Thursday, 14 March 2013

Exercise 5 - analyse an essay


  1. Photographers have argued that photography is a Fine Art. The vast majority of people do not think this.
  2. Photographs have not been held in sacred isolation in museums therefore the public do not think them beyond them.
  3. All Fine Art is now considered property and is opposed to all other values.
  4. Photographs have no property value as they are not rare and can be reproduced.
  5. A photograph is a decision to record an event or object.
  6. Photography is the process of rendering a self-conscious observation of an event. The message is comprehensible to a greater or lesser extent dependant on the image.
  7. Painting is an art of arrangement and composition in the formative sense is not visible in ALL photographs.
  8. The formal arrangement of a photograph explains nothing. The events are only explicable according to the viewers prior knowledge.
  9. The proper meaning of photography is the recording and absence of event/objects in a given space of time.
  10. Painting interprets the world translating it into its own language. Photography has no language of its own. All references are external to itself.
  11. The unique power of photography is to isolate events/objects in time. To highlight the relationship between what is present and what is absent.
  12. A photograph is effective when it contains a generally applicable quantum of truth which is revealing about what is absent as about what is present and this truth must not be independent of the viewer.
  13. Photography does not deal in constructs and there is no transforming in photography.
  14. Photography is a means of testing, confirming and constructing a total view of reality and can be used as an ideological weapon by and against us.
John Berger's essay is written from a political viewpoint. Berger is a Marxist Humanist. It is fairly obvious that this is the case as in paragraph 3 of his essay when he talks about property and paragraph 14 when he refers to photography as an ideological weapon. First off, art is property? Is it? Is that all that it is? To a collector and a rich elite maybe. I think the art market and art in itself should be held in the mind as two separate entities. So what if someone wants to pay millions for a painting or a photograph? I'm quite happy with framed prints on my walls. It does not detract from my appreciation of them that they are not originals - and when I tire of them I have no problem binning them in favour of something else. To look at the argument from another perspective surely everything can be defined as property. Food in the home is property if looked at from a Marxist viewpoint. That doesn't exclude it from being something else as well. Food is still sustenance as art (including photography) is a way for us to understand ourselves. 

Berger opens his essay with the statement that the vast majority of people do not consider photography art. This may have been the case in 1972 but the popular view of photography has changed to a certain extent (much more so in some countries like America). I think that unlike painting photography has many uses and Berger unfairly singles out the more mundane aspects such as family photography to make this claim. Many people do buy photographs to hang on their walls. The kind of images (macro shots of flowers, landscapes, seascapes, etc) that can be purchased ready framed in places like Ikea may appear banal but they are considered art by the person that buys them. And what about the photographs that hang in galleries and museums - the exhibitions of photography that have been put on? How many hundreds of thousands (millions) have now flocked to see The Family of Man exhibition over the years.

I am not convinced by many aspects of Berger's argument. His reasoning that a formal arrangement of a photograph explains nothing does not take into account advances in photographic theory in the art world such as conceptual photography. I would also take exception to the argument that photography has no rarity value. Since this essay was written in 1972 photographs have become very collectible and have sold for vast sums on the art market. Photo-books have also become expensive collectors items.

Why the attack on composition? Why is still-life absurd? He does not give a reason for this statement. Is it because he wants to dismiss still-life because it does not fit in with his theory that composition and theoretical constructs do not exist in photography? Photographs in series (like Cindy Sheman's Untitled Film Stills concerning gender identity) deal in constructs. Tom Hunter's still-life portraits are constructed images of everyday events that reference fine art paintings.

I agree with elements of what he has to say - particularly the concept of recording what is present/absent in a given moment in time. But I do not think this is the whole picture and images can be interpreted in many different ways and from different viewpoints not just political, but environmental, feminist, aesthetic etc. 

Berger's writing style is very readable. His writing flows and his ideas are clearly set out in paragraphs containing the nub of his argument. But it is an outdated argument that has been made redundant by the passage of time and from the advances of photography into many areas of conceptual art. To some extent it could be argued that photography has superseded painting and other art forms in being able to express complex conceptual ideas and this is just one aspect of the argument that I feel makes photography worthy of being considered a Fine Art.



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