Last week I got into one of those late-night red wine conversation over dinner. We were talking about the definition of contemporary art within the context of photography, and I was trying to define what I do. After a long meandering “drowning-man” grab for a definition, I said “I’m not a photographer, I’m an artist.”
And then I stopped, and laughed, and realised that will sound awfully pompous if taken out of context. But then again, life is just a bunch of crops, isn’t it? To be clear, my statement was meant as a compliment to photographers.
The Galerie Camera Work opened a large retrospective of the photographer Martin Schoeller over the weekend. It’s a magnificent opus, nicely summarised in a new teNeues book simply entitled “Portraits.” It shows his work over the last fifteen years, including the wonderful larger-than-lifesize portraits of every celebrity you can think of, but also great environmental portrayals. These pictures are shot in kitchens, living rooms, or on location. There are also intricately staged photographs, in which he places his subjects in whimsical situations. The point is, Schoeller has substantial photographic skills. It takes aptitude and experience to walk into a room, find a light set-up, make your subjects comfortable, and to knock out a shoot with limited amount of time. Martin Schoeller is a great photographer.
I am not a photographer, not in the sense that Martin Schoeller is. I know how to use my gear, and I use a camera as my primary tool when I create my work. I don’t believe art is possible without craft. But my work is growing increasingly more conceptual, and my skills are built around what I need to make my art. I usually create my images in my studio, because I know how that works. I have my particular lighting set-up, but will prepare sketches for a lot of the depictions before they ever get shot. The image I make doesn’t simply come to me as I enter the space for the first time, nor is it a location I scout before the shoot. I build my sets, I arrange the styling and the look of the model, and I know which poses I’m aiming for, and all of it is tied to the image being created that day. It’s a very deliberate and pre-conceived process.
Nor can one simply argue that certain photographers only succeed because they’re shooting celebrities or naked super-models. Martin Schoeller and Russell James are brilliant photographers. Would the same images work if they were made using “regular” people in the frame? Absolutely, though it would be harder to get a viewer’s attention. More to the point, the same stars and babes shot by lesser talents would make for some very boring photos. The pictures work so well because they’re good photographers, and great craftsmen.
But are they artists? Where is the transition between photography, and contemporary art? I’d venture a partial definition: Photography is capturing the key subjects as they express themselves. Art is arranging the subjects in way that expresses something entirely different.
My images are not supposed to capture the essence of its subjects, they are an expression of my feelings and thoughts. As an artist I can’t simply captures something, I need to initiate it, and I need to be responsible for the final result. If I rely on circumstance or outside forces, then I’m simply documenting the moment. I realise the word “art” is laden with sanctification, though I find it overblown. After the whole twentieth century reappropriation of “art for the people/by the people”, everybody is an artist, and it seems like that has become an unassailable descriptor, a carte-blanche, akin to “belief.”
I have stated my art manifesto before. It’s been a few years since I first posted it, and I still feel the same way.
Art must have four things to matter: concept, craft, discourse and aesthetics.
Art without concept is simply decoration. The world is filled with pretty pictures, clever drawings, and cool stencils, but without an underlying concept it is meaningless. Conversely, art cannot live by concept alone. The idea must be graspable. Hyper-conceptual art may curry favor within a very select circle of art crit MFA candidates and those seeking to justify the curatorial choices they have made, but it does not stand the test of time.
Out of this concept must arise discourse. The viewer must engage with the piece. It is not enough for it to be clever. Art must be a trigger, it must elicit an emotional response, an intellectual response.
Art without craft lacks respect. The coincidental arrival at a strong piece of work is not a deliberate choice. It reflects the moment, not the artist.
Art must make an aesthetic choice. It should appeal, or repel, or intrigue – on purpose.
I’d love to hear from you what you think. It’s an interesting conversation, and I’m nowhere near finished with it. Here’s an image from a tribute to Christo and Jean-Claude that I shot a few years ago. The idea behind it was very specific and deliberate, but it’s hardly a studio image.
I was given the opportunity to participate in a panel discussion at Paris Photo this week. It was a group made up of established members of the fine art photo community, led by Rick Wester, a well-known gallerist and former auctioneer. Lisa Erf, curator of the highly respected JP Morgan collection was also on the panel, as was Victor de Bonnecaze, from the Galerie Daniel Templon. This year Templon dedicated its entire Paris Photo selection to Staged Photography, my favorite sub-genre within the world of photography. Also on the panel was Vanessa Hallett from the auction house Phillips, where she is the Senior Director and Worldwide Head of the Photographs group. Finally, we were joined by Sondra Gilman and her life-partner Celso Gonzalez-Falla, who began collecting photography in 1955.
The goal was to discuss how technology has changed the process of collecting photography. We spoke about the ways it’s becomes easier for a gallerist to show collectors an artist’s work beyond the gallery space, and how artists are able to maintain their own web presence. We also touched on the problem inherent to image overload. Art work is all over the internet without attribution to artists, never mind the galleries where a viewer might buy such an image. Some art blogs, like the Staged Photography Tumblr do a good job of attributing the artists to the respective work, and even identifying distinct series.
I explained that I use social media and my blog as a tool to stay in touch with people who like my work, and to share some of the thought process and the production that goes into my work. I don’t simply feed images into the ether. Simply put: Facebook “Likes” may be fun, but they don’t necessarily translate into work that makes it way into curated collections or people’s homes.
Another problem is scale. Even the largest monitor is not as big as many pieces of contemporary fine art photography. This matters a lot, because the eye travels through an image differently according to size. Elements within a picture have a certain relationship, and they take on different levels of importance if they cannot be seen within the same field-of-view. Consider a portrait, for example. I can view it on a monitor, and can focus my interest to a specific part of the face. But a huge portrait on a wall doesn’t permit me to see the whole face at once unless I step way back, and a normal viewing distance forces me to look at it the same way I might explore a landscape… I see an eye, a mouth, the line of the hair… but not the whole face. This is an important and powerful part of photography.
I think we missed a real opportunity though. I tried to broach the topic of technology in the creation of new work, but it didn’t make its way into the broader conversation. I believe it matters, but more traditional collectors still think about photography and the underlying collecting process as something based on paper prints. But contemporary photography doesn’t require a film negative, nor the positives that are made from it.
There are artists who use digital technology as a primary tool in their work. Ruud van Empel and Simen Johan are both artists who are deeply involved in digital collage, one more overtly than the other. Other artists such as Erwin Olaf or David LaChapelle fine-tune their image using digital post-production. But most importantly, contemporary artists have a myriad of display materials available to them. We can use a large selection of surfaces on which to print images. I have seen artists print on linen, leather, cardboard, aluminum, and all kinds of paper that is then bonded to glass or acrylics. I use a combination of waxed paper and a difficult-to-use matte acrylic in combination, and neither the material choice nor the production pathway would be an option if I didn’t have the proper technology available to enable it. You can read about my process in a previous blog post.
Unfortunately, at Paris Photo I also saw a number of photographers use material that I consider inappropriate for the image or its subject. Some images work well on a light box, but many do not. Another material which is frequently misused is acrylic Diasec, which is an incredibly rich and glossy material that brings out contrast and saturation within a picture, but is also quite reflective. Nuances are lost when an image has to compete with the elements reflected from the room in which it hangs.
I was able to make this point to collectors: the new materials are one more reason why you really have to see the work in real life. No matter how good an image looks on a screen, the ultimate choice made by the artist trumps all prior efforts. No matter how good the work is, the wrong presentation will kill it. A print needs the proper frame, a passe-partout, and some museum glass, but contemporary photographic art is more complex than that. A photographer can focus on taking pictures, but an artist has to make creative choices all the way through to the final piece.
At some point in the late 1980s my father came home with a painting by Paul Delvaux. He’d never really been into Surrealist art. On the contrary, at the time he was collecting work by Photorealists, a painting style that at first glance emulates the gloss and shine familiar from photographs, and relies on ultra-realism to make its point. But this painting fascinated him. Simply entitled Tête de Femme, it was a beautiful face of a woman, her shoulders rising and suggesting that her arms are aloft, like so many other women in Delvaux’s paintings. It’s smaller than most of Delvaux’s work, who used to paint relatively large canvases. There’s a reason it’s smaller.
Apparently he was unhappy with the painting, or at least the direction it was going. Delvaux cropped the head out of the canvas, and discarded everything else. I have always wondered what else there was. I’ve seen plenty of Delvaux’s work since, but the light on the face is unlike any of his other work. It’s not a painting he attempted again, nor are there any pencil sketches or water-colours of a related motif. Because Delvaux was a Surrealist, almost anything could have been happening right beyond that frame. It lit up my imagination, but the lack of information also frustrated me. I wanted to see the rest of the painting!
So when I began to reduce my own work down to various crops that held my attention, I realized that some of the images might be visually compelling, but I feared they would become meaningless without context. At the same time, I found a conflict between the elements I found visually compelling, and the narrative. The story told by the image may be interesting, but sometimes the beauty is in the smaller details.
The image above is one of two Paolo and Francesca pieces. The original image I created around the two lovers was very tall, the two of them laying spent at the bottom of a tall frame with soft fabrics rising high up into the darkness. But the two of them seemed lost in it, and it didn’t tell the story. It is hard to depict the trance two lovers enter into after they consummate real love with deep lust. So the image was cut down to leave only the lovers, impossibly folded into one another after they had exhausted themselves. I found their hands beautiful, they said so much about the moment, but after cropping two reduced little frames I felt there was nothing left to connect them to the story I had set out to tell. They had no context. I decided to retain parts of the image, but to present them differently. You can read about the physical production in my previous post.
Two nights ago I was sitting with my creative assistant Lars Theuerkauff, we were arguing over whether crops without context work, whether they sufficiently communicate the intended moment. He felt strongly they did, but I told him that context is key. If we know the image, then a visual abbreviation is all we need. We can mentally reduce an image to its visual shorthand (pun intended!) if we know what happens around it. Ironically enough, the Taverna we were sitting in near Kollwitz Platz in Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg had this poster hanging from a cross-beam above the entrance:
But Lars made another valid point. As beautiful as Baroque religious art may be, most of it was illustrative in nature. Its goal was to tell a story to people who couldn’t read, not to communicate a feeling exchanged in a moment. Those paintings rarely elicited a sense of beauty and recognition within the eye of the beholder, but told a story while imbuing their viewers with a sense of awe. My goals are lot more earthly and simple.
…and sometimes, you simply can’t trust a crop.