The Nature & Purpose of Photography

Brian Ulrich had an excellent post recently on why photographers are not recording the the current economic crisis.  His post has generated 47 comments so far and it seems to have struck a nerve.  I find it interesting that on one hand there is a debate raging over whether we should incorporate unfolding current events into our work, and on the other, the Andrew Kreps Gallery current exhibition To Be Determined–focuses on work that deals directly with the medium of photography. While several of these artists I individually admire, collectively, at this moment, having a show about photography, does seem out of step.  Time Out New York said this:

The cerebral queries posed here spring from pioneering 20th-century photographers (Moholy-Nagy, James Welling, Richard Prince), but fail to break any new ground themselves. One has to hope that this current generation of photographers will ultimately choose to define itself by means other than a few tired lines of inquiry. What form those fresh ideas might take is clearly still, as the title of the exhibition suggests, to be determined.

Ouch!  This genre of work has been championed by Blind Spot, which coincidentally is hosting an event for this show this week.   In the last 5 to 7 years, this type of work has dominated–one name says it all–Roe Ethridge (however, the Soth-style {aka Sternfeld/Shore/Myerwitz} of portrait-scape has also been a force, but it has focused more on the set-up Crewdson stylistic version, which is also less content driven.)

In an age of cultural complacency, during which we elected GW twice, and few of us took to the streets to protest, Iraq, Guantanamo, the Patriot Act, or the dramatic and rapid disparity which expanded between the rich & the poor, work that doubles back on itself and shied away from engagement with the world made sense. But we are in a new era, and maybe Brian’s battle cry, which is being sounded by many major art critics in slightly different terms, has something to it.  As artists, it is our responsibility to be continuously questioning what makes a photograph art, especially in a world not only filled with copious amounts of commercial and amateur imagery but that is also overflowing with fine-art photography.  It is important I think at this moment to pause and question, what is more important–making a photograph that will be deemed “art” or making a photograph that can be powerful and that affect how people view the world.  Will post-post modernism mean that we can re-unite these concepts?

Many photographers currently worry about getting stuck in the “photo ghetto.”  Meaning once your work is represented by a photo gallery, you are stuck as ‘just a photographer.’  The insinuation being that you will be considered ‘less of an artist.’  Photography still hovers in a strange place in the art world.  If your work is photo-based, it is a good way to differentiate yourself from the rank & file.  However, if this is done merely as a way to get ahead in the art market, most likely the result will be all surface.  The best work centering on the photographic process, often incorporates multiples levels of engagement.  For instance Penelope Umbrico’s appropriation work , not only plays with authorship, it includes complex cultural critique, and an exploration of human desire.

With all this ruminating in my mind, I came across these photos on National Geographic.com of an 1908 National Geographic article on the survey of Alaska.  What I like about them, is that they remind me of the incredible power of the photograph to transcend its original purpose.  These images were taken to record a scientific exhibition, yet 100 years later, they could just as easily be a meditation on the landscape genre.  Grainy, muted and strange, they are quite beautiful.  Sometimes, perhaps we try so hard to imbue meaning and concept into our photographs that we actually close down this process, and in fact make them more empty.  There is a fine line between too much content and too much concept.

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Radcliffe Hordern

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Photographs by E. R. Martin



6 thoughts on “The Nature & Purpose of Photography”

  1. Is it fear driven or is it uninspiring? Why would photographers not use current turmoil as a platform? Is Brian to some degree?

  2. […] February 24, 2009 · No Comments “As artists, it is our responsibility to be continuously questioning what makes a photograph art, especially in a world not only filled with copious amounts of commercial and amateur imagery but that is also overflowing with fine-art photography.  It is important I think at this moment to pause and question, what is more important–making a photograph that will be deemed “art” or making a photograph that can be powerful and that affect[s] how people view the world[?]” –Cara Philips […]

  3. Aside from the question of whether fine art photography should be timely or cover “current events,” has there been any real lack of this over the last 8 years? (9/11, Iraq, Katrina, etc.) As dismal as these times have been to live through, I don’t think they’ve gone undocumented or unexamined in art.

    Re: looking at photography as being about photography — if you choose to look at it this way it can become an inescapable self-reflexive soup (“you’re soaking in it!”). I think you can make the argument that because photography has a unique relationship to both intention and sense data, very different from painting or drawing, the contribution of the medium itself to the final product bears (on-going) examination. Especially now, in the age of digital, where the “truth” aspect of photography is being revealed to have no real basis (which, of course, it never did). I agree about the split between content and concept, but doesn’t the best art do both? Photography seems to lend itself to this; I think the case can be made that it’s another level a photograph can “work” on, in addition to the formal side of things.

  4. […] “As artists, it is our responsibility to be continuously questioning what makes a photograph art, especially in a world not only filled with copious amounts of commercial and amateur imagery but that is also overflowing with fine-art photography.  It is important I think at this moment to pause and question, what is more important–making a photograph that will be deemed “art” or making a photograph that can be powerful and that affect[s] how people view the world[?]” –Cara Philips […]

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