Is photography “flat, soulless and stupid”?

Guardian Arts journalist Jonathan Jones became the target of the global photographic community’s rage when he published a piece in The Guardian expressing his view that photography displayed in galleries is “flat, soulless and stupid“.

Jones could have surely come up with a less trolling headline and although he gives photography some praise, many have read his intent as being broadly anti-photography, hoping to restrict photographs to an efficient method of conveying information rather than acknowledging that photographs can be art.

Photographers draw from a well‑documented and long‑standing skill set to make photographs. This set of skills is used no  matter what the desired outcome; art, profit, documentation, leisure, or something crossing a number of these objectives. No matter why we shoot, how we shoot requires a similar set of tools and techniques.

Photographers are a diverse, let’s call it multicultural bunch, but something connects them into a  community, albeit one with many internal rivalries. I believe that at the core of the set of character traits that propels somebody to the point where they call themselves a photographer is a strong sense of self-importance. An acceptance of a responsibility to capture life’s events and project them through a personal filter. This trait is strong and well-guarded. Our defences can grow wings, breathe fire and take to the sky should somebody dare suggest that we fail to be as interesting, important or as impressive as we assure each other we are. Jones doesn’t offer much by way of science or argument to illustrate his opinion and I’m not going to simply call him out on his harsh choice of words.

As a regular participant in photographic exhibitions and an even more regular spruiker of the photographic shows of others, I stand on the opposing side of his argument, here’s why.

On flatness

Jones’claim that photography is “flat” (if we take the word’s most literal definition) is not false. Printed photography rarely breaks the 2 dimensional plane. Paintings have a texture that begins with the canvas and accumulates as brush strokes are added. Different materials and techniques give a canvas a landscape all of its own and are an integral part of the image the painting presents.

A painting can be doomed before any thing comes in contact with the canvas should the wrong material choices be made. Changing the lighting, or the angle from which the artwork is viewed alters how the work falls onto your eye. Although we can argue that photographic prints, in particular traditional silver gelatin darkroom prints can have a physical depth, this depth works at a minute or microscopic, and usually non-tactile level.

A photographic print however, can most definitely have “depth”, even if that is a reference to a non physical characteristic of the image. In fact depth is a goal of photography and certainly one of the criteria I use to judge my own work. A good photo will have layers, as these show us depth. A good photo will have fore, mid and background compositional elements. These elements will not always be obvious, but they should be there – depth is an important goal.

Art needs soul.

Soulfulness is a much harder point to discuss. Jones argues that the quantity of time required to create an artwork is important and that somehow a painter spending a year on a single canvas outshines the shorter time necessary to prepare a photograph. It is this time that he feels adds this quality or “soul” to the art.

This isn’t a reasonable argument, and not because it’s possible to spend a year or more planning, taking and creating a photograph. Not because it can take a lifetime to produce a darkroom print from a negative that precisely depicts the photographer’s intentions. No, all of these things are irrelevant becasue time does not equal art. Effort does not equal art. It’s a statistic, not a milestone.

A _simple_ photograph, one that requires no planning, no painstakingly acquired quantities of skill in execution and does not insist upon a meticulous post production process is as likely to be a worthy work of art as an oil painting carefully planned and created by an Old Master. Similarly, minimalist paintings are as likely to be art as some of the more meticulously planned photographic work that do take many hundreds of hours to plan, execute and create.

Consider Piet Mondrian vs Jeff Wall as just one contrasting example of the extremes across art forms..

I could spend the rest of my days producing an oil painting which would be as bad as it was from the moment my first brush stroke was applied. All i could be assured of achieving by adding more layers of paint to the canvas is adding to the object’s physical weight, not its artistic magnitude.

Photographic boundaries.

Jones acknowledges that photography has a place and power.  He sees photography as a technological advancement, as a method of creating documents but not as a means of creating soulfulness. He adds to this by stating that photography can be fascinating when it is presented on a page or on a screen, but somehow not in a gallery. Jones offers no reasoning for this assertion other than his own taste and preference.

If photographs are by design only consumable in prints presented in books then why aren’t paintings only acceptable when presented on cave walls? Jones asks us to walk into a gallery and admire a Rembrandt and then compare that to a photographic portrait. He fails to see “even a millionth of the vitality of the Rembrandt”. His assertions can only be due to his lack of knowledge of the photographic process. But perhaps possessing that knowledge shouldn’t be necessary to judge art’s impact.

I possess little skill in painting technique, therefore I also possess little skill in painting critique. Perhaps, with my lifelong oil painting example I am in fact producing art. Am I the best person to make that assessment, simply because I held the brush? Or does this simply prove the point that nothing which involves a human’s interaction can be excluded as art?

Technology does not kill artfulness.

Photography has experienced massive change arising from technological advances. Recent advances in digital photography and the subsequent rise of mobile photography have resulted in an exponential boom in the number of photographs being captured today.

Adding to this technological perfect storm is the rise of the internet and its suitability for sharing still images quickly and without loss of quality. Jones accepts the technology is impressive but he creates a boundary around what photography can do. He admires its immediacy and transportability but doesn’t acknowledge that we look back on photography as a document of history. Timely photographs are not later replaced by some other art form once the painters and sculptors have had a chance to consider the events and present their interpretations of them. The efforts of these artists adds to the document normally initiated by photography.

Technology allows modern photography to take many forms. This versatility is a feature, not a burden, and a feature that practitioners of other art forms would welcome.

Other art forms have also benefited from perhaps less obvious but equally significant technical advances; the invention and gradual improvement of canvas, paint, the tools used to apply paint to canvas, framing methods, restoration methods, curatorial and preservation techniques all enable us to enjoy works painted several hundred years ago today. We’d also have to consider advances in transport, economic policies that create wealth, health policies that lengthen lives as without these things we again wouldn’t be able to see unreproducible artworks or have them transported to us.

Will we see technological advances that enable the reproduction of painting and sculpture? Will we be able to download a Rembrandt and print it on our 3D printer? How soon will it be before sculpture is distributed via 3D printers for example. Galleries normally display copies of masterpieces, rarely do we get to lay eyes on the originals. Can technology one day help reproduce these works so that they can be distributed and enjoyed more widely? Although the technology isn’t capable of producing exact copies of the original work, they could convey the qualities of depth and soulfulness.

What would happen then? Would we see a photography like boom in the number of people participating in sculpture? It may sound ridiculous now but the technology is still at the fax machine level of its development. There must be people working on achieving these goals today.

Jones also suggests that to compare a photograph to the work of a painter is insulting. But to suggest that drawing from the work of others in order to create a new work is something that only exists in photography is false. In fact painters working from a photographic source is quite common. Similarly photographers study the lighting of a painting and quite unashamedly try and recreate these conditions.

An artist’s admiration of another’s work would rarely stop at just looking, it should inspire them to create new work. All creativity feasts on what has come before it. Jones’ assumption is again based on a lack of understanding of, or respect for, the complexity involved in creating a photograph.

So galleries should show more photography?

If we consider the quantity of photography produced today, the portion that make it on to a gallery wall is immeasurably small. Jones’ criticism of photographic galleries simply feels misdirected. His preference to have photography viewed via printed books and on computer screens is precisely how almost the entire photographic catalogue in existence is viewed.

Photography is an activity that can have diverse, simultaneous objectives. Photography will be received differently depending on the audience. Photography is accessible, challenging and inspirational. All of these apply to painting, sculpture and any conceivable artistic endeavour. I can’t see how excluding the photographic print from being an object deserving reverence is in any way a constructive ideal.

So yes, Mr Jones, you and I will have to agree to disagree.


Featured Image:
Photo: Richard McKenzie
Lea and I, admiring art.
Monash Gallery of Art
Bowness Prize 2013.

You may wish to read Blake Andrews’ response to Jones’ article.

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