Saturday, October 26, 2013

a little essay on photography (not quite Walter Benjamin's title)

In Victor Hugo’s novel Notre Dame de Paris, a character announces, gesturing from the book on his table to the cathedral outside, “This will kill that.” “Small things overcome great ones,” he continues. “The book will kill the building.”

In other words, the printing press could produce small things that communicated ideas more immediately and in a more easily distributed form than the sermons in stone that were embodied in the medieval cathedrals. The power and prestige inherent in the work of architecture and the power and prestige symbolized by it could be overturned by a humble and democratic medium (requiring only literary skill and a little technical skill to produce successful results).

When photography was invented, the commonplace pronouncement with regard to painting was “This will kill that.” But seriously innovative painting has survived quite nicely, having found other ways to deploy the medium, just as architecture symbolizing power and prestige has survived quite nicely in spite of the scarcity of world-changing church buildings.

Whether photography as publicly perceived survives its own ease of technical reproducibility is another question. I leave to one side (for the moment) whether it survives the migration to onscreen media; a photograph fired off to Facebook is still a photograph, and quite often a very good photograph. I’m concerned right now with audience attitudes about the medium as an art form.

For a number of years, I selected the award winners in the “My Atlanta” exhibition, a partially unjuried annual show in which members of the community display what the consider their best photographs (photography teachers in high schools also submit the best work of their students, so in that sense the show is also a juried exhibition).

I was invariably struck by a couple of things: First, just how good the best work was; second, how much better many of the photographs by high school students were than many of the photographs by the (mostly) amateur adults; and third, just how often the high school work was more imaginative and far-ranging than most of the work I was seeing in the commercial galleries.

This was and is a confirmation of one of the principles of Atlanta Celebrates Photography: photography is the democratic medium. Although at its traditional best it requires an immense amount of technical expertise, anyone with visual acuity and a sense of composition can make a superb photograph.

The problem lies in that “visual acuity and sense of composition” portion of the equation. Anyone can take a picture, just as anyone can write a sentence. This leads, just as with the once-commonplace response to action painting, to the audience response of “Anyone can do that.”

This is part of what leads to the world’s vast quantities of illiterate-sounding literary productions, bad abstract paintings, and dreadful photographs expensively framed and offered for sale or proudly displayed on living room walls. People assume that they too could do that, and they try to do it, with depressing results.

Eventually, some of them learn what they actually can do, and what they can’t. And the equipment allows them to make a good photograph far more readily than they can make a good painting. As with writing, assiduous imitation of the creative strategies they admire will typically result in a perfectly creditable product, and often a quite beautiful and emotionally evocative one. The same kind of expression of innate skill combined with happy accident can occur in painting and sculpture, but not nearly so often. And because of the effort involved in acquiring the technique, people are less inclined to suppose that they can turn out a masterwork without half trying.

But what if they can, in the same way that self-taught or folk or vernacular artists turn out astonishing drawings, collages, sculptures, and paintings (not to mention installation art) without even knowing there are names for such artistic genres and that they can be studied in academic courses? There are probably almost as many inept or execrable products of self-taught artists as there are inept and execrable products of art schools or community art classes, but the occasional masterwork does emerge through some intrinsic mental capacity to extract lessons from experience. (See the notion of “ecorithms” or natural algorithms in the new book Probably Approximately Correct for a possible evolutionary explanation of self-taught art, although I doubt that the author knows that there is such a thing as self-taught art.)

Provided the picture-taker wasn’t too concerned with having things in sharp focus and was taking pictures in good lighting conditions, photography has long been as easy to do, and as hard to do well, as creating a folk-or-vernacular yard environment (a.k.a. installation art before it had a name). In fact, photography was easier than moving objects around to form significant configurations, because photography is the original found-object art: you see an arrangement of light, color, and objects in the natural world, you frame the found composition in your viewfinder, and you trip the shutter. Behold, a work of art has been created.

In fact, pre-Photoshop, there was in certain circles a whole mystique of the ability to frame the image in your viewfinder so as to exclude the pile of litter just outside the picture. (This also presumes no cropping of the image in the darkroom, a limitation few photographers would accept.) No fair picking up the trash before you portray your scene of beauty; you have to do the heavy lifting in your head instead, keeping the unwanted aspect out of the picture you are about to take. (Before Photoshop evened the playing field, this is where the well-trained painter had the advantage even over the darkroom-savvy photographer: it was much easier to remove the inconveniently placed tree from the scene in a realist painting, or insert, say, a surreal battleship into the middle of Main Street.)

Audiences and photographers are still fighting the battles of two and three generations ago, so nobody has had time to ponder the artistic status of, say, creative screen captures. Is a screen-capture collage a photograph? (It’s certainly not a picture of the world outside the screen itself, nor is it a picture of a picture, exactly, nor is it a digitally manipulated photograph, because it’s the images onscreen that are moved around, if the image-maker is doing a set-up; or more often, the transient images are found and captured in the same way that one would frame a scene in a camera viewfinder and trip the shutter.)

More and more, then, the art depends almost entirely on the perception of the mind that sees the objects and the possibilities in the objects. When a simple touch of the screen creates the image, knowing when to touch the screen becomes the key creative act, in the same way that advances in camera technology reduced the creative act in photography to knowing when and where to take the picture.

This has already blunted popular appreciation of the range of possibilities available to practitioners who have mastered the technical side of things. Just as photographers who knew the ways of darkroom technique were horrified at the the popular notion that pressing the shutter and then taking the film to the drugstore made the average picture-taker the same as Ansel Adams, I presume serious new-media people are horrified that the advent of shortcut software programs for the laptop and the smartphone have resulted in a flood of idiotically conceived images that are instantly posted to social media.

The key component remains, in any case, what the mind that perceives the possibilities does with the technology. There is a lot of really bad tech-savvy art out there, in all media.

Whether any of these newest-media images, good or bad, ever stop being “photographs” is a matter of definition of terms. To return us to our starting point, most folks still think a photograph is a picture of the way things really are in the outside world, the same way they think a painting (a “real painting,” that is) is a painted picture of the way things really are in the outside world.

When we talk about bridging the conceptual gaps between artist and audience, we are talking about distances and depths of division for which the Grand Canyon is an inadequate standard-issue metaphor. The gulfs are more like the Marianas Trench, and like the Trench they have the added difficulty of being invisibly beneath the surface.

No comments: