A dirty word?

As a lot of readers out there will be aware, a recent essay by Paul Graham, The Unreasonable Apple, has been making some waves (ripples?) in the photography/art world, and of course in our beloved blogosphere. I apologize for wading in on this discussion so very late, but it seems to me that there are a few points that have not been raised as yet. The main thrust of Graham's piece is that, "there remains a sizeable part of the art world that simply does not get photography. [...]  [P]hotography for and of itself—photographs taken from the world as it is—are misunderstood as a collection of random observations and lucky moments, or muddled up with photojournalism, or tarred with a semi-derogatory ‘documentary’ tag." This is a question that is unavoidable to anyone interested in photography who has stepped beyond the confines of the photography-only community.

Relatively speaking, as an art form photography is still in its infancy. This has several implications: firstly, a certain, potentially justified, inferiority complex or sense of exclusion within the photographic community vis-à-vis the art world; secondly a broad spectrum of reactions from within the art world ranging from a wariness or even disregard of 'straight photography' to a seemingly even-handed "who gives a shit what the medium is as long as the art is good"-ness. So where does 'straight photography', "photographs taken from the world as it is," stand?

My instinct in these kind of discussions would be to look at the data (past lives are to blame for this). How much is 'straight' photography represented in major art fairs versus other disciplines, how much does it sell for versus other types of photography and media, how many modern or contemporary art museums show 'straight' photography exhibitions? Sadly this is not information that is readily available to me, so I won't be winning this debate with some beautifully constructed Excel charts and will have to rely on my avowedly limited personal experience.

While I think it is an overstatement to argue that photography is somehow ostracized from or maligned by the rest of the art world, I believe it has yet to consolidate its standing. Until very recently the Tate Modern, one of the biggest contemporary art institutions in Europe, did not have a curator of photography. The Centre Pompidou in Paris does not do more than one pure photography show per year (this kind of unwritten rule doesn't apply to other media). My impression is that many modern or contemporary art museums are still reluctant to present straight photography exhibitions. Where I disagree, reluctantly, with Graham is in his plea for the art world to look up and take notice, giving straight photography its due. Ed Winkleman says it best: "anyone who had been promised that the art world was going to be fair should demand their money back." The phenomenon of artists being widely celebrated (and even a little bit rich) in their own lifetime is relatively recent... I believe Picasso was the first to orchestrate this... and as photography has only been accepted as an art form over the last four decades or so, it seems normal to me that it is still struggling to find its place.

In terms of the commercial art market, photography is everywhere: you won't see a contemporary art fair without a healthy dose of our beloved still images. But, my impression is that straight photography — as opposed to the photography of Jeff Wall or Thomas Demand mentioned by Graham — has less of a place in contemporary art circles. There is a sense that being a photographer does not carry the same weight as being an 'artist.' The word 'photographer' implies craft rather than concepts or ideas, key measures of values in contemporary art, and craft has become a dirty word in the art world synonymous with pottery or glass-blowing (to quote Blake Andrews). Some photographers have even attempted to rebrand themselves as 'artists', presumably to escape the photographic ghetto. One measure I think will support me here is price: I'm pretty sure that if you compared the price of straight photography to the price of 'contemporary photographic art' for lack of a better term, you would see a pretty significant disparity, even between individuals with similar visibility and at a similar stage of their career. If anyone's got an account with artprice or one of those services, feel free to check this out!

Let's say that you accept that straight photography is lagging behind the leaders of the art pack (insert your preferred reasons here), what should be done? While I understand his point that the only thing you can do is to make the 'best' art possible, I was truly surprised by Winkleman's idea that if you "get out there and make better art than anyone else around you ... the world WILL notice." This strikes me as more than a little naive for such a consistently intelligent commentator on the art market. Does anyone truly believe that the art market (or world) is a state-of-the-art machine, constructed to ensure that the better art is, the more it gets noticed (see a previous post on this)? Just take a look at the world of consumerism: products don't sell more because they are better, there are a million other factors that determine their success: advertising, marketing, lack of competition, pricing, demand, the total irrationality of the consumer, etc.. The art market (I am taking the liberty of equating the art market with the art world here, including public institutions and not only commercial galleries) is precisely the kind of market which is riddled with imperfections: it's tiny, full of different hand-made products each claiming to be totally unique and it's ruled by a handful of major players with a controlling market share trying to sell to a handful of buyers who have all the money. And even if the art market were a utopia where the best art would rise to the top, where exactly is this universal yardstick on which the quality of art is being measured?

There is also the notion, expressed by Jörg Colberg, that photographers are just wasting their time worrying about what photography is, that this navel-gazing is causing their self-inflicted ostracization from the art market. The suggestion here seems to be that if they just got on with making photographs they might be taken more seriously. I tend to agree with Blake Andrews on this one: I see this kind of internal debate and questioning as positive signs of photography's health. And even if it bores you, it is by no means restricted to photography: take the major debate over the death of painting in the 1980s for example. Questions on the boundaries of art, on what art is and what it isn't, are not exactly new, indeed they are a natural and necessary reaction to any major artistic development.

The idea that Jeff Wall, Cindy Sherman, Thomas Demand and James Casebere are "being taken seriously because they are producing images without worrying themselves sick over whether it’s photography or not" runs counter to the history of art. I am currently editing a book on Impressionism, which features a number of letters by Pissarro, Gauguin and Monet. What emerges from the correspondence of these artists with their dealers, friends or their family, is just how deeply uncertain they are about the new things that they are attempting to do with painting and what reaction they will receive amongst critics, collectors and the general public.

My suggested course of action is that we worry even harder about all this stuff, about the nature of photography and about the quality, relevance and importance of individual photographs, and hopefully some of that "better art" will come out of it.