Sean O’Hagan on writing about Photography

In the process of working on the new Photography Level 3 professional practice module, I contacted the Guardian and Observer’s correspondent on photography, Sean O’Hagan, to ask him about how came to make a living out of writing about photography and the changes that have taken place within such a role in recent years. We felt that Sean’s response was generous and that it was worth sharing with everyone. Enjoy…

sean o h blog

JA: How did you become the Guardian and the Observer’s photography correspondent and critic?

SO: I worked in the music press (NME) back in the 1980s and then for The Face and Arena magazines. I started writing freelance for the ‘grown-up’ newspapers – The Guardian, mainly -  after the success of my feature on The Birth of the New Lad in Arena  in 1993. When I worked at NME, I became friendly with some of their photographers because you often went on trips to America with them to cover bands. I was always jealous of them because they got paid more than me and their job seemed much easier. (They still do and it still is!) My best friend is Steve Pyke, a portrait photographer, and I worked with him and Kevin Cummins a lot back then. I became interested in photography after buying a book by Josef Koudelka in the 1980s and seeing his portrait of a man in handcuffs on a hill in Romania. Just an intriguing and mysterious photograph that haunted me. I was also familiar with great photojournalism – Don McCullin especially. I started writing about photography in the early noughties because no one else was doing it in the mainstream press and it seemed so vibrant a scene here and abroad. It just grew from there and then the Guardian asked me to do a regular online column. I still prefer interviews, though.
JA:  How do you go about choosing work and topics to write about?
SO: A lot of time is spent looking at new stuff – online stuff , pdfs of new books, websites I like, and checking out what publishers are releasing. A lot of time is spent in independent bookshops. That’s where you can really check the pulse of contemporary photography. The book is the thing. It’s how most people absorb photography. You can go to a bookshop and be blown away by something new that is an art object in itself and never even think of seeing the same work in a show. I think photography is unique in that way. I go to openings and events and book launches. There is always more stuff than I can process, sadly. Plus, I am writing for a different audience than say an art magazine, so there is an extra  degree of selection involved. A lot of time is spent trawling though emails…hundreds of emails. But, I divide my time between photography, other interview-based journalism with artists, writers etc and trying to finish a book. It’s a constant juggling match.  A lot of time is still spent convincing editors that a book or show is worth reviewing, especially with new work. Photography is still the poor relation to painting, theatre, and even dance, for Gawd’s sake! It does get to me….I do feel I am on a mission.
JA: What are the best things about your job?
SO: I’m doing what I want – writing about something I love. Discovering new work that is exiting. I’ve always followed my enthusiasms. Plus the photography community in Britain is still relatively small and, despite the egos, there is still a felling that we are all in it together.
JA: Do you think that writers and critics like yourself influence the way photography is is consumed by audiences?
SO: Not sure really. You’d have to ask the readers. If you read the online comments, you’d give up writing full stop, but I get some positive feed back as well. I know I have engendered fierce debate about certain things: The Deutsche Borse Prize, the curator-led domination of conceptual work, that kind of thing. And my feature on The Ruins of Detroit book by Marchand and Meffre (Jan ’11) had an extraordinary online response. Most viewed after Wiki- Leaks. It struck some kind of chord, but that kind of thing is the exception. I think Britain lagged behind America and France in taking photography – especially contemporary photography – seriously, but now it is catching up fast. A lot of people still like photography to be black and white, literally and metaphorically. I hope I have contributed a little bit to changing that perception. But it has been a battle. I remember when I got William Eggelston’s Red Ceiling on the cover of the Observer magazine. That was a huge victory for me – three decades after he took the photograph!  A lot of people were baffled, though, but they needed to be!
JA:  Photographers usually voice the extent to which their jobs have changed over the past decade. How has your role changed over the past decade? 
SO: Dramatically. I remember going to the Arles Rencontres Festival in France for the first time in 2004, when Martin Parr was the curator. I arrived on Wednesday afternoon into this vast hub of photography and I had to turn around a 1200 word feature by the Friday morning. Now, I think that was such a luxury. These days, I go to Arles and I have to blog daily and do the review and network (there is talk of also making short films and audio pieces.)  But still, it’s kind of exciting.
One thing I would say is the whole thrust of the media is towards fast response and I am quite a reflective writer, so that’s been a challenge. I HATE having to respond so quickly to something. I need time to think things though, but that is how it is now. That’s why I have insisted that every second online piece is a column rather than a blog. More measured, more thoughtful. Photography demands thought,  close attention. All good art does. Also, I’m glad photography is vibrant right now, but I wish there weren’t so many festivals and prizes. It’s getting a bit ridiculous.
JA: How important is it for students to be able to write about their practice?
SO: A student in Belfast asked me that last year. Plaintively. In fact, he said, could you give a talk about how we could write about our work? I thought that was revealing. They need practical help on this sort of thing. I think a lot of visual people find it difficult to make their ideas concise. I’ve also noticed a lot of pseudo-conceptual blather at degree shows and when I did degree show selections for Source magazine and the Photographers Gallery. Paragraphs of ill-digested theory and really mundane or derivative photographs. Sorry if this sounds harsh, but I sometimes think there is a bit if a crisis in the teaching of photography. I really think po-mo [post modern] theory should be held back to post graduate stage. Learn to take or make good pictures first, then you can theorise all you like. And read Robert Adams: Beauty in Photography or Along Some Rivers. (A lot of photographers are great writers – Adams, Arbus, Shore…) Or read Orwell’s essay Politics and the English Language. It’s full of practical tips on how to write concisely and directly. It’s important. Or, if you are really no good at it, get someone else to do it.
JA: What advice would you give to students who want to make a living from writing about photography or the visual arts more generally?
SO: Learn how to write – see Orwell’s essay, mentioned above. You have to decode often difficult or oblique – even preposterous – ideas from time to time for your readers. You can’t do that by being dense, oblique or preposterous in your writing. Think about where you are going to write and tailor your style accordingly. Read great essayists. Joan Didion’s essays remain my single most important source of inspiration. They changed how I thought about writing and made me think that non-fiction could be as powerful as fiction and that observation and deep looking and listening is everything. I still think that. Find your own personal Didion!  But, yes, it’s harder now to make a living in the digital world and there are so many people taking photographs. I think writing is kind of instinctive, too, like photography, but then you work at it and hone it down. Look at good online writing about photography. Joel Colberg’s blog, Conscientious, is good and Elizabeth Avedon. You have to work hard, though, and somehow find a voice in this overcrowded world. It’s a vocation. Good luck!

 

Read Sean O’Hagan’s blog on the Guardian website here 

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7 comments for “Sean O’Hagan on writing about Photography

  1. Jill Willis
    22 May 2013 at 6:16 pm

    Very useful suggestions for reading – thank you. I was impressed by O’Hagan at his Desert Island Pics session in Brighton last year. Wish I’d stayed and offered him a drink!

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    • 23 May 2013 at 5:43 pm

      Mmm I too went and looked at the leads immediately and signed up for the majority.

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  2. 23 May 2013 at 12:23 pm

    One sentence was particularly telling for me, ” I really think po-mo [post modern] theory should be held back to post graduate stage. Learn to take or make good pictures first, then you can theorise all you like.”
    Certainly, at my stage, I do keep asking myself how all the reading I do is actually going to help me to take better photographs. It’s interesting and I do enjoy decoding images etc but still …… Also I really do appreciate Sean’s straightforward non-nonsense approach to photography and certainly enjoyed listening to him in Brighton last year.

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    • 23 May 2013 at 5:42 pm

      I am like you on where does the reading take you Catherine, but you also read Sharon’s appraisal of my image last week when she said that she saw the reading showing up in my work now. I think you’ll probably find it’s subliminal rather than overt.

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  3. 23 May 2013 at 12:52 pm

    I not sure that I entirely agree with this point. The OCA degree is academic, which is what I wanted, and while the technical learning is useful it hardly qualifies as a whole BA content. The current modules are a good fit with what I expect from the course, but the technical learning was something that I did many years ago. If it hadn’t been for the theory in TAoP I’d have stopped then.
    I do agree that the reading is initially challenging but I still have all my theory books and regularly dip into them because I find them essential to my constantly shifting understanding. I’m still buying them by the bucket-load, latest being Lucy Soutter’s “Why Art Photography?” for Kindle.

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    • 24 May 2013 at 4:24 pm

      Glad to hear your point of view Brian … echoes my own! Read Lucy Soutter’s book which I found a worthwhile read!

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  4. 24 May 2013 at 4:22 pm

    Also attended the Sean O”Hagan session in Brighton; my blog of the event here …

    http://amanostudy.wordpress.com/2012/11/30/desert-island-photographs-stephen-bull-interviews-sean-ohagan/

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