Christopher Rauschenberg responds to Paul Graham


General Photography

Christopher Rauschenberg sent in his thoughts about the Paul Graham article that has been discussed in the photo blogosphere recently:

“The way that I see it, the actual problem is that the art world, as a whole, only understands half of photography’s dual nature.”

“At its core, photography is a mixture of art and science. The art world understands the ‘art’ half of photography but doesn’t understand the ‘science’ half. A photograph is a one-to-one mapping of a scene that is in front of a camera. If the scene has been created especially to be photographed, then photography is just being used as one of many image-creating techniques which carry no different meanings from each other. When the scene in front of the lens is not directorially created, though, it has a scientific, evidentiary, documentary value - it is a record of fact which can be analyzed, and from which discoveries can be made.

“No painters had painted horses with all four legs off the ground at once, but Muybridge’s photographs showed that that was the reality. The photographs from Abu Graib had an incredible impact because they were a documentary record of something that we would have refused to believe without their evidence. A Mark Tansey painting of a Chinese man standing in the way of a tank would have had only a fraction of the impact that the photograph of that scene had. Diane Arbus’ photographs are documents in a way that Cindy Sherman’s photographs are not, and the art world’s failure to understand that difference caused it to radically undervalue Arbus’ work until SFMOMA’s retrospective 32 long years after her death.

“Man Ray and the Surrealists embraced Atget’s work because they found it surreal, but Atget was not not pleased to be thus embraced on the basis of such a profound lack of understanding of his profoundly documentary work (which was also sumptuously artistic). Lee Friedlander has been prolifically producing a continuous stream of magnificent documentary photographs for over fifty years; he has changed the way that we look at the world with a level of accomplishment that matches Picasso and Rauschenberg. Within the photography world he is revered as a master (with at least 5 solo shows at MOMA, where he was ‘discovered’ by the ultimate documentary photography curator, John Szarkowski). If the art world understood the documentary aspect of photography - the significance of its literal description of the actual world - Friedlander would be in every Whitney Biennial (with an entirely new body of work each time!) instead of none of them. Photographers like him, Arbus, Winogrand, Walker Evans, Helen Levitt, Lisette Model, and William Eggleston were undervalued by all but the handful of museums (MOMA, SFMOMA) that understand the documentary power of photography.

“New York has been not only our art capital, but the fashion capital as well, and this has had a major role in the art world’s understanding of photography. The galleries embraced photographers like Avedon and Penn in the Seventies, moved on to Cindy Sherman, and then to Mapplethorpe - all of whom are closely related to fashion photography.

“I think directorial photography, painting, sculpture, movies, novels and dance are excellent media and I take great pleasure in them, but I recognize that the evidentiary power of photography makes it qualitatively different from those other media.”