Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Photography Is An Artform, Just Get Over It

You ever get tired of people looking down their noses at photography as an art form? Yeah, me too.

It can take a good photographer as much time to create a finished photo as it does a plein aire painter to capture a scene. The changing light is the same, no matter what you capture it with. The trick is not in the speed of camera technology, which deceptively diminishes the apparent artistry by making it seem as though anyone can take a good photo, anytime. If this were so, all your vacation snapshots would be gallery quality; clearly they're not. The technology behind photography makes it seem easy when it is not. Photography is a populist media that the camera and film companies long ago realized they could market to Average Janes and Ordinary Joes as memento-generation devices: photographs as memories. Look, ma, we were at the Grand Canyon! But most photos as memento mori are technically bad, poorly composed, quick grabshots, with no artistry whatsoever. That's okay: they're not intended to be artistic.

Nonetheless, many galleries and art critics (those sniffers after the pissoirs of art-makers) still view photography as a non-artform, because it is so apparently easy to do. This is a tragic mistake, because it overlooks the demanding technical knowledge needed to make a good photo, rather than a snapshot. It overlooks the time it can take to set up the gear, frame the image into a good composition, then wait for the light to be just so—which can be hours, or instants, before the film is exposed. But even a photo that is seen and captured in an instant requires years of practice and discipline: a good photographer can spend years just looking at things, always watching the light, before snapping a great photo.

Photography is the discipline of seeing with the open eye. It can take years to make single great photo.

Yet we still have painters, collectors, gallery owners, and critics, who look down their noses at photography as a lesser artform. The attitude towards video and multimedia is even worse. Paradoxically, of course, opera, stage drama, and cinema are all accepted multimedia artforms, with their own conventions, critical literature, and followings. But most followers of these apparently cannot make the leap to see fractal art, computer art, or Photoshop art as legitimate.

I find it amusing when a bad painter looks down his nose at a good photographer, because "painting is an artform and photography isn't," yet clearly the photographer's work is much better than the painter's.

This negative attitude towards photography also overlooks the artistry of printing, mounting, and framing—you'd think at least the galleries would understand the technical demands of printing, mounting, and framing, even if they don't understand anything else about the process.

It's too bad. Such a limited, conservative view has of course always dominated arts patronage, and perhaps always will. The innovators will always be misunderstood.

But here's the real truth: genuine artists make art with whatever is at hand. They are opportunists and JOATS (Jacks, or Jills, Of All trades). They don't get hung up on the tools or the media. Strand a genuine artist in Death Valley, and she'll draw in the packed earth, or arrange stones, to make her art. Put a genuine artist into a kindergarten classroom with crayons and chalk, and they'll cover the walls and blackboards with images in erasable media that no-one will want to erase. A genuine artist will use whatever they find lying at hand to make art. A genuine artist is not limited by concept or habit, but will discover art in whatever they encounter. They make art because they must, it's as necessary to them as breathing, and they cannot be stopped or tamed. Artists such as Andy Goldsworthy, Keith Haring, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Alexander Calder, John Cage, and Audrey Flack all prove this point.

With the new wave of technology, we are seeing new artforms arise. Anyone can now make a film, with image, music, sound, and moving text, on their home computer. Of course a lot of it will be crap—a lot of painting has always been crap, too. Nothing new there. A genuine artist will use these new tools, as well. The only thing avant-garde about "new media" artists is the same thing that has always characterized the avant-garde: an openness of attitude and approach, a willingness to explore new territory with new tools, and open mind, and open eyes and hands. Watch out for a coming revolution in the forms and medias of art, it's already happening, and no one in the arts establishment is paying attention. They'll catch on, eventually, of course, but they're always slow and late. Meanwhile, the channels of distribution have put the tools into the hands of genuine artists who no-one has yet heard of, who are about to make the new art that will be the mainstream of the future.

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Blogger Dion said...

I've noticed a similar type of attitude coming from photographers who still shoot film. The "it is not art if it was shot on digital" attitude is becoming more and more common these days, with people seemingly measuring the artistic value of a photo by how arcane its process was.

3:40 AM  
Anonymous Mo0osh said...

I agree with this whole heartedly. I also have proof, when I was downtown toronto this past weekend, people were looking at me as if I were a tourist with my camera, and hesitated asking me for dirrections, when the fact of the matter is I know downtown better then most people who work there. I had just got a new camera and people thought I was a tourist just because I was walking around in my home city with a Camera.

People do not see it as art, but more of a way to capture an adventure, or moment easily.

9:18 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

You're quite correct about the digital vs. film photography bias, too. I went more or less totally digital in 2000, after having already worked a few years by scanning my negatives to photo-CD. Nowadays, I have prints in permanent exhibitions and private collections, that were made from digital originals. It helps that I'm a Photoshop expert, and know what I'm doing in terms of scaling an image up for printing. So, no-one could really tell if it was digital or film originally. I think that is only going to become more typical, with the increasing capabilities of the next generation of digital cameras. (I just upgraded from 4 megapixels to 8, for example.)

There is still a difference between film and digital, if you're working in large-format, large-size negatives. But that's always been true, and there were plenty of photographers in the "old days" (it seems weird to call it the old days, when none of these technologies are more than 150 years old!) who shote large-format and looked down their noses at 35mm SLR cameras.

11:37 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I know exactly what you mean with the "tourist with a camera" thing. When I was living in the San Francisco area, and wondering in the City taking phtots, I would get the same responses. Unlike most people who live in a city and never go to any of the tourist attractions, I always did that. I would see other pro photographers out doing the same thing, too. (You can always spot us by our gear and our slower pace; most tourists are in a hurry, most genuine photographers are not.) But your story is both funny and poignant, for all the reasons you mentioned.

I used to love downtown Toronto, BTW. I admit I haven't been there in a long time, but when I lived in Michian we would go to the Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario, every summer, then sometimes go on to Toronto or Montreal for a day or two. I always thought the plaza by City Hall was one of the better public spaces I had ever experienced.

11:42 AM  
Blogger Will said...

A good point well made. Have you read Geoff Dyer's 'The Ongoing Moment'?

5:00 PM  
Blogger GC said...

But most photos as memento mori are technically bad...

Who'd want a photo, technically bad or not, as a reminder of their mortality?

1:16 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Are not all photos, like all artwork, reminders of mortality? It's the ephemerality of life that makes it beautiful. Photos, as art, are a hedge against mortality, too, in that anyone whose art lives past their lifetime, gets an extended life, as it were.

I can only refer you to Michael Lesy's amazing book "Wisconsin Death Trip."

1:31 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...


I haven't read Dyer's book on photography yet, but it looks as if I ought. It seems quite pertinent.

The other books that come to mind, in context, are three by John Berger: "Another Way of Telling," "Ways of Seeing," and "About Looking." Berger considers the photograph very much to be a genuine artform, and capable of doing quite a bit more than it's often given credit for; "Another Way of Telling" is a book he wrote essentially to prove this point. I recommend it highly.

1:37 AM  
Blogger Jessica Schneider said...

And now with the new camera phone, one can take shots of all sorts of minutia. (I'll admit it's fun to have when I see my cats lounging in a peculiar fashion).

6:45 PM  

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