The perennial question: Is photography art?

“Dedicated to the real photographers of the world–to those who, with their second-hand equipment and their makeshift darkrooms, are today fighting their solitary battles with their recalcitrant medium, not for money or for glory, but because they would rather make pictures than anything else in the world.” ~William Mortensen, from Mortensen on the Negative, 1940

From cave to museum

Venus & Vulcan ― William Mortensen

Venus & Vulcan ― William Mortensen

A recent seaside sojourn on the ragged western edge of Vancouver Island did not, at least immediately, lead where I wanted–to writing–but it did take me to a beautiful photogenic beach, and questions about the nature of photography, the latter taking the form “Why am I standing in the rain with this camera?”

Many years ago, on my first visit to Clayoquot Sound, I struggled to put into words the contradiction within art-making in the poem “Zero Plus,” which, reading it now, I surmise may have been influenced by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

If we presume that art, in all its forms, has a higher purpose than mere decoration and distraction, then it follows that it has intrinsic value beyond but not separate from pecuniary measure.

We may be certain that the art of the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nations, which enriched my recent stay at the Tin-Wis resort on MacKenzie Beach, performed and continues to perform a critical role within their resilient culture.

From the cave paintings of El Castillo, to the streets of Ephesus, to derelict industrial sites, humans have embellished their temples and homes with depictions of their surroundings and their imaginations, sometimes in combination.

Painters, sculptors, and artisans in general, for millennia relied on royal and religious benefactors. A good argument may be made that photography as modern folk art was the catalyst, if not the fuel, for modern art–ascendant when it celebrates beauty and examines life, at its nadir when in thrall to celebrity and the market.

The impartial lens

While the photographs of Jacques Henri Lartigue (whose work I’ve had the pleasure to view first-hand) may have represented the viewpoint of an affluent child–promenading Parisian ladies, racing cars and biplanes–his exuberant snapshots followed from Kodak’s egalitarian vision of a camera for “anyone who can wind a watch.”

But can photography really be considered art?

This question was debated within the New York atelier of Alfred Steiglitz, An American Place, where the photographs of Paul Strand hung alongside the paintings of Pablo Picasso.

Within the “art photography” movement itself squabbles broke out between the Pictorialists, represented by retouching alchemists like William Mortensen, and documentary straight shooters like Edward Weston, who stressed that the camera’s greatest power lay in its ability to record the world “as it is.” In fact, the visual revolution started by the camera was driven by the verisimilitude of the photographic image.

And yet, even the most passionate adherent of the straight documentary method went to great lengths to orchestrate the outcome of the final image, with Ansel Adams likening the negative to a musical score from which the printer, with his chemical concoctions and dodging and burning tools, “conducted” a work to approximate the artist’s vision and engage similar emotions in the viewer.

Adams’ photographic puritanism rebelled in the presence of Mortensen’s erotic romances and Hollywood grotesqueries. Adams proclaimed, perhaps from a throne on Mount Whitney, that the celebrity portraitist was the anti-Christ. Even after Mortensen’s death, and presumable descent into an Underworld darkroom, Adams campaigned to stop the pictorialist’s abominations from being archived at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona.

I’ve been framed, Your Honour

Mortensen would have had a field day with Photoshop, able to create his visions seamlessly, without recourse to sandwiched negatives, chemical abrasion and pigment toning.

His skills prefigured the digital age and the questionability, if not demise, of “photographic evidence.” A whole science has sprung up to authenticate digital photographs submitted in court, lest bodies be Photoshopped into, or out of, crime scenes. The incontrovertible “8X10 glossy” has gone the way of the 4X5 press camera.

I personally recoil from the extremes of HDR (high dynamic range) images, but admit that it is the modern equivalent of Adams’ “Zone System,” a technique that informed, if not improved, much of my black & white film photography. I still try to “previsualize” in the field, despite the algorithms of 51-point auto-focussing and “matrix metering.”

English documentary photographer Piers Cavendish, again on a trip to Tofino some years back, argued convincingly that rather than posing as art in museums photography finds its best home in magazines. Any edition of Life adorned with the photographs of W. Eugene Smith would support that view.

For my part, I have stood before framed images made by photographers as diverse as Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Imogen Cunningham, E. J. Bellocq, Richard Avedon, and Elliot Erwitt, each time leaving the gallery transformed in some way.

In the Zone

 ”I am ‘old fashioned’ enough to believe that beauty—whether in art or nature, exists as an end in itself …. If the Indian decorating a jar adds nothing to its utility, I cannot see why nature must be considered strictly utilitarian when she bedecks herself in gorgeous color, assumes magnificent forms. ~Edward Weston

In 1984 I drove towards Carmel, California, home of the Friends of Photography and Josey Wales, AKA Clint Eastwood, who would shortly ride into town to assume the role of mayor.

But my interest lay not so much in spaghetti westerns as the spiritual home of the west coast “Group f.64” school of photography (a reference to the view camera’s smallest lens aperture), formed by Edward Weston, Willard Van Dyke, Imogen Cunningham, and Ansel Adams, in 1932.

Somewhere along the Big Sur coast I’d picked up a local newspaper that contained the news of Adams’ death. America had lost one of its most persuasive iconographers, a landscape artist in the tradition of romantic painters and photographers like Thomas Cole, Carlton Watkins, and Eadweard Muybridge.

I wanted to see a show by an emerging landscape photographer whose name escapes me but I found the gallery closed, with a note on the door announcing that the scheduled show had been cancelled due to the death of the organization’s patron saint.

I could see activity inside, so I knocked tentatively until a gentleman answered the door. He reiterated the news on the sign, adding that the planned show would be replaced by an Adams retrospective, hand-picked by the photographer’s wife, Virginia Best (1904-2000). The show would be open to the public in a day or two.

Too bad, I lamented; I was on my way back to Canada.

“Well, the hanging is nearly finished,” the gallery conservator said. “Come in.”

I spent the next hour in the company of Adams’ friends, enjoying an intimate tour augmented by personal anecdotes. The maestro’s grand piano stood silent in the middle of the room.

The most interesting aspect of this tour was the fact that Best’s picks were like nothing I’d ever seen in an Adams show before; there were the classics–Clearing Winter Storm, Moonrise, Hernandez–but the early prints (pre-1940s) were studies in subtlety, absent the Beethovian bombast of his latter-day prints. To my mind, Adams wasn’t always the best judge of his own work, never mind that of his contemporaries.

Through the looking glass

 “Humankind lingers unregenerately in Plato’s cave, still reveling, its age-old habit, in mere images of the truth.” ~ Susan Sontag, On Photography, 1977

I have been monkeying around for years (long before 2001) with ideas surrounding the mediation of our clever inventions, tangible or imagined, between us and the rest of the natural world.

The Group f.64 obsessed over the “pure” photograph, at one point sanctioning Weston for moving a found object to improve a composition, oblivious to the fact that Weston’s entire creation was itself a mere approximation, a counterfeit of the moment.

After all, human attempts to explain the world and our place in it are first of all based on a reflection within our own minds. Clan tradition may attempt to reinforce symbols, but what thou art, may not be what I am, or want to be. This has always been the conundrum of the creative impulse.  And so we have iconoclast artists … and art critics.

As I say, since its development in the middle of the 19th century, the allure of the photograph has resided in its apparent accord with “objective reality”–a vision we can all agree on: “Yes, that’s what it looks like.” Yet every individual will take away their own image, coloured by the subjective.

In the digital age of infinite reproduction, is photography capable of evoking even a fleeting moment of reflection in the viewer? I sometimes fear, as did Susan Sontag, that the proliferation of photographic images has encouraged in us a “chronic voyeuristic relation” to the world.

Are we losing our ability to contemplate nature, art, and life at all; are we losing our ability to connect; are archetypal images now merely fodder for Pinterest; are we just entertaining ourselves to death?

I hope there remains in photography, and art in general, some of the atavism I have enjoyed by way of the photographers whose whose work I have been transported by. I don’t mean to say that art should adhere to and support ossified mythology and superstition (that’s mummification, not creation), but I do believe in the power of the poetic tradition–the invocation of the muse as Robert Graves put it–to connect us to the fundamental roots of humanity, and that poetry, in the face of the wholesale commodification of everything from the seed of the corn plant to the germination of an idea, is more important than ever.

A brush with depth

“You can look at a picture for a week and never think of it again. You can also look at a picture for a second and think of it all your life.” ~Joan Miró

This discursive essay may not have answered the original question: is photography art? At the risk of blurring the subject further, here’s my take.

Photography as a medium is no more art than painting is. That is, the exposure of film or a digital CCD (charge-coupled device) to reflected light no more qualifies the result as art than the daubing of paint on canvas or subway wall.

Photographers have always occupied contested ground, reviled by 19th century painters as mere counterfeiters. More recently, the digital camera was resisted by film users as an inferior system unworthy of consideration by “real” photographers.

A latecomer myself, I bought my first digital camera in 2003. I haven’t set foot in my darkroom since.

Now everyone has a digital camera in their pocket. Armed with Instagram filters, the iPhone photographer now imbues her images with the look of obsolete analog photographic processes.

My first impulse is to reject these techniques as toys in the same way I shunned the tacky Tiffen filter explosion of the 1970s. The f.64 crowd, were they here to witness the fad, might label them “Mortensenisms.” Popular photography now references its own history as it once aped painterly effects, in a bid to find acceptance in the art world.

But who’s to say the judicious use of photography’s latest one-click craze cannot, in the right hands, produce imagery equivalent to that which had me swooning (at North Vancouver’s Presentation House Gallery) in front of a platinum print by Alvarez Bravo? I ask this question with only a hint of sarcasm.

Piers Cavendish’s work has given insight into the lives of the people of Myanmar, during the most repressive years under the military junta; Edward Weston gave us meditations on voluptuous bell peppers and Charis Wilson; Ansel Adams preserved full moons over the New Mexico desert, storms over Yosemite, and the lands he loved in national parks he championed; Should we need reminding, Dorothea Lange illustrated with ultimate compassion the results of economic apartheid and the plight of Depression Era sharecroppers, while Man Ray, André Kertész, and William Mortensen contorted their lenses, their prints (as well as their models), to capture their lyrical visions.

Hopefully, the idea of transcendent photography will transcend the Internet (where Henri Cartier Bresson’s “decisive moment” has been replaced by Hipstamatic’s momentary distraction). Ultimately, wherever a photograph is displayed, it is the eye of the beholder that must linger long enough to embrace whatever sublime dimension may lurk beneath the surface.

Raymond Parker

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