We carry them with us though our lives, the great songs.
I do think music is like photography—and art and literature—insofar as the true greats are few and far between, and then there are all the others. Standing on a stage and performing is a whole other tightrope walk.
I’ve also come to realize, through interviewing a lot of the greats, that artists are often not the most articulate people when it comes to their own work. The work is its own explanation and expression. Everything else is extraneous. I’m a little suspicious of people who are too articulate about what they do. Which is odd, come to think of it, given that, as an interviewer, I try to prize passages of illumination out of them.
We no longer live in the age of Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment—but instead in the mischievous world of John Baldessari.
But I’ve also come back around to interviews again after writing a column for a long time. I enjoy the interview more, the interaction, even if you only come away with one or two really illuminating quotes. You begin to see how their creative mind works, how they think, which is often very different to how we think they think.
LC: You wrote once that you are “on a mission” to get photography taken seriously. It’s baffling to me that this is still a challenge (even more baffling is the continuing debate about whether photography is art…but let’s not rehash that for the nth time). In the past 10-15 years, do you think you’ve (partly) accomplished your mission, or is there still work to be done?
SOH: Oh, man! It certainly felt like that for a while and still does to a degree. It may well be a British issue. I honestly think Britain does not have a relationship to photographic culture in the same way that America, say, or France, has. When you move outside the art/photography bubble that we operate in, I think British people are still innately suspicious of photography. I think it has to do with their collective character and temperament: it’s essentially a very conservative place that, somehow, nevertheless, has a vibrant popular culture.
For other people, not just in Britain, photography remains essentially a mid-20th century form. It’s black-and-white. It’s Cartier-Bresson and Bill Brandt. Or maybe it’s Steve McCurry.
A while back, I wrote that we no longer live in the age of Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment and instead in the mischievous world of John Baldessari. What do you think was the response? I thought that I might have to go into hiding for a while! But I do truly believe what I wrote. It wasn’t click-bait. It just seemed self-evident to me from the work I was receiving and reviewing. Photography these days is not just about going out in the world with a camera and it has not been that way for quite some time. I can see why people want to hold onto that idea—and it remains totally valid and relevant—but it is no longer what a lot of practitioners are doing.
Photography now is performance, sculpture, the archive, found images, collage, staging, reimagining, reconfiguring, recontextualising…For me, the evidence is there in abundance—that is where we now live.
As for the old “It’s not art” line? Like you, I don’t think that it is deserving of serious debate anymore. To refute it would be to somehow give it attention which it does not deserve.
LC: We both know that online media has shifted more and more towards the immediate response, towards a breakneck, instantaneous speed. I liked a quote you found from Alec Soth where he said, “I recently read a quote by Donald Trump about never stopping. He equated stopping with failure rather than, say, self-reflection. Kind of says it all really.”
How do you slow down and find this space for self-reflection for yourself? I think this is a particularly important point for “emerging talents” to remember, as they are the most anxious to be discovered.
SOH: I think it’s not just necessary to slow down and reflect—it’s integral. If you are serious about what you are doing, it’s absolutely integral, particularly with regards to process-based work. I hear so much about “process” and “practice” when I talk to students, but often the end result—the object or the book or the print on the wall—seems to have been relegated somehow.
For me, any ideas-based work, what used to be called “conceptual photography,” requires, if anything, even more rigor than, say, documentary. You need a great idea, you need to pursue it rigorously, and the end result needs to be powerful, or at least convincing. If any one of those three elements falters, you are in trouble. Usually, as far as I can see, it is the third element that seems lacking. So, reflection, rigor are utterly essential—and maybe some mischief too.
LC: I was recently speaking with Stephen Mayes and we were discussing the vastly increased production and dissemination of images today. He pointed out that there’s very little anxiety about how many words are produced today as opposed to 20, 50, 100 years ago; so why do people worry so much about the x billions of images that were uploaded today v. last year v. 2005?
SOH: I think the numbers are just so mind-bogglingly huge. So vast as to be meaningless, in fact. We struggle with that—the many billions of images uploaded on social media daily or monthly. The fact is that most of them go out there and are never seen or are viewed once and forgotten, consigned to the vast dustbin of what used to be called cyberspace.
It seems ironic that photography, the most democratic art form, may become enmeshed in these darker possibilities of the loss of freedom.
The internet is the most extreme example of accelerated culture. We are living in a vast experiment that may have huge ramifications for literacy—not just visual literacy, but verbal literacy among children. They have already carried out research that shows information gleaned from reading a book stays in the head longer than the same information gleaned from a laptop screen. In one way, our anxiety is justified because, as with politics and the market, we are rendered powerless. The tail is wagging the dog. We don’t even know what Facebook really is. It has not been defined, yet we have surrendered so much of our personal information to it.
Maybe we sense that there will be ramifications to this collective abdication of responsibility: political, social, psychological. I know activists can be identified and targeted through what they post, and this power may yet become a means of repression even in so-called “democracies” that are now embracing many (far) right-wing, populist values.
It seems ironic that photography, the most democratic art form, may become enmeshed in these darker possibilities of the loss of freedom. So, politically and culturally, this is certainly the most turbulent and uncertain, and yes, anxious, time I have lived though—and I grew up during the Troubles in Northern Ireland!
LC: As a person between images and words, as someone who treats photographs seriously but exists within a changing media landscape—what do you make of this anxiety?
SOH: I don’t think photographers should be so anxious in terms of their creativity, or the validity of what they do. I read somewhere that, in the mid-1960s, half of all households in America had a Polaroid or an Instamatic camera. I wonder if that caused any anxiety among photographers at that time: “They’re all at it. It’s all over for us!”
Looking at it positively, photography is the key medium of the moment, the only one keeping up with, and indeed driving, the fast-forward digital-social media-insta culture.
LC: Finally—you managed to create a career for yourself doing what you love and pursuing your interests. Rather than ask specifically, “How does one become a photo critic” or “How does one ‘make’ it as an artist,” I’m more curious about a general dilemma: how does one pursue a passion out in the world while maintaining one’s love for it, while safeguarding the original spark?
SOH: That’s hard for me to answer. I was lucky to have come up at a time when there was more time to waste without the consequences that there are today. I do believe that wasting time is integral to creativity, as is boredom, daydream and reverie.
In fact, this is one of my big political and personal causes, so here goes: as a young man, I came to London and went to college on a grant that also paid for my rent and travel. I lived in cheap accommodation in rundown, bohemian neighborhoods and did crap jobs so I could afford to go to gigs. When I lost a job, I got another one. I had many friends who attended art college and had cheap or free studios in Brixton or Hackney or even Ladbroke Grove.
Now, rents in London are the highest in Europe. College fees are so expensive as to socially exclude working-class students and the interest rates that banks charge on student loans is also prohibitive. There are not many student jobs that pay above the minimum wage. All of the above neighborhoods have been gentrified, as has the art world (though it always was, to a degree). Not only that, but art, photography, theatre and even pop music—the last refuge of the working-class chancer with talent—have all been gentrified as well. I really believe that those without inherited wealth are being socially and culturally excluded. Class is the elephant in the art (and photography) world—and of English culture in general. More so, I believe, than even gender or race, which at least are actively debated.
This, of course, impacts one’s chances of becoming what one wants to be: whether an artist, photographer or even, God help us, a critic. I would like to say that good writing will win out…but so many avenues have closed down. Other avenues have, of course, opened up: online blogs, forums, websites…self-publishing, indie publishing, photo festivals, etc. have all blossomed. Yet it seems to me that a lot of young people I know are working for nothing or just getting by. I admire their dedication, but this is not how it should be! There is something fundamentally flawed in the fact that we now accept people should work for nothing and have no safeguards in terms of contracts or conditions.
Amidst all of these pressures, I’m not sure how you safeguard that “original spark.” You really have to love what you do, I guess. I was lucky, I never had to think too much about a career. There were one or two blessed moments when I happened to be in the right place at exactly the right time, and I met the right person. Were I starting out now, who knows if I would have the will or the stamina? It’s a different world. It really is.
—Sean O’Hagan, interviewed by Alexander Strecker
Our Emerging Talent Awards are open for entries—and the deadline is fast approaching (October 17)! Learn more about the rest of the jury and the wide range of benefits for submitting your work on our Call for Entries page.