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Sunday, March 5, 2017

Why Photographers Don't Get Modern Art

There's this article that popped up on PetaPixel, but originally appeared here on Medium. The author attempts to address the question of why Photographers Don't Get Modern Art. Well, actually, he does not. It sort of seems like he might get there, but I am unable to discern any direct answer to the question.

Still, there are plenty of problems which I think are worth dealing with, and then I'm going to take a crack at the actual question. It's a good question. How is is that photographers, who are essentially makers of contemporary art, so dismissive of contemporary art?

The most obvious issue is that he sets up Modernist Photography in opposition to Pictorialism. Now, Mireles isn't the only person who's done this, but it's still quite wrong. Modernism is a big tent. In fact, I think Modernism is so vague a label as to be virtually meaningless, at any rate I have never been able to make any sense of what it actually is. It appears to be, roughly, a period of time and a list of practitioners, and, maybe, a vague statement of philosophy. Mireles characterization of it as "form follows function" appears to be utterly wrong. That's a practice that allegedly derived from Modernism, specifically in architecture. Modernism, if it is anything, is simply about inventing the new, about creating modernity to replace the old ways.

It is pretty clear that photography, from its beginning, is closely allied with Modernism. It is, after all, profoundly modern at its very core.

The idea correctly set up against Pictorialism is straight photography, and the f.64 group to which Adams belonged was only semi-kinda straight. The f.64 folks were really their own thing, a mish-mash of ideas and methods and themes from all over, largely arranged in opposition to and simultaneously bait for Stieglitz' crew on the east coast. They wanted to separate themselves from the east coasters, as well as to attract their attention and maybe be accepted by Stieglitz, and finally they felt there was something uniquely west coast in their work. Adams, as I have argued in the past, borrowed a great deal from early Pictorialism, Weston was from time to time some sort of ur-Minimalist, and so on. All, clearly, derived from straight photography but largely separated from the Realism that, for instance, Paul Strand seems to have been influenced by (Strand being, in a way, the ur-straight photographer.)

Anyways. Mireles has a plan here, he needs to set up Modernism (or, well, anything it turns out) in opposition to Pictorialism, so that Ansel Adams can that, and so that everyone else can be that too since we're all obviously just Ansel Adams acolytes.

And then it follows, logically, that since we're all Modernists and Modernism is over (replaced initially by the philosophically indistinguishable Post Modernism), we must be stuck in an evolutionary dead end!

Finches are reptiles.
Artistotle is a finch.
Therefore, Aristotle is a reptile

The whole thing is absurd. Photography is not stuck in a dead-end of Ansel Adams imitation. Individual photographers are, certainly. Other individuals are stuck in other dead ends of repeating some other set of tropes over and over. But that's how it goes with artists. Art does not proceed, generally, through the growth and change of individual artists, but by their deaths.

Mireles also takes a good long chunk of words to trot out the tedious notion that contemporary art is inaccessible to all but the anointed few. This is utter nonsense. Anyone with a basic high school education can "get" contemporary art to a degree. While I might not "get" the references to Kafka, I can generally find something to enjoy in a piece of contemporary art. Yes, sometimes I have to read a few lines of text, but it's almost never a "densely written artist statement", it's usually something like this is the carpet from my grandmother's living room or I was inspired by the plight of the Brazilian nickle miners or whatever. One does not expect to "get" every little reference in a novel, but this does not mean that we cannot enjoy the novel, that we cannot feel the greatness of a great one.

What is required to partake of contemporary art is an open mind, an open heart, basic reading ability, and maybe a basic understanding of the larger strokes of the local culture. People who don't "get" art in general lack the first two. To be blunt, these are people who are aggressively trying to not get it, and they are succeeding.

So the question is, really, what is it about photographers that makes them be specifically inclined to belong to the deliberately dunderheaded?

Well. Photographers tend to be technophiles and technocrats. They like gadgets, and they suspect that gadgets and procedures are maybe the answer to most if not all of life's little problems. Photographers love Rules of Composition. They love Photoshop actions. They love 10 Top Tips. It's kind of baked in to the photo enthusiast. It's not that owning a camera makes you a gear nerd, it's that gear nerds are much more likely to buy a camera in the first place. To an extent, amateur photographers are a self-selected group of people who were already crashing bores.

Present company, of course, excluded!

Further, they reinforce it by hanging out together, and their media (vendor/advertising supported) reinforces it as hard as it can. Ideas, concepts, vision, raw creativity are all downplayed. You cannot buy them by the bottle, Canon makes not a cent on these things, and nobody can summarize how to be creative in a 6 minute YouTube video. Perhaps, the technophile amateur photographer secretly hopes, it's not all that important. Perhaps, he reasons, if I can just master how to place the lights to photograph chubbier people, that's just as good. Or better.

Anything which suggests that maybe gadgets, tips, procedures, tools are maybe not capable of producing any answer you desire is looked at, therefore, with suspicion. On the flip side, anything which does use gadgets, tips, procedures, and tools is looked at approvingly. Mastery of tools, that is to say craft, is therefore naturally elevated.

Confronted, therefore, with a piece of contemporary art that exhibits little or no recognizable craft, and which is dense with ideas, the amateur photographer first sees not much that he recognizes as worthwhile, and secondarily perhaps feels slighted, feels a hint of attack on his own ethos.

Certainly I am not claiming this as a blanket diagnosis, it's not that simple. Plenty of non-photographers are bull-headed anti-Art numbskulls, and so surely much of the negativity we see from photographers is just this same bull-headedness all over again. But perhaps what I see as an extra tendency in this direction among amateur photographers can be explained as above.


  1. "To an extent, amateur photographers are a self-selected group of people who are already crashing bores.

    Present company, or course, excepted!"

    What, you're going to let us off that easily? Isn't there a school of photography especially dedicated to producing crashing bores as opposed to ordinary bores? Are we using Kierkegaard's concept of boredom as internal emptiness? More importantly, is there money to be made at it?

    Inquiring minds want to know!

    With best regards.


  2. Before you dismiss Mr. Mereles, go to his website and look at the short documentary about his project,"Neighbors/Vecinos." Excellent work. Better than you or I have produced.

    1. Tsk. Don't conflate his photos with his commentary! I quite like the picture of the woman the motel he shared in the article, it has a lot of what I like. I am reasonably confident, based on that alone, that he's at least a capable artist.

      But his commentary is still kind of dunderheaded.