Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 23, 2023
Andrew Dewdney Forget Photography Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2021. 240 pp.; 0 color ills.; 25 b/w ills. Cloth $45.00 (9781912685820)

In Forget Photography, Andrew Dewdney calls on scholars to stop using photography theory to understand digital images and the visual cultures they characterize. Made with pixels, circulated by data algorithms and social networks, the computational images that suffuse contemporary life require, in Dewdney’s words: “A more productive discourse in which the hybridity of the networked image, inequality, racism and climate change stand at the centre of concern” (12). It is an expansive, necessary, and difficult goal.

Aiming to clear space for this more productive discourse, Forget Photography consigns photography to the past: “The analogue photograph, the world to which it belonged, the world it showed us, together with its apparatuses, although not its cultural institutions and archives, have all but disappeared,” Dewdney writes (19). Instead, the “network image,” or “computational image,” circulates within technical and economic systems wholly different from those in which photography flourished. In contrast to photographs, for example, network images are both visual (to humans) and nonvisual, nonhuman. As Dewdney outlines in the book’s third and last part, computer networks increasingly code for, reproduce, and distribute contemporary visual culture (152). In his short discussion of computer-generated images of multiracial supermodels and influencers, Dewdney suggests moreover that data processing increasingly shapes images as “continuous actualisation[s] of networked data” rather than singular or static entities (160). Machines have been making images for other machines for some decades now to boot—in a sinister example—the “operational images” tracking subjects for government and/or corporate control (as described by Harun Farocki and Trevor Paglen in “Operational Images,”, vol.59). “The world of representation has been replaced, as if overnight, by the image as performance and the image as information,” Dewdney states (169).

Yet the first two-thirds of Forget Photography are less about these new conditions and more about how contemporary institutions—university departments, and museums—have obscured them. To use Dewdney’s metaphor in the second chapter, “Zombie Photography”: academia keeps photography undead. In his case study of traditional and digital exhibitionary practices at the Tate Modern and the Tate Britain in chapter five, “Photography and Modernism” for example, Dewdney suggests that art museums’ adherence to modernist values—“the authority of the artist, the expertise of the curator and the discourse of the contemporary”—prevents them from engaging with internet culture, which would “involve an acceptance of the multiplicity of hybrids across networks, as met in their many different contexts of user engagement on networked screens” (101-02). Though engaging with internet culture would align with these institutions’ stated mission of global engagement and inclusion, according to Dewdney, such gestures are hamstrung by the increasing specializations, periodizations, and categorizations within which art history makes evermore small-scale interventions (74). Even the interventions from new media studies during the 1990s, which Dewdney associates with “Post-Photography,” the title of chapter three, are hung up on periodization because they hinge on whether computer imaging is a break from photography or not (49).

When Dewdney tells us to “forget photography” he does not mean a break with the medium but a strategy of remembering photography differently. “Forgetting is not the enemy of memory, but its process of (re)negotiation,” he states (22). To forget photography is to see the network image as “an expansive epistemological apparatus, a relational socio-technical assemblage which both limits and creates possibilities for how and what can be thought and imagined within it” (190). Among such possibilities are new ways of conceiving photography, such as Ariella Azoulay’s concept of sovereignty, which defines the photograph as a set of social relations among individuals and the powers that govern us (The Civil Contract of Photography, Princeton University Press, 2008). For Dewdney, Azoulay’s concept suggests that photographs are “relational socio-technical assemblages” somewhat like network images—what has changed are the relationships among the social and technical systems that contain these respective image-types (26). Dewdney urges academia to “forget photography ‘itself,’ in order to see the ‘disaffected socius,’ . . .  the constitution of the idea of photography” (23). Drawing from Azoulay and Paul Ricoeur, Dewdney argues that forgetting photography is to transform its memory and imagine new ways to live: “It is precisely the disaffected socius which needs to be remembered in photography, the institutions of capital and the state, within which photography and life are manifest, ordered, and disordered . . . ” (23).

One might say that Forget Photography is a book about academia, about how the “divisive, competitive, and myopic conditions of current knowledge production” impede a more socially conscious and politically effective analysis of visual culture (200). While scholars often propose new ideas and radical critiques, Dewdney sees these agendas devolving all-too-often into careerism rather than contributing to community knowledge beyond the university (200). “The parsing of academic knowledge according to ever more tightly drawn boundaries and subfields,” Dewdney correctly observes, “works largely to depoliticise media outside of the art field, whereas a politics requires the joining up of knowledge of specific actors with the sphere of everyday operations” (178). Dewdney believes that scholarship needs new ways of generating and sharing knowledge as well as new sorts of labor practices.

It’s well enough that Forget Photography calls on scholars because Dewdney’s dense prose and array of theoretical terms demands expertise. Dewdney regularly follows expansive statements with paragraphs of what are effectively series of annotated bibliographies. Though this makes for an impressive overview of theoretical literature in new media and photography, Dewdney’s discussions of given texts do not always legibly align with his arguments. It sometimes reads as if Dewdney is making intuitive connections requiring further thought. That Dewdney repeats the same sentences in different chapters further suggests some difficulty in negotiating the relationship between statement and support. One example is Dewdney’s discussion of Baudrillard’s “Forget Foucault” (Semiotext(e), 2007), in which almost word-for-word identical sentences appear on pages five and two hundred and nine.

Generous readers might attribute such lapses to the urgency of Dewdney’s call. The digital technologies under his scrutiny constantly evolve—ChatGPT has come out since Forget Photography’s publication—as do the interrelated crises that Western humanities face. These demand swift responses, interventions that scholars can and should continue to develop.

To me the most pressing response involves a fuller accounting of the contributions already made to Dewdney’s concerns by critical race theory, gender and queer studies, postcolonial/decolonization studies, and so forth. While Dewdney claims that—

the argument for forgetting photography resonates strongly with current interest and approaches to the decolonisation of knowledge practices, and to critical historical counter-readings developed, as Beller notes, by ‘black, minoritarian, queer, of color, subaltern, Marxist, feminist, and Global South scholarship.’ (Dewdney quotes Jonathan Beller’s list of liberatory fields of thought in The Message is Murder: Substrates of Computational Capital, Pluto Press, 2018, 24)

Forget Photography does not evince sustained interest in these fields. However, these literatures contain plenty of material relevant to his polemic. Okwui Enwezor, Stuart Hall, Alondra Nelson all come readily to mind from Black and/or feminist scholarship (to name a few). It strikes me that Dewdney’s argument might benefit from including Enwezor’s exploration of documentation and documentary, history and memory, across multiple Western and Global South sites in documenta11, for one example. I imagine documenta11 might make a more illuminating and challenging case study than the straw men offered by the relatively conservative London museums covered in part two of Forgetting Photography.

Even outside the fields of visual culture, art history, and media studies, any number of writers associated with BIPOC, LGBTQ+, feminist, and subaltern studies (among others) have discussed the myriad problems with academic institutions and how they shape knowledge. Quite a few have outlined alternative models. Though Dewdney claims, “a new approach is needed in which knowledge can become common and public by embedding research in independent collaborative communities of practice beyond the university” (200), I encourage us to remember that organizations like Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press and the Lesbian Herstory Archive (two legendary examples from the United States) have long constituted “independent collaborative communities” for transdisciplinary scholarship.

Forget Photography makes an important intervention in scholarly approaches to contemporary visual culture. No doubt that the networked image, and the society it represents and propagates, requires a reinvention of scholarly labor and products. I hope we also think carefully about where we enter this new discourse and whom we follow.

Ariel Evans
Contemporary Art Research Fellow, African and African Diaspora Studies, The University of Texas at Austin