In a sly send-up of the arts scene, Jules Feiffer wrote a play called Little Murders featuring a famous photographer who specialized in images of dog waste on the sidewalks of New York. Having already concluded that the art world couldn’t tell whether or not his work was crap, he decided to eliminate any doubt by photographing the real thing and seeing what happened. This was in the days before leash laws, so there was no lack of subject matter underfoot. And, sure enough, his work continued to win accolades.
As a photographer who has been exhibited in many juried competitions around the country, I try to avoid shows where images are judged as if they were expected to make some sort of fashion statement. Currently, for example, there seems to be a robust market for faux-vintage photographs. With Photoshop, you can use the latest digital technology to produce images that resemble nothing so much as 19th-century daguerreotypes. There are even smart phone apps that will allow you to shoot pictures that look like old Polaroid snapshots. A century ago, serious photographers would strive for painterly effects to gain legitimacy for their art. Now some of them have begun cannibalizing techniques from the history of their own medium – but toward what end?
In photography and other visual media it may no longer be the eye but the idea that matters most in judging a work. Tom Wolfe wrote a scathing essay in Harper’s entitled “The Painted Word” in which he argued that the work of leading artists since World War II had devolved into mere illustrations for the latest critical theories; indeed, the work itself was often less important than the placard next to it that explained its significance to those who had not been initiated into the mysteries of higher criticism.
Wolfe’s animus had been aroused by New York Times art critic Hilton Kramer’s review of seven realist painters in which he griped that “realism does not lack its partisans, but it does rather conspicuously lack a persuasive theory.” To suggest that realism required a persuasive theory is, in effect, to call into question any connection between the artwork itself and the reality of the world beyond it. “What you see is what you see,” the painter Frank Stella once declared. Or as Wolfe put it: “No more realism, no more representational objects, no more lines, colors, forms, and contours, no more pigments, no more brushstrokes.” Wolfe’s hyperbolic prose spared no movement in modernism or postmodernism, whether it be abstract expressionism, pop, op, minimalism or conceptual art: “Art made its final flight, climbed higher and higher in an ever-decreasing tighter-turning spiral until… it disappeared up its own fundamental aperture… and came out the other side as Art Theory!”
Having taken on the entire artistic establishment, often naming names, Wolfe found himself pilloried as a philistine. Hardly chastened, he subsequently went after modern architecture and then the modern novel, establishing himself as something of a cultural throwback in the bargain. Yet his criticisms of the art scene, however intemperate, still hit a nerve, probably because they were true. Certainly little has happened in the decades since “The Painted Word” was first published to prove him wrong; if anything, the art world has only demonstrated an ever-greater tendency toward outlandishness as it disappears up its own fundamental aperture.
Whereas photography was once ancillary to earlier artistic movements, it has been central to minimalism and conceptual art. Paving the way were such photographers as Bernd and Hilla Becher, a husband-and-wife team in Germany who for half a century collaborated on large-format black-and-white images of industrial structures photographed head-on in a precise and unvarying format. These “typologies,” as the Bechers called them, were displayed in a grid pattern, which called attention to minor variations among a single type of industrial installation, whether blast furnaces, lime kilns or winding towers that haul coal and iron ore from underground. In more recent decades, the Japanese minimalist photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto has made his reputation with a continuing series of large-format seascapes, taken everywhere in the world but all showing an empty sky and featureless ocean, with the horizon precisely centered at mid-frame.
I once took a landscape photography course from a teacher who told the class that she always tried to envision a finished picture before she ever laid eyes on the subject. She worked with an old-fashioned wooden box camera that required more than the usual degree of set-up and adjustments before pressing the shutter. However, I have never understood how you can take a picture that does not respond in some way to the subject at hand. For me, seeing is paramount. The photographer’s vision need not be pretty, unless the work is intended for postcards or calendar art. But it will always reveal its own kind of beauty, as long as it remains true to its subject.
Often I am asked to submit an artist’s statement along with digital images of my work when entering a juried competition. Part of me wants to tell the jurors that my photographs are the artist’s statement. But there is apparently no getting around the fact that the work is judged by the idea as well as by the eye. And, in truth, the photograph does not take itself. The artist brings some degree of intelligence and skill to the task, and it is fair to measure the result against his or her intention. And yet I can’t help thinking that clever visual ideas are more naturally the province of advertising than of art. You can take in such works at a glance, but that is generally all there is to them. They do not open the world to you or engage you deeply.
At its best, photography offers a glimpse of life as God might see it. The artist is no less an instrument in this regard than the camera. To be is to be perceived, Bishop Berkley once said. Seeing is indeed paramount. All the elements must be put into place so that a particular work might be seen and a small world brought into being through a single line of vision that runs backward from the viewer through the artist to the source of all inspiration.