As photography has moved out of the pages of magazines and onto gallery walls, so it’s been forced to compete with the world of conceptual art. Here research, analysis and self-reflexivity (art about art) supersede aesthetics, narrative, and intuition. An image that inspires wonderment at first glance is rarely accorded the same level of respect as one that features a large tract of text that explains how the work interrogates time, or challenges the notion of authorship, or explores the fragility of memory. This approach contains within it the implicit questions: ‘why are you doing what you are doing?’ and ‘how does it contribute to the development of the medium?’ It’s an approach to art that assumes that, like physics, there’s a level of advancement to be made through persistent inquiry.
But should photography really be approached in this way? If we view the work instead in the context of other art forms, the approach might seem a little strange. Music at its most intuitive level produces a physical response to a set of carefully choreographed vibrations. Most musicians would struggle to articulate exactly why they’d strung together a range of chords in a particular way or chosen to finish a track with a thirty second guitar solo. It just sounds good. It feels good. It expresses something from within. And you’d hope someone somewhere is made of similar stuff so that they might well enjoy the results. This is not to say that music isn’t created in context or doesn’t require originality but that its creation and reception needn’t be based on intellectual inquiry.
The same could be said of poetry. Even for those mediums that incorporate more rational thought in the use of narrative, such as literature or cinema, is it fair to ask the author or director the point of their story, what it’s trying to achieve or how it moves their world forward? For many artists working in these genres the creation of the work is an end in itself and while they might return to particularly personal themes, be it loss or kinship or obsession, they rarely make choices that are designed purely to ‘interrogate the medium’, even outside of the big studio models. Instead they wrestle with the fabric of life and in the process hold up a mirror to their audience that might equally inspire, horrify, educate and entertain. And the best manage to combine layers of visual beauty in the process.
Originality and depth are not qualities that require engagement with philosophically-laden concepts as any music, cinema, or literature fan will attest. They require a love for the medium (or indeed any medium) and a gift to be able to see and express some truth about life that will somehow enrich the lives of others, painful as it sometimes may be. Photography has the power to resonate on a purely visual level but it also has enormous power to tell stories in an infinite number of ways. And these stories can and do tell the world something about itself. What a tragedy if the medium went the way of conceptual art; an intellectual guessing game for a tiny minority more interested in testing their knowledge of art history than in seeing the world through somebody else’s lens.
This is a condensed version of an article I authored for Frame and Reference magazine. See the full version here< Back