Thursday, September 22, 2016

Photography IS SO Art!!!!

I cannot enumerate the number of contexts in which I have seen, or the crazy statements rationalized by, the statement that photography was struggling to be recognized as a True Art. It is used to justify things people do and say today as if the question were still open. It is used, quite a lot, to justify why the speaker is having trouble getting in to Art Galleries.

It's why Adams has to rage against Mortenson, it's why Pictorialism had to arise, it why Pictorialism had to be destroyed. It's used to justify and explain anything and everything. It's also completely wrong.

To be sure, there have always been and always will be voices that claim photography is not Art, whatever that statement might even mean. But the battle was over and won before the year 1900. Robinson and his crew put the spear into it in Europe, and Stieglitz did the same in the Americas not much later. Nobody thought Photography was Painting, any more than they thought it was Sculpture, but it was certainly an Art.

There were certainly questions about how one ought to go about it. Which processes were better than others? Should one hand work or not? These questions roiled from the very beginning. Well, at least starting from the moment there was more than one process to chose from. The acceptance as An Art was gradual, but essentially complete by 1891. PH Emerson (having been on the opposing side for decades) suddenly switched sides and declared photography to be Not An Art at all, just in time to be once again in disagreement with the establishment.

Across the water, in the twenty years following, Stieglitz did "Camera Work" and the 291 gallery, the MOMA started showing photography by its 16th exhibition, in 1932, and never much altered the pace at which it shows photographic Art thereafter.

The anti-pictorialism displayed by f/64 wasn't about Art at all, it was about trying to get Stieglitz' attention, partly by pissing in his breakfast cereal and partly by loudly being a Western avant garde.

Photography is an Art. It's been an Art for more than 100 years. Anyone who claims otherwise is trying to sell something.


  1. Greetings from a gorgeous day here in New South Wales.

    The first thought I had after reading this post was "Zen and the art of motorcycle Maintenance".

    Make of it what you will.

    The second thought was about an encounter I had many years ago. I was out along Port Philip Bay in Victoria and chanced upon an artist at his easel painting the scene. We got to talking and he gave me an invitation to his upcoming exhibition at a rather well regarded gallery.
    (his exhibition was quite wonderful - but the prices were shall we say, somewhat way over my head)

    During our chat he deduced that I too was out making images/capturing the scene/whatever with my camera.
    He referred to me as an artist. No hesitation - just came out with it. He talked of his regard for photographic artists and what they id that he couldn't.

    In my sense of modesty I replied that it may be said that photography is a craft, practised by artisans. We both smiled at that, but we both accepted that art comes in many forms.

    One of those forms is photography.


    1. That is a lovely (and on point) story, thank you for sharing it!

  2. Photography is a medium, like paint, like bricks. Art can be made with it (or even out of it), as it can with paint or bricks. Self evidently, all work done with paint or bricks is not art; ditto photography. Why this is, is a question too rarified to waste time on... Though most contemporary thinking on the subject seems to converge on "intention" as much as anything. Which opened the door to Carl Andre's "Equivalent VIII", which created such a storm when displayed in the Tate in 1976 ("it's just a pile of bricks!!").

    Of course, having established we're looking at some "art" still leaves the question of where we think it sits on various spectra, e.g. "sublime to terrible", "original to derivative", etc....


    1. Quite right! I lean on Duchamp's "Fountain" as the touchstone here. One *could* make an argument that photography was not Art when it was invented, and that the definition of the latter as moved and now accommodates what is exactly the same thing.

    2. I was once thrown out of a gallery for leaning on the art (well, it did claim to be "kinetic art"). The immortal words were, "This is an art gallery, NOT an adventure playground... Please leave!"


    3. Now I want to open a gallery named "Adventure Playground"

      I really dislike the whole conceit that Art is untouchable. It puts me in mind of a piece Ctein wrote about sending some prints off to NYC to be shown and having them come back DESTROYED by which he meant "had some tiny buckles"

      Then he badgered the insurance company in to, essentially, buying his prints.

      A tiny buckle does not destroy a print. If it was worth $10K before, it is now worth, I dunno, $9K or something. Dry mount it, and the crease probably vanishes anyway.

      The idea that Art is RUINED if it acquires a crease, a smudge, a dot of grease, is silly and annoying. Now, I do admit that if you let everyone who comes to the Tate fondle the Art it's going to have a short lifespan, so perhaps some management is in order. But the paranoid NO TOUCH NEVER EVER is silly.

    4. I imagine it's the same in the US, but in Britain museums have actually started encouraging you to touch certain displays, even leaving stuff out (things like replica Roman helmets) for kids to manhandle. I couldn't quite believe the first "Please DO touch!" sign I saw on a sculpture...


  3. "A tiny buckle does not destroy a print...." making me think of the cracks in Duchamp's Large Glass, where damage in shipping become part of the piece.