Tuesday, October 6, 2009

But Is It Art?

Bulb, 2003

It took long enough for photography to gain respect from the fine art world. Battles continue to rage within the photography community about what constitutes fine art photography.

It helps to understand where we came from.

Early photographers were fascinated by the ability to create photo graphic likenesses through the alchemy of film and coated papers. Like Stone Age artists, they first made portraits of themselves and those around him. When the novelty of that wore off, they turned to making pictures of the natural world and, after that, used photography to bring the sights of the built-up world home for all to see. When enough pictures of the pyramids and the Taj Mahal were in circulation, they finally got around to making photographs whose purpose wasn’t to document, but rather to make an artistic statement. I’m simplifying, of course. But you get a sense of the progression from pure documentation to something more conceptual.

Making photographs in the old days required expensive, cumbersome apparatus, long exposures, an understanding of optics and a mastery of chemistry. This made photography unapproachable to many people.

The early Twentieth Century saw the introduction of smaller consumer cameras. By the time I was a child in the 1950s, many households had a Kodak Brownie box camera. Fifty years later, the introduction of affordable, high quality digital cameras gives amateurs even greater creative flexibility.

Throughout all this, the old purists, like members of a craft guild, held tight to the idea that the only true photographers were those who used big boxy cameras, who knew the names of Carl Zeiss’ children, who processed their own film and made their own prints. Even today there are many who believe photographic art is all about the making of the photo and nothing about the net impression.

Two quotes from a current review of books about Andy Warhol illustrate how this has changed. In the first one, Colin Clark, son of art historian Kenneth Clark, describes his father’s first encounter with Warhol:

I experienced a similar situation when I took my father to the studio of the Pop artist Andy Warhol. My father was an art historian of the old school, used to canvases of Rembrandt and Titian. He simply could not conceive that Andy’s silk-screened Brillo boxes were serious art.”

The second quote is from Pop: The Genius of Andy Warhol, in which authors Tony Scherman and David Dalton observe:

“Traditional, manual virtuosity no longer mattered. The fact that Warhol could draw had no bearing on his art now: how an artwork was made ceased to be a criterion of its quality. The result alone mattered: whether or not it was a striking image.”

I’m not a lawyer, but it is my understanding from years in advertising and marketing that it matters little how something was made or what its original purpose was. All that matters is the net impression it imparts when shown to someone. Not to denigrate the hard work of many talented photographic craftsmen and craftswomen, but isn’t the net impression what it’s all about?

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