Formalism and Photography (Can Photos of Statues be Art?)

Trocadero, Paris

Above is a photo of a portion of a statute that sits in the Jardins du Trocadero directly across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower.  I’ve long been intrigued by Eugene Atget’s photos of Paris from the turn of the century, so once there I went around trying to do the same thing. Atget, a commercial photographer, spent his career in anonymity documenting Paris and environs with an 8×10 view camera. In addition to photographing streets, courtyards, cafes and city denizens, he photographed a lot of architectural details…and statuary. Lot’s of statuary. Like Vivian Maier, his work was “discovered” by someone who made it know to the wider world after his death.

John Szarkowski, photography writer and curator of photography at the Met in New York, published a book about Atget wherein he claims Atget not merely a great 20th century photographer but “one of the great artists of the 20th Century.” The book Atget, published by the Museum of Modern Art, contains 100 duotone and tritone photos, most of people-less fixed scenes, statuary included. Below is the jacket’s cover photo:

What’s interesting, given the acclamation of Atget as a “great artist,” is that Atget didn’t consider himself an ‘Artist,’ He never tried to manipulate his photographs to reflect a specific artistic sensibility or any defined artistic principle. He was a working photographer trying to document things as accurately as possible. Yet it’s hard to argue with those who claim him to be an ‘Artist.’ His best work has an immense formal beauty somehow apart, or more precisely added onto, the formal beauty of his subjects.


Jardin des Tuileries, Paris

Above is a picture of a statute in the Tuileries. You could argue that it’s not the same as Atget’s; the photographer (me) attempted to impose some sort of individual sensibility onto the subject. Its a pretty straight shot…shot with a Nikon D100 modified for IR use. The only “sensibility” I brought to the photo was the composition and the choice of IR. It isn’t a straight document. Could I call it ‘Art?’   The reason I ask is because a lot of otherwise sophisticated viewers might chafe at calling Atget’s photos Art. I assume they’d say that any aesthetic value found in the photos inheres in the subject itself and not the photograph of it.

Jardin des Tuileries, Paris

Above is another photo of the same statute in the Tuileries, this time with other formal and documentary elements the photographer has chosen to include. It’s easier to claim this for ‘Art,’ because I’ve presented the pictorial elements so that their relation to each other suggests a meaning, might hint at something more than what simply appears in the picture.

What about the Trocadero photo that opens the piece? Same thing, or different? I’ve got a 16×20 platinum print of it hanging in my office. I love it. Is it a photo f a thing – a documentary record – or is it itself it’s own creation when considered apart from the content? It speaks to me both formally and emotionally. I’m sure other people, visitors to my home, have looked at it and thought of it only as a snapshot of a Parisian statute I’m inordinately fond of, when in fact what I see is a photograph with its own aesthetic worth  apart from the specific subject.

In my last post I’d referenced a few photos I’d taken on a recent walk. The premise of the piece is that everyday things can possess a formal beauty. What’s important is that you be open to it. I used a couple of photos I’d taken while walking dog to illustrate.  What I hadn’t mentioned was that one of the photos, the one I’d used to open the piece, had been germinating in my mind for some time. I’d walked past the subject daily; I’d eyed it a thousand times, each time thinking “I need to photograph that.” I finally got around to doing it. I love what I got. A 16×20 is going on a wall somewhere, for no other reason than it speaks to me. Maybe it’s my eye as a painter that’s allowed me to abstract from the objective, public nature of things ‘out there’ and consider them in their formal natures. Maybe it’s my formative years having been fascinated by Walker Evan’s photography, Evans being much like Atget in his sensibilities and aims. Maybe I’m just a photographic hack massively overthinking all of this, or worse yet palming off my cliched photos as ‘Art.’ Damned if I know.

I love this. It’s Gonna Hang on my Wall Somewhere

13 thoughts on “Formalism and Photography (Can Photos of Statues be Art?)

  1. Rob Campbell

    Your last sentence says it all: its universally applicable to all of us who make photography our thing. We never do and never will know, if only because the definition so often comes from other people.

    The important thing is to do it for ourselves, and to enjoy what we have done.

  2. Dominique Pierre-Nina

    Hi, I think any thing can be art..

    Your photograph incorporates a modern aspect of Paris with its ferris wheel and Food truck, much to the dismay of the statue figureshying away from it as if being ashamed of this modern world we liven in.

    Thanks for all your posts I really enjoy them. Actually I am waiting on my Leica M5 to arrive and two books I’ve ordered: Mind’s Eye by HCB and Slightly Out of Focus by R Capa, once arrived I will put a roll through and send you a little article I have been writing on my thoughts about photography and if good enough you might publish it!. Thanks,


  3. Ron Himebaugh

    Your piece comes as I am paging through a worthy companion to Atget. Lee Friedlander’s American Monument is an excellent survey of statues, obelisks, urns, and scrolls that remind us of the breadth of American experience. Some of the pictures are humor—Andrew Jackson fending off wheeling birds or a WW1 soldier stalking a passerby. Others are irony or pathos or wistful remembrance of a passed age; some controversial, like those of Confederate monuments. Friedlander is in some respects a modern Atget, photographing and filing away fractional seconds of subjects created themselves to memorialize for generations.

    1. Leicaphila Post author

      As you say, Friedlander would be a good American equivalent of Atget, although Friedlander has a purposefully subjective element missing in Atget.

  4. StephenJ

    Great stuff Tim…

    I reckon that what makes a photograph into art and therefore the photographer an artist is an invitation through the photograph to look more than once, maybe to try and see.

    What is it, how was it done, why was it done?

    The rarest form of artistic photography is serendipitously found on the street, most of it is shit, but every so often…

    As you were conveying just before your recent quiet period following your European trip, non artistic, documentary imagery can be managed very well with an iPhone, some of it even, can be artistic, most of it is flippant though, most of it is, to borrow a phrase, “wampeter, foma and granfalloons”, though just as relevant to the human condition.

    But art makes one want to look again and it is often made as a result of repeated conception.

    Everyone has to work a bit, to work it out.

  5. Dogman

    Evans and Atget. I see that. I guess that’s why I like your work and enjoy reading your blog.

    By the way, Friedlander did a book called “Staglieno” with classic photos of details of the famed statuary–Art of Art.

  6. Rob Campbell

    Well, if one is to exclude photographs of statues from art, the how can one justify photographs of old, torn posters? Especially if they also contain a photograph as part of said posters.

  7. insolublepancake

    Dear Tim, well, good question, one I ask myself a lot especially as I spend too much time in Luxembourg gardens! Of course many famous names in photography spent time taking pictures in art galleries – but almost always to show how people react to works of art. Most of the statues in the public gardens in Paris are invisible now to most people, so it’s just you and the marble, most times, although that can also be a good subject, as you demonstrate…


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