In this series, I’ve been putting out a few thoughts related to photographer Peter Lik’s recent record-breaking sale of his black-and-white photograph “Phantom” for $6.5M USD. I’ve put out even more thoughts on the criticism of Lik’s photograph and sale, and indeed all of photography, from a December 2014 article by art critic Jonathan Jones. If you haven’t read them yet, you can go back to review Part 1 and Part 2 of this series to catch up.
Jones’ recent articles claiming that photography isn’t an art form don’t really add anything to that tired old debate, a debate that in my opinion was settled decades ago — concluding that yes, Virginia, there is photography as art. Despite the debate not being a thing any more, I decided to address some of his key points. Jones is an experienced art critic and journalist writing in a significant publication. While I’m neither of those things, and don’t want to fall into the trap of “feeding the trolls” on the interwebs, I also didn’t want to let his ideas pass unchallenged. In my opinion they’re completely misguided.
In the Part 2, I argued against Jones’ tagline for his December article. In it, Jones summarized his position like this: “Peter Lik’s hollow, cliched and tasteless black and white shot of an Arizona canyon isn’t art – and proves that photography never will be.” I absolutely disagree. Ironically, Jones himself had it right in his own early 2013 article where he claimed that “photography is the serious art of our time.” Now that’s more like an idea I can get behind.
Why Jones has had such a turn-about in his thinking, I can’t say. But to clearly show why I disagree with his criticism circa late 2014, let’s see if I can dismantle his next mistaken claim.
Bogus Claim #2: “Photography is not an art. It is a technology.”
Jones further builds on the shaky foundation of his tagline in the first paragraph of the December 2014 article:
Photography is not an art. It is a technology. We have no excuse to ignore this obvious fact in the age of digital cameras, when the most beguiling high-definition images and effects are available to millions. My iPad can take panoramic views that are gorgeous to look at. Does that make me an artist? No, it just makes my tablet one hell of a device.
Sorry, but this claim is far from an “obvious fact”. In actuality, we have several more examples of Jones not establishing his position. First off is a repeat of the opening idea that photography is not art; but simply asserting something over and over doesn’t make it true. This is another type of rhetorical tactic, the proof by assertion fallacy. The theory is that if I state something often and loudly enough, maybe I can fool people into realizing I don’t actually have any basis for the claim.
Jones does try to build some substance by adding a new wrinkle — that photography is just nothing but a technology. Since he presumably feels everyone would agree that mere technology is not art, therefore photography also is not art. This is easy to see through, because it’s another debate error… the appeal to equality fallacy. If I can’t prove one statement, I’ll just assert that it’s equal to another statement that’s easier to prove, or even accepted as a given without additional support.
Related to this is the association fallacy — if I can associate my claim with some other statement based on something the two have in common, maybe the other statement makes it easier to slide my main claim across. For example, computers and software are digital technology and we all agree that computers aren’t art. Well, cameras today are also digital technology, so photography must not be art. Presto change-o! In both cases, as long as nobody notices my sleight of hand in substituting one point for another, I might get away with not having to give any real reasons for my claim.
Let’s look closer at this statement about technology. I argue it’s untrue that photography is technology; rather, it’s a visual form created using technology. “Is” and “created using” are two different things. Has Jones never heard of the potential for things to be more than the sum of their parts? Since when do we define the results of a creative process to be limited to nothing more than the tools and materials employed? If photography is only technology, then is painting only some plant fibres coated in a mix of minerals and oils, slathered on with animal hairs bound to stick? To the contrary, I say that any process that can produce a creation that connects at an aesthetic, emotional, symbolic level between creator and viewer is working at a level beyond mere technology.
I argue that artists throughout history have used the technologies of their day, and have also fought against the constraints of those same tools and materials, to create artworks that rise above the mere level of technical exercises. Certainly photography is capable of doing this. Photographs may be created using technology, but great photographs — like all other great visual artworks — can impact viewers in ways that have nothing to do with the technologies that were used to produce the photographs.
High-tech or low, film or digital, the technology is irrelevant when you experience the final result. I’ve seen work of photography masters from Edward Steichen, Ansel Adams and Yousuf Karsh, to more latter day masters such as Freeman Patterson, Sebastião Salgado or Galen Rowell, to contemporary work from Guy Tal, Darwin Wiggett and Bryan Adams… to name only a few. These are photographers — yes, artists — whose work has made an impact on me, and technical concerns were far from my primary thoughts when seeing their work.
Looking at it from another direction, technology is employed by all art forms, including painting which Jones appears to hold up as the arch art form. Every art relies on tools, techniques, media and materials, all of which drag along a substantial technology base with them. Look at what goes into the development of dyes and pigments for paints or inks. Or examine the history of different types of papers and other media. Jones may take pigments and papers for granted, but they represent hundreds (in some cases thousands) of years of materials science and technical development.
The same is true in various ways for other art forms — drawing, sculpture, glass work, print-making, weaving, writing, music, you name it. Even seemingly “pure” human-based art forms like singing or dancing today benefit from technologies involved in kinesiology or the study of voice acoustics, for example. Shall we say that all forms employing technology in any way actually aren’t art? That’s clearly ridiculous, and would quickly mean the end of virtually every known form of “art” — although we would still create all of those forms. In fact, looking even briefly at art, it becomes clear that new technology has always played a role in the evolution of both existing and new art forms. Throughout history, artists have seized on new technologies to make art in new ways, or to make entirely new art. On seeing early daguerrotype photographs in the mid-1800’s, French painter Paul Delaroche famously declared “henceforth painting is dead”… such was the impact on him of this new visual form.
Jones attempts to add more substance by dragging in his iPad and digital processing effects. The fact that digital cameras, software and “beguiling high-definition images” now exist has no bearing on whether photography is or is not technology, or is or is not an art form. Likewise, the fact that these new tools are available to millions of people doesn’t reduce the legitimacy of those who use the tools to create art.
Fine art photographer Dan Burkholder uses an iPhone and mobile editing apps (among other digital tools), combining these with classic wet darkroom printing techniques to create amazing artworks. What millions of other people are doing with their iPhones doesn’t detract from Burkholder’s work in the slightest. Painter David Hockney has been doing digital painting, photography and composite works, by the way including use of iPhones and iPads. Are these not artworks, and is Hockney no longer an artist?
Though Jones overlooks it in this article, it’s important to recognize that film-based photography continues to exist; whatever it was, it still is. Different types of technology have been involved in photography since its inception — optics in lenses, mechanical functions in apertures and shutters, chemistry in film and print development, materials in glass or film plates, metal and paper print media, and more. Many of these remain largely intact as they were at the beginning, sometimes now quaintly described as “alternative process”.
Adding digital to the mix is a matter of having an additional technology base to work with, but the photographic process at its core is still the same as it ever was — using optics to channel light onto a photosensitive layer where it’s captured in a form that can be developed further, and then rendering the results visible on physical media. Indeed, some photographic artists, like Burkholder, are mashing up both traditional and digital tools and techniques.
Photography is and always has been an end-to-end creative process, whose components have changed periodically based on advances in technology. The use of digital makes no difference to the essence of photography; and just as with other art forms, the essence of photographic art is not bound up entirely in the process of its creation. Rather, it’s found in the final works that express the creative intent of the artist and evoke responses in the audience. This is key, and lies at the heart of this part of Jones’ mistaken position.
Jones incorrectly asserts that “photography is a technology”, confusing the tools used to create a thing with the nature of the thing itself. In attempting to cement this idea, he makes a final error — stating that a person isn’t an artist just by virtue of possessing some kind of tool. So Jones has an iPad that can take panoramic photos. Does that make him an artist? No, he triumphantly declares, as if this somehow demonstrates that nobody at any time who uses any camera could possibly be an artist. However, once again, he makes a hasty generalization error. Jones admitting that he’s not an artist because he can make iPad snapshots says nothing about any other photographers’ work.
A person can possess a fancy kitchen with every kind of implement, and not be a chef; does that mean everyone with high-end culinary gear is not a chef? A person could pound the keys of a word processor all day long, and not be a poet; does that mean anyone who uses a writing instrument is not a poet? A would-be painter could use the same watercolors, brushes and papers that Picasso employed, without being an artist — what does that mean about all other painters? Nothing, that’s what. If photography is art, which I maintain it is, it’s equally true that simply having a camera or taking a picture doesn’t turn a person into an artist. So what? It’s irrelevant, because people who are artists do use the tools of their art.
Being an artist involves more than simply using the tools and technologies employed by those who are artists. Make no mistake — virtually all artists use technology in some fashion. But being an artist also involves more than the technology, if the goal is to make artworks that rise above the ranks of the technical practitioners. It takes mastery of the process and its tools, combined with intent. It takes imagination and a knowledgeable application of aesthetics. And it encompasses creative goals that are subjective, interpretive and expressive. Jones’ assertion that photography isn’t art because it’s just a technology is both false and irrelevant. It does nothing to counter his own previous recognition that “photography is the serious art of our time.”
In Part 4, I’ll address another Jones claim — “The fact that it [‘Phantom’] is in black and white should give us pause. Today, this deliberate use of an outmoded style can only be nostalgic and affected, an ‘arty’ special effect.”
Side Note: Next week, from January 15 – 19, I’m co-leading the Winter Monochrome Masterclass, along with Olivier Du Tré and Costas Costoulas of Calgary’s Resolve Photo. We’ll look at the tools and techniques of black-and-white photography and printing, but through the lens of artistic expression. We’re looking forward to spending an intensive several days with a small group of photographers to help them further develop their B&W photography and printing style. Click through the link if you’re interested in details; some spots remain open, but only a few days remain to join us.
Technology and art sometimes seem to be at odds… but do you agree that artists have always employed technology in creative ways that go beyond the technical? Do you find that digital technology makes it easier or harder to concentrate on artistic intent with photography? Feel free to share your thoughts…
Today I’m sharing a few more favourite images from the recent Fall Photography Tour based at Aurum Lodge in David Thompson Country, this time provided by John Gobey. John joined us from Chicago. Coincidentally, though they didn’t know each other before, John shares his home base as a connection with our other US participant Kerry Leibowitz (who splits his time between the Chicago and Indianapolis areas). A second coincidence is that John was up in Alberta to do some training for a company where my wife currently works.
I’ve observed before that the Canadian Rockies is a place where it seems you can meet almost anyone. Like certain other special places on this earth, it has a powerful attraction for many people. In any random group standing around the Rockies somewhere, you can often find surprising connections.
John is a fellow Pentax shooter, and was as deeply into our photography opportunities as anyone in the group. I always enjoy working with people who aren’t motivated only by checking off their lists of “trophy shots”, but are willing to explore locations and look for compositions. Even in areas where it’s not initially clear what there may be to photograph! On our tours we do try to provide good variety in locations and subject matter, but we don’t march in lock-step to some artificial timetable. We work the locations according to the light, conditions and group interests… if there’s something to shoot, we shoot. We move when we’re good and ready to explore something different.
Thanks for joining us John, and stay warm down there in Chicago… :)
I’m a retired Chemical Engineer, still working occasionally teaching technology courses to new graduates. I have always had an interest in photography. In the last three years, I’ve devoted more time to developing my craft and joined a couple of local camera clubs here in the Chicago area. The 2014 Fall Tour with Royce, Dan and Alan was my very first experience of an intensive photo course and I must say, I enjoyed every minute. My goal for the tour was to be a sponge and absorb everything I could from everyone in the party and I’m happy to say, mission accomplished!
I’m still trying to find my photographic niche. Having travelled extensively with my job, I find I’m compelled to rush from scene to scene trying to capture everything in too little time. I feel the resulting record shots lack artistry and so far, have failed to create an identity for my work. The tour experience allowed me time to use the tripod and consequently, to slow down and watch the light develop the scene.
For each of the images submitted, I used a Pentax K-30 and the kit 18-135mm lens. All images were post-processed in HDR using Photomatix PRO 5 and finished in ACDSee PRO 8.
My gratitude to Royce for his valuable mentoring, to Ellen, Kim and Kerry for their warm companionship, to Alan and Madeleine for their wonderful hospitality (and portable air pump!) and not least to Dan for watching my back at all times and providing muscle when mine proved inadequate…
~ John Gobey
Made at Cline River Bridge on the first full day. A circular polarizer brought out the clouds and I processed with gradients to further darken the sky and, separately, the foreground, to make the stand of Aspen pop.
I wandered away from the group and found this perspective from under the bridge abutments. HDR processing revealed some great depth and richness to the colors in the river, rocks and trees.
Again, I find the delight of HDR is revealing details and a richness of colors not evident in a single image. It captures some of the excitement of shooting film as you never know quite what you might get as it develops. Here the saturation is a little intense as it shows the image better in the CACCA competition light boxes.
Made at the Cline River boat launch. Royce cautioned to always look behind us, a lesson well learned. Even in the harsh midday light, HDR evened out the tones between highlights and shadows, making for an image with pleasing interplay of colors and textures.
A more subtle use of HDR to bring out the rose tint of the evening light. I customarily set white balance manually to daylight to prevent the camera washing out the subtle color shift, especially in the golden hours, and then tweak WB in post to achieve the look I want.
The final morning and by then, I was feeling very comfortable with my newly learned routine and was content to let the light develop and the clouds to align with the peaks. A perfect memory of a wonderful tour.
In the first part of this series I posted a few opening thoughts about recent discussions fine art photographer Peter Lik triggered, when he announced the sale of his black-and-white photograph “Phantom” for a record-setting $6.5M USD. Rather than directly commenting on Lik’s work or whether I thought the photograph is worth the price, instead I indicated my plans to take on the position of art critic Jonathan Jones who posted his thoughts on the sale. Jones attempted a beat-down, not only of Lik’s photograph and its selling price, but of black-and-white photography as a visual style, and indeed the entire body of photography as an art form.
As recently as early 2013 in another article in The Guardian, Jones himself wrote that “photography is the serious art of our time.” But in his December 2014 article for The Guardian, Jones claimed this in the title and tagline:
The $6.5m canyon: it’s the most expensive photograph ever – but it’s like a hackneyed poster in a posh hotel
Peter Lik’s hollow, cliched and tasteless black and white shot of an Arizona canyon isn’t art – and proves that photography never will be.
As I suggested in Part 1, Jones’ most recent article is pretty much logic-challenged; if there’s any debate about whether or not photography is art, clearly Jones is debating with himself first and foremost. But I wanted to address some of his key points because they’re not just about his liking or disliking of Peter Lik’s work or the price tag of this big sale. Rather, Jones’ argument seeks to undermine the creative identity of every photographic artist. I say bollocks to that — if you’re a photographer who also identifies primarily as an artist, go for it. The 2013 version of Jones was right, while the 2014 Jones is dead wrong.
Let’s see why there’s nobody at the controls of the logic train in Jones’ most recent article.
Bogus Claim #1: “Peter Lik’s hollow, cliched and tasteless black and white shot of an Arizona canyon isn’t art – and proves that photography never will be.”
This is the tagline summing up Jones’ December 2014 article, so I’ll start with it. It’s a grandiose, sweeping statement that my nephew would have had no trouble at all dismantling in his former high-school debate club. Here, Jones claims that Lik’s “Phantom” is “hollow, cliched and tasteless.” Well, perhaps. That’s Jones’ opinion, and in a free society he’s certainly entitled to it. Since Jones is an experienced critic, judge and journalist working in the art world for a long time, presumably we must grant some credibility to his viewpoint about this specific photograph.
But Jones quickly ups the ante by moving on to claim that not only is “Phantom” not art, but it proves no photography ever can be art. To see why Jones claims this, you have to sort through the rest of his article and then do a lot of crooked reading between the lines. It looks to me like the core of his argument is that the photograph is monochrome, which Jones feels is an invalid treatment. (More on this later.) Also that “Phantom” is a hackneyed scene from a heavily-photographed, iconic slot canyon in Arizona; Jones clearly doesn’t believe the photograph has any sort of originality. From that point, he jumps forward sight-unseen, straight into a giant gap in reasoning.
Okay, it’s true, Antelope Canyon has been photographed a million times, and most photographs of it have little originality. Most are in colour, but even the reference B&W treatment of the place probably is already a lock, having been so amazingly realized by Bruce Barnbaum. But so what? As far as I know, there’s no requirement that every artist be 100% original, or that every work of art must 100% avoid all derivative aspects. In fact, if you read Austin Kleon’s great little book “Steal Like An Artist” — and you definitely should read it! — then you learn that the opposite more likely is true. Most artists are standing on the shoulders of and influenced by those who came before. I mostly agree with Kleon’s thesis:
Nothing is original, so embrace influence, school yourself through the work of others, remix and reimagine to discover your own path.
Total innovation may be possible in some cases, but the truth is that it’s not necessary to be obviously unique in each piece of work, to be an artist making real art. I believe it’s a false target to be worried first about producing work that looks different than anything people have seen before. Rather, it’s a far better goal to be personal and authentic as an artist… and you can do that even if you produce pieces that bear some resemblance to something that has gone before. Your personal stamp will take hold more in the body of your work over time.
Does Peter Lik’s “Phantom” bear his stylistic stamp; is it congruent with his body of work? The press release doesn’t provide any details about the “Phantom” print — not even size, media, etc. Unless any of us have seen the photograph in one of Lik’s galleries, really all we have to go on is the tiny little web image. But Lik has a signature style and he’s likely pretty keen to maintain his reputation for it. So understanding the nature of his photography, especially based on seeing it in person rather than just looking at tiny little web images, I suspect the answer would be, “yes — ‘Phantom’ fits with Lik’s body of work”. The fact that it’s a photograph made in a place that has been heavily photographed by others bears little relevance in my mind, as to whether or not it’s art.
So… if Jones claims that “Phantom” is not art only because it’s not unique and from a location often seen, I disagree. But even if Jones got that right, he goes on to really jump the shark, claiming that “Phantom” proves that all of photography never will be art. This is a colossal blunder in debate terms. It’s an example of a logical fallacy, in fact two of them: a hidden decision fallacy combined with a hasty generalization. You start with a claim of limited facts (which may not be open, true or agreed upon), and based on them you make a sweeping conclusion that isn’t at all supported by those “facts”.
Here’s how it works:
- Peter Lik’s “Phantom” is hollow, cliched and tasteless. That’s Jones’ opinion. Opinion, not fact, since a fact is something that can be objectively verified and must be agreed upon to serve as the foundation for a conclusion that itself isn’t merely another personal opinion. But I think it’s quite possible to imagine that somebody with experience could argue the opposite — that Lik’s “Phantom” is a creative take on a classic iconic location. I could take a run at it myself, but let’s consider Jones’ own words from the self-same article: “Lik’s photograph is of course beautiful in a slick way […] The monochrome detailing of the canyon is sculptural enough, and a shaft of sunlight penetrating its depths becomes the phantom of the title.” So Jones recognizes that the photograph possesses beauty, form and symbolism, all of which seem to pass the bar for a work of art. Yet Jones decries it in another paragraph as “derivative, sentimental in its studied romanticism, and consequently in very poor taste.” Herein lies the difference between facts and opinions: individuals of equal sense and experience are allowed to differ on opinions, while facts are not subject to debate. When Jones himself provides mixed messages about the qualities of “Phantom”, it’s far from clear that he’s standing on fact when takes his next step.
- Because Lik’s “Phantom” is hollow, cliched and tasteless, it is not art. This is the hidden decision fallacy, and relies on the unstated (and I think false) idea that art can’t be hollow, cliched or tasteless, whether at the time it was created or on later review in a different context. Art has all kinds of qualities, and it simply isn’t the case that all art made throughout history has been always judged as 100% “good”. Jones can’t jump to the conclusion that “Phantom” isn’t art just because of his claim of its inferior quality. This is the problem with confusing “degree of something” with “kind of something” — where someone tries to argue that because something has a lesser degree of a quality, it must be an entirely different kind of thing. Not at all. While not everything is art, to be sure, art is a big tent and encompasses an incredible range and diversity of works. Old-painting-masters-height-of-their-powers fine art of the sort that Jones clearly admires isn’t the only kind of art. Apprentice- and journeyman-made art is still art. Pop art and appropriation art is still art. Commercial and decorative art is still art. Hollow, cliched and tasteless art is also still art… even bad art is still art. This step in advancing the position is a stumble.
- Because “Phantom” is a photograph and is not art, all photographs are not art. This is the real howler, where Jones goes from a single case and generalizes to the entire body of all photography. This type of hasty generalization fallacy is something one learns to avoid in an introductory study of logic or rhetoric, and presumably also journalism. Asserting a small number of dodgy claims about one member of a group isn’t sufficient to safely make sweeping generalizations about the entire group; there are standards of evidence and proof in making such claims. Jones certainly provides no such proof in the article. Even if “Phantom” isn’t art, this has nothing to do with all other photographs made before or after it. The idea that it proves anything — let alone that photography never will be art — is laughable. At this point the stumble is a collapse.
The sloppy and slippery nature of Jones’ escalating claims in the article tagline seems to stem from his premature conclusion that photography can’t be art, rather than coming at it the other way around. His opinions about the quality of “Phantom” just reinforce his position while he glosses over any number of obvious questions. (This is also known as “confirmation bias”, another big no-no in logic and journalism.)
In reality, he fails to persuade that “Phantom” is not art; and even if that was true, he shows no reason to believe that “Phantom” in any way proves that all of photography isn’t art. The entire premise is doubly bizarre in the context of Jones’ own counter-claim from January 2013 — that “photography is the serious art of our time.”
In Part 3, I’ll take on Jones’ next bogus claim, namely that “photography is not an art. It is a technology.” I hope you’ll check back for it.
Side Note: This month, from January 15 – 19, I’m co-leading the Winter Monochrome Masterclass, along with Olivier Du Tré and Costas Costoulas of Calgary’s Resolve Photo. All three of us believe the B&W photographic print is a legitimate form of artistic expression. We’re looking forward to spending an intensive several days with a small group of photographers to help them further develop their B&W photography and printing style. Click through the link if you’re interested in details; some spots remain open, but group size is limited.
What do you think — does art have to be “good” to be considered art? Or is there such a thing as bad art? Who gets to say if art is good or bad, or what it should be worth, for someone else? Feel free to share your opinions and facts…
Hold on, now… before anyone gets steamed up at the title of this post, I’m being ironic with it. You’ll see why in what follows. Fair warning, this is will be lengthy; but as I said to somebody recently, “I don’t write for people who don’t want to read.” This is probably related to the fact that I also don’t photograph for people who don’t want to look at photographs for more than a split-second at a time. :) However, due to the length, I have at least decided to be merciful and break this up into several parts.
A new year has just arrived. One of my photography goals for 2015 is to print more. Especially black-and-white work. I love the printed photograph. Electronic images are fine, and convenient to share, but print is really the form in which I believe photographs are best experienced… even if it’s just me looking at my own photographs.
If you’re interested in photography too, but haven’t ever really dug into print, I encourage you to do so. Go to exhibits at museums or galleries to see master prints, buy some high quality photo books, get your own photographs printed and hang them on a wall. Whatever you choose, you may find that the printed photograph takes on a different sort of life once it’s off the screen and into physical space, where you can experience it for a period of time. It’s a gift to good, interesting or meaningful photographs to be printed well. In turn, a good print is a gift to viewers who take the time to really look at it, to read it. Prints can be a refuge from the distractions of an electronic torrent of “content” that otherwise threatens to overwhelm the real meaning and best experience of photographs.
When interesting things happen in the world of photographic print, I enjoy following the developments. Photographer Peter Lik made the news recently, sending out PR that a print of his black-and-white photograph “Phantom” has broken the world record for the most expensive photograph ever sold. The price tag was $6.5M USD, paid by unnamed private collector, who also purchased a couple of other prints for a combined sale of around $10M USD. You can read the press release for the few details that were published about the sale.
Peter Lik is a somewhat polarizing figure in photography circles. Along with the usually vividly-coloured, large format prints featured in his high-end galleries in Las Vegas and elsewhere, he projects a very “larger than life” persona — think Crocodile Dundee with a dash of Steve Irwin, and add a camera. Lik is no shrinking violet in putting himself and his work forward; just read his PR or watch his videos and he’ll tell you. Heck, look at the title of the press release for the recent sale: “Legendary Photographer Peter Lik Shatters World Record With $6.5 Million Sale Of ‘Phantom'”. Most press releases like this are written by the person in question (or their “people”), so this is in effect Lik’s own PR machine declaring himself “legendary”. Some folks like him and his work, others not so much… and this self-promoting style quite likely is a big reason for both responses.
Some commentators are speculating that the news release about this sale may be nothing but a publicity stunt, that there’s no proof of a customer and therefore no proof of a record-breaking sale. Certainly the art establishment by and large hasn’t recognized the valuation of Lik’s work at these levels. Still, for the time being I’m taking the news at face value, unless other information comes to light. If the sale is legitimate, I say more power to him… Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, Peter Lik. :)
Besides Lik himself being somewhat polarizing, there’s also controversy in some quarters around the idea that any photographic print could (or should) sell for large amounts of money. I’ve written a bit about this before, as a tangent on the sale of Andreas Gursky’s “Rhein II” for $4.3M USD. At that time, it was Gursky who set the record for highest priced photograph. That was a controversial enough event, even though Gursky is well-established in high-end fine art photography circles. As soon as I saw the news about “Phantom” my mental gears started turning. I figured the combination of Peter Lik and record-setting price was bound to blow up pretty quick, and it did.
At the moment I don’t want to focus on whether I like Peter Lik’s work or not, whether I think “Phantom” is great art or not, or whether I think it’s worth $6.5M or not. It’s not like Lik needs me to defend him. Suffice it to say that if somebody truly did pay $6.5M for “Phantom”, then there’s a market size of at least one for Lik’s photographs at that price level. QED. Unless there’s fraud or a scam involved, or unless it’s a discussion of what constitutes smart fine art investment for the purposes of profitable resale (i.e. speculative collecting), most of us should just let it go. It doesn’t affect us, really, except as a distant, positive impact on the valuation of photographic art amidst many other forces that seem to be devaluing photography in the age of digital and the internet.
Proof that Photography Will Never Be Art? Not!
The main thing I do want to address is something that could have some effect on newer photographers working as artists. It’s a side “debate” that popped up again following what amounts to a rant disguised as a piece of journalism, written by art critic Jonathan Jones for The Guardian newspaper in early December 2014. Jones’ position in his article is summed up by its title and tagline:
The $6.5m canyon: it’s the most expensive photograph ever – but it’s like a hackneyed poster in a posh hotel
Peter Lik’s hollow, cliched and tasteless black and white shot of an Arizona canyon isn’t art – and proves that photography never will be.
To which I reply, “logic much?” I put “debate” in quotes because the point Jones is arguing really isn’t much of a debate. He states:
[…] the absurd inflated price that has been paid by some fool for this “fine art photograph” will be hailed as proof that photography has arrived as art.
Actually, not at all. Proof that photography is an art form has been fully in evidence for a long time, and the price for which Lik’s “Phantom” has sold isn’t needed to establish any further credibility. Whether you consider the efforts of curators like Alfred Stieglitz or MoMA’s John Szarkowski, or the work of influential art photographers from Oscar Gustave Rejlander, through Edward Steichen and Man Ray, to Michael Kenna and Andreas Gursky (among so many others), photography has been broadly accepted as art for decades.
Of course not all photographers claim to be artists, nor are all photographs art. Perhaps Jones is confused by the dynamic tension that uniquely exists with photography among all visual art forms, related to the way in which photographs visually capture slices of reality. Some photographers simply want to represent reality, while others seek to interpret and creatively express it; the former are mostly documentarians, while the latter are mostly artists.
Certainly Jones’ own stance is so self-inconsistent and logic-challenged as to be barely coherent in making his point. Still, I want to comment on it, because Jones has a supposedly credible stature, and a significant platform. From it, he not only attacks Lik’s “Phantom”, but attempts to undermine the creative identity of every photographic artist. As somebody who self-identifies as an artist working in the medium of photography, including black-and-white, I believe Jones is completely wrong.
According to Jones’ entry on Wikipedia, he is “known for his provocative and sometimes contradictory journalist style”, and that holds true in his recent ramblings about photography. In fact, Jones would seem to be debating with himself, that’s how contradictory he is. In January of 2013 he wrote an article, also for the The Guardian, with the following title, tagline and opening paragraphs:
Photography is the art of our time
The old masters painted the drama of life and death. Today photography captures the human condition – better than any other artistic medium of our age.
It has taken me a long time to see this, and you can laugh at me if you like. But here goes.
Photography is the serious art of our time. It also happens to be the most accessible and democratic way of making art that has ever been invented.
From here, his position eroded drastically. Jones somehow flip-flopped by November of 2014, when he wrote another article for The Guardian with this self-contradictory title and tagline:
Flat, soulless and stupid: why photographs don’t work in art galleries
Photographs can be powerful, beautiful, and capture the immediacy of a moment like nothing else. But they make poor art when hung on a wall like paintings.
Is the man suffering from an undiagnosed brain disease? Has he been replaced by an alien doppelgänger? Is he trolling the interwebs in a transparent attempt to get more eyeballs reading his byline? Maybe some combination of them all, I don’t know. What I do know is that early 2013 Jones had it right, and late 2014 Jones has got it wrong. In case some readers are tempted to fall for 2014 Jones’ word on the matter, I want address several key points he raises about photography and art, and why I utterly disagree with them.
In Part 2 of the series, I’ll tackle Jone’s first bogus claim, that “Peter Lik’s hollow, cliched and tasteless black and white shot of an Arizona canyon isn’t art – and proves that photography never will be.”
Side Note: This month, from January 15 – 19, I’m co-leading the Winter Monochrome Masterclass, along with Olivier Du Tré and Costas Costoulas of Calgary’s Resolve Photo. All three of us believe B&W photography and print are really exciting things, and we’re going to work intensively with a small group of photographers to help them further develop their B&W photography and printing style. Click through the link if you’re interested in details; some spots remain open, but group size is limited.
Is it a settled matter for you that photography is art… or isn’t? Is Peter Lik’s “Phantom” or any other photograph worth $6.5M? Should we just let sleeping trolls lie on both sides of this “debate”, or is it important to still air out perennial topics like what constitutes art and how it should be valued? Feel free to share your thoughts…
Today I’m sharing another set of favourite images from the recent Fall Photography Tour based at Aurum Lodge in David Thompson Country. This set is from Kerry Leibowitz. Kerry is somebody I’ve known casually online for a few years through our mutual membership in the NatureScapes.Net community, but we had never met before this. We corresponded extensively prior to the fall tour since Kerry wanted to make the most of his trip to the Rockies by doing several solo days prior to joining the group. It was a treat to discuss possibilities and then work with somebody with a really intensive focus on soaking up as much as possible from what the region has to offer.
Kerry definitely threw himself fully into the experience. :) He knew his own mind and had clear photographic goals, but equally was open to experience whatever opportunities came our way, or to consider an alternative concept at any given location. I think that’s a great combination of attitudes to have to get the most out of travel and landscape photography. Thanks for joining our group, Kerry!
If you like Kerry’s favourite 5 below, check out more of his work at his web site. And if you enjoy following people who write about their photography experience, then I recommend Kerry’s blog as well.
I don’t often do the tour/workshop thing, but I know that I can frequently benefit from leveraging the locational knowledge of an experienced local photographer as a guide. That was my goal when I decided to join Royce’s Rockies workshop and it turned out to be a very good call on my part. I’ve been seriously photographing landscapes for 17 years, but I’d never had the opportunity to visit the Canadian Rockies prior to this trip. I spent parts of eight days in the region shooting on my own and then joined the tour to close out my two-week trip. Our group was based in David Thompson Country — a part of the region I surely never would have experienced without joining the tour (which would have been a shame). It’s an area that Royce knows extremely well. This was evident every day of the tour as we made the most of all the available light, visiting locations at the most opportune time for image making. After eight days of relying on my own judgment about where to shoot and when, it was kind of nice to turn that responsibility over to someone who obviously had the the experience necessary to make the most of each minute of daylight.
It was both enjoyable and instructive to shoot with Royce, his co-leader Dan Wheeler, and the other tour participants — Ellen, Kim and John — each day, as each person brought his/her own unique set of experiences and proclivities to each location, making for a myriad of approaches to the available subject matter. I had such a good time that I’m hoping to return to the Canadian Rockies for more such experiences next fall.
All images made with a Nikon D800E and one of three lenses: 14/04/2.8; 24-70/2.8; 80-400/4.5-5.6.
On the very first evening of the tour, after a short set of introductions, we headed 15-odd minutes from the lodge to the Kootenay Plains, an area of vast grassland punctuated with stands of aspens and conifers and a backdrop of snowy peaks. As Royce noted in his brief remarks to us as we arrived, this was a location with 360 degree views. I was entranced by this spot, with its compelling elements so splendidly laid out, accented by rapidly changing light and fast moving clouds in a sky that seemed larger than life. I resisted the urge to rush around and capture everything, focusing my attention on the view toward Mt. Peskett, including this image.
At first light on the first full morning of the tour we decamped for the reflecting pools area of the Kootenay Plains, a bit further down the road than the broad grassy meadow that had been the site of the previous evening’s shoot. The primary goal was to photograph reflections in these pools of water — not far from the banks of the Saskatchewan River — at sunrise, but in the early light few clouds were in the eastern sky and a persistent wind killed the reflections. The decision was made to light a candle rather than curse the darkness, so other subjects in the immediate area were sought out, but I always kept one eye, at least figuratively, on the pools, with the hope that conditions would improve. That they did, not long after the sun was up. An array of puffy clouds arrived and the wind died down. I was mesmerized by the resulting symmetry, but managed to produce this image before the resurgent wind obliterated the possibility.
I’m always on the lookout for creating a sense of depth with a telephoto lens, but I don’t often find subject matter that allows me to put the concept into practice. But while photographing aspen forests buttressing both sides of the David Thompson Highway one afternoon, I took a glance up the road. Something I saw caused me to pull out my telephoto zoom and take a look at a compressed view of the scene. Low clouds were cutting across Elliot Peak from this perspective and, at roughly 200 mm, the mountain took on a looming presence that wasn’t evident with a wide angle or normal lens. By including some of the “foreground” trees (hundreds of feet away from my shooting position) the goal of establishing depth was fulfilled.
We were photographing a particularly impressive pre-sunrise scene over Lake Abraham from a rock pile along the highway one morning when the old photographer’s aphorism “always look behind you” popped into my head. Casting a glance over my shoulder, I saw sublime light bathing the face of Elliot Peak. I repositioned myself as quickly as I could and, benefiting from my decision to utilize two camera bodies on this trip, quickly grabbed the one with the telephoto lens attached and composed the shot you see here. It’s probably my favorite peak portrait of the entire trip.
Snowfall of 1-2 inches at the lower elevations greeted us one one morning and during the ensuing day we took a trip to the old coal mining community of Nordegg, which involved a short hike down an abandoned railroad track/trestle. The sun was out brightly that day and I found myself struggling to find compositions that were complemented by the conditions. On the return hike, I was using my copious experience photographing in cluttered natural environs to scope out tight scenes that were in open shade and I luckily stumbled across these fresh aspen leaves in the snow. It was a rare opportunity, at least in my experience, to capture the real time juxtaposition of seasons in an intimate landscape.
I want to take a moment and wish everyone all the best at this traditional holiday time. Whatever your belief system, I hope you’re one of the majority of people who believe that more peace, joy, love, respect and community in the world would be a good thing.
I also hope that together, we do more than just believe it or passively hope for it. It seems there has been such a surge of negative news late this year; I think we need to consciously & actively counter it, each of us as we’re able.
I don’t make “New Year’s resolutions”, because I think there’s no point waiting until an arbitrary date to decide something. But as 2014 is drawing to a close and I look into 2015, I want to better recognize the good people and things in my life, do what I can to pay forward the good fortune I have received, and be better at building community in the areas where I participate. Some of that will be expressed through getting back to more of my own photographic work.
I have a longer post that I’ve been thinking about and working on for some time now. I haven’t posted it, because I want to get the words right for it. Well, right enough.
There’s a key word from that post — “mindful”. I’ve been carrying it around, chewing on it for awhile. Mindful… aware, cognizant, considerate, conscious, attentive, observant. These are all synonyms or related words from the Merriam-Webster online dictionary entry for “mindful”. So is this word — alive.
We’re so busy with everything, whether good, bad or indifferent. We seem to have a culture of “doing”, not so much a culture of “being”. Not a culture of being actively, consciously aware and alive. And even with this pressure to be busy all the time, still some important things aren’t getting done as well as they need to be… things that have to do with better community with each other, and a better relationship with the earth on which we live. Why is that, other than that our sense of priorities needs to be tuned up? I see this even with artists, those who are supposedly seeing, interpreting and expressing their views of the world around them. I see it in myself, certainly.
Being mindful. It seems like a good idea for anyone in a creative pursuit. Or anyone who just wants to be a more engaged member of his or her communities. So Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! And be mindful out there…
As the head of a consulting engineering company, Kim Coulter is a busy man. But he joined our group for this year’s Fall Photography Tour based at Aurum Lodge in David Thompson Country to take a break from a metropolitan form of landscape. Cameras in hand, we explored a different type of structure.
I could clearly see that Kim’s visual approach was informed by his background in architecture and engineering. Despite not being trained in the same way myself, I think I share a somewhat architectural view of the natural landscape. (It’s always interesting to see this type of effect play out; as my friend Peter Carroll likes to say, “you bring ‘you’ to your photography.”) I enjoyed the opportunity to work with Kim, and not just because of the delicious optics he was using with his Leica M 240 camera! :)
Here are 5 favourite images Kim has shared from the tour, along with some background notes and kind words. Thanks for coming out with us, Kim, and for sharing a portion of what you saw and how you saw it…
Being more accustomed to photographing buildings given my background in architecture and engineering, this endeavor was a bit out of my comfort zone. It was also my first time doing HDR on the photos (four of the five) I’ve included.
Royce’s and Dan’s knowledge of the area clearly helped minimize down time looking for the images, albeit the scenery is stunning every where one looks. Thanks guys and also to my colleagues Kerry, John and Ellen. Wrapping up each day back at Aurum Lodge and enjoying Alan and Madeleine’s hospitality was a bonus.
This was a great learning exercise for me and has given me more confidence in landscape photography.
All photos were taken with a Leica M 240, 28 or 50 prime lens, HDR using HDR Expose 3.