U3A Cambridge 2020-21 Photography: The Telling Image 4

Following on from my post on 29th November, here are some edited highlights and my responses on issues raised by Module 4, which looked at art and photography.

CA:  I checked websites, hoping my attitude to some of the photographs would change with (a bit of) background. Some creators identified themselves as artists, some as photographers. At least one had classified ‘artworks’ and ‘photography’ separately. I was even more mortified that I subsequently still felt essentially the same. But it would be dishonest to indicate an image is ‘Art’ just because I know the creator would identify it as such. You mentioned ‘beauty’ and ‘emotional power’ as well as ‘creativity’ in your reply to comments in a previous module – these can be widely different in different people, and are unlikely to be universal. Whilst looking online for the image I respond to the most (Steichen’s of the Flatiron Building, 1905 [included below]) I found this comment about the value of photography – ‘Straight from the eye to the heart’ [https://www.christies.com/features/Why-Photographs-Matter-6005-1.aspx] I thought that said it all – and then I thought – ‘Heart’? Shouldn’t that be ‘head’?

BH: I do think there is still a lot of old fashioned snobbishness about photography – so called artists using photography are always rather defensive about it and would hate to be thought of as photographers. In my mind you can be an artist in any medium. I’m pleased to see we share an emotional response to the Flat Iron Building. The piece from Christies is excellent. I wish I had seen this before writing the course.

CA:  Questions:

  1. Should a single image be recognisable as art? What if it becomes so as part of series?
  2. Should an image provoke an immediate response (even if not complete understanding) to be ‘Art’ or can it become ‘Art’ after background research? How much explaining does ‘Art’ need? Should we not have background? – Leni Riefenstahl
  3. An image can be a great documentary photo without being ‘Art’ and may still be significant
  4. An image can be a great image technically but not ‘Art’. All the works shown are by skilled operatives, but only a few works by a skilled operative may be ‘Art’
  5. With photography, does seeing the physical print make a difference? Is seeing an image in a gallery likely to provoke a more positive response?
  6. Why is some ‘staging’ ‘Art’ and some … just not?
  7. The ubiquitousness of photography is diminishing its impact, but is it also diminishing its ability to be ‘Art’? Have most things already been done to death? Doesn’t rule out documentation as important though
  8. Why am I asking questions instead of answering them??!!!

BH:  I don’t think I shall attempt to answer these. The fact that you are asking them gives me some comfort that the course has been doing its job.

AB:  A young pop singer once said that ‘Art is what I can get away with on stage.

BH:  Well, that certainly applies to some photography!

AB:  There was a recent documentary on the photographer Susan Martha (who photographs ‘Street Art) on Sky Arts on Freeview. She said that ‘National Geographic make pictures, I take them’. The programme raises the issue of if you take a photograph of a work of art is the photograph art?

BH: I’m not sure what the distinction is that Martha is making. I do think that National Geographic projects a very formulaic, manufactured view of the world, however, and rarely see pictures in it that I consider art. I’d argue that a photograph of a work of art can be a work of art in its own right, but it has to be more than a mere record/copy, it must being some new interpretation. Is my picture of the statue of Apollino at Anglesey Abbey, below, more than a mere record?

AB:  I think that a crucial factor is if the image has been deliberately set up and/or manipulated.

I think that can work either way. Certainly it may determine what we are happy to call art, e.g. Cindy Sherman, but what about documentary that is not set up? Some of Cartier Bresson’s decisive moments surely qualify as art.

TB:  ‘Proficiency = Art’ as a definition raises issues and problems. No doubt, proficiency is useful for the photographer, but it isn’t essential for art. Highly proficient photos may be completely sterile while the in-passing snap shot may capture something essential about the world, society or the human condition as a lived experience. Manipulation as a defining quality of an artistic image is problematic for the same reason, partly because all photos are a manipulation of the “reality” they are intended to express or capture. With modern IT facilities at our fingertips, manipulation of photographs is pretty ubiquitous, but it doesn’t necessarily mean there has been a blooming of artworks as a result. We also need to be careful to distinguish between the beauty we might find in the subject of an image, and the beauty of the image itself; an ugly subject can be a beautiful image and vice-versa. Beauty is in itself a very subjective measure as well, so perhaps unreliable as a means of judgement.

BH:  I agree with this entirely.

TB:  ‘Art = Meaning’ is a definition that rests on the concept of artists/photographers as auteurs with distinctive visions to deliver which reveal deep truths and insights. There is some value in this, but it locates the meaning/purpose/power of any image in the intention of the artist. As the Leni Riefenstahl image from earlier in the course showed, this isn’t always helpful and can even be confusing. An image is a contested space where meaning emerges from the “clash” between the artist’s intention and the viewer’s interpretation; sometimes the two “meanings” will be similar, sometimes very different. Perhaps art emerges when the connection between viewer and photographer is especially powerful, but this remains a definition which rests on highly subjective, personal responses rather than a definition that categorises images neatly as Art or non-art. We have a set of cultural and economic values, however, that encourage us to want just such defining categorisation so that we know how to evaluate the worth of any image.

BH:  Again I agree. I watched a programme about Marcel Duchamp recently and he held the view that a work may be made, but it only becomes art when it is viewed, the viewer makes it art. This is rather the point you make.

MG:  Interesting topic – when does photography become art. Very subjective. For me it has to be more than just a photo with some Photoshop processing, especially in this age when we are bombarded by so many images, many of amazing quality. I feel that there has to be some deeper forethought than just capturing a scene, some planning and deliberation that make it an enduring image.

BH:  I agree it’s subjective, which makes it all fascinating and life richer – wouldn’t it be dull if we just applied mathematical rules. Photoshop and the like can help in truly creative hands, but are not always the answer: they are used far too often to try to rescue mundane photographs from obscurity. So often the best photographs are simple and the result of the creative process you describe.

GM:  Of course defining ‘art’ is all important and the two definitions mentioned are rather wide, especially the second where almost all sensory inputs including speech, text and images can be considered forms of communication that improve our understanding of the world and the human condition.

BH:  Fair point. I think the descriptions reflect the very broad interpretations of art that have been accepted increasingly over the past 100 years. I see this as a good thing, in that it fits our increasingly complex and interconnected society and moves us away from the traditional western concepts of art based on Classical and Renaissance views of what constitutes art.

GM:  As for photography, it’s difficult to see where art edges out technology; unless there is appreciable post-capture work anyone standing alongside the photographer will have seen and experienced the same subject matter with its emotional effects without the need for a photographic record of it.

BH:  I feel firmly that art in photography does not depend on post production manipulation. I’ve tried to demonstrate this in all the images I’ve used in the presentations. I doubt I can say anything else that will convince you.

I do agree with your point that we don’t need to rely on a photograph to have an emotional response to what we see. I despair of tourists (and photographers!) whose first reaction on seeing something is to take a photograph – they don’t take to the time to look and see and absorb the emotional experience.

A related point is the generally accepted view that two photographers with the same equipment faced with the same subject will take different pictures. This is where looking, seeing, understanding and emotion and hence art come in.

GM:  Perhaps I’m too much of a peasant though, as the purpose and therefore meaning of recent original modern art escapes me and evokes no emotional response.  Often, though, manipulated images which capture an Impressionist or painterly feel can be very moving.

BH:  Yes, this can work, provided it’s not done as an attempt to rescue a bad photograph.

GM:  Returning briefly to the communication aspect of art, it is here that photography can really engage with the viewer in showing us things that we otherwise wouldn’t be able to experience. This applies to all genres, but especially landscapes, natural history, photomicrography and photojournalism which can show us our world (and beyond) in all its beauty and otherwise. After all an emotional response doesn’t have to be agreeable, though we prefer it if it is!

BH:  We can certainly agree on this.

BM:  As for photos as art or not, the question of what art is seems to be a hotly debated issue amongst people who know about such things. I am not really interested in such philosophical questions. Some photos I like, some move me, some inform me, a lot are just plain boring. Some years ago I look a one term Open University course in digital photography which I found really interesting and that got me reading about the subject. Sadly, it gradually put me off taking my own photos as I couldn’t possibly compete with the experts, and there were already too many rubbish photos in the world.

BH:  I take your point about the philosophical issues around art and photography – it’s too easy to get side-tracked into arcane debates and lose the ability to enjoy the stimulation that photography can provide. And each of us should be able to address it in our own way: what might be boring to you may engage me and vice versa. I find this true of all art forms where judgements are so influenced by subjectivity rather than objectivity.

Yes, there are too many rubbish photographs (and paintings and books and songs etc.) in the world – and I’m sure I add to that mess. Yet I still find it worthwhile to keep trying to do something that I and a few others might appreciate. When I see the best work I’m torn between giving up in despair and soldiering on and trying to do better.

Flatiron Building, Edward Steichen, 1905
Apollino, Anglesey Abbey, 2020
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