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The Beautiful Gift of Outmoded Non-art — Part 1

January 1, 2015
Raindrops Flowing All Around, Kirkjubæjarklaustur

Raindrops Flowing All Around, Kirkjubæjarklaustur

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.

Gearing Down From Some Hot Work, Brazeau Collieries

Gearing Down From Some Hot Work, Brazeau Collieries

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.

Erosion 1, David Thompson Country

Erosion 1, David Thompson Country

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…

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