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Is photography "art"? Part III

2015.07.22
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I can’t draw. I can sketch a map, but a smiley face is about as far as I go. Something goes wrong between what I see and how my hand portrays it. I remember the shame of going home to own up to my mother, a painter, that I’d been kicked out of drawing class at school as a hopeless case.

Maybe it has something to do with my dyslexia, but my complete inability to draw is not why I love photographs.

Like many people, I was given a camera as a child and loved going to the chemist’s to get prints of what I had seen, usually wrongly exposed, wonky and out of focus, but it was what I saw. I love looking at photographs too. I remember looking at Victorian albums of long-dead and completely unknown relatives with their stern expressions almost devoid of features. Photographs always seemed more real. They weren’t about serene madonnas, mythological heroes or improbable religious experiences. They portrayed real people, even though the long exposure times, formal poses and harsh lighting made them all look rather constipated. And then there were the landscapes, seascapes and city photographs in books and magazines… All of these were far enough away in time and space to captivate my imagination and “real” enough to engage my credulity.

This is one of the few differences between photographic and fine art. Photographs are rooted in the real.

When I started going to exotic places and meeting strange people, I carried a camera to record what I had seen and even attempted the occasional “good” photograph. Otherwise, it was for documenting my daughter’s development from screaming, wailing baby to, well, screaming, wailing adolescent. One day, I got the bug.

Why all this personal info? Two reasons: firstly, because what distinguishes ordinary photographs from art photographs is the same as the difference between a sketched smiley face and the Mona Lisa and much of that is, truth to tell, subjective. Secondly, it’s taken me the better part of 50 years to go from crap prints back from the chemist’s to trying to convey the same interest, the same wonder, the same emotional and artistic appeal I saw in other photographs in my own. It doesn’t make my photographs more “arty”. It makes them more real - at least to me it does.

Some people have the Eye: that ability to compose and capture the ordinary things and people around us in an extraordinary way. Curiously, it has nothing to do with artistic training. People I’ve met who have the Eye include children and adults picking up a camera for the first time and, on more than one occasion, severely mentally handicapped persons. It’s a gift, perhaps it’s innate and all kinds of people have the Eye.

I don’t. I try to make up for it by learning and practice and sometimes I get lucky.

For all its mechanical processes, photography is an intensely human, personal experience. In many ways, it is a more personal experience than fine art is, because everything is concentrated through the lens, through the photographer’s eye. Earlier, I mentioned Rafael’s School of Athens, a vast work that pays tribute to the learnings of antiquity. It’s almost impersonal, each character having more or less the same importance, rather like various monuments highlighted on a city map. It’s a glorious work of art with a lot of personal touches and insider jokes (all the characters portrayed as great philosophers of Greek antiquity are portraits of Rafael’s acquaintances; Heraclitus, the weeping philosopher, is actually a rather cruel portrait of Michelangelo, who was famous for his difficult temperament). Now look at a famous photo portrait - it doesn’t matter which one - and see how personal the relationship is between the subject and you, the viewer. Try to look at the School of Athens and relate to a subject, any subject, in the same way.

If you prefer another example, try to relate to the Mona Lisa in the same way that you relate to the picture of the green-eyed Afghan girl. I’m not saying that both works have equal artistic value, but both reach out in different ways, and the Afghan girl does it in a far more personal, immediate way.

Photography is a very personal, idiosyncratic art form, perhaps the most personal art form, because the photographer wants you, the viewer, inside his head, looking at what he sees with his eyes. How well s/he achieves this is, to me, the yardstick for measuring the “artiness” (?) of the photograph.

Here, I’m talking to photographers - and it doesn’t matter how technically skilled you are. You see something and capture it. You want to share it. But what you really want to share is how it made you feel in seeing what you saw: a perfect flower, a smiling grandchild, a stupendous landscape, an interesting pattern or even an accident. How well you manage to make the viewer share and agree with what you felt taking the picture is the measure of how good the photograph is — at least on a mechanical, technical level.

Just as photography suffers from a multiple personality disorder, so do photographers. The viewer should see with the photographer’s eyes what the photographer wants you to see and in a way distinctive enough to recognise an “Arbus”, a “Cartier-Bresson” or a “Doisneau”, but the photographer should be invisible both to the subject and to the viewer. The fact that we can distinguish a Kertész from a Cartier-Bresson shows how distinctive and personal photography can be (as opposed to snapshots taken by two different people of the same family meal). What’s interesting therefore, is how self-effacing the artist creating a good photograph tries to be. They’re rarely in the picture; they *are* the picture.

Rafael inserted a selfie in The School of Athens. As the picture is such an impersonal one, it doesn’t matter whether we appreciate his presence or not. Now, compare with the way even photographers always photograph themselves with a camera partially hiding their face. We’re still supposed to “see” the photographer, even though we don’t. Again, this makes photography a very personal art form.

To return to how personal photography is as an art form, not every photograph is art. For example, I use the camera on my iPhone to record telephone numbers or business cards that I would otherwise lose if I wrote them down somewhere. Clearly, these aren’t art photographs. But if I composited all those numbers and names in, say, a mosaic and tried to make an artistic statement out of the whole, would that be art? I would answer, probably yes because that was my intent. I would also stress that it certainly wouldn’t be good art because I’m not an artist and don’t have the vision to achieve what I intended. I may have the technical skills, but not the vision, in the same way that a stone mason is not necessarily a sculptor (and vice versa).

We distinguish between artists and mechanics for a good reason. There is a distinction between art and portrayal, between family snaps at a meal and the Last Supper (even though both portray, basically, the same thing).

In these musings, I’ve tried to condense and adapt some writing about this hobby of ours and, I hope, dispel some received opinions. It’s not intention to preach or convert anyone, merely to entertain.

My telephone line and Internet will be down for a rather long time (storms snapped the cable). I won’t be able to respond as much as I would like, but I do wish you all an enjoyable summer.
7 Comments
marilynx An entertaining read, as always.
I wish you a happy summer holiday too.
Nothing to disagree with, your musings come from your deep love of photography and people.
marilynx · 2015-07-26: 16:32
MoMac Happy summer to you too.
MoMac · 2015-07-26: 17:35
dogydad2 Sorry to hear of your technical calamity! Your fine work and commentary will be sorely missed, during your absence. Meanwhile, may "The Bird'O'Paradise" nest in your immediate vicinity, now & always! Hurry back!
dogydad2 · 2015-07-26: 21:25
Lsample We seem to agree on one thing. I have no training. For me it is purely emotional. Sometimes I feel it. Sometimes I don't. But I would stop short of classifying something as meaningless simply because I don't see the meaning in it. Unless we are talking about rap music.
Lsample · 2015-07-26: 22:16
CHOSSID A lot in common -- and not in common ;-) I enjoyed the read.
CHOSSID · 2015-07-26: 23:02
Jarvo Fascinating reading, as ever Stéfan. The only bit I'd take issue with is your assertion that the difference between photography and fine art is that photography is rooted in the real - the inference being that fine art isn't. Whilst I'd agree that there's far more scope for other forms of art to be rooted in the unreal, and that (probably) for over 90% of art your statement is true, I don't think we can say that this is always the case. For example there is a growing realist school within portraiture at the moment with artists like Jose Luis Corella and John Williams producing paintings that are all but indistinguishable from photographs. Surely these are rooted in the real every bit as much as any photograph is.
Jarvo · 2015-07-27: 06:11
Jarvo PS I hope they fix that cable soon
Jarvo · 2015-07-27: 06:11
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