ON PHOTOGRAPHY #1 – WHEN ART IS PHOTOGRAPHY

In an attempt to log my thoughts on the subject of art and photography I am going to list them here in an occasional (as they come to me) series.

The purpose of inscribing these comes from an innate desire to render thoughts as something more tangible (it’s the materialist in me) and to see if, over time, these add up to something or if from them an average sense might be perceived.

 #1 WHEN ART IS PHOTOGRAPHY

Think of a camera – any camera. Does it look like an artists tool? As beautiful as a camera can be (think Leica, Rolleiflex, Fuji X10) they are are all machines. Cameras are assemblages of complex design and technique which, when all parts work together; shutter, lens, light meter etc) produce a ‘dead’ image. The image rendered (either digitally or on film) needs to be reworked in some way by the photographer or other technician before it can be printed or put on a screen and stake its claim to be a ‘work of art’.

I believe that this is the reason photography is so misunderstood by the art regarding public. In the end – a photographic image is created by a machine albeit with an interventionist human touch. This reduces the value of the resulting image in the mind of many viewers because they discount that aspect of the artwork which they perceive to have been machine made and therefore the default quality of the image. Of course this perception is true in a sense – but I believe that it adheres more strongly in the ‘Old World’ than it does in the ‘New World’ where photographic arts have occupied a greater proportion of the collective cultural consciousness of the country. For example the US is a mere fledgling nation (compared to the UK) but film and photography have helped to define its culture to a much greater proportion of the time of its existence than Old Time England. This means that the perception of value in the craft of the traditional arts retains a greater value in the hearts and minds of the Old World than it does in those of, say, the States where the technical aspect of photography is taken for granted and greater value is placed on the individual expression manifest in any given photographic artwork.

The exceptions to the rule of cultural acceptance are Germany and France. These two countries have a wide appreciation for the photographic arts and my theory to explain this is that both of these countries were invaded in the 20th century and had to reappraise so much about their societal structure and culture just as film and the photographic arts were really coming to the fore. In addition to this both countries fostered a progressive artistic movement in the early 20th century that set the tone for stills and moving photography. In Germany there was the Bauhaus movement and in France there was the surrealist scene in Paris which gave birth to some of the greatest photographers such as Kertesz and Cartier-Bresson (preceded by Lartigue and Atget amongst others). And of course the US had such contemporary greats as Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Weegee et al. I can’t think of a great British photographer of the era (please don’t call Lee Miller a ‘Great’ – she wasn’t). George Rodger, a founder of Magnum, stands out but there wasn’t the same scene in London as you would have discovered n Paris or Weimar before WW2.

Although this last point is a digression (one which I’d like to expand in another post) I think that you can’t attempt to explain the variety of acceptances of photography without examining the cultural differences of the viewers of this art form.

Cartier-Bresson was an adherent to his own theory of the ‘decisive moment’ – an approach that worked for him but every photographer must make a direct call on their creative core every time they click the shutter just as a painter or sculpture or poet must make with each of their own creative acts. I consider photography worthy of the term art when that connection to the creative consciousness has been made by the artist just as it is or should be in any medium. Whether a shot was taken with the most gorgeous Leica or on a camera phone the principle is immutable and universal – if an artist made the artwork then it is art regardless of the mechanics of production.

Alex Schneideman London,

April 2012

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