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.