I've mentioned that people often point me to things, and occasionally lots of people point me to the same thing. That's the case with an article in an otherwise useful British newspaper by an otherwise sensible British critic titled "Flat, soulless and stupid: why photographs don’t work in art galleries."
The writer doesn't actually make an argument. He just says he wishes people wouldn't put photographs in art galleries.
This is in one sense a bit like saying he just wishes people wouldn't let Black people and Jews fully participate in society—which is to say, it's baldly retrogressive, and blatantly bigoted—but he doesn't even advance an argument for his opinion; it's apparently the result of some dyspeptic musings while attending a particular exhibit he didn't enjoy. He writes, crankily, "I recently joined the crowds at the Natural History Museum’s wildlife photographer of the year. It’s amazing how long some people can look at a photograph. I observed the observers, rapt before illuminated images that I really can’t look at for more than a few seconds." So then, he's telling us in plain English that he noticed that lots of other people are enjoying the exhibit—and still concludes that the exhibit shouldn't exist because he wasn't enjoying it.
(Actually he concludes that all exhibits of photographs shouldn't exist because he wasn't enjoying that particular exhibit, which is quite a startling leap.)
Next he goes on to compare these photographs he doesn't like to paintings he does like, claiming the latter are better.
Which paintings? Delightfully, he then turns to castigating photographers for imitating Caravaggio and failing to measure up. Caravaggio?!? Well, because that's who we're all imitating. (Bet you didn't know.) "It is absurd to claim this quick fix of light has the same depth, soul, or repays as much looking as a painting by Caravaggio [his link]—to take a painter so many photographers emulate." This despite widely reported evidence that Caravaggio used optical aids and proto-photographic techniques to create his paintings—outlined for instance in "Caravaggio used photographic techniques: researcher," a 2009 article by Emmanuelle Andreani on Phys.org, or "Was Caravaggio the first photographer?" by Tom Kington, writing in...whoops, our earnest critic's own newspaper.
Love that irony.
I'll ignore the unsupported factoid (that so many photographers emulate Caravaggio—I'll counter with another unsupported factoid, which is that I bet a whole lot of photographers have never heard of Caravaggio) and the straw man argument ("It is absurd to claim this quick fix of light has the same depth, soul, or repays as much looking as..." who exactly made such a claim? Not a photographer, but some other journalist/critic at another newspaper, who just said that one particular photograph was "inspired" by Caravaggio)...and just say that I laughed out loud when I saw which Caravaggio he had at the link. Really? That Caravaggio? That's the one that proves that all paintings are "made with time and difficulty, material complexity, textural depth, talent and craft, imagination and 'mindfulness'"?
My own take on the relationship between painting and photography is that painting has been like a too-cool-for-school older brother trying desperately to shake a pesky tagalong younger brother who won't go away. Painting has been reacting against photography since 1839, emphasizing elements inherent in the older medium that are difficult for the newer medium to usurp. This used to be urgent and important business in the art world—it was critical to establish the primacy of painting over the merely mechanical verisimilitude of the lens image. The old urgency is gone now, however—a last exhausted vestige of the old imperative was the weary older brother adopting sheer size as a value, a meager last-ditch refuge where it was presumed photography couldn't follow. Although follow it has tried to do.
I've liked this critic before, and I presume he was just having an off day in the face of an insistent deadline. Having had many days like that myself, I can't blame him one bit. But I'm afraid I have a harsh verdict of this particular piece: I'd have to say that I find it flat, soulless and stupid. Although if those were my words and not his I'd tend watch it when slinging adjectives like that about, lest someone accuse me of crassly mongering controversy.
I do agree with him when he says that "A good painting is a rich and vigorous thing." Indeed it is. But then, so is a good photograph—in its own, quite different, way.
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Featured Comments from:
G Dan Mitchell: "Such 'reviews—whether of photography exhibits, musical performances, restaurants, or anything else—signal their irrelevance as soon as they dismiss a thing simply because the reviewer doesn't understand it. Often such reviewers hide this basic issue behind a lot of fancier rhetoric, but this reviewer seems to just come right out and say it.
"It is kind of like popular music critics telling us that classical music is bad, or vice versa. A reviewer who has not come to terms with Baroque art telling us that Baroque art is bad.
"Basically, once you (the reviewer) tell us that you fundamentally do not like or understand the thing—and you make no effort to shift you perspective to make sense of it—you have told us, clearly and unequivocally, that your review is nothing more than an egotistical demonstration of why 'what you feel' is more important the the thing about which you write."
Mike replies: After reading Diana and Nikon, Janet Malcolm's first book, I decided for myself that criticism really should come from those who have a basic sympathy for that art or craft or activity being reviewed. Really, a review of a wildlife photography show, if it purports to be useful, should be written by someone who is engaged and involved with wildlife photography in some way...as a practitioner or at least as an "appreciator," self-identified member of the "audience" for such work in a general sense. Of course it's absurd to say, as Jones does, that the Rembrandt around the corner and down the hall works better as art; that's like saying you can't review a new book of poems by a local professor because Dante, Milton and Homer exist.
A review can still be negative, of course, and negative reviews can be entertaining and instructive; but only if the writer's passion is in context. In this case it's pretty obvious the work wasn't taken on its own terms or considered within the bounds of its accepted parameters. (To name one basic qualification, intelligent aficionados of wildlife photography are usually interested in wildlife.) What it sounds like Jones has really said is that he's tired of being assigned to cover shows he's not interested in.
Robin P: "How strange: we have a local gallery which shows work by as many as eight different amateur artists at one time and changes the show every two months. I spend a few minutes looking at the paintings or sculptures and then spend a long time looking at the photographs. Even bad photography is more palatable than bad painting."
Mike replies: ...To you. Perhaps a painter might find the opposite? I was in an antiques/junk store the other day, and guess what I found myself looking at? The bins of old snapshots and abandoned family portraits. Photographers do like to look at photographs.
Tony Rowlett: "My take on the difference between painting and photography is that a photographer is allowed only 1/250th of a second to make the photo."
Mike replies: I do think painting and photography are fundamentally two radically different media. People expect them to be related only because the typical end result is so similar in form—a two-dimentional rectangular visual presentation or representation. They're not actually very similar at all.
Ben: "Your comment above is, for me, the most interesting aspect of the conversation. What is the relationship between photography and painting? I think all photographers can learn a lot from looking at painting, but that doesn't imply a strong relation. I'd posit that they're more closely related than photography is to most other forms of art, but it's also clear to me that certain kinds of photography are much closer to painting than some other kinds. Largely I think that has to do with compositional intent and how the photographer goes about setting up and then actually creating the image. Jeff Wall's work, with its compositional intent and execution, seems to relate to painting. Winogrand's, not so much.
"There are two side points that I think are interesting as well. First is use: Photography now serves much of the purpose that painting did for some time. I went to the newly renovated Harvard Art Museum (ex-Fogg) yesterday and saw a portrait of Napoleon, in full imperial garb, by David & studio. Nowadays, a similar iconography of power is always portrayed photographically.
"The second point is technological: An image like the giant, expensive Gursky (Rhein II), manipulated for compositional effect, or any of the other countless images that began as photographs before undergoing extensive manipulation. This is the frontier, where things are merging and where many find themselves uncomfortable, and I think it is bringing painting and photography closer than they've been before. Pretty neat—much more interesting than the article, for sure!"
jean-louis salvignol: "I had read this article in the Guardian without any reservation. Jonathan Jones seems to emphasize a point which is not absurd. I want to say this in a different way, with my words. Photography is life, not a museum object. These photo exhibitions that mimic exhibitions of paintings, with these artificial and often ridiculous installations that are supposed to give to the photographic prints the status of a work of art by this sole trick is in some way perverse. There are tremendous photography books—Sudek, HC-B, Koudelka, Vivian Maier, The French Kiss by our friend Peter...while painting books are often very disappointing. So are the websites. Here's a single example. Looking at Cézanne on a screen is just ridiculous. Obviously photography has its place in art history and in museums. But it can be understood easily that J.J. does not question that at all. Each medium has its own universe. Mixing genres only create confusion, even if we understand the real stakes, notably the Commercial dimension and the creation of totally artificial bubbles."