The Photographer as Visual Curator

 


By Andrew Molitor. Molitor is a fellow writer on photography, variously described as iconoclastic, irrelevant, occasionally right. He swears a lot. You can find him at photothunk.blogspot.com


 

Recently, in an article in The New York Review of Books, Janet Malcolm told the story of how she had included – as a joke –  an artless, banal snapshot in her book Diana and Nikon, together with a number of other photographs that had been decreed by the relevant authorities to be Art. It’s the photo above, Untitled, 1970 by G. Botsford.  Interestingly enough, as time passed, Botsford’s photo started turning up here and there as an example of the “snapshot aesthetic”, itself a work of Art.  Malcolm, via her off-hand joke,  had decreed this photograph to be Art, and now people were willing to accept that it is Art in some meaningful sense.

This is the problem when considering photography as Art. Photography is not quite what we imagine it to be. The carefully crafted Fine Print is not, after all, the only pathway to true Art. Sometimes, a photograph can become Art simply because someone – not just anyone of course, but someone with authority within the art community – says it’s Art. 

We’ve seen this before. When Marcel Duchamp exhibited a signed urinal as a sculpture entitled Fountain, he was doing the same thing as Ms. Malcolm, whether tongue in cheek we’re not sure.

What then is Art, with a capital A? Is it whatever some pointy-headed fellow with a title like “curator” or “Professor of Arty Artness” says is Art? That feels a little thin, a bit like a cheat; you intuitively feel that this can’t be right. The opposite end of the spectrum claims that Art requires skill, talent, and labor. Sculptures made out of marble, formed with infinite patience and a deep understanding of the properties of stone, now that’s Art!

The latter sort of thinking belongs to people who look at photography with a lifted brow. As noted in the previous post here, it’s this thinking that drove much of the Pictorialist movement in the Victorian era, and which drives much of the urge to “post-process” digital photographs today. It can’t be any good, the mindset goes, unless it’s had a lot of work put into it.

Duchamp’s Fountain, and Malcolm’s joke, disagree. They say that Art is merely whatever you think is Art.

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In my opinion, neither of these positions is correct, although each has a sort of a piece of it, a single section view. Art is whatever creates an Art-like experience. If you look at it, and it makes you think, makes you feel, enlarges you as a human being, then it’s Art. I would contend that this isn’t purely subjective, because usually if it works for you, it probably works for other people as well, unless you’re a complete weirdo. The appropriate term here is inter-subjective. The two acts – the first declaring, from a position of authority, that something Is Art and the second working very very hard, with great skill, to make something which you hope is Art – are both acts which can imbue an object with Artness.

When confronted with Michelangelo’s David (a product of labor and skill) as well as with Duchamp’s Fountain (a product of a simple declaration) we likely experience that sensation of Art. We feel, we think, we expand a little. The category of things that are Art is a bit fuzzy, the edges are not at all well defined. Are raindrops on a rose petal Art? Perhaps not. Is David? Almost certainly.

An object of Art is perhaps as much a subject for meditation as it is anything else, It’s not wrong to consider such an object as merely a trigger for a process that occurs inside ourselves. Michelangelo’s David or the “willfully bad” snapshot attributed by Malcolm to G. Botsford can serve equally as a focus for meditation, as a trigger for our own internal search.

All this presents something of a problem for the photographer as artist. There’s no getting around it, you can take a random snapshot of your own feet and if you can persuade Larry Gagosian to put it up for sale with an immense price tag, it will indeed be Art. Your blurry foot picture can serve as that trigger for thought, it can create an Art-like experience. In that unlikely scenario you personally had nothing much to do with this, it’s pretty much all  Larry G’s work, his authority makes it Art-like. That doesn’t make it fake, though, it would, in that situation, really be Art with a capital A. Unfortunately for you, you’re probably not going to get Larry on board with your scheme.

The point to hang on to here is that there are many roads to that Art-like experience.

David would probably be pretty intense to look at, even if no art critic had ever mentioned it. The knowledge of stone, the skill with the chisel, the mastery of form were not wasted. The labor was real, and produced real results. The fact that Duchamp could, with a figurative wave of his hand, turn a urinal into a similar experience takes nothing away from Michelangelo. The well, here, does not have finite capacity.

Vast labor and skill, or the mere declaration by authority, both produce Art. By analogy, we can reason that photography’s relative ease takes nothing away from either Michelangelo, nor from the photographer. It is not necessary to labor endlessly, either mashing gum bichromate prints with your hands or fiddling around in Photoshop to make your photograph worthy of the name Art. You certainly may do either, and your labor and skill may produce results.

In its very essence, though, as I see it, photography is simply selection. Not to denigrate selection, it is in its own way every bit as worthy as making. In this case, selecting and making are two different activities, which ought to be viewed on an equal footing, neither being a poor cousin to the other.

This bears repeating: the act of photography, that act of selection should be considered as on the same moral plane as the act of creation that typifies a painting, a sculpture. Think of the photographer as a curator of the visual, selecting and interpreting a slice of the real for other’s consideration.

This is the essential worry photographers have about whether photography is Art. Contrary to the regularly scheduled articles about how it has just now been settled, Photography has been comfortably ensconced as an Art for over 100 years now, in part due to Duchamp and his urinal. We saw then that selecting something could indeed be viewed as co-equal with making something. Photography being, essentially, selecting, but with an optional and open-ended add-on of making, of creating, fits into this framework perfectly comfortably.

Many photographs are not Art. Looking at them generates no Art-like experience. Mostly, they’re not intended to, they’re just a document of someone’s holiday, someone’s lunch, someone’s coffee, someone’s child or dog.

What makes a photograph into Art? As we now know, Janet Malcolm declaring it to be so seems to do it. Ansel Adams demonstrated that putting a lot of work into prints might do it, producing quite a different Art-like experience. Robert Frank’s famous book partakes of a bit of both, being on the one hand a great deal of labor, but on the other hand made up largely of what appear to be snapshots, at least in the sense that they lack the lumbering and meticulous flavor of the Adams pictures.

At the end of the day, in order to be accepted into The Canon, one needs the imprimatur of some authority figure, but let us set that aside for the moment. Suppose we’re making Art for a small enough audience, and audience that will accept at least tentatively our own statement as sufficient authority. How then to produce an Art-like experience?

We’re unlikely to be able to slip that blurry picture of our own feet past this audience, they expect, demand,  more from us generous though they might be. Our authority is not Duchamp’s, even with our friends. We are granted, perhaps, a bit of leeway by our friends. Our friends feel a certain openness and generosity, but are not willing to swallow just any old thing.

I think that we do it by selecting carefully, with genuine feeling, with genuine ideas. Ansel Adams, held up as the mighty technician, literally cannot shut up on this theme. It seems that almost every page of his famously technical trilogy repeats that a picture must be a true reflection of an emotional state. Oddly enough, the Zone System people rarely mention this. His pictures are indeed sublime (although, crush the blacks and see what happens).

If we have a real idea, a real feeling, a real something-to-communicate, and we allow our pictures to reflect that, then sometimes our work might just generate an Art-like experience to someone, somewhere. We might “get through” from time to time, and it’s that communication – the curation of the visible, and the aesthetic response of the viewer –  that creates Art.

18 thoughts on “The Photographer as Visual Curator

  1. Rolf

    The viewer. That we get through to.

    So who or what is this mysterious entity? The one looking at his/her snapchat app time-line or the one looking at exhibits at the MoMA? And when? Today, or in 100 years, or when?

    Seriously. Which one?

    There’s your problem. Clearly, not all photos are art. The more photos we take, the more there are for documentation only, as in “Look, I was here” or “Look what I ate” (because I’m too lazy to describe it in a 1000 words or less). Not all photos want nor need to be art. It’s like asking: “Is an instruction manual literature?”

    For the MoMA visitors: What makes art into Art? Placing something in artistic context (galleries, museums, even workshops) helps the public to recognise artistic gesture / artistic authorship.

    What does this even mean? Well, it means someone with a reputation has to use said reputation to declare it Art. A curator (gallerist, …) invests his/her reputation/money to publicise artistic authorship. In other words: Calling something Art that has been produced by someone with an Art (academic) background and then made visible by someone who says: “I believe in the fact that this educated person has artistic intent and has authored a work to express a certain sentiment”.

    Don’t believe me? Look at how so-called “outsider artists” are treated. Ok, there are exceptions – but do you really, really believe that yours truly can, without recognition of one of the Art schools, make it into a gallery, let alone a museum? With my admittedly pretty landscape pictures or innocent pictures of pretty girlies? Surely not in my lifetime. Nor after.

    The photographer may well be a visual curator (selecting frame and time slice). But in order to call it Art, it needs some support by Art schools and publicists who believe they can ‘level up’ by serving market taste. […]uck – now, who’s the market???

    So who’s the final curator?
    – The photographer? Nah.
    – The Art school? Certainly not.
    – The gallery (..) person? Closer, but nope.
    – The buyer/viewer? Hah. In the short term, yes, perhaps, you wish.
    – History? i.e. the taste of our future? Could be – who knows…

    What remains is that beauty and Art remain in the eye of the beholder depending on the time (and respective trends) that they live in.

    Kisses
    Reality.

  2. StephenJ

    It is indeed a very small word for something that is so humungous that it defies this kind of analysis. There is always something missing from the snappy diagnosis or sloppy assessment.

    I agree that the artist does not in general, conquer the art market without help from people that understand the market and artists.

    Mr. Duchamp’s pissoir was probably not alone, as an artist he may well have cribbed it from another, and then had the good fortune to sell the idea. The original may have been better, it just didn’t get any oxygen and it died.

    Then there are billions of different minds on this planet (and that is just the hu-mans) and because of the “joy of sex”, every single one of them is different. Everyone sees and feels art differently. I don’t suppose two waking ameoba daughters are that interested, and I would guarantee that their responses would be identical.

    If I could add a little to the pot here:

    Art is the act of producing something that appeals to a group of people, not as something that has any practical use but just for its own sake, and it can be the work of years or moments.

    But how does it appeal, why must we look again? Perhaps we don’t have any conscious reason. As I understand things, we humans are barely scratching the surface of our brains, perhaps there is something going on in those bits whose function we are unaware of, when we are moved.

    Perhaps we have to rationalise it, and in doing so, understand that it doesn’t have any utilitarian value. We just accept it for what it is and laugh or be moved.

    But anyway, I am almost certainly missing something big here.

  3. Rob Campbell

    The problem is that, as I have said before, Jeanloup Sieff was correct: there is no art, only artists.

    So-called art and, thus, artists have to have function. Back in the day, they served the church and nobility – in other words, followed the money. Today, that function is still mainly the pursuit of money.

    Take La Gioconda: rip it out of the museum and what have you got? A stolen picture on the wall. Strip the hype from an Arbus or a Goldin and would you ever dream of paying good money for one, never mind thinking about hanging it in your room? Personally, I’d pass. Mass popularity is seldom a reliable yardstick for the value of anything.

    That’s the truth about photography: it’s an invaluable (or at least, it used to be!) tool in the grand scheme of selling product or service.

    If you aren’t in that bracket of photographer, then at best it passes a dull period and allows the outing of thoughts otherwise too nebulous, both to the self – as to the medium of writing – to express. Which may be a manifestation of the artist, regardless of what he actually produces at the end of the adventure. Perhaps what we should be discussing is the difference between a highly developed artist and one just stumbling along, making the best of a limited skill set.

    But art, as in the material outcome of expressing something? Since we can’t even define it, seems perhaps more logical to retain the word for those who have the mindset that forces them to make things put of wood, stone, paper, iron – of anything at all. Could that perhaps be all that art is, an external expression of a creative bent, of an artistic nature within?

    Art schools and photography schools always pumped out more students than there were jobs. On the one hand, the system kept some people employed and, on the other hand, those studying the rituals in a state of sweet illusion for as long as they remained withing the hallowed halls.

    What do those students believe after a few years out on the street?

    I never was an art student, but what I have come to believe is ever more basic, the older I become; a painting is a painting, a drawing is a drawing; a sculpture is a sculpture. a photograph a photograph. That’s it; no further qualification will escape the trap of subjectivity.

    Rob

  4. Andrew Molitor

    Let us suppose for a moment that pulling an Arbus out of a museum and hanging it in a drugstore would take away all its mojo, which is disputable, but let us stipulate that.

    So what? It’s in a museum. The Arbus, hanging in the museum, does something. It has a certain mojo, a certain power. Not for everyone, maybe not for you, but for a lot of people.

  5. Rob Campbell

    So did the pile of bricks in the Tate.

    You have to draw up some basic bottom line of acceptibility or you have the elephant dung displayed at yet another time.

    If your theory suggests that anything goes, then I simply have to think that you are being silly for its own sake or because you want to incite angry old men. Neither a very laudable project.

    1. Keith Laban

      I don’t think a work can be dismissed merely because it’s executed in a particular medium. Oils, watercolours, pastel, charcoal, film, brick, elephant dung…the medium is not the defining factor.

    1. Leicaphila Post author

      To drag an old dead white guy into the argument, Frederick Nietzsche would say both of you are right: To you, Rob, he’d say this: Every noble man is an Artist. On whatever scale he works, he strives to depict the world in a way that captures its resident divinity. To Andrew, he’d say: the nihilism that devolves art into subjective experience will be surpassed by an understanding that everything is a mode of the infinite, and thus art. Of course, Nietzsche is also the guy who claimed he was the actual reincarnation of Dionysus, so take it for what its worth.

  6. Finny

    Oh, my goodness! What a great statement! Even if I try to translate it into my mother tongue and it is the language of Nietzsche, even then I have trouble to understand all this correctly… very great blog! Love it!

    1. Rob Campbell

      It’s why we all remain loyal; Tim writes extremely well on subjects dear to our collective heart and illustrates just as well, too.

      And even on the occasions when he shakes his head in metaphorical disbelief at some Leica strategies, I always manage to walk away with the quiet conviction that were Daddy Santa to drop a pretty M-something under the Christmas tree (that I don’t erect anyomore – maybe I should reconsider?), then I would definitely feel my day had been a good one.

      Beauty brings its own reward, and who would deny Leica that beauty with its M bodies?

      But I digress: understanding is partly interpretation, so whatever you take from it leaves you better off than you were before you came across the new item. Brain food, then? Perhaps it’s our hunger keeps us coming back for more.

  7. Nick

    Labor and skill does not make art but art and crafts which is in a different league.

    Of course art exists because there is a market. No market, no recognition of what could be call art. Remember that painters, sculptors, photographers… do not define their production as art, a third party being institutionally recognized as such do.

    Marcel Duchamp well understood that and getting rid of the “art and crafts” doxa, took an industrial good (a porcelain urinal), put it out of its usual context (the john) and ask viewers if doing so, they could not consider it differently… At first, this idea was rejected as heresy but finally succeeded and is now certainly considered as the most pioneering piece of art of the 20th century by the arts community. This is the proof that art definition evolves with time.

    To be more focused on photography… Of couse, all pictures are not intended to be pieces of art (same thing with painting). But because it is, compared to other media, an extra step toward “reality”, it has a special affinity with appearances. And appearances give sense to the world we are living in. When someone cannot “decipher” a picture, one of the first comment is “it does not make sense”, meaning that it cannot be appropriated and as such is rejected as not real (remember, real world = appearances = sense). Our host in recent posts, illustrated with some real nice pictures (pieces of art really) as they were clearly requiring an effort to be fully understood. No need to travel far for that, the unexpected is often close to home, the most difficult is to see it (= keep the appearance but remove the sense) . Well done!

  8. Rob Campbell

    Why does Donatello’s David not seem as well-known, in the sense of being instantly quotable, as the other David? Was Donatello too “modern” in the execution to fit within some pigeon hole more comfortable to the writers of historical art tomes? I guess critique knows few boundaries…

  9. Andrew Molitor

    I think there is a sort of baked-in idea that if something is Art inside a museum, it ought to still be Art when you take it out of the museum. Which seems sort of reasonable, but begs the question of how far you can take that.

    Should a piece read as “Art” in my house? On the street? What about when I am sprinting through the woods fleeing an enraged bear?

    Obviously at some point even the most sublime piece is simply not going to create for me anything like an Art-like experience.

    I am personally fine with “This thing is Art in a museum, but just trash the moment you take it out the back door”. I also would see your point if you claimed “Look, if it doesn’t work in any other reasonably contemplative setting like say my home, or a quiet tea shop, well it’s bloody well not Art” although I would not agree with you.

    My position is built around the idea of the Art-iike experience. A teenaged boy’s orgasm functions in practically any context but someone else’s might require a very very specific set of circumstances to function at all. If something can give me an Art-like experience only in this one room in this one building, well, so be it. Art-like experience!

    But that’s not the only way to think about Art, I dare say.

  10. Rob Campbell

    But hey, teenagers thought that the more rapidly the climax arrived, the more potent they were!

    In terms of stud farm efficiency, perhaps they had a point (no pun etc.) but in later life, everything tends to prove them mistaken, and far less likely to run into offers to repeat the gig.

    As for art and bears – why on Earth would you go down to the woods today, especially bearing a picture?

    Rob

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