Can a photograph ever truly be “art?”
Imagine you are downtown during a typical work day. Suddenly, across the street, you see an unassuming person doing a very unusual thing; pushing a large office copier on its wheeled base into a carefully choreographed position on the sidewalk.
After a lot of orienteering, this person lowers the copier onto its side, seemingly aiming it toward an object on the other side of the street… at least, as far as you can tell.
When everything seems just right, they crouch down to the lid of the copier, open it, and while looking across the street towards some intended target, pushes the “print“ button.
You are greeted with the usual flash of light as you see the metal bar make its familiar journey across the glass. (To your amazement, you see that the copier is connected to an unbelievably long extension cord that sneaks its way along the sidewalk and into a nearby business.)
Out of the paper tray is ejected an image.
After placing the paper safely into a large portfolio, our would be Matthew Brady rights the device, closes the lid, unplugs the extension cord, and begins to wind it unceremoniously while simultaneously pushing the copier along it's merry way.
This, essentially, is what Charles Baudelaire thought photography amounted to. (Although he could have never conceived of the office copier.)
Before college, an artist
I began my creative career as a would be fine artist. I was offered a full ride scholarship to the fine arts program of Murray State University in the hills of eastern Kentucky shortly after I graduated high school in 1983.
I turned it down.
A well-intentioned high school art teacher a few weeks before had pulled me and his other “star pupil” aside and steadfastly urged us into a career of "commercial art," and graphic design. His motivation?
“There is a reason they are called "starving artists.""
To this day I will always wonder how my life would have been different had I accepted that scholarship. I don't know a single creative professional from my corporate life who hasn’t wished they were making a career telling stories; as filmmakers, novelists, photographers, painters, actors, or one of a number of other professions that lean most heavily upon the right side of the brain… and perhaps most notably, the heart.
My ironic discovery of photography
Turning my back on any prospect of making a living as an illustrator or painter, I set my mind on a handful of business classes, psychology classes (so I could understand human motivations well enough to use images and words to manipulate them to buy things), the technical courses required of the era (airbrushing, typography, the fundamentals of design, photography), and because it was a well-rounded degree program, life drawing, literature, and art history.
The faculty chair for the program was also the lead professor of photography, and had built a noticeable career in the 60s and 70s as a commercial photographer. This was in Louisville, Kentucky, the corporate home of one of the Bluegrass States’ cultural treasures; bourbon.
This man was not only an inspiring character and and early mentor, but he was also a remarkably talented product photographer for a subject that is technically challenging. I remember seeing some of his luscious images of mahogany brown, honey gold, and purple velvet, shrouded in a deep mysterious onyx. I had never tasted the sinful elixir as of yet, having been raised in a teetotaler home. Thankfully, that would one-day change.
If you have never seen a food and beverage photographer — and their team, for it is far from a one-person endeavor — in action, you're missing out on a dance that is as intricate, almost, as which you might find in a hospital operating theater.
We made things…
Since this was the mid-1980s, digital photography wasn't even a phrase uttered on anyone's lips. We shot film. Not only did we shoot film, we also developed film, and we made prints. I was immersed in every aspect of a very technical creative craft.
Art history, psychology, and photography; these courses became the love of my life; they were a new found sea in which to swim, and I didn't want to come out of the water.
My resentment for corporate jargon and the prostitutional reality of creative professionals to capitalism began in those classes — although I could never have articulated it, then.
Although I was taking life drawing, I knew that I would not be an illustrator.
And although I spent countless hours making love to 4 x 5 film and 8 x 10 enlargements, I never believed I would make any money shooting photographs. No, my new dream job was to become an art director. As one of my professors would revel in saying during one particular class:
"Illustrators and photographers are “the little people;” it is the creative directors who tell them what to do."
We nicknamed him,“Sgt. rock.”
It should be noted that he owned a small advertising agency, himself.
Back to art
This autumn will mark 33 years since those experiences. And in that third of a century my creative output has been the development of manipulative ideas that prey upon or create desires, inferiorities, or lacks where the only “cure” is to spend money.
Not exactly a super fulfilling way for a storyteller to be.
In August 2017, I spent a week cycling the mountains of the Pyrenees, followed by a painfully brief two days in Paris.
To get myself in the mood (as if I needed any encouragement) I bought a new and complete copy of Baudelaire's “Les Fleurs du Mal.” Since that time, in addition to reading the poetry, I have been researching and consuming many of his essays on art. (After all, that was the poet’s day job: he was a well-respected art critic.) It was during this time that I discovered his essay on photography; part of his review of the Paris Salon of 1859.
During this salon, photography was first included in the exhibition, and Chuck was none too pleased.
From where I want my future best work to spring
At the core of it all, Baudelaire’s tantrum remains true, insofar as photography and art is concerned.
Ubiquitous mechanical reproduction of light as it falls upon objects, however intentioned, is not art.
Most of what passes for contemporary art photography is tantamount to capturing a butterfly and then using tools to alter the color and pattern of its wings.
I’m not talking about the casual, even frequent Instagram addict; snapping with a cell phone, applying crops and filters, and creating a body of work.
I’m talking about serious photographers who are attempting to put out into the world work that purports to have a cultural message; a point of view stated through visual means. However, the work they’re presenting to us has little to do with creating, and more with documenting, and holding that the intention maintained during the act is what fuels the art.
That ancient Salon essay still holds up:
I no longer want to be guilty of that practice myself.
A photograph, therefore, has to work extremely hard to be Art. But I believe it can. There are some practitioners of true art with the camera, such as Gregory Crewdson or Nick Knight. In fact, if you fancy yourself a storyteller with a camera, I can’t urge you enough to look at their sites. And while you’re at it, consider looking at venues such as fotoroom.co, that are attempting to provide an outlet for photographic artists — some more successful and well-grounded than others — with their site.
A technically well-captured memory doesn’t qualify; that is photojournalism.
Journalism is a craft. Journalism is important; it shows us reality. But art transcends reality.
It is for that reason that I have a very difficult time considering landscape photography or most portraiture — in fact almost all of my own — as "art". Yes, it can be beautiful, striking, it can stir the emotions and it can provoke thoughts of our relationship to each other, to examine the value of of our lives, and even the universe. There is a real craft in position and exposure, and for those of us who work with film in addition to digital photography, there is a whole host of factors that go into producing the image and that dramatically affect the result.
But ultimately that is still reproduction; a mechanical process of reproduction. Pointing the Xerox at the scene and pressing “print.”
Technical excellence and craftsmanship are but methods towards the production of art.
So…what counts as art in a photograph?
It’s almost insulting to the work of artist photographers like Knight and Crewdson to boil an answer to a question like that down to a bumper sticker response, but I’m going to try be concise:
An art photograph contains a sense of time, before and after the moment that is captured, and the moment that is captured is constructed by the artist: light and materials are brought to bear and arranged with an intention to communicate a narrative that triggers a planned connective response within the viewer.
No small task.
Chuckie B. couldn’t have foreseen digital scanners for film, or the ability to manipulate light with slaves and gels across an innumerable number of strobes; he couldn’t have foreseen the creative power given to those who capture light vis-a-vis software that functions almost as a stimulator of dreamlike reality, much less merely a mechanical facilitator of it.
I would love to get his reactions to the work of artists like Knight and Crewdson, and a relative handful of other artists who work with the photographic medium.
I’d like to think he’d be energized, rather than dismissive, of the opportunities.