Photography as Fine Art


It is with some trepidation and with even greater reservation that I would like to say something about “the fine art of photography”. I say this for a number of reasons, perhaps the main ones being that I am not sure what constitutes ‘the fine art of photography’ as opposed to the fine art of anything else, and also that I am very suspicious about the extent to which photography seems to be currently entrenching itself in a comfortable niche within the broader art context.


In the last few years there has been a proliferation of galleries and magazines that deal exclusively with photography, and form what I think is a very suspect viewpoint. It is increasingly as if photography need only play at its own game, within localized parameters. A fundamental question would seem to be, is photography so distinct from other visual art disciplines that it needs a specific context to work within, or is there on the part of photography, on the whole, an abdication of the responsibility to face up to what might be seen to be the broader question of what art is about, and for it to penetrate through, and take an active part in the wider context? I don’t feel that I can actually answer this question, but nevertheless it is there, and needs to be considered.


The position from which I personally view photography is predominantly influenced by my own work as an artist, which is not with any exclusive concern about photography, but rather with photography’s relationship to other art activities, more specifically drawing and painting. I am not a photographer, I just work with photographs. Of course, this position could be construed as being peripheral to the main concerns of photography, in which case what I have to say may seem incidental. But my own feeling is that if photography is to add up to much as art, then the kinds of questions it is dealing with are not distinct from the kinds of questions asked by other fine art disciplines, and that in reality they are the same questions, it is only that they are made manifest differently. These questions are not only the more profound questions, such as, how does art relate to life, and what role does art have in society, but also the more localized, but nevertheless vital questions implicit within the broad umbrella of art activity itself.


For instance how do you go about making a painting after the advent of say conceptualism, or minimalism, or equally how do you go about making a photograph after these developments. What should ones concern be? It would seem to be on this activity level that photography and other art disciplines are increasingly diverging. For instance, even within the fine art context there exists the particular divergence between ‘the artist as photographer’, for example Jan Dibbets, Richard Long and ‘the photographer as artist’ — Bill Brandt.


This is not only a distinction of where these people can be said to be rooted, but also a distinction of how they go about making or taking photographs. Ansel Adams said that we should not say that we ‘take’ photographs, but say that we ‘make’ photographs, and this would seem to be particularly relevant to the ‘artist as photographer’. For frequently the artist is setting things up, controlling the situation and working things through before the photograph is taken. The artist is involved in ‘making’ before he does any ‘taking’. Whilst the ‘photographer as artist’ is perhaps more concerned with the possibilities of what he can find with the camera. It is an approach in many ways comparable to hunting, the photographer looks for, and takes, his chances.


Of course between these two extremes there are many shades of grey, but still the difference is discernible. Perhaps the most extreme example of ‘the-artist-as-photographer-as-maker’ is where the photograph is a means of documentation, where it is evidence of an absent work of art, and a means of proof for believing that art happened. Equally, the photograph can be the work of art itself, or opposed to its legacy. For example in certain works by Christian Boltanski, the work is a highly controlled set-up that results in a strange cross between a tableau and a still-life. Here the photograph constitutes itself as a work of art.


Such works in some ways seem antiphotography, they seem to posit a stance that is anti-expertise, that wants to deprive the photograph of many of its more glamorous qualities. Whilst with ‘the photographer as artist’ there seems a much greater concern with crafting. Such things as developing times, papers, etc, become hyper-critical, and the print as a print, apart from its actual context is very significant.


One would seem to be a conveyor of concepts, whilst the other is more a kind of window that only the photograph can make available. The ‘artist as photographer’ validates his use of photography by constant cross-referencing within the broader art context. This necessitates an understanding of how other areas of art activity relate to the work, for example notions of painting or sculpture. Whilst ‘the photographer as artist’ is more likely to be referring to the more restricted area of the discipline of photography.


What this distinction throws up, is the question of which says more about photography, which proposes the greater possibilities as to what photography might be? Here I am assuming that anyone working with photography is not only trying to say something via that medium, but is also actively involved in exploring the possible nature of the medium itself. Of course it can be argued that either ‘the artist as photographer’ or ‘the photographer as artist’ have viable ways of doing this. However I would like to assert that because of the photograph’s tendency to telescope both its images and its ideas, the only way to get at its nature is to uproot it, and reroute it through other channels of artistic activity. In this way its inherent myopia is somehow thwarted.


At this point I would like to digress and talk a little about photography in a way that is more familiar to me, and look specifically at certain relationships between drawing and photography, since this is an area which involves my own work. Drawing is rooted not in what is perceived, but in the act of mark-making, which patterns, arrests, and fixes. What is represented is primarily activity. The marks and traces that constitute it are a process of stops and starts, of interacting gestures, punctuated by gaps, all of which precede any notion of objective representation. It is only after this activity has been exposed, through doing, that we may ask what else the marks might go on to represent.


Photography does not have this early history of activity. What is initially presented there is a world like Cezanne’s “without gaps”, a surface textured with a basic grain, modulated with a tonal framework, the parts of which all serve the same function — to be receptive to whatever light is appropriated for them. It is a democratic procedure in which each part has the potential to receive more or less light, and where a change to one part is a change of the whole. In this sense the first ground of the photograph, the film, is a sophisticated surface already loaded for representation.


This fundamental difference between the loaded ground of the film and the blank ground of the drawing underlies much of what distinguishes the two processes. They progress as processes from two extremes, one is reductive whilst the other is primarily accumulative. To begin with, the photograph is a decision to leave something out — with a drawing it is a decision to put something in. The photograph is potentially as complete as it ever will be the moment it is taken. Subsequent processes of developing and printing are commentaries on that initial action. The light patterns the negative and this in turn patterns the paper, making the transfer from negative to positive. It is a direct translation, a conventional printing process. The photograph is at its most random when first taken, subsequent processing orders it. Each process tightens up on the preceding one. The total process is a series of sub-systems rather than an open method, a series of reductive stages, a process that involves rather than evolves. The photograph can only reflect its history, while the drawing can work towards its own history. The method of drawing is self-evolving. It is a continuous process that has the potential to discontinue coming out of an infinite possibility of marks. All these marks are unique, and have the potential to influence or ignore any preceding marks, so determining their own evolution. The drawing makes its own destiny.


A sense of authenticity in the photograph has to do with the way the photograph locates the photographer as much as it locates the subject. The perspective of the camera pinpoints the position of the photographer as well as describing the scene. The one locates the other.


To change the perspective is to change the location of the photographer. A broader perspective, a multi-view, can only come out of changing frames of reference, shifts in time and place. Both of these things, time and place, substantiate each other. Place is fixed in time and time is held in place. Occasion becomes a very tight specific, and this highly authentic. It is this verification of time and space and the ability to hold specifics which makes the photograph historically such a substantial means of documentation. The proof of authenticity of the occasion, etc., can be cross referenced and extensively corroborated within the photograph itself. One area of fact can be seen to visibly support another, within a consistent framework. In this sense the drawing cannot document an occasion. It can comment on it, reveal a sense of it, but it is unable to verify it in time and place.


One of the things I always feel about the photograph is that it very seldom, if ever, works as a fact now. One can say that certain marks on the surface of a drawing, or a painting, are not only about what they represent, but also assert themselves as a fact now, they are about graphite and paint as a physical fact. Whilst with the photograph it is much more difficult to say that certain dots on the surface of the photograph operate in the same way. There is always rather an overriding atmosphere of remembrance, of times past, of nostalgia, of allusions. The ‘has been’ always encroaches upon the ‘is now’! Gerhard Richter the painter has said ‘how could paint on canvas be blurred’, and of course it never is, no matter what its condition. It is always an overt assertion of paint as a physical fact. If in this sense, facts are about bringing things into focus, making clear a thing done, then the putting down of paint is always factual. Whilst the photograph on the other hand, seldom focuses into the fact of it own physicality, grains, their aggregates, and the constituents of the photograph are seldom, if ever, its subject matter.


Dennis Oppenheim classified photographic documentation as a ‘secondary statement after the fact’, of course Oppenheim is talking specifically about a certain use of photography, but his observation would seem to be applicable to just about all photographs. For the facts of photography on the whole tend to be held in the photograph on the level of representation, and the photograph as a physical fact is subordinated to this, or as Oppenheim put it ‘a secondary statement’.


Something which may have relevance to this, but which is rather tangential, and which I think may also have deeper implication for photography, is the contradiction between the modernism of the photograph and its renaissance roots. For, although the photograph is on the surface part and parcel of a highly sophisticated technology, underneath it is still viewing the world through the eye of the renaissance, through a device, an optical system, that fundamentally has not changed since its conception. A device that puts forward and into perspective, and then projects, a certain view of the world. One that by its own definition carries a lot of ideological luggage with it. One that is concerned with notions of clarification and duplication. But if the unique function of art is not necessarily to clarify, then it could equally be said to apply to photography. For if art is more than about clarification, and by that I mean it in both senses, of making clear and of glorification. If art is also about proposing alternatives to what already is, and I think that is one of the more fundamental things that art is about, then equally photography has to concern itself with such things.


If photography is to have lasting significance as a fine art, then it has to find alternatives to its current preoccupation as a reproducer of available worlds, and concern itself with a notion of possible worlds. It must engage itself as a more open-ended speculative concern that can solic