after the afterimage
Since photography’s inception there has been a debate as to whether it’s ‘real’ art, and if it is, what makes one photograph art, and another a snapshot. The first part of the debate ended long ago with the photographs of Alfred Stieglitz, Imogen Cunningham, Paul Strand, and other visionary (both literally and figuratively) photographers of the early 20th century. They showed that the photograph itself, without the artificial manipulation of turn of the century ‘photo art’, was indeed art- but what makes one photo rise to the level of art and another just a picture is a question that’s still very much alive.
Answering, `beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, is a way of quickly dismissing the subject without analysis- without thought. I consider myself an artist; I claim the title, but even to my own possibly deranged eyes, only one in 35 pictures I take, despite sometimes agonizing decisions before I release the shutter, rises to what I call art, comes close to achieving what I intended, hoped: I have no control over what others think about them.
I began thinking about what determines whether an individual photo is art in earnest when I came upon the web site of one particular art gallery that specializes in ‘fine art’ photography. Their name was familiar to me. They had a reputation for selling the finest photography created, but I’d never seen what they sold until I discovered their online presence. I was truly expecting great things when I entered their address in my browser. When I got there I found them offering a large range of ‘old masters’ and ‘new talents’, but their specialty seemed to be the truly uninspired.
They offer several pictures from one of their ‘new talents’- of a church in South America, inside and out. The photographer focused the camera, got the exposures right, and chose a subject few people have the opportunity to see. The gallery will gladly sell you a small print for in excess of $500. The photographer’s other pictures continued to document her journey south, offering the formal composition any night school ‘Introduction to Photography’ class instructor would be pleased with: she did it ‘right’. She photographed ancient ruins while avoiding the inclusion of telephone poles and tourist buses. She had access to a fish eye lens and distorted buildings wonderfully. She took pictures of open air markets and peasants in traditional garb. Yet no matter how hard I try I can’t help but wonder if this artist’s offerings are anything more than a travelogue.
Maybe those peasant photos were intended as the modern equivalent of what Walker Evans did in 30’s dust bowl America, but I just don’t see the same life in them, and I pray she won’t try to publish them in book form as, ‘Let Us Now Praise Famous Men II: El Sur’.
The same gallery also sells works of the pre 1950’s masters, yet the one they featured, from perhaps the most famous western photographer who ever lived, was bland and banal, the kind of broad vista any tourist to Yosemite might accidentally snap because they feel they are expected to. It was without doubt the worst photograph I’ve ever seen of his (a photographer I admire). It makes me wonder whether his estate has started printing every negative they can find, whether he made a mistake and printed one of his boners, or whether it’s a truly great photograph that I don’t have the sensitivity to perceive- but I really think that sometimes the emperor is naked. Regardless, you can put that ‘name’ on your wall for a mere $5000 if you want it. Don’t expect me to tell you where to find it, though.
My biggest fear is that this gallery, on the basis of reputation alone, can create art- they sell it, therefore it is art, that people are so afraid of feeling for themselves, of making their own judgments, that they will let these ‘experts’ do it for them, and the experts are experts on the basis of their position, not competence. All they need do is issue proclamations with an air of authority and collect their commissions- like a black hole in the art world distorting its continuum by virtue mass alone (something quite common among moguls of the pop arts).
I found another web site that appeared more honest in its approach. It’s a personal site run by a photographer and it appears that every picture he’s ever taken is available for sale there. You can clearly see the progression of slightly different angles of the same subject as he works his way through a roll of film, then dutifully scans them all, puts them on his site with a, ‘buy this print’ box under each one, then proudly proclaims that he has over 2000 pictures for sale. This really hits the, ‘photography as art’ question on the head. Some of his pictures really are good. I wouldn’t hesitate to call them art, but most are mundane. The interesting thing here is that he makes no apparent effort to distinguish between the two. Is he simply standing back and letting others decide for themselves, taking the position that he’s simply a picture taking machine? Does he consider everything he does art? Or maybe he thinks of his pictures merely as decoration, one no different from another- any will cover the spot on the wall. He’ll squirt one out of his inkjet for you for about 15 bucks.
If we define art merely as the fulfillment of the intentions of the artist, then perhaps all of the pictures I’ve described are art (or may be art. I have no way of knowing the intentions of the artist), but while I like that definition (it allows me to define myself. I think artist, therefore I am artist) it’s a bit too convenient. It means that every one of the 2000 photos on that site are art, and millions of pictures of cake smeared two year olds belong in museums.
Some say that art must be about human interaction between artist and audience, yet move beyond merely, ‘pleasing the crowd’- reach to some level of humanity that’s difficult to define. But even this definition isn’t that good. We’re reminded of some of NASA’s stunning photographs taken by robotic space probes that seem to rise to the level of art, that touch people beyond, `Wow, cool picture.’ In any case, I doubt most people could have a meaningful interaction with a probe. Besides, this art is limited to just a few pictures of the hundreds of thousands, or perhaps millions of pictures NASA probes have snapped, and these were sorted, edited, cropped, and distributed by humans who saw something in them even if they weren’t intentionally saying, "I’m going to look for the art here." That makes no difference. It was the machine that made the art. The endless room of monkeys at typewriters can not only reproduce art, they can create it- eventually, though they can’t appreciate it, nor can they anticipate it. Perhaps then, the roll of the artist is vision, seeing what a machine can’t, and making adjustments in the field that raise the odds of the work being art in the first place, or perhaps just being the first to actually see something a million people have walked by and say, ‘This is something special. This is something worth preserving,’ is what makes the artist (the photographer in particular) an artist (even if it doesn’t explain the art, per se).
In ‘On Photography’ Susan Sontag theorizes that, ‘The particular qualities and intentions of photographs tend to be swallowed up in the generalized pathos of time past… Time eventually positions most photographs, even the most amateurish, at the level of art.’ I don’t entirely agree, but I believe there is truth in it. The past is rarer than the present, and people need to feel a connection to their past, so anything that falls out of the ‘time machine’ into our laps, like the old photo recovered from where it slipped behind tar paper in the attic- your grandmother at 20, or a stranger who must be long gone, it’s imbued with emotional qualities that make it, if not art, something very much like art. It opens us. It makes us think, but in the end it’s still a snapshot.
It’s the near misses, the photos that weren’t quite there when they were shot, that successfully metamorphose over time. Perhaps the South American peasant pictures in the aforementioned gallery will do it in a hundred years, but people knew the power of the Evans pictures as soon as they were published, even if they didn’t sell well until people forgot the actual pain of the depression. It’s one thing to appreciate them as art, it’s another to put one on the wall of your penthouse when the models are still barefoot and struggling to survive in dust filled shanty town a few hours away. But when nostalgia for the depression emerged, and the models were either doing better or dead, people knew exactly which pictures to turn to even though the WPA had dozens of photographers ‘documenting’ the same subjects alongside Evans.
The problem is that even after we’ve accepted photography as art- that some photography is art, and some isn’t, whether intentional or accidental, recent or old, we’re left with the original problem of what raises one in a thousand photos to the status of art. As you might suspect, I have a theory (or I wouldn’t have written this far.)
It’s not as simple as, ‘Don’t cut people off at the neck,’ or, ‘keep the horizon line two thirds of the way up the picture. I think it has to do with the afterimage, or more precisely, what comes after the afterimage. In human physiology an afterimage is that momentary "picture" you see after you close your eyes. My philosophy of photography is that there should be something beyond the afterimage, that a photograph should speak to people on an emotional level, that it should be more than a "pretty picture", that is should touch their souls, because once the afterimage disappears it leave only blackness. I believe each real photograph should have the emotional weight of a dream suspended- as if you pushed the pause button during R.E.M. sleep.
The question, of course, is how do you do that. I don’t think there are any hard and fast rules, but whether attempting to make such photographs, or just appreciating them (or any art for that matter), all humans have the innate tools built into them to accomplish it. Maybe some people are more sensitive to them than others, but it may just be that they have developed their skills more acutely. I’ve identified several factors that I think lead a photograph (or any other creation) towards art, but don’t necessarily make it art- beauty, novelty, drama, precision, humanity, empathy, and abstraction.
Beauty and novelty are the two most dangerous because the uneducated often mistake beauty for art, while the educated often mistake novelty for art- combine them with precision and they can become deadly, can become a facade mistaken for art. For instance, the pictures of the church I described previously combined beauty, precision, and even a little novelty (in the remote location and fish eye lens), but I still wouldn’t call them art. I don’t think they even came close, but I can see them fooling people with a subconscious checklist- and maybe this is where the gallery actually went wrong. ‘Check, check, check- we have ourselves art here, baby.’
Novelty is perhaps the most misunderstood and overused cliché in all schools of art. It can be used to excuse the most god awful crap, and to dismiss great art when the next wave of novelty hits. The only redeeming quality is that when it does, the god awful crap becomes instantly apparent. I guess that does little good if you paid $8000 for an ‘up and coming’ abstract expressionist in the 50s, then suddenly realize your 6 year old really could have done it.
Novelty does have its place, and maybe the word novelty is trivializing. If an artist finds a way of approaching something in a truly new way, or in an uncommon way, then they can break down the barriers of convention and present their work in a way that isn’t easily categorized, pigeonholed, and dismissed. Present a ‘Nude Descending a Staircase’ or ‘Lavender Mist’ today and even if they’re great, you’ll have a hard time breaking through the gate keepers' malaise (been there, done that). The problem is that artists often seek novelty at the expense of all else, probably because the art community seems to value it above all else.
Precision is simply how well the art is executed. Does the portrait of Lincoln look like Lincoln? Is the camera focused? Some level of precision is necessary or the art simply can’t convey its message. Precision is the reason most would-be artists abandon art. How many times have you heard someone say, "I can’t draw a straight line." Precision’s problem is that it becomes a religion for some people, particularly photographers. There’s endless discussion about which lens is sharpest, which film stock truest, which negative density ideal for what situation. Some photographers spend hours of work which could be used productively in their art conducting ‘tests’ on their equipment. And there’s no doubt that the better the execution, the better the art- if that’s what is intended.
Edward Weston was a master of the precise photo and his photos are nearly unequaled, both as art, and a demonstration of the photographer as a master of techique. The loosely based f64 school he was a member of was named for the extremely small aperture they used to get unparalleled depth of field (a type of precision that was novel at the time, and would be novel again today, though difficult to reproduce because most modern lenses can’t come close to an f64 aperture. As a matter of fact, I don’t think there are any 35mm, digital, or even medium format camera lenses that stop down below f45, and those are few and far between). The f64 school’s photos were also extremely fine grained because they were shot with large format cameras with negative surface areas up to 100 times larger than 35mm. But when asking whether precision alone made their art art, look at how sharp those pictures were. Most Japanese discount lenses made in the last 20 years are far sharper, yet that takes away nothing from their art. One of my own favorite photos was taken with an inexpensive lens topped with a poor quality diopter that allowed me to take a close with it. It gets incredibly soft at the edges. It looks a bit like a `classic’ photo, but I don’t think that takes away from it. The lack of precision doesn’t hinder the art. I would rather have taken it with a high quality macro lens (because the softness wasn’t necessarily a part of the art, just an artifact of the equipment), but the flower existed at that time, in that place, and I didn’t have any other options. It was either take it with limited equipment or let it rot and be a ‘fish story’.
Drama is something everyone understands. It’s what separates us from the inanimate, and it’s one of the things we strive to draw into our lives, and repel from them at the same time. In art, drama is action, conflict, destruction or creation. Like beauty, it’s important to appreciate it without worshipping it, because it, in itself, isn’t art, just a component of some art, of some photographs.
Empathy and humanity, while personal, and different in every person, may be the most important parts of art in general, and photography in particular because of its immediacy. Empathy allows us to focus the energy, relate it to ourselves. It lets us feel the first four notes of Beethoven’s fifth symphony or look at a painting of a golden sunset and have it mean something beyond mere representation. It allows for an emotional transference.
Humanity is empathy’s quite cousin, explaining art that makes us uncomfortable or happy for reasons we can’t consciously understand. It differs from simple drama in that it can include any discernible, definable emotion- and those that aren’t as well. It allows us to like (and like may be too simple a word) the photo that’s a bit out of focus better than the one of the same subject that’s sharp and crisp. It allows art to pray at an altar other than beauty, to be ugly if necessary, and be more important in our lives than a shiny car or sparkling diamond. It’s allowed countless agitated people to look at art they don’t understand and say, "That’s art?" or, "I may not know art, but I know what I like."
And while that may be the mantra of the office worker buying the cute air brushed kittens on canvas for $75 (produced at a Philippine ‘art’ factory and imported by the container full) at an art fair while passing by true masterpieces by a stewing undiscovered artist dreaming of becoming dictator, outlawing television and video games, and paving the streets with ‘discount art’, it applies equally to the woman who discovers that artist and opens her check book. In the end both patrons are human, even if one is more sensitive than the other. The artist can console himself in knowing that nobody will probably give the kittens painting a second glance after it’s hung, while he may have changed a person’s life. (How much consolation that is if he gets thrown out of his apartment while the factory owner is building a third story on his house is anyone’s guess.)
As an ‘artist’ who identifies himself with the abstract, this may come as no surprise, but I consider abstraction, in some form, to be the keystone of art. Abstraction invests art in the parables of creation, and those same parables then create art. If humanity is empathy’s cousin, then abstraction is humanity’s- and like all elements of art the edges blur. They flow into one another. At its best, abstraction allows us to see how little of the world we understand, how much there is yet to discover. At its worst, abstraction allows the mind to substitute one thing for another, to see many facets or our world simultaneously, and that’s not a bad thing, either.
Please understand that I’m not saying that only the Jackson Pollock’s of this world rise to the level of ‘artist’. It’s just that I believe all art must have some level of abstraction, from music, which, like Pollock’s paintings, is nearly pure abstraction (and I have to wonder about the people who still criticize the cubists, dadaists, and abstract expressionists, while treating Bach and Mozart with near Godlike reverence), to highly representational paintings and photos (Rembrandt and Stieglitz). Even the slightest hint of abstraction allows us to see things beyond the image, beyond, `He’s taken my picture; he’s captured my soul,’ or maybe more correctly, ‘You push the button. We do the rest.’
I won’t even try to guess at the quantities the various components I’ve identified need to be mixed to raise a photograph (or some creation) to the level of art, or whether, with the possible exceptions of humanity and empathy, all are needed in every artwork, or whether varying components need heavier weighting in different arts. (Precision, for instance, is more closely associated with photography than say, cubist painting- is that necessary? Does the photograph need more precision, or is that just a convention?)
I’ve taken a stab at it, but in the end, I don’t know if we can decide exactly why certain photos become art. And I’m fairly certain we can’t as yet come up with a definition for art which will please everyone, but I think after you’ve seen a photo and walked away or closed your eyes- and the image fades, if thought or emotion remains, and the viewer doesn’t otherwise have emotional investment in that photograph, it is art.
Barry Massoni, June 2001 (C.)
to Barry's galleries -