Carla Williams: “We’ve gone past the discussion of race and not actually integrated that broader approach into our thinking about art.”

August 26, 2010 § Leave a comment

Carla Williams is an artist, a writer, and a professor of photography at the Rochester Institute of Technology. She also edits the Society of Photographic Education’s journal Exposure.

ENG: You’ve written a lot about race and photography, and that’s something I’m really interested in. Could you talk a bit about what you see as happening right now in photography regarding intercultural representation, diversity, and race?

CW: At this point in my career, I feel like a lot of my work—particularly my work with Exposure as an editor, and as a blogger—it’s sort of like a numbers game. I’ve intentionally taken on the role of someone who is obsessed with chronicling the artists who just keep getting left out of the broader discussion.

En Foco, led by Miriam Romals, and Dodge and Burn, by Qiana Mestrich–what they all do really inspires me.

There’s this segregation that happens—and I think it’s a necessary one—where you have organizations like En Foco who are particularly focused on any artist of color. African American, Middle Eastern, Asian, Latino—sort of “everybody else.” And my blog does the same—because it focuses on primarily African Diaspora artists. But when I took over Exposure, I was determined to see that every issue got balanced.

I’ve worked in this field for over 20 years and diversity is just dwindling. My partner Deirdre even called me yesterday and said, “I’m in MOMA and I’m looking at these books, ‘50 photographers you should know,’ and guess how many are women? 8. And guess how many are people of color? 2!” You know? The numbers were…startling.

It’s like, Really?! Who could consciously publish that in this day and age? Who could look at the entire field of photography and think this made sense? It’s just unbelievable to me that A) the author could conceive of it and B) the publisher could think, Yeah. Good.

So in a sense, my scholarship is less scholarship than it is archival work; making sure that I keep counting, keep taking stock of people whose work already exists.

I had a conversation with Fazal [Sheikh] about the problems of things that are solely focused on or determined by race, or gender, or that kind of thing, [and there are problems]. The mainstream discussions about art and photography will claim that we have gotten past that, but I think we’ve done exactly the opposite. We’ve gone past the discussion of race and not actually integrated that broader approach into our to thinking about art.

I think it’s become a much smaller field than I imagined it was when I entered it. And the possibilities just seem so much narrower now than almost 30 years ago, when I decided to major in photography. If I were a student now, I wonder, is that a field I would choose?

ENG: Why is it important to move away from this homogeneity?

CW: Well, it’s important for me because I am a woman of color, and I want to imagine myself in this field. I want to imagine myself as part of its history, as part of its present—as part of it. And so unless there are other people like me, I can’t imagine my own place.

And if I’m there, then I want everybody else there too. I mean, not to sound Pollyanna-ish or anything, but it’s really crucial. I can’t imagine being part of this discussion if I can’t turn to anyone and engage them with these same ideas about pictures, and what they mean, and how they operate.

So on a personal level it’s really important to me. And on a professional level, photography is such a huge medium. One of the things I’ve always loved about it is that it’s so accessible, compared to any other art medium. It functions in so many ways beyond just art. It is journalism. It is science. It is all these things. And the idea that you would continue to promote it as simply one narrow thing is just bizarre.  I can’t imagine why anybody would be invested in that, because there’s so much more to explore about it. There are so many different layers of thinking about it and approaching it.

ENG: And why is diversity decreasing in the field?

CW: I think a lot of it is market-driven. The way in which photography has gotten inflated in the last 20 years, and the way in which photographs have gotten so much bigger in order to enter into that art-collector’s marketplace—I think all of that plays a role.

And I think the way in which dealers market artists to collectors (and by extension, to museums) has really narrowed the way in which the market values particular kinds of work.

ENG: Yeah, I’ve noticed that. The art that’s in museums and being sold in the high-end galleries is often really different from art that is shown locally, in communities, as a way to bring people together. Can you explain a bit more about that?

CW: I always point to the Becher school—the photographers that studied with the Bechers at Dusseldorf Academy. The way in which all of that work hit the photo scene and particularly the marketplace created a shift away from work that was typically concerned with issues of representation, cultural issues. And a shift away from work which was more on the scale of traditional photo printing.

It’s work that reintroduced a particular modenist aesthetic in this postmodnernism. And it was work that shifted its scale to communicate more with painting and the traditional museum-based arts.

The market for photographs didn’t really exist before the 1970’s, and by the 1990’s it had really shifted. At that point photography entered the market with more aggressively editioned work, larger work, and work that operated more like painting and sculpture and those more traditional western art forms.

And so the work that I think of as “photography” as opposed to “art” is much more photo-scaled, it’s more community-based, and it’s attempting to operate at levels other than the collector’s marketplace.

I think now there is a lot of photography that just operates as “art.” And many of the artists who make it aren’t photographers, per se. They’re artists who work with photography. I come out of a tradition of people for whom the medium is really photography; people for whom It’s as much about the medium itself as it’s about the ideas and the subject in the work.

So there’s this split that happened. And I think it’s perfectly fine that it happened, but there’s not a tremendous amount of acknowledgement that both approaches remained vital. Because I think the tendency is to assume that the mold that dominates is the correct one.

And when you have photographic prints that start at $20,000-$50,000—there are not a lot of people who are going to sell at those numbers. The market just won’t support that. So you have this much more rarified realm of collecting.

I’m not really interested in art so much as I am in photography. That’s one of the reasons why I was particularly interested to work at RIT because it’s a school that has a photo program. It’s not a fine art program into which photography enters. It’s a photography program, of which fine art is a component. Although I am “fine art faculty,” one of the things that was really important to me was that it’s a school that has advertising, photojournalism and biomedical photography—all of that is within our college.

And to me, that’s what’s so great about photography—it has all these different kinds of applications, and fine art’s just one little part of that.

ENG: Tell me about some of the major issues you see going on in journalistic photography right now.

CW: It’s a shame if professionals get ousted by amateurs because you become a professional for a reason—there’s more to it than just picking up the camera.

But at the same time, it’s really dependent upon what your audience knows and expects and if your audience is increasingly savvy about its own ability to produce images, I think that really does shift the role that the professional photographer plays in the presentation of imagery, and in the presentation of information through images.

I find that in teaching, I’m more drawn to discussions about journalism than about fine arts because, in this moment, it’s more interesting. We’re facing this real shift in the way we conventionalize photographs in journalism.

Whereas in fine arts, anything goes. You can really make anything and it’s fine. People make daguerreotypes and digital prints, and you can attach an aesthetic and significance to all those choices. But in journalism those questions like, “What are you doing? and why are you doing it?” seem much more vital and necessary to ask.

I think we still do a fairly poor job of paying attention when people represent themselves. People travel more and we have a global economy, so people are coming into greater contact with other cultures, but we still have difficulty understanding the difference between being represented and representing yourself.

And those debates are tough. And it’s not to say that people who represent others can’t do a really terrific job of capturing the complexities and losses of a particular group. But I think, as a whole, that particular debate has overshadowed the necessity of people representing themselves.

One of the blogs that I have is about black photographers and publishing. Basically what I do is collect any book, anything that could be called a book, any publication by or about black photographers, and to a lesser degree (because of my budget), books about black subjects.

The reasons I do it are multifold, but one of them is that I want to make the books accessible. I want to create a small, circulating library.

And one of the challenges of that is I end up buying a lot of books whose images don’t interest me at all. In fact, the vast majority of the actual images I’m not interested in. But I’m really interested in who has made them and why, and why those get published and not others. And also, again, that counting thing. I’m counting everything that has been published, because so far the numbers are so small, in relation to the number of photobooks that have been published in total since 1844 when the Pencil of Nature was published.

And so what I have learned is that I can’t even consider the pictures in the way I would normally consider a photograph because that’s not what’s important. What’s important is that act of representation. And, in that instance, the act of reproduction in print form, and what that means. And then the pictures themselves are sort of secondary.

And that’s a weird thing to reconcile. But until the discussion is more broad across the spectrum of photographs and photography, I think it’s important.

It’s so much a part of our world, our innate curiosity about people. We like to look at pictures of them! We like to take them and we like to look at them. It’s what we do as human beings that have this tool—the camera. it’s just so much a part of understanding the world that we have to negotiate with it. We have to figure it out.


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