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Pietrasanta

art & illusion

in Photography , Sunday, April 26, 2015

A little while ago, we spent a long weekend in the town of Pietrasanta, in northwestern Tuscany, a little way away from the millionaire’s playground, and capital of bling, Forti die Marmi. Pietrasanta is nothing like that hyper-sanitised enclave, fortunately, but a rather surprisingly well-kept secret outside of the flow of mass tourism. Although it has a rather shady past, these days Pietrasanta is a thriving artistic and cultural community, and home to some well-know names such as Fernando Botero and, until recently, Igor Mitoraj. It was actually through an interview with Botero that we found out about Pietrasanta.

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Models for Botero’s Adam and Eve, in the Museo dei Bozzetti

Pietrasanta is just down the road from the Carrara marble quarries, which have provided the source material for notable artists and architects for centuries, including of course Michelangelo. And marble is much in evidence in the town.  The old centre is perhaps a little tidier than the average Italian town, but is full of the usual nooks, crannies and idiosyncrasies which make these places so rewarding to wander around, camera in hand.

Here, then, are a few examples.

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But is it art ?

no, probably not

in Photography , Saturday, August 16, 2014

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:

Art ?

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Possibly art, in an appropriate context. These are quite bland shots, really, but they’ve grown on me and together they start to be more expressive.


Not Art ?

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This, on the other hand, despite being my most popular photo on Flickr, by far, is just a pretty picture, as my current guiding concept does not include penguins, and it doesn’t really give me more than superficial satisfaction.

But I bet if ever tried to sell any of these, the “penguin” shot would have by far the best chance.

 

Isola Nova

Exhibition by Philippe Calandre

in Photography , Monday, December 23, 2013

Earlier this week, I was fortunate to come across a captivating exhibition in Venice, called Isola Nova. Presented by the Wilmotte Foundation, “Isola Nova” is the work of French artist Philippe Calandre, who’s work is a combination of photography, painting and video. Isola Nova presents a series of imagined new islands, drawing on both the real and the imaginary, combining elements of the real Venice with steampunk-like industry, set within a lagoon of dark, restless seas and skies.

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Utopia 3, from Isola Nova, by Philippe Calandre

The work is also reminiscent of the original Myst game, with its small, mysterious islands hiding disjointed artefacts and baffling technology. But there is something fundamental about this vision of complex yet contained worlds which strongly appeals to me. I am always drawn to islands, wherever I find them, and the real islands of the Venice lagoon are mysterious enough to me, never mind the fantastic creations of Isola Nova.

The originals are printed quite large.  The photography is meticulous, exquisite - ands largely irrelevant. This is photography as an raw material for creativity, not as the end point, and in my opinion this is truly deserving of the label “art” in a way which very, very little photography is. It’s also sort of the way I first got hooked on taking photography seriously, as an input to illustration.

I guess Isola Nova would not be to everybody’s taste, but if by chance you happen to be in Venice before Feb 15th, and you can find your way to Fondamenta dell’Abbazza in Canareggio (it’s not that hard, but it’s a bit off the tourist circuit) then really, the exhibition is well worth a visit.