Last week, prolific blogger Ming Thein published a piece describing his less than successful attempts to find art gallery representation for his photos. This generated a huge number of comments, remarkably so for a non-gear post, but perhaps driven by a certain sense of schadenfreude that the omnipotent and omniscient Ming had been rebuffed. Well, that’s just human nature, I suppose, but the question “is it (photography) Art” continues to bounce around.
If I really had to make a black or white, proviso-free call, then I’d have to say “no, it isn’t”. But the world doesn’t work like that. In view the answer is closer to “not usually”. I’m not in possession of much art or history of art education, although I’m probably a bit above the average level, so I don’t have much grounding for my opinions on the matter. But this is the internet, so that’s totally irrelevant.
The vast majority of photos, including the vast majority of those which are described by their authors as “fine art” are not art. They’re illustrations, recordings, mementos, with a common theme that they are representing a thing, rather than an idea, or indeed an idea of a thing. Photography is usually an end in itself. People like taking photos, it’s an activity. Perhaps Vermeer liked painting, and didn’t care much about the product, or the fact that it made him a decent living, but we’ll never know. Actually, while remembering that I know nothing of the History of Art, I do wonder when art became “Art”, rather than home decor (John Berger’s classic “Ways Of Seeing” has some key insights into this, if you can get past the rather dated marxist polemic).
In my understanding, the product of Art cannot be decoupled from the process of Art. Both rely on each other to grant validity. This is where movements such as surrealism or cubism arise. Photography with a purpose which can be clearly articulated can be Art, but generally individual photographs, while they might express the vision of the photographer, and be beautiful, inspiring, thought-provoking even, largely remain craft. There’s also the aspect that probably most photographers aspiring to “artist” status really want to get people to buy their stuff to hang on their walls. Popular art, not fine art. Peter Lik, not Ed Burtynsky. Most artist don’t make a lot of money, although Burtynsky might be an exception. Art also seems to need to be curated, which would imply that there is more than one level of interpretation going on, and that the original body of work is strong enough to both attract and survive curation. A semi-random selection of photos, however excellent, isn’t going to get far in such a process.
So on the whole, most of us taking photos day in, day out, of whatever strikes our fancy, are basically dilettante hobbyists, however mean a spin of the focus ring we might make. To start to move towards art photography, I think you need to make some hard decisions. Photograph only what is defined within the expressive framework you’ve decided on. Forget Flickr, forget Facebook, forget blogging, or at least get your assistant to do these for you. Taking random photos, however excellent, doesn’t cut it. Oh, and make sure your photography is monochrome, analog, and blurry. It isn’t essential but it seems to work one hell of a lot better than color, digital and sharp (and hence landscape photography pretty much can’t be art. Ever).
You don’t need to be famous or well-known to be an artist; indeed, most artists are and always will be unknown. But starting off well known and then trying to cross over to artist doesn’t seem to work very well. The art world doesn’t seem to like. Ok, there are exceptions, arguably, like Bryan Adams, but I don’t know of any photo-bloggerati who’s work adorns gallery or museum walls.
And of course there seems to be a basic assumption that if you get your photos shown in an art gallery, then you’re an artist. Well, not necessarily. “Art Gallery” is often a delicate way of saying “Expensive Trinket Shop”, in other words, galleries show what they think will sell. They have too, otherwise they’d go out of business. They’re not museums. And as is often noted, art gallery customers are far more often than not less concerned about the artistic merits of what they’re buying than whether it will clash with the curtains.
So could I describe what I do as art? Absolutely not, although I have a dim notion about what direction I would need to go in to try to make it so. A small amount of the photography I do is informed by both a strong emotional attachment, and also by knowledge and experience of various dimensions of what I’m trying to express. I’m very, very slowly building up a small body of work which looks at the complex nature of our interaction with the high latitude / polar environment. Precious, pretentious ? Certainly. Something that others have done and are doing far better than me ? No doubt. But it is something which drives me and which I continue to try to present coherently. The rest, well, snapshots, time-fillers and pretty (and not so pretty) pictures. Below are some examples:
Not Art ?
But I bet if ever tried to sell any of these, the “penguin” shot would have by far the best chance.