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Wednesday, 11 November 2015


Art cannot exist without technique. Time will tell if Don McCullin is an artist or not. I ALREADY consider him an artist, but I don't know how much my opinion is worth.

I guess I'll have to make up my own quote for those of us who are on the flip side: "The trouble with photography is that it's afraid of art."

Like the old saying says, "Art can't hurt you."

The term fine art photographer is much too overused.

McCullin is so, so right! The art world has indeed hijacked photography, to our detriment. But it isn't altogether the fault of the art world -- photographers have been complicent in the crime. Lusting for the many perks that our culture bestows on those who are considered artists, photographers have from early days aspired to be recognized as artists. But photography isn't art, it is photography. Those who can't be happy with that should take up some other medium.

This certainly seems to be a good quote to post on the opening day of Paris Photo!

But I'll be more specific: photography within the art world us being quickly subsumed by, and incorporated into, conceptual contemporary art.

Don McCullin's quote is lifted from an interview with him by Michael Kamber, New York Times Nov 6 2015
For the record.


from this interview



For those who have not seen it I recommend McCullin on Netflix,a recent biopic. At times it is very hard to watch but it gives a fine measure of the impact of this man´s work. It is also interesting to see how he now has moved into not only retrospective mode, but landscape photography as well.

I like that. I'm a photographer, too. I take pictures, don't often know why, and don't particularly care why, either.

Elbert Hubbard said "Art is not a thing;it is a way" and as such many artists use photography in their methods, or 'workflow' to use a contemporary term.

I think of photography as one of the visual arts and a way to make pictures based on artistic principles.

The word art has been so debased it has become meaningless. Anyone and everyone claims their random crap is art. Craftsmanship on the other hand has declined because it requires real effort and if you lack skill it shows.

Take your new sign. Tack a few planks together with wonky nails, a quick aerosol graffiti of the words, and: "It's art! Give me fame and money now!"

I'm not quite sure when the world was handed over to the 'me, me' generation and came to accept gushing hyperbole but it might be around the time cricket teams stopped wearing whites and started wearing adverts.

Art is a form of communication...beauty is the measure of its success.

I worked as a photographer in the 1940s, until I went to college under the GI Bill, and found a better way to make a living. After retiring in 1990, I was surprised to see photography offered as a course of study at the School of Fine Arts at the Univ. of Oregon. I had always considered photography to be a trade or craft.
Even after receiving a BFA in photography, I still think of it more as craft rather than an art form.

He's right.

That makes about as much sense as saying that photography has been hijacked by the selfie takers. There's enough photography to go around for everybody.

There are many definitions of "visual art". Some include photography as an "art process" and some don't. But the process is not the art itself. Art is the output of the process, the image or object resulting from application of the process(es) to create some visual object. It could be good art or bad. Indeed, much of the art produced is not very good. But being called an artist is usually intended as a compliment, implying that the speaker likes the product as visually appealing. It is possible to produce photos intended for other reasons than visual appeal which still have that appeal. Fields such as documentary photography and photomicrography have produced images that can be considered art, even though that was not the initial or primary intent. I suggest that "art is in the eye of the beholder" still applies.

Dear Mike,

... And the trouble with Don is that he's decided he knows what "the trouble with photography" is.

He wants to be a "photographer," it's fine by me. I'm an artist whose medium is photography. If that's not fine with him, screw'm.

Anyways, that ship sailed four decades ago. Don, ya wanna refight ancient history, go refight the Reformation or some such.

pax / Ctein

I see from the link Mr. McCullin is a photojournalist and known for his war and urban strife coverage. Kudos to him for his work, but photography is not just for photojournalists. Some find the creativity photography offers to be a most satisfying aspect of their life, especially when they can make a living doing so.

Perhaps it is hard for some old timers to accept the evolution of photography. I feel like an old timer because of my early career days dragging heavy gear and shooting 4x5" films, but I embrace the technical evolution of photography and feel a lot of old timers that continue to carry the passion for image-making might as well.

Another recent quote from Mr. McCullin I find more equitable:
"I have been manipulated, and I have in turn manipulated others, by recording their response to suffering and misery. So there is guilt in every direction: guilt because I don't practise religion, guilt because I was able to walk away, while this man was dying of starvation or being murdered by another man with a gun. And I am tired of guilt, tired of saying to myself: "I didn't kill that man on that photograph, I didn't starve that child." That's why I want to photograph landscapes and flowers. I am sentencing myself to peace." (Frank Horvat Photography. Retrieved 2 September 2013, Wikipedia)

Thank goodness for flowers and for seeking peace. Peace be with you all!

Mr McCullin appeared at a meet the "artist" event at the National Gallery of Art here in Ottawa on the occasion of a large retrospective show of his life's work a couple of years back. He walked around the exhibit with a large crowd in attendance, was a mesmerising speaker and made this same point about not being an artist quite forcefully.


Spoken from my heart!

Ill take artsy-fartsy photography over heavily processed HDR any day of the week. That said, My Facebook feed suggests I'm in the minority.

whoa Mike, you're such an agent provocateur. Why can't it be both?? I completely understand documentary photography, street photography, portraiture - but also other more arty work. Ah, let's see, my guess is about 240 comments?

Ha! Beautiful. All these years photographers have been treading on the skirts of the art world, suffering faint tolerance, pleading our case to join an elitist art world (as a junior partner) and the whole time we should have been happy to be different. Could not agree more.

Don speaks my mind. There's nothing wrong with being an artist, it's just that the word has been so devalued in today's culture that it hardly means much anymore. Consider "con artist," "The Artist Formerly Known as Prince," "conceptual artist," etc. It's to the point now where even contestants on singing talent shows are reverentially referred to as "artists."

I prefer to keep it simple: I am (among other things) a photographer. I won't complain if, in the proper context, someone wants to refer to me as a fine art photographer, street photographer, black photographer, or whatever. In the end, they're all just labels. I am not my label and my label is not me.

Dear Don and Gordon,

I firmly disagree. The word "art" has not been either debased nor devalued. There have always been two connotative definitions for the word. One implies quality-- that is, if it's "art" it must be "good." The other goes to intent-- there can be "good art" and "bad art" indicating whether the attempt succeeded or not.

But no amount of historolinguistic revisionism is going to give one usage primacy nor seniority. 'Taint so. You just pick your side and run with it.

Me, I call myself an artist, 'cause that's what I'm trying to do. I get to make the basic call in my conceptual framework. But, others get to decide if I'm a good one or a bad one.

That's not debasing nor devaluing the word. That's using it in one of its generally-accepted meanings that you don't happen to hew to. It's not a resolvable disagreement. It just is what it is.

Now, can we move on, please?

pax / Ctein

Saying photography isn't sometimes art is no different than saying sculpture isn't art. Furthermore, if he feels that photography isn't art, the why bother to go to the considerable trouble of having platinum prints made of his "pastorals"?
Who are those intended for?
He's talking out of both sides of his mouth.

So, a guy takes a brush and puts paint on a canvas. Is he a painter? An artist? Both? Does it really matter?

Okay, I might be legitimately nuts, but I'm of the camp that visual images (photography or not) are a form of communication, and the context that the image is made within, and the message that image was created to send, affects whether that image is art or not.

Is painting art? Hahaha, no. I've run into many painters in my life. One was a commercial painter who painted walls, one was a commercial painter who illustrated different types of publications, and one painted fine art objects.

Painting is a medium. Photography is a medium.

Don doesn't have to be an artist if he doesn't want to be; I know that a lot of painters aren't artists either.

For the pros, digital photography is a vocation; for amateurs an avocation. Whether a photograph is art or not is for the *critics* to say. But first, it must be printed.

Don McCullin has two honorary fellowships and a doctorate in the arts.
Ctein, see above, tries to be an artist, self proclaimed
I respect for both photographers..

Time ro move on.

I'm not sure, but I think some of the people responding to McCullin are misinterpreting what he said. He didn't say photography couldn't be art, he said he's not an artist. I agree: his photos, whatever impact they might have, aren't made with artistic intent.

He said photography has been hijacked by the art world. I agree with that, too -- all kinds of stuff is being shown as "art" which isn't, and never was intended to be. The picture of the little girl running from the fire in Vietnam (by Nick Ut) is one of the strongest photos ever made, and maybe even helped stop a war, but I'm not going to hang it in my living room and contemplate it, trying to worm out all it's various meanings. It is what it is, and that's more than sufficient. This kind of thing (and McCullin's work) is only called art for the purpose of making money.

Art is important in the world, but other things are just as important as art. Great documentary photography is one of those things, and maybe more important.

The snobbish, "It's not art," is like saying that journalism isn't as important as great literature, but it was really journalism that drove the Civil Rights movement, the anti-war movement, feminism (to a lesser degree), the gay rights movement and so on, and "Herzog" didn't. That's not to say that Herzog doesn't deserve recognition as fine literature, it's just that fine literature and journalism are two different things...comparing them or conflating them is like conflating chicken and iPhones.

Since Duchamp, to be an artist, you have to be conceptual. You're not conceptual, you're not an artist. But you're still allowed to be talented.

Why is it when this discussion of whether photography, or this photographer or that photographer is or isn't an artist, the intent of the person behind the camera is never discussed? Yes Weston, Adams, and that lot wanted to be known as artist. Cartier-Bresson on the other hand loathed the word.

Actually, McCullin's objection was to "the art world." And it doesn't take more than a few minutes of exposure to the sort of pretentious, egotistical, snobbery that forms _part_ of that world to turn your stomach.

No need to patronise. I'm not taking sides, am not an arbiter and don't say photography cannot be art. However, if you extend the word art and artist to any who lay claim, you spread the net wide and as a result "good" or "successful" art forms a smaller proportion. There is thus a reduction in quality and/or value. It is the very definition of debase.

"The trouble with stone-masonry is that it's been hijacked by the art world. I'm a stonemason. I'm very happy with the title. I'm not a sculptor".

Excerpt from 'The Online Stonemason', Mesopotamia, circa 2500BC

Notwithstanding the perpetual "is it or isn't it art" debate, if Mr McCullin says he's not, then he's not. End of story.

I think you need this:

Make 'stuff' and forget about pigeon-holing it or yourself.

@@@@ Lots of things have been @@@@
@@@@ hijacked by the art world. He @@@@
@@@@ should get over it. @@@@

I think the paragraph immediately before that quote from Don's interview in the NYT (thank you Hans) is equally worth noting:

"Sadly, because of [the Internet], photography, like war, is also going in another direction. It’s kind of fanning out and I think it’s bringing a broader vision, but a weaker impact. It’s as if you’ve poured a pint of water in your coffee. They’re still calling it coffee, but it’s mostly water."

I've read and seen a few interviews with Don and get a strong sense of depression and disappointment as he looks back. After all the horrors he's seen behind his camera he must grimace when he sees a Cindy Sherman sell for seven figures.

I feel I must take issue with one commentator:

Patrick Dodds: "'The majority of photographers still seek "artistic" effects, imitating other mediums of graphic expression.

Every photographer goes through a phase when like a kiddy in the Sweet Shop they'll have to try everything Photoshop can throw at them. Thankfully the vast majority grow out of the effects filter stage and realised that a simple, non tarted with, photograph can be a thing of beauty in it's own right.

I don't know whether photography is art or not. Neither am I too bothered. But to be a good photographer is the same as being a good artist. It takes time and trouble, hard work and dedication, and some measure of talent.

It is easy to be a passable photographer, especially to the untutored eye. It is less easy to be a passable artist.

Ken Tanaka - I think you probably hit the nail on the head. I know a few other photographers who share those feelings.

I'm reminded of John Kruk who played for the Phillies: "I'm not an athlete, I'm a ball player."

Re John Kruk. His quote totally downplays his skill. He did have a career in baseball.

Dear Ken,

I get the same sense of Don that you do, which may be entirely unfair to him.

With that caveat, if it's a correct sense, I don't feel any sympathy at all. It's like yearning for a Golden Age that never existed, the kind when only the “right people” were admitted. He wants the cream of photography without the milk. The problem is that the milk has been there since George Eastman; that ship didn't sail four decades ago, it was more than a century ago. From that point on, the vast majority of photography done has been the property of the masses, as it became the premier folk art and diary form of the 20th century. it's been a very large milk bottle for over a century, and the Internet has only made it larger. But…

That is in no way diminished the cream. Really, it doesn't matter how big the bottle of milk gets.

I have trouble imagining that Don would begrudge Cindy her sales; he's too much of a professional for that, in my opinion, even if he does want to be gatekeeper to a nonexistent gate. But if he did, I wouldn't sympathize with him around that, either. I remember what prices were for photographs, ANY photographs, back in the early 70s before it got “discovered.” Almost none of the “cream” could make decent money from the sale of a photograph, not in any venue nor any genre. Photography getting discovered as collectible art by the moneyed folks who decide what is and isn't collectible was the best thing that ever happened to photographers trying to make a buck from the sale of their photographs (as opposed to their assignments). Nobody lost out on that change, although some folks made out insanely well and some didn't.

pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com

>>Now, can we move on, please?

Yes sir, officer!

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