Photography, Art, and the Individual

I recently went to a photo group meeting and came away mulling the approach that many of those attending have to photography, as it is quite different from mine. As I have noted here before, I have no interest in telling people about my photographs and what (if anything) they’re supposed to mean. This is seemingly quite at odds with the generally accepted view in the art photography world.

It is worth noting that this group is likely rather atypical, in the sense that virtually all the participants are doing some form of fine art photography, much of it experimental (there was little straight photography shown). Many regularly have work on exhibit. It is also a critique-focused group, with virtually all of the discussion on the photos, and none at all on equipment. In theory this is a very desirable arrangement, as it offers the opportunity for meaningful feedback from skilled people who have eyes and minds trained to look critically at photography.

The standard practice is for a photographer to place their prints on the table (no digital display is allowed) and step back, offering only a brief statement on what they are asking of the group, i.e., “I’m preparing a portfolio – tell me if these photos work as a group” or “I’m trying a new approach and I want to know what you think.” After initial comments are given, the photographer may then give further explanation and answer questions. Every participant showing work gets about 15 minutes.

I’ve attended this before, so none of this came as a surprise, but the last meeting really seemed to drive home the sense that the majority of those attending had very specific ideas about their work, and more importantly, insisted upon making these explicit. While this is certainly their right, I found that it made me care a lot less about their photographs.

Some photographers, and especially art photographers, seem to want to use their work to shape the way people think, and that’s fine. But if your photographs can’t do this without explanation, then why do you need them at all? Words are an excellent medium for clearly transmitting complex ideas; your political philosophy (for example, though this was a theme repeated several times in various forms) is far better explained in a brief written or verbal statement. Once you’ve made it, the only reason I’m looking at your photographs is to see if I can find a connection. My motivation for really trying to process the work and, most importantly, my own feelings about it is mostly gone.

This is especially true if you insist on voicing your political views. With very few exceptions, I have no real interest in how anyone feels about politics, and I really don’t want to be preached to in any form. I’m well-versed in the mechanics of the political world (moreso than you might imagine) and I have my own closely-held beliefs which have remained with me for many years, but I do not attend photography events for their propaganda value. It seems that pre-alienating some viewers is precisely the wrong thing to do if you want as many people as possible to think objectively about your work.

Beyond this, I was also struck by the number of people showing composites or other experimental work. Maybe it’s just me, but once you start making something that clearly is not an unmanipulated photograph, I stop thinking of it as photography. Worse, technology has made it possible to do all sorts of things, and some people seem think that they should do them because they can. Experimentation is fine and indeed necessary, but it seemed that the more experimental a body of work was, the less critical the reception. It was as if the mere act of experimenting was being applauded, rather than objectively looking at the results (which were mostly overwrought and unsuccessful in my view). Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.

Taken together, these behaviors produced a very predictable, and thus rather less than useful, meeting. Once work was laid out, it was immediately clear what direction the discussion would take. The more experimental, the better the reception. Composite photos with a political message (which was never obvious and only apparent once it was explained)? The majority of participants couldn’t stop fawning. Straight photography without a high-minded purpose? Meh.

I don’t know that there’s any real point to this little missive, but the experience struck me enough that I thought I should relate it. The art world is a strange place. For a group that prides itself on its creativity, there’s a stifling amount of groupthink. In that respect it’s very similar to what one sees on the internet (see my Happy Little Photographs post) in that there are mutually-agreed rules, and violation of them results in the offender being cast unceremoniously into the wilderness, branded guilty of a very specific sort of anti-social behavior. The question is, I suppose, are these really societies to which one should aspire to belong, or is art necessarily and by definition unique to the individual?

I adhere to the Garry Winogrand approach in that I take photographs to see what things look like photographed. I take pictures in ways that I find interesting. Rarely there is some meaning or idea I’m trying to convey, but the vast majority of my work is solely intended to represent my view of the world through a camera. It stands or falls on that and that alone. For me, success or failure, that’s enough.

The Accumulation Revealed, Part Deux (Point Quatre)

This will be the last “Part Deux” posting, as it represents the last batch of photos from this particular trip.

We’re back to the Leica & Summitar combination here. All together I selected eighteen photos out of somewhere around 180. This was not a predetermined ratio, but rather the result of a fairly lengthy culling process that pared it down first to somewhere around 30-35 photos, then into successively smaller groups until I felt it was as tight as I could make it and still preserve the integrity of the group.

I confess I am a bit curious about how this selection comes across to other viewers. Recognizing that, without seeing the photos that didn’t make the final cut, it’s hard to make an informed judgement, I nonetheless would be interested to hear your impressions. Do the photos work together as a group? In other words, do they help you to form an overall impression of the places and times depicted? Do they produce an emotional response as a group? Are there any photos that you feel could be removed from the final selection?

The Accumulation Revealed, Part Deux (Point Trois)

I’ll stop the faux French nonsense soon, I promise.

There were very few color photos taken with the Minox on this trip. I only used it when I felt color was indispensable to the shot, which wasn’t often. Consequently, this is a small set, and not particularly diverse. Nonetheless, I think it makes a worthwhile addition to the overall selection. Feel free to disagree.