It’s Complicated: Essays on Photography

Unintentional Art

In painting, the Art medium to which photography is most often compared, the painter’s hand, not the painter’s tool, plays the primary role in the creation of an object. The paintbrush creates an object only under the control of its wielder’s hand, and practically speaking the only motivation for putting paintbrush to canvas these days is the creation of Art. The object created may or may not be aesthetically pleasing, and may be created by someone who may or may not be talented, but if the intention for creating the object is Art, then the object is arguably Art. And if all paintings are created for Art’s sake, then there can be no such thing as unintentional painting Art.

In contrast, there are of course many reasons other than creating Art why someone would pick up the photographer’s tool, the camera, and create a photo object. In fact, the vast bulk of photographic images are created for purposes other than to create Art. The laws of chance insure that some of those photographs will be technically and, depending on the viewer’s aesthetic sensibilities, artistically equal if not superior to any image created by a photographer who intended to create Art. Thus it is that photography always has had the potential for the creation of unintentional photographic Art. Still, if for no other reason than the lack of artistic intent on the part of the photographer, such photographs didn’t necessarily have to be considered Art. Photography did not have to create a sub-category for unintentional photographic Art. But it did. Of course before that could happen, Art first had to create a sub-category for photography.

Nineteenth century America did not view photography as an Art medium, at least not an Art medium of equal rank to painting and sculpture. Then in the transition years of the 19th and 20th centuries, Alfred Stieglitz virtually single handedly forced Photo-Secessionist photography to be accepted as gallery Art. A few years later Beaumont Newhall and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) coaxed the American Art world into accepting the photography of early 20th century Modernist masters as museum Art. Stieglitz and Newhall deliberately created a distinction in photography that hadn’t existed previously in America—a distinction between Art photography and the rest of photography. So it was that a new sub-category of ‘Art’ was born. But this sub-category, unlike the sub-categories of ‘painting’ and ‘sculpture’, had to affix the term ‘Art’ to its title, as in ‘Art photography’, in order to distinguish it from the rest of photography.

A few years later Edward Steichen and John Szarkowski, as Newhall’s successors at MoMA, would include all forms of photography in their exhibits. But far from trying to eliminate the Art/non-Art distinction by persuading America to the converse of its 19th century opinion, Steichen and Szarkowski merely mystified things by pronouncing, ex cathedra as it were, that certain images selected from all manner of photography should be considered Art if he who sat on the judgment seat of photography, as Christopher Phillips would say (Phillips, 1989), declared it so. So it was now possible for a non-Art photograph to be considered Art.

Of course the general notion of unintentional Art is not now, nor was it then, a radical idea in the Art world. But as Walter Benjamin noted, in his seminal essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, uniqueness, authenticity, cult value and, implicitly, the passage of time and the perspective of a later age were usually required before the ‘Art’ tag was attached to an object not originally created as a pure Art object per se. (Benjamin, 1936) So it seems to me that the notion that certain ‘non-Art’ photo objects—objects created here and now, created with little claim to artistic intent or authenticity, objects that could hardly be called unique or be said to have a cult value—could be declared Art should have been considered a fairly radical idea.

So why did MoMA’s radically new view of photographic Art stick? Benjamin’s Work of Art essay offers an explanation. Photography had developed within the context of the Western Art tradition. That tradition, Benjamin essay implies, includes the attachment of ‘aura’ to objects exhibited by a prestigious institution of Art and presented to the public in a manner that indicates that the objects are to be considered ‘precious’. So by virtue of displaying selected ‘non-Art’ photographs within the context of a prestigious museum—and by the time of Steichen’s directorship MoMA was a prestigious Art institution—‘aura’ was conveyed to these objects despite their non-artistic beginnings and brief existence.  The irony of course is that while Benjamin inadvertently provides the explanation for how aura became attached to these photographs he had predicted that the emergence of photography—the poster child for art in the age of mechanical reproduction—would usher the withering of aura in Art.

For better or for worse, the Art photography world would have to deal with the notion of ‘unintentional photographic Art’.

Lady Luck

Alfred Stieglitz once warned amateur photographers: “Don’t believe you become an artist the instant you received a gift Kodak on Xmas morning. …The machine may see for you, but its eye is dead. Your eye should furnish it with life. But don’t believe that all open eyes see. Seeing needs practice—just like photography itself.” (Stieglitz, 1909)

In the early years of the 20th century, when Stieglitz and others were struggling to earn a place for photography among the traditional Arts, the role of ‘luck’ in the creation of an artful image was a touchy subject. Lest they jeopardize their arguments in favor of photography’s acceptance as an Art, their stance was that luck had little to do with their Art. Susan Sontag quotes Ansel Adams as saying: “A photograph is not an accident—it is a concept”. (Sontag, 1973)  ‘Accidents’, both lucky and unlucky, was the theme of Edward Weston’s caution to photographers in an article he wrote in 1930: “Until the photographer has learned to visualize his final result in advance, and to predetermine the procedures necessary to carry out that visualization, his finished work (if it be photography at all) will represent a series of lucky—or unlucky—mechanical accidents.” (Weston, 1930). Yet even though the early masters sneered at luck and relegated its role to the processes of the vernacular photographer, the fact remained that with a bit of good luck the vernacular photographer was perfectly capable of capturing an image that an independent critic, unaware or uncaring of who the photographer was, might declare to be Art. John Szarkowski’s famous 1964 exhibit and book The Photographer’s Eye erased any lingering doubts about that.

In his essay Introduction To The Photographer’s Eye—John Szarkowski (1966), Hugh McCabe outlines what this exhibit was all about: Szarkowski begins by stating a core tenet of his outlook on photography which is that it is fundamentally different from other picture-making processes in that it is based on selection rather than synthesis—the photographer takes elements of the real world for his picture, whereas the painter makes the elements of his picture from scratch. This immediately posed a new creative dilemma—how can this process be used to create meaningful pictures and valid art? This question would not be answered by means of recourse to existing theories of visual art, but instead tackled by a rag-bag consortium of commercial photographers, amateur enthusiasts and casual snap-shooters, who may not have been consciously trying to answer it at all, but nevertheless have managed to evolve an aesthetic practice that defines what photography is. (McCabe, 2010)

The vernacular photographs included in this exhibit, artful as they were, were not freakish anomalies. In her book Diana & Nikon: Essays on Photography, Janet Malcolm wrote: “Any question of Szarkowski’s having mischievously stacked the deck—of his having illustrated The Photographer’s Eye with rare, uncharacteristically artful vernacular works—has been dispelled by the developments that followed the book’s publication. Thousands of vernacular photographs that have since been unearthed have aesthetic qualities that equal, if they do not surpass, anything in the book, and show the same singular lack of stylistic distinctiveness. For where other mediums offer clear distinctions between their academic, folk, and vernacular productions … photography has neither a primitive style nor a commercial style nor a reportorial style nor a child’s style.“ (Malcolm, 1977, pp. 58-59)

However, later in the 20th century—notably, after photography was well established as a bona fide Art—some well regarded photographers would disagree with the early century masters’ contention that luck was relegated to the vernacular photographer alone. Jerry Uelsmann, in an interview, acknowledged the roles of “luck and intuition” in the success of his images. (Maher & Berman, 2006) Janet Malcolm says that Garry Winogrand objected “to the very idea” that the Photographer “can control and predict his results”. She goes on to quote Winogrand’s response to a question about what makes a photograph alive instead of dead. Winogrand, referring to a Robert Frank image of a gasoline pump (probably Santa Fe, New Mexico), said: “When he took that photograph he couldn’t possibly know—he could just not know—that it would work, that it would be a photograph. He knew he probably had a chance. In other words, he cannot know what that’s going to look like as a photograph.” Winogrand went on to famously say: “In the simplest sentence, I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed.” (Malcolm, 1977, p. 33) Winogrand clearly felt that even the Art photographer requires a bit of luck to capture a special image.

Winogrand’s hypothesis was confirmed—at least in regards to Robert Frank—by Frank himself in an interview he granted at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the U.S. publication of his seminal work The Americans. Sarah Coleman covered that interview, and as Frank discussed his iconic Trolley, New Orleans she wrote: “Dressed in his trademark John Deere baseball cap, looking more like a factory worker than a famous photographer, Frank sat in a red leather chair on stage and seemed mildly tickled by the attention he was receiving. ‘Photography is partly an accident,’ he affirmed, after admitting that the cover image of “The Americans” was serendipitous. Everything about that image, from the sad eyes of a black man in the segregated back section of a New Orleans trolley car to the watery reflections in the upper windows, speaks volumes about a fearful, divided country. But when he shot it, Frank said, he ‘wasn’t aware of the way it was arranged.’” (Coleman, 2009)

The disagreement over the role of luck in Art photography, a non-contemporaneous affair since the antagonists were separated by a generation, was between the Modernist masters of the 20th century. The early century Modernists, steeped in Western art traditions and anxious to have their photography accepted as a major Art form, essentially sought what Walter Benjamin would later describe as ‘authority’ for themselves and ‘aura’ for their photographs. They rejected ‘luck’ because it diminished ‘authority’. Later century Modernists, with the acceptance of photography as Art in the rear view mirror, could afford to be more open about luck’s role in their Art making.

In any case, by the 1980s the topic became irrelevant because by then the Postmodernist held sway in the Art world.  The Postmodernists question the very idea of the authority of the Artist (for example, Sherrie Levine’s appropriation of Walker Evans’ images), and the aura of Art (for example, the ironical mounting of Art in a fake gold frame). So a Postmodernist’s response to the question of whether luck diminishes the authority of the Artist and consequently the aura of his Art would be: “Who cares?”

Even the very notion of what constitutes a ‘lucky’ vernacular image changed because, under the influence of ideologists and theorists, Postmodernists displaced the Modernist’s aesthetic standards with their own, conceptual, standards of judgment. These new standards prize images which question photography’s role in maintaining society’s power structure and characterizing and objectifying certain under classes. Cindy Sherman’s images, as a comment on the depiction of women in popular culture, are prime examples of the Postmodernist aesthetic. Clearly it would take a different kind of lucky vernacular photograph—lucky conceptual rather than lucky beautiful—to match up to the Postmodernist Art standards.

Regardless of whether or how much luck is involved in the creation of their Artful images, photographers of all persuasions require a special kind of luck—the luck of being ‘discovered’—if those images are to hang in a museum or gallery. Referring to this kind of luck as the ‘great equalizer’ among photographers, the description of a recent photo exhibit added: It is the latter trait, unquantifiable and subject to no external influences, that may well be the critical factor in unearthing photographers of excellence and insight yet unknown. (New Orleans Museum of Art, 2011)

 It would seem that the wise photographer will court Lady Luck.

The Mathematics of Art Photography

Chance (perhaps a term less offensive to Modernist sensibilities than luck) has seen to it that it is not the creation of an Art-worthy image that separates the Art photographer from the vernacular photographer. Both can create Art, and chance plays a role in each of their distinct approaches to photography. However, chance is inextricably tied to the notion of probability—and probability in turn, with the notion of number of opportunities. But number of opportunities is photography’s middle name. For no other Art—certainly none of the hand crafted arts—can create so many artifacts in so short a time.

Since chance is part of the equation of photography, and that equation must factor the huge number of opportunities photo technology affords, one way to unravel the Art photographer-vernacular photographer bollix is to focus on the probability that, for any given blink of the shutter, the photographer has created Art. This line of thinking leads to a clarification of the distinction between the Art photographer and the vernacular photographer because in photography, as in life, chance favors the prepared. So, in photography it follows that organization, perseverance, experience, and skill will increase the probability of creating Art. Hence it is not the ability to create Art—chance provides all photographers with that—but the Art photographer’s organization, perseverance, experience, and skill that significantly increase the probability of creating Art that distinguishes him from his vernacular brethren.

In every art medium a body of work is important in establishing the Artist’s bona fides. For most Art mediums, it is the qualitative dimension of the corpus that is the key evaluative consideration. In Art photography, however, the quantitative dimension can be just as important.  With photography’s potential to generate a large number of images in a short amount of time, coupled with some probability, even a very low probability, that every snap captures an Artful image, an Art photographer cannot be identified merely by having created a modicum of Artful images. Any photographer, regardless of intent or skill level, can create, if he takes enough photos, a fair number of Artful images.  So if a photographer is to be distinguished from a prolific vernacular photographer and be afforded serious consideration as an Art photographer he must often create a significant number of Artful images.

On the other hand, given his general modus operandi, it is highly unlikely that even a prolific vernacular photographer will create a body of work on a specific subject, discounting the ubiquitous family snapshot, or consistently utilize a specific style, except of course the style-less snapshot style. It’s no wonder then that the budding Art photographer strives to create a distinct style of his own, to focus on a specific subject, and make that style and subject the distinctive signature of his portfolio and subsequently his body of work. For a distinctive signature offers multiple potential benefits; it mitigates the need for quantitative separation from vernacular photographers while establishing aesthetic separation from other Art photographers.

In Art photography, numbers count.

In the (I)deology of the Beholder

In a phenomenon that may be unique to photography—or more specifically to Postmodernist photography—it is often the body of work as a whole, as an entity, that is declared the Art. So rather than being a collection of Art, the corpus is the Art because the concept being explored is discernable only in large. A case in point is the body of work of Bernd and Hilla Becher. Their body of work consists primarily of hundreds of images of industrial structures, most notably water towers. Each tower image is a fairly straightforward mug shot; no one of them is terribly interesting by itself. It is only in review of their corpus can one conclude, if one is motivated enough to bother, that something else beyond a fascination with water towers is at work here.

The Bechers’ is not Art for the common man. When Robert Hirsch discusses the Bechers’ work in his history of photography it is as if he is reporting on an especially esoteric social science project. (Hirsch, 2008). The average Joe on the street likely would be hard pressed to view any one of the tower images as Art. If confronted not with a single image, but with the images in their hundreds, he is likely neither sophisticated enough or caring enough to figure out, much less appreciate, what the concept behind the Art is.

This phenomenon is a consequence of the displacement of Modernist’s standards of aesthetics with Postmodernist’s conceptual standards, which in turn are informed by a grab-bag of what Geoffrey Batchen called “a variety of sometimes competing theoretical models”. (Batchen, 1999) In the Postmodernist era one has to bone up on Marxism, feminism, psychoanalysis, and semiotics, and god knows what else, just to get a clue about what someone is up to with his Art. Sadly, a theoretical model for ‘beauty’ that Joe Six-pack could understand apparently didn’t’ make it into the bag.

As with the Bechers’ towers, all too often one cannot discern the ‘concept’ behind one of the Postmodernist images unless it is viewed in conjunction with its oeuvre brethren. Certainly this is the case with Cindy Sherman’s work. Only when her work is considered as a whole rather than piece by piece, does the concept, the feminist sensibilities, become evident.

Sure, there are ostensive Modernist artists—Robert Adams for one—whose body of work, like those of many Postmodernists, seems more about conveying a message (in Adams’ case, the blight on the natural environment caused by the metastasizing of human structures) than being a collection of Art. But if in fact the Artist really is a Modernist (as I believe Adams is) rather than a born-in-the-wrong-decade Postmodernist, you will see that each piece generally conforms to Modernist aesthetic standards and can be evaluated on its own relative to those standards.  Adams’ Irrigation Canal, Larimer County, Colorado, 1990 is a case in point. The same cannot be said always of Postmodernist Art. Cindy Sherman in a clown suit (Untitled, 2004) is not a comment on women’s portrayal in modern culture; it is just a portrait of a clown.

To be fair, there are Postmodernist Artists whose photography can stand up to Postmodernist standards on a piece-by-piece basis; Barbara Kruger is one. Each of her images—Your Body is a Battleground, for example—functions, as Hirsh describes it, to show its viewers “the tactics by which photographs impose their messages, revealing the hidden ideological agendas of power.” (Hirsch, 2008) Of course the text helps.

When Pictorialists and Modernists held sway in the Art world, you had only to rely on your eyeball to let you know whether you should appreciate an Artist’s photograph, and you didn’t need to analyze his entire body of work in order to do so. When you did review a body of work of a celebrated master, you were likely to be amazed by how many interesting and eye-holding images it contained; in the Postmodernist era you are more likely to be amazed by how few.

There was a time when beauty was in the eye of the beholder. Today beauty is in the ideology of the beholder. And good luck if you’re not up on, or don’t care for, the ideology.

It’s Complicated

The answer to the question of ‘who gets to say’ that this photograph is Art is either very easy or very complicated.

If one follows Barthes’ approach then the answer is easy, the answer is: ‘you and me’. The answer gets more complicated when social theorists weigh in. A Marxist critic like Martha Rosler says it’s the capitalist-controlled art market that has the final say.  She goes on to say that this market is designed to enhance the social status of the bourgeoisie, assign to the proletariat the status of “the uncultured, the naïve, the philistine”, and define the proletariat “out of the audience of art photography”. (Rosler, 1984) More equanimous critics like Christopher Phillips make the argument that it’s MoMA and its succession of powerful Curators of Photography—the photography world’s “judgment seat” as he calls them—that have, directly or by their far flung influence in these matters, the final say. (Phillips, 1989)

Actually, if one considers both the low and high ends of the art market, all three may be right. Those that can only afford to buy low end art buy such art to decorate their lives, and hence they can make the ‘Is it Art?’ call with their hearts. Like Barthes, they can look at a photograph for whatever punctum—if any—is there for them. However, the high end of the art market is different. As Rosler points out, the high end serves a different ‘audience’ (to use her term), and this audience buys Art more for investment reasons and status reasons than as a way to scratch any aesthetic or decorative itch.

The real question for the high end market is not ‘who’ gets to say whether ‘this image is Art’ (or not), the question that really matters at the high end is instead ‘Is he an Artist?’ High rollers buy the photographer, not the photograph[1]. The photograph is the investment; the ‘right’ photographer insures that the investment is sound. And here is where I think Phillips has it right. The high end market players, dealers, buyers, sellers, the whole lot, require a universally accepted compass to keep everyone on the same page, to keep everyone pointed to the same true north. Hence the art market looks to a god on the judgment seat at MoMA to identify ‘who is the photographer’, whose photographs are precious, timeless, and coveted.

In other art mediums, where only artists create Art and hence the connection between Art and artist is simple, the relationship linking the two questions “Is it Art?” and “Is he an artist?” is such that answering one answers the other. But in the world of photography all one can say about the connection between Art and artist, between photograph and photographer, is: It’s complicated.

Works Cited

Batchen, G. (1999). Burning with Desire: The Conception of Photography. New York: MIT Press.

Benjamin, W. (1936). The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung .

Coleman, S. (2009). ROBERT FRANK AND “THE AMERICANS” . Retrieved March 13, 2011, from takegreatpictures.com: http://www.takegreatpictures.com/tgp-choice/12347

Hirsch, R. (2008). Seizing the Light: A Social History of Photography (2nd Ed). McGraw-Hill.

Maher, C., & Berman, L. (2006, November). Jerry Uelmann Interview. Retrieved May 1, 2011, from Bermangraphics.com: http://www.bermangraphics.com/press/jerry-uelsmann.htm

Malcolm, J. (1977). Diana & Nikon: Essays on Photography. New York: Aperture.

McCabe. (2010, February 21). Introduction To The Photographers Eye – John Szarkowski (1966). Retrieved May 3, 2011, from Traces Of The Real: http://tracesofthereal.com/2010/02/21/introduction-to-the-photographers-eye-john-szarkowski-1966/

New Orleans Museum of Art. (2011, May). Retrieved May 3, 2011, from New Orleans Museum of Art: http://www.noma.org/comingsoon.html

Phillips, C. (1989). The Judgment Seat of Photography. In R. Bolten (ed.), The Contest of Meaning (pp. 15-48). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Rosler, M. (1984). Lookers, Buyers, Dealers, and Makers: Thoughts on Audience. In Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation (p. 311). New York: Museum of Contemporary Art and David R Godine (Boston).

Sontag, S. (1973). On Photography. New York: Picador.

Stieglitz, A. (1909). Twelve Random Dont’s. Photographic Topics .

Weston, E. (1930). Photography – Not Pictorial. Camera Craft, Vol. 37, No. 7 , 313-320.


[1]  Wikipedia reports that one of the Bechers’ cooling tower photographs sold at auction for $150,000 in 2004 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bernd_and_Hilla_Becher).  I suppose it’s possible that someone was convinced that the tower would look perfect hanging next to the family portrait in the living room, but I suspect that the price had much more to do with the name ‘Becher & Becher’ than it had to do with a swell image of a cooling tower.

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