Continuing the debate about photography


Art, General Photography

Blake Andrews comments on my two cents about the Paul Graham article. What I find interesting is that fundamentally, Blake and I aren’t even that far apart, even though we disagree about quite a few things. (more)

First of all, I think we need to realize that the idea that the art world does in fact not relegate “straight photography” to a second-class role. Last year, we had the brouhaha about Robert Frank’s The Americans at the Met, this year we got Henri Cartier-Bresson at MoMA. While I do agree with Blake that the art world in general does not take photography as a whole as seriously as, for example, sculpture or painting, having two “blockbuster” dedicated to b/w (!) straight photography seems to poke a pretty big hole into the argument that the art world relegates straight photography to a second-class role. Second-class art does not get blockbuster shows at these kinds of museums.

Would I like to see more “blockbuster” shows about photography? Sure thing. Would I like to see “blockbuster” shows about contemporary photography, instead of photography that’s fifty years old? You bet!

Museums are not the art world, of course, but if I look at, for example, the most prestigious commercial galleries, there are a lot of photographers (getting regular shows), including many who shoot, well, straight photography.

I agree with Blake that having debates about the medium in principle is healthy, but I don’t think Blake and I would agree about which debates are healthy and which ones are, in fact, the equivalent of painters arguing what kinds of paints to use.

To get back to my original claim, the key in Blake’s article seems to be the following: “a straight photograph taken from the real world defies easy explanation.” I think Blake (and Paul Graham before him) are making a fundamental mistake when they think that the art world is after “easy explanations” (in fact, my personal problem with the art world is that many of its curators and taste makers often avoid the easy explanation, to instead aim for the usual pseudo-intellectual art babble); and I also don’t agree with the idea that a straight photograph defies easy explanations (oh and btw, pottery and glass-blowing can create amazing art, so I’d be a bit careful with the “craft” comment, it might backfire pretty badly).

My main concern is the following. Both Blake Andrews and Paul Graham basically blame the art world for the state of affairs. While that is a convenient stance, I don’t think it’s very helpful. We might as well all pout now or, alternatively, think of ourselves as punk rockers. But photography is old enough for us to have more than those two options.

That all said, I have the feeling the problem will eventually simply fade away - regardless of whether we have yet more debates about where there are “easy explanations” for straight photography or not. Photography is slowly, yet steadily, morphing into what might be more accurately called photography-based image making. At some stage in the future, our general idea of what an image actually means and says (and what relation is has to what we like to think of as “truth” or “reality”) will have changed so much that debates about when a photo becomes a “photo illustration” will strike us as just as silly as wondering whether “straight photography” defies “easy explanations” or not.

This is where I’m tempted to go back to my first two cents, because I don’t see debates about “photo manipulations” as disconnected from debates about “straight photography”. They’re facets of the same complex: What exactly is an image, and what does it say? The fact that some art experts have a seemingly easier time understanding staged photography really only reflects their intellectual limitations, without making a statement about photography itself.

I don’t want to be too bold with my claims, but I do think that just like painting had to find out what it was going to do given that photography had arrived on the scene, photography will have to undergo that same transformation - except that photography is mostly reflecting back on itself, while now also being challenged by digital image-making. We will figure it out.

And if it takes a while to get fully accepted by the art world… that’s just what happens when you’re the new kid on the block.

I personally might not live to see the day when photography has the exact same status as paintings or sculpture, but it’s pretty obvious that of all the art forms one can think of photography is the liveliest and most exciting. I’ll take that excitement over the art-world status that people seem to be missing any day - but I’d also rather see new work, new photos, new ways to make images, even new ways to do street photography instead of yet another debate about whether there are easy explanations for straight photography or not (or whether photography is “dead” or “over”).