Study Hangout (9th May 2019) for Charlotte Cotton’s (2015) Introductory Essay to ‘Photography is Magic’

Today (May 9th 2019), I attended a study hangout with the photography reading group. We discussed Charlotte Cotton’s (2015) introductory essay to Photography is Magic. I had read the essay before so was familiar with it but reread it specifically for the study hangout and this is my preparation before the hangout commenced:

Cotton likens photography of a contemporary nature to close-up magic. This connection is consistent in both photography and close-up magic because both are brought about by the viewer’s imagination. They see what they want to see based on ‘visual frames within which we are invited to focus our attention.’ – (Cotton, 2015). The ‘framework of the present moment of visual culture.’ – (Cotton, 2015) is used by the artists in the book to engage the viewer’s imagination. This staging of their practice in the contemporary moment works because the viewer is quite adept at comprehending or reading the visual ideas, more so than previously in our history.

The images on display through the rest of the book I would term under Flusser’s ‘informative images’ – (Flusser, 1983), rather than ‘redundant’ ones as they attempt to investigate contemporary topics like the algorithms ‘technologies themselves are “authoring” the images we see’ – (Cotton, 2015). Also I would suggest these images fall under the bracket of ‘interrogating the medium’ as I discovered in What Next for Photography in the Age of Instagram? (O’Hagan, 2018).

Just like the technologies the images are based upon or wish to subvert, the images themselves are in flux – ‘ideas repeat and morph over the course of the artist’s practice.’ – (Cotton, 2015). This is something I, for one could learn from; I sometimes return to previous ideas and images but hardly enough.

Not only are the originals (the photographs) precarious in nature but even copies of the original are being added to or iterated upon. Cotton compares this to Photoshop and indeed suggest many of photography’s ‘younger practitioners … have little or no psychic baggage of allegiance to photography’s analog past.’ – (Cotton, 2015). Although I don’t have much of an historical allegiance with photography’s analog past, I would say I have been quite conservative in terms of what a photograph should look like. Most of my photography clearly depicts a subject and would fall under ‘straight photography’. This is in direct contrast with the photography shown in this book. Looking through I found I was looking for compromises between straight photography and ‘close-up magic’. Artists who interested me included Matt Lipps, Daniel Gordon, Joshua Citarella and Walead Beshty. I have used Photoshop sparingly in composite work and realistically but always so far with the aim ‘to create enduring, “final” object forms.’ – (Cotton, 2015). This idea of iterative techniques in Photoshop is quite new to me and I am struggling to see how to incorporate it into my practice unless I abandon the photorealistic image. If I was to incorporate it into my practice it would probably tackle the issues of social media prevalence and overconsumption which came about the same time as Photoshop and interests me greatly.

‘The force of the global developments that affect our image/media landscape are such that the ubiquitous apparatuses and automated systems have now become constants.’ – (Cotton, 2015). This is opposed to humans being the constants where the tools we use work around us. This still happens but now we as artists are working around and finding new ways to interpret the new constants like the algorithms of Instagram for instance.

‘To different degrees, all artists represented here make it clear that they subjectify the photographic systems in which they operate.’ – (Cotton, 2015). To me this could appear to be another way of saying their images go beyond the photorealistic. They use processes like exposing Photoshop’s imperfections to reflect the ‘dynamic behaviour of the photographic culture at large.’ – (Cotton, 2015). In doing so they manufacture a style not because of their composition skills etc but because of how they navigated this photographic culture through using Photoshop.

Also prevalent is the use of analog – not for nostalgic purposes but rather to enable artists to engage with important topics like what is still real and useful now we are living in this technology-driven society. Black and white is used as another kind of camouflage as a reference to photography’s past. Comparing it to magic once more Cotton suggests black and white photography as used by artists in Photography is Magic is a tell tale sign the ‘creator is a “photographer” – (Cotton, 2015), with the black and white acting as a symbol for the past or authority which can then be played upon.

After the hangout:

Once again I found the reading group thought-provoking and it gave me an opportunity to see certain parts of the essay/book in a new light. We touched upon the concept of ‘ideas repeat and morph over the course of the artist’s practice.’ – (Cotton, 2015). It was good to see that other students were returning to ideas and producing new iterations of them as their work progresses. This gave me inspiration to experiment with past ideas/images myself more often.

Also we discussed these artists’ ability to provide a visual framework which the viewer then interprets and infers things from which triggers our imagination. This was very similar to what I had found in my preparation work where I noted Cotton says: ‘visual frames within which we are invited to focus our attention.’ – (Cotton, 2015). However, it was good to see it corroborated with my fellow students ideas. This we decided was how the close-up magic was created.

Lastly we talked about the book itself and how many of the works we didn’t ‘get’ at all. However, we noted that it was important to find work by artists that caught your eye for whatever reason and then do further research on those individual artists.


Cotton, C. (2015) Photography is Magic. New York: Aperture, pp. 1-18.

Flusser, V. (1983/2014) Towards a Philosophy of Photography. 3rd ed. London: Reaktion Books

O’Hagan, S. (2018) What next for photography in the age of Instagram?. At: (Accessed 09/05/2019).

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