MODULE 4: INFORMING CONTEXTS. WEEK 9.
In 1913, the artist and writer, Marius De Zayas stated that photography is not art, it is the ‘plastic verification of fact’ (Camera Work No. 41 January 1913). Leap forward a century later and some photographs and photographers are considered art or artists. Some artists use photography as a practice and some photographers find themselves being described as artists.
But photography is not art. By definition, photography is the technical procedure of capturing and fixing in some way an image on a light sensitive surface. That is it’s radical capacity and nature. It can be nothing more than that. The outcomes however are the opportunities for wider interpretation, and at that juncture critics and cultural gatekeepers have proposed that photography can be considered art. As a practitioner of this plastic form, the definition of photography as art is a distraction.
De Zayas’ point can now be interpreted as almost prophetic. In any case, I see no wrong with his description; it supports the fact (even in 1913, long before the digital revolution) that photography is a malleable, adaptable technique that takes as it’s base materials time plus an aspect of fixed reality and (furthering my alchemical analogy) seeks to transmogrify them into a form – be that a picture for entertainment, pleasure, or information, or as something more subjective, imaginative, or opinionated. Photography is forever the changeling.
Art on the other hand is the form of entertainment it has always been, and I mean this in it’s most positive sense which is, according to the Oxford dictionary, ‘the action of providing or being provided with amusement or enjoyment’. I would also slightly rewrite this definition and add that the provision is supplied by the inherent ability, within the action, to communicate. One could argue that perhaps at a fundamental level all people involved in some creative pursuit want to entertain if we agree that entertainment is a sibling of communication. The fact that works of ‘art’ can induce all aspects of the human experience within us does not separate that from the fact that so can a good movie, TV series, book etc. Accessing those experiences as individuals is only defined by our choices of what we want to experience and also what we are prepared to experience. Added to that choice are the gatekeepers who propose to the majority of people what is deemed worthy to experience or be entertained by. So, by extension, what might be ‘art’ is really part of the economic commodification of creative works that begins and maintains the process of what is and what is not worthy of patronage, which is a ‘subjectively biased interpretation’ (Thein, 2013, Huffington Post article). For makers of creative work (whether that’s photographs, paintings, books etc) the journey is bound to be one that is a ‘subjectively biased interpretation’. The irony is that, by Thein’s definition, every photograph taken could be seen as a work of ‘art’. Further, what one viewer deems to be ‘art’ is also subjective and biased. What I’m saying, clumsily perhaps, is that the status ‘art’ can only ever be opinion not a certainty. This is obvious to anyone who has ever made something and put it in the public domain.
And that is not even to get into the debate about those pieces of ‘art’ that have reached super-status and become timeless emblems of humanity’s collective journey (e.g. the Mona Lisa, the Dome of the Rock etc). Indeed, I don’t want to lessen the impact that great works can have (whether we chose to call that ‘art’ or something else). In my role as course leader for the community photography project at the Bromley-By-Bow Centre, I recently gave a short presentation about photographers and some well-known images from photographic history. The group I am working with have limited awareness of this subject, and their wonder and awe at what has been done and could be done with the medium was palpable as I showed them work by Edward Weston (see the photo at the top of this post), Cindy Sherman, Annie Leibovitz and others. That level of impact cannot be taken away from great work, ‘art’ or not.
To conclude then, and to return to the work of the M.A., this week we’ve been asked to consider how we as practitioners show what we bring to the table as subjective interpreters. In light of everything I’ve written above, to repeat: the notion of photography as art is a distraction. For me the photographic process is about my engagement with it’s plasticity, and is based on my love of the medium as a means to answer questions and to see if, hopefully, I can communicate something of the human condition through my search for answers. If I ‘show’ anything then, it is in the ‘palpable sense of inquiry’ (Soutter, 2018, p.99) within the work; in my awareness of the relationship between my practice and the viewer, and the desire for the viewer to see the work less as ‘objects than. . . as experiences‘ (Jurgenson, 2019, p. 15). Does that make it ‘art’? You decide.
REFERENCES & RESOURCES
- Jorgenson, N. 2019. The Social Photo: On Photography And Social Media. London: Verso.
- Soutter, L. 2018. Why Art Photography? Oxford: Routledge