Since the pandemic hit I have been reading the, I believe, weekly newsletter from Aperture – part of my “any port in a storm” approach to staying in touch with the photographic world without leaving my lair. I confess, however, that my usual examination of it consists of the first couple of paragraphs of some of the articles and looking at the photographs, usually with as much puzzlement as amazement.
Today I received an email from Aperture from their “development” department. The bait to induce me to donate to their annual fund drive was an interview with Dawoud Bey titled “Changes to the Photography World in the Twenty-First Century” and it was worth a careful read. I became a fan of Bey’s work when I saw some of his portraits at the Tacoma Art Museum (an institution that takes photography seriously) in the biennial portrait competition sponsored by the National Portrait Gallery. Seeing his work in the flesh, so to speak, is a different experience than on a computer screen. In fact that distinction appears in his Aperture interview. He goes so far as to state that to him “photograph” implies a physical object and “picture” applies to what we see on a computer screen. “Picture” seems too generic to me and I believe that we need a new word for “image captured in some light-sensitive way but displayed on a computer screen”.
Bey’s 29 year old son works in social media production for a living and is advising him on how to create a presence on Instagram and make it useful. However, Bey confesses a degree of skepticism and puzzlement about how that can happen. (I’m with him there!)
The interviewer for this piece is the executive director of Aperture. Speaking of the changes in their magazine that they recently introduced, he stated that: “Hello, Photography” (Spring 2013), an optimistic assertion of the value of photography; the Aperture magazine issue we did with Magnum Foundation, “Documentary, Expanded” (Spring 2014); and Charlotte Cotton’s book Photography Is Magic (2015), among others. I think Photography Is Magic was the apotheosis of a distinct ontological moment in photography.” Holy Dektol, Lensman! Bey lowered the artobabble level in his response to that statement.
But that brings me to the rant section of this piece. Asked how he became visible to Aperture, Bey says: “I was surprised, one day, to get an email from one of the editorial staff at Aperture saying that someone (a mutual friend, whom I knew from the Studio Museum in Harlem’s administration) had told them they should take a look at my work. The email went on to ask, “What kind of work do you do, landscapes?” What colossal arrogance! The writer of that email didn’t even have the courtesy to spend five minutes or less to find out what Bey’s work was like. Getting even an uniformed tickle from the rarified heights of Aperture was enough?
Alas, that has been my opinion of Aperture for a long time. I subscribed to the Aperture and to Art News for several years and found the writing in both, well, dense. I kept feeling that I should be able to untangle the articles but somehow never did. I dropped both subscriptions after reading a letter to the editor in one of them. The writer stated that he was a trained librarian and had read the magazine regularly for nearly a decade. The previous issue, he was glad to report, contained an article that he actually understood.