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« Decay # 6 ~ Trifecta | Main | FYI ~ please read »

a pile of steaming stinking meadow muffins

Vehiclesclick to embiggen
Question - Is Photography Dead? Simple answer - No.

Taken at face value, the question is ludicrous. Photography - the art or process of producing images of objects on photosensitive surfaces - is alive and well. Any fool with eyes can see that a trillion fools with cameras are making a zillion foolish photographs a day - just visit flickr for a small daily sample.

But, the question, which was crafted for drawing maximum attention to itself and the article, is not quite a face-value thing. The author, the painter and gadfly art critic Peter Plagens, wasn't really asking if the entire medium of photography was dead. No, whether he meant to or not, he was really inquiring if that segment of the medium known as 'straight' photography - 'the last art form to be tethered to realism' was dead.

If Plagens was using the 'tethered to realism' definition as one that described the whole of the photographic medium then the man is, at worst, a moron or, at best, a disingenous debater with an ax to grind (he doesn't seem to much like conceptual photography) who is using cherry-picked facts to build a specious case (a pile of steaming stinking meadow muffins). Take your pick.

Suffice it to say that the medium has been, since its earliest days, rife with those who, today, we call 'artists who use photography' - the early Pictorialists being a prime example. While Plagens is quick to mention photographers 'tethered to realism' such as Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Diane Arbus and Robert Frank, he conviently runs out of such examples around the 1970s mark - almost as if the breed of such photographers was a vanishing one. Pure, Unadulterated Rubbish.

In support of this nonsensical notion, he writes that if one were to '[S]tep into almost any serious art gallery in Chelsea, Santa Monica or Mayfair ... you're likely to be greeted with breathtaking large-format color photographs, such as Andreas Gefeller's overhead views of parking lots digitally montaged from thousands of individual shots or Didier Massard's completely "fabricated photographs" of phantasmagoric landscapes. "

Bullshit. I've got news for the man. I was just in Chelsea and stepped into a number of 'serious art gallery(ies)' and guess what I saw? An exhibit of breathtaking large-format color photographs straight - from - the - can (film can) images by Edward Burtynsky, Quarries. Next up was a delightful exhibit, Prabuddha Dasgupta's Longing. BW photography, straight - from - the - can digitally captured and printed, that rival anything the analog world has to offer.

Admittedly, I was in NYC to see Aaron's exhibit which would fall neatly into Plagens' rant regarding '... photography's flight into fable' which he attributes to 'advent of digital technology' (total, un-informed bullshit - see Jerry Uelsmann or Duane Michaels for examples of pre-'advent of digital technology' flights into fable). And, while I didn't see Didier Massard's completely "fabricated photographs" of phantasmagoric landscapes, I did see Alison Carey's Organic Remains of Former World.

Aaron's Cinemascapes and Alison Carey's Organic Remains of Former World are, no doubt, fine examples of 'photography's flight into fable' and 'fabricated photographs'. But to claim that this is something new or purely attributable to the advent of digital is completely ridiculous and totally ignores the history of the medium that is replete, from its earliest days, with a multitude of examples of the tom-foolery he seems to deplore.

Now, if Plagens' point was that photography's flight into fable and that fabricated photographs are in ascendancy in the medium of photography and especially so in the Fine Art world, he have a valid point. But to even suggest that 'Photography Is Dead' (Straight Photography Division) because of this is not only wrong headed, it flies in the face of more than ample evidence that 'photography tethered to reality' (mine included) is alive and kicking. I can barely begin to list the overwhelming number of examples that he conveniently left out - such post 70s photographers such as the Bechers, Meyerowitz, Gursky, Parr, etc. etc. etc.

It should be noted that I am a big proponent of 'photography tethered to realism'. I firmly believe that the defining characteristic of the medium that distinguishes it from the other visual arts is its relationship to the 'real'. 1044757-1199281-thumbnail.jpg
The 'real' dealclick to embiggen
Does that mean that photography can not venture into the realm of fable and fabrication? IMO, I think not and one of the reason that I think not is because much of fabricated flights into fable - many, but not all - still rely on and work with the medium's 'reality effect'.

Aaron's Cinemascapes, as an example, still maintain a sense of the 'real', visually and even more importantly, with the human 'truths' that they illuminate. This also true of the pictures of Jeff Wall, Cindy Sherman, and many others who practice photographic 'fakery'. It is their clever use of the medium's reality effect that draws the observer into addressing the 'connoted' human truths that are implict in their pictures.

Even the photographs of Beau Comeaux (a recent comment contributor here), which veer widely from the 'real' still convey 'truths' and intrigue about humankind's relationship to the night. And, found in his comments here, is, perhaps, a big part of the answer to the Is Photography Dead question.

In his comments, Beau Commeaux wrote; "...the best work I see has idea(s) behind it ... " and I agree completely. I don't give a damn how a picture was made - film, digital, darkroom, Photoshop, special process, 'fabricated' or whatever. As long as it has an 'idea' (about 'truth' and the 'real') worthy of consideration behind it, it's photography at its best in my book.

Reader Comments (2)

Well said.

Why do so many confuse the explosive growth of one art style/medium with the death of another?

Plagens might as well say, "because of the blogs, printed novels will soon be dead."

December 7, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterRobert

Dead? I'd say it's clearer than ever that photography is alive and kicking. And why slam pinhole photographers and hobbyists for it? Cheap blow, if you ask me. I for one have a greater appreciation for working photographers and artists because I take pictures. And I have a greater appreciation for real art because I try and fail at that, too. Sheesh.

Newsweek and the Washington Post are in the business of selling papers... controversy pushes ink. They're just torqued-off because they can't just run out and cover a story and snap a few pics to cover it. Trumped, I say, by bloggers and amateurs who aren't on a news cycle -- people who don't have to wait on a giant web press to get their monthly or daily news to the masses. If anything is DEAD, it's the newspaper and "mass media" magazine business.

Besides, what is real anyway? C'est n es pas un spoon. It's all theatre. All of it.

December 10, 2007 | Unregistered Commentersteven

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