Untitled by Jo Ann Walters
As a photographer, one of the most frustrating assessments that I hear commonly, about photography as an art form, is that a photograph is no more nor less than a “document” (of a place/moment/person/etc.). This is frustrating particularly because it is generally untrue; in fact, a photograph is a distortion and therefore a very poor document. Considering a photograph to be “true” is like looking in a mirror and suddenly believing that you have a twin. At its best, photography acts as a conduit for an emotionally charged moment, allowing the viewer to connect with the moment in an emotional, rather than rational, way.
Micheldever, New Hampshire by Bill Brandt
Consider what happens when a photographer takes a picture. First, he or she places themselves at the event. Then, he or she brings the camera to their face creating a frame for their vision, which incidentally, renders the three-dimensional world in front them into a two-dimensional plane. Soon, something about the organization of forms on this plane compels the photographer to take a picture. A document is born. But wait, what does this “document” reveal about the event? What does the photograph/document suggest about the world happening outside of its own very limited, two-dimensional frame, which the viewer has accepted as the “real” truth? How has the photographer’s choices about focal length, depth of field, shutter speed, and lighting impacted the version of the event that is eventually revealed in the photograph?
In truth, the photographer who covers an event (of a place/moment/person/etc.) is constantly editing down his/her witness’ statement. This is because it is impossible for a photograph to reveal the entirety of anything. The photographer must choose what to show and what to say with his or her photographs. For this reason, other forms of art make better documents naturally; writing is probably the best (it’s the difference between painting fine details with a big, versus a little, brush). So why do people “believe” in the stories told by photographs? It is because they are extremely convincing illusions, and they are used everywhere.
This is why a photograph is less than a document, but how can it be more? How can a photograph compete against other forms of art, like painting and sculpture, in a art for art’s sake world? The answer lies in my rudimentary explanation of the photographic process above.
When a photographer brings the camera to his or her face, the world is converted from what you can reach out and touch to one where shapes and forms are relative to one another in a way that belies their true proportions. In the Graciela Iturbide photograph below, of a woman crossing a mountain pass holding a boom-box, the mountains in the distance are not larger than the woman in the foreground. The woman may as well be a giant; a feminine ethos towering over the landscape.
In the below image by Stephen Shore, there is a perceived frame or edge to the the photograph, which has essentially a two-dimensional surface. This means that the objects arranged in the composition have an abstract quality apart from their real-world, proportional values. “…a photographer solves a picture more than composes one.” -Stephen Shore, The Nature of Photographs (23)
These attributions of the two-dimensional plane were nonetheless, the primary considerations of fine art painters throughout the Modern Art era. Picasso thought extensively about how to honor the viewer of his works by not lying about the “surface” of his paintings. For him, his paintings were objects, having inherent qualities as objects, and painters who tried to elicit the world in a purely naturalistic way (as if a painting were a window to peer through) were liars. Hans Hofmann taught the principal insights that he gleaned from the painters that he knew in France (like Picasso) to his American students. He championed the idea of the “push/pull” in painting, which essentially meant that when the paint on the surface of your canvas began to look like it receded into space, you pulled it forward; conversely, when the paint appeared to extend from the surface, you pushed it back (ie. light colors extend, dark colors recede). In my opinion, Iturbide and Shore would probably agree about treating a photograph as if it were an object, likewise to a painting, before considering it as a stand-in for the real.
A painting by Hans Hofmann.
Therefore, if a photograph is inherently a fine art object, like a painting, then its morphology with paintings, sculpture, etc. is probably even broader. So what is art?
In my mind, art is strictly something, possibly the only thing, created by man that does not have a utilitarian purpose as its primary function. For instance, a car may have an evocative design, one that might even inspire, but its primary function is still to transport a person or people from one place to another. Thereby, a car is not art. However, a photograph by Andreas Gursky, like Rein II (pictured below), might have some usefulness as a decoration or as a commodity, but its primary purpose is to engage in an intellectual, rather than utilitarian, way with a viewer of it. It communicates a message, although not immediately obvious or universal, and if hung in a museum, the work might form a relationship based on contemplation and personal revelation with an infinite number of visitors. “The significant step from representational depiction to representational photographic design comes when the subject, the motif, is no longer shot for its own sake, but is demoted from its own meaning to the status of an object of the design intention. This is achieved by employing this productively and avoiding a mere photographic concretization of the object- the image of the person’s idea of this object and its relations to him.” -Otto Steinert, Andreas Gursky: Works 80-08 (26)
This is for me how art functions. If taken out of context, there is really very limited use for a work of art because art is not meant to serve humanity but rather to elevate it. A photographer whose fundamental concern is making art will take the time to conceptualize his or her imagery, a process by which “documentation” is seldom of chief importance.