“hyperbolic, overblown, risible”


General Photography

I’ve seen various bloggers quote from this article by Paul Graham, and I felt I needed to add my two cents. (more)

Graham’s key sentence appears to be the following one:

But photography for and of itself -photographs taken from the world as it is- are misunderstood as a collection of random observations and lucky moments, or muddled up with photojournalism, or tarred with a semi-derogatory ‘documentary’ tag.
I think there might be a whole set of very fundamental problems with what Graham writes - of course, this could simply be because I spent the last three days looking at a grand total of 43 photography portfolios.

I want to talk about just one problem. It might be true that photography is misunderstood in the art world, but I do think the problem is very much self-inflicted. Remember, this is 2010, but people are still pulling their hair out over how to differentiate between a photograph and what they call a “photo illustration,” for example. Or about defining how much “manipulation” is allowed until a photo stops being a photo. Or about how a lot of digital photography isn’t really photography. Or how artist XYZ took 500 individual source photographs to build a composite.

If so many people in the photography world are having debates about photographs as documents, or how adding a caption changes the meaning (or whatever), or when a photo stops being a photo - why do we expect the art world to take photography seriously as an art form?

The interesting bit about the photographers Graham mentions in his post, the ones that have no problem in the art world, “Jeff Wall, or Cindy Sherman or James Casebere or Thomas Demand”… They are being taken seriously not because, as he writes,

“partly because the creative process in the work is clear and plain to see, and it can be easily articulated and understood what the artist did.”
They are being taken seriously because they are producing images without worrying themselves sick over whether it’s photography or not.

And it has nothing to do with the fact that “it can be easily articulated and understood what the artist did.” While there are a lot of simpletons in the art world, you can understand very easily what - to give just one example - Gregory Crewdson does. However, there are many people who love to debate whether it’s photography or not. Or they talk about the production and its costs or whatever else.

So in a sense, it’s only logical that art critics might think that the only real photographs are “a collection of random observations and lucky moments” - after all, that’s what a large part of the photo world thinks! Just look at how many people don’t even accept staged photography as real photography! Let’s not kid ourselves here!

Make no mistake, there’s a lot messed up with the non-photo art world (I’d be the first person to admit that), but we can’t blame the art world for listening to the kinds of debates we are still having about photography. We can certainly blame art curators for not looking as carefully as we think they should, but we cannot blame them for listening to our discussions.

Here’s my first suggestion how to fix this all: Let’s please, please, please stop having these tedious, navel-gazing debates about whether photography is “dead” or “over.” And when someone asks, then the answer has to be “The question is hyperbolic, overblown, risible.” (thank you, George Baker!) - and just that.