Why photography cannot be judged along with other artforms
This article first appeared in Black & White Photography Magazine Issue 212, February 2018
What is a photograph? asked Roland Barthes in his seminal book Camera Obscura. An answer to this question is being attempted in every fine art photography MA course. However, the medium’s purpose and definition will not be found in the colleges and universities but in the relationship photography has with the people who use it most, i.e. you and me.
It is long since anyone questioned the right of photography to be considered a high art form. Through practioners such as Andy Warhol, Chuck Close, Bill Viola and Cindy Sherman photography has secured its place as a medium of high art. But unlike other media, like painting and sculpture, photography resists categorisation as being the exclusive preserve of high art. This is photography’s great strength.
Photography is a huge genre but, unlike painting, it has many guises. These facets include; art, science, journalism, family snapshots, portraiture to name just a few. For our colleges to question the nature of photography and to try to guide students to find a new way to use it does not fundamentally alter the nature of photography because the medium is used across so many different cultural platforms. This is in direct contrast to the questioning by art colleges as to what the nature of painting is, for example.
Painting is a medium that is entirely artistic in the sense that it is only engaged with for the purposes of art. If one university is to examine the nature of painting and one of its students were to rise in status and visibility and paint according to a set of newly minted attitudes and techniques, then the very nature of what it means ‘to paint’ might be fundamentally altered. This new approach to the canvas wil,l in turn, filter down to the work of all painters in the same way that haute couture is the aesthetic elder sister to the more homely, pret a porter.
By contrast a college which implores its students to find new pathways in photography will have little bearing on the wider development of photographic process. This is not to say that photography is not a worthy medium for the highest level of artistic enquiry or that it shouldn’t occupy a place amongst the other great genre that spawn the greatest contemporary art. Photography is and always will be a means of artistic expression and should be studied and practised at the highest level as a means of interrogating the human condition.
If painting were to disappear, or at least the techniques taught in schools, then the entire artform would cease to progress. Compare that with photographic development. If art schools stopped teaching photography what would happen? The answer to this is that photographic technology, technique and its whole absorption into the mainstream of cultural life would continue unabated. And not just continue, it would blossom and develop at the rate and speed that a human population hungry to record itself would push it.
Cultural phenomena that appear within the realms of science, technology and art cannot come from the colleges but from the gatekeepers to the new connected culture that is social media. The most important cultural tendency of recent years is unquestionably the ‘selfie’.
The selfie is what happens when humans and technology combine in a dynamic form (literally and metaphorically) of self expression – an expression impossible without ubiquitous access to photography. This cultural meme adopted by so many people with access to the technology and means of dissemination was not taught in schools yet it’s effect on society as a whole is huge. The art schools can only react to it and academics can only comment on it. The selfie is by no means the only cultural form of expression that has occurred completely independently of the art schools. Photojournalism came about as technology gave new ways of gathering evidence.
Photography wasn’t an ideal that was discussed in universities to which industry reacted – it was the opposite. Industry developed new technologies and we, ever questing, inspired humans, set those new machines to our purpose. Photography is a medium born out of necessity. Painting, sculpture and other plastic art forms are not. They may be born out of the necessary human compulsion to express itself but they are not connected to the human need to advance through technology. Many great photographers have attended art school but few greats have emerged from ‘fine art photography’ MA courses. Art is a state of being, a permanently evolving reaction to the world. Photography is a technology where art and humanity meet but photography will always be its own maser.