OpEd: The Beautiful Burden

This is a special guest post by photographer Blake Andrews. You can read more from him on his blog B, and view his street photography work on iN-PUBLIC.

For me, Paul Graham’s The Unreasonable Apple, in which Graham lays out the argument for so-called straight photography —”photographs taken from the world as it is”— and its place in the art world, was one of those essays that seemed to come along at just the right moment. I had been thinking and writing a lot about these ideas, and the Graham essay seemed to crystalize the issue in a way that mirrored my own thoughts.

As powerful as Graham’s essay was, the real revelation for me was that it was put forth by an established art world figure. Paul Graham isn’t some outcast yelling from the back row. He’s a reputable figure in contemporary photography. Written from an insider’s perspective, his argument provided both hope and philosophical cover to many of us. Reading the essay I felt like a young kid in a Top-40 town who’s just discovered punk rock on the underground station. You mean there are others? And in positions of power? If Graham was thinking along these lines, I wondered, what did that mean for the art world at large? Was there some broader shift afoot?

If Jörg Colberg’s response to Graham is any guide, the answer is probably not. According to Colberg, photography’s problem isn’t lack of understanding. It’s too much internal debate. “People are still pulling their hair out,” he writes, “over how to differentiate between a photograph and what they call a ‘photo illustration,’ for example. Or about defining how much ‘manipulation’ is allowed until a photo stops being a photo. Or about how a lot of digital photography isn’t really photography. Or how artist XYZ took 500 individual source photographs to build a composite.”

Although Colberg doesn’t cite specific cases, his list of arguments is familiar. As he notes they seem to arise over and over, especially when straight photography is discussed. The general drift of these arguments is that touting the strengths of one form calls into question the legitimacy of others. That is, if I express a preference for straight photography, I’m seen as dogmatic or arrogant or drawing artificial definitions or claiming what is photography and what isn’t.

I think that whole line of thinking is a red herring. While there may be a small minority quibbling over definitions, most would agree that all types of photography are legitimate forms of expression. Straight, staged, composited, ray–o-graphed, jpged, sun-scorched, whatever, it’s all photography. To use Graham’s words, “it is emphatically not an either/or situation.” Few of us are “worrying themselves sick over whether it’s photography or not.” We’re beyond that. What many of us are wondering is why straight photography has been relegated to a secondary role in the art world.

Since its inception, photography has been a uniquely accurate method of visually describing the real world. Photography can also be applied —and has been used increasingly for roughly the past quarter century— as a tool to illustrate what’s in an artist’s head. Point a camera at a food prop and the picture might describe an advertising idea. Photograph an elaborate set on the street and the picture might describe a pre-conceived fantasy world. Or use a computer to collage several images and the resulting picture might approximate a painting. These are all legitimate uses of photography, but for me they are generally less interesting that what you get when you point a camera at objects as they are found in the world. When put to the task of blunt conceptual illustration, photography’s most profound and beautiful burden — to show us the world as it is— is ignored.

Even so, the art world seems to prefer this application. Why? According to Colberg it’s the sheer amount of internal debate. He writes, “If so many people in the photography world are having debates about photographs as documents, or how adding a caption changes the meaning (or whatever), or when a photo stops being a photo – why do we expect the art world to take photography seriously as an art form?” Thus the reason the art world prefers photographers like Wall, Sherman, Casebere, and Demand is that they don’t get bogged down in silly rhetoric.

Really? Personally I view internal debate as a sign of a discipline’s health. It means things are unsettled and dynamic. Would you rather photography be like pottery or glass-blowing? Do they have boundless arguments about the varying importance of cup styles or window glazings? Probably not, and that may be a reason why those crafts are not usually at the forefront of art discussions. Judging by its internal debates (and I suppose I’m adding to the pile with this essay), photography is perhaps the most vibrant and alive of all the arts. We photographers love a good argument. It seems this internal tension should attract interest in the art world not discourage it.

Instead, I think the art world’s fondness for conceptual photography is just as Graham says: “The art world doesn’t get photography”. Specifically, straight photography. Is it a craft? Is it science? Is it history? Is it art? How do we judge if a documentary image is good or not? Yes indeed it is 2010, yet these questions still linger. Unlike, say, a Crewdson image which is easily pegged as conceptual and perhaps even cinematic, rich with internal art-world references and counter movements and comparisons to Hollywood production and so on, a straight photograph taken from the real world defies easy explanation. What exactly is it? If it is taken by someone like Paul Graham, there is at least a chance it will be understood. He has a reputation and therefore the photo must mean something.

But what if the exact same photograph of reality is made by Joe Flickr? Then what is it? That is a question which will probably never be answered to everyone’s satisfaction. Yet it is the exactly the question which keeps us straight photographers going.

  • Edmund X White

    “But what if the exact same photograph of reality is made by Joe Flickr?”

    Are you one of those people who walk through the modern gallery at the met and talk about how your kid could have done the pollocks and albers?

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  • http://bryanformhals.com/ Bryan Formhals

    Thanks Marc. I think you really nailed that one and provided some great counter points to Winkleman’s post.

  • John Legweak

    I’m way over my word allotment for the straight photography flap so I’ll just say, great essay Marc.

  • http://www.eyecurious.com Marc

    I was going to just comment here, but (several hours later) I now have a ridiculously long blogpost on the subject here http://www.eyecurious.com/a-dirty-word/

  • John Legweak

    Not much weight in that weigh-in if you ask me, but his reaction does suggest that telling the art world they don’t understand photography may not be a productive strategy. My words to Winkleman would be, you gotta look at the numbers, just like you do for women in art, minorities in art, and other classic cases of chronic underrepresentation.

    Paul Graham’s analysis seems spot-on to me but I think those who want to advance the cause need to present their position in a clearer, more substantive, less hand-wavy, less ad hominem way. They need to at once thoroughly demystify straight photography and compellingly demonstrate its value and importance. They have all the material they need, they just need to work on the packaging.

    My bystander’s two cents.

  • Federico

    Edward Winkleman weighs in, taking a bite out of the Apple, in an article called Photography vs. “Photography”

  • John Legweak

    I don’t think we need to take Cotton’s list too seriously, she’s probably got specific artists and shows in mind that we will never known enough to identify (unless we just ask her – but I bet the road trip person is Ryan McGinley). Her point is simply that the photography departments of museums are running on auto-pilot and showing the same basic stuff year after year with some outliers thrown in to give an illusion of variety and change. She’s telling them they need to get off their butts and do some work and figure out what’s really going on in today’s photography.

    As to street photography, I’m inclined to agree with those who say that it died when the people who were doing it through the 60’s and 70’s moved on, and yet I cannot deny that something very like street photography is alive and well today. The old street photography is part of history for me, to be treasured but not copied.

    The subject of the new photography is no longer specifically the street, but it is the everyday that the street used to embody. The best (to my taste) has a mini-satori feel to it, a feeling of pure, if not particularly transcendent, being – what some writers are now calling contemporaneity. I think it will be around a good while to come, but I can’t see it becoming the preeminent photographic form. I think we will need something a little stronger to get us through.

    As to the web, it is clearly the way that the barbarians will get to the gates, and in numbers never imagined before our new century. The question is, will it also be the way for them to get through (or under, or over, or around) the gates and occupy a place in the art world within? I think it will be, but the details are as yet among Cotton’s t.b.d.s.

  • Blake

    All street photographers are amateur sociologists.

  • http://bryanformhals.com/ Bryan Formhals

    @John: But what’s wrong with street poetry? The everyday? I don’t understand why boundaries need to be pushed for the medium to thrive and be appreciated. Has the structure or substance of rock/pop music really changed that much?

    As we begin to understand the implications of the freedom to organize the internet has provided, the power of these intuitions will dwindle. What they think simply won’t matter. The records and photographs (hopefully) will be available for anyone to dig into.

    Why does a story like Vivian Maier attract so much interest? There’s clearly somewhat of an appeal to the photographer who just goes about their way making work their passionate about.

    No matter what, you can’t ignore what is happening with art or photography on the web. It’s the new frontier. The story of photography in the 21st century might clearly revolve more around organization and community than about stylistic preferences.

    As I know you’re very aware John, the sociology in all this is important…

  • Federico Rubio

    Blake, I don’t think that straight and conceptual are necessarily conflicting territories. The most blatant proof is Paul Graham himself.

    I agree with your original post and Paul Graham’s writing on everything except “relegation”, and with Jörg Colberg (through his blog I arrived here) on “relegation” but nothing else.

  • John Legweak

    Even though I was not really joking when I said that photography could get end up being relegated to a primarily elegiac function, I actually think it is positioned to become the leading (as in leading the way) art form of the first half of the 21st century. But to do that it has to embrace the 21st century and leave the 20th century behind, just as the photography of a hundred years ago embraced the 20th century and left the 19th century behind.

    More specifically, a hundred years ago photography embraced Modernism and left Pictorialism behind (I know there was more to it, but this was a big deal in itself). The question is, now, a hundred years later, what should photography embrace and what should it leave behind this time around?

    If you don’t know how to answer, don’t worry, nobody else does either. Or at least nobody that you’re going to hear from in panel discussions at major art museums. Most of the people on the “Is Photography dead?” MOMA page say interesting things in their statements, but, for me, only one them nails the current holding pattern situation and issues a real call to action. And that’s Charlotte Cotton. Here’s the core of her statement:

    On a bad day, it feels as though the construction of photo silos within encyclopaedic and modern art museums — and also photography non-profit spaces — can take credit for photography’s cultural validation in the late 20th century but that those silos are, ironically, also guilty of being temporarily incapable of meaningfully responding to the massive shifts that are now occurring in image-making cultures. Now that the noughties bubble market for anything laminated behind Plexi has burst, the gallery (whether commercial or institutional) loses its status as the most desirable context for photography’s radical forward momentum. So how do we respond meaningfully to the mass energy of citizen photography or print-on-demand publishing if the canon that distinguished a very few from the ever so many is our overriding mandate? How can we shape exhibitions to reflect the contradictions and t.b.d.s of our time if our preferred model is the institution educating its public with reassuringly complete and hermetically sealed gallery experiences? How do we facilitate the life-changing, photographic epiphanies that our touchy-feely education programmes should aspire to if our potential participants have a better grasp than us on photography as a creative and social tool? Will national and regional collections of photography truly reflect the histories of the medium as they now unfold if they continue to co-opt in a token fashion anything outside its core canon, whether it be the commercial industries of photography, amateur, or non-Western practices, as a way of seasonally updating a super-tired litany of:

    Road trips
    Street poetry
    Illustrations of political and social issues
    Light-weight Conceptual Art
    The inoffensively and classically stylish
    The outputs of the persistent and charming
    The cheap stuff that contemporary art curators and collectors aren’t interested in
    The downright over-produced?

    To borrow from the enduringly astute Noel Coward, people are wrong when they say that photography in art museums isn’t what it used to be. It [i]s what it used to be – that’s what’s wrong with it.

    So how does straight photography fit in? I don’t know. I’m not even sure that straight photography is a kind of photography at all or just what’s left after you throw out all the obviously non-straight forms. Depending on what it is, it may be something to be left by the wayside, or it may be something to be picked up and shone like a light into the darkness of the road ahead. What whichever it is, the photography world is going to have to get behind it and make it happen. The broader art world will accept a new photography, but only after people who really know have shown them convincingly what it is and why it is the right thing for the times.

    BTW, I didn’t see it mentioned on the MOMA page or the Blake’s or Joel’s blog entries, but people (including some of the same people as on the MOMA page) did a similar Whither photography? thing a couple years ago at LACMA. They called it “Words without Pictures”, and put up a website and also published a book that I just learned Aperture will be reissuing this year.

    http://www.wordswithoutpictures.org
    http://www.aperture.org/words-without-pictures.html

    It was more positive and more forward-looking than the MOMA thing looks to be, but we’ll have to see how the latter develops once the discussions start in earnest.

  • Blake

    It’s interesting the citations of Cartier-Bresson and Frank as examples of straight photography since those were also the examples used by Colberg in his response. The fact that we need to dig so far into the past is telling. It’s like saying, “Rock music is still relevant. Just look at recent tours by Aerosmith and The Eagles.”

    What about contemporary photographers? The Gagosian roster is probably as good an example as any. Or do an ArtForum search for photography. You’ll find some straight photography but the majority tends to be conceptual stuff. That’s what the art world loves and that’s what they push.

    Now does it matter? To some extent, no. We’ve all got to do our thing without worrying too much about how it’s perceived.

    On the other hand, yes it does. Why? In Graham’s words:

    “But… what of those who work today with equal commitment and sincerity, using straight photography in the cacophonous present?  I will not name names here, but for these serious photographers the fog of time still obfuscates their efforts, and the blindness j’accuse some of the art world of suffering from, narrows their options.  It means their work will almost never be considered for Documenta, or placed alongside other artists in a Biennale, or found for sale in major contemporary art galleries and art fairs.  This does not just deprive the public of the work, and the work of its place, it denies these artists the self-confidence that enables them to grow, to feel appreciation and affirmation, not to mention some modest financial reward allowing them to continue to work.”

  • John Legweak

    I’m not sure if this thread was wound down or is just in temporary limbo. Either way I apologize if I’m “over-contributing”, but the relationship between photography and the art world is a matter of great interest to me and I am thrilled to have an opportunity to be part of a serious discussion about it.

    While the photography world is unquestionably part of the art world, it is not totally integrated into it. There are art galleries (which may or may not show photography) and there are photography galleries. There is the Armory Show and there is AIPAD. There are, some will say, artists who use photography and there are photographers. There are crossovers, but the distinctions are still real.

    When I said Alec Soth was “in”, I meant this:

    http://www.gagosian.com/artists/

    This is the art world, not the photography world. There are a number of artists there with Soth who could be classed as photographers, but how many of them would you call straight photographers? Soth? Sally Mann? Roe Ethridge?

    I think this is what Paul Graham was talking about – and lamenting – in his essay.

  • Federico Rubio

    I found Graham’s The Unreasonable Apple excellent, and extremely well articulated, but there is one piece of his argument (not an insignificant one) I have a problem with: that which senses an unfair relegation of straight photography to a secondary place in the art world. I simply cannot sense that. It is really difficult when I look at the sheer prices achieved by straight photography in gallery sales or auctions celebrated during the past ten years, always on the rise; the health (I beg your pardon, the insanity) of the photobook market (and perhaps especially the “straight” photobook market, think Cartier Bresson, think Robert Frank, think, er, Paul Graham?); the seemingly never ending growth of Photography (by photographers not only by artists)in Museum collections, and exhibitions; the utter number of galleries devoted partly or solely to this genre; the accompanying literature and theoretical work and panels and debates… I am a struggling photographer, and I happen to love photography that is not staged (all this to say that I have no beforehand bias against PG’s claim) However, I sincerely cannot perceive that Photography in general, or this specific breed called “straight” is ignored or looked down on…

    As much as I cannot share his conclusion about the unfairness of the art world towards straight photography, I do find his thought that “a straight photograph taken from the real world defies easy explanation” insightful. He is in line with Frank Gohlke who recently expressed (from his own New Topographics work) that he was trying to make “pictures that eluded my [Gohlke's] attempts to explain them.”

    I also admire Winogrand, and the enigmatic riddles he posed through his practice, and I recommend Michael David Murphy’s recent article on his work called “Reconsidering Winogrand”, which is a step in the right direction, if one needs to reassess his legacy.

    Here you can see Graham, and Papageorge, Grannan, Mitch Epstein & (the unbelievable) Danny Lyon in action during a panel discussion at the NYPL in November 2007. I have just realized that they uploaded the video (90 + minutes). In it one can see Graham charging against the art world, for not really understanding Winogrand, in a sort of proto-Unreasonable Apple-manifesto. It is always a pleasure listening to Graham, but has Winogrand really been treated so unfairly by the art world?

    I think Paul is at his best, when he lays his complaints to rest and writes, toward the end of his text: “perhaps we can agree that through force of vision these artists strive to pierce the opaque threshold of the now, to express something of the thus and so of life at the point they recognised it. They struggle through photography to define these moments and bring them forward in time to us, to the here and now, so that with the clarity of hindsight, we may glimpse something of what it was they perceived. Perhaps here we have stumbled upon a partial, but nonetheless astonishing description of the creative act at the heart of serious photography: nothing less than the measuring and folding of the cloth of time itself.”

  • John Legweak

    Bryan, I agree, you don’t need a shtick to do great work, but your work needs to have an identity to be of interest to the art world. Collectors do not buy artworks, they buy artists. Not in crude literal sense, but in the sense that the single most important quality of a piece of art they buy is the artist who made it. They want the artist to be a known quantity who has been recognized as doing interesting work and can be expected to continue doing interesting work in the future. They need a credible and satisfying answer to the question, why is this artist different from every other artist? And the artist, to be accepted, needs to make sure they get that answer.

    Note the distinction Blake Andrews makes at the end of his piece between Paul Graham and Joe Flickr. Of the first he says: “If it is taken by someone like Paul Graham, there is at least a chance it will be understood. He has a reputation and therefore the photo must mean something.” Paul Graham has an identity, he is a known quantity. You can buy Paul Graham. But Joe Flickr? Maybe he made a great picture or even a bunch, but who is he? (Or she.) That’s the crux.

    To get back to shtick, the real idea is that an artist can give his work an identity that people can connect with him. (Or her). He may actually express his own identity in his work, or he may keep himself out of it (at least on the face of things). But either way the artist and the work need to fit together somehow, there needs to be a coherence between them.

    You make a good point about the internet. It has changed everything. And one of the things it has changed is identity. On the internet people are what they post. If they post a lot of good photography then they are a good photographer. But is that all you need to know? Maybe, maybe not.

  • http://bryanformhals.com/ Bryan Formhals

    John – See, why do you need a shtick? That’s exactly what we’re debating. Why should any photographer make that sort of compromise to gain acceptance?

    But then there’s the issue for me. I’m not really concerned about acceptance in the fine art world. I’m more interested in the appreciation aspect of this. You see a ‘straight photograph’ or a landscape, street scene or what have you, and many people I imagine think it’s rather easy, because yes, to a certain degree it is everywhere.

    What has continually surprised me as I’ve learned more about photographs is that it really takes years to become visually literate. The more work you look at, the more you begin to appreciate different aspects. You start to see nuances, and a certain X factor in the work. This takes time though.

    And I don’t think many in the fine art world put in the time to become more photographically literate. But then again, they’re likely more literate when it comes to understand it all in the ‘art history/canon’ context.

    I’m much more interested in what’s forming online because there’s no question there a thriving community that really appreciates and understands ‘straight photography.’ And I don’t think we full understand the ramifications of this yet. Would PUBLICATION or LPV be able to exist without the internet? I don’t think so.

  • John Legweak

    I’m relatively pretty new to the photography scene but here’s my take for what it’s worth.

    Straight photography is an old-fashioned phrase, and it refers to an old-fashioned thing. Photography collectors actually love straight photography, but they expect it to be vintage – let’s say at least fifty years old or at least done by photographers who were taking pictures fifty years ago.

    The problem with today’s straight photography is that there is just too much of it. The art world is all about supply and demand. How can something that’s everywhere have value? The art world will still accept it, but it’s got to have some kind of “it”. Alec Soth had “it” in Sleeping by the Mississippi and now he’s in, but I think he’s a relative rarity.

    All in all it’s easier to make it with a more obvious shtick. I think of Idris Khan as a paradigm example with his high-density multiple exposures. Or, if you can’t come up with something original, do something that is currently “in”, and do it well, as Alex Prager is doing with her over-the-top retro polyester series. Or be from an out of the way place, like Finland.

    Straight photography definitely has its place but I think that the place is in books. I may find a place in art in future, but only as it, or what it is about, becomes rare and valuable. For all I know it may be destined to become the medium of choice for expressing loss.

  • Blake

    Although it’s hard to put a label on Frank, I think he was generally more interested in finding things in the world to photograph than in pre-conceived photographic illustrations.

    I think it’s an open question whether the art world gives straight photography its due. Certainly some straight photographers have gained success, but generally the ticket to notoriety seems to be to emulate the art world, which means creating shocking and/or idea-based projects. The more radical the better. In such projects the actual photography, though it may be technically demanding, generally takes a backseat to the concept.

  • http://www.1mag3.co.uk Philip

    While I’m one of those folk who favours photography “… for and of itself” and “photographs taken from the world as it is” I’ve noticed this quote being reinterpreted to fit ‘straight photography’ or ‘street photography’. Those ‘forms’ of photography are only part of that statement, not the whole. I wouldn’t consider Frank to be a street photographer, nor a straight photographer, it is about the subjective quality of the work. If he got rid of some annoying lamp post in his picture, this would not make it any less ‘straight’.

    Like you, some inner me requires that connection with the ‘world as it is’, but sometimes that connection can come from a manipulation of what the world is.

    Also I think new photography is highlighted as it comes out – I don’t believe, photography from the world has ever been delegated to second place, and to express it here as though it has, might have the effect of tagging it with an inferiority complex.

    Perhaps the problem lies with the loudest voices being heard the most, or people belief in it being heard. Or perhaps its the media frenzy of fashion, trend and taste that makes us feel our stuff is old and left out?