Art photography according to curators...

Discussion in 'Ethics and Philosophy' started by batwister, Mar 9, 2012.

  1. batwister

    batwister Member

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    As a photographer, I'm always very suspicious of such people and their ideas on what is and isn't important, timely and as a result, in the mind of posterity, art. The numerous 'Books Photographers MUST read RIGHT NOW!' lists often suggest John Szarkowski and his 'art of curation' monographs, shall we call them. I'm sure I'll come across as an ignorant swine to some serious students of photography here, but I don't believe his ideas about aesthetics have any relevance to our lives as creatives. 'Mirrors and Windows' is the concern of a curator, for whom categorizing work in such a way is a solution to an everyday problem. This isn't the concern of the creative photographer, whose problems never call for ceasing image making to think 'is this photograph a mirror or window?' It's counter-productive and like all creative output, photographs never fall any further than dead centre, moving according to individual interpretation, not when the overlord tells us they move. I believe photography education is warped by such thinking and the critical mind has taken precedence over the creative mind in contemporary practice.

    Weegee and Atget, the self-confessed documentarians, are revered as two of this medium's creative geniuses - in the mind of curators and historians - and as a result, the mind of photographers. Forgive me, but for this reason, I believe curators are largely responsible for the banality and pseudo-documentary aesthetic of a great deal of the contemporary photography that we have the privilege to gaze upon, before it's whisked away by millionaires never to be seen again - thank god! 'Documentary as art' is one of the reasons digital has flourished and traditional materials best suited to slow, methodical (counter intuitive to documentary/artful snapshot/haphazard) approaches, are being tossed aside.

    Are curators and historians responsible for the stifling of expressive exploration in contemporary photography and perhaps as a result, the 'death' of film - getting the intended results with film being bound to creative thinking?
     
  2. Chris Lange

    Chris Lange Member

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    I think the use of the term "documentary" is a little over-generalized here. To shoot in a documentary style is possible with -any- camera system, I do it with a Hasselblad on a tripod, I do it with a 4x5, and I do it with all my 35mm cameras. I would also hardly say that what is being shown at the higher echelon galleries is "documentary" at all. I see a lot of color. Color and appropriation. Take for example Gursky, or the bullshit wanker known as Richard Prince. Gursky is big color, Prince is big bullshit. I'm far more concerned about the people who -do- take all the considerations and time in the world to iron out an idea that was poorly conceived in the first place. Let the bad ideas bleed quickly, so that the photographers/artists producing them can evolve their talent to a higher level.

    Digital flourished because it was convenient and accessible. Custom black and white photography became a reality for the every day snapshot shooter with digital, as well.

    Also, any list of suggestions with a title as smarmy as that (and believe me, I've seen them), should immediately be ignored and filed under "useless".

    I've never gained insight about the art world from anything like that, but from looking at actual artist books, as well as applying unrelated literary material into my beliefs and philosophies. I think reading Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead and picking up a camera as a result of not being able to draw fast enough, made me a better photographer than any of Saint Ansel's technical books ever would have...
     
  3. Ian Grant

    Ian Grant Subscriber

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    No quite the oppposite Curators in particilar and to some extent historians are often at the forefront of opening up individual expression and diversity.

    Having been involved at various levels both as an exhibitor, organiser and also curator of exhibitions for over 30 years and having extensive contacts in the art side of photography I've never seen even a trace of what your implying except from mediocre photogarphers who think they must conform to what they percieve is require of them.

    Ian
     
  4. Chris Lange

    Chris Lange Member

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    Agreed.
     
  5. batwister

    batwister Member

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    Gursky is what I think of as a post-New Topographics photographer. Documentary 'style' as you call it, evolved from Stephen Shore et al, with an overriding 'how beguiling is colour?' aesthetic masking any empathy he might have ever had for the actual subject matter his camera relies on. When I was refering to contemporary photography as 'documentary', Gursky's work and this approach is what I had in mind. It's something the 'convenience' and efficiency of digital currently lends itself perfectly to. But I feel this approach has developed from the curators praise of early documentary work and had they not dubbed such work as art there wouldn't be a rife 'documentary aesthetic' or style at all. I don't feel this phase of photography is a part of its organic evolution, but the modern, defenseless photographer's response to what critics have told us the art of photography is. This is a big claim, but I believe traditional art teachers who began to teach photography, not seeing its real creative potential, but more its merit as a literal interpretaion of the world, condoned this idea. Hence where we are now, photography aimed squarely at the skeptic - an ironic joke for art buyers.

    As a side note, please don't be insulted, but I think philosophies should develop naturally, rather than be seeked out. I have a musician friend who at university began reading The Picture of Dorian Gray (I don't think he finished it) and something along the lines of 'Greek Philosophy 101' thinking it would make him a better songwriter. I'm of the mind that vision and life experience are intertwined and there aren't any intellectual short cuts or philosophical answers for making compelling photographs. I think this is a dangerous contemporary mentality, now promoted in such things as Werner Herzog's 'rogue film school' - as a man of such experience and humour, I can only guess this is his sense of irony! From my perspective, Ayn Rand and the super intellectuals offer as much as reality television in terms of contributing to a personal philosophy and I know which has inspired me most to be more productive!
     
  6. Thomas Bertilsson

    Thomas Bertilsson Subscriber

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    I've seen curators desperately clinging onto photographic work of the past, such as pictorialism, almost to a fault. And I've seen them heavily exploring modern photography. The best thing, for a museum, is to have both. This is important, because it's at museums where a lot of people get exposed to photography as printed matter.
    Recently, I visited the Minneapolis Institute of Arts to view their exhibit featuring panoramic phtoographs, and there is clearly a lot of respect for work from the past showing some absolutely exquisite work by Berenice Abbott, Art Sinsabaugh, Josef Sudek, and others, but also lots of more modern iterations from people like Chris Faust and Stuart Klipper. To me it was a wonderful and fresh mix of photographs where old and new coexisted in perfect harmony.

    It's very seldom that I visit a museum show of photography without learning a lot about both old and new photographers, and even though I may not like it all, it's always interesting and enlightening.

    One modern photographer whose work I'd love to see more of is Jay Maisel, for example. Modern, fresh, recognized, respected, and usually loved by those that have little experience with photography.

    Here's a very interesting current show featuring great photographic work from late 19th century to modern day. Some names unknown to me.
    http://www.artsmia.org/sports-show/preview.php?page=leisure

    I had the pleasure of visiting the Fotografiska Museet in Stockholm in January to see the work of Nick Brandt, a photographer documenting nature.
    http://en.fotografiska.eu/The-Museum/Artister/Nick-Brandt

    There was a fantastic exhibit at the same time by Norwegian photographer Margaret M. DeLange
    http://en.fotografiska.eu/The-Museum/Previous-Exhibitions/Surrounded-By-No-One

    Anton Corbijn has a show there now.
    http://en.fotografiska.eu/The-Museum/Current-Exhibitions/Inwards-and-Onwards

    Marcus Bleasdale: Stolen Children
    http://en.fotografiska.eu/The-Museu...ldren.-Soldiers-of-the-Lord-s-Resistance-Army

    Etc...
     
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  7. Chris Lange

    Chris Lange Member

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    I've never read a book in an attempt to find a philosophy for myself, I read all of her work when I was in my early/mid teens, and her views match mine quite closely. I appear to be very cold to most people, though, so I shouldn't be surprised.

    I don't think of Stephen Shore as a documentary photographer, although I think our difference of intention with syntax, and meaning is what's causing us to see differently. I think of documentary photography as something much more closely related to photojournalism, with the intention of 'documenting' an ongoing, reoccurring subject. I agree completely with you that there is an overload of "documentary" photography that consists of mediocre landscapes of Americana, and smushed out cigarettes. That's what you get when everyone is told that they can be a photographer, too (Just add water!).
     
  8. cliveh

    cliveh Subscriber

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    Art photography according to curators?

    Art photography according to curators? Quite often these people are not artists, or able to recognise art. To them, their greatest asset is recognition of a business opportunity. That’s why the art world is so full of pretentious crap.
     
  9. batwister

    batwister Member

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    You read Ayn Rand in your teens? Ouch. I'm reminded of 'We Need to Talk About Kevin' for some reason... I'm sure you're nothing like that. :sad:
    The New Topographics photographers took a documentary approach to the landscape, and I believe Gursky's work to be derived aesthetically from New Topographics, but without the concerns - which leaves it pretty empty! Of course, Stephen Shore has been productive outside of his association with that movement, as has Robert Adams and Lewis Baltz, but being concerned with representation of landscape, that's how I know him.

    Anyone can be a photographer, but more problematic is the idea that anyone can be an artist... with any photograph.
     
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  10. jnanian

    jnanian Advertiser Advertiser

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    this has been true since 1839 ...
    why should it be any different now ?
     
  11. batwister

    batwister Member

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    There was no such conception of the photograph as expression in 1839, curators have since placed such images in the sphere of art.
    This is what I'm saying, when what curators say goes, photographers who live up to their definition are diluting the potential of the expressive photograph.
    Art in general is conservative by choice for this reason, not out of a lack of ideas.

    Not quite 1839, but Lartigue is one of the most well known - a kid amusing himself with his Brownie is now artist, par excellence.
     
  12. MDR

    MDR Member

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    I wouldn't generalize Art curators they can have very heated discussions and arguments about what makes a photograph art. And that hasn't really been decided by curators in a long time. The Art market decides and the museum curators often follow market trends despite the fact that they might not like the work they are showing. I am not to hot about Szwakowski myself and believe him to be highly overrated but he did help in getting photography recognized as an art form.

    Dominik
     
  13. jnanian

    jnanian Advertiser Advertiser

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    still lifes ( lives ? ) aren't considered artistic expression ?
    there has been still life photography as well as expressive portraiture since
    daguerreotypes and calotypes ...
     
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  15. Maris

    Maris Member

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    A sharply perceptive comment! I've seen the curatorial side of things and there is nothing more certain than the professional curator and the creative photographer inhabit different universes.

    The curators priorities are:

    Job security: Don't rock the boat; praise what others praise, condemn what others condemn.
    Get promoted: Organise popular exhibitions; borrow famous works.
    Get funding: Schmoose millionaires, philanthropists, and government for buckets of money.
    Build the collection: Buy famous pictures or promote cheap stuff to make it famous.
    Advance personal status: Go to conferences, write scholarly articles for curators and academics, get cited by others in exchange for citing them.
    Grasp more responsibility: If photography is too small then swell your department by absorbing video, movies, "digital media", photo-realist painting, works on paper, anything.
    Become essential: Know where the bodies are buried, who's on the take. When funding cuts come they'll sack someone else or you will squeal...publicly.

    On the other hand if you ask a curator to critically assess the aesthetic merit of a photograph out of context (no history, no provenance, no author) you rarely get anything of value. Telling the good ones from the bad ones is not part of the training, not part of the job description.
     
  16. batwister

    batwister Member

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    It's the cheap stuff self-promoted that gets into their hands and I feel that often, these artists put more energy into trying to get their work in front of collectors than they put into their work. Today, when it's relatively easy to be self-made with quality work and an internet connection, these people are only searching for validation. There's a programme about them on Sky Arts over here, can't remember what it's called, but all their work was naive and derivative. Those whose output is a labour of love and broader awareness of their artform aren't so quick to put their soul on the line for a bargain. So it's not just the cheap stuff, but like the people we see on X Factor/American Idol - those who have the loudest voices, but the least to say, who just happen to be cheap.

    The scary thing is, people with talent know this and perhaps choose to work in obscurity, only ever selling their work to local people where they know it will never get into the wrong hands. Or even the right hands.
     
  17. Thomas Bertilsson

    Thomas Bertilsson Subscriber

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    A real problem is that museums don't have a lot of money to spend on expensive pieces by Gursky or Sherman. What are they supposed to do? Part of their jobs is to build the museum collection, and with limited budgets they kind of have to spot trends and figure out what will become cool. There's no other way for them.
     
  18. batwister

    batwister Member

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    For a start, maybe the tastemakers could get a little taste? :confused:

    I suppose when we're talking about museums we're talking about the most money hungry. Representing the in crowd then requires no sense of the art, but of business. What they deem worthy of representation - the most trendy - isn't just their problem in acquiring the work, but the artist's problem, who might not produce it.
     
  19. Thomas Bertilsson

    Thomas Bertilsson Subscriber

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    Aren't you generalizing a bit too much?

    Besides, taste is personal. One persons garbage is another man's treasure. When I view the work of others I try to discern whether it interests me or not. Recently I discovered that my local museum had accessioned a fairly unknown African photographer, depicting a modern day Africa. I thought it was a great move, since I see very little from there that doesn't have anything to do with human evolution and the origin of mankind.
     
  20. dehk

    dehk Member

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    I have something I can relate, maybe not so much for curators, but more for art critics.

    If you have 11 minutes to spare, I really hope you listen to a piece by the late, great, writer, Jim Carroll, Titled Tiny Tortures.

    Direct link to the mp3 is here http://catholicboy.com/sounds/Jim-Carroll-Tiny-Tortures.mp3

    Taken from the page (Jim Carroll's web site) http://www.catholicboy.com/roach.php You can also click on the audio link on that page.

    That'd pretty much sum it up for me about art critics.
     
  21. michael_r

    michael_r Subscriber

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    I'm a little slow so I'm having trouble figuring out what you're trying to get at. Are you saying Shore's work is mediocre and we need more expressive photography? And it's the curators etc who are largely at fault?
     
  22. batwister

    batwister Member

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    I find his work interesting, but I was only using him to clarify my idea of where I think the 'documentary aesthetic' originated, which is very prevalent in contemporary work. Have a look at anything in the British Journal of Photography - the only real magazine we have on contemporary practice over here and how most keep up to date. I believe this kind of photography to be a direct response to the critic, rather than a natural progression of the medium. More an intellectual defensive, rather than a continuation of creative exploration with light sensitive materials. Personally, I don't think the photograph is the best format for a thesis.

    I wonder if Minor White's statement means anything to this wave of photographers '...an unexposed piece of film [sensor], static and seemingly inert yet pregnant with possibilities.' Because I believe for anyone who enjoys making photographs, in spite of the statements they want to make, this pretty much sums up the basic love of the medium. It's something they would do well to remember, because people only pick up a camera with joy, yet most of the work I see is devoid of it, in favour of an imposed intellectual position. Somewhere along the line the photographers became the critics and the curators became the artists.

    If you look at popular music you'll see that producers and DJs are the new singer-songwriters, the artists. It's not a problem confined to photography, but more, in today's culture, that taste equates art. The increasing masses of work produced seems to be simply raw material for the curator's game.
     
  23. Jim Jones

    Jim Jones Subscriber

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    To this outsider this is true. John Szarkowski was a conspicuous example. His own photographs are bland. His comments in Ric Burns' film on Ansel Adams were superficial when compared to the more knowledgeable contributors in the earlier Ansel Adams film directed by John Huszar. His Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures from the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art smells more like an attempt to justify some acquisitions of his museum rather than a perceptive analysis. Perhaps I would enjoy some of his other books more, but time spent on this site is more productive.

    Curators with artistic ability can be a powerful and positive influence: Steiglitz, for example. Rarely can such artists afford to be curators. Rarely can curators be such artists.
     
  24. michael_r

    michael_r Subscriber

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    It's interesting the high degree to which personal taste can colour one's perspective though. For example, I too find myself being quite down on curators, publishers, critics and galleries when it comes to photography. But I am actually coming from the opposite end of the spectrum. I see it in totally the opposite way! I love Shore's pictures. He's one of the photographers I enjoy most, along with Tice and others. The photographs are about time and place, and for me they are perfect for that. The compositions and renderings of detail allow me to get totally lost in them, as though I were standing there. There is so much to look at, over and over again. I never get bored, no matter how many times I pour over the images. They render the vernacular in an exquisitely real way and I simply can't get enough of them. From my perspective, it always seems like people have little interest in this type of thing, and way too much interest in so called "boundary-pushing". That is all I see when I read magazines, go to shows etc. If your pictures are sharp, you're boring. If you fix and wash your prints, you're boring. If you use a lens, you're boring. And on and on it goes. I flip the pages and see people heralded as expressive geniuses because they burn holes in paper negatives with aerial lenses, find old stained unfixed prints in a shoebox, take pictures of dismembered old dolls (there's at least one of these in every issue of every magazine), use 15 toners on one print etc. People fall all over themsleves for this "progressive" stuff because a gallery owner knows how to spin a ridicuously profound story. To me, this is the stuff that's boring. I look at it and all I see is either a deliberate effort to do something different, regardless of the outcome, or a cover-up for a total lack of vision and/or technique.

    So there you have it. Same frustration, totally opposite experience. Interesting discussion though.
     
  25. Chris Lange

    Chris Lange Member

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    There is a duplicity to this, however. I agree with the idea that pop music and DJ performances are generally weak compared to the musicians of yesteryear, but there is a coven of extremely high-end musicians and artists out there who use the same tools to make vastly superior works.

    My father quit shooting film in 2006, and now uses a Leaf back on his Mamiyas and Hasselblads. His photography falls far, far, outside the realm of "digisnapping". My brother, too, is a musician, composer, and producer. He's classically trained, but does all of his production work in the digital domain with an Avid ProTools rig. The likes of popular house music and techno pale in comparison to the production values he maintains in his work.

    The issue of taste is not due to any changes in technology, explicitly, but due to changes in accessibility and distribution methods. In days past, music would only be released en masse through a label, which would have an A&R team approving any new releases. Photographers needed agents (or would serve as their own, occasionally) to sort out publication and exhibitions.

    I would actually say that the vast majority of bad, muddled photography I see, is done on film. There is a concept that because one has used film, the intrinsic artistic value of an image is arbitrarily higher than one created digitally. I scan my film on a high-end scanner so that my lab can make large Lambda prints for me, does the use of a digital intermediary make my photographs less "analog"? Am I devaluing my work by using the (wonderful) assets available to me? Curators don't give a hoot about content because their not trying to show, or promote "work", they're trying to promote a person via their creations. This is why we have Ryan McGinley and Terry Richardson at the forefront of the hipster scene. Terry's pictures are, by and large, awful, yet I love to look at the pictures because they exude his personality. I can't stand Ryan McGinley, but enjoy seeing what he manages to pull off.

    The implication of digital technology sapping "soul" out of a work of art is completely, and utterly false.

    Curators, too, are aware of this, and in all honesty, the only "bad" show I've seen in the past 12 months was the MoMA's New Photography show back in November. Their "Emerging Women Photographers" show was god-awful, as well. Aside from that, I've seen fantastic exhibitions at ICP, of WeeGee and Magnum's Contact Sheets. I saw a jaw-dropping Walker Evans show in Connecticut, and look forward to seeing the new Francesca Woodman show at the Guggenheim in the coming weeks.

    The standards of art are not bound by curators strictly, because you have to remember that we artists keep sending them the same old shit day in and day out, hoping to bend our images to their perceived preferences...


    For clarification's sake,

    The song Avalon by my brother, Matt Lange
    Matt Lange - Avalon/Griffith Park

    My father's website:
    Paul Lange: Photographer
     
  26. batwister

    batwister Member

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    This "as though I were standing there" I hear often and I can only say, perhaps you should get out more! :D I have the same fantasies looking at holiday brochures.

    For me this is the defeatist attitude of contemporary photography and harks back to Atget and his 'documents for painters'. The difference is that these modern survey images are supported by art speak. Photographers become their own personal critics, defending their 'documents as art' like a curator might speak of Atget's. If the photographs strike you because they are of a time and place, then their true value is nostalgia. This is what art snobs will tell you is the only value of any photograph, but they are just as ignorant as the photographers making these images. In a family photo album nostalgia is fine, but in a gallery, first and foremost I expect the visual arts to be visually stimulating.

    If we all had the same tastes the world would be a very boring place, but I feel this kind of work and those who defend it are ignorant of photography's power to transcend illustration, through transforming subject matter, and revealing something of the world that we wouldn't have seen, had we been stood there. I also think there's something to be said about the perceived ease with which the images are made appealing to unskilled amateurs, who might then pursue such an approach and get overly defensive about it, taking an elitist position. When you're aware of this, I find it's too painful to make or appreciate banal illustrations. As somebody who was once enticed by this contemporary aesthetic, I can say photographing empty parking lots feels like such an intellectually cold and joyless procedure, knowing what is really possible with a camera.

    I agree about the 'pushing boundaries', but these photographers never seem to get very far. As far as I can see it's the prolific auteurs with conservative, safe and constant visions who are seen as mature artists, regardless of content. If you make the same bland image over and over again, at some point you will get the press.
     
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