Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Purity in Medium: Open Thread

More and more lately, the general art viewing public seems to have taken up the question only informed collectors or art world professionals were focused on in recent years: are digitally manipulated photographs equal in quality/stature to "pure" photography in the fine art context?

It's odd to be asked that question in the context of an art fair (which I was repeatedly) where since everything's moving so quickly, I'm never quite sure who the person is who's asking or where in the chronology of the debate to begin to answer it. So my stock response has been that I'm totally in favor of both. So long as the gallery declares what the process is, the resulting image is what really matters to me. Purists who only want to collect traditional photography (i.e., from film to negative to print, without computer interventions) need to be able to trust their galleries on pieces they're being shown, but that's the only consideration, IMO.

I note this partly in response to a lecture Tyler Green gave at the Brooklyn Museum this past weekend on the Edward Burtynsky exhibition. Apparently Mr. Burtynsky is a purist, eschewing digital manipulation in his work, and Tyler noted how he's opposed to the practice particularly as it's applied by the big-name German photographers. In fact, one series of images that Burtynsky took in China appear to be a direct elbow in the side to Andreas Gursky...as if to say, it doesn't take a computer to do this, pal:


Edward Burtynsky, Manufacturing #17, Deda Chicken Processing Plant, Dehui City, Jilin Province, 2005 (image from edwardburtynsky.com)

Even photographers I know who 5 years ago were still committed to "pure photography" however, have very recently begun to sing a slightly different tune, often arguing that when there's no preceptible difference in the final print, and there's a humungeous difference in control and efficiency, the new technology begins to erase any concerns about purity. After all, in the end it's the image that counts.

And generally I agree. I do think there's still something to the randomness of pure photography...having to live with what fate delivers...that's romantic and interesting, but if an artist knows exactly what they want an image to look like, I can't see why something less than that is superior.

In fact, there's a strong parallel I've noticed between pure of digitally altered photography and oil versus acrylic paint. I've witnessed also painters who winced at the idea of giving up their oils make all kinds of excuses later for making the switch. Perhaps it's all about efficiency, but I suspect it's also being repeatedly told the general public can't tell the difference anyway, so why make your life that much harder.

But enough about what I think...what's your stand on purity in medium?

80 Comments:

Anonymous crionna said...

I don't think pure photography (where photography is an art form) ever existed. Even amateurs like me take two negs, have one developed and then decide if the second should have f-stops added or subtracted (to the extent possible) by the lab. And the B&W guys going way back learned to "burn" a spot here or there to better approximate what they saw and wished to reproduce.

I don't see too much of a difference between a B&W artist from decades past who uses differing amounts of light in different areas of a print to get the affect s/he desires and the current folks who can use photoshop for an effect. I mean, one could argue that even the use of a flash isn't "pure".

What's important to me is to know that a photograph of a place is an actual representation of that place, with nothing physical added or subtracted. FI, a photo titled "Tree in Central Park" can be tinted purple for all I care, as long as the photo is of a tree and the tree is in central park.

But that's IMHO, as I like to photograph the natural world and know what's been shot is actually there. YMMV

12/13/2005 02:13:00 PM  
Anonymous Henry said...

It may be a question of craft, or perhaps of what type of craft one values. Are you admiring the work because you respond to the image, or because you respect the manual and/or intellectual labor which went into its production?

I enjoy both Gursky and Burtynsky, but if I think to myself that Burtynsky created this image using only certain techniques, leading to certain difficulties, I find myself respecting his work that much more. Maybe I devalue computer-based work because I do that every day for a living.

The other day I looked at an image of the Sistene Chapel ceiling. I found myself wondering, Is this really a good work of art, or is everyong just amazed that it took so much effort? (I don't intend to debate that point today; I'm just mentioning that the thought crossed my mind). The book "Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling" says that in those days, fresco artists considered canvas artists to be "girly-men," as it were.

12/13/2005 02:17:00 PM  
Anonymous JJ said...

Actually, I prefer the non-purist approach. Something about blurring the lines of image capture and composition is challenging and its why Gursky is the more important artist. Then again I'm a painter, I like the compositional options vs. the fussy "craft" which really hangs up so many photographers.

In Portland, there is a painter who studied with Dave Hickey who is doing some major work by photographing paintings (made specifically to be photographed). She displays the somewhat photoshopped (edition of 1) photograph as a painting. It's an interesting method, which updates Stieglitz's equivalents and complicating the read of the painting. I call them "Phaintings" link: http://www.jacquelineehlis.com/paintings/violet.htm

Although they sell like crazy she doesn't edition them. Too bad they werent at miami they are some of the neatest things I've seen this year.

12/13/2005 02:55:00 PM  
Anonymous brian said...

To me it’s all about the final result. Both are valid, and I don’t think there should be just one or another, and I love both kinds. Not all photography is about “realness”, some is about manipulating the visual information to get a different kind of perception or reality. Plus, a lot of “real” photography lies and is manipulative in subtle ways by the way the image is cropped, what’s NOT in the photo, darkroom techniques, etc.

Honestly when I saw Burtynsky’s show it made me think that Gursky was the obvious precedent to his work, but that the technical virtuosity wasn’t up to that of Gursky, like the way the perspective distorts towards the edges of the frame. Even his compositional sensibility I don’t like as much as Gursky, although I overall liked his work and some images in the show I really loved, especially the ones of the boats. Even though Gursky’s imagery is digitally manipulated, they seem more “real” and objective to me. But I don’t like stuff that’s obviously digitally manipulated, where you can see the fingerprints of Photoshop all over it. So like everything else it’s ultimately all subjective and personal.

A lot of my own photography I manipulate in Photoshop to clarify details and to make the images more like the way I remember them versus the way they came out in the original photo. And a lot of “straight” photographers now make their prints digitally, even if they don’t significantly change the image with Photoshop, if at all, because you just have more control over fine-tuning the image- like color balance, dodging/burning etc that might be extremely difficult to do in the darkroom, and the final print is indistinguishable from one made from a negative.

12/13/2005 02:57:00 PM  
Blogger Hungry Hyaena said...

As far as I'm concerned, the veracity of the moment depicted - the requirement that a photograph be devoid of post-production effects or changes - should only matter in journalistic realms.

Burtynsky and Gursky both depict reality, but Burtynsky champions the importance of his work being, in fact, factual. His photographs are carefully composed and orchestrated, perhaps, but unedited, a detail of "the real world." That Gursky can not, and does not, claim the same is irrelevant, so long as his work communicates his intent, even if, as it is in his case, this intent is inextricably tied to the real.

I'm a big fan of Burtynsky - less so of Gursky - but that preference is subjective and not at all related to their process.

12/13/2005 03:08:00 PM  
Anonymous George said...

Whoa, we're in the "alternative media" era, right? The only thing that matters is the image. If it's a good image, a good 'picture' then I don't care how it was made, how long it took to make it or how well crafted it is. A 'good' image, as a successful work of art transcends itself.

Crionna brings up another issue which is interesting primarily if an image posits having a documentary status. The question of manipulation, either digitally or in the darkroom takes on a different status. If the 'light' in an image is enhanced for emphasis, clarity or just poetics, and none of the image elements have been otherwise changed does this degrade it's documentary status? Is this like the is it propaganda or art question? Somewhere one might want to draw a line but such a position seems like it would need to be aligned with the artists intent.

Gursky and Burtynsky, well big is better? Seriously, macho manipulation and macho pre-production, Shirley these aren’t girlie men. FWIW, I've appreciated examples of both their photos without ever knowing anything about how they were made, that was enough.

12/13/2005 03:09:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Gursky and Burtynsky, well big is better?

That brings up an interesting point Tyler made in his lecture: that as much as he doesn't like the digital manipulation the big Germans use, Edward appreciates that they really opened up the market for large scale photographs.

12/13/2005 04:24:00 PM  
Anonymous George said...

The curious aspect of this question is that originally photography wasn't considered 'art' because it was too mechanical, not reflecting the artists hand enough. Now it isn't art because the artist intervenes by manually manipulating the image?

12/13/2005 04:38:00 PM  
Anonymous Pelle said...

I think what's made photography so popular in the art world lately is that sophisticated people can now look at subject matter they might avoid like the plague in a painting (landscapes, National Geographic-style stuff like Burtynsky, still lifes, beach umbrellas like Gursky—the whole gamut of deeply non-avant-garde subject matter that photographers eat up). I personally hate fussiness and purism and I wish more people agreed with jj (Gursky's major, Burtynsky's minor. The fact that he had to imitate Gursky in Ed's example should be a clue.) Gursky's breakthrough is not the size of his prints or that he maniuplates them. It's that he reveals photography's built-in ability to take in infinite-seeming detail, and at the same time and paradoxically, because of the scale of his prints, allows us to delight in the miniature--the tiny little figures receding into the distance. The manipulation question--a holdover from photography's insular purist past of Weston, Adams, etc.--is beside the point. I think maniuplation is much more interesting. Documentary photography, despite it's popularity, and its cousin, the posed documentary-looking photograph, are the prevalent mode and seems to be at a dead end of repetition, conservatism, and boredom (at least mine). Yes, people love the fact that, in photography's new popularity, they can love pictures of trees and fields and decorative pitchers and pretty nudes and still be sophisticated. But there's a limit to how many vapid, minor pictures should be made!

12/13/2005 04:59:00 PM  
Anonymous George said...

I didn't mean to actually imply "not art" above. Thomas Ruff has made 'photographs' which address certain issues of image digitization that I find interesting. I find Burtynsky's work interesting but in spite of the 'in camera' stance I often feel setup by some of his photos, like they were staged or manipulated before the fact. Maybe this boils down to Ed's main issue of veracity, the truth. Where does the truth lie?

12/13/2005 05:00:00 PM  
Blogger Ron Diorio said...

My old Nikon FM collects dust on my dresser becuase the digital darkroom transformed what I had come to know as photography. It moved me from picture taking to image making. Now the only real "photographic" moment is the end stage of the manufacturing process when a Digital C-print is pulled. For me it has been important to have the "photographic" in the making of the object while disregarding the "photographic" in the image making process.

When I first posted on Fotolog in June 2003, I called my page "A photographic imagination". I had just read Sontag's On Photography and I wanted to put a marker down that these images should not be viewed as documents - they were manipulated and as such the images were not representative but representational.

I was also beginning to undestand how pixel based dispaly was a great democratizer - all these screen images were made of the same substance. A Picasso painting, a DaVinci drawing, a deep space image form the Hubble Telescope or an Ansel Adams photograph were certainly different objects in the real world but on the screen they were just a collection of pixels. The playing field was leveled, the image content would be judged on it's own aesthetic and against every other image that could be displayed. The eye would decide.

I am not an equipment geek. If the device captures images without a flash, has a memory card I can read and a charged battery I'd probably use it. I don't need a perfect capture, I want to make a capture perfect.

Is it art? I don't spend too much time worrying about that, people engage with it, pay money to take it home and live with it. Is it photography? Seems as good as anything else available to call it.

12/13/2005 05:43:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry, but Burtynsky not digitally manipulating works is FALSE. Tyler Green is simply wrong wrong wrong about this.

Shipbreaking #49, shot & printed in 2001, is a digital combination of 2 negatives. This is not common knowledge and was not publicized by those who sell Burtynsky's work. Burtynsky himself was quite proud of the digital combination & spoke about it often.

Lots, I daresay most, of the new China work by Burtynsky is digitally enhanced and/or manipulated prior to being digitally printed. Some are blatantly over-digitized (see Bao Steel #8, 2005).

12/13/2005 05:49:00 PM  
Blogger trond said...

To me, digital (manipulated) photo is just one more media that can be used for artistic expression. In itself I don't find it to hold neither more nor less value than other mediums such as analog photo. But in general I believe that when working with a medium it is often more interesting to work with artistic expressions that at the same time also ask what the specific potential and aesthetics of this medium is. If digital image processing is used to make a photo more "perfect" that's fine, but if it is used also to create a kind of artwork that goes beyond the analog photo, exporing the particular possibilities of digital image, I often find that more interesting. In one way I suppose that this boils down to a "the right tool for the job at hand" attitude.

12/13/2005 05:55:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Sorry, but Burtynsky not digitally manipulating works is FALSE.

Do tell.

I rarely ask anyone commenting anonymously to out themselves, but with a claim as strong as that one would you mind giving some hint as to how you know?

12/13/2005 06:09:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I shall e-mail you my credentials privately & let you be the judge.

12/13/2005 06:25:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

fair enough...thanks
e

12/13/2005 06:29:00 PM  
Anonymous crionna said...

I guess for me, as a lover of large format nature photography, it comes down to a question like: "Would you enjoy Adams' Moonrise as much if he had added the luminesence to the crosses using Photoshop?" but that then begs the question: "What if Adams actually saw the scene as it was pictured but didn't manage to get the shot, would it then be ok for him to digitally create the image?".

Truly, photography, for me at least, has a different set of rules than the other fine arts, rules bound to its use as a journalistic tool. Perhaps it is solely that where once there were limitations to what one could do with a negative to create an image, now there is little (or nothing) stopping the photographer from creating an image from his/her mind's eye in the same way that the medium is the only restriction on the other fine arts. Perhaps that makes it finally, as George alludes, equal.

12/13/2005 07:56:00 PM  
Anonymous George said...

"now there is little (or nothing) stopping the photographer from creating an image from his/her mind's eye in the same way that the medium is the only restriction on the other fine arts"

That's an interesting thought, kind of like painting again, a big loop.

This may all be a moot point in the not so distant future when the digital camera sensors are finally big enough to rival film. Film will eventually be like lithography, it will still exist but only for artistic or specialized uses. With everything digital, the manipulated-unmanipulated line will be harder to discern.

Pelle brought up some interesting points about subject matter and details. I think the details issue is interesting. A camera will capture all the details down to its resolution limits and viewers seem enthralled by the details. What's curious is that frequently all those little details don't tell you anything important, they just set the scene in some believable way. For example, we're all looking at the flanks of pink hooded Chinese picking out chicken guts and we get the idea in the sense we can mentally reconstruct the image. But, at least here, we are all just looking at a 450 pixel wide jpeg so what's really necessary and what's just drama?

12/13/2005 08:53:00 PM  
Anonymous Todd W. said...

I will second the comment by Anonymous. In his gallery talk at BMA this Fall, Burtynsky mentioned in passing that his negatives are digitally scanned and the prints are digital. While the extent of digital rework can be debated (only EB himself can completely clarify it), there is no doubt that Burtynsky's darkroom is a digital one. I'd be interested to hear why Tyler thinks differently. (I have similar questions about Gursky, just to how extensive he manipulates his images.)

Personally I am turned off by the extremes of digital work, the Loretta Luxes, Beate Gutschows and Anthony Goicoleas. Their work is bordering on painting or illustration or collage, not photography.

I think the fulcrum of balance is where the final image is connected to something tangible and real and how much is a figment of the artists imagination. In most cases, this is a clear line. But more and more photographer-artists are playing with the area that's muddy. It just doesn't interest me.

Plus, as others have pointed out, this is not a new problem. The debate over darkroom manipulation is as old as negative-based photography (and hinted at in some daguerreotypes, as well.)

12/13/2005 08:53:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I will second the comment by Anonymous.

I can now vouch for Anonymous' credentials, so Tyler, if you're reading...did I misunderstand you? Curious minds are now confused.

e

Personally I am turned off by the extremes of digital work, the Loretta Luxes, Beate Gutschows and Anthony Goicoleas. Their work is bordering on painting or illustration or collage, not photography.

If forced to guess, I would venture you're more in the purist than non-purist camp, no Todd? Being a big fan of Anthony's work, I feel compelled to jump in here a bit. His is a good example of where so long as the medium is clearly stated, I'm not partial to whether it's digital or nondigital work...the resulting images are amazing.

I tend to start using the word "work" instead of "photography" almost reflexively when art gets that complicated though. To me, drawing a fine line between Anthony's work and "photography" is similar to arguing Rauschenberg shouldn't have been awarded the Grand Prize for Painting at the 1964 Venice Biennale. Sure he was "painting," but....

Efficiency eventually demands you choose a traditional category and ignore how the work pushes it's traditional boundaries, no? Otherwise you miss out on certain opportunities.

12/13/2005 09:12:00 PM  
Anonymous Todd W. said...

I would venture you're more in the purist than non-purist camp

Yeah, that's where I lean, but not because of any preference for purity of medium. As my thinking about photography grows, I am slowly working out a personal philosphy about the medium. A core value is the intrinsic nature of a photographic process that includes a reflection of something real and actual in the world. Those applications of the camera that head into the territory where the rest of the visual arts have camped out - art about art or the idea of art - are in danger of losing relevancy, approachability or understandability. When held true to its nature, photography is by definition an outward looking medium - which is its great strength.

Gursky's major, Burtynsky's minor.

I think over time the reverse will be recognized. While there are formal similarities, Burtynsky's "China" work will ultimately be the definitive record of the great awakening of that country - a combination of style and subject that makes Gursky's work appear banal.

12/13/2005 11:15:00 PM  
Blogger Dan said...

> Even photographers I know who 5 years ago were still committed to "pure photography" however, have very recently begun to sing a slightly different tune, often arguing that when there's no preceptible difference in the final print, and there's a humungeous difference in control and efficiency, the new technology begins to erase any concerns about purity.

I think the technological shift over those 5 years is absolutely key in this change. Though plenty of photogaphers still eschew digital sensors for film (with good reason), I have little doubt that today the great bulk of color photography (and large-scale photography of all types) is output digitally, no matter the original source of the images (digital or analog). This requires, in course, a certain amount of digital manipulation (though maybe as little as basic color correction) of even the most "pure" work. Whatever else this shift might do to the medium, it certainly leaves at least a little bit less room for an easily rationalizable idea of "purity" based soley on the prescriptive limitations of technology.

As someone writes above, pixels are a great leveler.

12/14/2005 12:23:00 AM  
Blogger Joseph Barbaccia said...

The word “purist” smacks of dogma. All photography is reproduction and cannot be “pure” Does categorization of an artwork change its validity? The means are too mixed to be so judgmental. But I believe when you offer a piece for sale you are bound to be honest about methods and materials.

12/14/2005 09:35:00 AM  
Anonymous George said...

jb said 'All photography is reproduction and cannot be “pure” '

I disagree... a photograph is a photograph

:"ceci n'est pas une pipe"

12/14/2005 10:06:00 AM  
Anonymous james leonard said...

While there are formal similarities, Burtynsky's "China" work will ultimately be the definitive record of the great awakening of that country - a combination of style and subject that makes Gursky's work appear banal.

Todd, I felt the same thing when looking at this show a few months ago. And seeing it in Chelsea where the American rich overlap with the American poor drove home one very clear thought: "China is about to seriously kick our economic butts!"

I think for Burtynsky's work to evoke this realworld urgency, it needs to bleed into that realm of journalistic photography. And as HH astutely pointed out several posts ago, for most viewers, digital manipulation compromises credibility in that realm. I think this is likely why those that promote Burtynsky's work maintain the notion that he does not digitally manipulate his images. This is meant to be photography as record.

To the larger general question Ed has asked:

what's your stand on purity in medium?

I think I approach this question differently than artists who stick to only a few media: such as a painter who only paints, etc.

For me, choice of media is as important to a work as color or form. I have a very haptic and kinaesthetic mind. Knowledge and memory feed into my sensual experiences of work in very immediate, meaningful, and perceptual manners.

When I first created this work, many studio mates wondered why I insisted that this element be sculpted out of Ivory soap. It is tremendously fragile and can be difficult to maintain. Repeatedly they pestered me, "Why can't you just cast it out of acrylic or some other resin that looks like soap?"

But for me, that would push it into the realm of illustration rather than articulation. How my brain works, material integrity is essential to conceptual clarity.

This is not entirely the same as a puritanical approach to how traditions should or shouldn't govern the use of a medium. But at the same time, I was fully aware of the traditions of soap carving as a "low medium" and commonly used by both the poor and prison inmates. These historical traits are not the crux of that piece, but they are not entirely absent either.

Oh yeah, and that Ivory soap? It's 99 44/100% pure.

12/14/2005 10:26:00 AM  
Anonymous james leonard said...

A camera will capture all the details down to its resolution limits and viewers seem enthralled by the details. What's curious is that frequently all those little details don't tell you anything important, they just set the scene in some believable way. For example, we're all looking at the flanks of pink hooded Chinese picking out chicken guts and we get the idea in the sense we can mentally reconstruct the image. But, at least here, we are all just looking at a 450 pixel wide jpeg so what's really necessary and what's just drama?

This one is for george (and anyone else interested). To push this question of detail and the role of digital, check out this gallery of images. Click on those tiny jpegs to get a sample of the true resolution of the original image file taken by the gigapxl camera--a large format digital camera.

12/14/2005 10:34:00 AM  
Blogger Joseph Barbaccia said...

George, does that include the paper backing to the image? Or glass backing? Or metal backing?

99 44/100% pure. Ha! Thanks James, that's good. An oximoron if I've ever read one. Those advertising execs sure had fun with us didn't they.

12/14/2005 10:53:00 AM  
Anonymous George said...

JL, Certainly it's fascinating to look at such detail but I don't think that it makes it better art.

I am not unfamiliar with such high resolution images, I worked with company developing the first wide format digital imaging software during its nascent period in the early nineties. A number of images we used were 500-700mb scans from sheet film and would easily bring the most advanced computer technology to its limits. So I've actually looked at a lot of very large pictures (these were 4 color error diffusion images not continuous tone photographs) So my opinion remains the same, if there is a reason for the detail then fine otherwise it's pixel pornography designed to hook the viewer with technique.

12/14/2005 10:56:00 AM  
Anonymous George said...

A tad off topic but speaking of big digital pictures...
I'm almost positive the documentation photographs of the “The Hunt of the Unicorn” tapesties at the Cloisters set the record.
Nice article here in New Yorker

The image data would fill 200 CD's (600 mb/cd) and required a phenomenal feat of mathematics to stich them all together

12/14/2005 11:14:00 AM  
Anonymous james leonard said...

pixel pornography

Haha! I like that term.

So my opinion remains the same, if there is a reason for the detail then fine

I agree with you here. When I look at that gallery, I see potential in this medium for novel means of conveying narrative. This potential is not exploited by any of the images there, but it's only a matter of time before someone latches onto it.

On the other hand, since the experience of such intense resolution of detail remains novel, I can't help but fall into a diffuse form of vouyeristic roleplay. I feel like a spy. Can that in itself be enough to provide the "reason" that justifies the level of detail?

(I realize that work founded on this would have a limited shelf life. Once the experience became common, the work would likely fall off. Witness the majority of early video work that came out of the Center for Experimental Television in the late 1970's and early '80's. But that isn't that always the risk of blending art and "new" technology?)

12/14/2005 11:14:00 AM  
Anonymous George said...

JL, It's spy stuff. Spy sattelites, U2 cameras all do this sort of thing and now of course Google and others. Photoshop was initially a piece of software written for the government.

If the subject of interest is the 3rd guy in the 49th row of section C with the valentino suit, why not just photograph him?

12/14/2005 11:20:00 AM  
Anonymous james leonard said...

JL, It's spy stuff. Spy sattelites, U2 cameras all do this sort of thing and now of course Google and others. Photoshop was initially a piece of software written for the government.

I never knew that about Photoshop. Very interesting.

To steer this back towards the subject of purity:

Sure it's spy stuff. But can't that be said of so much art? "This is ___fill in the blank___ stuff." Whether that blank be "sociological," "political," "science," "kid," etc etc. Personally, I'm not bothered by the "stuff" of other realms polluting the artwork I see.

One of my favorite photography shows from the past six months was Joel Sternfeld's Sweet Earth: Experimental Utopias in America. Ironically, the photos didn't do much for me. It was the ethnographic (or quasi-ethnographic) text blocks describing different utopic experiments that really intrigued and inspired me.

The photography seemed to be an excuse to get to the text. I'm not sure about exactly where this type of muddiness of aesthetic function fits into a discussion of the purity of media, but it does seem somewhat relevant?

12/14/2005 11:46:00 AM  
Anonymous George said...

JL, back to purity.
None of it matters, digital or analog, manipulated or not.
The 'art' part isn't about the medium, technology or theory.
As ed would say it's about the 'truth' (well that's what I think he said...)

This is what I meant when I said a photograph is a photograph, it is what it is, not something else. It may carry an image but the photograph is the image not what is depicted. As such, it comments on the subject in an extended sense and to the degree we are persuaded or moved by the comment we make our judgement.

12/14/2005 12:05:00 PM  
Anonymous JM Colberg said...

I think there is actually more than one question here, and it really depends which question you want to answer. As far as I can tell, (some of) the questions are: Is photography an art form like any other art form? (if yes, I'm afraid, there almost is no controversy left, is there?) If no, what do you want to accept as "genuine" or "pure" photography and what do you reject?

I think if one doesn't treat photography - especially the kind you can find at places like MOMA or other prestigious galleries - as an art form, you run into trouble, namely the kind of trouble we have here. But then, lots of people somehow consider photography to be different, ironically enough while still trying to make sure photograpy is being accepted as a serious art form.

I also think that the idea that there is some sort of "purity" in photography is an illusion. It's one of those ideas that will allow you to place random restrictions on the medium, which, in the end, are quite useless. For example, before the advent of the digital age, photographers spent endless hours in the darkroom fixing their prints to make them look like what they wanted to achieve. Is those kosher? After all, that way, the relationship between print and negative isn't all that linear any longer. And what about the choice of paper? And what about those people who used *two* or more negatives for one photo - like in the famous case of the drive-in movie theater with the train going thru, where the photographer had two negatives (so you could see both the train and the movie)? How is that different from a digital manipulation?

I'm afraid the randomness of the picture doesn't really exist at all, if you think this all to its logical end. After all, your choice of film doesn't make it that random any longer. And then the lab corrects the colours a bit or makes sure the exposure is right etc. etc.

Now, you could try to draw some sort of boundary here, for example, by allowing darkroom manipulations but not digital manipulations, but what would that get you? What would you gain?

And what is the actual difference between a Gursky photo and a Burtynsky photo? It's interesting that some people will judge the photos solely based on that they think they know about the technology used (Gursky = digital = bad etc.). What kind of judging is that? Do we need photographic dogmas?

But then, unfortunately, there are all those people who take this argument to go for the insane, namely by claiming that, sure, digital photography is the same as analog photography, so let's now try to get as many pixels as possible. Needless to say, you don't gain anything by doing that. If you look at those Gigapixel images, they're interesting from the point of view of the technology and painfully non-interesting from the point of view of photography - something you can't say about either Gursky or Burtynsky.

In my opinion, the real (and only) question really is what you want a photo to show. The question of how you do it then is completely irrelevant. If you impose restrictions - and there are lots of other folks out there who impose restrictions (for example the "toy camera" crowd) - you are sure to limit your own exposure to what photography as an art form can achieve.

12/14/2005 12:11:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

In my opinion, the real (and only) question really is what you want a photo to show. The question of how you do it then is completely irrelevant.

I want to take that stand as well. But there are parallels in painting, which I'm more familiar with, that make me stop short of drawing a line. Is a painting for which the artist projected a photograph onto the canvas the same as one where the artist painted from a three dimensional model, for example.

It begins to get a bit OCD perhaps, but I can see where folks draw distinctions here.

12/14/2005 12:36:00 PM  
Anonymous james leonard said...

A tad off topic but speaking of big digital pictures...
I'm almost positive the documentation photographs of the “The Hunt of the Unicorn” tapesties at the Cloisters set the record.
Nice article here in New Yorker


George, I missed this post earlier.

As an aside (and not to yet again derail this topic), I've been looking at these tapestries while conducting visual research for a current project. It was nice to read this article. Thanks for linking it!

12/14/2005 12:50:00 PM  
Anonymous George said...

"Is a painting for which the artist projected a photograph onto the canvas the same as one where the artist painted from a three dimensional model, for example."

No.

12/14/2005 01:06:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

ok, but why?

12/14/2005 01:11:00 PM  
Anonymous bambino said...

I love it, love it, love it

12/14/2005 01:12:00 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

What a frustrating discussion this is! Round and around about not very much. Photo attracts tool nerds, nerds sense they are considered odd so they grow prickly armor which eventually is mistaken for a philosophy, from inside and out.

When we look at the work it is important not to let these personality issues influence our experience. We owe these hard working, if a bit confused, artists that much. (I am trying to be funny here)

My experience of the huge high-resolution images is that they are almost halucinatory in their level of detail. Viewing them can provoke a dream-like state of mind for me. That goes way beyond intention or calculation into the realm of new experience, my prefered destination.

The new academy has produced an artist that relies on top down decision making, characterized by highly specific, and frequently arbitrary, justifications for every element in the work. I call this 'teacher's pet' work or 'straight A student' work. It reflects a lack of faith in art as a primary experience, reducing art to a supporting roll for absent, text-based, arguments which a viewer is supposed to have previous, informed, knowledge of. The purpose of all this anxious calculation is to reduce risk of failure, but it just about guarantees it, instead. Such is the nature of anxiety.

When I step in front of one of these big high-res photos (provided it is not of the space-shuttle or the like) all that nattering dialogue disappears from my head and looking becomes my happy job for a moment.

I don't even know what 'purity' means, like someone pointed out, it is a marketing term. Designed to confuse and worry

12/14/2005 01:34:00 PM  
Anonymous JM Colberg said...

Edward, you wrote: "Is a painting for which the artist projected a photograph onto the canvas the same as one where the artist painted from a three dimensional model, for example."

This kind of question reminds me of the kinds of problems that Ludwig Wittgenstein used to give as examples for how we misconceive language and its use for what it really is. Don't get me wrong, I don't want to do philosophy here, but still: When you see a painting do you see the painting (that is the oils/acrylics on the canvas) along with the intentions and along with the circumstances under which it was painted? I mean, you could expand the question you're posing, and you could ask "Is a painting that somebody paints while sitting different from one that somebody paints while standing?" If yes, what is the difference - especially if it doesn't show in the painting itself? Can you actually point at the intention, the same way that you could point at a blotch of paint on the canvas? If not, what would that tell you about the intentions? Do they come with the painting?

I once saw a documentary about Francis Bacon where they showed one of his works, with the usual grotesquely distorted faces and all, and Francis Bacon said something like "For this painting, I wanted to paint a bird flying down into a green grassy meadow." I thought that was hilarious. Now, if you assume that what Bacon said was really his intention (which might or might not be true) then what do you make out of that? Where is that intention in painting? There was no green and no bird in the painting.

Same for photography, digital and analog.

12/14/2005 01:37:00 PM  
Anonymous George said...

Photography released painting from one of it's original roles as documentation. Also, for the purpose of discussion I want to ignore various technical skills because in my opinion they can all be learned by practice.

If we look at the question in stages, let's suppose the painter can precisely duplicate the photograph (a la Estes more or less) what is gained? Primarily, it's status as unique and hand made, does this contribute to the aesthetic?

Suppose we back up a bit from 'precisely' and allow the artists hand to enter the equation (a la M.Morley's later work), now we are at a different point where the 'photograph' is source material which has a different set of connotations all together.

At the other end, painting from life. In this case a question of temporality must be addressed, the model moves, the light changes or the artist moves. These factors change the way a painter will see the subject and affect the outcome of the painting.

Just to make things interesting, if we accept photography (or equivalent captured images) as source material for a painting we are introducing a number of new factors into the mix. A simple example is focus. The eye is an amazing gift, it is capable of 'seeing' everything 'in focus'. Of course this is not true but the eye-brain combination makes the appropriate adjustments so rapidly that we believe everything is 'in focus' Cameras don't always do this, depending on the settings the focal range can be selected.

So, then I would want to examine the intent of the artist in the first place, his/her reasons for using a 'photograph' or a 'model' in the first place. Each choice has it's own baggage and limitations as well as its strengths and the artist chooses what seems appropriate.

A painting isn't a photograph and you have to make it be a painting

12/14/2005 01:51:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

uh oh...that clanging sound you heard was the golden gaunlet bouncing around the floor...

nice rant, JM!

But let's take intention out of the equation. And for the sake of world peace among photography lovers, let's switch medium for a moment.

Let's say two painters want to do a portrait, what their intentions are, we'll try, as best we can, to ignore. One takes a few dozen photographs of the subject and sends them on their way. After they're gone, the painter choses the best photograph, and projects it onto a canvas and begins to draw and/or paint. The other artist asks the subject to sit for a total of 30 hours in their studio.

Under these conditions, though, the latter painter is faced with an additional technical challenge: translating what's three dimensional into two dimensions. The former painter has had that done for him/her.

What effect does that have on the final product? Depends on the invidual artists obviously, but clearly the former was more technically challenging, no? Doesn't that add value to the final work? (ducking...)

12/14/2005 01:54:00 PM  
Anonymous JM Colberg said...

Still, does it matter? I just (partly) read a biography of Leonardo da Vinci, and if I remember correctly it said in there that he never painted from life models (boy, that was a boring book! I didn't even finish it). So what did that do to his paintings? I mean how does the technical bit enter into this? Can you *see* from the painting whether a life model was used? And if yes (which I doubt) how would you them rate paintings: Those painted from life models, those painted from clay models, those painting from photos, those painted from memory? Of maybe the other way around?

And if you do this kind of rating what would you tell a painter who can't paint from models (Francis Bacon apparently also "only" used photos - he actually had them made exclusively for his paintings): Sorry, Francis, but your painting isn't quite as nice as Lucians, since you didn't use a model? ;-)

12/14/2005 02:00:00 PM  
Anonymous George said...

Ed, "Doesn't that add value to the final work? (ducking...) "

It depends on the outcome of the painting.

Curiously, what you are asking is what I've been doing all morning as I am painting a self protrait for my mother for Christmas. I made a digital photograph, printed it in gray on my laser printer, gridded it off and scaled it up onto the canvas. Essentially this is just a quick way to get the image located on the canvas, once I start painting the lines are lost and its about looking (I reversed the photo so it would match the mirror) My point is that unless one is square inch painting, reproducing a photograph exactly piece by piece, the two methods have a point of convergence in observation. The painting has to be a painting and it may have an image. So if one works from a model, first you get everything located on the canvas, then you have company while you observe and paint in the details.

Obviously I don't think it matters. What does matter is the painting.

12/14/2005 02:08:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

come now George...you have to show us an image once it's done!

I don't think there's anything superior to any given method actually. I'm playing devil's advocate because I get asked these questions all the time by budding collectors and am jotting down notes as you all respond. ;-)

The final work is the thing.

Where you get into trouble is in labeling a piece. If you call something a "photograph" ten different people may have ten different assumptions about that work.

As noted in the original post, I think the only obligation a dealer has is to be as clear and upfront about the process and medium as possible. I shudder to think I should make excuses for process or technique...my mentor in the art world once advised me that the only response to someone who asks how I know something's high quality or not is to tell them: "Well look at it."

12/14/2005 02:17:00 PM  
Anonymous George said...

Ed, I assumed the devils...

One point I didn't mention. Reproduced images, photographs, magazine illustration, screen captures etc have their own tyrranyOne point I didn't mention. Reproduced images, photographs, magazine illustration, screen captures, etc. have their own tyranny for a painter. Their appearance generally has a strong correlation to the subject and as a painter you must own the image, posses it totally. In many cases this means steering away from the one to one correspondence of the photograph in order to make it effective as painting.

12/14/2005 02:29:00 PM  
Blogger Joseph Barbaccia said...

Edward,

I agree. My points exactly at 9:30 this morning.

12/14/2005 02:36:00 PM  
Anonymous Mark said...

I recently had a conversation with a dealer who works with Burtynsky who said that he is now doing his printing from digital files of scanned negatives. At that point he would have to be doing some image enhancement, even if on a relatively subtle level. What's the big deal? I think that whether in the darkroom or in front of a computer, a photographer manipulates results. You just have more options digitally. The print is the result. Period. In 10 years from now, the argument will have dissipated that much more and eventually a silver print, will be seen then as a platinum print is seen now. But content is all, really, in my book.

12/14/2005 03:05:00 PM  
Anonymous JM Colberg said...

So an art dealer should tell people something like "Digital print, on Fuji crystal archival quality film, made from a digital file which is the digital composite of two scans of two large-format photographs taken on site with a Linhoff Technika camera, using Kodak's E100G film"? Or something like "Oil painting, on canvas (actually painted on the back of the canvas), painted from a photo, made exclusively for the painting"?

Maybe I'd be a bad art dealer coz I'd tell people to look at the photo/painting and if they like it buy and that'd be it. What do people expect to buy? If they want a story they should consider Barnes & Noble. There, they sell stories.

12/14/2005 03:07:00 PM  
Anonymous james leonard said...

What do people expect to buy? If they want a story they should consider Barnes & Noble. There, they sell stories.

Now, now! That's not fair to people whose sensibilities work differently than yours. There are some folks who are inspired by the mythology of objects.

How an object came into being and where it has been are powerful many members of our species. Most world religions have built in means of accomodating (if not fully exploiting) this human bias. If not, 'splain to me why the "constructs" of talismans, relics, clairvoyence, mana, and mojo ever came into existence?

Even autographs, materialized versions of celebrity worship (Jackie O auctions, anyone?), and the gradeschool notions of "cooties" and "cootie spray" play on this all too common sentimental understanding of objects.

It is perfectly fine, IMHO, for a dealer (and even an artist) to sell or tell a story. Yes, the object reality of the work had better sing. But the larger object can still have an extended existence that includes its mythology and history!

12/14/2005 03:30:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

So an art dealer should tell people something like "Digital print, on Fuji crystal archival quality film, made from a digital file which is the digital composite of two scans of two large-format photographs taken on site with a Linhoff Technika camera, using Kodak's E100G film"?

Only if the collector suffers from insomnia.

I manage to work it in. Selling art is 80% narrative. You're telling a story that's compelling. I always begin with the power of the visual element of the work and along they way make sure I include the important aspects of the process.

You'd be surprised how many people care about process, handmade vs. machine made especially.

12/14/2005 03:56:00 PM  
Anonymous Stan Banos said...

Photography was an art form unto itself with its own language and technology, and has always been subject to manipulation. But old school manipulation (eg- filters, burning in, etc), except for the most extensive retouching (eg- removal or addition of details) was always secondary to the image itself- a means of adding back what the limitations of film took away. True, many of today's computer manipulations mirror just that- no problem!
But the marriage of photography and computers incorporates a powerful technology that is an image making medium in and of itself! Except for those tools that mimic darkroom basics, computer enhanced photos are interesting art pieces, and are valuable as just that. They are photography based, photographically derived- but obviously not photographs in the truest sense. And what value they have as art I can't begin to address- perhaps as much as anyone would pay.
Do I personally value a digitally unretouched photo more? You bet- and it better be uncropped as well!

12/14/2005 04:01:00 PM  
Anonymous JM Colberg said...

Coincidentally, there was a "friends" episode about selling narravtives yesterday where one of the people pretended she bought new furniture at the flea market to make another person like it. Needless to say, she had to invent a narrative.

I'm just baffled by how people look for a narrative when buying art. Maybe they're not really buying art then. But then, as I said, I'm no art dealer, and I'll never be one (for very obvious reasons!). I'll just make sure to invent really some cool story if I ever get close to trying to sell my own photos. Alternatively, I could just say I'm German and print them really *huge*. That'd make the MOMA crowd happy. ;-)

PS: I still find it quite sad that the actual image is being squeezed out of the picture between those who treat techniques like a fetish (pixels pixels pixels) and those who want a story.

12/14/2005 04:12:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

come on JM...don't confuse selling with loving art. It's possible to do both with integrity.

It would put me out of a job if collectors entered a gallery and made a decision totally on their own...you could replace the gallery with a very large vending machine at that point. ;-)

I spend hours and hours and hours talking with and thinking about the work our artists make...I'm not "creating" a narrative, as much as regurgitating what's buzzing around my head.

The process is really designed to keep the collector engaged as they're standing there, contemplating the piece, until they decide whether they love it or not...not to convince them they should love it, which I don't think you can do anyway.

And, of course, some collectors will ask you to just shut up...and in those cases, you do.

12/14/2005 04:18:00 PM  
Anonymous james leonard said...

It would put me out of a job if collectors entered a gallery and made a decision totally on their own...you could replace the gallery with a very large vending machine at that point. ;-)

Ewwww... not the dreaded art-o-mats! Ugh! Keep your day job, Ed, please! I hate those things.

(okay no more procrastination breaks! back to work with me. done posting for the day. I swear it!)

12/14/2005 04:30:00 PM  
Anonymous Todd W. said...

Small quibble, but Photoshop was not initially developed for the government, but by hobbyist photographers in their spare time. Read the full story...

12/14/2005 06:16:00 PM  
Anonymous George said...

Todd, I was writing from memory (not so good it seems) and had totally forgotton about Barneyscan, sorry for any confusion on the topic.

12/14/2005 07:27:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

For a great artist no one perspective should satisfy. And all perspectives should only prove to confuse. Then, a great artist takes all perspectives and places them in one, and in that one all is revealed. The ravel reveals thus.

12/15/2005 09:04:00 AM  
Anonymous Pelle said...

Ed,

I wanted to add a late thought to the photo debate. I sympathize with you having to answer questions about digital manipulation. I think it’s a tedious, somewhat unsophisticated debate. But I think you sidestep it well, when you say that as long as you know if there is any trickery, you just judge the picture on its merits. But I thought I had a little more to add on the question of purity, which presumably is a question of truth, also. In the paragraph below, I imagined what I would say if I was advising someone on buying a Burtynsky or a Gursky.

Any photograph can lie. Just look for one that tells the truth. B’s may be documentarily pure, but they are slightly hypocritical in the way they glamorize (or grandeurize) what they are moralizing about, one of the foremost but subtle ways photography can lie. Burtynsky makes environmental degradation look great! I want to visit the California tire pile instead of the Grand Canyon! In the same way, think of how Walker Evans depression shacks could be reinterpreted into eight slick pages of clothing ads in Vogue by Bruce Weber (or whoever it was). Poverty is photogenic. For me, Gursky is a much more truthful artist, telling a more original story about the repetitive terrors of contemporary life, the reproducibility (and replaceability) of just about anything, and a yes, he conveys a kind of glamour, but a new kind, I think, in his cold gaze.

12/15/2005 12:02:00 PM  
Anonymous Tim Connor said...

Another late thought. It fascinates me that with all the talk of manipulation & truth no one has even raised the issue of the viewer’s perception. No one has argued e.g. that the 1960s photo we’ve seen so much of recently -- Rosa Parks on the bus with an “angry white man” behind her -- was altered in any way. Yet the “segregationist” in that photo was in fact a sympathetic UPI reporter. In that case public perception was reinforced by sloppy caption writing & the zeitgeist of that time, but the way we impose our stories on images reflects a human need not easily countered, no matter how much we train ourselves to be skeptical. Most photojournalism – with its ethos of getting close, choosing a personal POV – aims to influence our perceptions, but even the most scrupulously “objective” you-are-there documentation appeals to our biases. I think by choosing their large format, high rez method Gursky & Burtsynski have largely skipped this issue. They use awesome technology to appear detached and fully authoritative. Looking at their vast, incredibly detailed images is as close as any of us are going to get to the viewpoint of a god. We trust their POV because we are somehow convinced it is the only one possible. There is literally only one way to see this scene. I think Tim might have been referring to this feeling when he says above: “When I step in front of one of these big high-res photos (provided it is not of the space-shuttle or the like) all that nattering dialogue disappears from my head and looking becomes my happy job for a moment. “

In this sense Gursky & Burtsysnski are more alike than different & the issue of who digitally alters what seems irrelevant.

12/15/2005 02:01:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

excellent observation, Tim

I could study the photos of the torn down homes around the Three Gorges dam for years and never satisfy my desire to keep looking at them.

12/15/2005 02:37:00 PM  
Anonymous Pelle said...

Tim Connor's comment is interesting on captions, which can make any photograph into an instant lie, and I agree that these two phtographers seem authoritative. But to my eye, they are extremely subjective and are pushing an argument. Burtynsky's is a simple eco-message. Gursky's is a more elusive contemporary alienation. I do agree that digital vs. not is beside the point. But there's something interesting happening that I can't pin down: Burtynsky's work has an exact correspondence in the real world. You could go to China and stand where he stood and if the light was right, etc., you'd see something resembling his picture. Not so Gursky. Instead, he's commenting on reproduction itself, and perhaps, looking itself. But to say the digital debate is moot (and it sure seems so to me!) doesn't mean that there isn't something interesting happening when you manufacture something real-seeming. I just don't know what it is!

12/15/2005 02:46:00 PM  
Anonymous George said...

"Burtynsky's is a simple eco-message." Does anyone else have a problem with this statement? (not pelle's mention but the general idea attributed to him) Seems to me that whatever the 'eco message' is becomes swamped by the pretty picture aesthetic. Maybe it's just me being cynical.

12/15/2005 03:17:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I don't think E.B.'s making a political statement as much as he's simply recording with style. He is an artist, after all.

12/15/2005 03:49:00 PM  
Anonymous tima said...

""Burtynsky's is a simple eco-message." Does anyone else have a problem with this statement? (not pelle's mention but the general idea attributed to him) Seems to me that whatever the 'eco message' is becomes swamped by the pretty picture aesthetic. Maybe it's just me being cynical."

I get the feeling Burtynsky was a bit of a Johny Come lately to the eco message. It often feels more like he enjoyed making cool photos of these interesting places and (although there was still some of it early on) with the popularity the volume on the eco message has sort of been turned up almost as a justifaction - as though it isn't quite enough to just make really nice looking photos.

In many senses they really are very much Nat Geo pix made with a large camera - and as such they are really quite different from Gursky (or even Struth) - "straight" or not.

12/15/2005 03:55:00 PM  
Blogger paulraphael said...

It's easy to for this kind of question to become polarizing--traditionalists, who believe in the idea of purity on one side, later 20th Century types who dismiss the possibility of purity on the other.

I'd suggest that it's not quite as simple an issue. Sidestepping any attempt at a definition of art, I think we can more easily talk about a definition of the photogographic. Photography introduced a way of seeing that is in some ways distinct from other art media. Semiologists have refered to it as "indexical," meaning that the image is in some way created by that which it depicts. The indexical quality introduces an element of objectivity into photographic seeing--which is not the same thing as saying a photograph is objective. A photograph does, however, in its purest forms (I was hoping to avoid the P word ... really) have a relationship to the subject that is fundamentally different from what a painting has.

In "straight" photographs, all of the deviations from objectivity, whether contibuted by the process (the optics, the format, the spectral sensitivity of the materials, etc. etc.), or by the artist (cropping, adjusting exposure and contrast, selective lightening and darkening, etc. etc.) change the way the image looks, but do not alter the indexical nature of the image.

In the images that we tend to think of as manipulated, the indexical nature is typically altered. An element will be added, moved, or removed. A scene that fundamentally never existed in front of the camera will be depicted.

I'm not addressing any claims of heirarchy. But i am suggesting that claims like "all photography lies, so there's no such thing as purity" might be every bit as naiive as the belief that photography tells the truth.

As far as questions about when is manipulation ok and when isn't it, I'll pose another question: How does a photograph (of whatever type) establish trust? What kinds of things sustain that trust, and what kinds of things break it?

12/15/2005 03:58:00 PM  
Anonymous tima said...

There is an interesting (though not precise) parallel in this discussion with David Hockney's views and theories about many more well known artists and 'old master" through the ages using optical devices in their work than we thought.

Although many objections seem on the surface to be about 'where's the proof" - i.e. where are the accounts of such devices. Where are all the old optical viewers, where are the drawings and sketches of them, underlying many of those objections complaints (and also said outright) is a sense that if they really did use such devices it devalues the artists work. People don't seem to want to entertain the idea that great "pure" eye to hand art might have had a little mechanical/optical help along the way. Almost as if the artists were cheating.

There seems to be a similar sentiment underlying the initial questions in this post

12/15/2005 04:01:00 PM  
Anonymous George said...

PR… "How does a photograph (of whatever type) establish trust? What kinds of things sustain that trust, and what kinds of things break it?"

Highest trust? Polaroid's (analog+no labwork)

Absolute trust in photography is gone forever. If I see an unbelievable (but actual) image, my first instinct is that the picture was manipulated. So what is it with trust? I'll accept the willing suspension of disbelief.

I'm not sure why I would want to trust a photograph any more than a painting. One to one correspondence, ray tracing or indexical mapping, whatever you call it, just records a certain kind of information about the light and reproduces it somewhere else. The image is what it is about. I have a little software image viewer which automatically scales an image to fit the viewing window, regardless of the original size. I've notice that for certain types of images (faces for one) you can have very little information and still know what you are looking at. (example, comparing an 80x80 pixel thumbnail with a 400x400 pixel head with the smaller scaled to 400x400) In the process of 'seeing' a photograph the mapping process takes a strange journey through the brain which processes the image before 'seeing' it. The brain is survival trained genetically to preserve the species and 'sees' with a set of priorities. I'm not an expert, so I'll leave this there but we also see emotionally. I don't mean interpret, I mean actually see, or not see as the case may be, the eyewitness account in unreliable. While I understand what you are looking for as an answer, I'm not sure it's the right question.

12/15/2005 04:36:00 PM  
Blogger paulraphael said...

"Highest trust? Polaroid's (analog+no labwork)

Absolute trust in photography is gone forever. If I see an unbelievable (but actual) image, my first instinct is that the picture was manipulated. So what is it with trust? I'll accept the willing suspension of disbelief.

I'm not sure why I would want to trust a photograph any more than a painting."

Let's look at trust in a broader way. When you see a painting, there probably ARE some things you trust. You trust that it's a painting. You trust that someone made it by hand with brushes and oil paints and gesso and canvas. These fundamentals lead you to a whole other level of ideas you have about what's in front of you.

If, however it turns out that what you're looking at was created mechanically on a large format printer, from a manipulated photograph, with random brushstrokes applied by a new technology, a degree of trust has been broken. The piece--particularly its look and its context, set you up to believe that it is something that it is not.

The same phenomenon exists in photography. An image which, through its context and look, announces itself as a pictorialist work with hand coloring, or as a montage, a collage, or a composited digital image, sets up certain expectations. In these cases, you trust specifically that you are NOT looking at an indexical depiction of nature.

On the other hand, an image that announces itself as a "straight" image--for example, a Wetson-like picture of sand dunes, sets up expectations of an indexical, essentially unmanipulated image. If it turns out that the sand dunes were assembled from several negatives, and this isn't somehow implicit, many viewers will feel that a kind of trust has been broken.

Not the simpleminded trust that "this is what the world looks like," but the trust that they're looking at the kind of image they thought they were.

This trust is cultural ... in this case it’s rooted in the implications of the phtographic language, and our historical understandings of that language.

It's not about the possibility of altering reality, which is what art does all the time in various ways and for various reasons. It's about people feeling fooled, in ways that typically leed them to start asking questions that, it seems to me, aren't the ones the artist was trying to get at.

12/15/2005 05:20:00 PM  
Anonymous George said...

What you describe regarding a wide format print just deals with appearance. The question of 'trust' doesn't enter the picture.

With photography, everything made in the new millennium will always be subject to the "is it real, or is it Memorex" question. This does not mean that 'straight' photograph will not continue to exist, just that absolute trust in the one to one mapping of the image will always be subject to question. This is a Pandora's box issue, once the technology has changed and there is no going back.

Frankly, I don't think it matters at all. An image evokes a response in the viewer. If the viewer has a distrust of the image, then that is part of the response and adds to its complexity. If the artists goes to great lengths to 'prove' the image, then that becomes part of its content.

If you make a photo of a forest and I digitally remove a twig from a tree in the photograph and then we compare the photographs. Will one be less true? What is one second after the shutter click the twig fell off the tree of its own accord? Then the altered photograph would be 'right' You can see where I am going with this, the idea of 'trust' is fictitious

12/15/2005 05:47:00 PM  
Blogger Ron Diorio said...

They are making pictures not dogma and here we make dogma from their pictures.

Who would trust an artist these days anyway ....

Jeff Wall's recent lecture and presentation at the Tate is online. He goes through his career arc - inclduing how digital and manipulation and compsiting entered his work.

Worth a listen.

http://www.tate.org.uk/onlineevents/archive/jeff_wall/

12/15/2005 05:58:00 PM  
Blogger paulraphael said...

"You can see where I am going with this, the idea of 'trust' is fictitious"

I think you're going with it into a gray area of minutia; one that deliberately doesn't speak to the larger issues. The idea of trust isn't ficticious; it describes what viewers experience to one degree or another.

It's already been pointed out in this thread that ideas that lie outside the object itself can have an enormous influence on people's perception the object. We can judge people for that phenomenon, or we can simply acknowledge it.

But the issue often arises when something in an image betrays a means of making that is different from what the larger qualities implied. At the very least this will result in a surprise. Whether this is a good thing or not; whether or not this form of richness actually enriches the piece, will depend on how the piece is working otherwise. It may indeed add another layer of meaning. Or it may add a needless distraction, confusion, or opportunity for doubt.

12/15/2005 08:22:00 PM  
Anonymous Tim Connor said...

Re: “Burtynsky's is a simple eco-message." I’m a photo editor, as it happens, for an environmental advocacy organization. A few years ago, in the course of my search for pictures to accompany a newsletter piece about strip mining, I came upon Burtsynsky’s industrial mining series. I was blown away by the sheer power of his images (this was at web-sized resolutions) & called up to see if I could use one. The woman who answered the phone said no, in fact seemed affronted that I had even considered it (I was BTW proposing to pay our usual very modest rate). I gathered that those repping Burtsynsky’s work believed publication in a magazine for environmental activists would diminish its reputation (& value) in the art market. I know very little about the art market, so I can’t speak to that. But I found the snappish tone of their refusal odd. Could they really represent the views of the man who had made these works of art? Because, after all, we’re talking about unflinching records of the complete eradication of huge swathes of living, breathing ecosystems. This was not abstraction & it was not Mars. It was what remained of landscapes that had been killed & then poisoned so they would stay dead for years. It had been done for money. No other reason. What did Burtsynsky think about what he had been photographing? I should add that, although I was trained as a photojournalist , I don’t believe a photographer has an obligation to use his or her work for social or political purposes. I think it’s a choice. No one was under any kind of ethical obligation to sell to me. Still, having chosen this subject, didn’t he feel a responsibility to the experience he had had while photographing these landscapes? Or did he feel nothing but artistic interest in them? Would that be possible?

I want to be careful here. I don’t mean to attack anyone. To tell you the truth I have no idea who I called (whoever picked up the phone at the contact number for Burtsynski’s website 3 or 4 years ago) or what exactly we said. I do know the images were not available for licensing. And I always wondered what Burtsynsky’s attitude would have been if he had picked up the phone himself.

12/15/2005 09:34:00 PM  
Blogger paulraphael said...

Have you thought about contacting Burtynsky directly? It would be interesting to know.

12/15/2005 11:39:00 PM  
Anonymous tima said...

They are certainly available for editorial use (see this months Harpers), but I wouldn't be surprised if that is tightly controlled to fit his agenda (and ho hum - happens to coincide with the public launch of his new book and that aspect of his projects). My impression is that Burtynsky has a well oiled publicity machine - the last month or so, you haven't been able to move without tripping over him in this magazine, that newspaper or on the other TV show...

BTW tim, your comments above illustrate very much my own reaction to Burtynsky's work (as show just opened here). While I am attracted to the images, there is an uncomfortable ambiguity - not really in the content of the work, but in the intention. It seems (as a friend and well known photographer described it) to be neither fish nor fowl - is it activism? is it didactic? is it art? is it industrial photography? is it photojournalism? is it national geo reportage with a big camera...?

12/16/2005 12:29:00 AM  
Anonymous jen said...

Late post but this intrigued me...

Let's say two painters want to do a portrait, what their intentions are, we'll try, as best we can, to ignore. One takes a few dozen photographs of the subject and sends them on their way. After they're gone, the painter choses the best photograph, and projects it onto a canvas and begins to draw and/or paint. The other artist asks the subject to sit for a total of 30 hours in their studio.
Under these conditions, though, the latter painter is faced with an additional technical challenge: translating what's three dimensional into two dimensions. The former painter has had that done for him/her.
What effect does that have on the final product? Depends on the invidual artists obviously, but clearly the former was more technically challenging, no? Doesn't that add value to the final work? (ducking...)

I am a painter with purist leanings...something about the expression going from the head, through the hand and onto the surface is more compelling and honest to me. However,
if the process enhances the content (and the artist executes it flawlessly) then the technical challenge is to make a great piece of art.
Are we gearing up to talk more about Chris Dorland's work?

12/16/2005 01:10:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

However,
if the process enhances the content (and the artist executes it flawlessly) then the technical challenge is to make a great piece of art.


When all else has been said and done, you must judge the final piece...intention, process, etc. etc. serve that end. Getting to that final piece in various ways may have special rewards for the art maker, but eventually the piece must stand on its own and then it better have the goods.

Are we gearing up to talk more about Chris Dorland's work?

Not in this context, but be sure you'll hear more about all our artists here.

12/16/2005 07:40:00 AM  
Blogger Ashes77 said...

Purity still sounds like a bugaboo. With respect to so many fine thoughts, i am not buying any of it.

12/19/2005 02:36:00 PM  
Anonymous Juryduty said...

"What effect does that have on the final product? Depends on the invidual artists obviously, but clearly the former was more technically challenging, no? Doesn't that add value to the final work?"

It doesn't add/detract value one way or the other. It's just a different starting point and a different set of parameters for the exploration.

The painting will necessarily be "about" (ducking) a different set of issues and will end up as a different painting.

"Value" is neither fixed nor abstractly located - it's a function of how interesting the exploration is.

Likewise with the oils vs. acrylic thing. Simplistically, one could say that oils "means" traditional language or that acrylic "means" plastic, or whatever set of associations you'd like to assign.

Different materials just mean different paintings.

12/20/2005 02:37:00 AM  

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