Introduction: Recently I mentioned, a couple of times, the formulation "successful art convinces" or words to that effect. I was sure I'd written about the idea before, but I couldn't say where or when. So I've been doing a little digging through the archives. I couldn't find anything on the new TOP or the old TOP, or in the old Sunday Morning Photographer, or anywhere else online, and it wasn't easy coming up with anything from my magazine days either.
I did find this. It was published in Camera & Darkroom magazine in 1993. At the time I had recently met John Szarkowski; I believe the eminent critic A.D. Coleman had recently joined the contributing staff of the magazine; and I was up for the reviewer's position at The Washington Post (didn't get it, but it didn't matter because it paid so poorly and I actually needed money). So you might notice the tone is a bit more serious than my writing here on TOP. However, it's good for perspective to keep in mind that as a critic, I was very far on the loose, casual, and colloquial side of the spectrum, which caused (and still does cause) some initiates to despise me. I did have ambitions to be a critic at one time, but I wanted to write for "real people" and not just the closed circle of initiates and habitués. I may be an outsider among photo enthusiast writers because I'm a bit too art-historical, academic, and concerned with aesthetics, but I'm an outsider from the other side as well, because I'm too populist and too willing to engage with the verboten dirty bits like gear and technique. The way I used to describe it is that Benihana, the Japanese steakhouse, is called "Benihana of Tokyo" in New York and "Benihana of New York" in Tokyo*. It's Japanese-American food, and which one it seems more like to you will depend on where you are and which direction you're looking.
So here's that ancient essay, which touches on that idea we were talking about, for those few who might be interested. I've made a few minor edits.
*If that's not true, don't tell me, I don't want to know.
The question "Is photography art?" was an important one in the history of the medium from about 1880 to about 1920. Most discussions of the subject later than that were defused by the fact that many of the pictures originally put forward to support photo- graphy's claims to being high art—a style known as pictorialism—were derivative and imitative, and proved to be an evolutionary dead end. The intellectual arguments of the partisans might seem dated to us now, but the principal problem was that the pictures themselves simply didn't hold up their end of the bargain. The eventual conversion to modernism of the art side's most eloquent and impassioned advocate, Alfred Stieglitz, effectively ended the discussion. From an art historical perspective, Emerson can be said to have established the centrality of the argument, and Stieglitz's publication of Paul Strand's "Blind Woman" in Camera Work in 1919 is a convenient enough signpost signaling that the argument had become obsolete.
Most contemporary commentators are content to dismiss the issue either by questioning its relevance or by concluding that it can't be resolved. Yeah, photography sort of is art, they seem to be saying, but it sort of isn't, and besides it really doesn't matter.
Such prevaricating aside, I'd like to propose and try to defend what may be a novel assertion about the matter, because it happens to be what I believe: that photography is not an art, but that some photographers are nevertheless artists.
To understand what I'm saying, you first have to make the crucial distinction between photographs and photographers. Empirically, it is obvious that photographs are made by all sorts of people (sometimes even by machines) for every conceivable sort of purpose. Billions and billions of pictures have been made. Let's call this the "corpus of all known photographs." Looking over representative samples of such pictures,** it is manifestly possible to discriminate among them: that is, to distill a few good ones from all the bad ones. As is the case with a single photographer looking over a pile of contact sheets, any such "editor" will occasionally come across a particularly fortuitous felicity, which might be called—to borrow a term from pop music—a "hit." One person's hits may not be the same ones another person would identify as such, but, just as in music, some rough sort of concensus is implied. Furthermore, it is possible to sample deeply and widely across the corpus of all known photographs and use the fruits of one's investigation to come up with good ideas and supportable theories about the nature of the medium. It is even possible to sort out pictures which resemble very closely, in every respect, pictures made as conscious art by conscious artists.***
I have in my own collection a number of examples: a photograph made of a shy child by a policeman who was giving a lecture on safety at a grade school; an ID shot which was discarded because the subject's eyes were closed; family snapshots, of course; a publicity picture made for a newspaper advertisement in 1928; pictures made by my former high school photography students, years ago, some of which I selected from their contacts myself; colored postcards; an Air Force propaganda photograph from WWII; and an old Polaroid which has become partially metalized and has partially faded because it wasn't coated adequately when it was made. Although not directed by any single sensibility—in some cases not by any sensibility at all—all of these photographs are "hits," you might say. That is, they all work as pictures.
In order to make that claim for such pictures, however, you have to be willing to re-interpret them, at least partly. You have to assume that the photographer didn't really know the whole story about what he or she was doing, or about what the camera did, and that the pictures have a meaning or an aura that exists separately from what the photographer intended. A 1930s stage manager who used a press camera to make a record of how a set was constructed may inadvertently have made a very fine picture, but it is not a requirement that he have known, either before or after the attempt, that a fine picture would be, or was, the result. It is not even a requirement that he care whether his picture was a good one or not. We might assume that he found the picture satisfactory only insofar as he could use it to help him remember and re-create a certain set later on—a use of the photograph which is utterly irrelevant to most later viewers. (Except maybe modern stage managers.)
Photographs seem intrinsically susceptible to this sort of relativism. Give me a stack of any sort of random pictures—insurance records, old snapshots, school portraits, whatever—and, assuming I have enough of them, I'll find you an exceptionally good photograph or two. Curators and commentators love to do this even to the work of conscious artists who meant to author their work, finding in the work something they suppose the photographer didn't exactly mean, but which is there anyway. In this subtle way, the "history" of photography is continually and subtly re-cast. Modernism finding its antecedent in Atget (an out-of-work actor photographing scenes to sell as artists' references) is a perfect example.
The flip side of this relativism is that work which has been shaped with firm control to conform to the photographer's ideas about art sometimes has to be dismissed in retrospect because those ideas were so wrong. (Or maybe just because they were just so lame, as is the case with the later pictorialists, or with most advertising photographs.)
I have a distant ancestral relative, for example, who was a photographer, and a box full of his old glass plate negatives have come down to me. For a while after I got them I returned to the work repeatedly, trying to unearth a treasure. But what ultimately struck me about the work is how relentlessly uninteresting it is—there is plate after plate of nothing but picturesque foliage, marginally enlivened by the occasional river or footpath. I almost feel that anything would have been better, including if he had just played the photographic equivalent of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey, and turned his camera randomly on whatever happened to be around him with his eyes tight shut, and photographed what it happened to come to rest upon. It's unfortunate, but no amount of sympathy or credit will rescue his work from dullness. The one good picture is a record shot of his darkroom workbench, a picture which is completely uncharacteristic of all the rest.
It seems clear to me that if you do take the corpus of all known photographs as your guide, and attempt to discover the nature of the medium from whatever subset of those photographs that you can get your hands on (I mean all those that you can get to see), then what you are likely to conclude is that photography doesn't want to be art. It's too unruly, for one thing. It wants to be plastic, provisional, approximate, inscrutable, susceptible to a range of differing and sometimes conflicting interpretation. In fact, it resists being art—it just wants to be. And sometimes when you force it into being art, as was the case with my relative, it will defeat you. Whole bodies of work by erstwhile artisans look meaningless and empty in retrospect, a silent mockery of their sundry heartfelt apologias and earnest intentions, because they somehow weren't been able to locate ideas which were amenable both to themselves and to their alleged medium at the same time. Empirically, the fact that photography sometimes works in ways similar to the ways art works seems incidental, even accidental, and largely irrelevant.
The idea of expression
This would seem to bode ill for individuals who for some reason became enamored of the idea that the medium can be used for expressive purposes.
If photography is a craft, like ceramics, and if it is used for all manner of mundane purposes (like ceramics is used for plates, planters, toilet bowls, and power line insulators), and all the uses it's applied to don't seem, in total, to amount to a sufficient argument that most photographs are equivalent to conscious art, then what have you got?
But hold on a minute. One test for art—what you would call a diagnostic criteria, if you were defining an illness—is that it convinces you. You can tell from looking at it that it amounts to something more than a mere record, that it has expressive content, that it possesses the aura of an object. (Walker Evans called it "quality.") And, sure enough, in the history of photography, there are not one, not ten, but many, many individuals whose work has that crucial quality: it convinces us. It seems different and apart, eloquent, complete. You would never mistake a Bill Brandt for an Edward Weston or a Diane Arbus for a Dorothea Lange. So it would seem that photography is not just a craft after all, not just a technique of image manufacture, but something more. What's important here is this fact, that some people have in fact used the medium of photography for artistic expression and been very successful at it. I'll leave you to select your own examples, so that we don't get embroiled in defining that word "successful." (If you choose Daido Moriyama, you might disagree if I used Carleton Watkins as an example, and if you choose Watkins, you might disagree if I said Moriyama. But even if we can't agree on which artists were successful, at least we can agree that artistic success is possible.)
So this is the other way of looking at photography in an empirical fashion, to try to discover what it's all about: by first determining which artists have used the medium to best effect, and then studying them and generalizing from their work. This approach seems natural, too, because it's more similar to the ways in which historians and scholars of the traditional media have gone about their work.
I like photographs. I mentioned earlier some examples of some of the "found" pictures I value. But I tend to like photographers more: not only because I am sympathetic to their struggle, and sensitive to their problems, but—and this is crucial—because I am convinced by their work when they succeed. So, as a viewer, I am willing to spend time and care and effort to try to unlock the secret of what's inside them, the mystery of what they're struggling to "put into" their pictures. What interests me is not so much the fact that some small subset of all random photographs happen, by chance, to be good ones; I am more interested in what all of one person's photographs can tell me about that person's thoughts and ideas and feelings and values, and how completely that can be communicated in pictures.
One thing this interest requires and assumes, though, is integrity on the part of the photographer. If the photographer won't be honest, or if he or she imitates a generic style, or allows other people to tell him or her what to photograph, or merely pursues superficial technical effects, then it gets harder to tell what they're really all about. These days, the biggest impediment to integrity in photography is the divergence between what individuals would do if left to their own devices, and what they often must do with their photography in order to earn a living****. I think this accounts for my general dislike of professional photography, and of generic photography, and explains my constant stumping in favor of what I call "authentic" photography: I always want to see the artist behind the art, and, moreover, I want the art to have a chance: a chance to succeed, to communicate, to convince.
I'm not trying to be elitist about this. I'm merely expressing the faith that, even if photography is not automatically an art, then at least some photographers can be artists, assuming they're both talented (or smart) and honest with themselves. In general, one must admit, most photographers fail at being artists. This is true even when they're trained and such and when that's specifically what they're trying to be. The ones who succeed the best, I think, are the ones who don't try to rig the game, who do their own thing, who don't try to second-guess the arbiters of style and taste, who don't judge themselves only by the acceptance of others, who are willing to experiment, to loosen up, to stay honest with themselves, and, above all, to listen and respond to what their gut tells them about their work.
The people I'm describing are, as far as I'm concerned, the only real photographers. Not the ones Dorothea Lange called the "the Success Boys," who make photography pay, but, rather, those who somehow manage shove the craft of photography kicking and screaming into the realm of consistent personal expression. They're the ones who really make this medium vital for the rest of us, and it's those people whose work we try to bring you in the pages of Camera & Darkroom. They're the ones who make photography worthwhile. Here's to 'em!
And if that's what you're trying to be, why, then, here's to you, too. Good luck, and don't ever quit.
©1993, 2015 Michael C. Johnston
**As Roland Barthes pointed out in Camera Lucida, no one has ever seen even a very substantial fraction of all the photographs that exist; Niepce may have been the first and last person who ever saw "all photographs," although in his case it wasn't saying much. What this means is that everyone always has some different subset of all photographs in mind whenever he or she says "all photographs."
****I would probably have to amend that now, since there are now far more photographers and far fewer of them try to do it for a living. If you caught a whiff of antipathy here, I also think that when I wrote this I was not too far from a difficult six-month stint as a 60-hour-a-week assistant to a studio pro who was a bit of a psycho toward me, and I still resented the experience.