The Ort of Photography
By John Camp
When I think about Art with a Capital A, I usually think of it as Ort, with a Capital O, because a guy in Texas with a Texas accent once said to me, in Fort Worth, "I'll show you some good Ort," and then he did, but without a lot of bullshit attached.
In the last few weeks, I've spent some time thinking about Photographic Ort, a circumstance which led to a couple of sharp exchanges with Mike, the TOP Proprietor, in the Comments section of an earlier post.
I suggested that perhaps photographic Ort doesn't really exist on the same level as, say, painted Ort. That is, I asked, is there a single photo, made anytime, anywhere, that climbs the heights of, say, the Mona Lisa, the Sistine Chapel, the better works of Manet, Monet, Van Gogh, Picasso, Matisse, Utamaro, Hokusai, and on and on—the products of hundreds of great painters, including painters of our own time?
My answer is…no. At least, not in the way we currently define our terms. But if we re-define our terms, the answer might very well be "yes." Unfortunately, the re-definition might leave a lot of noses out of joint….
In painting, which I will use as a counter-example because I know a lot about it, there is a distinct line between fine art and commercial art. For example, a large number of famous American painters began their careers as commercial artists—they include Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, Wayne Thiebaud, most of the group that was known as The Eight, or the Ashcan School, and so on. Their commercial work is quite distinct from their fine art, in the eyes of the public, the critics, and the artists themselves.
Things are a little more confused in photography, partly because photography has a much wider range than painting. Photography attempts everything done by painting, but also encompasses the critical (and enormous) area of documentation, where painting falters.
If you tear down the various areas where painting and photography make similar efforts, you might come up with a list like this:
- Landscape (including urban landscapes)
- Still life
- Genre scenes
- History painting (including religious art)
- Outsider art (which in photography would include snapshots)
In none of these areas do I think the best of photography can match the best of painting in terms of power, or emotional effectiveness, or aesthetic quality.
This is not just my off-the-cuff opinion, but the opinion of money. While some people deride the position of money as an art-critical medium, it is simply a fact that those artworks that are most widely accepted as masterpieces sell for the most money. And I think that mass opinion, in the end, tends to be fairly accurate, even accounting for well-known occasions of errors in judgment. Fairly obscure impressionist paintings routinely sell for what would be a record price for even the rarest prints by the most famous of dead photographers.
• • •
But what about:
Painters do make some strong documents—Goya's "Disasters of War," for example, or even Durer's "Great Piece of Turf." But documentation is the forte of the camera.
"Disasters of War" is an amazing series of prints by one of the greatest artists in history, and yet, what do they summon up in the minds of most well-educated, art-aware people? Well, maybe some vague images…some impressions…if that.
But what about:
- The killing of the Spanish Republican infantryman by Robert Capa;
- Capa’s D-Day beach photos;
- The U.S. Marine flag-raising on Iwo Jima’s Mt. Suribachi;
- The atomic bomb exploding over Hiroshima;
- The sailor kissing the woman in Times Square;
- The assassination of John Kennedy;
- The shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald;
- The young Vietnamese girl running from the napalm attack;
- The gunshot execution of the Viet Cong;
- Robert Kennedy dying on the floor in the California hotel kitchen.
- The explosion of the Challenger
- The fall of the World Trade Center towers
I would suggest that any of these are as powerful as "Disasters of War," and will last just as long, because they have aesthetic qualities that make them extremely powerful images, completely aside from their physical, social and political content.
That quality derives from the fact that these are actual moments involving real people, while still fulfilling "artistic" expectations of structure, tone, etc.
The most sustained demonstration of this power by a single person that I know of is Inferno by James Nachtwey, who has been criticized for shooting brutal, awful scenes but with an aesthetic "eye" that some think is untoward, given the subject matter. Inferno will, I think, a hundred years from now, be considered one of the great documents of the 20th Century, easily comparable to the best of the paintings from our time.
But here is the nose-joint crux of the thing, if you consider yourself a photographic artist: It's possible to make fine photographic landscapes, portraits and all the others, but I doubt that they will ever rise to the level of skillful paintings. The problem, from an artistic point of view, is that photography starts with an external point—a subject—and a mechanical capture, from which it can't escape.
Painting starts with an internal, artistic response, from which it can't escape, but which is considered the nexus of all real art.
With documentation, however, the point of the thing is external. The whole raison d'etre, so to speak, is the externality, the event: the murder, the explosion, the kiss. When these things are expressed in an artistic way, they have the potential to rise to great art—art as great as any painting, but totally different than any painting.
In other words, in my developing opinion (which is certainly not yet set in stone), if you want to go looking for a true, lasting art in photography, you should look at things that can only be captured in an instant: an action, an event, a happening.
If you attempt to find, or produce, great art in the domains of painting—that big list at the beginning of this post—that no matter how good you become, you are doomed to the status of a minor artist.
If you look at a flower painting by Jan (Velvet) Breughel, you are astonished by the level of observation and creation. You see something that says a lot about all flowers, and also about life, and even…bugs. You are not similarly astonished by a Mapplethorpe flower, because the observation is mechanical, and all you see is one flower arrangement at one instant, about which you can easily say, "So what?"
I would suggest that in time, people like Steiglitz, Minor White, Harry Callahan, Robert Mapplethorpe and others will be lost in time, while some painters, who we now think of as perhaps lesser artists than those photographers, will persist.
On the other hand, I think photos will be regarded as the most important documents of our time, and that it’s in documentation that the true Ort of Photography lies.
John Camp, a occasional contributor to TOP who has an enthusiastic love of art, especially painting, is an accomplished book author who writes under the nom de plume John Sandford.
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Bill Pierce: "At last, somebody with the intelligence to see the truth about photography in the world of art (and the fortitude to put up with the shrieks of outrage his comments will produce). This is one of the best, most important pieces of writing on photography to come down the pike in a long time. Congratulations to John Camp."
Featured Comment by Nicholas Condon: "Hmmm.
"First of all, I don't think that the documentary nature of photography needs be centered on a 'defining moment' in order to be valuable. Robert Adam's The New West documents a very specific place and a time, but certainly not an instant.
"Second, I find the omission of Ansel Adams from the discussion interesting. His subjects could hardly be more 'painterly,' and I somehow doubt he will have faded into obscurity in a century.
"Third, I agree with some of the people who've already commented that ignoring the scarcity issue when it comes to pricing is specious.
"Fourth, and more importantly, I think using something as utterly deranged as the art market as a metric of quality is highly problematic. I don't believe for one minute that the big-money art collectors are solely (or even primarily) motivated by their own aesthetic appreciation for the works in question. I don't know exactly what fraction of Picassos sold are to people who deeply love Picasso's work and don't care a whit for how much having one will impress their social circle, but I'm confident that it's much less than unity.
"Finally, I do not buy the 'fixed viewpoint' argument, but I cannot figure out quite how to express why.
"So, as an argument, I don't buy it. As an article, though, I'd have to call it a ringing success; even though I disagree with it, it's got me thinking very hard about the subject."
Featured Comment by Steven Halpern: "An interesting notion, one that can start us thinking of something more edifying than the morning news. Of course, I disagree. Many years ago, without knowing who he was, I walked into a show of Alvarez Bravo's photographs and was greatly moved. A few years ago, a visit to the north of Italy left time for a quick drive to Firenze and two days there. I said, 'the Ufizzi,' the girlfriend said, 'the convent of San Marco.' Like the day I discovered Alvarez Bravo, I walked into San Marco not knowing what it holds (I trusted her judgment), and found myself looking at Angelico's frescos. I wouldn't say encountering Angelico was the same as encountering Alvarez Bravo, but I would say that both artists moved me equally.
"Farther afield, I'm a long-time student (and licensed instructor) of chanoyu ('Japanese tea ceremony'). Even among tea people there's no agreement on what chanoyu is: a polite accomplishment? A kind of meditation? A performance art? But for those who respond to it, cramming oneself into a tiny room with a few other like-minded people, drinking tea the consistency of applesauce, and discussing works of art that make no sense in Western terms is as soul-restoring as Angelico or Alvarez Bravo, even though it all vanishes when the tea gathering ends. So who's to say what is really art? Better to appreciate as much as possible, I say, than to limit oneself by setting up categories of better and worse (although the exercise can be thought-provoking, as it is in this case)."