Have you ever looked at a photograph, after reading the artist’s statement, and cried “BULLSHIT”? I have. There often seems to be a real disconnect with what a photographer says their work is about, and what the photographs actually show.
This, I think, reveals the kind of art that photography has become, or maybe has always been: it is an art of the mind. Now this may seem like a needless platitude at first. After all, you could easily say that all art is “of the mind”, the mind of the artists. But what the other arts have that photography lacks is a greater sense of the photographer’s hand within the medium.
We can look at an abstract painting and, whether we understand its meaning or not, appreciate the work that went into creating it. We can see the mindful brush strokes and clever ways in which colors may have been applied. We can understand how an eight foot canvas of seemingly haphazard movements can still have value. It must have taken the artist hours upon hours upon days upon weeks to complete. There’s only one and it’s right here in front of me!
Not so with photography. We may look at an original print, one that the photographer himself made, and recognize that through the passing decades it has managed to end up in this museum or gallery. But there’s also probably several museums, galleries, or collectors that can boast owning the same print, made by the same photographer in the same darkroom. Even the enormous color prints of contemporary artists are only one of an infinite number of potential prints. This is one of the primary characteristics of Photography that separate it from all other arts.
Recently I engaged in a short dialogue regarding this blog post. It talks about how the modern art world still does not seem to accept photography as a legitimate art, in and of itself. The problem, according to this author, is that “the handiwork of the artist” is not “readily apparent”, and this may be why the art world doesn’t know how to handle it. This is another characteristic that separates photography from the other arts. If we are not moved by the subject of the photograph there is nothing else to rely on at the moment of seeing the print. There are no brush strokes to appreciate or fine details chiseled into stone or wood. The “creative process” is virtually invisible to the general viewing public (at least for those not familiar with what it takes to make a photograph).
The author of this blog cites photographers like Robert Adams, Walker Evans, and Garry Winogrand (shown below) as doing something more than just “snapping [their] surroundings.” This may be the case, and learned photographers will know the history of these artists and their work. But to the majority of viewers, the photographs by these artists don’t reveal much else. In fact, I’m typically bored by the work of Evans and Adams. As a viewer, I can see nothing in their images that tell me they went beyond just stopping and popping off a snapshot. There is nothing in their final artifacts that reveal them to be wholly unique. From what I can see, if I had been there with a camera, I could have done the same thing, just as so many tourists who snap the same shots as others who have visited the same places.
[Winogrand is an exception, I think, due to the provocative nature of his images. There is more of an obvious courage to his photographs that mark them as being something that not anyone could pull off.]
So what makes these photographers and their work “utterly remarkable”?
It’s not something that can be easily explained to gallery visitors and museum goers. What makes these, and all photographers, potentially remarkable is the mind that went into capturing these moments of time from the world around them. What makes any photograph unique is the sliver of history captured by the artist. All photography is an art of the past. As soon as the image is captured that moment is gone, saved only by the film in the camera (or digital file). I cannot make Walker Evans’ work simply because I was not there at that time in that place under those circumstances. It was his mind moved by the zeitgeist of his time that drove him to capture scenes relevant to his attitudes.
Thus, we come back around to it.
Photography is an art of the mind. Ideas prevail. It is the quality of the photographer’s mental motivation that propels some images into the vernacular of culture more than others. Let’s face it, there are some boring photographs in the museums and galleries across the country. As any practicing photographer can attest, there are plenty of images making waves that seem utterly worthless, lazy, or uninspiring. But it is exactly what inspired each of these photographers to make their work that garners the attention they get.
Before you write this post off as a disgruntled artist’s complaints, please understand that is not the point. Bitterness often drives good art, in my opinion. Frustration is just part of the experience of being an artist.
The point of this article is to try to help people, photographers and patrons alike, recognize the unique quality of photography that I think separates it from the other arts. It is a necessary separation; a privileged separation. It may mean that photography will always have difficulty being accepted, but that’s not a detriment; it is a virtue. For the viewer, it means spending a little more time learning about what you see. For the photographer, it means spending a little more time understanding what you are doing and why. The artifact cannot speak for itself. In photography, there is no evidence on the print that testifies to the creative process. Photographers must accept this and be patient with those who would ridicule photography for its lack of fingerprints, so to speak. Your work is in your mind, in your heart. Do what you feel you must do with your camera. But the work is not over until you can articulate that work from your mind. It is the combination of that articulation with the final print that makes photography so powerful as an art.
Thanks for reading.
* Special thanks to Michal Chaplin of the Metro Photo Club for sharing the aforementioned blog post and being willing to dialogue about it.