There’s been a bit of collective hand-wringing recently over the legitimacy of photography as art. A recent article I read highlighted the ubiquity of the medium. In it, a recent award-winning photographer was accused of fraud. Someone had come forth with their own photograph, identical to the prize winner’s. As it turned out, she and her accuser took pictures of the same subject (a whale, or perhaps an iceberg? I forget) at the same time, from the same vantage point (a sightseeing cruise ship). Therefore, the author suggests that photography as a whole loses credibility because how can something so widespread and accessible be, in any way, personal and artistic? Most arguments in this camp follow along similar lines, questioning the merit of an art form that is accessible to anyone with a smartphone (to say nothing of the dreaded Instagram). The article also takes as a given that these two photographer on their Arctic (North Atlantic? Antarctic? Fuck, who’s got time for fact-checking? Suffice it to say it was some salty body of water) cruise had to take the same photograph. The conclusion is that modern photography is a homogeneous blur of oft-repeated Instagram filters.
The issue with this argument is that it equates a broadening and deepening of an art form’s reach in society with a degradation of the form’s best practitioners. An analogy can be drawn between photography and food culture: the average person in the U.S. in, say, 1965 had not tried Thai, Japanese, or Indian cuisines, nor was that person likely to know what to do with lemongrass, paprika, quinoa or half of the items found in an average Whole Foods. It is taken for granted that the same average person today has a much broader and richer palate. Noone argues that food culture sucks because every little town has some sort of pan-Asian restaurant (though some incarnations might be best avoided) or an attempt at a locovore/awareness-raising/cruelty-free restaurant. Good, varied, and better produced food is more common now, regardless of how many people choose to drink Coor’s Light as their preferred beer.
Photography’s explosion in popularity can be looked at similarly. People are taking more and better pictures than ever before. A digital camera, even an iPhone, makes photography essentially free after the initial purchase of the camera, and the technology in those devices are enabling even the biggest noobs to take a decent picture. The cookie cutter presets on Instagram may be a bit tedious, but they’ve gotten a broad segment of the public at least thinking about and appreciating basic image editing. And just because a lot of the images out there are selfies, blurry party pictures, and food shots on Brannan filter, doesn’t mean that there isn’t great photography out there as well.
But here we come to the thorny subject. Most photography isn’t art. Nor is it trying to be. It has a documentary, journalistic or social purpose, but usually little artistic value. This is confusing, because we mostly don’t write concertos about our food or tell of our exploits in the club through Kabuki acting. Any attempts at those things would be seen as an artistic venture, however daft. But unlike music or esoteric Japanese theater forms, photography is a tool as well as an art form, and it is misleading to confuse the two (sometimes overlapping) uses.
While photography isn’t always an art, it allows as much personal expression as any other medium when it is. A photographer faces many choices in settings and equipment before a shot is even taken, and a dazzling array opens up to her after. A single image can take on many different emotional hues depending on how it’s edited. And while it may happen that two capable photographers turn up near-identical versions of the same subject, as in the above case of our two whale (or iceberg?) loving sightseers, that should be seen as a dull coincidence rather than any sort of comment on photography. This medium, more than any other, is judged on the sum of an artist’s work. A single shot may be beautiful, but what is he after in all his photos? What themes come through after dozens or hundreds finished images? Anyone with a camera can luck into a fantastic shot in the right circumstances, but the artist will have many fine shots, all indelibly “his” in that they speak in his voice.
All of this is really tiresome, anyway, and much in the way of arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. If art can bring joy to its creator it has achieved its highest aim, recognition by others being merely a pleasant, resonant afterglow. Philosophizing about the nature of art is fun, but it’s the making of it that matters. I guess that means it’s time to shut up and post a picture.
A couple weekends ago an urbex trip, having met with little success, morphed into a general city exploration. We would wind up in the neighborhood of Pullman on the South Side. A couple posts on this historic enclave will follow; we’ll start with a bit of art in the heart of this community.
What makes a work of art great? I feel explaining the merits of a masterpiece is anticlimactic, like explaining a joke. I’ve found that my response to any art I’ve enjoyed is an ‘aha’ feeling, an emotional resonance. If the resonance is there, all else is merely commentary. It is always easy, however, to find and list faults of imperfect and flawed works. As I’ve mentioned before, all these recent shots from Turkey are several years old. I can’t help but pick them apart now with my more experienced eye; this implies that I could do better now, which is a dubious proposition.
I’m not entirely unhappy with the lot of my Istanbul pictures. That said, they needed more editing than I’d care to admit; after you’ve cropped, adjusted contrast, and endlessly fiddled with the color, you’re left wondering if you’re just polishing a turd. As always, the final judgement lies with the reader.
In the mass of rubble and gutter graffiti that is the Packard factory a flutter of color dances in the wind.
After 2 full days in St. Louis we said our farewells and checked out of the hotel. A day long drive along the full length of Illinois and across Indiana brought us to the doorstep of my dear friends in the vicinity of Detroit. Champing at the bit we were up and out early the next morning. Today we would take on the ruins of the old Packard factory, the one place that defeated us due to its sheer size, we only saw about 2/3 of it.
Upon gaining the uppermost floor of the first building I saw that the skyline of Detroit was within reach.
“We are symbols, and inhabit symbols.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
I’ve previously visited and photographed Agora at night. They are that collection of headless, armless hollow metal people wandering the south west end of Grant Park in Chicago. It is by far one of my favorite installations of public art, it is huge, it is weird, it is immersive.
A few are wandering way from the center of density.
Given the variable light and semi-dramatic clouds, I just couldn’t resist a HDR shot.