On the Preciousness of the Idea

There is nothing in art photography that I couldn’t do. Well, actually, there is a lot I can’t do. But I could do it all if I really wanted to. I’m talking about the ‘process’ side of photography. I’m talking about creating B&W photographs using the Zone System, or creating old-fashioned Ambrotypes or Cyanotypes. I’m talking about all the varieties of ‘camera-less’ photography, and the many facets of digital/Photoshop wizardry. I could be an expert in any of these processes (or all of them, if I lived long enough) if I really wanted to be. I don’t.  I’d rather have a really great idea for a photographic body of work.

I’m not dismissing photographic processes—far from it. Superior process execution can be a crucial element in artmaking—when the process furthers the conveyance of the idea behind the art. Consider how Ansel Adams’ skill with the Zone System enhanced the message of the sublimity of unspoiled nature encoded in his landscapes. If, however, mere process excellence is the idea behind the art, then the work conveys little more than the skillfulness of the artist.  Such a piece is better categorized as craft rather than art. As David Bayles and Ted Orland observe in their classic essays on artmaking, Art and Fear: “Simply put, art that deals with ideas is more interesting than art that deals with technique.”

In fact, if the idea is strong enough, a lack of fine craft doesn’t necessarily diminish the photographic art. Henri Cartier-Bresson wasn’t all that fussy about his prints (he assumed his images would be printed in books anyway). For him—and for the rest of the art world—the art of his photography was the capture of the decisive moment, not the production of fine prints in the darkroom.  And no one will ever accuse Cindy Sherman of developing fine prints for her famous Film Stills series, but that work is now enshrined in the canon of photographic art.

It is the idea conveyed by the image that is the essence of the art in a photograph. However, the idea that inspires the artist need not be the idea that others see in the art. Cindy Sherman has said that her motivation for creating her famous Film Stills photographs had as much to do with a chance to play dress up as anything else. The postmodernist art world saw in Film Stills a critique on the how popular media (especially movies and television) portray the female. Most artists understand this inspiration/interpretation dynamic. As emerging Colorado photographer Patti Hallock says of her latest series: “… the story I tell myself about the work isn’t the same as the story I’m telling you.” A photographer who insists on viewers seeing the same idea that motivated the image generally bludgeons the viewers with an overly detailed artist statement. Generally this is not a good move, as the Film Stills case implies. Allowing viewers the opportunity to create their own interpretation of the work increases the chances that they will engage with photographs. If that happens, then no matter what interpretation they come up with, the photographs and the photographer have succeeded.

If the art world cannot see a worthwhile idea behind the images does that mean that the photographs and the photographer have failed? Perhaps, but not necessarily. Truly inspired and original work sometimes takes some getting used to. The art world initially dismissed Pablo Picasso’s early work. Eugène Atget’s photographs of old Paris were largely ignored for decades before his genius was recognized.

Even when photographs that have meaning for the photographer never muster much public interest, the work has failed commercially, but not necessarily artistically (it fails artistically as well if its process execution is so flawed that the photographs’ messages had little chance to communicate). Let’s face it; few fine art photographers achieve any real measure of commercial success anyway. The vast majority of us labor away in obscurity—taking what satisfaction we can from artmaking that helps us ask, and sometimes answer, questions important to our lives. Even those photographers who achieve significant recognition understand that, in the grand scheme of things, relatively few people are interested in their work. Robert Adams, of New Topographics fame, writes in Why People Photograph, “Almost all photographers have incurred large expenses in the pursuit of tiny audiences, finding that the wonder they’d hoped to share is something that few want to receive.” Tellingly, he adds: “Nothing is so clarifying, for instance, as to stand through the opening of an exhibition to which only officials have come.”

So, an inspired and inspiring idea is the key to art photography. What, then, are the characteristics of a great idea for art photography?

Relates to Human Concerns        One aspect of a great idea, clearly, is that the idea relates, in some fashion that can be expressed visually, to one or more of the fundamental concerns of human life – the search for peace, happiness, love, understanding; the experience of joy and misery, human connection and rejection, life and death; the appreciation for beauty, humor, surprise, wonder, adventure; the emotions stirred by great events and tragedies, etc. It is this connection to the human ethos that generally gives a photographic idea meaning to the photographer, and the potential to connect the resultant photograph to the viewer. The challenge for the photographer is to capture images that are at once intensely personal yet also manifest an invitation for others to find in the images a connection to their own human concerns.

Originality          A second aspect of a great idea is originality. This element can be more confounding to deal with than the human element. In some level, there is little photographic ground that has not been already well covered by other photographers. Adding to the challenge is that while originality is highly prized, the art world wants to be able to see some connection to past masterpieces (in photography or other art media). Photography critics, curators, and especially academics and historians like to be able connect dots, to see trends, to compare and contrast, to identify the artist’s comment on the old with his new. That makes them look smart. Further, such references in the work tell them that the photographer is not just some lucky bumpkin, but rather someone who is well versed in art history. This automatically elevates the photographs and the photographer to a higher standing in the art world. While it is not out of the question for something completely new to find acceptance in the art world, it is just as likely (or more so) that the work will suffer the fate of Picasso’s initial work—dismissed for some time, until appreciation for the new idea finally develops, probably by a new generation of critics, curators, and historians. Yet if such historical references are ineptly handled and not clearly accomplished in support of a new idea, the photographer can be dismissed for being a clumsy appropriator of someone else’s work and idea.

Inevitably, as ever more photographers scrabble for ever more elusive originality, some photographers (often aided and abetted by bombastic artist statements) will try to pass off novelty or abnormality as an inspired new idea, when in fact there is little more than the banal. As LensWork editor Brooks Jensen warns in his collection of essays Letting Go of the Camera: “Because the bizarre and the abnormal are so easy to achieve, producing a mess and promoting it as genius is very seductive, especially to the general, ‘less educated’ public who will buy the concept, philosophically and commercially. Such pretense is based on blind faith in an unethical authority.”

Tree with many branches             A third characteristic of a great idea is that it has the potential to spawn a family of related ideas. In the early years of the last century, when photography was just emerging as an accepted art medium and its genres were just forming and thinly populated, a big idea (e.g., straight photography) could span different genres. Artists could jump from an inspired idea in one genre to another inspired idea in a completely different genre. Consider Paul Strand who achieved acclaim even though (and perhaps because) his genius was evident in a variety of genres (landscape, portraiture, abstracts, social study, etc.). However, the reality of today’s art world is such that a photographer is less likely to achieve traction if her work is spread out over multiple genres. The artist is expected to branch out from the main trunk of her defining big idea, but the overall oeuvre is expected to be viewed as an interrelated whole. Once again, I call upon Cindy Sherman as a prime example. The art world expects Cindy Sherman to do Cindy Sherman in dress up, as a comment on feminine identity. Sherman tried something else once, but the art world wasn’t having any of it, and Sherman soon went back to dress up. That is not to say that all of her work is the same. From her main theme, which the Museum of Modern Art describes as the examination of “the construction of identity and the nature of representation,” Sherman creatively has spun many variations of her big idea and remained, as MoMA puts it, “consistently original.” The challenge a photographer’s faces, when she gains some measure of acclaim with a first idea, is to distinguish between next ideas which are essentially copies of the first idea, and original branches from the first idea. Failing to make the distinction can have a serious consequence. As Picasso once said: “Success is dangerous. One begins to copy oneself, and to copy oneself is more dangerous than to copy others. It leads to sterility.” Even the most acclaimed artists can suffer this fate; according to Robert Adams it happened to an icon of 20th century Modernist photography. In Why People Photograph Adams writes: “For every Atget, Stieglitz, Weston, or Brandt, who remain visionary to the end, there is an Ansel Adams who, after a period of extraordinary creativity, lapses into formula.”

So what I really want for my photography is not a new camera or lens, or a how-to book on the trendiest photography process. What I really want is a truly great idea for my next body of work. I want an idea that can lead to images that touch me, and potentially touch others as well. I want an idea that can distinguish my work, but at the same time relates my work to the photographic canon. I want an idea that I can take it in a lot of different directions yet maintain a familial connection in all my art. Such a great idea is the most precious thing that I, as a photographer, can own.

This entry was posted in Essays.

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