Photography and Art

March 30, 2006

Invention of photography in early 1800s set off a slow explosion that by the turn of that century demolished every classic definition of "art". Art, that bastion of high ideals, harmony, beauty and craftsmanship, disintegrated into a zillion of irreconcilable fragments. A visit to any major museum of art makes this abundantly clear. Contemporary art, taken as a whole, is a thoroughly schizophrenic enterprise. 

The seeds of that fragmentation were always there, inherent in art's potential for signification of every conceivable aspect of being human. But not until the advent of photography, that quintessentially schizophrenic graphic medium, did questioning of all established notions about art become absolutely unavoidable.

By their physical nature, all art making tools and materials resist to some extent the artist's intention. Still, with practice and use of appropriate techniques, the brush, the pencil or the lump of clay can be made to comply closely to the artist's vision. Not so photography. The camera is not a neutral tool for making images guided only by the artist's intent. It has a split personality of its own which will not yield to any amount of persuasion or technique short of absolute negation of its intrinsic nature. Yes, the image can be forced to become exactly what the artist wants it to be, either by complete control of the scene to be recorded, or by postprocessing of the already recorded image. In either case, the result is a manufactured image, not a photograph. 

A photograph is the trace of a two-dimensional projection of a four-dimensional event, determined by choice of a particular point of view in space and time. It is both a flat pattern of light and shadow and historical evidence. The question is, which is the significant aspect and which is of secondary or perhaps no importance at all? Is the artist primarily concerned with creating images or recording events? Whichever is the case she cannot avoid involvement with the other. Photography intrudes on the process of artistic creation, imposing its own rules. To make effective use of the camera's peculiar and intractable vision the artist must make a decision: which aspect of photography's split personality serves my intent, and how do I deal with the other one?

This is not a dilemma unique to photography but in photography the artist finds its most explicit and urgent manifestation because the camera insists on presenting both the record and the image with absolute impartiality. The image maker must choose a point of view in space-time which imbues the image with maximum visual effectiveness, even if this leads to distortion of the historical record. But the event recordermust find the point of view (the "decisive moment") which least distorts the facts before the lens, even at cost of visual aesthetics. It is only by sheer chance that a truthful record of an event is captured in form of an aesthetically satisfying image that is in harmony with the significance of the event. Many photographers rely on experience, luck and shooting large numbers of images to capture that rare one in  which photography's split personality is momentarily reconciled and integrated into an artistic whole. Others simply disregard one aspect of photography and concentrate wholly on the other, letting the chips fall where they may.

As noted earlier, it is possible to remove the potential conflict between image and significance by "de-photographizing" photography. One way is to stage manage the image, fully controlling the subject, the light, the background, the ambience of the scene. The camera serves as a passive recording device, the art is all in the staging. Or the original photographic image may be used as a component or as an intermediate stage in creation of a composite or derived image such as a collage, a "photorealist" painting or a digitally created image. These are essentially non-photographic uses of photographic technology. But it is in making of a photograph as such that the artist is forced to consider deeply the nature of the fundamental task of art: creation of a significant image. (Which, even as a record of an actual event, may be wholly imaginary though not necessarily untruthful).

Paul Wyszkowski