Photos show is about art, not life

April 14, 1996|By GLENN MCNATT | GLENN MCNATT,SUN STAFF

THE ARGUMENT between painting and photography has been going on 150 years ever since the invention of photography.

I came away from a recent show at the Maryland Institute, College of Art feeling that photographers are still fighting the old battle for recognition as artists, only on different terrain from their predecessors.

Instead of competing with painters in such traditional forms as still life, landscape and the nude, they are struggling to stake photography's claim to postmodern notions of art as deconstruction and performance.

The relationship between photographers and painters has always been a troubled one, even though one of the first steady markets for photographs was among painters, who used the images as substitutes for live models or to make their architectural and landscape renderings more exact.

At the same time, painters worried the camera's verisimilitude would kill the traditional market for painted miniature portraits and landscape scenes a fear that was borne out within a few years.

Perhaps I am a romantic, but my ideas about photography pretty much begin and end at the instant the shutter is released. In the darkroom, one can often salvage a great picture from a flawed negative. But if the image on the negative is mediocre, it will never become a great picture, no matter what technical wizardry is applied later.

Strength, but no risk

At the Maryland Institute show I sensed the photographers' implicit awareness of this principle, but only by default. Many of the images were indeed strong. The problem was that not one of them had been made during the two-year period the photographer was a student at the institute.

It was as if none of these photographers cared to risk what the great French photographer Henry Cartier Bresson called "the decisive moment" the irrevocable instant in which the shutter is opened and light imprints an image on the film.

Instead, they seemed comfortable only with manipulating, reinterpreting and recontextualizing old images that already had been validated by photo editors, teachers and colleagues.

Now, the reexamination of successful images often is a necessary part of a photographer's development and can yield valuable creative insights that inform future work. But it is not, to my mind, the essence of what photography is or should be about.

Even early photographers weren't content to be mere factotums of art. Many of them had been trained in painting and sculpture and thought of themselves as artists despite resistance among painters to the idea of photography as a fine art.

Nineteenth-century photographers often adopted the themes and compositional techniques of the painterly tradition. At the same time, the images produced by camera and lens began to influence the way painters like Delacroix and Courbet saw their subjects. Gradually, painters began to abandon realistic representation, thus laying the groundwork for the rise of modernism. Impressionism, Fauvism and Cubism all may be viewed as responses to the fact that photography had rendered the realistic representation of reality by painters obsolete.

So painters embraced abstraction to distinguish themselves from the "literalness" of photography and preserve the prestige of art. Not to be outdone, photographers who aspired to be artists started producing abstract photographs, too.

But there were also photographers who refused to be drawn into the academic debate over what constituted art. They believed absolutely in the aesthetic integrity of the photographic image as a unique form of expression and resisted any temptation to make it imitate painting.

Fleeting expressions

It is that faith which, at bottom, unites such disparate figures as Alfred Steiglitz and Henri Cartier Bresson, Edward Weston and Robert Capa, Dorothea Lange and Diane Arbus. Though their subject matter and methods varied enormously, all of their art came down to a simple matter of pushing the shutter button at the right moment.

For all of them, the decisive moment meant something different the ephemeral play of light on cloud formations, the fleeting expressions that pass over a sitter's face, the instant of a soldier's death in battle. But whatever art their images possess is fixed once and for all at the moment of exposure.

My own experience with photography suggests that knowing when to push the shutter button is a matter of intention, intuition, willingness to take risks and sheer dumb luck.

Years ago, for example, I traveled to the Colombian city of Medellin to take part in a photographic project documenting the lives of poor urban dwellers who lived in makeshift shacks, called tugurios, around the edges of the city.

I was determined to make a photographic record of the squalid conditions and social injustice I saw all around me, but my efforts proved mostly unavailing in that regard. In retrospect, I think what happened was that whenever I thought "squalid conditions of urban poverty and injustice" I simply stopped seeing what was in front of me.

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