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February 9, 2014
To the Photographic Art World: This is in response to the Art & Design article in the New York Times “With Cameras Optional, New Directions in Photography, by Philip Gefter, January 23, 2014 (copy at the end of this response so those not familiar with this article can read it first).
“CoC” – What is a Photograph?
Many critics and curators put the two distinctly, uniquely different art forms under the single heading of “photography”. Their reasoning is either arbitrary or vague, and is a great disservice and detriment to photographic and compographic artists (my name “compograph” for artwork based on photographs, but creatively generated via computer/software).
Since the late 1990’s I have advocated to have this distinction of the difference made. It’s 2014, why has it not been made to date as yet, and why this failure to do so is not helpful in the least to artists and their creations is what I will explain.
To begin, what is the acronym “CoC?” meant to represent? Most viewers of photography may not be able to answer that question. It stands for Circles of Confusion, a photographic term having to do with optics, specifically depth of field and where rays of light passing through a lens are in and out of focus. This technical aspect of optics is important for the manufacturing of camera lenses.
From reading the article by Philip Gefter regarding new directions for photography it’s obvious other Circles of Confusion continue to persist among those who discuss images. For instance, when Ms. Squiers points to artwork by Travess Smalley, when telling us how he cuts out shapes from magazine pages and colored paper, and then compositionally scans them, I wonder why the words photo and negative are even used. No photo was taken. Things were scanned, by a device called a scanner, which results in a positive. Why not call those results scannograms? It’s time to stop talking fiction and start looking at the facts.
Photography has vastly changed only in circles of confusion, but the only real, sole significant change to the historically established traditional form of photography has been moving from chemical film to digital files. Photography by definition as “painting with light” is still the result of exposing light, only now to a sensor that replaces film. This light continues to be garnered by lenses, and film/sensor/lens have traditionally combined to make a photographic camera. In my opinion, this camera based view of photography appears to be fiction or otherwise arbitrary in circles of confusion.
I’ve never heard it said I’m using a photographic scanner, but I can understand stretching its process as being the making of photographs. A scanner does record images by the action of light. Here is where I make a pivotal distinction. The Gefterjan article in the Art & Design section of the NYT is about creating photographic art. Is the scanner instrumental in creating Smalley’s art? No, he could he have glued his magazine/paper cutouts to a canvas to essentially create the same art (without efficient duplicating capabilities). Scanners copy things, and, yes, cameras when not creating, also copy things.
Computers and Photoshop may copy, combine and alter photographs, but as Gefterjan’s writing makes clear, new technology “are yielding a daunting range of imagery. Thankfully, we can go on to deduce from his use of “imagery” that when this digital altering power is used there is a yielding of images, not photographs.
There may be an ambiguity resulting from a mash-up of disciplines and the ever morphing new practices in contemporary art, but this does not shift the main focus of photographic art. There may be soul searching in photography circles, but practicing professional photographers/artists face no such dilemma. Photographic artist such as David Nitsche (https://jamesschotgallerystudio.com/gallery/artists/david-nitsche/) , Marilyn Martin (https://jamesschotgallerystudio.com/gallery/artists/marilyn-martin/) and James Schot (https://jamesschotgallerystudio.com/gallery/james-schot/) may have advanced and mastered their photographic skills so well, it may appear they may have crossed into computer digital software with their creations. Confused circles should know that their analog creations are precursors to the digital altering – image creating age, and are demonstrative of their studios being both laboratories and playgrounds for artists making serious photographic art.
This is not to question the equal footing of the “constructed” image. Note again how the New York Times article uses the word “image” in this case, instead of photograph. When you bring photographs into a computer (or scanner) to be “constructed” you end up with an image. I call those images to be named compographs, and trumpet those created by Madalina Iordache-Levay (https://jamesschotgallerystudio.com/gallery/artists/madalina-iordache-levay/) and Louis Davis (http://louisdavisart.com), which are as masterful in their own discipline. Even if they also view themselves as being photographers, do photographic work, their art via the computer is creating “constructed” images.
Why hasn’t this new practice been recognized with its own named discipline, e.g., “compography”? Is it for marketing reasons? Why not have a Compographic Magazine to display great artist, and review software products they use to make their unique contemporary art? I do not understand the barrier in making this discipline autonomous. If photos were fish and you took salmon, tuna, cod, mackerel, filet of sole and added spices, cream of mushroom and peas, then baked them in the oven, you end up with a fish, but with a seafood casserole.
Mr. Bajac’s view that a big problem (he used the word ‘biggest’) “facing curators and historians is an overflow of images”, but the biggest problem I think is visual acuity. With music and musicians it’s so much simpler. Most every human being can hear and when picking up a violin most quickly discover no talent or skill for playing it, and then to our chagrin we find it has no Auto setting. Nearly every human can see and pick up a camera, which does have an auto setting to allow everyone to add to the glut of photos.
There’s something about photos. They are like babies, and to the taker who gives them birth, in the “eye of the beholder”, they are perfect, special, and beautiful. What is often missing with the general public and even those in the “the judgment seat” position of photography (and other visual disciplines) is the visual acuity. The art of meaningful seeing has taken a serious and dedicated photographer a long time to develop and at the same time skill to creatively execute what they see. This is not meant to be critical of those on the outside looking in or on the periphery of the discipline. It’s only to say “it takes one to know one” can be best in adding focus to circles of confusion.
There is no difficulty in determining what a photograph is; it can record, creatively document, and reach the level of art. As with all disciplines the higher aspirations the greater the circles of confusion, because it exponentially reduces the number of viewers, be they also curators and critics, who have a higher understanding for judging the discipline. This shortcoming is most often disguised by the confusion of politics, and this is why the resurrection of a great artist, such as Vincent Van Gogh, comes after death by the judgment of historical time.
Isn’t the work of Charles Ray, “Plank Piece I-II” a conceptual performance, only to be recorded by the camera? Aren’t books of photographs, for instance, about body painting simply recording the art of the discipline, with painting on the body being the art? There are many things photographed that use the camera as a recording device and do not weigh in on the art of photography. Let me hasten to say documenting the news is highly advanced by the skills and talent of a great photographer. I agree with Christopher McCall, whether photography can be art is no longer a question.
Most photographs in the overflow of images is not art. Architectural blueprints, fine concentric circles scratched and embossed on chromogenic paper can be art images, but not photographic art. The question I is why those as well as digitally manipulated and altered images can’t be allowed to leave the circle of confusion. Film/movies enjoy such a divergent set of categories all able to bask in the glory of Oscar, why can’t other disciplines, possibly aligned with photography, enjoy their own limelight? Is it due to maximizing marketing dollars by throwing everything into the same magazine bin; is it indecisiveness in not having a clear understanding of conventional and unconventional processes; is it lacking confidence to stand by a commitment to a decisive moment, that is, is it safer in the state of confusion; or is it simply pleasure of the debate and the power of ambiguity that puts it all in limbo?
One thing is for sure, limbo is not good for the artist representing any of these disciplines. There is one more very important circle of confusion not to be overlooked, and that is the one that overcomes the collector and buyer of photography and other artistic disciplines. When the art on display is confusing to the buyer, making them ask what am I looking at, you have a problem. Art is far less likely to sell and/or receive accolades for his/her work if it resides in ambiguity and a circle of confusion and that is certainly detrimental and a disservice to any artist.
In the 21st Century the theory of creative destruction has photography playing its role as the bridge in the transformative rise to a new frontier that can only be imagined by images. We can call it “Compography”, but photography and its art remains very much alive. It would be premature to cut the cord to the mother ship, and as far as floating in space I always ask in humor, as I ask you now, do you ever see art on the walls of the Starship Enterprise. Well, have you? Oh yes, if you still have your feet planted on earth check out the gallery-studio using the web address below….
James Schot gallery and photo Studio
2800 N Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale, Florida 33306
ART & DESIGN
The Next Big Picture
With Cameras Optional, New Directions in Photography
By PHILIP GEFTERJAN. 23, 2014
VIEW SLIDE SHOW|10 PHOTOS
Charles Ray/Museum of Modern Art
At first glance, viewers of “What Is a Photograph?” opening on Jan. 31 at the International Center of Photography, will not even recognize the work on the wall as photographic. There is no easily identifiable subject, no clear representational form.
“The show does not answer the question,” said Carol Squiers, the show’s curator. “It poses the question. It is an open question, and that’s why I find this period in photography so exciting.”
Ms. Squiers pointed to Travess Smalley, who cuts shapes from magazine pages and colored paper and composes them into photo collages directly on a scanner. He considers the scan the negative for the print. “He doesn’t necessarily call the result a ‘photograph,’ “ she said, but she wasn’t ready to define exactly what it was.
Photography is vastly different in these early years of the 21st century, no longer the result of light exposed to film, nor necessarily lens based. As digital technology has all but replaced the chemical process, photography is now an increasingly shape-shifting medium: The iPhone, the scanner and Photoshop are yielding a daunting range of imagery, and artists mining these new technologies are making documentation of the actual world seem virtually obsolete.
“Practices have changed,” said Quentin Bajac, the Museum of Modern Art’s new chief curator of photography, one of four curators at major institutions who spoke of the opportunities and obstacles of their jobs at this pivotal moment — photography’s identity crisis.
The shift of focus from fact to fiction, and all the gradations in between, is perhaps the largest issue in the current soul-searching underway in photography circles. Questions swirl: Can the “captured” image (taken on the street — think of the documentary work of Henri Cartier-Bresson) maintain equal footing with the “constructed” image (made in the studio or on the computer, often with ideological intention)?
Museums, for their part, are debating whether photography should remain an autonomous medium or be incorporated into a mash-up of disciplines in contemporary art. And photography curators, too, are questioning the quality and validity of new practices, as the ever-morphing ubiquity of social media challenges the singularity of the photographic image.
“The biggest problem facing curators and historians of photography,” Mr. Bajac said, “is the overflow of images.”
MoMA, the first museum to create an autonomous department of photography, in 1940, perpetuated the idea that documentation of the actual world as in the work of Eugène Atget, Walker Evans and Robert Frank was the backbone of photographic art making. Mr. Bajac’s predecessors — Beaumont Newhall, Edward Steichen, John Szarkowski and Peter Galassi — presided over the field from what critics have, at times disparagingly, called “the judgment seat.” Mr. Bajac acknowledges a definite change in that paradigm.
“Today, MoMA is only one of the judgment seats,” Mr. Bajac said. “We’re writing one history of photography, while other people or institutions are writing simultaneous histories.”
Asked why he thought he was offered the job at MoMA, Mr. Bajac, impeccable and youthful at 48, surmised that “someone who is not American, who is not linked or connected to that long history of photography, is more appropriate now.” He arrived at the museum from Paris, where he had been chief curator of photography at the Pompidou Center and before that at the Musée d’Orsay.
In his inaugural exhibition, “A World of Its Own: Photographic Practices in the Studio,” which opens on Feb. 8, the focus is on the practice in the photographer’s studio as opposed to the aesthetics of the print, a clear shift in emphasis from museum canon. The works on view, drawn from MoMA’s archives and arranged thematically, include 19th-century and contemporary material, and film and video.
This idea of the studio as both a laboratory and playground is exemplified by Charles Ray’s diptych, “Plank Piece I-II” (1973), showing the artist pinned to the studio wall, in two different ways, by a large wooden plank — a conceptual performance for the camera.
A 2008 work by Walead Beshty of Los Angeles, who creates photograms — cameraless pieces — by exposing photographic paper to colored lights, verges on pure abstraction. Mr. Bajac said he was among the younger generation of artists in the recent New Photography series at MoMA whose “practices are entirely studio-based.”
Many works in the show are by international artists like Constantin Brancusi, who considered his studio as much a photographic subject as his sculpture. Another such artist is Geta Bratescu of Romania, who lived in her Bucharest studio in the 1970s, during the Communist regime of Nicolae Ceausesu, and made a 17-minute film, “L’atelier” (“The Studio,” 1978) acquired by Mr. Bajac for MoMA, signaling the recognition of video in a photographic context.
“For Bratescu, of course, the studio was a place of open expression,” the curator said, an escape from the pressure to create propagandist art glorifying Ceausescu.
Mr. Bajac also explores the studio backdrop, an artifice that divorces the subject from context — “The model or subject becomes a kind of specimen in scientific terms,” he said — and the use of props and costumes for portraiture, from the draped curtain behind an Auguste Belloc nude in the 1850s to Cindy Sherman disguises in 1983.
“Taking people away from their natural circumstances and putting them into the studio in front of a camera did not simply isolate them, it transformed them,” Irving Penn said, in a quotation on the gallery wall.
Matthew Witkovsky, the curator of photography at the Art Institute of Chicago, echoed a growing consensus among curators that, today, the field is more pluralistic. “One wants not a judgment seat,” he argued, “but strong judgment.”
In the past, the role of the curator required tireless advocacy for the medium’s legitimacy. Christopher McCall, the 38-year-old director of Pier 24, a museum-caliber private photography center in San Francisco with roughly twice the gallery space for photography as MoMA, sees that battle as ancient history.
“For myself and my generation, whether photography is art has never even been the question,” he says.
Today, the job calls for distinguishing serious photographic art making within the vast, visual cacophony of image making. What criteria are to be applied to what is called a “photograph” when digital technology has revolutionized where, how and how often pictures are viewed?
The wall-size photographic print was already the rage in Chelsea galleries at the turn of the century (the 21st, that is), as digital files replaced the film negative. Thanks to scanners that can read imagery with optical fidelity, the evolution from chemical process to digital is nearly complete.
Yet several works in “A Sense of Place,” at Pier 24 through May 1, pose more questions than answers. Eric William Carroll’s large diazotype prints — a process used for architectural blueprints — fill the gallery with blue-tinted shadows that resemble leaves, evoking a walk in the forest. For “24 HRS in Photos,” Erik Kessels downloaded and printed every photo uploaded to Flickr in 24 hours; an avalanche of images tumbles down — wedding photos, selfies and “sexties” — the democratization of art made tangible, and threatening.
Lucia Koch, a Brazilian artist, registers a welcome degree of wit in her digital exploration of perceptual, as opposed to technical, anomaly: Her photograph appears to be a sun-filled hallway; in fact, it is the interior of a spaghetti box with two cellophane windows.
At the International Center for Photography, Ms. Squiers asked the essential question that permeates the field: What even constitutes a photograph?
While younger artists are incorporating chemical processes into their experiments with digital techniques, many “are still finding this need to make an object,” Ms. Squiers said.
An example is Marco Breuer, who has several works on display with no visible relationship to photographic imagery. His work “Spin” consists of fine concentric circles scratched and embossed on chromogenic paper. The camera-less process still requires emulsion and developer, but the result is a one-of-a-kind handmade object.
Ms. Squiers also included the work of Christopher Williams, whose photographs compose an inventory of increasingly obsolescent film-based equipment — cameras, lenses and darkroom gear — as beautiful and precise as catalog product shots. The accompanying text adds detail about how the equipment was used. Such scrutiny suggests, with elegiac clarity, the end of the chemical era in photography.
Mr. Witkovsky, at the Art Institute of Chicago, is giving Mr. Williams his first museum retrospective, beginning this month, in a traveling show, “The Production Line of Happiness.”
“This is a fully arrived ‘history of art’ in photography,” Mr. Witkovsky said of the work by Mr. Williams, who applies an art historian’s scrutiny to the social and historical implications of the medium in the mid-20th century.
Mr. McCall, of Pier 24, acknowledged that a curatorial consensus on the photography’s future has not been reached. “There has to be some photographic process involved, some piece of technology that we acknowledge as photographic, but I don’t think it means it has to be lens-based,” he said. (But don’t feel bad for the auteurs of representational photography in the digital age: Shown at Pier 24 are also Thomas Demand, Andreas Gursky and Paul Graham — whose photographic documentation of the “authentic” moment continues a stalwart tradition.)
Mr. McCall dismissed the notion that experimentation with unconventional processes or the overabundance of images poses any threat to contemporary photography. “It’s a benefit,” he said, encouraging curators “to analyze and think about images because they’re everywhere.”
Trying to define what a photograph is today situates the curator at a new frontier, Ms. Squiers suggested. While it’s unclear where the medium is headed, she is certain that contemporary photographers are doing something that is disorienting yet ultimately transformative.
“You feel like the cord to the mother ship has been cut,” she said, “and now you’re floating in space.”