We seem to think we just discovered "real" Art in our generation. What do we tell the really old guys?

Photographers tend to be a hardy and foolish breed who feel that technology, in part, imparts the magic in the art (if photography is even real Art...). In nearly every other artistic endeavor the participants go through a formal education that goes beyond the tremendously simplified, "Part A goes into part B and then push button C." Most of the workshops you see for photography are about a technique. It might be how to use only one light to light portraits. It might be how to process multiple files into HDR so that your images can look all screwed up and weirdly colorful. But the training is nearly always about the process.

Painters, sculptures, mosaic artists, film makers and musical composers tend to come from more formally educated backgrounds and have a certain historical grounding within their chosen fields. They study the works of current masters and they study the works that have survived through centuries of change and human drama. For them the medium is rarely separated from the idea and the style. But we hardy band of photographers seem to have come from the fast track aisle of art creation.

A quick peek at the owner's manual and a few videos on YouTube and we tumble off to make our art based on what we saw Chase Jarvis do last month or Trey Ratliff do the month before. They may have had an idea behind their shooting and they may also have had context but that seems to get lost in the race to get some stuff on the memory card.

How much more interesting photography might be if people would do some prep work before hanging out their art shingle?

Would it be that onerous to crack a few compendiums about the history of photography? To see what those old timers were doing back in the 1890's or the 1920's or even as recently as the 1960's? I sat in my car waiting for my kid to get out of school and I'd brought along a little book of Josef Koudelka's Gypsy work and was reminded just how powerful his vision was and with what rudimentary tools he worked. And yet, his work is head and shoulders above nearly all the work I've seen in the digital age from anyone, anywhere.

Would it kill the erstwhile new arrivals to take a moment out of their busy lives as programmers, administrators and help desk operators to crack open one of the many great collections of Richard Avedon's work to see what a truly masterful and forward thinking artist really does?

Would it ruin lives to prod people into museums to see how far away the cultural boundaries are from the much more narrow, self inflicted boundaries?

I was photographing for the Texas State Museum several weeks ago and I walked across the street afterwards to look at the new shows at the Blanton Museum on the UT Austin campus. Eventually I made my way to the permanent painting collection on the 2nd floor to look at some details in painting made hundreds of years ago. I was looking at the way angels were lit and represented by several painters. It soaked in and made me think more about how we light people in our day to day work. The lighting in the paintings had a purpose. The purpose was to draw attention to the action and to separate the spiritual from the earthly. What a lovely workshop.

Too many people seem happy to be blissfully ignorant of what has come before. No wonder they are disappointed when they show off their work and find that it's been done (a million times) before.

I had one moment of despair in my adult life. It was when I stood in the Borghese Gallery. The Sculpture Museum in the Borghese Gardens and I stared at the Bernini sculpture of Daphnis and Apollo. And in an instant I knew that no one would ever be able to match Bernini's incredible skill at making marble come alive. There are leafs on branches sculpted out of marble that are so delicately crafted that light comes through the marble and the statue becomes truly alive. Hundreds of years later no one has been able to match Bernini's skill and vision. Sculpture didn't change and become more modern as a result of a cultural evolution but out of shame by comparison. And the realization that, in this instance, the final word had been delivered. What else was left to say?

But I cannot imagine a sculptor plying his art today without knowing about, understanding and somehow, even if it is unconscious, striving to do something even remotely as good as what has already been done by a master like Bernini.

I'm not saying that there's no future for photographic art but I am saying that to do good work requires that we have historical benchmarks for what really constitutes good. The style without the message is pointless and the message without style is just conceptual art.


Brad C said...

I wonder how many photographers would actually describe themselves as Artists, or their work as Art. To me (untrained in any way as an Artist) you aren't truly creating Art unless you are intending to. It should be mindful, done purposely (even if the process is haphazard), and communicate a message, convey an emotion or start a discussion. Art need not be beautiful, and many beautiful things are not Art. In this respect I think most photographer (amateurs) intend more to be creators of beautiful work than then intend to create Art. Because it is now so easy to create perfection (or in your sculpture example it is very hard but someone has already done it) it has lost its impact as a message to convey in most Art forms. After Bach, who could try to move the Minuet forward without changing it into something else? Art always has to move forward, in the context of the past. But the non-Artist has always been satisfied with beautiful things as something to pursue. I think that is what we see with photography these days, and I find myself wanting to create beautiful photos even though I know they add little to the dialog. I'm just not an Artist...yet! When the day comes that I have something to say, I want my skills to allow me to say it.

Andy deBruyn said...

And what's more amazing to me is that both Bernini and Michaelangelo used a hammer and chisel to create some of the most beautiful and moving art made by man. Does it matter what brand of hammer or chisel they used?

cfw said...

The first time I saw a Da Vinci painting in person, close up, I remember thinking to myself that it was one of the very few man-made things on this planet that was "perfect," 'how could anyone, anywhere, ever create a more beautiful painting.' Then I strolled into the next gallery room and saw a Van Gogh painting for the first time and thought, 'how could anyone, anywhere, ever create a more beautiful painting.'

Dave Jenkins said...

Very perceptive post, Kirk. There's a saying in the field of theology that text without context is pretext. I think that also applies to today's photographers, the vast majority of whom have no context for their work. Here's an excerpt from an article I wrote some years ago:

"Lusting for the many perks that our culture bestows on those who are considered artists, photographers have from early days aspired to be so recognized. Many photographers have testified that they chose photography because they couldn't draw, didn't have the patience to paint, or found photography easier, quicker, or more convenient. Thus, photography became a shortcut to artisthood for people who did not understand what it means to be an artist.
Unfortunately, artist is a designation no one can award himself. It is a title only history can bestow. Calling oneself an artist, as photographers and low-to-mid-level painters are wont to do, is a sure mark of the "wannabe." Edward Weston, like many genuine artists, often referred to himself as a "worker" because he understood that his role was to work diligently at his craft. The composer Salieri undoubtedly thought of himself as an artist, and was so considered by his contemporaries. But history soon buried him, and even though I have a good education in music and am fairly well versed in the classics, I had never heard of him until he was exhumed for the movie Amadeus."

Jim said...

It seems that the technology is all the current generation of photographers is interested in. When I was teaching night courses it was the "how to" that students wanted to know. They had little to no interest in looking at the work of early photographers, much less artists. And I suspect this blog post will attract fewer readers than any of your posts on gear. I blame George Eastman ("You press the button and we'll do the rest") for starting this culture of thinking it's all in the gear and technique.

Patrick Dodds said...

Brad's comment +1

MikeR said...

Now sitting in our local art league gallery, where some of my art is on view. I seemingly compulsively take many hundreds of pictures. Every so often, one grabs me. I work on it. Sometimes I need to let it go, move on. The ones I decide to print and frame are "art." All else are mere snapshots. Am I an artist? I can't feel right saying so. But those framed pieces ARE art.

RT-CA said...

So what photography art history books would you recommend?

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

Always start with Janson's book, "The History of Art."

Anonymous said...

Sorry to say it but you sir are a fucking genius.