Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Photography Vs. "Photography"

There's a British artist I worked with many years ago who had one of the most delightful ways of viewing objects that I've ever witnessed. Her work generally falls into the category of what I'd call "reconsidered readymades," and she has this wonderful ability to see any object's potential to transcend its ordinariness and present it in such a way as to reveal something else to us about its form. Walking down the street in Williamsburg with her once, she spotted a very simple object lying on the sidewalk. Almost absent-mindedly she picked it up, began turning it this way and that way, and within seconds had presented it in several different unimaginably charming ways in quick succession, and then stuffed it in her bag to take back to her studio and think about it some more, and resumed our conversation. I was enthralled and wished that I could see the world through her eyes...through her mind.

It's that ability, to see the world around you in ways that surprises others that I think Paul Graham was trying to get at in his presentation at MoMA's Photography Forum, 16th February 2010. It's an essay that's apparently stirring up lots of commentary in the photography quarters of the contemporary art world. His essay's thesis is how
[T]here remains a sizeable part of the art world that simply does not get photography. They get artists who use photography to illustrate their ideas, installations, performances and concepts, who deploy the medium as one of a range of artistic strategies to complete their work. But photography for and of itself -photographs taken from the world as it is– are misunderstood as a collection of random observations and lucky moments, or muddled up with photojournalism, or tarred with a semi-derogatory ‘documentary’ tag.
I'm not at all sure the division between photographs taken from the world as it is and photography used as a medium toward other ends (often to record images created for just that purpose) is as important to me as it seems to be to many of the photography-only enthusiasts I know. (In fact, I'm hardly aware of of the division at all until someone brings it up...I'm a pretty medium-neutral sort of guy.) But I know that it's something that feels liked forced segregation to many folks. Paul gets to the heart of why this might be in his piece:
The broader art world has no problems with the work of Jeff Wall, or Cindy Sherman or James Casebere or Thomas Demand partly because the creative process in the work is clear and plain to see, and it can be easily articulated and understood what the artist did: Thomas Demand constructs his elaborate sculptural creations over many weeks before photographing them; Cindy Sherman develops, acts and performs in her self-portraits. In each case the handiwork of the artist is readily apparent: something was synthesized, staged, constructed or performed. The dealer can explain this to the client, the curator to the public, the art writer to their readers, etc. The problem is that whilst you can discuss what Jeff Wall did in an elaborately staged street tableaux, how do you explain what Garry Winogrand did on a real New York street when he ‘just’ took the picture? Or for that matter what Stephen Shore created with his deadpan image of a crossroads in El Paso? Anyone with an ounce of sensitivity knows they did something there, and something utterly remarkable at that, but... what? How do we articulate this uniquely photographic creative act, and express what it amounts to in terms such that the art world, highly attuned to synthetic creation -the making of something by the artist- can appreciate serious photography that engages with the world as it is?
Paul goes on to articulate this "uniquely photographic creative act" in a somewhat mystical way IMO:
perhaps we can agree that through force of vision these artists strive to pierce the opaque threshold of the now, to express something of the thus and so of life at the point they recognised it. They struggle through photography to define these moments and bring them forward in time to us, to the here and now, so that with the clarity of hindsight, we may glimpse something of what it was they perceived. Perhaps here we have stumbled upon a partial, but nonetheless astonishing description of the creative act at the heart of serious photography: nothing less than the measuring and folding of the cloth of time itself.
To my mind, however, it's much simpler. What separates out great photography that presents images "taken from the world as it is" from the sort of holiday snaps I take is that ability I described in my opening. Essentially, it's the ability to "see." And of course have a camera handy at the moment you do and know what to do with it to capture what you see.

But, coming out of a month of listening to similar complaints about the inequalities within the art world (anyone who had been promised that the art world was going to be "fair" should demand their money back), I have to say that the section of Paul's piece that rang my "A-ha!" bell, was :
But... what of those who work today with equal commitment and sincerity, using straight photography in the cacophonous present? I will not name names here, but for these serious photographers the fog of time still obfuscates their efforts, and the blindness j’accuse some of the art world of suffering from, narrows their options. It means their work will almost never be considered for Documenta, or placed alongside other artists in a Biennale, or found for sale in major contemporary art galleries and art fairs.
It always comes back to that: One part of the art world is biased against my kind of painting/sculpture/performance/ceramics/video/photography. Even when it's actually not (Nina Berman at the Whitney Biennial now, and, arguably, Ion Grigorescu at the last Documenta being just two examples). I want more access than I currently have!!

I understand the impulse to imagine it's a conspiracy, but I think you only serve to heighten the biases that might be there by framing them in an "us vs. them" way. As in any medium, it comes down to the work itself. There's a strong mix of nearly all media in just about any of the venues noted. So I don't think that's a valid complaint.

I don't think that's the heart of it anyway. Paul also argues,
[Not being considered for Documenta, a Biennale, or found in major contemporary art galleries and art fairs] does not just deprive the public of the work, and the work of its place, it denies these artists the self-confidence that enables them to grow, to feel appreciation and affirmation, not to mention some modest financial reward allowing them to continue to work.
I've heard similar arguments a lot over the last month, and I have two responses to them.

First, is that NO ONE owes any artist asking to be considered for Documenta or a biennial or a place in a major commercial gallery the breathing space to develop "the self-confidence that enables them to grow, to feel appreciation and affirmation." This is the big leagues, kids. Bring your A-game to those courts, check your insecurities at the door, or step aside. Seriously. It ain't kindergarten we're talking about there, but the winner-takes-all, uber-competitive mega-arenas from which history will be written. There's no room for whining here.

My second response, though, assuming Paul had put the cart before the horse and actually meant that it's by having a nurturing system (without a bias against certain practices within photography) in place that you encourage emerging photographers to reach for those big league brass rings, is to note that if you walk around any art fair these days, you'll see an incredibly wide range of media, including tons of photography (and photography galleries that specialize in the kind of work Paul is describing are right there along side them at most fairs). There are probably more paintings than anything else (because the public still feels more comfortable buying paintings than they do any other medium), but not as much as there used to be.

With broader diversity comes overall less opportunity for each medium. If you add ceramics, quilts, video, audio, installation, etc. etc. to the mix (and the commercial galleries have), then you have to present less painting and you have to present less photography...there's only so much room in those booths. Where I'm going with this is to suggest that the perception of limited opportunities for what I'll term "straight photography" seems more imagined than real to me.

Paul himself notes
[I]t has become apparent just what Robert Frank or Garry Winogrand or Diane Arbus or Robert Adams accomplished back in the 50’s, 60’s or 70’s, and for that we must be grateful. For the great exhibitions at the Met, the Whitney, the Guggenheim, and of course MoMA itself; for the books, the catalogues, the enlightened essays: I thank you.
Getting to the Met, Whitney, Guggenheim, and MoMA is kind of the ultimate goal of those other venues anyway. Having history validate the importance of your work (and your way of working) is the apex, in my opinion. So I'm not sure what the fuss is all about to be quite honest. Unless there are simply too many such photographers and not enough opportunities for them all alongside all the other artists working in all those other media. To which I'll say what I always say: Too bad. Get out there and make better art than anyone else around you and the world WILL notice.

Labels: art appreciation, art making


Blogger Iris said...

Personally, I wasn't aware of this bias, but how typical, I feel the opposite - to me, photographs which are not staged or manipulated are a lot more meaningful, artistically (if they are artistic, of course, and good).

That brings me to the idea that one can be taught to understand art better, but not to *feel* it better. If it doesn't speak to some people, than it doesn't. Some don't 'get' Rothko, and never will, it was just his luck that he lived and created in a time where the kind of art he was making was popular in the world. There may have been a Rothko living in the 17th century, and there may be one living today, but these are not the times anymore, and weren't ever, except for mid-20th century. Great art may be discovered and placed in museums after the artists who created it are gone, or it may never be discovered.

The definition of the term 'good art' changes with the time, with fashion, with changes in society. Not all so-called 'good art' will be recognized as such, and many 'crappy art' will be mistakenly considered good at times, only to be forgotten generations later.

Lucky is the artist who's art taps into contemporary times so they can benefit from the support. However, I believe it's our goal to do that because artists try to communicate, always, through their form of art. Question is if there is a genuine voice in there, behind the work. In photography, I believe, it's the eye, it's what the artist sees, their point of view. I think this is true for all art as well, no matter what the 'creative process' is.

I wonder what is your definition of 'good' or 'better art' since you mention it often.

4/07/2010 10:34:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Generally I really, really hate the idea that an artist needs outside validation to make their work better.
That needs to come from within, guys.

And letting that growth come from within will not only strengthen your art, but will strengthen the way you deal with many other aspects of your life.

As for certain work making it to the museum, photography as well as some other mediums are at a little of a disadvantage when it comes to being displayed because of their delicate nature and sensitivity to light. Putting on a show of photos or works on paper is not business as usual, it takes extra precautions. And yea, it's a drag to have to make an appointment at the print room to see this kind of work, which limits its accessibility. But other mediums, esp. video, installation, etc, have their challenges, too.

4/07/2010 11:06:00 AM  
Anonymous Cedric C said...

Nothing beats publication in the domain of photography. I love to browse a photographic project (because photograph often come in a series format) in a table book.
I don't know where it came that photograph started to want to replace, or at least emulate painting, in its presentation. I understand the worth of presenting photography-as-painting, but not that it has so much become the standard. When photography started, it was all about albums (indeed, family albums) or journal publications.

Cedric C (hey, that's about access too, access of the audience to your work outside the museal context)

4/07/2010 11:07:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Generally I really hate the notion that an artist needs outside validation in order to make their art better. That needs to come from within, otherwise it's just superficial BS anyhow.

Mediums like photography (and works on paper) do have a little extra challenge when it comes to being displayed long-term in museums due to their delicate nature & sensitivity to light. And lets face it, making an appointment at the print room is a drag and limits accessible some, but other mediums such as installation and video pose their own sets of problems as well.

4/07/2010 11:10:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've always thought that the problem with art in western culture is that no one is taught to 'see.' We're taught that someone somewhere saw something and made note of it (examples in art, literature, music... even photography), but that we mere mortals are not privy to that skill.

But really it is a skill. You can teach people to see creatively. Naturally some are better at it than others, but it's available to everyone. The essence of the art world is built around the artificial dichotomy that no one can see in this way. The buyer/public relies on the dealer/curator to tell the story of how the artist sees, and the dealer/curator has to either guess or somehow decode whatever the artist has to say about the work.

And that's the problem: If you can see creatively then you're an artist, and if you can see someone else's art creatively, then you're an artist looking at art. And thus you don't need dealers or curators to offer narrative; you only need them to show the work to you.

Getting to the Met or whatever requires that you climb a human ladder made of people who don't trust their own artistic understanding of the world. That's why it's a sad goal.

4/07/2010 11:17:00 AM  
Anonymous nemastoma said...

I completely agree, I'd think for a "true" artist the most important thing is to continue to create come what may, whatever the circumstances or whatever the recognition or lack thereof, or whatever the tools available. If the art is great, sooner or later it will be noticed. Hopefully, sooner than later.

4/07/2010 12:08:00 PM  
Anonymous Bernard Klevickas said...

Yeah, Let them eat cake! (mean't sarcastically.)
Bah, the current art world (I know there are many, but I am talking about the "Big" one) is myopic.

The desire to chase the money is soooo much greater than the desire to really see. Granted, commercial galleries have bills to pay, but, curators, gallerists, even many artists are asleep at the wheel and letting art slip into becoming only a commodity, nothing more.
This myopia is reinforced by all the galleries next-door and by all those artists that get their work seen in those galleries.
There are rumblings below the surface that is now being called whining, some day it'll become a chorus.

4/07/2010 12:21:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...


You can waste all your time waiting for (or ripping down yourself) the current system to crumble, or you can build your own system. Commercial galleries are only one of a wide range of places artists can exhibit their work. Projecting all your anger or frustration onto them is to take time away from making your work, showing it in other venues, or building those other systems.

Commercial galleries are not Versailles, they're not laughing at the starving peasants outside while they bathe in champagne, and your own myopia in thinking they need to change for your own situation to change is, again, a waste of your energy.

Your presentation at #class was brilliant. Really one of the best. Focus on how that positive energy you radiated in the presentation can help you attain your goals. The sarcasm in your comment here isn't going to help you get there, in my opinion.

4/07/2010 12:36:00 PM  
Anonymous Bernard Klevickas said...

At this point I am doing both. Complaining about the system as it exists, and continuing to search for ways to get in. I do show in other venues, but they don't garner the attention the Chelsea art world does (not meant as a pity statement, but as fact) work can be shown outdoor in public in many places, but not receive critical commentary from critics who never venture out of the big box galleries.
It is easier to get a response with a few words on a blog than to get a studio visit. What happened to those (perhaps imaginary) days when gallerists made rounds of artists studios? Now artists are hand-picked straight from Yale and Hunter. Call it whining if you want, but if no one looks nothing is seen. And I see younger and younger artist get picked up. Back when I was in school (in Chicago) the word was that you had to mature as an artist and to keep working into your 40's and then consider being taken seriously. BUT, there is a gap forming and gallerists are reluctant to leave a comfort zone and instead just call all those artists out there whiners.

The problem I see with those other venues is that they set-up a context for the work that is not always complimentary to the meaning of the work itself. Imagine a Schnabel in an outdoor art fair; will that garner the same attention? Or a Banks Violette in a community garden (it might even work because he is a known name now) and seeing his work there for the first time. It is more difficult to elevate the work in some setting, yet in a Chelsea gallery the heightened awareness and high art context have (supposedly) already happened.

and Thank you for the compliment, I was nervous as hell. I saw an opportunity and I took it. I am thankful for William, Jennifer, and you allowing me to do it. All said, still I'd rather have my work speak for me than a presentation or words on a blog. All that said, I have to get back to apply for yet another juried show.

4/07/2010 01:22:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

gallerists are reluctant to leave a comfort zone and instead just call all those artists out there whiners

Those gallerists owe the artists they represent all the support they can give them. They don't actually owe the hundreds of thousands of artists they don't represent anything. How could they possibly fulfill that debt if they did?

4/07/2010 01:59:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

There are rumblings below the surface that is now being called whining, some day it'll become a chorus.

LOL, your whiners are in the majority, and are the ones who don't get it. The rumblings are the subterranean noises of impending change, change which is not going to accommodate the whiners but confuse and inflame them more. It's a lesson of history.

4/07/2010 01:59:00 PM  
Blogger William Dolan said...

One problem "straight photography" has, is that this area has been democratized. Look at all the stuff people are posting on Flikr as a casual hobby. What separates this from work that is presented as serious art?

4/07/2010 02:20:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

Some don't 'get' Rothko, and never will, it was just his luck that he lived and created in a time where the kind of art he was making was popular in the world. There may have been a Rothko living in the 17th century, and there may be one living today, but these are not the times anymore, and weren't ever, except for mid-20th century.

Not to single out Iris but this sums up the gist of what I mean by "don't get it." The way one gets lost in this is by fixating on style rather than what Iris is pointing out as the context for this style. The linked flow of history makes some approaches more useful at certain moments in time and this happens because the nature of our cultural links to images continuously evolves.

POP Art, which still has its whiners, came about because certain artists at a moment in history reached into the bag of popular commercial imagery as a way of re-seeing representation. Cultural attitudes towards advertising were different then (1960's) than they are today, advertising was seen as devoid of the emotional angst of post WWII era.

Wrapped up in this process is the artists ability to view the world, and thus their artworks, without a confining prejudice. Marlene Dumas has an exhibition at Zwirner right now and I would estimate half the painters I know hate it. In general I think what irritates other painters most is that it doesn't live up to their 'expectations' for painting. By skirting these expectations, Dumas alters how we see her paintings as images AND as paintings.

The issues being discussed about photography suggest a reevaluation of the philosophical approaches used to initially validate photography as fine art. In some ways this resulted in a division of photography into "artists who used photography" and "photographers." Cindy Sherman falls in the first classification and Stephen Shore into the second.

I think the real problem that needs to be addressed is what is significant about the image, philosophically in this present historical moment. This requires the ability to make the distinction between Stephen Shore and your accomplished Sunday photographer.

4/07/2010 02:43:00 PM  
Anonymous Bernard Klevickas said...

That is where I see a fault in the system as it stands. I don't blame you directly, but the policy is closed door: Your in, now I'll help you, screw everyone else.
It is exclusive, not inclusive. I do not think that is what art is meant to be. If I were on the inside perhaps I would just be quiet about the whole thing, who knows.
I'm beginning to believe that power corrupts at any level, yet without those levels society might be worse off. It's a personal paradox- how to be fair as much as humanly possible, yet still feel that one voice, or visual talent (mine) can stand out among others?
I say myopic because it is closed door, because it is exclusive, it lacks vision, and only sees what is directly in front of it.
I take a risk saying so while not being anonymous.
Whenever new movements do come about the door closes right behind them, but now there are so many artist out there in so many diverse styles that galleries have the luck of pick and chose and artists are expected to quietly sit back and hope for their lucky shot, that often fits a curator or gallerists theme. That is not what art is about. The often sighted argument is just keep working in the studio and people will notice. Nope, no one is out there looking. Art is made to be seen and experienced, not to quietly sit in the studio.

4/07/2010 03:09:00 PM  
Blogger Blake Andrews said...

You're right of course that galleries don't owe any obligation to unknown artists. They are welcome to show any work they want, and complaining about it is counterproductive.

However, it's still fun to speculate about why certain photography gets shown in galleries and why other work is not shown. Surely there are biases under the surface here that are worth examining? Not in the spirit of sour grapes but just wondering what makes the art world tick.

It's a bit like radio. Stations can play all the top 40 they want and who can blame them? It's popular, it sells ads, why look outside that box? That's fine but it ignores that fact that a lot of very very good music is ignored in the process. Can't we speculate about why that is without being called whiny?

You say all good work is discovered eventually. I've heard similar sentiment from many quarters. I think it may be a good generalization but it is not always true. In fact the exceptions to that statement seem the most intriguing to me.

4/07/2010 03:25:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

What separates this from work that is presented as serious art?

Depends on what you mean by "serious art" One key factor is identity, that is the work is identifiable. Stephen Shore's photographs are identifiable as his.

"Identity" is NOT about "branding" although what some would call branding is the result of an awareness of identity. Because the photograph is strongly modulated by a mechanical device and therefore lacks (has a reduced sense of) certain tactile evidence of the artists intervention it makes the achievement of "identity" (recognizableness) more difficult.

Further I would suggest that photography may depend more on narrative aspects of the image, the sense of the psychological presence of the artist. (say, Diane Arbus or Weegee) This is not the same as referring to the documentary, it is precisely the opposite, the use of the 'documentary' as a foil to evoke something other than or more general than what the documentary image possesses.

With photography, the current critical problem is to reexamine the function of the photographic image in the present phone-camera context.

4/07/2010 04:26:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a non photographer,I like to be able to look at an image and appreciate it without an explanation or firm understanding of the process. If I really like the image, I'll dig deeper. But many shows feel like photo gymnastics, a series of tricks. And this is where, I'm afraid, the preference for young artists comes in. They're adept at tricks, fearless that way, but less adept at conveying deeper truths - they usually haven't acquired the necessary experience.

The voracious greed for novelty over substance is what I lament and perhaps what the photographer Ed quotes laments as well. Young genius exists and important art is made in spite of this tendency but many good artists flare out before they've had the chance to find out what they truly have to say while many others are left to rot at the height of their powers.


4/07/2010 05:10:00 PM  
Anonymous Maureen C. said...

If I was Paul Graham I would spend more time worshiping Satan and less time trying to become God.

"when you form the meaningless world into photographs, then form those photographs into a meaningful world."


Get paid!

4/07/2010 05:19:00 PM  
Blogger Ian Aleksander Adams said...

I'm kinda worried when my art is presented as "serious."


4/07/2010 05:50:00 PM  
OpenID delsel said...

I think that sometimes people pay too much attetnion to the market and the gallery culture. Like most artists, I one day (hopefully sooner than later)wish to contribute to the braoder art dialogue through my work, but this doesn't just happen in New York or within an exclusive medium (painting). Of course most artists want to end up in New York, but many of them begin to make their mark outside of the gallery culture which defines much of the New York art scene.

I may sound too much like Sean Landers, but I honestly believe that at some point my art will be deserving of the audience that many New York gallery artists are afforded. However, I don't have the authority to say that I'm there I prefer to work on cultivating my own artistic vision and pursue the opportunites which I can control.

Besides, from my understanding, most important artist are discovered from relative obscurity while they were busy with their head buried in their work. Or else they were out pursuing every opportunity to show their work (there aren't an abundance of opportunites, but they do exist and they can be made as well)

It's defintely hard not to get frustrated with the system, but it does have a few points of access. Ultimately, working from the bottom up is a better option than having none at all.

4/07/2010 08:46:00 PM  
Anonymous John Legweak said...


I understand what you are saying about identity and recognizableness, and based on his essay I would say that Paul Graham understands it too. At the risk of putting words into his mouth, I think what he is saying is that the reason the art world does not recognize straight photographers (contemporary ones that is; they can learn vintage ones from a book) is that they have, consciously or unconsciously, put them into an “All X’s look alike to me” category and are content to leave them there.

People who know the work of great straight photographers can see their touches everywhere – in the choice of subject matter, in the way they approach/get to know/relate to their subject matter, in the way they shoot, in the way they edit, in the way they realize their images, in the way they put everything together. The technologies they choose to work with may be distinctive or they may not be. Either way they are never the most important thing.

As to camera phones, they have always existed and always will. (I’m speaking metaphorically of course.) The thing that’s changing all the rules is the internet. It’s not how many images there are, it’s how many you can see. Flickr and Facebook both claim to host about 4 billion uploads. That’s a lot of pictures but Google estimated a couple years ago that there were about 1 trillion images in cyberspace. (They determined the number because they needed to know it in order to scope out the job of indexing them all.) I don’t have an exact number but I’m sure the number of new images added each day is in the millions, maybe tens of millions.

So what do we do with all these images? We dig in and start looking for the art of the 21st century, because that’s where it is.

4/07/2010 09:20:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

I think what he is saying is that the reason the art world does not recognize straight photographers .... is that they have, consciously or unconsciously, put them into an “All X’s look alike to me” category and are content to leave them there.

At best, this is only part of the reason. Photography struggled for "fine art" status and the Postmodern "trick" was to call yourself an artist who used photography as a medium. This worked, at least in the marketplace, and to the detriment of straight photography, maybe too well. At moment photography is dealing with a demon of their own making.

"Camera phones" was intended as a metaphor for both amateur photography and the increased number of images in existence, especially on the internet as you noted. Every moment in history has a particular set of conditions which advanced art chooses to address.

I spoke earlier of Rothko in this respect, what I didn't mention was that the original comment did not take into account Rothko's earlier surrealist works. He made an aesthetic transition within the cultural climate because he was both interested and able to pursue the ideas involved.

All image based art, not just photography, must contend with images in the present cultural context. I think artists have to consider what they are doing with images, why are you adding more to the pile? They all look alike to me. (i.e. most paintings, photographs, sculptures, installations... looking like last months art rag.)

So what do we do with all these images? Good question, what do artists want to do with them? Extend this to asking yourself why you are even making art? What do you expect out of it?

The popular answer these days seems to revolve around a vague idea of making money off of it, so you can make more of it. The biggest complaint is about the lack of access to the system which allows one to do this. (Hey I am just parroting what I've been reading here and at #class) These issues require an artist to understand the market they are addressing. Branding and craft may be valid issues and 'dialogue' is a code word for the marketing dialogue, the way artists are selling themselves.

But, there does exist another level of inquiry where I think a few serious artists are asking new questions about images, what they mean and how we can use them in the present cultural context. This has been an ongoing inquiry since Cubist collage but the present context calls for a rethinking of the issues. So it is in this context that I think Graham's ideas are still stuck inside the box. I don't think the problem is with straight photography (expanded to include all digital as well as analog modes) but with how people are using it.

PS, while I quoted JL, this wasn't directly addressed at his points which I was using as a foil to think on the problem.

4/07/2010 10:52:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

Get out there and make better art than anyone else around you and the world WILL notice.

There are filters in place to make sure that the visual visual art that Graham is talking about never makes it past a certain echelon of museum recognition unless the artist is thoroughly dead. And while I am successfully forming my own network, I wish I could do so without simultaneously subsidizing the exclusion of my work from those museums.

Hell, I'm ready to compete against anybody out there. Are the contemporary museums? Fine - revoke their nonprofit status, tax their donations as income, tax their buildings as property, tax their deaccessions as capital gains, tax gifts of art at their market rate, and otherwise treat them like any other incorporated business. You think artists feel overly entitled? Real competition would would destroy the New York museum world in six months.

4/07/2010 11:14:00 PM  
Anonymous Bernard Klevickas said...

There is an implied hopelessness that I gleam from your strategy. This whole "discover" thing is old. It does not fit today. It did not fit yesterday. It is a myth. Duchamp didn't let things happen and be discovered, he constructed the environment for his works to be interpreted in a certain way. I think he failed (and the work became a commodity). Judd is another example. They both were successful on building their environment for their work. It is not about what a work will sell for or the work waiting in the studio to be seen by some famous curator but about the artist having the nerve to get it out there into the world. The choice to get it seen should not be up to curators, or gallerists but to the artist. Yet today when artists make the effort to put work out there it is ignored UNLESS it is in those big box galleries. I do not understand why they(the gallery system) should have power over artists, but so many allow themselves to be victimized. You DO have the authority.

4/07/2010 11:24:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric C said...

Fine art (as opposed to all other visual arts) exists to eitheir push forward aesthetics ("beauty", if you will, even when it means digging for its opposite, the "ugly", and by aesthetics I don't mean only the visual) or explore signification (play with knowledge).

So indeed, with the gazillion of images out there, and the gazillion of advances in design, it becomes much harder to "push forward" aesthetics, when they are being pushed in all sorts of other fields. There will always be the "explore signification (play with knowledge)" part, because not many people outside of fine artists ask the right questions. Also, fine artists are able to point toward the most forward and best aesthetic items executed in the non-art world. We might as well start cataloguing.

Cedric C

4/08/2010 04:10:00 AM  
Anonymous Gam said...

painting went through this when photography came on the scene, digital manipulation will itself be faced with a similar scenario down the road. Whatever the artistic medium, somewhere the question is raised if that is art - why isn't that too? It seems to fall on the assumption that art is a thing, that by describing the features of those things - you can then know it as art or not. Whereas Mr McLuhan pointed out, to know the impact of any media at any time, you need to look at how it is used. There you'll find the source of its impact. I don't think the photography vs photography discussion has reached the crux of what is the determinant factor of what is determined as art, and so they'll beat around the bush on what is good or bad art.

Humans are genetically structured to filter out "information" stimulation over load. There aren't too many images as there aren't too many days in the world.
We continually filter "input" based upon preferences, culture, need ... the underlining question with "too many images' seems to be more about how to get noticed.

Which reminds of my breakfast this morning - trashed my budget so I could buy the newspaper and eat out... lots of places where one can buy the paper, lots of places to eat at - obviously geographic distribution had its impact on my choices, but on reflection, I actually purchased where the relationship was the most enjoyable. Small chat with the cashier about the chances of THE team making the playoffs, another shared joke with the cafe shop's overnight staff. The consumables had to be good -don't want to pay for let alone read those other papers! but what made my decision, what let me filter out the other "competition" for my attention, was relationship.

Relationships aren't static, they develop, so too with art and art galleries and art collectors. Too many images out there in our world, too many copies of copies, so much visual overload, all of that only reinforces the preference for people for relationships. The art gallerist who doesn't want to talk about art with you - well that's not a relationship worth pursuing. The thing is, to get into that pedestal place, often happens from the outside. Distribution, access, acceptance and success.

A scary set of concepts in the current digital flux. But as considered on
for the Digital economy bill we can as artists thrive in this environment:

"His answer is best understood in this statement from Wikipedia: In total, Coelho has sold more than 100 million books in over 150 countries worldwide, and his works have been translated into 67 languages. As an author, he wanted to reach as many people as possible, particularly in different cultures and geographies. His publishers had their way of doing this. His fans had a better way."

To wit, to get into that prized front window, it might be faster by going first to the streets of the internet of your choice. It is still about relationships, even dans la rue. The writer Coelho demonstrates that fact above.

4/08/2010 06:30:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's not that different with painting, really. without some kind of conceptual hook, or sometimes just context i.e the gallery it's shown in, no one would take it seriously.

4/08/2010 07:39:00 AM  
Blogger Iris said...

George says:

I spoke earlier of Rothko in this respect, what I didn't mention was that the original comment did not take into account Rothko's earlier surrealist works. He made an aesthetic transition within the cultural climate because he was both interested and able to pursue the ideas involved.

Actually, I did take that into account, although not mentioned it directly in relation to Rothko:

Lucky is the artist who's art taps into contemporary times so they can benefit from the support. However, I believe it's our goal to do that because artists try to communicate, always, through their form of art

So this leads to another question: is Rothko actually the person, Rothko, the artist, the eye behind the work, that chooses a medium to show his vision according to the needs of the time, or is he the work made by him, that was accidentally created at a time that was ripe for it?

4/08/2010 08:42:00 AM  
Blogger pelacus said...

I think that Graham isn't exactly complaining that his kind of work hasn't been recognized enough. I think he is prejudiced against anything but the straight photo and believes Sherman et al. should get less recognition. I'd also bet that he doesn't like that the "artists who use photography" get a lot more money for their work than "straight" photographers. Speaking as a photographer, I'm glad that the art world at large doesn't seem to "get" this intramural debate, and doesn't really care. If the art's good, what's it matter how you did it? Photographers often have a kind of latent Puritanism, which Graham may have been indirectly expressing in some of his mystical musings.

4/08/2010 12:00:00 PM  
Anonymous John Legweak said...

Hi again George,

You make many interesting points in your last post that I’d love to respond to, but I want to stay focused on the matter at hand, which is Paul Graham’s recent essay and our gracious host’s response to it.

I should say first, in case there’s any confusion, that I am not an artist and have no aspirations to be one. Nor am I a photographer except in a purely amateur sense, and the not very good sense. But I am extremely interested in the art world and how contemporary photography fits into it.

The late 60’s, 70’s, and early 80’s were an amazing time for photography. An unbelievable amount happened in that period. It is very well documented but, it would seem, not at all well known to today’s up and coming art generation. Then as now, artists focused mostly on doing their thing. It was the critics and curators and gallerists that looked around and saw what was going on. The art world as we now know it hardly existed then. Everybody was playing it by ear, at least when it came to contemporary (once the word was invented).

Szarkowski opened his tent pretty wide but he didn’t get the “pictures generation” and they didn’t get him. But the art world did get them, and photography split in two. And despite the predictions of well-informed observers such as Jean-François Chevrier that the parts would come back together, they’re still floating separately today. Photographers vs. artists using photography.

The problem is that, due to this split, within a given generation the photographers are going for X in the photography galleries while the artists using photography are going for 10X in the art galleries.

It might seem that Paul Graham is talking about money, but he’s really talking about visibility, which is worth more than money. And he’s not whining, he’s critiquing. (They still teach that word in art school, don’t they?) He’s “critiquing the institution from within.” He could have done it with pictures, but since he already knew that nobody would look at them – that’s his whole point – he took the alternative route of saying what he wanted to say directly, in words. And it would seem he has gotten a lot of notice by doing so.

We’re in the 21st century now, have been for ten years (which is a tenth of the whole thing). More importantly we’re in a whole new age, an age that began in the tumult of 1989 and kicked into high gear on 9/11. The only thing we can say for sure about this age is that big changes are afoot and big surprises in store. The art world seems to sense this but doesn’t know how to react. Relational aesthetics, altermodern, retro-splendor, neo-beauty – you tell me, what’s it going to be? What I know is that the web is going to decide, and photography owns the web.

4/08/2010 12:00:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

Lucky is the artist who's art taps into contemporary times so they can benefit from the support.

I doubt if it had much to do with trying to gain 'support' in any commercial sense. I remember reading a review in a 1950'sArt News of a Rothko exhibition and I never forgot the closing line -- "Another ho hum show"

Rothko, or any artist working today, always can tap into the hidden zeitgeist, that aspect of the culture that we don't know we need. The question is at that nascent moment will they recognize it? Fast forward to the present, would any of you recognize it today?

The difficulty I have with Paul Graham is that he wants things to be the way he knows them, and that is I believe what is a great part of his appeal. Regardless of whatever aesthetic he presents, or any other critic presents on any other medium or form, all these speculations serve to form a known canon, an instruction manual for what art should be.

Advanced art never conforms to these rules for very long. Read that thinking that the "rules" of the last 25 years, the postmodern canon, is just as locked up and rigid as Paul Graham views.

While I would agree that the cultural environment is different today than it was 25 or 50 years ago what remains unchanged is the general psychology. Artists, dealers, collectors curators and critics all more or less behave the same today as they did in the past. The complaints about access, or laments over lost quality, of the lack of money, etc., these complaints haven't changed a bit. The art world goes on and grinds the whiners to dust.

4/08/2010 01:48:00 PM  
Anonymous John Legweak said...


You say:

Photographers often have a kind of latent Puritanism, which Graham may have been indirectly expressing in some of his mystical musings.

I assume you mean straight or “just” photographers as opposed to photographers who use art.

But there may be a grain of truth to what you say. The f.64 group, who formalized the notion of straight photography in the early 30’s, actually called it pure photography, and today’s straight photographers often espouse purist ideas with respect to what photography should and shouldn’t be. I see it as primarily a medium specificity thing, but maybe that is as outmoded a concept as straight photography itself.

Today’s straight photographers also tend to be fairly quick to show moral indignation, both about important issues and (to my mind) unimportant ones. Maybe this is more what you have in mind. In any case these are just tendencies. A lot of straight photographers are neither purist nor hyper-opinionated.

Also, while we’re on the subject of puritanism, let’s remember that the Masters of Photography loved to take pictures of their wives naked, not to mention their friends’ wives, and were not above screwing their models.

P.S. Without meaning to correct you I would point out that there is a convention in the photography world that you are only allowed to apply the adjective "mystical" to one photographer, and that photographer is Minor White.

4/08/2010 01:52:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"If the art's good, what's the matter how you did it?" - Pelacus says.

Well, as someone who bought two of Edgar Martin's prints before he was ratted out (through a blog) as a photoshop artist, something he'd publicly stated that he didn't do, I think it does matter. I'd feel more a chump if I hadn't bought them through Aperture, an organization that, if any can, ought to have known. I still admire the prints I own but I value them less, not so much because he lied but because, right or wrong, I feel they've lost some of their artistic integrity. I can understand the frustrations of 'pure' photographers.


4/08/2010 07:18:00 PM  
Anonymous John Legweak said...

Sorry I just can seem to let go of this topic.

Here are two references that took a while to bubble to the top of my tired old mind.

First, a site where you can get a good overview of Paul Graham’s work from the 80’s to the present, including his recent acclaimed A shimmer of Possibility:

And second, a book published a few years ago that delivers a simultaneously scathing and hilarious critique – in pictures no less, albeit hardly straight ones – of the “artists using photography” phenomenon:

Duane Michals, Foto Follies: How Photography Lost Its Virginity on the Way to the Bank (Steidl, 2006).

(I looked on the web for images but couldn’t find any worth pointing to.)

Both Graham and Michals are masters of sequencing. You have to look at their pictures together and in their intended order to really appreciate their affect.

4/09/2010 12:55:00 AM  
Blogger Iris said...

Cathy, I don't know about that, what exactly did you hear? Every photographer uses Photoshop for cropping and adjusting general exposure/saturation, that is still considered 'straight' photography as far as I know, as long as other tools are not used further, that's not considered photo manipulation. I don't know a whole lot about photography, but if you have purchased those and are in doubt, I would contact perhaps the gallery or even the artist himself to verify.

4/09/2010 08:46:00 AM  
Blogger Iris said...

George, I didn't mean support in the commercial sense, although that can be an added benefit. In the specific case of Rothko we know he was very depressed, among other reasons perhaps because he felt his art wasn't properly understood by every person who viewed it?

And - would they recognize it? would we? probably not, at least not initially. I think one of the traits of a great innovator is they go to uncharted territory, which is considered at least an unsafe place to go to, at least in the beginning, which is when they decide go there. They make up their own way.

4/09/2010 08:53:00 AM  
Anonymous John Legweak said...

Edgar Martins didn't just do a bit of photoshopping on the images in question, he essentially fabricated them.

But who knows, maybe they will be worth a lot of money someday, like stamps printed upside-down.

Joking aside, I sympathize with Anonymous on this. It's part of the photography culture to honest and open about the way you make your images, whatever it is.

4/09/2010 10:29:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was at the presentation that Graham gave at MoMA, and can honestly say it was easily the best, and most heartfelt, of those who spoke. Plus I think we can get one thing out of the way: the last gallery exhibition of his I saw the images were $20-40,000 each, and many were sold out. Yes, in this recession. So, I don't think its about him or his work, he's certainly an 'insider'. The impression I got was more of a wish to broaden the art worlds appreciation and understanding of the special qualities of the photography at its finest.

He clearly states that it is not an appeal for photographers to return to 1960's style Magnum work, but (at least in my impression) that staged/synthesized work has been given undue presence or appreciation over un-staged, when, maybe the shoe should be on the other foot. My only worry about this is that all those photographers whose work is lazy, derivative or mediocre will now say "Aha - that is why I have been excluded from the Art World!" when in fact they need to take a long honest look at what they do.

Joerg/Conscientious blog response is poorly thought out as it basically amounts to the Kevin Costner's "build it and they will come" saying. This is patently not true: An-My Lee? Mark Steinmetz? Collier Schorr? Richard Renaldi? to name but a few - all have completed years of great work but have very low profiles in the international art world.

Or put another way - how many international contemporary art curators know of Nicholas Nixon's "The Brown Sisters"? my guess is maybe 2 in 100; or maybe 5 if you are being generous. How many of them know of Thomas Demand or Gregory Crewdson - 90 out of 100; 95; higher? The question is: why? - that is what Paul Graham asked, and proposed a tentative answer, and more importantly, took a stab at articulating the value of what is being missed. For that, we should be very grateful. For the fact that he is not just talking, but leading by example, we should be even more grateful.

People who can think AND make great work are rare enough in contemporary photography. Let's value the few we have.

4/10/2010 01:19:00 PM  
Blogger Iris said...

The power of photography is of TELLING THE TRUTH, with minimal barrier between the eye of the photographer and the picture they see in front of them, the machine enables for almost direct communication between the artist's mind and the viewer of the photo. That's the greatness of photography. I'm not saying that manipulation and staging shouldn't have it's important place, but it having a more important role in today's art than communicating a direct (albeit personal) truth - how telling is it of the times we live in?
It's true that every work of art is meant to tell a personal truth of the artist, but not every art is honest, and as we mentioned in previous conversation, a lot of fakeness plays an important role today, it seems.

4/10/2010 01:53:00 PM  
Anonymous John Legweak said...

I’m glad this discussion is continuing.

Photography always starts out in reality and comes back to reality, no matter how far from reality it strays. It's reality’s prodigal son.

I don’t know whether 2 in 100 or everyone here knows Nicholas Nixon's "The Brown Sisters”, but I doubt that there’s anyone who has seen even three or four images of the total series who hasn’t looked hard at them and thought hard.

Iris is right that photographs tell the truth, but they do it in many ways. I'll never stop being amazed that the last thing Susan Sontag said in the last book she wrote before she died was this (Regarding the Pain of Others, p. 123):

"Among single antiwar images, the huge photograph that Jeff Wall made in 1992 titled 'Dead Troops Talk (A Vision After an Ambush of a Red Army Patrol near Moqor, Afghanistan, Winter 1986)' seems to me exemplary in its thoughtfulness and power."

Susan Sontag, the most strenuous critic ever of photography as a vehicle of truth, praising a setup shot performed by actors and displayed like a corporate ad in an airport terminal. Talk about redemption.

4/11/2010 03:01:00 AM  
Blogger J. Wesley Brown said...

Come now, Ed. When was the last time a Shore or a Winogrand or an Eggleston sold for the same price as a Gursky, Wall, or Struth?

Heck, you can get a portfolio of 75 Egglestons for the same price as one of theirs:

4/12/2010 07:24:00 PM  
Anonymous John Legweak said...

Not sure that this thread is still active, but in any case I just noticed that Paul Graham is a recipient of a 2010 Guggenheim Fellowship in photography. Learned it here.

4/17/2010 04:45:00 PM  

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