Book Discussion Group Recap: It's Art, But Is It Photography?

© Luc Delahaye, 132nd Ordinary Meeting of the Conference, 2004

I recently joined Flak Photo and Andy Adams to host an online community conversation on the Flak Photo Books Facebook page focused on essays from Gerry Badger’s book of essays, "The Pleasures of Good Photographs."

This public discussion provided a structured setting for expanding our understanding of the essays by reading collectively.

I am following up on these community conversations with posts that will recap a selection of the ideas we discuss.  These follow-up posts will necessarily be an abbreviated selection given the length and quality of the conversation in the community discussion threads. In many cases, what arose from the conversation were questions, points argued from different sides, and ideas to continue to explore - not conclusions or consensus.

My goal with these follow-up posts is to pull out threads from the weekly discussion that can be applied beyond the individual essays to inform our general understanding of the medium itself.

The follow-up post to the essay, "Literate, Authoritative, Transcendent: Walker Evans's American Photographs" can be found here, to "A Certain Sensibility: John Gossage, the Photographer as Auteur" here, to "Without Author or Art: The 'Quiet' Photograph" here, and to "Elliptical Narratives: Some Thoughts on the Photobook" here.

Today we finish with the follow-up to the final essay "It's Art, But Is It Photography? Some Thoughts on Photoshop." (page 234)


Photoshop’s Effect on Belief in the Photographic Veracity of Photography
London-based photographer Pete Massingham summarized the core issue of the chapter: the effect of Photoshop - and especially the seamless photo montage - on the belief in the veracity of photography.

Massingham wrote: “Photography's relationship to infrastructures of the real (both time and place) is no longer a scheme that we can depend on for evidencing fact. It has always been a sensitive issue, but it is now imbued with far greater uncertainties. Time and place may now be blended without apparent disruption to historical or physical accuracy. But no matter how seamless it might appear, it is nonetheless an illusion at best and a deceit at worst.

The tools within Photoshop represent a radical shift in our ability to re-present not only a more convincing image (in terms of its 'believability') but a more convincing deceit! Consequently, we have now extended and radically altered the parameters in which the visual veracity of reality is experienced and understood.”

Late in the week he added a comment that continued to elaborate on the idea. “Simplified, I think the point I was trying to make was that Photoshop has freed up the potential for ‘photographers’ to explore these possibilities in a seamless manner. The medium [is] no longer grounded in the here and now!”

Has Photoshop indeed changed the way time functions in an image by introducing seamless montage? Does the photograph no longer relate as absolutely to a singular time and place? Or does the alteration of that relationship make a photograph into art or something else?

The “Compugraph”
Going with that last idea of certain types of - or perhaps just extensive - alteration making a photograph into something else, Massingham added a term of his own to the conversation: “Perhaps some images are so heavily altered and affected by Photoshop tools, that they are no longer classifiable as photographs. I have fabricated the word ‘compugraph’ to differentiate between a photographic print which is ‘straight,’ and one which has been heavily manipulated or altered.”

Another contributor raised questions about how and who would define the line between photograph and “compugraph.” She wrote, “The question is: what is the dividing line between record of reality and the more heavily manipulated version? Taking out a factory? Infusing a patina of fog to create mood or mystery? What role does cropping play in creating a ‘fake’ image? Who decides when the photographer has ‘tricked it up’ (Badger’s term)?”

Massingham responded with a proposal: “I think for me the dividing line is when the material of the original scene observed is altered in such a way that it loses a sense of its original authority or semblance. What I am suggesting is that the boundaries of what constitutes photography are being stretched to the point where we may have to consider the possibility it is no longer photography but something else!”

Badger and Photography As Art
Contributor John Armstrong questioned Badger’s claim that Badger views certain types of photography - photography in the documentary mode and phenomenological-based photography generally - as separate from art.

Armstrong writes, “Just ignore temporarily all the stuff he says about art and just pay attention to what he says about photography. How does he talk about it, how does he conceive it, what does he value about it?...Basically, he talks about photography in artistic terms, he conceives of it as art, he values it as art. Aesthetics, formalism, cult of the medium, a self-justifying pursuit with no practical purpose (X for X’s sake).”

Armstrong goes on to suggest a reason Badger wants to make this separation: “He just doesn’t want to call it art, because to do so would be to admit that it’s the same basic stuff as all the art he doesn’t like. Instead he calls it photography, which for him effectively means a second art, separate from but equal to the first. Or if you want, a ‘secession’ from art.”

By questioning Badger’s separation, Armstrong reframed the conversation, arguing that the larger discussions in the book on the relationship between art and photography reduce to smaller questions about two different types of art: “Once you make this step, you will see that all his discussions of the ‘big’ questions, what is art, what is photography, when is photography art and vice versa, etc. reduce to frankly much smaller questions about one kind of art (‘art’) and another (‘photography’). They reduce, essentially, to questions of taste, couched in theoretical (or at least rhetorical) language.”

© Jeff Wall, Dead Troops Talk, 1992

Luc Delahaye, Susan Sontag, and the Constructed Image as Documentary
Armstrong also raised idea that the constructed image may have the ability to function as documentary image. “I think people also need to consider the possibility that the manipulation helps more than it hurts – that is, in terms of strengthening the documentary force of the works in question. It’s worth remembering – and I remind people whenever I get a chance – that in her last book...Susan Sontag singled out as an exemplary documentary photograph none other than Jeff Wall’s 1992 work Dead Troops Talk.” He later added, “What I think Susan Sontag is telling me, so late in her life, is: it’s a very good picture, it makes people think and leads them to understanding; the person who made that picture has done a good thing, whatever was going on in their mind as they did it.”

Digitization Enables the Grand Photographic Gesture?
One of the most interesting conversations of the week revolved around the idea of the artistic “Grand Gesture” in photography.

Massingham started it by writing that the ability to create large images of high fidelity through digitization processes may have given photography the opportunity to make the "grand gesture" in art akin to, for example, history painting: “I do believe that certain galleries are still uncomfortable with photography as an art. I think it is because much of photography, until the advent of digitization, lacked the potential for the grand gesture of painting, as something removed or at least distanced from a utilitarian function. Even when it aspired to such lofty intent, it was still imbued and anchored with that ever-present condition of veracity.”

Armstrong replied by writing, “For me the ‘grand gesture’ is possible with straight photography (i.e. no manipulation), but it does require two technologies that have not always been around: high quality color and high quality prints at very large sizes... Between color and printing technologies it is now possible to make photographic pictures that are as big and as dramatic as history paintings.”

George McClintock countered by asking, “A grand artistic gesture cannot be a small black and white print? I hope the ‘grand gesture’ is a metaphor, not a creation of the art market.”

Massingham responded with his definition: “I think the term is ambiguous at the best of times, but in the context of art and specifically painting, it seems to be used (rightly or wrongly) in contemporary discussions as an indicator for the expression of an alternative, radical, or overt ‘narrative’ - the work more often than not of a large scale.

Personally, I have always felt that scale plays a key part in the definition, as do the technical issues you have highlighted. I am less convinced by the arguments for pre-digital high quality colour - at least in the context and parameters of Badger's essay and what I am alluding to as ‘Grand Gesture.’

I also associate the Grand Gesture with notions of History Painting and the dramatic - often of a moral, religious, or mythological nature. For me the term implies a desire on the part of the artist to communicate a narrative, experience, or issue of immense importance, and in a manner where the physical presence of the work is evocative of the value of that idea.”

Problems of Photographic Acceptance in the Digital Age
Massingham also added in a comment on photography and its historic relationship with the fine art world that, “Photography with its ‘basic simplicity,’ ease of execution, and cultural pervasiveness, all contribute to an undermining of High Art's process of rarification, and as such, it must be shunned until certain strategies are found to make it conform. These may include scale, limited editions, and a return of ideas of authorship, to name but a few. Photography for many is quite simply not enough, not sufficiently and inherently modifiable to suit the ambitions or critical criteria of fine art practice.”

Massingham wrote later in the week about the lack of the maker’s “hand” in the seamless montage photograph, building on the idea that it is photography's ability to hide its modifications that has created its complicated relationship with fine arts.

What he wrote is worth quoting at length to keep the full idea intact:

     What role does individuality (I didn't want to use the word ‘authorship’) play in our acceptance
     or appreciation of a work? Bear with me - I know this isn't a new argument, but perhaps it is one
     that has shifted ground slightly. It is a fact that the art world was resistant to photography due to
     its lack of individual identity. Photographs were too realistic in appearance, too mechanical in
     their production to be art.

     Perhaps the seamless nature and net result of digital works is what makes people (and photographers
     and critics of Badger's ilk) uncomfortable. On the one hand we are presented with a technology that
     expands our ability to Create rather than Take pictures. On the other hand however, this new
     window of opportunity (for the manipulation of events, time, narrative, space, etc.) seems even more
     heavily tethered to the illusion of descriptive reality.

     Perhaps digital works are experiencing the exact same issues that confronted their 19th-century
     forefathers - how does the artist generate a work of art that demonstrates authorship or individuality,
     through a medium whose infrastructure remains true or anchored to, the descriptive illusion of
     reality? ...The tools for manipulation have improved, but the same predicaments apply; for if you
     remove that photographic veracity (as I think Badger implies) it is potentially no longer a
     photograph. Finally, perhaps after all the considerations about the validity of photography, its
     inherent qualities, and the process of digitization or Photoshopping, the real issue and answer may
     reside within an unconscious desire for the human trace to be visible in a works production.

Film as Alternative Process 
Armstrong made an interesting and challenging proposal on the state of film photography by writing, “Film is not ‘dead,’ nor is B&W. But film must now be classed with the other alternative processes of bygone eras.”

Co-existence of Photographic Traditions
Photographer and educator Dawn Roe wrote about the contemporary dynamic between photographic traditions: “I’m not sure why anyone should feel threatened by ‘most contemporary conceptual photography’ – at least to me, different modes of working and of thinking about photography and the photographic (some of which may be considered ‘conceptual’) are not putting other (more traditional) modes or ways of thinking under attack, necessarily...I recognize this is a decades old distinction and discussion, but is it really useful or necessary to continue attempting or forcing ourselves to distinguish between these two camps, if they even exist as such?

I, for one, do not see ‘traditional’ modes of photography as being under any kind of threat. Nor, do I see one practice eclipsing another. What I (thankfully) see, is an amazing amount of incredibly interesting work being continually and thoughtfully produced by practitioners who remain energized by this fascinating medium, and choose to work with it in whatever way they see fit.”

Good words to end on.

I appreciate the quality of the comments of dozens of contributors during the ten weeks of conversation. The collective investment made developed the forum into a valuable resource for those interested in reading a text collectively. I enjoyed the chance to get to know participants through their contributions and look forward to the Flak Photo Books space being used for similar conversations in the future.