Photography, by any definition, is art

`Truth': Whether the images are `real' or contrived, the work of photographers still tells some story.

Fine Arts

May 30, 2000|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

A recent working vacation reaffirmed my appreciation for the difficulties that emerging artists face in getting their work shown and reviewed.

My experience stemmed from a basic photography course I took at the Maryland Institute, College of Art earlier this year. My project involved reprinting a portfolio of photographs I had taken some 25 years ago during a documentary project on urban poverty in the South American city of Medellin, Colombia. My pictures were taken in the city's shantytowns, which at that time were home to more than 100,000 poor rural migrants from the countryside.

The pictures came out pretty well, but I was staggered by the cost of purchasing materials, getting mats cut and other incidental expenses involved in producing an actual portfolio. By the time the project was over, I realized that I had spent more than $1,000 on what was basically a 60-pound box of very expensive paper.

The experience gave me a new appreciation for the sacrifices that artists -- and not only young ones -- must make to present their work. At least, I had a day job. I shudder to think what it must be like for unknown artists to shell out that kind of money with absolutely no guarantee of recouping their investment, or attracting a glimmer of critical notice.

And, as I worked on my project, I wondered whether my photographs were art or journalism; both or neither. And did it matter?

Since its inception, photography has been a stepchild of the fine arts, and for much of its history the main argument has been about whether photography can be considered an art at all.

Early detractors argued that the image created by camera and lens was a mere transcription of nature, a photo-mechanical process whose unfolding obeyed fixed physical and chemical laws. In their view, photography could not be art because it excluded the human subjectivity that's crucial to the creation of true art.

Photography's defenders countered that far from merely tracing reality, the camera transformed the appearance of the world to serve the creative vision of the artist. These advocates argued that photography's power to reshape the world, not its capacity for creating literal records, gave camera images the power to make an argument and express emotion -- in other words, to make art.

A variation of that original debate continues today:

The modernists think that photographs have a unique relationship to reality because they're more truthful than other images, while the postmodernists believe that photographs are no different from other images, and have no intrinsic meaning outside the social and political contexts in which they're made.

Postmodernism is a complex theoretical structure that has spread through most of the art world and academia, but it's found particularly fertile ground in photography. It's changing not only the way photographers work -- but also the way that viewers react to photographs.

For example, today it's unfashionable to respond to Depression-era documentary photographs like Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother" as if that is the way things really were. Instead, postmodernism urges viewers to question how the "reality" represented in the picture was painstakingly constructed by the photographer and by the government bureaucracies that Lange worked for to enlist public support for President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal programs.

As a journalist, I'm not completely happy with any view of photography that denies the medium's storytelling function. Fundamentally, I believe photography still bears a unique relationship to reality, though not in the naive sense of being literally "the real thing." One of the most useful lessons the postmodern critique has taught us is the myriad ways in which photographs conceal as well as reveal the "truth."

Still, I'm optimistic about the future of photography as art, although it would be foolish to try to predict exactly how the genre will develop. The one constant throughout photography's history is that theories about the medium's essential nature come and go, but the pictures remain.

By now they're part of who we are -- and they're one of the principal tools we use to know who we are. If that's not a definition of art, what is?

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