There’s an exhibit up right now at the Barbican, In the Face of History, that I think every photographer should see. It hit for me on a few of those ongoing questions about photography: what makes photography great? What makes an individual photographer’s work notable? How is photography quintessentially different from other art forms? – and gave me some ideas about answers to those questions, and, most importantly, inspiration to Make Art.
Photography has had problems since its inception with whether it is an art at all, because, in truth, photography was created to document, faithfully, the reality that our eyes perceive. In the late 1800s the Photo-Secessionists decided that they would try to make photography “art” by manipulating the image, or, if you prefer, making it worse than a clean, focused mirror of what the eye sees. They put vaseline on the lens, they shot out of focus, they printed on heavily textured paper that just couldn’t get all of the detail that the negative was utterly capable of faithfully reproducing. (I once heard Bill Jay say they were later dismissed as the “Fuzzy Wuzzy School of Photography,” and, even though it’s a very cruel moniker, it’s not entirely undeserved. In fact, it’s totally deserved, but I love their pictures anyway.)
This dichotomy between “is it or ain’t it art” has continued today, getting, I think, worse in the age of the digital camera. I keep seeing what I see as two different approaches to photography that mirror the original split: is it about making art or is it about making a faithful image? The faithful image school tends to be a more “masculine” arena, more Edward Weston and Ansel Adams, focused on the perfect shot, and the perfect set of equipment (and production techniques) needed to get that image. I feel, however, that this (to my mind) obsessive focus on tech and technique skips the vital element of the content of the photos and the ultimate making of (what I can’t help but see as) art. I see piles and piles of people out there cranking out photos and fussing over their lenses and color balancing and yammer yammer blah blah blah (lots of magazines out there for these folks), but they are NOT talking about art to me.
I start from the presumption of art, and then I looked (tonight) at a group of photographers and thought about their practice and what made each of them artists. For photographers, it seems that the oeuvre is the thing, and to understand how an individual saw the world, you want to see many of their photos. One person shows images from a studio he does not dare to leave; another, portraits of people whose inner lives he cannot understand; a third, nearly microscopic images taken while he was a soldier. Each of them left me with insights into the artist, but, more importantly, things for me to think about caused by the generally pleasant assault of so many pictures.
But which of these images are compelling? Compositionally, many of them are doing interesting thing; but I was faced with the tyranny of the label! Art, I like to think, does not need a “label” to make it enjoyable or understandable; in fact, I often prefer to avoid reading the information next to displays in a gallery in order to have a purer appreciation of the work. But … photography is utterly contaminated by being pictures of things at a certain place in history! It can barely get away from the labels! Sure, Westie’s green peppers and Stieglitz’s nudes break free of time and place, but when you are looking at the work of Henryk Ross, how can you not go, “Ooh, secretly made photos of Jews in the Polish ghetto that were stuffed in a can and left behind when he finally ran for it!” I hated that I was being (as I felt) emotionally manipulated by these declaration of time and subject. Couldn’t I just enjoy the images as they were?
Well, heck, you know, I think I just have to accept that this is part of the medium, that it is affected by its ability to document transience and historicity. Some images go beyond this; but some images are, in fact, far more moving because they grip on to their point in time and refuse to let go. And thus we have the dark and gorgeous shots of Brassai’s Paris, with its prostitutes and lesbian couples and transvestite sailors; Anders Petersen’s pictures of the poor habitues of a sleazy bar in Hamburg; and, again, the shots of the Polish ghetto. If we accept that this ability to be stuck in time is a part of the power of photography, then art may in fact be created by loving and obsessive documentation of what it means to be here, now, in a time that will not be forever. Christer Strömholm, I believe, is the artist who said, “Photograph what matters to you,” and I think that this passion very clearly comes through in these photographs. So I, in order to create art, should photograph the things that are happening at this moment, the people and the life that matters to me; and somehow, in the struggles of composition and balancing light and dark and pattern, I think that this will create art, an oeuvre worth remembering, far more than 5000 perfectly lit pictures of quaint New Mexican towns or spiral staircases or seashells could ever hope to do.
At any rate: see this exhibit. And go, people, go make art, and don’t beat yourself up because you don’t have the best lens out there or the spiffiest camera. You can make objects of lasting beauty with what you have right now. I went to the museum tonight, and I know that what I say is true.