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.