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The Beautiful Gift of Outmoded Non-art — Part 3

January 7, 2015
Beware the Feeding, Arizona

Beware the Feeding, Arizona

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.

Rising, Abraham Lake

Rising, Abraham Lake

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.

Flowing Past the Rank and File, Skaftafell National Park

Flowing Past the Rank and File, Skaftafell National Park

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…

6 Comments leave one →
  1. January 7, 2015 13:24

    Such a great and thoughtful series of posts Royce. It will be an honour to be teaching along side you on our workshop next week.

    I just read an interview with Dave Grohl in The Red Bulletin and he says some interesting things that might be relevant to the same discussion.

    “People have forgotten what it’s like to really rock out because they spend all day in front of a freakin’ computer, which they hail as the new god. And they seriously think technology can make them rich, if they stumble on something new. But I’m telling you: technology might make you rich, yet it will never make you happy.”

    “I hope I don’t sound like a boring old fart here, but let’s be honest: it never hurt nobody to practise your instrument, to develop an ear for rhythm and melody.” on the question if making music the analogue way becoming a lost art?

    “I believe that if you’re focused and driven and passionate enough about something that you can do it. Don’t screw everybody else’s expectation, just do it the way you do it. Why do it like somebody else?” on what does it take to make it big in America or the world.

    “Pop music in America right now is so superficial. It’s fun to listen to, to turn up in your car when you’re in traffic, but there’s no substance at all. It’s devoid of any meaning. I’m not just saying that as a 45-year-old rock musician, I’m saying that as a human being. If the number one song is about your butt, that’s a problem.”

    Bottomline I think it is this. You can’t have a discussion about if photography is a technology or an art, if we have nothing of SUBSTANCE to discuss over. As Ansel said: “There’s nothing worse that a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.” If you don’t show me anything that is worthy, then why bother? That’s exactly what you pointed out in your last paragraph. Intend. Something a lot of us are missing these days in making photographs.

    • January 7, 2015 14:18

      Thanks, Oli, great notes from Dave Grohl. I’ve heard a couple of other interviews from him, I like his perspective. 🙂 Get away from the computer as the new god, for sure. That doesn’t mean throw it away or don’t use it — but put it in its proper place. It’s a tool, and it has to serve the creative purpose. Worshiping or arguing over tools, bits & bytes, media, all that stuff is missing the point — as you say the intent has to come into it to understand WHY any of those tool and technique choices were made.

      We’re going to have fun teaching the masterclass… 🙂

  2. March 18, 2015 14:46

    “Rising” reminds me of an Easter Island statue laying on its back and breathing. Very striking.

    • April 19, 2015 10:46

      Thanks very much for stopping by and for your comment, Cemal. There’s definitely that kind of resonance in “Rising”. 🙂

  3. November 2, 2015 06:32

    What an insightful piece of writing, Royce!
    Throughout the series of posts, the way you deconstructed Jones’ article and revealed it as nothing more than attention-seeking click-bait, was a joy to read.

    I especially liked your paragraph;

    “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.”

    The age we live and work in seems (to me) to put focus on innovation and technological advancement above all else. As narrow a view as it is, I suppose it stands to reason that Jones’ writing reflects what most think of these days in terms of what art is, and can / can’t be.

    • November 2, 2015 09:57

      Thanks very much for the comment, Phil! I agree that the modern age of “progress” often seems to carry with it the side effect of throwing out, and sometimes not even acknowledging, what has preceded the current fad. The truth is very few of us are absolute mould-breakers. Almost all of us stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before. But that’s not a bad thing at all, and it doesn’t stop us from making personal work.

      I love Austin Kleon’s take on this in his great book “Steal Like an Artist”. Kleon has quoted something said by director Jim Jarmusch, and I agree 110%: “Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is nonexistent.”

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