On “Photography”:
A Conversation with Charlotte Cotton

January 30, 2018

As one of the most influential photographic thinkers and curators of this millennium, Charlotte Cotton hardly needs an introduction. She is the  author of Photography is Magic (Aperture, 2015) and The Photograph as Contemporary Art (Thames & Hudson, 2004), and recently served as the first Curator in Residence at the International Center of Photography (2015-2016).  Over the past 15 years there are few in the photography world that have so actively identified and articulated the critical contexts that we use to understand photographic thinking and production.

This conversation was conducted via email in the winter and spring of 2017, and began as a request by me to simply exchange ideas on how terminology and definitions of photography have an influence on theory and production of contemporary photography. What follows is loose, free-wheeling exchange of ideas on how to define what the word “photography” is and can be in the 21st century.


Gregory Eddi Jones: To start Charlotte, I think we’re in the same boat when I say that I value photographic practice that is not reliant on happenstance, but conveys a totality of control over a picture form. It’s so natural to associate digital pictures with photography, but I see the true form of the media as mosaic of sorts. I think of the nature of digital mosaic as a request for uninhibited authorship.  Pixels of a digital picture are waiting to be re-coded, and it feels appropriate to take advantage of this in our age of hyper-customization, to achieve greater personalization and pluralism of expression.

There is such a strong urge to maintain the word “photography” as an anchor to define the conversation about pictures made with photographic tools. But recall that early forms of photography were categorized according to the materials and chemistry used to make them (tintypes, cyanotypes, salt prints, etc..)

What do you think about the value in continuing to use “photography” as a linguistic umbrella for images that do not rely on happenstance so much as the artist acting upon the picture with digital tools? Are terms like “new media photography” and “post-internet practice” adequate to describe the major trends in contemporary art photography? Do we need a more specified vocabulary to dissect current practices more clearly?


Charlotte Cotton: I do agree that there is a litany of contradictions in continuing to name and exclusively define contemporary image-making practices as ‘photography’. I think the extent to which you view the predicament you are outlining here as an insurmountable set of problems, or a time of definitive rupture in our vocabulary that the terms ‘new’ or ‘post-‘ highlight, is somewhat a personal one.  Not least, it really depends on which photographic specter you are calling forth from history to stabilize or destabilize the notion of photography as you perceive it.  I’d also add, as a further subjectivising factor, that the baggage cart, the tool chest, and the cast of photographers that constitute the field continues to rove, expand, take on its ‘seasonal workers’ and put some of its personnel and machines out to pasture, and dust off others.  I suspect that all of the above has been alive and kicking throughout the history of human creative endeavor, of which ‘photography’ is not an insignificant but a relatively recent manifestation.

I can feel myself resisting the urge to take the rise from your first observations and question of sorts.  Part of me wants to be pragmatic and ask you outright whether you want to – straight away – run by me your alternative to ‘photography’ as the centrifugal term that might more efficiently embody the independent, creative image-making practices that we likely both consider the lifeblood of this post-media, post-discipline arena.  And of course, I do share your philosophical take on the potentiality of a pixel-driven image world as a space for, as you say, for “uninhibited authorship” despite its containment within a visual landscape where any image can manifest behaviors that are di­stinctly detached from the intentionality and authorship of its creator/s.

My own specter from photography’s past is perhaps different from yours.  I think it’s shaped by my own subjectivity and character bents where the long game that I imagine myself being part of is one that aims to rejuvenate the idea of what ‘photography’ can be – the idea of it – and to think of it as an additive process.  That mindset is shaped by my appreciation that the 21st century so far has kept lots of new and old ideas of photography in play as an array of militating factors swirl around us.  I think there is also, within me, a deep down preference for gray areas, fluidity, and change within the slippery-surfaced terrain of photography versus a perhaps equally valid ideal of hard pruning, prioritizing, and privileging of particular elements within photography’s estate.  For me, the latter comes perilously close to a pyramidal, patriarchal structure – the king is dead, long live the king.


GEJ: I love this crossroads we’ve found ourselves in, Charlotte. On your notion of personal specter, I agree ours differ. I think many of my assessments of photography are subtractive in nature. I have great appreciations for photographic traditions, but when considering images I most often ask: What is communicated in any given picture if we strip its inherent placement within a photographic tradition? How does an image operate as a messaging device within the broader culture as opposed to our photographic culture?

I do think “photography” seems necessary as a centrifugal anchor, but I feel the field places too much emphasis on the term in sacrifice of more specialized terminology. A good example is the word “selfie,” a localized definition that refers to a singular branch of the photographic tree. It contains ample grey area to explore and the term manifests itself in a broad array of possibilities. I think that if this image-idea was considered in the broader definition of “self-portraiture” it would be much less effective to dissect all the attitudes, consequences, and politics surrounding this particular image-type.

In the fields of science there are hundreds of terms that denote classifications of sub-genres, scores more if we include mathematics. In music we encounter definitions like “Shoegaze,” “Power Pop,” “Death Metal.” There’s a genre of poetry called “Spoetry” that refers to poems influenced by spam emails. I don’t know how much is at stake here, and I suppose this is all sums of to a natural curiosity of mine, that there are such strong aesthetic, technical and conceptual fractures within the broad canon of the photographic now, but little overall desire to categorize them with specificity.

In your 2013 essay Nine Years, A Million Conceptual Miles, you address this yourself by posing the question: “What other medium is still exhibited so regularly in those dreadfully tired categories ‘landscape,’ ‘portraiture,’ and ‘still life,’ as per forty years ago?”

Do you see this as of any issue of consequence? Do you feel that in some ways that a lack of a more categorical framework of photographic criticism and identification has an effect on not just photographic production, but in promotion within more central photographic institutions?


CC:  Well, I think I would be somewhat lost without the permissions and boundaries that I garner from the history of photography.  That claim does need to be qualified by me identifying myself as an autodidact.  I don’t mean to suggest that I am the gatekeeper to “the” history of photography from which I delineate a context and a heritage for thinking about contemporary practices. It’s more that I am receptive to what from the history of photography bubbles up in my imagination when thinking through today’s authored photographic practices, and I give some space to this in my workings out of how to articulate my point of view.  Maybe its fear, more likely it is plain resistance to losing my grounding in the history of a medium that I still feel bares fruit, continues to have fresh growth.

Those genre terms that I disparaged in the ‘Nine Years…’ essay do still seem to me to be tired and not overly useful ways to craft sub-genre groupings of photographic practice in the 2010s, especially if they intentionally or inadvertently perpetuate the idea that the motivations and meanings that underpin contemporary practices are pretty much “business as usual” for photography.  I think that (and you seem to be sharing that view, perhaps) there is much to gain from new categories.  The analogies you make to the fields of mathematics, music, and poetry are good ones and I wonder if these sub-genre terms are seeded by practitioners, i.e. are ones that can be mapped as the utilitarian language of photography as shaped by makers – something that institutions could be expected to respond to, perhaps?  I’d love to know what you think are the definitions that have currency right now and need to be taken into account as the most useful subgenres.

It’s not something that I think I have applied myself to, although the titles of my projects do act as guides and criteria that I draw from during my working process.  I guess my attempt to speak of the “photographic” (along with “sculptural” and “painterly”) in Photography is Magic as a useful term – for me anyway – to articulate what I was finding the most interesting and inspiring in contemporary practices without labeling them “photography” is the closest that I have come to attempting to categorize with some distinction.


GEJ:  I would probably agree that sub-genre terms are largely seeded by practitioners. It’s curious to me that art photographers don’t seem to seek out to define their work in more categorical means. Perhaps it could be that many follow in the approach you speak to of considering work as means to expand the definition of photography, rather than defy it as categorical containment. I wonder too if many artists feel that their work benefits from a larger degree of categorical ambiguity, as opposed to more specialized definitions and interpretations within hypothetical sub-genres. I value a great amount of grey area like you, but to move into metaphor here, I wonder if more areas of pure black and white could make for a richer overall picture of the photographic landscape, at least from the perspective of writers and curators. I feel that “photography” as a rally flag is planted in over-crowded territory.

I know that offering speculative terminology might come off as silly or even brash, but perhaps there are some ways to at least parse out contemporary practices with more specificity.

Maybe we could adopt “Millenarian” photography (alongside new-media and post-internet) to refer to the shift towards from photographic practices relying on digital and internet tools? Perhaps “Spectaclist” works could refer to the contemporary work that is driven by aesthetics of vivid color and complex compositional structures? “Metagraphic” or “Autographic” work could work to describe practices of image-making that reference their own making and material. What about “Virtualary” to describe pictures made in correlation with virtual reality and 3-D mapping technology? If I wanted to be bold and risk offending a big group of photographers, perhaps “heritage,” or “ceremonial,” photography could describe traditional picture-taking practices from the new media perspective. In a broader sense, and I think I used this term earlier in this discussion, “imagetypes” would be a great descriptor of common image troupes that we often encounter in our photo-saturated world, and could refer to anything from “selfies” to sunset pictures, family photographs, street photographs, etc… I’ve always loved your use of “magic” to describe contemporary photography because even it allows for such rich varieties of genres and thought-points that images could apply too. I could go out on a limb and state “Social Recordity” to loosely describe the imagery from Public, Private, Secret.

I don’t think that with these speculations I am necessarily calling for their adoption. But I can’t help to make parallels to politics and the ongoing conflicts of “political correctness” as a means to shape perception and craft social dialogues, which often results in the guidance of how social action is conducted. I wonder if more specific terminology might allow artists to both define their practices with more specificity, as well as drive them to develop purer manifestations of a more decisive diversity of ideas. Southern Rock for example has different goals, aesthetics, values, and concerns than Folk Rock or Blues Rock, and as such, more pure renditions of these genres are allowed to emerge and be identified.

Maybe we could borrow from literature and describe images as comedies, horrors, dramas, and fantasies? Certainly there are pictorial aesthetics that these terms recall. Or borrow from music to describe punk photography, new wave photography, classical photography…with my tongue-in-cheek I could only imagine what reggae photography would look like and address. Or dub-step, or country gospel. These prospects seem delightful and baffling, and beg for ironic interpretation; but perhaps they could be conducted with sincerity as well.

At the very least, it all makes for a fun thought experiment.


CC:  I can see that you have been having fun with photographic neologisms, deftly avoiding the reclaiming of traditional terminology – the “new….” Or “neo….” In which the instrumentalizing and generalizing baggage, shaped by institutions and photography criticisms, is often found.  I still think that the way through is in the hands of practitioners and the language they claim for their practices.  Perhaps an algorithm could be applied to every available artist’s statement to surmise the currency of both traditionalist and new neologisms for photography.  Over a decade ago, I started working with David Reinfurt on a project called ‘Words Without Pictures’, which was eventually a printed book but it lived out primarily online.  David used an algorithm to identify and store the sentences where the most popular terminology appeared.  We did this as a way of being able to look back to see the context and nuanced meaning within the project of group language, as a way of reminding ourselves that language is as changeable as the medium at the center of this discussion-based project.  You are also reminding me of conversations with my friend and cohort Marisa Olson who is generally acknowledged as the first person to publicly define the term ‘Postinternet’, in the mid-2000s when many were attempting to pinpoint the meaning and intentionality of emergent creative practices.

There is something admirable that I read into your observations about being part of the discussion – of adding in new inflections and naming constellations of makers within a broad landscape of practice.  I do agree that we have reached the point in 21st century photographic practice where we can’t go on making distinctions between progressive and conservative intentions, analog or digital techniques, nor practices that seem to provide a continuation of a separatist history of photography versus those that aim to knock the photography ball right out of the park.

Thank you for noticing my own sleight of hand with titling my most recent book ‘Photography is Magic’.  It is a very gentle way on your part in calling me out on circumventing the sometimes-perceived requirement of a writer to qualify their choice of language!  And in no small part, my titling choice and the framing of the over eighty artists’ practices in the language of secular close-up magic was because of the desire to not over define this experimental, highly metabolic field of contemporary creativity.  It’s also a pretty accurate terminology for what I feel as a viewer of these practices – a kind of container for me to then use accepted terminology without concretizing a creative phase that is far from over.  Being an observer or viewer rather than a maker is an important justification for my semantic choices.  Being a curator who has pretty consistently instigated projects that do resonate with more than a core constituency – the people who are involved with the defining of the terminology within a creative field – I was drawn to work with a terminology that doesn’t smack of an insider knowledge nor play down the imaginative pleasure that these artists are providing their viewers.

I don’t think that I’m ready to go out on a limb with you regarding the terminology for the practices brought together in ‘Public, Private, Secret’.  It’s not that I disagree with you exactly, more that the aim of my attempt to curate historical photographs, imagery that is well-positioned within accepted histories of photography, alongside Postinternet artworks, and curated real-time media streams was to see if flattening the traditional museological hierarchy of visual culture within the social frame of personal privacy could animate each aspect in resonant ways.  It was far from a critique – or renaming – of the motivations and practices of any of its creators per se and not worthy of adding a new descriptive system.  It was intended as an exhibition that embodied its context by drawing connections and counterpointing these emblems within the vast spread of visual culture that collectively speak to the ways in which we are defined and exposed by the behavior of images.


GEJ: To switch gears here a little, I see many parallels between the photographic trends that have arisen over the past decade and the abstract expressionist movement. Primarily, the heights of both have seemed to achieve a sort of media purity, with works referring by and large to their own production, materiality, and historical conventions, and communicating within a vacuum of self-reflexivity. A few years ago the term “zombie formalism” was coined to describe continuations of abstract painting that largely yields diminishing academic and conceptual prowess. Very recently, in an essay for Vulture, Jerry Saltz wrote about the conventions of self-reflexive photography within the political context of the 2000s, and declared the continuation of (I’ll dare to use it) metagraphic pictures as, “Zombie Photography.” [The lead up to this declaration begins about 12 paragraphs into the article].

I know you’ve been asked countless times in previous interviews on the directions you think photography will go. The question I do want to ask you is: What trends or conventions do you hope photography will move towards?

For me, it’s hard to ask that question without bringing up the recent election, the cultural whiplash it created, and the political and social turbulence we will be witness to for the foreseeable future. At the same time, I survey the self-actualization of digital tools as an achievement of conceptual and aesthetic maturation. This might be a little hyperbolic, and I also have my own artistic biases, but I feel that it seems time for “high” photography to step out of the vacuum and confront the world more directly.


CC: There’s quite a few subjective determinations here, Gregory!  Firstly that abstract expressionism operated hermetically and separated from the social and political time within which it was conceived; the criticism of photography’s creative capacity for self reflection and a preference to some sort of ‘return’ to photography’s function as a clear window onto lives, events and stories as they unfold; and your call for more legible translations of our current political environment within the artistic practices of individual artists (or perhaps you mean the programming of galleries and museums?).  All of the museums that I have worked in since the early 1990s have been fundraising for new capital projects – extensions, renovations, entirely new primary galleries… And at any point in the past 25 years, if you had posed the question of whether I thought that this philanthropic or governmental money would be better spent on efficient and clean hospitals and student-focused schools, I would not have hesitated in agreeing.  Do I think that cultural institutions have to step up their game in taking into consideration how their audiences are feeling and what they are seeking from art experiences, sociability, and pedagogy?  Yes, absolutely, and if we look around even our modest world of photography, such programmatic emphases are already in action.  The best institutions are continually acting in self-reflexive ways that in no way are zombie-like or going through the received motions of what and how they provide their current and future constituents.

I actually don’t think that even the most studio or desktop-bound artists operate in a vacuum.  Artists are the sentient tribe, they ingest, translate, mediate, subvert, and question all manner of the militating factors that shape our lives in collective and singular ways.  Artists also respond to –carry the weight of –  the way in which their practice is read within the collective consciousness, and can be radically re- and mis- read at points of profound instability such as these. I’m sure you are not asking for a generation of artists to stop creating culture and to turn their attention to healthcare and education, although as a friend of mine who runs a small non-profit said to me a couple of years back, if an art project was set up to provide free dental care rather than an experimental performance, there was a greater chance of getting funding.

I think artists are confronting the world that we live in – some in explicit ways that we recognize as activism, others bringing their visual skills into the service of communicating proposals for and defenses of human rights and what is at stake at this chaotic political juncture, some put down their artistic tools and choose to participate in civil action, and some brave souls continued to go to their studio to make sense of it all through their true means.  I don’t want to think that the mainstream critique of artists or photographers that aren’t putting their talent exclusively into the service of social change is that they need to stop making art, or turn their attention to becoming illustrators.  Obviously, more is at stake now than the 2008 crash where I admit that I rubbed my hands together with a little glee that the bubble market for “high” photography might burst and there would be less 30”x40” photographs laminated behind plexi being produced to serve a market.  But now, I feel no glee at the prospect of artists who continue on their non-illustrative, highly observant and critical framing of contemporary life being made the whipping boy of creative culture.  As we write, the place of creative culture in American society is, at least, being symbolically trashed.


GEJ: You’re right to call out my determinisms, Charlotte, and I admire how you parse through them with such critical grace. I admit that my veiled provocations are fed by my own on-going and personal self-questioning of what my own role should be as a maker. Since the election I no longer identify myself as an artist, but as an American artist, and I’ve found personally that I do have concerns of what larger social responsibilities to adopt as a card dealer of visual symbolisms. I don’t mean at all to speak for the group, but I think there is a great potential value for the photography community, and it’s incidentally intimate understandings of media literacy, to address with substance how imagery plays a meaningful role in shaping a discourse that extends outside of its own community. And perhaps to a large extent it is the role of institutions to ensure this occurs. I feel like there are generally strong barriers of exclusivity that tend to get in the way of broader and more accessible critical engagement, and this is something of a burden that we all share in to some extent. In our political environment and specifically the needs of a more media literate society, I think these are some tangible considerations to that need some untangling.

I also do think there are distinctions to be made between art that functions passively within the cultural conscious, allowing for interpretive absorption of social context, and works like Picasso’ Guernica for example, or Hannah Hoch’s montage work, or Robert Heinecken’s mass media studies, which point towards concerns with more active determinations. The result of these works I think are more accessible and recognizable pathways for a general audience to venture into, with fewer prerequisites required for the unpacking of meaning.

At any rate, it’s been a great pleasure to have this conversation with you. To wrap this up I’m so curious to know: What have you been working on lately? What projects can we look forward to from you in the coming future?


CC: I like your term of ‘active determinations’, Gregory.  I like the word ‘determination’. I know this doesn’t specifically answer your questions about what I have been doing and what I have planned, but I’ve been busy learning new things, moving back to Los Angeles, developing new and deepening long-term collaborations, and dealing with the now pretty established reality of my life that the future comes into focus very last minute.  25 years ago, when I was an intern at the Victoria and Albert Museum, I first saw an old testament phrase, written in the ceramic tiles that decorated a sky bridge between the Henry Cole Wing and the original Royal College of Art.  The bridge was only visible to staff walking along the back road, which was the sobering opposite, and the working behind-the-scenes of the adorned façade of the museum.  The phrase is, “whatever your hands find to do, do it with all your might”.

At the time, as a young person just setting out in life, I read it as a permission giver to just get on and make and do what I felt I needed to do. I think the phrase could be boiled down to the encouragement to “be determined”.  As the years have gone on, my understanding of this memorable line has shifted.  I see it more as a reminder that we don’t have full control over what we are charged to do with our creative labor, our choice is about how much of our will and energy we call forth.  I continue to try to live by this mantra and try to find the situations where I can experience the present moment in a determined and open way, knowing that there is much to learn and much to do.



In addition to being the first curator in residence at the International Center of Photography (2015–16), Charlotte Cotton has also held curatorial positions at institutions including the Victoria and Albert Museum and The Photographers’ Gallery in London; the Wallis Annenberg Photography Department at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Katonah Museum of Art, New York; and Metabolic Studio in Los Angeles. She has been a visiting scholar and critic at institutions including The New School and NYU, New York; California College of the Arts, San Francisco; and Otis College, Los Angeles. She is the author of Photography Is Magic (2015) and The Photograph as Contemporary Art (2004), and cofounder of Words Without Pictures and Eitherand.org.


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