Fine art photography works best when it starts a story. An image doesn’t have to tell the whole story, but as a kick-off point few things can beat an interesting picture. Obviously this is what we expect of documentary-style photography, but it is even more acute when creating narrative images from nothing.
One thing I have learned about my style of photography is that it requires a personality. It is impossible for us to be small and grey, because we have to work with so many people to create the image.
Take a look at this wonderful video about Eleanor Antin and her recent series Inventing Histories, and you can see how much fun she is. Of course as an artist working in this particular medium you have to be deliberate, you have to know exactly what you want, and leave just enough to photographic coincidence to allow for magic.
The same holds true for Gregory Crewdson. In spite of the melancholy and pensive images that he creates, Gregory is a gregarious and generous person. On set all of us get a little bit more tense (and intense) than at other times, but working with a large team still requires the leader of this creative endeavor to hold it all together, to get people to do what needs to be done, and to stay creative throughout it.
Erwin Olaf may not seem unusually charming in this particular video, but I think it’s important to see how hands-on we have to be to get the shot. You have to do all of it… fine-tune the set, perfect the clothes, set the perfect final angle of every light. But where we obviously agree the most is our complete disdain for television and the obvious emotion, and our respect and homage to the great painters.
To create photographic images this way is a lot like painting. Every item must be justified, and then placed perfectly. Why is there a telephone in the picture? And is that the perfect spot for it? But unlike paintings, you can’t really paint over it afterward.
Antin references the Neo-Classicists, Crewdson told me he got a lot from Edward Hopper (I know that feeling!) and Olaf emulates Vermeer and probably the whole slew of other Dutch painters that used soft light so marvelously.
The other artist who draws a lot of inspiration from painters is David LaChapelle. I will admit that he is the exception to my observation that it requires huge personalities… Those of use who know him or have met him understand why that is.
I bring him up to make a final point: we all try to make beautiful images. If you have a deep understanding of the painters that came before you, and you’re going to create images out of nothing, you can bet that they will use Beauty as a key weapon in its visual arsenal. I have written about ugliness in contemporary photography before. I find it to be an admission of creative bankruptcy.
Being an artist is something I’ve returned to. I studied photography via photo-journalism, but after finishing university I focused on business. For a couple of years I was selling syndicated television shows and advertisement in New York. I left the City and returned to Berlin within weeks of the wall coming down, and worked with my father developing office properties during the day, while building my own business at night. D’Vision Records was a techno label, and it was one of the great and important experiences of my life to live through two parallel booms simultaneously. During those first years of unification real estate exploded in Berlin, while the city also became the epicenter of music and everything that came with it.
I’m not going to go on with an autobiography here, suffice it to say that I moved to California after a while and built some very exciting software companies in the course of my thirteen years there, which gave me the chance to experience yet another boom first-hand. When I moved back to Europe in 2007 it was because I had taken over a hotel refurbishment, briefly putting me back into my real estate mode.
The reason I point all of this out is because every business comes with its own distinct jargon. There is a certain lingua franca to every industry. It serves as a certain shorthand for concepts that are well established and don’t need to be reiterated at every point in the conversation. But honestly, a lot of language helps define a community, and acquiring the proper vocabulary is a rite of passage amongst younger people entering their particular world. Bright eyes filled with eager hope will parrot back words that barely make sense to anyone outside of the anointed circle. As you get older you take more pride in finding commonalities and analogies between practices, and then of course there is the smarmy self-confidence of business school graduates who force a language of their own on everything because in their mind, business is just business. Who needs details and experience if you can describe the template?
But no language is weirder, more insular, and as contrived as International Art English. Just read the artist statements in galleries, and you will quickly see what I mean.
Read the User’s Guide to Art English in the Guardian, which summarizes a study conducted by David Levine and Alix Rule. It’s fabulous. They conducted an investigation into thousands of artist’s statements and published their report on Triple Canopy. They call IAE “a unique language” that has “everything to do with English, but is emphatically not English. It’s oddly pornographic: we know it when we see it.”
The Guardian cites a great example. I’ll skip the artist and gallery’s name because I know neither, and don’t want to disrespect work I’ve never seen simply because some eager Gallerina wrote up a text to impress her fellow art-school alumni, but the article describes the work, and then cites the statement in full International Art English:
[The work is a] dozen small pink skulls in glass cases face the door. A dozen small bronze mirrors, blandly framed but precisely arranged, wink from the walls. In the deep, quiet space of the London gallery, shut away from Mayfair’s millionaire traffic jams, all is minimal, tasteful and oddly calming.
Until you read the exhibition hand-out. “The artist brings the viewer face to face with their own preconceived hierarchy of cultural values and assumptions of artistic worth,” it says. “Each mirror imaginatively propels its viewer forward into the seemingly infinite progression of possible reproductions that the artist’s practice engenders, whilst simultaneously pulling them backwards in a quest for the ‘original’ source or referent that underlines [her] oeuvre.”
Awesome. Mission accomplished … and that wasn’t even that bad or incomprehensible. Nonetheless the general audience feels stupid, while insiders can use the same language to reference work by other artists, thus eliminating the need to interface with the work on hand. It’s wanky, it’s called playing to the curator, and is a prime example of how language can be exclusionary.
Art needs language, as much as we want to insist that it should speak for itself. It is rarely given that opportunity. And invariably it will require esoteric terminology, and words that are shorthand for entire concepts. I understand that this is easier to do in hindsight, and careers or whole movements are clearer than individual pieces or series. It’s been only a week since I asked for help defining my particular style of narrative photography. There is a need to express what we do as artists. But there is no need to veer into deep bullshit. And believe me, I’ve seen worse. I read an artist’s press release recently that was describing the work to be shown in Miami while Art Basel’s Miami fair was going on. It sounded like a compilation of Scrabble winners served over a bed of Hollywood dot-com blather… No, I’m not gonna link to it.
But… if you’d like to have some fun, here’s a link to Arty Bollocks, a site that will generate a statement if you’re having a tough time writing your own. And just to “keep it real” I’ll link to one of my own wankier concepts.
I am a fan of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. I have been since my first tastes of art history in boarding school, but as a photographer it has taken me many years to get to a point where it was clear how I would approach this subject matter. It is a challenge on so many levels. There is the technical aspect of dealing with darkness and how to transition out of the backgrounds into the subjects. There is the need to build minimal sets that provide a setting, but don’t dominate the image. His work was always about the characters, rarely about the setting itself. Casting has to be right, the poses need to be deliberate, and then finally – and most importantly – there is a fine line that must be crossed again and again between beauty and content. If you are going to play with Renaissance light, then you also need to tell stories, and they must be beautifully told.
Caravaggio’s narrative and dark style attracted many artists. Unlike other painters at the time, he never set up a formal school or studio where artists could apprentice. Frankly, the man was too busy living the good life. He was attractive, talented, considerably wealthy, popular, and maintained a sultry bad-boy image. He loved hanging out with wealthy patrons as much as the sketchiest fringe members of society. His followers, dubbed the Caravaggisti, were propagators and defendants of their founder’s style, and many were inventors in their own right. Some of his most famous Italian followers include: Artemisia Gentileschi and her father Orazio, Mario Minniti (one of Caravaggio’s former models), and Giovanni Baglione… Caravaggio’s fame spread internationally, and his followers include such personalities as Peter Paul Rubens, Georges de la Tour, Valentin de Boulogne, and Gerard van Honthorst (read The Lost Painting by Jonathan Harr!) Spain boasts impressively popular Caravaggisti: Velazquez, Ribalta, Ribera, Murillo, and my other favorite, Francisco de Zurbaran. Many Caravaggisti established and deserve fame and recognition in their own right. One you’ll definitely have heard of is a Dutch painter called Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn.
Baglione and Caravaggio got into a really nasty feud. Caravaggio loved the good life, and enjoyed getting into sword fights (and is accused of murder) whereas Baglione was a blow-hard religious painter for whom violence was considered below his station. At some point Caravaggio was accused of circulating some nasty scatological poetry. Actually, rather than defend himself Caravaggio trash-talked Baglione’s work in front of the magistrate, which led straight to jail for Caravaggio… for two weeks.
How did this start? There was a general harsh rivalry between artists at the time. The well-timed put-down was as much appreciated as the witty repartee. Much of it was ultimately good-natured, but Caravaggio and Baglione hated each other. At some point, Caravaggio painted a wonderful image called Love Conquers All. It shows a beautiful boy as Amor, happy with his arrows and a mischievous smile. It became the pride of the patron’s collection, who displayed it proudly…
But moralists were outraged. The model had previously been featured in a religious work, and there wasn’t sufficient conscience of piety for their taste. Baglione, a conservative painter, created a counter piece… for the brother of Caravaggio’s patron no less, a cardinal! Baglione’s Triumph of Heavenly love over Earthly Love shows the original Amor being slain by Heavenly Love. So much for conquering all.
It didn’t work. If anything, the attempt to humiliate Caravaggio backfired. Baglione’s patron ignored the rivalry, and the Caravaggisti scorned and insulted him. Baglione then created a second painting, nearly identical, but he changed the faceless sinner at bottom left into Caravaggio as the Devil, ostensibly interrupted by Heavenly Love as he was in the middle of sodomistic acts with the young Amor.
This is what ultimately led to Caravaggio distributing leaflets with tawdry poetry about Baglione, but it was hardly the only example of creative competitiveness. And just because one artist hated another, it was no reason to give up a certain style.
I will show my own work in October 2013, although I’ve already teased out a few work-in-progress images on this blog. For better or for worse the world has become too big for real artistic rivalries, and frankly I respect and admire the few artists out there doing narrative photography.
But one final comment… I live in Berlin, a city known for its art community. We have more writers, musicians, photographers, and painters per capita than any other place in the world. But through a number of very odd circumstances, Berlin also has one of the biggest collections of classical art in the world. We don’t quite have the Louvre, but in terms of numbers, and certainly in important and well-known work, the Gemäldegallerie is one of the top museums in the world.
BUT… the place is empty. No one ever goes. I go all the time, I have an annual pass, and I will just go and wander the big halls for hours by myself. When I read the story that I just repeated here, I realized something… both these paintings are here in Berlin! Hanging next to each other. Here’s a picture I took with my phone yesterday afternoon:
Come visit Berlin. And visit the Gemäldegallerie… because the plan is to convert this museum and replace the work with modern art. I’m a realist, I get that Berlin is well-known for contemporary art as well as modernist, surrealist and expressionist work from the early 20th century, and that we need to show the collections the city has. But no new home has been found yet for these classic masters, and chances are they will disappear in storage for years to come.