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Friday, 05 November 2010


I'm sure the talking teddy bears will clarify this issue in short order

I was looking at a book of "gothic art" this morning with my daughter and I noticed that many were listed as "photography and digital manipulation" which made me wonder what newly-minted photographs don't have digital manipulation? It seems like the art world places a premium on "digital manipulation" while the photography world sees it somewhat differently. OTOH, one of the artists was listed as strictly a photographer, but he had glued little bits and pieces of various weird things onto the models to make them look like they had been digitally manipulated; basically establishing the cool factor by going low-tech, even though the final image might have been achievable via either means. Reminds me of the glass sculpture in Bruce Sterling's "Holy Fire"...

I wasn't going to chip in to this debate, but there is something that worries me.

"Art is basically what a bunch of collectors and curators say it is, there is no getting around that"

That's fair enough in the smelly world of the Art market (Art with a capital A, and market, as distinct from artists who produce art). Art is a much narrower field than photography. Art constantly has to throw stuff away and reinvent itself. Photography, if we can ever pin that slippery thing down, is more akin to literature. The problem for me is when the said curators and gallery owners start suggesting that "Photography is dead" to promote the stuff whose prices they are trying to inflate belongs only to the narrow, and fashionable world of Art, or what is popular at the time.

Sure this is a rant - but hey, leave photography alone, all you guys in black polo neck sweaters

It is not highly likely that anyone is going to come forward with a box of work by "Uncle Earl" and get very far claiming it was really the work of Jeff Wall. Further, when you stare at a Jeff Wall or Gregory Crewdson image you don't think "I could do that too, if...". That is probably something that curators value in artwork.

I (and you hopefully) can easily separate art and mere photography. Its so simple: you feel it. And that's all you need to know and basically all gallery owners or curators know and do. No way to explain it. You see it, you react to it (or rather not), then you know. Its subconcious, that's how and why.

My local Barnes & Noble, which used to have three isles of photography and photo related books, is now down to a single row shared with lots of artsy/craftsy material.

Mike, I'd prefer to parse this in a different way: photographers who are shown in the hifalutin galleries that typically show big-name painters and the like and photographers who are celebrated in serious, established photography galleries, but who don't make the cross-over.

I care deeply about photographers (and as a matter of fact would love to have a print of Leibovitz' photograph of Jodie Foster in a red dress), but I think photography, at its best, is a somewhat different project than, for example, painting. I simply am not interested in Sherman, Prince, and Gursky--or Jeff Wall, for that matter. They may be brilliant, but not in a way I care about. However, ask me what I think about Vanessa Winship or Greg Girard, to pick just two, and I can get passionate.

I stopped fretting whether photography is art a long time ago. It is. But if photography remains somewhat apart in the visual arts world, I'm okay with that, and--yes--there is a difference between £31,200 and $3m. These days I wince when I hear someone blathering on about "fine art photography." PHOTOGRAPHY suffices for me.

"Now that I am dead
My agent finally said
He's eager to have lunch with me..."
(not sure who wrote it, but Richard Thompson recorded it)

For me, artist vs photographer more about how the general public perceives authorship rather than auction/pricing process. Though the two do go hand in hand since when you become an artist, the authorship question is what adds the price premium.

To expand on the Leibovitz example, people attending her "Photographers Life" exhibition were mostly interested in WHO the photographs were of. It's not the photography which holds the public interest, it's the subject matter.

Comparing this to SFMoMA's Avedon retrospective was really interesting. There was still a lot of interest in identifying the subjects. But there was a lot more appreciation of the image/technique too.

The more toward "artist" on the spectrum someone is, the more people (in general) care about authorship vs actual art quality. Look at Norsigian debacle where the entire debate is about authorship even though we all know that Adams and his copious darkroom notes are where the photographic value is.

Couple of disjointed observations...

Re "mere" photographers, there are plenty of excellent photographers who have no interest in being artists: technical and scientific photographers, illustrators, journalists. This is fine so long as everybody remembers the distinction, from both sides. A perfectly framed, focused and exposed photograph of a difficult subject may be an excellent photograph without having any artistic interest; a technically poor photo may be a fascinating work of art. It may seem obvious when stated like that, but in practice this often seems to get forgotten on both sides. When Mike wrote "mere photographer" he probably meant photographers who aspire to be artists but aren't accepted, so this comment doesn't address his usage, but it's still relevant to the general discussion.

Following on from John's observations at the bookstore, it is worth remembering that paint can be just a way to produce a decoration or a picture of a loved one. Producing a single, unambitious painting is much more labor intensive than producing a comparable photo, hence such paintings are more expensive and less common than photos. But in the sense in which art is different from mere decoration, painting is no more necessarily art than photography.

Annie Leibovitz's photos are mostly portraits, and mostly of famous people.
Art that sells for high prices is generally of the sort where the "Art" overwhelms the "Subject" unless of course "Art" is the "Subject" The only portrait photographers I can think of off hand that have been really successful in the art market are Avedon , Penn and Arbus's and all three of them went out of their way to photograph at the margins of society ( except maybe for that photo of Anderson Cooper) for their fine art work and to develop a distinctive style and format for their work both visually and as objects.
Annie Leibovitz's work doesn't do any of that. If you had a Leibovitz print people would probably say "Isn't that a photo of ..." not "Isn't that a photo by ..."

I like I lot of her work , it reminds me of Sargent, who didn't have much of a resale market in his lifetime either.

Just remembered Andy Warhol , probably one of the most successful portrait photographers in terms of the secondary market. Nobody says "is that a picture of Elizabeth Taylor?" , they say "Look! it's a Warhol!"

The contemporary art market tries to anticipate which work will interest people in the future. That's an impossible task and the best the experts can do is make educated guesses. Which criteria predict future interest? Novelty? Influence on other artists? Social impact? Who knows.

That uncertainty leads to the (apparent) chaos of the contemporary art market. It's not surprising that many people see folly there.

Frankly, I think the issue here is with our understanding of art, and the value that we attach to it. No painting, no sculpture, no photo, no art is worth $3million. In my eyes, that is obscene.

When there is such suffering in the world, to pay that much for a photograph illustrates one thing only: the absolute moral redundancy of the West.

It's all politics Mike. I call myself an Artist/Craftsman/Photographer. I sell my prints for a very modest amount and have difficulty breaking even at the end of the year (cost vs gross income with no wages). I participated in an an art marketing seminar last year and the message was basically the same as in Molly Barnes "How to Get Hung". You need to play to the gallery owners and collectors, to cultivate an image they will buy into. It's a cult of personality thing that has little or nothing to do with your work. I can't bring myself to play their game so I guess I'll never be an artist in their eyes but then I feel the same about many of those they think are great. I like what I do and occasionally I find someone else who likes it enough say so or even buy a print and that keeps me doing it.

One position commonly held by critics and collectors: art usually has to be its ownself, so to speak. That is, the artist has to have total control over the product, to change or alter or mess with it in any way he/she feels necessary.

That's why you don't see a lot of heavy collection of portraits, except by the very top painters (Rembrandt, et al.) Commissioned portraits are a collaboration between the painter and the sitter, and if the painter wants to get paid, he'd better paint what the sitter wants. Therefore, commissioned portraits are often considered to be something less than the best art (though they may show the highest levels of technique.)

Leibovitz works on commission; she has to please somebody besides herself -- the subject, magazines, art directors, etc. The technique can be just as good or even better, but it's not the same thing that, say, that Jeff Wall is doing.

And, I have to say, as a small-time collector of photography, that Leibovitz has always struck me as somewhat overly slick, and at the same time, derivative. I've often found her photographs interesting as productions, and eye-catching in the way advertisements are, but I've never really been shocked or surprised or amazed by one. I completely agree that she's an exceptional photographer, but I really don't think she's much of an artist.


NB. As for Leibovitz, I think the real reason she can't sell her work for more is because it's widely recognized as...terrible, regardless of whether you think of it as 'art' or as 'photography'. It works just fine in magazines, but it doesn't look good on a wall.

Horseshit or not, I think it's very valid to question the "art" establishment, especially when, as you say, they aren't king-makers.

is why some photographers are artists, and some are merely photographers

Surely the turning points are freedom, intent previsualisation: someone with a message to say, an idea how to say it, a performance skilfully executed for the sake of that message, that's an artist. I'm not sure how one would define a "mere photographer" in comparison: is it the case that the whole genre of, say, documentary photography is not art?

This question used to really bother me until I came to the realization that, at least for me, the only person who can say is the person who made the image. To me, if someone says that the image he/she made is art, then it is. I or you may not agree, art critics may not agree(they rarely agree among themselves), but to the person who made the image it's art. This may explain why Ms. Leibovitz has had some trouble convincing the critics that her work is art because she still isn't convinced in her own mind that it is. Just a thought.

"hidebound"!? Oh boy.

Wow... this is an old and neverending discussion, Mike:

the difference between art and no-art.

I had extensive interchanges on this (in the world of modern music, where I waste loads of time as well). And the end is always the same: nothing, and nobody, will make a proper description of what differentiates a work of art, from a work alone. In any field, be it painting, music, architechture, photography... you name it.

An expensive piece of today can be valued by nobody in two centuries, and the opposite as well. And certainly, outstanding musicians of two or three centuries ago were forgotten into oblivion and their work lost, even if they could have been propelled to the olympus in the XXI century if that work was available today.

And worst of all, there's nothing we can do to clear things out.

Eugène Atget is a good argument against the idea that it's all about intent, so I won't use that one. Ansel Adams work is very pretty but it's a mystery to me why it's considered to be art, so I won't use him as an example of what an Artist photographer is.

A real road to damascus moment for me was when I saw Alec Soths simple photograph of the love letter from his book Niagara. Right there and then that I was seeing something that I felt I knew but had never seen before. The most melancholy of mediums being used to make a simple record of one of life's most melancholy objects. I just felt that he was helping me to see something anew. The words from the letter are embossed on the back of the book like a heart carved in to a tree. The photograph & book has left an indelible mark on me

Shouldn't art do that?

A little time in art school will convince you beyond the need for discussion that nothing is art just because somebody says it is.


It's all horse shit!

That was a joke, sorry, you can delete everything above this line.

We seem to love to categorize and to grade. And we love to comparison shop. So when people go to buy art, or evaluate for possible purchase, they are reluctant to rely on their own taste but prefer to have the input of somebody else, e.g. experts. For all of our insistence that we're autonomous intelligent rugged individuals, we love to be part of a crowd, and to be seen to be. We hesitate to do much without approval, of some sort, from somebody. The "experts" have a lot to gain from this arrangement.

As I said in a response to a previous topic, why are some books in the Literature section and others in Fiction?

Leaving aside art speculators, to whom it may be important to tap into the merit analysis (in the dollar sense), why do people need someone else's advice when they're buying something that's going to be displayed in their own home? It's a simple enough matter to visit a bunch of galleries, find what you like, determine what the going rate is for what you like, and then either buy or not buy.

It should be simple, as simple as buying a camera. But look at all the internet angst over buying cameras, for which there is at least some "objective" evaluation criteria. People fight over the details, but you can quickly arrive at a short list of cameras if you want to cover sports in the rain, for instance. Or if you know you'll hardly ever print over 11x14, and have $x.xx amount at your disposal, you can quickly arrive at a short list of D-SLR bodies that will do the job. Most of the pixel-peeping debate on the web reminds me a lot of the debate of which artist is best. Most of the time, it seems to me it's just a bunch of guys arguing about who has the best taste, and trying to make it sound objective so to convince others to see things their way. A lot like religious missionaries, really. (No, really, my god is better, I swear.)

We don't seem to be able to trust ourselves to judge what means something to us, and whether we want to spend money on it and display it in our homes. It must really bother us to make the wrong choice, but wrong only has meaning in the context of our peer group. What other judge are we worried about?

So we invent categories of artists and we argue about it. We grade them, and because there's a commercial component, we want the sticker price to reflect artistic merit, and get upset when it doesn't or when it does. Buyers are sellers have differing views on that.

Arguing about artistic meaning, for its own sake, is probably useful. Eventually, over time, we end up figuring out that Michelangelo was a great artist, and that I am not, for example. It's while having that discussion that we learn something, I think. But we can't seem to do that objectively, without rancor. There seem to be people who take is personally when they're disagreed with.

When selling price enters the discussion, things get even more complicated. People love to argue over money. If gasoline goes up by 2 cents, you can hear the whining from two counties away; yet all the while people are spending $1.50 on bottles of water, some of it sourced from municipal water supplies. Money debates are often simple, to my mind. Everybody thinks that they are underpaid and that everyone else earns too much.

I suspect I've veered badly off-topic, so I'll stop.

"Art is basically what a bunch of collectors and curators say it is, there is no getting around that."

Really, you have your answer right there. The contemporary art world is not a meritocracy (neither is a lot of this world, but the lack of correlation between merit and success in the art world seems a lot more stark than most aspects of life). You reach the heights of art stardom based on who you know, who fancies your work and decides his/her similarly wealthy friends need to know about it, etc. And although this isn't a universal truth, it seems that the further you are from conventional notions of beauty and proficiency in the medium, the more acclaimed you become, once again as long as somebody with enough muscle in the art scene notices and promotes you. "Unusual" and even "bizarre" are more desirable traits than "beautiful" and "capable". It only makes sense. After all, if you're poor you're crazy, but if you're rich you're eccentric.

This is not meant to be a treatise against the wealthy. It is, however, an indictment of the way many of them act (and by extension many of us if we were wealthy would act) and treat art--as just another way to separate them from the unwashed masses by claiming to be able to see artistic merit where there is little or none, and exercising that unique ability by glorifying works that have little merit of their own besides being recognized by the power brokers of the art world.

This is the practical result of the unanswerability of the "what is art?" question. The people in power decide.

As someone (as almost everyone, I suspect) who struggles to put into words what it is that's completely unknowable about what constitutes 'art', why don't we just accept that it's all crap until it isn't, and that someone else (someone considerably richer else) will decide that particular moment and then bend over those who are both rich and stupid enough to concur?

P.S. I'm not going to publish any comments of the hidebound, reactionary "it's all horseshit" variety. Fair warning? The difference between £31,200 and $3m, just for starters, is not horseshit to anybody I know.

Actually, Mike (and anticipating than it will exclude my previous post from publication), your rule is both arbitrary and unfair. Of course the monetary difference isn't horseshit. But in the wider sense of 'difference', the very fact that we're all sat around, scratching our heads and trying to make sense of what's palpably lacking in logic, sense or any other rational yardstick suggests to me that what's in my nostrils isn't Lily o' the Valley.

A wonderful movie touching on similar points is "Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock?" From snooty, pretentious, art experts to con men to foul mouth trucker ladies the movie is full of interesting characters. Experts in that movie also commented that whether the painting was done by Pollock or not was beside the point. Without provenance the painting is worthless.

If you ever figure out the 'what is art?' question - will you let us know?

My personal area of interest in photography tends to be of the 'rock n roll - photojournalist' style. There at least, prices seem to be fairly stable and understandable. For between $600 and $1k, you can get a custom printed, b&w photograph, signed of either 8x10 or 11x14 size. At this level, I understand the market.

But I confess I'm completely at sea at the high price tag end of the market. Not that I could afford it! I suspect that marketing has a large influence. Also it may be that what makes these so valuable doesn't come across in the form most of us will see them - either on a monitor, magazine or other medium where they have been shrunk down.

Hey - maybe that's the secret! Make really big prints - most of us are happy with normal sized prints. For many a 16x20 is possibly the largest they would produce or own. Huge prints - that the way to go!

Ok, so maybe I'm being a little smart - but is it the scale for some people that tips the balance? Is bigger better?

In the stock-/mortgage-/artmarket, there isn't an answer how to translate value into price.
Even monkeys tried... ;-)


The 'Wise Ones', those who ordain who gets to be an artist, or not, they wouldnt be after basking in reflected glory would they? And furthermore, the question of a percentage of Big Bucks wouldnt come into it at all, would it. Hmmm. Probably too cynical for my own good.
Kerry Glasier
Cornwall. UK

What a silly concept this question is.... One needn't know why this particular salmon chose to be eaten by a grizzly, nor would one want to... Would we really care if we learned which particular series of fin movements predetermined its demise?

Let's just accept some people's combination of talent, luck or persuasion skills (or lack of) decide whether they are deemed true artists or not.

Frankly, if I looked at someone's incredible work and was told that "the particular fin movement" was the fact that the his work just happened to be in top of the pile on some curator's desk who just happened to take a note of it, it would take away from the magic of the moment, it being an utterly mundane fact...

This is an unsubstantiated flyer:

Didn't Tom Wolfe say that what is Art is determined by 3000 people worldwide and most of them live in New York City. (Which was a Art back water until after WW II).

I'm going to take a stab at this, as difficult and elusive a definition as it is:

Any photograph that shows me the world in a way that I don't normally perceive it (i.e. the artist's intent overshadows the thing or scene that is photographed) is art, or an attempt at art. The rest is documentation. Of course some art succeeds and some fails, but I suppose even the failed attempts must be classified as art. Even a rotten apple is still an apple.

Of course this applies mainly to photographs of things or scenes that exist in the real world, not setups created in a studio (which can be art in themselves).

So does this mean that since I see in color any black-and-white photograph is art? No, to my mind black-and-white photography simply reflects a choice of medium. But if the photographer consciously uses black-and-white as a vehicle for his or her artistic intent, and succeeds in showing me something in a new and perhaps surprising way, then yep, it's art, regardless of whether I'd hang it on my wall or not.

Just my personal definition ... and I'll stop myself there because I could ramble on for a few pages about this. It is a very important subject.

I think that the artists amongst the photographers are not the ones who merely have a good technique and control over the medium - whatever that might be - but the ones who have a uniqueness of style (or vision, but that depends on how you look at it - pun intended!). Well, unique, I suppose, until they become endlessly copied by other photographers, which is what I see done badly in many magazines and at amateur camera clubs. A Brandt is a Brandt 'cos noone took Brandts until he came along - if you get what I mean. Same with a Cartier-Bresson - though he took some hints from Kertez. The artist might push the boundaries in some way - not just by using Photoshop - but perhaps the boundaries of taste. The artist might find a subject that they explore with a searing vision and produce stunning prints. By the way, saw a Sally Mann exhibition in London recently; did not think too much of her until I saw her work in the flesh, but she's definitely an artist. It's the eye over the camera in the end. There are some good photographers who will never be artists. But that don't matter either: they're good and that's more than a lot of snappers are - like me, I suppose.Sigh!

"But in the wider sense of 'difference', the very fact that we're all sat around, scratching our heads and trying to make sense of what's palpably lacking in logic, sense...[snip]

I don't buy your argument. There's nothing arbitrary about art establishment opinions. Many if not most are perfectly sincere and a large number are very informed. Yours is just what I call the "argument from superiority complex." You assume that YOU can see it's all arbitrary and that valued art is all actually bad, and your premise is that your insight exposes anyone who disagrees with you as a charlatan and his or her judgment as cynical. I know enough about the art world to know that just isn't so. As I say, no sale here.


so Photographic art is another term for legal Photographic racket.

This is a very interesting discussion in an area that's always been a puzzle for me. I've actually begun to feel that photography is probably less of an art than ever before; at least the majority of it (and especially because of digital). The area that's truly definitive for me is the area of "reproductive skill". Someone once said, and I'm relying on the "wags" that usually read this blog to remember who (my brains are shot), said: "photography is a lazy mans art". I believe it was in reference to the difference in actual skill needed to produce a finished item in photography, vs. painting, sculpting, etc.

I've always maintained that you can take an interested and dedicated adult, and within a few years of training and experimentation, they'll be able to produce a gallery quality print from conventional materials, regardless of "subject". Conversely, you can spend the rest of your life painting with oils, watercolors, acrylics; or sculpting; and you could never get "great", and maybe never even get reasonably "good", regardless of subject. Maybe this, then, is where the difference in 30K vs. 3MIL lies?

One of my discussions with a pal of mine that is forging a career in scenics, or landscapes, is what the photographer actually brings to the image. There are most certainly people, many, many people, who have parroted the skill of Ansel Adams for years. The large format, ultra quality black & white scenic. But after Adams, what need is there for it? Even if it's a scenic Adams never took, it's just another "'omage" to his style. Do we really need more of it? Does it even have an impact? My friend, by the way, does a ton of manipulation and alt process work to his images to try and bring out things he's feeling about the scene and situation. And his work certainly does not look like Adams, or anyone else's.

Why is Cindy Sherman so revered? Especially since much of her early work is technically substandard. Don't even start me on Nan Goldin, who basically just pix'd her demi-monde friends and made hay out of it. How is that more than an interesting book? Annie L. might be the Phillippe Halsman of her generation, but is making a PR image of a celeb somehow "art"? I remember being floored when I first saw Joel Peter Witkin's work, there was nothing like it, he must be a nether-world ghoul with a camera! Imagine my disappointment when I heard him speak and it was all "master-degree-speak" and very calculated...sad...but his work was still highly emotional and full of impact, even if calculated!

I had a good pal who was once the editor of a major fine art magazine based in the mid-west; very heavy on theory. She told me a few things about the art business in general. No.1, It's a "dirty little business", dirtier than used car sales, she used to say. She said I'd be appalled! No.2 Most people have a very "catholic" idea of the artist, how they slave away in their garret pouring their soul onto the canvas, and then they're suddenly "discovered"! It's bunk, they are 90% promotional mad-people incessantly pushing their work and making contacts and trying to get into the galleries that control the clientel that have money to spend. One womans eye opening vision, I guess...

My feeling is that photography not only needs an amazingly fresh and interesting subject matter that causes one to think, but also the "reproductive skill" to complement and add to the execution and display. How much of this is really inherent in modern photography being marketed as "art". I see amazing things trolling through Flicker: photos I could never imagine I would figure out how to take, of subjects I would never meet in a million years, and the results are stunning! But this is not the majority of people trying to do photographic art, many of them are just people with different lives trying to show what they feel in imagery, and they'd never even think to promote it as "art". Maybe the real stuff is the "catholic" idea of it?

I think since noble no longer the sponsor, the market decide. Odd here is to say that the market decide there are two types of goods.

But inherently, at least for those of us who were trained/educated in the arts stream - exam on the red vase in ancient Greece, we did know that there is a strong tradition of art. Not just in western world but also in a lot of world. May be this just reflect our inherent distinction. Why comes later

It might be particular hard for photography as everyone can do it. Market pays for scarcity.

Btw, is Sally Mann artist and being a photographer as well? Price seems ok. Still in k$ but in upper part and not yet m$. She seems to cross it or has she not? A odd specimen.

If the work is about ideas then it's more likely to be seen as contemporary art. If it's just about aesthetics and subject matter then it will probably be seen as straight photography. I think that's the situation with Leibovitz, most of her work just looks like slick magazine images and there's not much more to them. Compare that to Richard Prince who took a section from a magazine photo and greatly enlarged it to comment on the use of images. That's why his work sells for much more than hers.

One one the problems has always been the notion that "anyone can do it." Just get a D700 and start snapping away making pretty pictures of amazing places and pretty or not pretty people.

Then you see something like this:


Here's a unscientific test: my spouse and I are returning from this gallery opening this evening (Friday) and I recalled this post. So I asked her "Who is Annie Leibovitz?" She identifies Annie correctly. Then I ask her "Who is Jeff Wall?" No idea. "Who is Cindy Sherman?" No idea. Just curious.

Mike: I think it's because we as a society have a myopic view over what 'art' is, and therefore who or what an 'artist' is. A case in point. I don't know if you've ever seen a Native dreamcatcher; if not, you can look them up online. In downtown Toronto there's a place called 'Covenant House' - a no questions, few rules place for street kids. They have other centers in different locations, the first of which was in NY. Yes, I do have a point, and yes, I'm getting to it.

Anyway, the Toronto location used to be stretched out over several different buildings, one of which was the residence for the kids. Although I'd been supporting them financially for years, a 'few' years ago I made a 16" dreamcatcher and wrote a letter to (then) executive director Ruth daCosta, explaining that I'd made it and offered it for the residence. In response she invited me down to T.O. for lunch with some of the staff and offered me a tour of the residence. Now, as you can imagine, because of the circumstances of these kids this place has VERY high security and mostly all they see are the doctor, dentist, staff and volunteers. All of a sudden I showed up one day, and they had no context as to who/what I was. One by one they began to associate me with this thing with feathers hanging over by the fireplace and then they came over with variations of 'So, you're the artist'.

Artists create. End of statement. If you make photographs, paint, sculpt, dance, sing or make woolen mittens for your grandchildren, you're an artist.


Why is a photographer "just a" photographer or a "mere" photographer, as opposed to a photographer who's also an "artist"? You can discuss or argue all you want about what makes a photographer an artist, but to suggest that a street or sports photographer (who happens to not fall under the classification of "artist") is somehow inferior to an "art" photographer? I find that notion not only elitist, but also ridiculous. Is a taxi driver inferior to a race car driver? Good luck hailing a race car in the pouring rain.

Re potted history: I am no expert, but my understanding has been that MOMA's establishment of a photo department in I think 1929 was considered audacious, if not ridiculous. That is, the surprising thing was that the department existed at all, not that it was underfunded compared to painting and sculpture. Then there was a history of people like Szarkowski and Beaumont Newhall actively campaigning to have photography considered art, which surely deserves mention.

The little I know about this mostly comes from recent reading about Atget, who has been something of a ping pong ball in the debates over photography and art.

Also, we want to distinguish an interest in multimedia works from a prejudice against photography. As far as I know, straight painting -- whether abstract or figurative -- is also not much in style these days. Right? (I'm talking about new works.)

BTW, the "photography is a lazy man's art" is a paraphrase from none other than Robert Frank; finally found it on der "google"...whataya know...

Come on Mike, that sounds like something someone who went to art school would say! I'm not saying just because I call my work art (I don't) means you will agree. But my contention is that if my purpose in making an image is to create art then that is what it is. What going to art school provides one is the legitimacy to tell me my art isn't very good.

"When there is such suffering in the world, to pay that much for a photograph illustrates one thing only: the absolute moral redundancy of the West"

Interesting. What about the East? Is the art boom still going on with Chinese art? How are things going here in Japan? Art is bought and sold for honor or zen or something? What should the price limit on a piece of art be set at to prevent immoral spending?

I would assume if someone pays 3 million dollars for something it is worth that to that person, regardless of the fact that it may have been produced with a ¥890,000 plus Nikon D3. With so much suffering in the world, how could anyone justify that much money for a camera?

@ most of you: We seem to be losing track of the original question here (correct me if I'm wrong, Mike). There are two uses of the word 'art' -- well, there are more than two, but two that are often confused. The first is essentially a compliment: "That's not just a photo, that's *art*". That's the way some of you seem to be treating this question, and there are two problems with it: the first is that it implies, pretty directly, that there's no such thing as "bad art" -- when in fact we speak all the time of bad art. The second is that it wasn't what Mike was asking.

The second use of the word refers to a system of exhibition, distribution, and sales, which generally -- though not always -- creates value, both economic and cultural, above and beyond that granted to similar objects which don't have the same imprimatur. This second sense of the word is simply descriptive, a way of classifying things, and not primarily a way of evaluating them (there are lots of artists-who-use-photography who can't sell their work for very much, including many who deserve to -- James Welling comes to mind.)

I think this second sense is what Mike was trying to figure out, and it's why the question of money is a bit of a distraction. Because the question isn't really "Why do some photographs sell for so much more than others?" It's "Why are some photographs considered "art" and others considered "photography". The "mere" comes into only when you start talking about money, not fame, or influence, or historical staying power: I'm sure many more people know who Diane Arbus is than know who Gregory Crewdson is. But I'm pretty sure a Crewdson print costs more (or if not more, than about as much.)

That's why I brought up MoMA: because ultimately, this is an *administrative* issue, and that's all. It originally came down to which part of the museum bought which work.

Of course, money does enter into it, ultimately: because paintings are scarce and unique, they'll almost always sell for more than photographs (and Jeff Wall, let's not forget, usually makes editions of 2, both of which, as I understand it, go to the same buyer (those transparencies fade quickly); Prince makes editions of 3). Paintings generally take longer to make, unless you're Picasso. Paintings cost more to make, at least in terms of raw materials. And so on. So, everything else being equal, they're more expensive.

If you're a photographer, then, and you want to tap into some of that money, you try to get yourself shown with the painters (and Andrew, yes, there's a lot of painting going on these days -- from older guys like Richter and Brice Marden, down through Philip Taafe, Schnabel, John Currin, Christopher Wool, the late Martin Kippenberger, and younger ones like Cecily Brown, Dana Schutz, etc., and they all make more money than their art-photographic peers -- I mean, even Richard Prince's paintings sell for more than his photos do) Because if you can get yourself shown with the painters, then some of the money that comes to painting is going to rub off on you.

But it's really not a deep metaphysical question. It's partly a question of contextualizing your own work in the broader history of art, and it's partly just...administration, coupled with the pretty straightforward economics of scarcity.

'Yours is just what I call the "argument from superiority complex." You assume that YOU can see it's all arbitrary and that valued art is all actually bad, and your premise is that your insight exposes anyone who disagrees with you as a charlatan and his or her judgment as cynical.'

Mike, in all sincerity, there is nothing superior in my unassailable ignorance of what constitutes art. You do indeed know more about the art market/world than I. There are several species of intestinal flora that could equally mop the floor with me in an argument about art. I just have the suspicion that, as with economics in general, when one hears an 'informed' opinion about the subject, it's often just another wild stab in the dark. As is my taste in art, by the way.

There's distinguished bibliography on this:

Duane Michals, Foto Follies: How Photography Lost Its Virginity on the Way to the Bank, Steidl, 2006.

Up too early! That damn "fall-backwards" thing, and my dog doesn't have a watch, but anyway, as an aside to this conversation, I just wanted to say that I've noticed that the people I know personally who refer to themselves as "artists", or at least have had a long term relationship with selling things in galleries; practically never get into conversations such as these. They never want to offer an opinion as to who they consider an artist or "just" a photographer. They always bow out of these conversations, if they're going on, or sit by relatively mute.

After a while, I've come to realize that it's in their best interest for them to NOT help to define this argument. They have NO interest in making statements that might narrow the field of "art" photography, and thereby might put them on the wrong side of the line! Or, make themselves a target of back-sass from a competitor or compatriot! They're focused on building up a base of institutions that will market, or at least show their work, and any conversations that may limit the acceptable range of what is considered art is not in their, or the businesses, best interest.

I think Ed Burtynsky is a good example of a living photographer who bridges the divide between technician and artist. I think there are many variables that led to his being viewed as artist, and Malcolm Gladwell could explain it much better than myself!
Personally, I am very new to the world of selling prints and was recently told by a gallery that my intentionally small unique prints should be bigger because buyers want bigger. Hmmm, is there a difference between art and products anymore? Or is art what people don't buy?

Julian Schnabel i mentioned above and this article (http://lenscratch.blogspot.com/2010/11/julian-schnabel.html) tells of his project with one of the large 20 x 24 inch Polaroid cameras. The photos that accompany the article are nice portraits, very much in the documentary vein, portraits of his friends and family. But then Artist + large (extra large) format must mean that this is art and not photography. Oh yeah, and he's painted a bit on some of them.

Don't get me wrong, I like the photos, but I'll bet dollars for donuts that these will be priced as art and not photos.

I think this is not about "art vs. photography", if we are talking about $30,000 vs. $3m financial division.
I think we are really talking here about the separation between "mere masterpieces" and "financial mega-stars" and it really boils down to two words: religion and philosophy.

Until that $30,000 limit, we are dealing with art - as in "art and craft", "good craftsmanship", etc. It is a sum that a photograph (or a painting) may be worth as a n appreciable work of art, to hang on a wall and admire. Many a painter would be happy to sell a painting for that amount.

At $3m, this is a "cultural icon", "cult item" etc. (notice that all the words denote religious meaning). It is about people viewing an artist as a messenger delivering some otherworldly message, a "message from G-d", basically a Messiah. That is a symbolic meaning of a photograph at $3m.

And philosophy. The opinion makers here are the art curators. Imagine the image of an art curator as a career-maker with a PhD degree (chances are, in philosophy), who can get lost in constructing mega-theories and wasted in meta-words. Now, the work of art (to be elevated to a cult status by such curators) must provide ample opportunities for verbalizing about it, using "high-speak" philosophy language, citing Heidegger and other philosophers, ample use of symbols and symbolic meaning for "the contemporary now-a-day". Vague meaning is a must, so that it can serve not only as a basis for a 1-page review, but also for a monograph or a PhD thesis.
One can verbalize about an honest, intuitive photographer as Atget - but you have to have Szarkowsky's talent to do that. It is much easier to verbalize if artist provides qualifyable and quantifyable clues for that, all over his works, specifically for curators, ready to serve. Symbols scattered here and there, identifiable style (all artists works should be forced into this mold), specific trademark tricks, huge size also helps (confirming that artist also views him/herself as messiah, and also the size of his ego and market expectations).

So here we are, between "art and craft", that is interesting for "ordinary people" (i.e. myself) and "cult icons", that are raised to cult status by the priests of this religion (curators) and that use vague meaning, symbols, contemporariness and larger-than-life size to showcase their messianic nature.

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