Photography – When Two Iceburgs Collide

Iceberg Post

“In a world of pretentious and complacent amateur snapping, we are drowning those moments of truth in an ocean of the banal.”

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The echo-chamber of social media. It’s quite a thing.

I recently read an article by Jonathan Jones of The Guardian, linked here, presenting yet another analysis of our “Instagram Culture.” This particular article is in response to a dispute between two amateur photographers who – by simple virtue of being in the same place at the same time – took nearly identical photographs. Conflict only arose, of course, when one of the photographers won an award in a photography competition and managed to get her image published. When the other photographer saw this, accusations of plagiarism quickly followed.

If I believed my work had been appropriated, I would have taken issue, too.
But- yawn – that’s a bit beside the point.

In the realm of social media, accusations of this nature can lead to a landslide of criticism, denigration, and even threats. This can be accomplished without communication between aggrieved parties, without scrutiny, and without legal process of any kind. In this particular case, both photographs proved to be ever-so-slightly different, indicating two different images; we now know that both images were authored by two individuals.

The point, I believe, is that photography is an easily misunderstood practice. This is ironic considering photography’s prevalence, but I contend that it’s a practice so uniquely situated between the realms of ‘art’ and ‘science’ that we often can’t tell the difference.

Nobody could mistake a beautifully-crafted drawing of Notre Dame from a grocery list. Even if both were crafted with a No.2 graphite pencil, the aesthetic difference between the two ought to speak loudly enough. What the camera accomplishes is an unprecedented blurring of the aesthetic division between professional and amateur. Nevertheless, a distinction can still be made – in almost any circumstance – between the artful use of the camera and the pedestrian reproduction of whatever subject happens to fall in its path. This distinction is simply more nuanced.

The above-mentioned incident straddles the line. It’s always possible to “machine gun” the camera, as Robert Capa often remarked, to achieve an “eventual grand image.” I still find it necessary to bring up the ‘room of monkeys with a typewriter’ metaphor. Shakespeare may very-well emerge from such an experiment. The ubiquity of cameras, compounded by the easy-share functionality of social media, has served to buttress this idea.

The camera – and the images it produces – conform to two fundamental principles: ‘expression’ and ‘documentation’ (not necessarily one above the other). What the camera can occasionally accomplish, unlike the No.2 pencil, is an accidental merging of these principles. Such ‘accidental masterpieces’ are why the practice of photography continues to find itself under fire, stripped of legitimacy as an expressive art form. If one can ‘accidentally’ capture something beautiful and moving (as works of art actually intend to achieve), how can it genuinely be considered art?

Good question.
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These ideas of ‘documentation’ and ‘expression’ will always be at odds when it comes to photo-mechanical reproduction. Take, as an example, the Mona Lisa. If a photographer makes, with his camera, a photograph of the Mona Lisa, would we ascribe great brilliance of artistic expression to this photographer?

Likely not.
And rightly so.

Many of you – statistically speaking, most of you – have never actually seen the Mona Lisa with your own eyes.

Think about that for a second.
Rather, most of you have seen photo-mechanical reproductions of the painting in books and film. In these instances, a photographer was employed. That photographer used his skill to reproduce an image made by a Renaissance artist. Despite this intervention of the camera operator, we all still recognize that the expertise of Leonardo da Vinci is of greatest import.

Does this example rob photography of its artistic efficacy? Of course not.
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As a photographer, I didn’t find Mr. Jones’s article entirely insulting, but I couldn’t accept it out-of-hand. His article appears to tacitly align with the general argument that photography, by its very nature, cannot be art. He illustrates this point thusly:

“If Cézanne and Monet both stood and painted that iceberg, the results would be totally individual. Even if two amateur water-colourists painted it, their work would contrast – just as the work of every pupil in a school class would be different if they were on that cruise sketching that iceberg. Photography can easily degenerate into a pseudo-art, with millions of people all taking pictures of the same things and all thinking we are special.”

Bollacks!

If two ‘art’ or ‘professional’ photographers were hired to photograph an identical subject – be it a political figure, a beautiful flower, or somebody’s pet cat – I imagine that a similar difference would present itself. Both professional photographers, likely, would have different equipment, divergent ideas, and unique sensibilities, and would make different choices with their subject. Taken just a small step further, I imagine the comparison between the pictures of a professional against the pictures of a pedestrian photographer (with a smart phone) would yield an instantly and easily-identifiable difference.

In fact, it already has. More times than any of us could count.

Or did she actually break the internet?

Heavy pencil or light pencil, stippling or cross-hatch, muted colors or bright primes. With photography, we have just as many choices as illustrators, graphic designers, and painters. Day, night, or artificial lighting, narrow or wide depth-of-focus, color temperature, black and white. Film and digital, high-grain, high-noise, resolution, not to mention cropping, framing, and composition. As with any visual medium, the photographer has a unique language, and many choices to influence the mood, the tone, the emotional impact of his or her work.

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Jones correctly asserts that “photography matters when it finds original subject matter.” This, I believe, is true in almost any case (and with any art form). What he neglects to comment on is the requisite expertise of the creator. It’s as though the subject and the creator exist independent of one another, in his analysis. But while two beautiful images can be made – by two different amateur photographers – I would remind readers that nobody is actually heralding either image, from either photographer, as a great masterpiece.  His condemnation of ‘originality’ can be applied to any visual art practice; it need not be relegated to the realm of photography.

That is his mistake. It’s a significant one.

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An original painting of The Grand Canyon – or the Eiffel Tower, or The Statue of Liberty, or The Dome of the Rock – can be pleasing to the eye. The effort and skill of the artist can be seen in each individual brush stroke. But these types of image are always in danger of landing themselves in the territory of ‘kitche’ because they present nothing new or moving to the viewer. What Jones fails to recognize is that ‘original subject matter’ is more of a dividing-line between ‘art’ and ‘non-art’ than the difference between a painting and a photograph.

There’s nothing wrong with art that doesn’t challenge it’s viewer. The Grand Canyon is damned beautiful; people that paint and photograph that spectacle effectively are, in my book, no more or less brilliant than any other image-maker. They just employ their skills and passions in a certain way.

Each art form has its place. Images, made by skilled visual artists, conform to the basic idea of what we all believe art to be. There are things that people make – some profound, some religious, some common, some with skill and some with less skill, some that are themed and some that are unmistakably abstract – and they all exist under the broad aegis of ‘art.’

When articles blossom out of thin air about the happenstance and “accidental” nature of artistic photography, I cannot help but comment. There exists predictable and banal art, in every conceivable medium, and there exists great brilliance and uniqueness…in every conceivably medium. Why Jones feels compelled to direct his criticism toward photography, I’m not sure.

I don’t want to believe that it’s the actual method of picture-making that Jones is attacking, but he sure makes it seem like it. And for that reason, I feel the need to tell him that he is wrong.

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Until next time.

-joe

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