Here is my disclaimer. I don't know what art is. I don't know what art isn't. I mistrust anybody who asserts that he or she does. What I do know is that I see a lot of what is displayed as art and I read a lot about what is regarded as art. A lot of what I see and read about I understand and like -- or understand and don't like -- or don't understand. There are semi-permeable and constantly shifting membranes between these groups. Regard the remainder of this post with an appropriately sized grain of salt.
A second disclaimer. The editor that blogspot supplies drives me crazy. Stray line spaces and bullet points with no text are artifacts. Please ignore them.
A couple of evenings ago I went to a talk at Photographic Center Northwest in Seattle by Tim Wride. Mr. Wride is the former curator of photography at LACMA and is now an independent curator, writer, lecturer, and founder of the No Strings Foundation. According to their website, the No Strings Foundation “is committed to providing direct assistance to photographic imagemakers in an effort to facilitate and enhance their creative opportunities and endeavors.” Sounds like a good idea to me.
His talk on Wednesday evening, “What’s up in photoland” was a warm-up for a half-day program on Saturday or a full day seminar on Sunday about looking at photographs (other peoples and your own) critically. Apart from being a bit puzzled myself about “what’s up in photoland” the evening talk seemed like a good way to find out if I wanted to spend the money and, especially, the time to attend one of the weekend programs.
Mr. Wride is certainly an articulate, passionate speaker and it is a treat to hear somebody stating his views about art directly and in plain English. Moreover, I agree with much of what he had to say. The short summary of “what’s up in photoland”:
Contrary to the buzz that the sky is falling, art photography is alive and well but not yet acclimated to the “new normal”.
• The art photography market circa 2008 was bloated with both less-than-spectacular work and less-than-discriminating collectors who were buying it like dot-com stocks.
• The bubble burst in 2009 along with the economic bubble that was providing the money for it.
• He believes that a significant regrouping in the art photography world is now happening with the second-rate work disappearing (or at least diminishing in quantity), far fewer people making any semblance of a living in art photography and collectors becoming more discriminating. Cynically, I read the latter as “buying more of what I suggest or promote.” Ironically, his No Strings Foundation has failed to attract investors/supporters.
• One result of the burst bubble is that there are a lot of people who were making a living at art photography then who aren’t doing so now. His opinion, that I share, is basically “good riddance”.
• A second result is that a good deal of work, much of it “second rate”, is being donated to museums. Some of this will wind up in permanent collections and, in coming years, be regarded as representative of what was was up in photoland in this decade. Well, that’s true – and that is what was up.
Mr. Wride then presented a list of what he regards as red herrings in recent art photography:
• Blurry doesn’t make it art. It just makes it blurry.
• Big and colorful doesn’t make it art.
• Using toy cameras doesn’t make it art.
• Depth of field doesn’t make it art. (I’m not sure what he means by this. I suspect he is referring to the use of swings and tilts to create an implausible relationship between fore/mid/background. If that is it, he’s my man.)
• Euro-installation doesn’t make it art. (I had never heard this term. My interpretation of how he described it is “hanging work very high or low, hanging it in random groupings …”)
• Good art direction doesn’t make it art.
I hasten to add that he was not suggesting that the presence of any of the above precludes it from being art, either. Instead he was disdainful of the use of them, or any other technique, as a gimmick; an attempt to find the Photoshop “Cntrl-P for profound” key postulated by Ted Orland. I would add to his list:
• Beautiful doesn’t make it art, but neither does banal or ugly.
• Spectacular print quality doesn’t make it art but neither does disregard or disdain for print quality.
• Important doesn't make it art, but neither does trivial.
He then suggested that one opportunity facing us is to reconsider the work of underappreciated photographers from recent history. His list included:
• The pioneers of modernist photography: Ralph Gibson, Wynn Bullock, Minor White.
• The feminist photographers of the 70’s, Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman, Judy Dater, Kiki Smith, Diane Niemier (my addition)
• The New Topographic school, the Bechers, Nicolas Nixon, Stephen Shore, Robert Adams
• The postmodernists, Victor Burgin, Philip Lorca-Dicorcia, Sherrie Levine, Paul Berger
• At least one more group that I can’t recall
Mr. Wride closed his talk by discussing where he felt art photography was going from here. During this discussion he dropped an obita dicta – words said in passing that give the game away. He regards art photography as primarily idea-based rather than image-based – as conceptual art. He openly stated that an exciting visual was not enough to get the work over his threshold - that visual interest is neither sufficient nor necessary. Aha! That explains a lot about his list of underappreciated photographers.
For example, Ralph Gibson’s preference is to show his work in books. In my opinion, book reproduction does not show his work well. His “The Somnambulist”, for example, is weighted (so Gibson says) with deep layers of meaning that I have never seen. Perhaps it is solely my problem but if a conceptual artist wants to convey an idea, it is wise to leave the door open a crack so I can get in. On the other hand, when Benham Gallery showed Gibson’s work I was blown away by some of the work from The Somnambulist. It still isn’t my favorite book but I can now look at it with some appreciation for what he was about.
Far be it from me to demean the socio-political value of the work done by the feminist photographers of the 70’s. It was and is important, valuable and memorable in the same way as the anti-nazi agitprop of John Heartfield. However, part of his admiration for the feminist photographers of the 70’s was that they were struggling against the current (true) and largely forced to wedge their art into a life dominated by making a living and raising a family (true). I see that as not fundamentally different from the situation of, say, Ralph Eugene Meatyard who had a day job, a family, and wedged his art into weekend photography and a yearly paroxysm of printing for a couple of weeks.
The New Topographic work has always struck me in two ways. Both of these ways include appreciation of spectacularly well-done prints. Some, like the Bechers, are of spectactularly well-done prints of spectacularly banal subjects – seen one European water tower, seen ‘em all. Others, like Stephen Shore, Robert Adams, and some of Nicolas Nixon, are of spectacularly ugly landscapes. These are, in my opinion, important as environmental statements but no more new and different than photographs of spectacularly beautiful architectural subjecs or landscapes.
Next I must confess yet another bias. I believe that it was Ralph Hattersly who wrote, “Above all, post-modern art is post-audience art.” It reminds me of the heyday of “cool” jazz during which the disdainful musicians would turn their backs to the audience during a performance so that they would not be distracted. After audiences stopped coming, cool jazz fizzled out. Similarly, it seems to me that most post-modern art is directed at a spiralingly smaller audience – the same people who know anything about, say, Paul Berger’s work are largely the same people who know everything about his work. I’m an exception; I know something about his work. He may be a pivotal figure in the recent history of photography but his work certainly eludes me. The ideas that he attributes to his work aren’t visible even after reading his statements. An artist/poet/filmmaker friend (one of whose short films is in the collection of NY/MOMA) described Berger’s first book “Seattle Subtext” as “another academic screwing around with a camera and a Xerox machine”. My opinion isn't quite that harsh.
In general, I have a lot of trouble with photography as conceptual art. It has always seemed to me that photography is very good at showing what something or somebody looked like at a particular time and place and that photography is very bad at expressing an idea. Words have the edge there.
A second obita dicta was Mr. Wride’s statement that “Photography is a very big place, just as is painting. There are painters that paint houses and painters that produce art. If you want to produce art you better belong to the art world.” What I heard from that and the context surrounding it was “you better produce work that is different from what I saw yesterday or last year or you are more like a house painter than an art painter.” That is a noble goal but not one that can be achieved by pursuing it directly (back to the list of Cntrl-P activities). A local photographer whom I shall not name once openly told me that he was looking for a new angle that would make him famous. He hasn’t found it yet. Edward Weston once commented on a contemporary “He doesn’t have to try to be different. He is different.” That’s more like it.
A third obita dicta was his expressed disdain for those who “have some other career and then decide that they want to be a photographer.” Perhaps that’s why he didn’t include Ralph Eugene Meatyard in his underappreciated list.
So ….. since I am one of the untouchables who had another career, since my work is not new and exciting, since my work is ostentatiously visual and not intellectual – I chose to stay home this weekend and play in the darkroom. I am currently on a lunch break from doing so and Mr. Wride’s Saturday workshop is in progress.