We discussed photography and art at the U3AC Telling Image session last Friday (29th). Several people expressed regret that photography is increasingly dominated by issue based work (the same might be said for other art forms too). I don’t have any empirical evidence for this, but it feels right – Nan Goldin and Olafur Eliasson at Tate Modern, Eco-Visionaries at the RA and Shot in Soho at the Photographers’ Gallery point in that direction. Is this at the expense of more conceptual work and art for art’s sake? I don’t know.
History shows that the essential nature of photography makes it the ideal medium for documentary work, a way of shining light on issues facing society while still aspiring successfully to be art. For example: Street Life in London, John Thompson, 1877-78; the work of the Farm Security Administration, 1937 onwards; many of the stories covered by of Magnum photographers from 1947; and Sebastiao Salgado’s Genesis, 2013. The nature of such work and how it is used and displayed means that it’s likely to have a higher profile than more contemplative work, like that of Atget and John Blakemore, say. It’s more newsworthy, if nothing else.
I’m not sure it matters. The best issue based photography can be art; and all works of art in any medium can be interpreted in terms of their aesthetic, social, political and economic contexts and content.