Guest Article by David B. Jenkins
Uniquely among the arts, photography seems unable to be accepted for itself by its own practitioners. It is the redheaded stepchild of the arts, unloved by those who should love it most. It is in little danger from its critics, but may not survive its friends.
The new medium got off on the wrong foot at its birth, more than 175 years ago, because no one was sure just how it should be classified. Since it rendered three- dimensional reality in two dimensions on a flat surface, photography soon came to be regarded by painters and critics as a form of drawing, albeit inferior because it was achieved by mechanical and chemical means. Most photographers accepted this evaluation unquestioningly and set out in great earnest to prove that photography could compete with the older media by producing work that looked like drawing, painting, or engraving.
Part of the problem then and now is confusion of terminology; using the words medium and art as though they were interchangeable, when in fact they are not. Painting is a medium, as are sculpture, engraving, photography, and pottery. When practiced at a high level of competence within the context of its own inherent qualities, each medium is a craft which may become art when imbued with an indefinable presence imparted by the being of the artist himself.
Driven by the perceived inferior status of their medium and lusting for the many perks that our culture bestows on those who are considered artists, photographers have from early days aspired to be so recognized. Many photographers have testified that they chose photography because they couldn’t draw, didn’t have the patience to paint, or found photography easier, quicker, or more convenient. Thus, photography became a shortcut to artisthood for people who did not understand what it means to be an artist.
Unfortunately, artist is a designation no one can award himself. It is a title only history can bestow. Calling oneself an artist, as photographers and low-to-mid-level painters are wont to do, is a sure mark of the “wannabe.” Edward Weston, like many genuine artists, often referred to himself as a “worker” because he understood that his role was to work diligently at his craft. The composer Salieri undoubtedly thought of himself as an artist, and was so considered by his contemporaries. But history soon buried him, and even though I have a good education in music and am fairly well versed in the classics, I had never heard of him until he was exhumed for the movie Amadeus.
As distinguished from other visual media, the art of photography is primarily the art of seeing. A photograph is created at the instant of exposure, and nothing done to it afterward will make it art if it was not well seen to begin with. Throughout the history of the medium, the works that have had power, the works that have lasted, have been straight photographs. Their power and their art are in the photographer’s ability to see and to present his vision in a tangible form.
Each of the arts is wonderful in its own way, and each has its role in enriching our lives. Each medium has its own inherent qualities, both strengths and limitations, which make it unique. It is only within the context of those inherent qualities that a medium can become art. Sculpture, for instance, is not made more “artistic” by slathering paint over a sculpted object, nor would painting be more acceptably “art” if the canvas were wadded into a ball to make it three-dimensional. A work in one medium cannot be transformed into art by making it an imitation of some other medium.
A pictorialist is one who thinks a photograph can be intrinsically improved by doing something to it after the fact. Compositing negatives was done a hundred years before Jerry Uelsmann, and the history of photography is replete with practitioners who used gum, bromoil, abrasion, and a hundred other techniques (and now computers) to make their photographs look like art. They have never understood that to make a photograph look like “art” does not in fact make it art. Photography is what it is, and any attempt to make it into something else robs it of its validity and its power. “….manipulation of pictures. I think it’s an abomination. I reject it all. I mean, it’s OK for selling corn flakes or automobiles or for taking pimples out of Elizabeth Taylor’s face, but it undermines the thing that photography is about…” (Elliott Erwitt).
The essence of photography is that it is photographic. It is a picture made by the action of light reflected from something that has objective reality onto a sensitized surface. Light rays bouncing off something that is really there go through a lens and are recorded onto film, a sensor of some kind, or something not yet invented, but whatever it is, it is “writing with light.” The unique power of photography is derived from this direct connection to reality. When a photograph is altered, digitally or otherwise, it becomes no longer a photograph, but something else: perhaps a subset of painting or collage. Rauschenberg, for instance, creates work that I would categorize as collage. It may be artistic in itself, it may use photography as an element or a point of departure, but it is not photography.
Dorothea Lange kept a quotation by the English essayist Francis Bacon on her darkroom door: “The contemplation of things as they are, without error or confusion, without substitution or imposture, is in itself a nobler thing than a whole harvest of invention.” As Fred Picker said in the March 1994 issue of Shutterbug, “This Koudelka (print by Czech photographer Joseph Koudelka) on the wall contains the most amazing combination of things that I know happened, because when he made that photograph there was no electronic imaging. Here are two horses, standing in a certain position, a boy sitting on a bicycle wearing an angel suit with angel wings, here’s an old lady scolding him, all in magnificent light and beautifully composed. Today, that picture could be made by some guy sitting in front of a computer. Knowing that would take all the wonder out of it.”
In actuality, it isn’t likely “some guy sitting in front of a computer” would make such a picture, because those who alter and/or combine photographs are limited by their imaginations. They can only do what they can conceive. But photography goes beyond human imagination. As novelist Tom Clancy has said, “The difference between fiction and non-fiction is that fiction has to make sense.” The magic of photography is that life holds so many amazing and wonderful things that are entirely unanticipated, unexpected, even unimagined in the deepest sense; that is — no one would ever have thought of such a thing happening. And then, suddenly, right out of the fabric of life, there it is. “I can do a beautiful illustration, but it doesn’t have that ‘instant of wonder’ that a photograph will have.” (Art Director Tony Anthony, quoted in “Photo District News,” February, 1987.) Photography shows us things that lie beyond our imagination and compel our amazement because they really happened. It revels in the beauty, the mystery, and the strangeness of life. It is the most powerful purely visual medium ever created.
And yet, what a sad, unloved child of the arts photography is! Her own practitioners, who should love her most are so often seduced by the siren song, “Artist! Artist! You can be an artist!” that they trample her heedlessly in their mad scramble to call their works “art”. Something of great value is being thrown away, and most of the people who are doing it so casually do not have a clue.
Certainly photographs altered in some kind of processing software can be an art form. Call it imaging, maybe, or whatever you like . . .but please, don’t call it photography.
The photographer with a computer has achieved his dream: he has become an artist.
And in the process he has destroyed his art.