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Tuesday, 03 March 2015


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According to Tolstoy there is a religious element to art. Thus my photo series, "Churches ad hoc" could be thought of as art.

A good read! So many really good images being made today but the issue for me is who is the rightful owner of the image. By that I mean is the vision or idea that of the photographer or just the trending style. Being original is hard but ultimately the only way to be true to one's self.

I remember that article very well, and, in fact, am reasonably certain I still have it. It has ever since been a key to my understanding of art and photography. Your statement (paraphrasing) that photography is not necessarily art, but that some photographers are artists has stayed with me through the years. I never worry about whether I'm an artist (and I would think it presumptuous to call myself one), but I seek to work seriously, in an artistic manner and with artistic intent. Some people will think my photographs are art (some of them, anyway), and others won't. I'm cool with that.

Part of the problem in understanding photography and its relationship to art is confusion of terminology; using the words medium and art as though they were interchangeable, when in fact they are not. Painting is a medium, as are sculpture, engraving, photography, and pottery. When practiced at a high level of competence within the context of its own inherent qualities, each medium is a craft, which may become art when imbued with an indefinable presence imparted by the being of the artist himself.

This is truly a wonderful bit of writing. The overall thrust really clarifies a bunch of things that I have been wrestling with for - literally - years. Thank you so much!

One side remark. Pictorialism as "thing" is, as nearly as I can tell, an artifact of Beaumont Newhall's desire to place things in neat boxes, these boxes then placed in opposition to one another.

There was, there's no denying it, an era of smudgy gum bichromate prints and the like, the hand-worked era chronicled in "Camera Work". This is what is usually meant when people say "pictorialism" and as such that would be a fine and useful definition. Historians, following Newhall, though, seem unwilling to stick to that. They want to chuck in Emerson, for instance, whose work was diametrically opposed to the hand-work (Emerson was rabidly opposed to hand work!).

If pictorialism is to be larger than simply the hand-worked stuff, and it more or less has to be if you're going to set it up as the major movement that predates modernism, then the only definition that seems to make much sense it "photographs that look like paintings" in which case - radical notion - Adams lived and died a pictorialist.

There is certainly a case to be made for: photographs mainly looked like paintings ("pictorialism") until they didn't ("modernism") but then you get in to trouble with Adams, at least.

Be that as it may, the boxes history assigns to movements and so forth are always problematic. I just find them particularly so in photography, where the cross-fertilization has always moved at such a furious pace as to render categories for photographs and photographers to be nearly meaningless.

I really enjoyed this. Very much. It feels true to me.

When I reach a stopping point, I'd like to send you a set of my photographs, and see what you can read in them.

At the same time, you could argue that painting is not automatically art either. Not all painting is art painting; there are painters who paint signs and other illustrations, and there are painters who merely paint walls and other objects.

Nearly everyone has painted, even if it is simply finger painting as a child or painting your basement a new color. One might not have ever painted a fine artwork, but they have still painted nonetheless. And what do we call the man whose business it is to paint walls and buildings? A painter.

So while you insist that photography is not art, I agree with you, but I would propose that painting is not art either. I believe that photography, like painting, has many applications, one of which is for the purpose of acting as fine art.


> If that's not true, don't tell me, I don't want to know.

Okay, I won't. Either way.

(Writing from New Zealand, but who lives 27 minutes north of Tokyo)

Architecture is regarded as an art and yet not all work produced by architects is, nor is it expected to be: thusly photography.

Wait a minute! Nothing about that picture of the woodpecker with a baby weasel on its back?

There's something peculiar about photography: Its self-imposed apartheid. It was not always self imposed---it was imposed from without. But now this otherness is alternately enforced by its practitioners and rebelled against, and often by those very same practitioners as the mood strikes them.

Looking at this from outside the medium, as a trained painter/draftsman/printmaker/sculptor/installation-artist, it's just another medium to me. But for "Photographers" (and I am not one of you), the medium seems to just have to be so damn precious. This is both grating and intriguing. The insistence on(and alternately the rebellion against) its difference keeps the spotlight on whatever differences from other image-making media there are supposed to be, which would wind up being pretty trivial if not for all the attention paid to them.

Again, to me, and after everything the visual arts have gone through since the middle of the 19th century, it seems like a lot of baggage Photography (capital P) drags along behind itself, like it had a way worse childhood than it actually did. This thus makes it the most neurotic medium. See a shrink already, and get over yourself!

OK Mike, you had to open this freight car full of worms, so here goes:
- Art exists as an art object. Art is the product of someone exercising a craft, and producing the object. That means that the object is the art, not the process of production. Etching, sculpture, painting, ceramics, photography, holography, etc. are crafts. Crafts are a set of skills and techniques which can be used to create an object (print, sculpture, painting, etching, screen projection, hologram, or…). Is that object art? Sometimes, and it can be great, good, poor or lousy. How is its status determined? That’s the problem. We each have our own criteria for art, for what ‘looks good’ and what doesn’t. Much of our criteria are culturally and educationally determined. And as the history of art shows, is subject to considerable revision over time. Even the “rules” of art are more notable for the exceptions than their being followed. Perhaps Picasso is the best known example of rule breaking successfully. Or the Impressionists, who were derided when they first displayed their work, and are greatly admired today. The same shifts in taste have occurred in photography. The f64 school is far less exalted today than it was 50 years ago. But most people feel the need for some ‘expert’ to guide them, and indeed there are things that can be learned. But this need has also led to the huge volume of “artspeak”, which substitutes long sentences of long words combined in arcane and meaningless combinations, for real thought or knowledge. No wonder the average person is confused and intimidated. And this isn’t likely to change.
- So what are we left with? My answer is: If an ‘’art object’ arouses some degree of emotional response when you look at it or interact with it, then it may well qualify as ‘art’. Sometimes knowledge of the artist’s intent helps understand and appreciate the work, but not always. Sometimes work done for purely functional purposes (e.g. documentary photography) will qualify as art. In any case, if you like it, good. Don’t let any ‘expert’ tell you your taste is bad.

Art in the modern formulation, is largely conceptual. It is in the idea. Photography moreso than most forms. Lots and lots of expensive Art Photos could be made by anyone - the point is that anyone didn't have the idea, they didn't take that picture.

This, really, supports Mike's thesis. This is why, really, you can't "fake it" by following the forms. You can't just go out and take some sharp pictures of mountains, push the contrast up, and be the next Ansel Adams.

For one thing, we've already had Adams, so you're just making copies of the idea, and secondly you're not wrestling with your own ideas, you're not being true to yourself, you've not Doing The Art Thing and (one imagines, at least) the attentive viewer of your photos can tell.

Great read Mike. I consider myself an artist with a camera, which of course means that I agree with you. This also very nicely addresses another issue (although not completely) which crops up on the internet these days, that of talent and how anyone can supposedly "develop" it just through practice. I have written on the subject several times but nowhere near as eloquently or thoroughly as your article. If you ever want to visit the specific topic of talent it would be most educational.

As I am building a photo book covering Kodak's Velvet Green gaslight paper, it included reading 100+ year old photography magazines. The reviews of the Paris and German photography shows talked a lot about Pictorialism. One review mentioned the American contingent on display were the only ones still practicing this approach to photography. Though they did get high praise for their efforts. Sadly, the reproduction of the images was so poor as to be worthless for studying if one wanted to revive it themselves.

Surprise, the new issue of Black and White has a nice article about one of the better female practitioners. She even joined the group in New York headed by Alfred Stieglitz. The photo reproduction looks to be good but it leaves me wanting to see a genuine print of this style. Since this was a monotone print style, it would be interesting to see a modern adaption using color, and the end result from the effort.

"What is art?" is not a question that is asked just of photography. Ever since the Impressionists, new movements and disciplines have emerged that radically challenge the existing definitions of art. I've come to feel that the only sensible answer is a sociological one: art is whatever the dominant community of artists and art functionaries (museum curators, gallerists, critics, etc.) eventually agree to call art and include in their exhibitions, collections, etc.

An example that applies to photography: Perusal of the "Art" section listings in any recent issue of "The New Yorker" shows that a significant fraction of the exhibitions at museums and galleries deemed worthy of note involve photography in some form. Therefore, the art world at large now seems to accept photography as a medium as an art form.

> the Japanese steakhouse, is called "Benihana of Tokyo" in
> New York and "Benihana of New York" in Tokyo

The possibility that such a culturally gauche epithet as "of New York" would actually be used in Japan piqued my curiosity, prompting me to google the issue.

I'll just say that the way Benihana communicate their alterity in Tokyo is quite adroit.
Click on the links only if you care or dare to know ;-)


No medium can be considered as art. Photography, painting, sculpture, etc. are just mediums.

Art can be produced by all of them - as can utilitarian items.

Brilliant. Old and new. This is the Mike I Like. As well as all the other Mikes of course.

Well put. This is why I read TOP: thoughtful writing about the subject for which we have a passion.

I've been trying to nail down my style for years, yet it won't remain still for very long. Maybe that's something to do with this 'photography'.

The fundamental question we are exploring is the definition of art.
I cannot believe that art is confined to 'art objects': that would demean literature, music, dance and more (and throw most of the classical Muses out of work). Our test must work for these art forms too.
I think the concept that a work of art should 'convince' is appropriate across the whole spectrum: in other words an artist is someone who can stimulate an emotional and intellectual reaction in an observer.

Over the long term I have tried to clarify my personal answer to this question. Early on I assumed photography was an art form aided & abetted by writings & images from Adams, Weston to name but 2. We certainly do not ask if painting is an art form simply because sign painting exists & we don't confuse or conflate the 2.
Personally I concluded that the only way to answer critics who claim photography cannot be an art form is derisive laughter - I find it axiomatic that it clearly is. Johnathon Jones is a recent example of a critic whose ideology seems to filter his perceptions, rendering him incapable of seeing beyond it in this instance. A blind spot. (He does write perceptively about the art he does see - I am in debt to him for his highlighting the paintings of Frank Auerbach, someone who is defining what painting currently is, for instance.)
About 3 years ago (I put off reading this book for way too long) I finally read "The Criticism of Photography as Art - The Photographs of Jerry Uelsmann" by John L. Ward, first published in 1970. Bingo! Much of it felt like Ward had been rummaging around in my own thoughts; and some of it seemed to draw out & clarify thoughts of mine that were vague, not fully formed. He even gives up intention as a prerequisite for art. His definition is highly democratic, inclusive, yet sensible. Art as Revelation.
Mike touches on some of this above & includes some common sense experiences as diagnostic - the individual can query what is in front of him or her & find authority in subjective response.
Ward's book is required reading for this topic. (It is only found used. Sadly out of print.)
I also find Denis Jenkinson's "The Racing Driver" to be the first source of the notion that racing can be an art form, just to add to the stew we are nourished by digesting.

I find this to be many enjoyable words to read, but I i'm not sure about the conclusion, or maybe the premise, I'm not sure. I don't know why *photography* is any different than anything else.

You seem to be hung up on the notion that great pictures can be made/found in contexts where there was no intention for greatness from the creator of the picture. But I don't understand why this should change how we evaluate photography as an art form.

Consider: if you had the proverbial millions of monkeys (computers) generating text at random for long enough eventually all of the great works of literature would fall out of the stream. Does that make writing "not art" but writers "artists"?

If you what you are saying is that this question comes up because "the art world" places a diminished value on photography because of the potential for this found nature, then this is just another reason for me to ignore what "the art world" thinks about things.

"Good Art Convinces!"

Perfect for licensing for bumper stickers, t-shirts, and coffee mugs, Mike! You haven't sold TOP tchotchkes for a long time.

(Maybe I would start a line of camera straps bearing the slogan, "Better Art Evinces!")

Photography! Isn't it the greatest joy and toolset, you can do whatever you want with it!

To Richard Newman's piece: two thumbs up!

My earlier comment (bumper stickers, etc.) was offered in humor. (I actually do think that Mike could stick that slogan on a new line of TOP coffee mugs, don't you?) Sorry if it came across as rude.

Re: what I think is the main topic of the article I can only offer this thought. "Art" may be presented and sold as a product but it's actually a process. More specifically it's a communication process. Whether that process produces a photograph, painting, drawing, sculpture, film, or skywriting is only tangentially related to ART. I think that therein lies the source of confusion experienced particularly by photography enthusiasts. All pretty photographs are not the products of art. Conversely, all photographic products of art are not pretty. I think photography's easiness and immediacy make it uniquely susceptible to overstatement. This is one of the reasons why we see so little regard for new happenstance photography in the "Art" world today.


Of course, I did (including comments), which is why this is late.

Thanks for reproducing the writing. Even though I sometimes have difficulty in fully appreciating the Art discussion, I am always attracted to it...It seems a worthwhile effort to pay attention. You write about it in such a way that I do not tire of the subject.

After reading this, my most forceful thought on the subject: Art is a time traveler; you do not become bored with it. Your understanding of the Art may change as you age; but you will always be aware that it represents something worth understanding.

Your writing is often times like that.

Thanks again.

Great article, Mike, when I think of photographic art, Edward Weston's pepper picture comes to mind, its a photo of a pepper, but end up being more than a pepper picture. Also interesting that you mention about pictorialism, here is a recent blog post that I wrote on the subject: http://garynylander.blogspot.ca/2015/02/a-conversation-about-landscape_27.html

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