Note: This is a “work in progress” that may be modified, amended, changed, enlarged, shortened, hacked about or otherwise rendered incomprehensible. Or even deleted entirely. Without any warning whatsoever. So… er… be warned! All depends on how the mood takes me. Or how much abuse I receive!
Right. So I’m sort of coining a new word. Not completely new cos I’ve just done a search on it that returned three pages of results. But none of them seemed entirely relevant to the usage I had in mind so I’ve decided to go with it.
What the bloody hell are they then?
Well, I suppose this could be considered the most recent manifestation of my ruminations upon that still thorny topic “is photography art?”
“Still thorny” as far as I’m concerned because I haven’t yet fully formulated, to my own satisfaction, rational arguments against all the different reasons that have been put forward to support the assertion that photography is art, or more specifically that photographs are art.
In other words all my instincts, developed over a lifetime of enjoying art in its various traditional forms and over a working lifetime that (at least up until the last few years) has had me rubbing shoulders with various aspects of art and design, rebel at the notion of photography as art.
Yet, until my present involvement with photography, I’m not aware of having consciously thought about the matter too much.
And that is why over the past three years or so I’ve spent so much time revisiting the topic. For I dislike feeling something without knowing why I feel it or without being able to explain it sensibly.
My rejection of the notion is I believe principally based on the fact that photography fails to fulfil what is, to me, the primary criterion of all art… described with great precision by Louis Torres (editor and publisher of Aristos magazine) in a letter to the New York Times, 13th August 1989:
“…there is a way to determine whether Mapplethorpe’s photographs (indeed, any photographs) belong to the realm of art – that is, by recourse to observation and objective, logical analysis (not by mere assertion, supposition, intent or subjective ”expert” judgment). To qualify as art, photography would have to share all the essential characteristics common to the primary art forms – music, literature, painting and sculpture – throughout history. One of these characteristics pertains to the process of creation: a work of art is created by its maker on a ”blank slate” bit by bit over time.
Photographic images are formed instantaneously, by the action of light on a chemically sensitized surface. Unlike a composer, painter, sculptor or poet, the photographer does not himself select and shape every minute detail of the work, however skilled and sensitive he may be. Thus, though a photograph may share some of the important characteristics of art, it is not a work of art, properly speaking, because it fails to satisfy this essential requirement: total creative control by its maker.”
But that’s not quite the whole story for it appears to be based upon a rather circumscribed view of all the processes that contribute to the creation of a photographic image.
Moreover it seems to address the “non-art” nature of a photograph rather than photography per se.
Perhaps I’m being a bit finicky over this (some may say pedantic) but the more I think about it the more I find I’m being increasingly drawn to distinguishing between “photography”, as in all the processes that contribute to the finished product, and “photographic image” as a discrete object in its own right. (I very nearly said “physical object” but that would then exclude digital photographs that are only ever displayed on a computer screen.)
Although this may at first seem an artificial distinction I’m beginning to believe it is a legitimate one and certainly goes a long way toward offering a possible explanation of the huge divide that continues to exist in the “photography as art” debate. For, it seems to me, much of the disagreement arises from confusion between process and result.
Let’s be utterly clear about this. I remain absolutely adamant that a photograph in and of itself is not “art”. To talk of a “fine art photograph” is to my mind complete nonsense. A load of pretentious old cobblers.
The most recent argument to be presented to me in support of this load of old cobblers (well, I say “the most recent” but it was in fact quite a few months ago now) was that I “need to see photos hanging in a gallery” to appreciate their artistic merit.
After some considerable reflection and, in the intervening period, making some effort to see photographs in a variety of settings I’ve come to the conclusion that argument too is a load of old cobblers.
The notion that one needs to see an object in a particular setting or at a particular size or even to see such “in the flesh” rather than on a computer screen in order to appreciate it as “art” is simply too ridiculous to be countenanced.
Whilst “in the flesh” viewing may enrich one’s experience of the object I cannot accept that the absence thereof inevitably prevents one from appreciating it as art.
I suspect such a view says more of one’s personal preference and how one is accustomed to viewing images and suchlike than anything else.
And regarding those other “requirements”, well, they sound like the sort of claims that emanate from or are closely akin to the school of thought that would have us believe that art needs to be “explained” to us else we won’t be able to “understand” and thus appreciate it.
Yeah. Right. Or in a word… balderdash! Whilst an intellectual “understanding” of art may enhance our appreciation of it, the absence of such an “understanding” certainly doesn’t necessarily prevent us from recognising art when we see it. Or indeed from appreciating it!
Anyway… since that argument was presented to me I have made the effort to view photographs in large size. To see them in gallery-type settings. Etc. And do you know what? They’re still just photographs.
No magical transformation into something else. No alchemical transmutation that renders dross into gold.
They’re still just photographs. Albeit very large photographs.
Whereas, if I see a genuine piece of art I’ll tend to recognise it as such almost regardless of the setting, and regardless of its size… unless it’s either too big to comprehend at a single glance, or too small for my less than perfect eyesight of course!.
(This doesn’t of course address that other contentious topic of non-art being deliberately and fraudulently misrepresented as art.)
And yet… I cannot dispute that some elements contributory to the photographic process partake of artistic qualities.
The visualisation and planning of a scene beforehand for example. The arranging of the elements in constructing a particular scene. Choosing one composition of a view in preference to another. Even the apparently simple act of recognising a view as possessing some photographically worthwhile attribute.
I say “apparently simple” for some people appear to not possess this “eye for a scene”, which talent undoubtedly is of an artistic nature.
So too is the ability to recognise within a given scene the potential for “creative manipulation”… deliberately subjecting a photographic image thereof to manipulations that render it significantly different to the original scene and reflective of a preconceived mental image.
To my mind all of the foregoing are artistic qualities. Yet the act that brings all these elements together into a single coherent image is achieved simply by pressing a button on a machine… the resultant image being a product arguably more of science than of art.
And this reveals another significant difference.
Once a scene or view has been composed to the photographer’s satisfaction, identical images of that scene can be created numerous times in a matter of seconds… by the simple act of repeatedly pressing the button! (Or indeed by getting someone else to press it. Who then is the “artist”?)
Whereas, with a genuine piece of art such identical reproduction is nowhere near as easy to achieve. And when something similar is achieved (such as the use of moulds to create numerous identical statuettes for example) the resultant objects are not normally regarded as original works of art… but as reproductions.
By the same token then a photograph (if it really must be called anything other than a photograph) is nothing more than a reproduction… certainly not a piece of fine art. If I really wanted to stretch the boundaries I’d consider it legitimate to describe a particular photograph as “artistic”… meaning “in the style of art”. But “in the style of” is not the same as actually “being”. It is simply an emulation.
Moreover, not all photographs would fit even this description. For quite clearly many photographs were not created with the intention of being “artistic images”, nor were artistically inspired.
Here we encounter yet another controversial issue, and one that weighs heavily against the whole “photography is art” position.
How can some photographs be art, and others not? Surely if photographs are art then all photographs must be art? To argue otherwise is in effect to argue that photographs per se are not art… that something else additional to the photograph is required.
Yet if some are not… who decides?
The photographer perhaps, based upon some ambiguous yardstick such as, and possibly retrospectively claimed (and hence fraudulent), “intent” maybe? Well, that’d hardly be an unbiased call, would it?
Or are we to be presented with the good old “in the eye of the beholder” argument? Aha. The fallback of those who have no other reasonable means of defending their assertions and a classic example of woolly late-20th century “thinking” that seeks to sidestep rational and dispassionate debate, destroy the notion of value, and render everything down to the lowest common denominator.
In that sense, the total negation of anything of worth. And undermining of the foundations of intelligible communication.
Hmm. Makes it sound suspiciously like some bizarre application of Socialism.
That would ultimately reduce us to living in a world of grey sameness where everything is equal and nothing has any merit whatsoever. Where to even hint at essential differences or one thing possessing more worth than another is practically criminalised.
If the “eye of the beholder” argument had any merit at all it would ultimately mean that everything is art… because anything could be considered as art… by someone. By anyone even.
No need therefore to call anything art as there’s no need to attempt artificial and arbitrary differentiations once it’s already been determined that such a distinction is based upon exclusively subjective criteria, and may be of no relevance to anyone other than oneself. And that everything is potentially “art”!
Such a route can only lead to a single destination… the devaluing of all art and the degrading of our use of the word as a means of bestowing real worth upon something (and by “worth” I do not mean monetary value!).
Yet the fact remains that some photographs clearly do possess some quality that causes them to stand out as something other than merely a visual record of a scene or event or object, and I believe that this is something that’s acknowledged by the vast majority of those who enjoy browsing photographic images.
And if my understanding is correct it is within this specific class or type of photograph that exist those reproductions that the “photography is art” school would regard as fine art.
Finally I’m getting to the point of this lengthy ramble!
It should be clear by now that I’m particularly uncomfortable with regarding any photograph as art. Yet I do wish to be able to differentiate between those photographs that are just straightforward visual records and those that possess this curious and quite distinctive quality.
Hence the word “evopics”.
Devised by the simple expedient of joining the abbreviated forms of two other words together… “evocative” and “pictures”.
So to me, and henceforth, photographs that evoke a feeling, or an emotion, or a thought or memory of something never experienced, or some other meaningful (although perhaps not always entirely identifiable) sensation (an effect, be it noted, that is also exerted by most if not all pieces of art) I shall likely describe as evopics.
Cos I positively refuse to call them art!
One final point.. should it be perceived that the foregoing represents some sort of backtracking on my original staunchly anti-“photography is art” position, that is actually not the case. It is simply that as I have increasingly exercised my mind in addressing this matter so have I been enabled to formulate my reasoning in a far more cogent manner than had hitherto been the case.
Very much being an example of my all too characteristic not quite knowing what I’m thinking until I’ve set it down in a flow of words!
First posted 02 January 2010, 01:44hrs
Page last updated 03 January 2010, 16:54hrs
Update 1st April 2010: Since writing the foregoing I’ve had a number of chats with a mate and we decided to launch some sort of project in which we would seek to consciously apply the type of approach outlined above. That is to say, making the distinction between the artistic nature of the photographic process whilst maintaining that the resulting images remain just that… simply photographs. At best perhaps, reproductions. In a word, we would endeavour to set about, consciously and deliberately, creating images that fall within how I’ve just described Evopics.
However, the word “Evopics” didn’t really fit all that comfortably with the shape we wanted the project to take. So time to put the thinking caps on again. And we find ourselves once more combining two meaningful words to form one… “Photographic”, and “Art”. Hence… PhArt!