Fine Art Photography: Subversion and Circumvention
by James May
Copyright © 2011 All Rights Reserved
Part 1: Representational Photography: The Contextual Subversion
"We talk endlessly of the individual and of individualism, for example, when any sensible glance at major issues indicates that we live in an era of great conformism." - John Ralston Saul, "Voltaire's Bastards", 1992
I consider my own documentary photography to be a counterpoint to Robert Frank's not so casual dissemination of stereotypes of a country I know a thousand times better than Swiss transplant Frank ever did. While I greatly admire Frank's basic visual language in his book, The Americans , I don't for one second see it as being anything other than a reflection of Frank himself and so in a certain sense having nothing to do with Americans or America. Robert Frank wouldn't be the first European from closely huddled ex-fortress towns startled by the immensity of America or by the impenetrability of what may be the most sophisticated culture ever on this earth, nor the first to profoundly misunderstand America's eccentricities as weakness.
The more a photographic tract purports to convey a message and the more one-sided that message is the more it verges the realm of propaganda. Writers have portrayed and specifically contrasted the 1955 Edward Steichen curated exhibition, "The Family of Man" with Frank's The Americans, positing "The Family of Man" exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art as nothing more than sugar coated propaganda of the wonders of the West, consigning it to the land of "Hogan's Hero's," while Frank's vision is touted as the real and gritty deal, even suggesting that The Americans is, at least in part, a parody of "The Family of Man." I say that what's good for the goose is good for the gander.
The reason I mention this is because Frank's groundbreaking book is frequently portrayed as some kind of dispassionate photo essay of the decadence and sadness that had overtaken America and even portrayed as a type of ethnography or anthropology, an almost Arbus-like carnival sideshow of sad and unwitting people living sad and meaningless and increasingly conformist, lonely, and isolated lives which Frank himself of course rides coolly above like a full moon above scudding clouds. That is a somewhat lofty and perhaps even arrogant position that would become de rigueur for the rest of the 20th century when it came to the knowing documentary artist and so producing its own conformity in place of a more expansive truth.
One can always be certain that when a person states with certainty something they couldn't possibly know the truth of that they are only showing what they wish to believe or think to portray and not the truth of the matter. The idea of linking Frank's work to any kind of science is the exact problem here, as science attempts to ferret out the truth and is not in the business of distributing archetypes or stereotypes. There were some 160 million Americans when Frank took his famous photos and so there is an analogy to only photographing car accidents when doing an essay on American freeways.
My feelings on The Americans are pretty simple: if one views the book as an artistic vision in the same sense as A Streetcar Named Desire, or the film Hud (1961), then it is brilliant - if one views Frank's book as a vision of the essence of America in the mid-1950s then it is nothing more than childish propaganda, no more real than Norman Rockwell's paintings. The fact Rockwell's paintings are laughed at as absurdly idealistic while Frank's equally absurd photos are not, is telling.
The film The Last Picture Show (1971), has more than a passing resemblance at its heart to Robert Frank's The Americans. Imagine if the lines between reality and art were entirely blurred and people took The Last Picture Show to heart as a true essence of the failure and isolation of American culture. Frank's unwitting descendants, those street photographer's who wanted to comment on American culture and make a visually unique statement, at the same time found themselves addicted to the idea of America as tragedy and satire and so America became one giant cultural wreck in the lenses of America's arty photojournalists, something to be laughed at rather than celebrated. But the real problem became the fact that these were real photographs and not paintings or theatrical plays wherein the boundaries of artistic vision were clearly demarcated and so set aside from reality.
More within Frank's own genre, Sebastião Salgado takes photos of the dispossessed of this world. His brilliant work does not say,"This is the World" but, "This is a part of the World". Were it otherwise it would be Plato's shadow play. In a Aug., 2007 article in American Thinker by Allan Nadal titled, "Art Or Propaganda? American Postwar Photography", Nadal selectively picks 3 quotes by Luc Sante from Sante's introductory essay for an exhibition at MOMA called, "American Photography, 1890-1965": 'Garry Winogrand's.... portraits of the shell-shocked and anomic society, wandering through public structures with no clear destination. 'Lee Friedlander's oddly silent urban landscapes seemed like pictures of an abandoned country. '[Diane Arbus's people] were the final, conclusive products of the twentieth century, inheritors of progress, war, commerce, mass culture, and all the rest of it.'"
One would think we were Germans or Italians photographing the post-World War II destruction and chaos prevalent in those countries rather than a successful and booming country like America, on the verge of doing away with institutional racism. Do we as Americans really have such a gloomy vision of ourselves or is it a few famous photographers who feel this way. Or maybe they don't in fact feel that way but simply cannot make art without some kind of enemy as it were. Whatever is the case, there is no conservatism in this arena to offset that negative vision, merely bright photographers like Sally Mann or Joel Meyerowitz or Danny Lyon who can make wonderful work without overly contextualizing it to society at large as a wasteland. We as Americans have taken a very few yet persistent visions and run very, very far with them.
Robert Frank, Parade, Hoboken, N.J. 1955 & Political Rally, Chicago, 1956
Had he wished to, Frank could just as easily have had the man behind the tuba and the people behind the flag in the window waving and smiling, but then lost the art of it; it's all about what you wish to project.
Frank could have photographed smiling faces skating on a frozen pond in Minnesota or at a college football game in Nebraska or office workers on break in Dallas. Let's be honest here - Frank had no desire to show happy people nor do the generations of street photographers who followed nor does the audience who admire showing the flip side of the American dream who you can bet do not see themselves in Frank's photographs; no, never them.
In the hands of a street photographer, an innocent picture of my sister and I sitting on the living room couch with our Halloween masks on when we were children, which brings back warm memories for me, takes on a darker and questioning tone; the mere fact of its presentation in an artistic context makes one believe that there must be something going on and quite innocent and even meaningless events are given a context and that context, when it comes to street photography, usually has those tragic undertones.
The claims of ethnography and anthropology attached to Robert Frank's book ring hollow in the face of a presentation that resembles a muted version of the 10 o'clock news with its plane crashes, murders and car accidents rather than an egalitarian survey of the American landscape of the mid-1950s. A one-sided view that admits to such is one thing and that same view passed off as reality another. In Frank's America, there is no room for the brightness of the music, literature, art and film that would captivate an entire world, or the sophistication and audacity that would place men in the Sea of Tranquility with less computer power than a cell phone. Instead there is a depiction of Americans as an underclass, and with minds that are nothing more than intellectual shanty towns to bring into focus the pretence and sham of shiny things like new cars and homes.
Not being an American, Frank may have been entirely unaware of the commonplace story of the rise of economically humble and phenomenally unconnected individuals to great distinction and careers in America, something rather more problematic in class bound Europe and England in the mid-1950s. The tradition of recognizing American genius aside from one's origins was endemic in America in its history and a tradition well liked. Contrary to Frank's depictions of a listless and lost America, one need only read the biography of just about anyone from that era to see how fiercely energetic Americans were and are and what heady dreamers they are as well.
To claim that is all worthless even after the landmark 1954 decisions of Brown VS. Board of Education because 10% of the populace was stripped out of society for decades is exactly the dismal focus Frank and his compatriots shine on America. By the standards of these documentary photographers, America never was right and never will be. How can it when the least and the worst is seen as the "normal?" How does Frank's own Europe compare to that scenario? Not well, I trust, but that light is not shown, and if it was, Frank would show it as a land of concentration camps, class, and endemic war if he was at all fair; the problem is, he is not.
According to the National Gallery of Art, Frank's photos in The Americans. "...reveal a profound sense of alienation, angst, and loneliness.", and a people "rendered numb by a rapidly expanding consumer culture". I don't recall any of my extended family in the mid-1960s being rendered numb in such a fashion because contrary to this notion put out by a Miss Sarah Greenough, Americans overcame, not gave into such feelings by traveling huge distances in search of careers, education and opportunity, thereby being the eternal outsiders, but ones who put aside trepidation and learned to fit into new cultures, putting paid to the idea that they suffered from any default position of alienation, angst or loneliness. Americans were experts at overcoming or ignoring such considerations and in point of fact often embraced them.
Sarah Greenough, senior curator and head of the department of photographs at the National Gallery of Art gave a lecture  about The Americans titled, "Transforming Destiny Into Awareness: Robert Frank The Americans." One could easily trade it out into saying, "Transforming Awareness Into Destiny" or The Information Ricochet Handbook. [2a] In this lecture, Miss Greenough admits to there being "novel areas of beauty" in Frank's body of photos, but this is not present in the people but in their artifacts of mid-20th century design sensibility. Miss Greenough quotes Kerouac's introduction to The Americans, which, like Frank's dialectical sequence of photos, pair words like "sadness" and "Americaness" without a leavening of positiveness, which is my point.
In Miss Greenough's lecture she demonstrates the inadvisability of attaching too much text to photography. There is no lack of politically correct negative rhetoric read into the innocent victims of Frank's photos as black men's expressions in Frank's photo of a rural funeral are characterized as "attentive" and "expressive" and their gestures "elegant" (I see nothing of the sort but rather an echo from Miss Greenough of Kerouac's remark about black folks being "full of glee" and that "negros have a lot of fun".) while the white folks specifically contrasted by Miss Greenough who are watching a rodeo are said to have "dull expressions" with "lack of interest" and the man is said to be chewing on his cigar "brutishly" when one could as well have said with equal truth that he held it in his teeth in a manner that is confident or even jaunty and he is watching the rodeo in a manner that is quite attentive and not at all "dull".
Robert Frank, Funeral, St. Helena, S.C., 1955 & Rodeo, Detroit, 1955
Robert Frank, Savannah, 1955
One need look no further to see a politically correct and patronizing example of nostalgie de la boue together with the new politically correct penchant for delusionally seeing what it wants to see and that is a shit version of America and that is why The Americans is so fully embraced by Greenough's culture. There is not anything about America that is being expressed by Miss Greenough, only her own political world view, and she is guilty of further politicizing already politicized photos.
In Miss Greenough's view, in speaking about Frank's photo of a couple crossing a street in Savannah, a pipe (her word) becomes "knife-like" and the manner in which the woman holds onto the soldier's arm - which was typical of the era - was described in this way: "...his virility is clearly conveyed by the way he escorts his companion, with her hand not clasped lovingly in his but draped in the crook of his arm so that he can better direct her." A woman who, I'd like to point out, was fully capable of starting her own bank account at the time of the photo, unlike in Frank's Europe, where in Spain a woman 20 years later was still unable to do so as I mention elsewhere.
How in the world it is easier to direct a woman while she lightly clasps the inside of one's elbow rather than holding her by the hand so that one could drag her should one wish flies in the face of common sense as does the idea that this man wants to direct anyone anywhere in the first place. But politically correct entities like Miss Greenough suffer from the Orwellian delusions that accompany the act of accusing a total stranger of wanting to direct a woman against her will 55 years after the fact. In fact what Miss Greenough is doing is boldy distributing morality itself by race and gender.
The soldier is astonishingly even further characterized as someone who "is overweight, with fat bulging beneath his tight military garb" and as someone who "menacingly confronts the photographer" when in fact all he is doing is walking down the street with his girl towards Frank while some stranger takes a picture of him, and so it is Frank who is doing the confronting.
In Miss Greenough's view, a bulge of fat is a sign of weakness or immorality or decadence, as everyone who judges a book by its cover or Soviet posters of that era depicting virile young men and women with blonde hair beneath blue skies in fields of grain knows. The soldier seems more perplexed than anything else and for all we know he hated it when the woman held his arm like that and he may have been a Medal of Honor winner who loved that woman dearly or she could've been a prostitute. The truth of the matter is that we don't know anything at all about this couple and reading misogyny, disintegration and menace into such a photo is only projecting our own stupidity and smug notions of superiority onto the world about us, and make no mistake, in this world, misandry is something that literally does not exist; all things being equal, it must, but it does not because the new notion of equality is handed out in a fashion that is miserly and entirely one-sided.
Peter Byrne in a Nov., 2009 article titled, "Never On Time: Robert Frank and the Americans", says this about the photo of the soldier and the lady: "America was between wars in 1959 and his photo of a soldier and his lady comes too late for the meager protests against the Korean War and too early for the huge antiwar movement of the mid-1960s. This soldier of Savannah, Georgia, has nothing warlike except his glare at the camera. He seems disgruntled over his duties of the day. These -- along with escorting his partner -- seem to include a courtesy visit and the delivery of a gift. He holds it gingerly in his left hand as if he has never in his life carried anything before. His pot belly rises just under the decorated box. His cigar is the only thing arrow-straight about him. He needs trousers a size larger around the waist. His lady rests her hand on his arm for help in balancing on her too narrow new shoes. Her black sheath dress appears to be walking her back the way she has come. It could be that her bobbing earrings and massive necklace impede progress. Her preparations for a day of pleasure have left her wincing with pain."
All Mr. Byrne fails to mention is the corn cob pipe and straw hats these fools left at home together with the children fathered by a first cousin.
In my opinion, you have to come from some seventh hell of idiocy to read such drivel into the photograph of the soldier and the woman as does Miss Greenough and Mr. Byrne. I actually feel bad for this old soldier to have such abuse heaped upon him by Miss Greenough; no wonder people don't like stranger's taking their photo on the street - who would want such nonsense read into their every innocent act?
Multiply this all by 83 Frank photos and Greenough's turgid remarks about black, white, man, woman, and you have a body of work that is problematic, contextualized to the hilt. How do you think that soldier's daughter or son would feel if they were at Miss Greenough's lecture? And these are the people that talk about a nation's lack of compassion or insight when their own bigotry and lack of compassion are on full display for all to see. The more the photos are textualized and contextualized the emptier they seem and the more nonconformity is insisted upon or conformity taken for granted to have existed where it may never have is its own type of conformity, since the word and accusation itself is far more complex than simple. It is natural for people to think, dress, and act like their fellows, and not evidence of a yolk around one's neck nor of inflexibility.
In the 1950s, people who sought to be different and express that difference simply were, and in those instances where they had to fight, the American court system increasingly backed them up. The idea that if everyone is not an eccentric then no one truly is is self-defeating, and in 1955 there was no lack of Americans marching to the beat of their own drum - so much so in fact that Europe came to learn this trait from us if at all, and not the other way around.
Robert Frank, City Fathers, Hoboken, N.J, 1955
In describing Frank's photo, "City Fathers, Hoboken, N.J.", Miss Greenough says that "the men show none of the wisdom of age, the love or concern of a parent, or even the sober stewardship of prominent civil servants" as if such things could possibly be ferreted out by looking at a person's face or skin for that matter, though Miss Greenough knows otherwise. One man appears to be blowing a kiss, which is, of course, described by Miss Greenough as a "smirk" though it just as easily could be described as playful, and it could be directed towards the daughter he dearly loves or to his mistress - we do not know.
By Miss Greenough's standard, one should be able to tell whether a person is a liar or a saint simply by looking at them. I am as troubled by Miss Greenough's and Mr. Byrne's depictions as I would be if they attempted to make the same connective thread to reality using Hud or The Last Picture Show, films which artfully proclaim they are about disintegration while Robert Frank proclaims the American cultural disintegration to be real. Feature film by its nature is obvious about its art and documentary photography often much less so. Were a feature film to blur the line between documentary and art it would be taken to task for promoting untruths and questions of ethics would arise. For some reason we are forgiving of the idea that a documentary photographer's informal yet directed agenda can amount to the same thing as a Hollywood script. For my money, anyone who claims that 1950s America at its heart was a scene of disintegration, isolation and endemic racism are simply showing what they are predisposed either by intellect, prejudice, or desire to believe. The question is, compared to what? To ourselves? Were we liars? Compared to who? Europe? Brazil?
When we view feature films we are hyper-aware of the artistry conveyed and its relationship to reality, but with documentary photography it is a different matter entirely, although they both are occupying the same space in the sense of which I am speaking.
This is not analysis on the part of Miss Greenough but a hopelessly puerile, naive, and biased willingness to see what one wants to see and what that is is a not so distant echo of the "sins of the West." She further seems enamored of the pedantry I associate with the wonders of dialectical contrast when it comes to the sequencing of Frank's book, which is not a nuanced idea nor a specifically photographic one compared to the many layers a single photo can provide, but instead merely an upgunned comic book sequence, though Miss Greenough tries to compare it to film instead in a rather lifeless attempt to imbue the sequencing with a patina of art; though the presentation is more similar to a comic book's strengths than to film, that comparison lacks merit in the halls of a museum. If Frank's sequences have power, so too does a sequence of comic panels. Miss Greenough says that Frank "sought not to document American life but his experience of it" and that Frank's work is not the "journey of one individual but rather the course, even the destiny of a nation.", like Frank's photos were analogues to a photo of the Union Pacific Railroad.
I would argue in regard to the latter quote that Frank is doing the exact opposite and the former quote which contradicts the latter quote bewilderingly seems to agree with me. Miss Greenough seems to take it on faith that the destiny of America was to be a group of vapid consumerists devoid of independent thought who were hypnotized by Davy Crockett and their shiny washing machines while being led by endemic war mongerers, yellow journalists, misogynists and racists. We in turn can take it on faith that by an amazing coincidence Miss Greenough herself fits nowhere within that scenario. Even if Miss Greenough confessed to being a privileged de facto racist - a thing not unsual in her culture - it would ring hollow and maudlin. A confession is not part of a dialogue because it still leaves us only with accusations and innocence distributed by race and gender. Institutional racism is one thing, claiming it resides in the form you were born with is itself an act of bigotry, and the closing of a door.
In a 2010 article Robert Moeller wrote about a photo in The Americans:"In franks eyes, a plump African American woman wearing a simple country dress, sitting alone in a field, projects more beauty and grace than an elaborately dressed blonde starlet arriving at a movie premiere: the former radiates joy, the latter an aloof anxiety." One sees this type of projection and assignation of grace or brutishness, elegance or anxiety, parceled out by skin color in a startling number of instances in what is, to me, a clear case of a type of trendy and politically correct reverse racism that is just wrong. Miss Greenough herself, evidently not a fan of non-Aristotelian logic, seemingly believes that the map is indeed the territory and that skin does in fact matter, but only when it serves her world view - when it doesn't, it's probably just racism.
Frank set out with preconceived notions of places he'd never been to and photographed his distant stereotypes cemented together with first impressions and a desire to make art, but stereotype as archetype doesn't make all that fitting a mortar as the former confuses and diminishes the latter if it is not readily admitted to as an internal artistic vision rather than an external reality. Frank may have misunderstood or simply disliked American eccentricity and brashness and entirely misunderstood Americans as slaves to conformity since we have redefined ourselves throughout the 20th century with each new generation in a way that Europe has rarely done. The counter-culture that Europe itself embraced in the 1960s didn't originate in Europe but in the United States as did the revolutions that brought down Europe's kings and princes, and so we were borrowing them a can opener as it were and Europe is today populated with American baseball caps but without a baseball stadium in sight.
The American cultural landscape was all but unrecognizable only 5 years after Frank's book was published in the U.S., a decade after the photos were taken, and Robert Frank had nothing to do with it. If one wants to make a case for stodginess and conformity one need look no further than Frank's own Europe before World War II, after which, the lovely strains of a German oom pah pah quartet were drowned out by John Coltrane. To reduce 160 million Americans in the mid-1950s to intellectually listless, ardently racist and lined up on a massive escalator whisking them away to an empty consumer society is a childish notion at best. In this sense Frank's photos are nothing more than picture post cards taken by a tourist that reduce America to emptiness as Brazil is reduced to a photo of Sugarloaf or France reduced to the Eiffel Tower. I just don't get this idea that anyone in America actually thought that Ozzie and Harriet or Father Knows Best was an actual reflection of America; they were TV shows, and everybody seems to get that but the photographers who apparently bought into the idea that such shows constituted a type of propaganda. Showing America as the opposite of Father Knows Best and passing it off as hypocrisy or reality is even stupider than the TV show itself since no one on this earth was trying to pass off Father Knows Best as reality TV. As an adjunct, I would like to say that it is just as idiotic to put a man on a pedestal by their skin color as it is to ask them to stand in a ditch because of their skin.
Robert Frank, Movie Premier - Hollywood, 1955-56 &
William Klein, New York, 1954-55
Luc Sante writes in a Sept., 2009 essay called, "Seeing Beauty In Our Shadows", "Although no contemporaneous critic mentioned it to the best of my knowledge, Frank portrayed quite a lot of black people in his book: elegant mourners in South Carolina, a turbaned mystic bearing a cross on the bank of the Mississippi, a dashing couple of motorcyclists in Indianapolis, a very dark nurse holding a very white baby whose expression matches hers. On the whole, African-Americans come across in the book as possessing somewhat more grace and style than their white counterparts."
Note Mr. Sante's own use of the words "dashing" and "elegant" and how they are consistently parceled out and withheld according to skin color in these conversations, and always by people who present themselves to be colorblind and anti-bigotry.
Where does a proverbial white Ohio truck driver fit into this mix and how does he fare? Not very well. Lacking in grace, elegance, and turbaned spirituality evidently handed out by God in the way of high cheek bones or skin color, he resides in a no-man's land of sad and endemic cultural bankruptcy. To me this type of general commentary is startlingly racist; startling in that it is so blithe and unaware of itself, and yet at the same time seeks to preach morality to faceless millions who are in sorry need of a lesson which the teacher themselves prod us to believe they are immune to, while displaying a form of well-meaning and friendly hate speech worthy of the KKK.
Orwell warned of "doublethink" to no avail in such instances, since holding mutually exclusive ideas in one's mind seems to be a feat of acrobatics which is effortless on the part of a politically correct generation of do-gooders who think everyone else does bad and and they try to make us believe this based on the most shallow outside appearances of human beings while at once decrying the idea of doing so; it is a form of delusional madness. The cognoscenti love to bullshit about "The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars, but in ourselves..." but without understanding it or taking it to heart, because shallow depictions of humanity is not fate or science but dump truck prejudice. In this scenario, fat equals stupid and lazy, cowboy hat equals ignorant, a turban at the Ganges precludes criminality and so on.
The human condition is not predicated on wearing suits or sarongs or by facial features, and so what you are seeing is the flip side of stereotypes trundled about in 30s pulp magazines but instead of the "yellow menace" it is the white menace and by implication, black innocence, which unfortunately still leaves black folks residing within a status of an other, still segregated from being thought of as fully human with all that implies. But since it's done in a friendly manner it's A-okay.
Crime and honesty is where you will find it and not where you expect to find it and is certainly not distributed by skin tone when it comes to elegance or grace; even those wildly eccentric Bugs Bunny cartoons from the inflexible and conformist 40s are not so stupid and those cartoons and films of the era show how much Americans were aware of their own foibles and how they had no trouble seeing themselves in a humorous light. Were this not so then instead of having Ben Hecht's and Preston Sturges's America we would have had Leni Riefenstahl. In the same article Luc Sante says about Frank's depiction of America, that "the United States didn't recognize itself." To me, to blithely state that 160 million Americans lacked the ability to see itself as a nation but that some guy from Europe who'd spent a few years in the country and who was visiting many of the locales for the first time could incisively view the real America is, in my opinion, purest nonsense. It's true that an outsider can have a fresh view of a culture, but for that to transform into true insight is impossible in a few years; any given culture on a national level will be staggeringly complex and resist stereotyping.
As opposed to the view of Frank's America, even a comic book of all things, the April, 1953 issue of Weird Fantasy, #18, had a specifically anti-racist story in it called "Judgment Day" whose protagonist was a black man. William Gaines had to fight to get it published but make no mistake, there was a fight in progress and we needed no Robert Frank to tell us our business, and so Frank's book comes more and more to seem like it was speaking to a foreign market, however much people like Miss Greenough ardently wish otherwise. Americans in 1955 were immersed in their own many layered culture that had a depth almost unrivaled in the world. The idea that one could spend a few years in a few cities in India or Brazil and then set out by car to reveal the real India or Brazil in a way that was anything but chauvinistically shallow just doesn't hold water for me, and if you attach an agenda to the matter it only gets worse.
If Frank was working like a painter or playwright who shows their own expression of a segment of American life then that is one thing, but if The Americans is meant to show the "destiny of a nation" then it is a view that is hopelessly myopic and biased and somewhat mean-spirited. To me, Frank's work is brilliant in the context of art and if taken in the context of document the power of the imagery is still there but diminished; the destiny of America had nothing to do with us being clueless, racist morons with empty lives more than any other nation and perhaps even less so than others since it was not Frank's Europe which rescued America in WW II but we who rescued Europe.
If you want to read emptiness into a man's eyes then go to Cairo or India in 2010 and look into the eyes of a man riding a donkey in the suburbs of Cairo who had to give over his daughter to work for an old woman miles away because he could not afford to raise her himself, or into the eyes of a farmer in India where they are committing suicide wholesale for lack of money. Step over bodies of sleeping homeless families in front of every shuttered store front at night in downtown Rio de Janeiro in 1988. I at least had the grace to not photograph such things, juxtapose it with a photo of happy white beach goers, make a book out of it and call it The Brazilians or The Clueless Conformist Racists of India for that matter.
When it comes to the imagined superiority of the East over the decadent West, look at the filthiest and holiest Ganges River at the holy Hindu city of Varansi where Hindus throw garbage into the river until one takes one's health into one's hands merely to enter its waters. Americans seem to have mastered the weird art of being entirely provincial about their own backyard, but viewing it as if from a great distance, and that distance invariably providing a distortion in the negative and not the positive. It is important to always look at a culture in proportion and context and not in some vacuum. For all America's supposed decadence, people all over the world are breaking down the doors and risking their lives to come to America like no other country in the world, and in the 1950s no black folks were trying to escape America like East Germans did in their hundreds of thousands when Frank was making his photographs, until the Berlin Wall had to be built, and so I would like to make a book to contrast The Americans called, The Rest of the World.
On the flip side of this is the moronic supposition of American exceptionalism, and what is in between I ask? It is something that looks like truth. In Miss Greenough's eyes, she distributes elegance and brutishness according to a well established politically correct doctrine that is itself at once patronizing and racist and entirely unfair to her own country. To listen to a lecture composed of such utter nonsense from an institution like The National Gallery of Art is disheartening to say the least, but even more disheartening in that I have come to expect it. In the eyes of the artistic elite, America seems to be nothing more than one big shithole that should be taken to task for Chapultepec and The Trail of Tears and even excoriated and punished for it as if guilt actually can not only be distributed by skin color but within the context of a connection by skin color spanning decades if not hundreds of years. Being a slave does not confer innocence but only a yoke.
It is not just the boring conformity of Ozzie and Harriet that is to be despised in such a view but Conrad's heart of darkness that lurked beneath the thin veneer of civilization that comprised their skin. No one can doubt that such acts as the Vietnam War comprised one enormous crime, but to flail ourselves like monks in a dark age monastery using one standard of race for some while withholding that same standard from others as racist would seem to serve little purpose. It seems meant only to smugly enable one to show how vociferously they do not approve, without regard to self-contradiction or fairplay, and so stand above the rest of the tawdry crowd who actually may like themselves, which is an act apparently considered intellectually bourgeois, though the lecturer's own iPhone, iPad, polluting automobile, and other veneers of civilization are apparently exempt as long as their heart itself is in the right place. There is plenty to look at with a weather eye in America from subject matter like The Pentagon, or Iraq or atomic power but when one cries wolf so often by wrapping America up in its entirety in a burlap bag and throwing it into the river it diminishes the impact to a noxious dial tone of the purely negative.
My parents in 1952 after having ridden 100 miles
from Minneapolis to Little Falls. My father worked
in a tractor factory and my mother was a home-maker.
Neither had the slightest interest in art, literature
or higher education and yet possessed the innate
eccentricity of the typical American. Happy,
eccentric middle class Americans - not a Frank photo.
As formal artistic expressions, Robert Frank's work in The Americans is brilliant, particularly for its day, although Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans and others had preceded Frank in this arena, albeit in less beat fashion. One could argue that William Klein and Henri Cartier-Bresson did the same kind of work before or alongside Frank. However, Frank was not just stumbling about America for months completely open to the experience and with no preconceived ideas, but looking for a sense of the tragic, as happy, smiling faces have little traction in artistic expression other than to be in turn smiled at.
In a larger sense, Frank's book tries to turn America into one giant F.S.A. project wherein the Great Depression resides in our hearts and psyche. Making art out of a sense of the tragic is completely understandable as Shakespeare's plays would have had little traction had they been about happy picnics and Miller's Death of A Salesman and countless other expressions of art occupy the same space. But those expressions are art and not reality. They are not dispassionate snapshots of the world and the fact that Robert Frank's work uses photographs of real people in real settings in an impromptu manner has confused the issue although, arguably, Frank was working from a type of script just as Hollywood itself does.
Robert Frank's photos in The Americans are not documentary photos except in a strict sense and resemble Jacque-Louis David's "Death of Marat" more than they do a window onto American life, and like David's painting, Frank's book can be considered the photographic pieta of the revolution of the arts that had begun to look with a weather eye at America and its values. If Robert Frank and other outsiders bought into some Santa Claus notion of America that was never in fact true outside of film, literature and the media, then I don't see how that is an American problem as American's surely knew themselves better than Frank did. One's reaction to a thing can be measured in this sense by what one expected to see in the first place, but this should not be taken as a measure of the thing itself.
Robert Frank, 'Rodeo', 1954
In this sense, Robert Frank's work in The Americans is not an example of a truth. Frank's book of photos is formally brilliant and yet our interpretation of it has been naive. The fact of the matter is that these themes and subjects have been with civilization all along and just because some people were unaware of this does not equal revelation. If one buys into Andy Hardy or Leave It To Beaver or Doris Day the chaste, one need not project this eye-popping unveiling onto society when one learns otherwise nor, as a result, depict society as if it is only sordid, like a dystopian Norman Rockwell but with a camera; 83 inverted Saturday Evening Post covers spreading their own message of American life concentrated in one book.
We need no epiphanies about Santa Claus and one person's visual or perceptual voyeurism or slumming is another man's matter of fact world because one person's epiphany is another's meat and potatoes. Frank came to find an exotic, shanty town of immorality and that's what he found. Americans said, "What did I do?"
Frank's work has some of the enthusiasm of an On the Road wherein people are basically saying, "Oh, look - a bum, and over there, a prostitute. I've never seen that before - how weird and strange and cool. I'm going to write about it and photograph it and oh, look over there, twin girls with weird eyes." That's a revelation to those who don't get out much, something less for those that do - how does one measure naiveté? Here is a bulletin: one will find whore houses and prostitutes virtually anywhere in the world of civilized man one goes, whether it is Guatemala City, Istanbul, Rio de Janeiro, Kuta Beach in Bali, Cairo, Paris, Washington D.C. or Granada in Spain, not that I would know anything about that personally.
Frank was apparently startled by segregation and wanted to photograph aspects of it, like he couldn't understand why we couldn't see it like he did. It's almost like Frank was saying, "Hey, look everybody - racism, can't you see it?" Perhaps Frank was startled because he expected more from a country that touted itself as a democracy and Frank was down on Switzerland whose record during World War II was decidedly mixed when it came to the Jewish question.
I personally find it hard to credit how someone who lived in Switzerland during World War II could be so startled by segregation in the U.S. when the wholesale arrest, deportation and slaughter of Jews was an issue of everyday life in neutral Switzerland during the war - I'm afraid that's something I just don't get. Was the French book deal for The Americans prior to Frank's visit an issue and did Frank know it would have an anti-American slant before it was published? Did Frank object to the subsequent text of the French first editon because it was anti-American or because so much text took away from his photos? How did Frank reconcile France's own treatment of Jews and Vichy government during World War II and their anti-American stance, or did he see the French first edition of The Americans as simply one Frenchman's stance?
We have confused the bright and creative artistic visions of Robert Frank, Diane Arbus and Sally Mann with reality. If they were paintings we would be less confused as these photographers seek to control their presentations every bit as much as a painter and the disdain with which some hold Norman Rockwell's paintings of life in America are proof of this confusion and this is exacerbated in the case of Frank's photos. Only in the mind of an artist can it be perceptually gloomy and overcast every day; this has nothing to do with we Americans because we are not anything all the time.
What Frank saw in America he could just as easily have depicted in Europe. One need only look at Brassai  to see so and the same could be done about any European country today if that's what you want to see. I love the story of Arthur Miller and the Egyptian policeman  because it speaks to this universality. Perhaps Frank resented centuries old Europe having to be rescued from its own hatreds and bigotry as it was in World War II by upstart rascals and yokels who were still in cultural short pants - I don't know.
In 1982 Jno Cook writes about The Americans, "In France it came out as a clearly anti-American book. The photographs were accompanied by an 84-page text of quotations and anecdotes collected by critic Alain Bosquet, presented under headings such as, 'The Civil War Continues,' 'Isolationism,' 'An Incorrigible Idealism,' 'Uniformity.' 'The Intellectual is Suspect,' 'Religion or Religiosity,' and 'The Almighty Dollar.'" 
With the exception of the last, it sounds like the Soviet Union, another group of upstarts who had to rescue Europe from the Eastern end. In The American Enemy: The History of French Anti-Americanism, Phillipe Roger writes, "As Satre could have put it, in France, anti-Americanism's existence always preceded any essence of America." So, if the cart came before the horse, it may not be the greatest surprise that Frank's perhaps pre-imagined reaction to America was "somewhere between disappointment and revulsion", as Roger puts it. Frank's supposed remark about wanting to understand "the kind of civilization born here and spreading elsewhere." takes on a slightly darker undertone of the spreading of a disease given the resultant photographs.
According to Erica McDonald on her website, she recollects Robert Frank saying at the Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2009 that, "I felt it (the text accompanying the French 1st edition) was very anti-American". At the time Frank was taking his photos for The Americans, those French were just at the point of being kicked out of Vietnam and Algeria after bitter fighting in their unsuccessful attempts to colonize those 2 polities. A book Frank did in those two countries called, The French, probably wouldn't have gone over too well in Europe.
Frank's book came out at a time in America in the late 1950s when people, ever more freed from drudgery and with more free time, insisted on life as art rather than getting up, going to work and doing it all over again the next day. Young people were beginning to question and even dislike American society and that dislike has never found greater traction than today. It was the cusp of the generation gap and people were testing limits and pushing back against the Hayes Office and Comic Code Authority and the violent film Bonnie and Clyde and the hilariously disgusting underground comic masterpieces of Robert Crumb were only a few years down the road. America was redesigning itself from the ground up. Commercial illustrators with lucrative accounts in the 1950s suddenly found themselves out of work, comic books like DC had to achieve a "new look" in order to compete with their hep rivals at Marvel. Old-style Hollywood directors were cast aside and TV and literature continually felt a pressure to push the envelope to keep up with the new sense America had of itself and the doubt and even dislike of America began to be highlighted by our involvement in Vietnam.
The lingering effects of a kind of anti-Americanism by Americans themselves have been exacerbated by that generation's vision of itself in a kind of analogue to American exceptionalism, their own audacious stamp of approval as a result of the incredible popularity of the music and other mass forms of expression - counter-culture exceptionalism as it were, cultural chauvinism from those who professed to hate cultural chauvinsim.
In the early 1980's, Ronald Reagan ran with the idea of America simply liking itself once again but it is an idea that has never fully caught on and in fact an American loathing for itself has deepened considerably in certain circles. What had been a gradual evolution from say, 1935 to 1945 to 1955 became a wholesale deluge of change by 1965. Unlike those previous decades, the change was so abrupt and so negative in it's view of pre-Vietnam American that while many embraced it, just as many resisted and you had parallel America's existing side by side in some respects, although of course the media and business were on the band wagon nearly from the start, as it was perceived by commercial entities that this change was in fact shallow enough that it could be marketed to, and that is as true today as ever as this revolution is the most televised and marketed to in history; big business from green tea to leather jackets to yoga books. Today, many of the old style designers and illustrators are recognized as masters as their work which, when viewed through the lens of the cultural revolution, is startlingly good and it is realized that trends in art are not the same things as the fundamental values of art, which are timeless, and that perhaps we ran too far and too fast, taking with us the ephemeral and leaving behind that which mattered and in so doing created a gap that cannot be easily recrossed.
One could I think, make a compelling argument that design in the United States has never recovered its voice since it was turned over in the mid-60s. In 2010 many websites have turned to retro design principles and looks and when is the last time you saw a movie poster that reflected modern design fundamentals as did mid-20th century design sensibilities; you cannot look at a movie poster from 1982 and say that it reflected a school of design. Even a sleazy detective paperback cover from 1960 reflects a more fundamental approach to design than any paperback covers from the last 40 years, which are a hodgepodge of self-expression with no school of design evident. How many commercial illustrators and designers tried to keep up with the flurry of modern sensibilities in the late 1960s only to falter and fail as the whole thing was really one big crap shoot? It was a turning away for the sake of turning away and not an evolution, since there was nothing to replace what was discarded, only the desire to discard; there is a difference between moving forward and moving away. Areas like science fiction and mainstream literature, film, animation, all had their starts and stops in widely varying degrees, most eventually finding their own voice when recognizable sub-genres began to emerge and their principles adhered to.
In the case of modern conceptualized photography, aside from political correctness, no schools of thought have emerged but merely individual self-expression, each with its own mini-world of fundamentals but with no binding principles and so each arguably as good and to be respected as the last in a vast democracy of nothing. And alongside the conceptual photographer walked the view that America was still a thing to be discarded and entirely politicized and all in one direction, with no balance evident or desired for that matter, and so the creative became merely a tiresome blog whose only binding principle was that America was an imperfect place which needed to be eternally torn down and rebuilt.
The principle was "I'm okay, you're okay." within this community and with America outside that community generally speaking it was, "You're not okay." To me, this is simply dishonest. Success and failure has come to be associated with one's politics and not with a situation where there is actual formal scope for failure and, as I state elsewhere, there can therefore be no success. Agenda driven art is not art but propaganda and a political position is not talent. If all modern artist's do is smash idols then that itself becomes inflexible conformity. The modern iconoclast has become the new John Wayne, but one who is very good at networking and coffee drinking.
Los Angeles, 1946
Eschewing the dystopian view of America that has revealed itself to be an empty cup, in my own documentary photos of the Minneapolis Aquatennial and Hopkins Parades, I do the opposite and I document the people without projecting my assumptions onto the lives of others I don't even know, preferring to deal in scale, light, color and contrast and do straight documentary photography. I have no fear of being taken for a middle class boor who cannot attain the ephemeral and nuanced nature of fine art. I do not need to advertise my real counter-culture or rebellious nature. I must admit that as a photographer I look with a weather eye at a book of 83 photographs like The Americans that took some 28,000 photos to comprise; perhaps not exactly going for the jugular when it comes to a personal vision in taking the photos but very much so in the process of editing them.
Robert Frank should not be taken to task for his artistic expression which should be and has been celebrated, but it should've been in the sense a play is celebrated and not as a reflection of reality; A Streetcar Named Desire would have an utterly different tone were it not only trumpeted as being based on a true story but that story being the essence of a hopeless and hapless America. It is ourselves who should be taken to task for running with the idea that we are dark, racist and clueless morons; it is only in someone's head that a single person depicted in The Americans had dead end lives or that a cowboy chewed on his cigar "brutishly".
Let's face the truth: in Frank's book a black man has an aura of jazzy innocence and a cowboy hat an instant association with brutishness and my own association with such concepts is one of idiocy. As for Frank himself, as I've said, it is hard to understand a person feeling so strongly about the decadence of America when he himself had escaped immolation only a few years before by having the luck as a Jew to live in neutral Switzerland during World War II, and it was those self-same Americans, decadent dead end kids, "marching morons"  or otherwise, who liberated many a concentration camp. What traction does the tail end of the Jim Crow era depicted in some few of Frank's photographs have compared to the mass murder of 6 million Jews only a few years before, and that's not including the brutal war on the Russian front that swallowed millions more lives, acts that have never been seen on the American continents on such a monumental scale compressed into 6 years?
Frank loves to depict Americans as leading lives with blinders on but one has to question who it was who had on the blinders and towards what since Spain, for example, even years after The Americans came out, was a place where a woman couldn't start a bank account without her husband's permission, and in the middle east at the end of the first decade of the 21st century women reside in a similar place; who's knocking down the doors to make a book called The Muslims and how excoriated would it be if it occupied the same intellectual space as Frank's The Americans and with similar chapter headings to the French first edition? When art becomes confused with reality and that reality depicts the decadence of another culture, that art becomes a double-edged sword that cuts both ways. You will never see a Frank-like book called The Muslims and the irony is that you might take your life into your hands to do so. Certainly the culture of the fine arts in the West would reject such a work out of hand.
For all its decadence, Frank has continued to live in the United States as an "American", and not Europe. When one thinks of how the American flag is used in The Americans, it may be that Frank's own perceived near miss in Switzerland during World War II and that war's attendant devastation had simply given Frank a deep distrust of the uses to which flags could be put. In an interview at Wellesley College in 1977 Robert Frank said about his work in The Americans, "I knew the photographs were true. They were what I felt, they were completely intuitive. There was no thinking. That feeling has stayed with me; I never wavered from that. When I did The Americans I was very ambitious, I knew I wanted to do a book, and I was deadly serious about it, and somehow things just happened right. It was the first time I had seen this country, and it was the right mood. I had the right influences - I knew Walker's photographs, I knew what I didn't want, and then that whole enormous country sort of coming against my eyes. It was a tremendous experience, and it worked, but it came naturally to show what I felt, seeing those faces, those people, the kind of hidden violence. The country at that time - the McCarthy period - I felt it very strongly."
I should make it clear that I in no way consider or compare my own stature or talent to the stature or talent of Frank but am merely contrasting what amounts to a political viewpoint foisted off or at least taken as journalism as opposed to art. My photography may not even exist were it not for Frank and it would be hard to overestimate his seminal influence. It is in regard to the runaway legacy of Frank that I say I am not afraid to ride below those scudding clouds and relate to the people I photograph or one to worry about my artistry not being obvious enough to proclaim my creativity. In fact I love to bury the artistry and introduce ambiguity to a certain extent as a litmus of shallow perceptions of photography as art.
I have nothing to prove or tattoos to display and this desire to do so has decimated fine art photography as everyone scrambles to be the ultimate intellectual, afraid to back off for one second lest they lose their intellectual credentials, wanting to prove that they can splatter paint, deal with space and think outside the box with the best of them. The fact of the matter is that we need a new Ginsberg, someone to set against the monster that Ginsberg himself helped create and which is now every bit as stodgy and full of "vapid innocuous euphemisms", quoting the judge who ruled in favor of Ginsberg at his obscenity trial, as that zeitgeist which Ginsberg himself sought to unravel. There is a difference between the natural evolution of an art form - creative people are anything but static - and that evolution being done for its own sake, turning into revolution, and so usurping and eventually denying the art itself.
James May, Guatemala, 1977
In my own documentary work I am not trying to show how middle class I am not and I pride my work in being neither political or politically correct since I do not view the peoples of the Third World as the tragic yet colorful inhabitants of a zoo. There will never be a photograph of mine that is a portrait taken in India or Guatemala with a politically correct caption saying how much pride or spirituality the face reflects since pride and spirituality are endemic to us all, as are elegance and brutishness. Such is our legacy as human being and the market has not been cornered by anyone - this is real perception. Such identity-based comments are patronizing towards people in the Third World and insulting towards the West; it's almost a form of casual and patronizing racism because it holds that peoples in the Third World are different from ourselves in a way that needs some kind of propping up or special attention with footnotes. I am surprised by how many times I have seen the word "dignity" attached to Frank's photo of black men in "Funeral, St. Helena, S.C., 1955." In my opinion this is a more subtle and nuanced form of racism, ostensibly positive but racism nonetheless since people of color are still held to be some other and such positive appellations are conspicuously absent from descriptions of the white middle class.
At the 50th anniversary celebration of The Americans at the Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater Robert Frank, when asked by Charlie LeDuff why he photographed so many minorities for his book, Frank replied, "They looked more attractive than white people." Try saying the opposite and see where that gets you in what is a horrendous double standard that would be considered utterly racist were it turned around. At that same event and wearing a John Deere baseball cap, Frank said, "People here have a largesse. I'm grateful to have become an American."
It is a commonly held view among Western documentary photographers that dignity, spiritualism and value resides everywhere but in their own culture, and it's okay to say that but not the other way around, cuz then it's just racist I guess. They delight in showing the debauchery and emptiness of the West and this is a form of subtle yet nevertheless brutal cultural self-loathing as the story of America and our parents and grandparents has never been disliked by more Americans than today, as 50s symbolism gave way to urban myth gave way to a reality which was taken for granted. This is an echo of the 1960's when a young generation couldn't wait to flee both physically and intellectually away from their parents, accenting and accelerating and twisting with a passion the natural desire to get out on one's own and start a life and family.
The American Frank-mirrored penchant of portrayal of other cultures in this manner is natural to a certain extent because people are fascinated by other cultures, but there is no need to wallow in politicizing and formalizing one's ignorance of others in the name of professing a desire to learn or peer beneath the veil. In such a case, all those photographers are documenting is their own incomprehension and parochialism. In any case, you will not see such spiritual captions and Nostalgie de la boue beneath the portrait of an Ohio truck driver or a banker and you can be assured of that; often the closer we photographers are to a thing the less we see it and so we fight to do so. Photographers are of course aware of this but too often succumb to the very banality they seek to "see freshly" and so go hunting in other localities armed for bear.
As I state elsewhere, Frank is not to be blamed for his vision of America but ourselves for running with it alongside Burroughs and the misunderstood legacy of Kerouac and others of their ilk, outsiders who, like fine art photographers who perhaps cannot climb to a good place, seek to tear it down to their own level, and so you have the wholesale gutting of sectors of fine art photography in America alongside the idea of America itself as there are now large sectors of the American public who have a vested and childish interest in viewing mainstream America as spiritless and sinful. Robert Frank was making politically correct depictions of decrepit American institutions long before that term came into resonance.
The coming decades in America would see an obsession on the political Left with multiculturalism and diversity, as if that decrepit European America needed a leavening to wash away its endemic sinfulness and the currency such ideas yet have today was nowhere more evident than in Barak Obama's run to the Presidency on a platform of fundamental changes that America needed to embrace before it could wash away the sins of its own past. In liberal arts colleges across this nation in the 1970s, Robert Frank's The Americans found great favor among both teachers and students as it jibed almost perfectly with the counter-culture's own ideas of the failed American zeitgeist that came to its most obvious expression in the 1950s. In fact, the 2 American decades following World War II were rejected wholesale as artless, spiritless and rigidly conformist.
Mr. Byrne's and Miss Greenough's remarks quoted earlier show the truth of this entire scenario as they are merely the tip of an iceberg in an America wherein their political breed huddle closely together on issues ranging from immigration to affirmative action to taxation to global warming. Dissent in this community is treated with derision and it is notable how many contemporary artist's statements include the idea of art as a vehicle of social change. While this is nothing new there is a stridency and hollowness about today's artistic crusaders that tells me that it is not a desire for social change which resides at the heart of this phenomenon but a trendy, stereotype and buzz-word ridden "huddling place" in which the intellectual and anti-American inheritors of a European's unkind view of America practice their own unwitting conformity.
Brassai, A Prostitute Playing Russian Billiards,
Rochechouart, Montmartre, Paris, 1932
Today's fine art photographers who tout their work as vehicles for change run perilously close to appearing as people who simply tell others what they think they want to hear in order to tap into this anti-self current, the better to get exhibitions and grants from institutions whose own rhetoric is now laced with a heavy hand of social programs for anyone considered disenfranchised.
In this commisar-like scenario the stars are women, gays and ethnicity and those who are looked at with a weather eye are men, those of European descent and pretty much anyone who doesn't give off with a hearty equivalent to the term comrade. In order to be on the right side of this equation people like Byrne and Greenough show off their credentials as if to say, "I belong"; let's be honest, to do otherwise would be career suicide. Large sectors of American art institutions have become willing promoters and enablers of a type of intellectual affirmative action whose views of those they see as equal but in the past disenfranchised are nevertheless patronizing portraits of second class citizens, as if they themselves doubt what they promote.
America is being transformed into a place where the least among it citizens is to be given full expression no matter the cost in treasure or culture and no matter how many props have to be built to sustain the structure and no matter how many others are discomfitted to avoid the impropriety of inequality. It is not an artist's world but that of a lawyer covering all the bases who doesn't understand that the term "all men are created equal" has to do with kings and princes and their divine right to rule and nothing about the rights of common men one to the other or cultural relativism.
The politicization of the art world in America is far advanced and entirely a reflection of Frank's book, aside from its actual influence, but in an Orwellian manner that is so troubling that it is the arts themselves that have largely come to occupy the conceptual and political space of The Americans depicted in Frank's book and the art of it, the art of creativity, has been lost for the politics of it, subverted, twisted and circumvented.
Part 2: The Runaway Conceptualist: The Formal Circumvention
The Rebel As Dictator or How To Fail At Anger Management
"Nothing frightens those in authority so much as criticism. Whether democrats or dictators, they are unable to accept that criticism is the most constructive tool available to any society because it is the best way to prevent error. The weakness of rationally based power can be seen in the way it views criticism as an even more negative force than a medieval king might have done. After all, even the fool has been banished from the castles of modern power. What is it which so frightens these elites?" - John Ralston Saul, "Voltaire's Bastards"
James May, Hopkins Parade, 2009
What I can say positively about Robert Frank's book, The Americans is that it is not guilty of attempting to either subvert or circumvent the particular skill set and strengths endemic to photography itself and in fact uses them to great effect. But it would be to little effect as it turned out when it came to the future as a conceptual, formal, text based, modern art version of fine art photography would come to dominate the genre, initially to some good effect but eventually with the fossilization that comes to visit all overly conceptualized and pedantic revolutions. In this conceptualized revolution's first beginnings people like Robert Frank dovetailed with the new mythologist's contemporary essential dislike of America and its institutions and the portrayal of a conveniently never-ending conformity planted the seeds of the demise of the style of his own photography.
New artists left behind the Walker Evans as beat poet as formally quaint. After a new and more intellectualized phase as characterized by Shore and Eggleston, fine art photography entirely ran with the Robert Frank inspired dislike of America.
The new formality of modern conceptual fine art photography in some ways become merely a template in which to express a disdain for not only America but the history of photography itself. Add in a desire for every one of these artists to be the new Ginsberg and you have intellectual revelation piled on revelation until one realizes that it all amounts to a compelling urge to do nothing more than stay out of Ward Cleaver's house; they were not trying to be something, they were trying to not be something.
So Duchamp's found objects turned into found evidences of the emptiness and heartlessness of the American dream by people readymade to embrace the idea but not readymade to embrace the idea of a reflection of self - that was for others to do while the artist dispenses clues. These artists seem to little realize that if their work is reduced to an idea endlessly repeated then there is little reason to actually visit the work much less repeat such ideas ad nauseam. Alongside the formalists still reside the representational photographers but their work is often presented in such a manner, if presented at all, as having a somehow lesser status than the intellectualized version of a genre hijacked by people who in fact have little interest in or understanding of photography, and little to say with a camera other than to misuse it as one might use a screwdriver handle to hammer nails. A decidedly photographic personal vision is subverted in the name of the anti-photograph and artists who simply have no vision to present.
Prior to the onset of this new formalism as demagogue, the reason people liked Robert Frank's book The Americans, apart from the new faddist self-loathing, is because of his success as an artist; there was scope for failure within Frank's work which he was well aware of, otherwise it could have been a book of 28,000 equally valid photos and not 83. Conceptual photography lacks this scope for and tension associated with failure and an intellectual photographer can indeed churn out 20,000 images for a book as each is the same as the last and the strength of photography is subverted and made into an equivalent with a mere photographic process. I don't have a problem with that but put it into a side category like multimedia or xerox art and don't make photographers compete with what amounts to collages made from xeroxes.
James May, Minneapolis, 1997
Conceptual fine art photography to me is a practiced art that is full of empty stereotypes but which thinks of itself as the exact opposite, positing that representational photography itself is a played out stereotype. A genre is not in itself a stereotype but represents a self-restrictive form that therefore presents recognizable archetypes, a crucial difference our great washed seem unable to compute.
Modern fine art conceptualized photography has lost the heart of understanding the crucial difference between self-expression and art. A genre is 1,000 time more interesting to me than an act of subversive self-expression that, while ostensibly working within a genre, has no real respect for it and, as we have seen, has no trouble with the idea of circumventing and subverting a given genre in the name of ego and vanity, not to say a lack of talent posing as a disdain for talent.
It's like the difference between an American Idol singer or Christina Aguilera, Mariah Carey and the odious Patti LaBelle, who brutally set out to see how many notes they can fit into a given space and how much virtuosity they can display instead of the, to me, more true idea of serving the song like an Ella Fitzgerald, Diana Krall or Amy Winehouse and, instead of subverting the genre at the altar of self expression, subverting oneself in the name of the art of it.
People write blogs but those blogs do not serve writing, they serve the ego of the writer and are dashed off without regard to nuance, 4th or 5th drafts or a regard for the profound beyond what one can create at a moment's notice; it is not something that one can fault a blogger for but merely the nature of what they do, which is quick. The heady desire for fine art photographers to be shown without regard to proper mentorship or vetting of the work rather than the resume is at the heart of the problem as in the world of conceptual photography there is no such thing as being wrong or failure but merely the photographic and intellectualized equivalent of a blog wherein the tone of one's politics actually trumps any formal or creative concerns. The way to get along in such a world is to basically tell people what they want to hear and restrict one's criticisms of the world to safe subjects like the ever present and largely faceless social injustice or the suburbs, rape, or George Bush, then, you can go wild with Nazi and imperialism analogues until you're blue in the face. Otherwise, when it comes to such criticism's going in the other direction, it's you're okay I'm okay.
In this worship of the overly and overtly intellectualized, the representational was pushed aside as many photographers simply couldn't compete with the best they chose to measure themselves against in the form of a Steven Shore or Joel Meyerowitz and it took too long even if they could. So a fast track was in order that disguised itself as a democracy of expression. Fine art photography was subverted by the equivalent of amateur bloggers who all supported one another because they recognized the kindred spirit of a tacit con game; there was no love of form but of self and the idea of some kind of period of apprenticeship was laughable as in the arena of conceptual photography, opportunists reveled in the idea that one idea was as good as another.
As a result for many years you have had far too many conceptual photographers in the fine arts attempting to build a Parthenon out of wood just because they can't work in stone or because it's too hard and worse, they would have you believe that working in stone in this sense is discredited. Many of the new breed of fine art photographers, failing to pull themselves up have set about to pull photography down and all this intellectualization of photography has ostensibly been done in the name of and hidden under a cloak of progress.
Some compare Robert Frank's visit to America to Frenchman de Toqueville's visit in the 1830s. Somewhat apropos to the above, de Toqueville wrote about America, "But one also finds in the human heart a depraved taste for equality, which impels the weak to want to bring the strong down to their level..." Robert Frank couldn't penetrate Magnum or Life magazine so he subverted and circumvented those presentations of photography by redefining what was good but in his particular case and that of his contemporary William Klein not entirely without reason and certainly to good effect. In the case of Life magazine this resulted in contrasting a close ended comic book narrative as opposed to an open ended one. All hail Sgt. Rock and the cliffhanger. In reality all that modern conceptual fine art photography is is beatnik and Vietnam-era contrariness upgunned for the 21st century and done for it's own sake and confused with iconoclasm which is the unbroken idol these artists cherish; they rail against constraints long vanished or contextually nonexistent in the first place, identifying themselves with the Jim Crow of conformity they never had to go through themselves but nevertheless the cherished memory of the hard times of the eternal rebel who exists apart from anything to fight against.
James May, Professional Wrestlers,
Guatemala City, 1987
What you're left with is a combination of non-sentient cynicism, dishonesty and incompetence raised, ironically, to a fine art. The orderly evolution of fine art photography one expected after men like Steven Shore never materialized, feet failing on a broken trail to paraphrase Robert Howard. The failures and lack of integrity of the genre's gatekeepers, namely arts foundations, museums, galleries and schools, together with a surge of visual artists coming out of colleges in the 70s meant a faster means to success came into play and so one was left with shallow versions of Shore and Eggleston or xerox-like versions of "Broadway Boogie Woogie", with large format cameras used to gain credibility and not because they have an actual use for them. Ted Kopel, in an article in the Nov.14, 2010 Washington Post titled, "Olberman, O'Reilly and the Death of Real News", wrote, "But we are no longer a national audience receiving news from a handful of trusted gatekeepers; we're now a million or more clusters of consumers, harvesting information from like-minded providers."
In the realm of fine art photography, it's the tyranny of the many insisting on being fed pablum and dumbing down the genre into a politically correct think tank, an oxymoron if ever there was one. This is done because the many no longer admire the artistry of the artist, though paying great lip service to doing so but instead use the artist to confirm their own view of art which, in lieu of actual experience as artists, is a view upheld by the idea of the sheer power of their intellect and superior moral position overcoming creative experience and, to no one's surprise, the art is then so bad that just anyone feels that they can do it. Intellectual photography has served as the great equalizer, conferring creative status on artist and audience alike, in a bloated parody of an island of artisans like Bali.
In this matter of pulling a thing down because one cannot aspire to being included within its ranks one is reminded of Groucho Marx's declaration that he would never be a member of a club that would have him as a member. Did America run too fast and too far with the counter-culture whose roots lie in the 50s and which came to full flower in the 60s? Have we not paid enough attention to the fact that the names that led this phenomenon were people who never really occupied a space within the structure they questioned, challenged and eventually sought to tear down? Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs, Dylan and so many others whose visions led the early counter-culture movement weren't really whistle-blowers so much as people who were outside looking in and so perhaps decided that outside was the place to be; did such people question an Ozzie and Harriet-like existence because it was forever denied to them or out of higher conviction? Did the "beat" group gravitate towards their "negro streets"[12a] out of a sense of injustice they related to or because it represented a childish and rebellious outsider cult of cool - if it was a sense of injustice, then why are the women in "beat" literature consigned by those beats to the same space as are black folks in their view of a racist America and so are there then female streets?
In regard to conviction, is it the same difference as being born free in America or coming to America to be free? Were such people simply contrarians wherein subject matter was in a sense entirely irrelevant? In reading Kerouac's On the Road one gets the sense that the endgame as it were was simply a sense of being naughty and breaking rules but the overarching question is that without the so-called conformist culture with which to define and contrast themselves, as if American culture itself were their strict parents, what were these people really? With Christians it is the 2nd coming of Christ and with socialists the eventual triumph of socialism; what is it that Ginsberg or Dylan were selling, what was the better place? Was it a new mythology and new morality to replace the old, Sorel's "reconstruction of the individual"?
If not, it's like a teenager who does something rebellious but which rebelliousness only exists because that child has parents who tow the line and work the nine to five; without the conformity these so-called rebels do not exist but the opposite is not true. If we are all now naughty and rule breakers and iconoclasts what are we and if we are all now James Dean than who or what is the new James Dean; aren't we really all just conformists then? Do we now need new idols to smash and new definitions of nine to fivers against which to pit ourselves? The Sundance Channel's series, Iconoclasts, shows how, far from reviling idol breakers, we champion their cause although the show is itself bewilderingly mostly bereft of true iconoclasts as most of the subjects were embraced and not rejected in their fields and in any event rejection in and of itself does not one an iconoclast make and the inclusion of NBA star Steve Nash was similarly bewildering. When I think of this TV show I think more of conformity, pandering and political correctness than I do revolutionary visions. Taken as a show about creative vision and the paths artists take is quite a nice subject but iconoclasts these people are not and in a sense a title of "Politically Correct Networking Iconophiles" might be a more appropriate one. Iconoclasm is indeed the new conformity and the revolution continues to be both televised and marketed as the Sundance website tells us what stars wore at the Sundance Festival. The fact that no real iconoclast would have a successful mainstream career much less one touted on TV and especially on the Sundance Channel, seems to have escaped people entirely. Contrary for the sake of contrary, no matter how conforming in the end, is big business in the United States.
James May, Cairo, 2010
Without the much reviled conformity present in a culture, do iconoclasts even exist and does conformity in fact act as an audience to feed narcissism? Was Ginsberg merely a more erudite version of punk music which Tom Wolfe said of, "...the only genuine thing about it is a general impulse among people in their late teens to thumb their noses at the ongoing attempts to make them act like adults, which begins to seem like an imposition and rather boring." Does modern fine art conceptual photography fit anywhere into this scenario and has it devolved into Wolfe's "information richochet"? If the current crop of conceptual fine art photographers get their mojo from a type of information ricochet, one could argue that if these people were alive at the time a poet like Ginsberg came into his first flowering, that they would have been the conformists and not behind Ginsberg since the modern conceptual artist's imperatives seem to flow from a type of conformity and not any real free thinking. For all artists to take it for granted that they would be in the proper court in Picasso's "Guernica" rather than the bombers is a childish fallacy. In reading artist statements chock full of stereotypical concerns about redefining "space" and social justice, it seems to be taken for granted on their part that if they had been Bernal Diaz they would have mutinied against Cortes and gone over to the Aztecs or would have fought for women's rights in Franco's Spain and in general been in the forefront and on the barricades in any and all revolutionary movements, intellectual or otherwise; in my own estimation, nothing could be absolutely further from the truth since it flies in the face of reality that the majority of people are revolutionary.
Conceptual fine art photography occupies the space of the beat poets and Robert Frank's misguided America but without the imperatives that caused those works and so is entirely artificial, nominally and casually racist against everyone so to speak when it speaks to social injustice and in fact may be nothing more than its own cult of cool, with badge and uniform disguising a hollow interior of patronizing superiority. Intellectualized modern fine art photography is trying to occupy a space whose imperatives have long since gone the way of the passenger pigeon and the dodo and those imperatives arguably had the sallowness of an old Buck Rogers cartoon on newsprint in the first place although even ol' Buck[16a], when speaking of the 5 centuries vanished cities of his 1929 America echoed Frank in referring to "...tenements, paved streets, profusion of vehicles, noise, hurrying men and women with strained or dull faces..." but then that's part of science fiction's business isn't it and it doesn't attempt to pass itself off as reality.
The only imperative I see is a struggle to find an otherness to escape the middle class conformity they seek to hide and escape from and cannot. There is legitimate protest but when it is a career and done for its own sake then it lends truism to the idea of the perpetually offended and the anti-racist who nevertheless makes a career out of talking about race and such people should and must be ferreted out; eternal protest loses credibility awfully quickly except in the minds of those who make a living at it. Manufacturing imaginary enemies of conformity year after year for the sake of art is not art but flight into conformity and worse, inflexibility. In a Dec., 2008 article in the Wall Street Journal titled, "Why Does Hollywood Hate the Suburbs?", Lee Siegel writes about the middle-class, "the impassioned rejection of which has been the chief rite de passage of the modern American artist and intellectual. With the growth of suburban towns, the liberal American intellectual now had a concrete geography to house his acute sense of outrage." Mr. Siegel continues, "Just as during the '30s the Depression had polarized every issue along moral lines, in the Vietnam-era artists and intellectuals grew impatient with mere esthetic considerations. Now the suburbs were stigmatized not only by materialism, lack of imagination, and conformity. From that moment -- and up to our own -- the suburbs were portrayed in every type of art as non-communities that signified ugly moral choices."
James May, Minneapolis, 1983
Since it is my contention that the vast majority of conceptual fine art photographers are themselves middle-class people steeped in middle-class values they seek to but cannot shed, most art of this nature is an unwitting self-parody wherein the true victims are the artists themselves since repeating the same tired old refrains decade after decade is not thinking outside the box but shuttered inside one. To paraphrase Mr. Siegel, it is not surprise that follows modern conceptual artists everywhere as they would have you believe but dreary and politically correct conformity and a distinct lack of surpirse. The real surprise to me is that artist's whose statements about their work are laced with pretentious words about social injustice and true perception trot out tired stereotypes of enemies and then demonize them wholesale, never minding the fact that they are talking about other human beings who may not even exist but are taken to be part of the problem while the artists themselves are emphatically part of the solution. It is taken on faith that real people don't live and cannot live in the suburbs in a scenario that is so trite and overworked that it is itself the longest running sitcom televised from the revolution.
One could argue that in fact we are talking about a symbiotic relationship between conformists and non-conformists wherein both need the other to keep things honest but most especially a scenario where the latter need the former in order to define and justify their own imaginary existence since we are not talking about values here but anti-values, any values the majority hold to be important but the nutty part is that the anti-value is the new majority; what is Bob Dylan's value system, what is William Burroughs' value system, what is Jim Carrol's value system, what is Alan Ginsberg's value system? What is the value system of the new generation that came into being in the 50s and 60s, what is the value system of the new mythology? What is the value system behind conceptual modern fine art photography? Does it value anything other than its own smug and arcane contrariness? An interesting question for me is, what happens when the Ginsbergs and Dylans and Burroughs become the conformist intellectual establishment themselves, the thing that must be pushed against - have we arrived at that time?
Is contrariness for its own sake merely a uniform and one with a shirt that must be tucked in as one buys a Che Guevara t-shirt with a credit card or Rage Against the Machine merchandise off their website; there's nothing like a Rage Against the Machine coffee cup to start ones revolutionary day, hopped up on caffeine - and yes friends, they accept credit cards. Possibly one could have a picture of the band put on one's credit card or checks. You can buy a $55 "hoodie" sweatshirt on alternative Arcade Fire's website, a band with song titles like, "Rebellion (Lies)", "Wake Up" and "Antichrist Television Blues", striving to deny the carbon footprint NFL lovin' commercial enterprise they are while giving away money to AIDS and Haiti organizations to keep away the townsfolk with torches.
Listen to what Rage Against the Machine member Zack de la Rocha says in an Aug., 2008 L.A. Times interview conducted by Ann Powers: "When settlers fleeing the South after the Civil War came into San Antonio, primarily because they wanted to practice slavery, an altercation took place and James Polk used it as an excuse to invade, to fulfill Manifest Destiny in the Southwest, which is really a misnomer -- this is really Northeastern Mexico." Since nothing in that statement ever took place or is true and the dates are off by 2 crucial decades, one is reminded of my earlier quote from Phillipe Roger about anti-Americanism preceding any essence of America. Formalist artistic rage against the machine of conformity is manufactured out of whole cloth at will and in fact exists before or in spite of the facts.
We are not talking here about people who document society but people who are predisposed to occupy a place they see as rebellious no matter how many gallons of gas they pump into a car or rewards points they get off their credit card. Mr. De la Rocha further states that, "There’s a very close relationship between what happened in Fallujah and what happened at the Alamo.", when in fact there is none and this historically challenged generation of artists and self-proclaimed rebels chant this revisionist miasma of fog while driving BMW's and wearing Nike's and, in the case of Rage Against the Machine, playing in front of Coca-Cola and Coor's Lite banners. The zeitgeist which empowers conceptual fine art photography is utterly awash in such drivel and the photography itself merely a nuisance that gets in the way of expressing one's rage and rebelliousness and almost victimhood in a double barreled blast of intellectual and social non-conformity from people who pose as those on the outside looking in but are in fact the ruling class as it were and one that is being rolled out on an assembly line in a stereotype factory somewhere.
Is conformity about what people think or about how many people think it and how does it differ from inflexibility? Would a new iconoclast which pushes back against this new exchanging of positions be recognized as such or shouted down in its own version of an obscenity trial by those who artist's statements are rife with terms like social justice and global feminism? What happens when those so long accustomed to question are themselves questioned? I have at least one answer: they don't like it - any more than their establishment they sought to bring down liked being questioned in the 60s. In this dance partners exchange places but without being aware of it in a boring new version of cowboys and indians but where the cowboys are ignorant savages and the indians profound thinkers, and spiritual ones at that, having had visions of the suburbs and parking lots and so purposefully rejected technology rather than being incapable of it.
The new establishment which dominates modern and conceptual art started to solidify and grow moribund a long time ago. A new paradigm is in order but I'm not exactly sure what this should be. Perhaps it should be defined as one wherein an awareness of the fact that we often want to replace what a previous generation did just because they do it rather than because of what it is they do. If each new generation is naive enough to believe that they are intellectually and morally superior to the preceding one then where does that leave us? Has the ascent of man been characterized by James Dean longings for rebellion against its parents or a reasoned longing for a better life for human beings bereft of a consideration of whether there is a rebellious dimension to it or not? Did the Magna Carta come about because English nobility weren't being allowed to wear the equivalent of tight jeans? In 100 years, how will history view the rise of conceptual modern art and the 60s counter culture? I will say this: when one works in art forms wherein contrariness is worshipped for its own sake as the game topper rather than for any kind of adherence to the form in which one works irregardless of what one is pushing against then that form is essentially an empty one, devoid of the honesty that is central to good work. In thinking of this, one should consider why Van Gogh's work is in fact brilliant. In an era where Ginsberg-like free forms are the norm what is the new Howl? We have moved so far and so fast in conceptual art that it seems that all that is left is neo this and neo that and perhaps one could argue that the rot and decadence that modern art sought to arm itself against has in fact settled in its own midst faster and deeper than any other sector of the creative imperative and the centerpiece of this rot is the bourgeois bohemian.
James May, Cairo, 2010
Photography in its early beginnings sought to emulate painting when it aspired to be art since painting was the classic European means of artistic expression and had been for centuries. Photography quickly found its own voice as the strengths and weaknesses of photography and its relationship to reality are quite different from painting. Nevertheless fine art photography insisted on mirroring the modern art painting based movement and cutting edge photography abandoned its strengths for the easy modalities of found objects and values as scattered as Pollock's paint and photography became something other than photography while the practitioners of this new order stubbornly insisted on defining themselves as photographers. Revelation was the watchword and command and the trappings of eccentricity were aped and xeroxed like monkeys ape speech. What became necessary were rituals to prove one's eccentricity and how much one stood out from the crowd. Like Joni Mitchell wrote: "Subterranean by your own design, the virtue of your style inscribed on your contempt for mine." In Joan Baez's 1987 autobiograpy, A Voice To Sing With: A Memoir, she says of the early days in New York with Bob Dylan, "We were living out a myth, slumming it together in the Village." And that is a key word, myth as it was imagined, lived, paid forward and finally made into a reality of its own, complete with mythical anger against mythical forces.
Gone the days of genuine eccentrics as they were lost in a surging sea of middle class conformists who wished to shed their skin and slummingly be subterranean by their own design and had no idea how, on "Holiday in Cambodia" without a paddle. Once again genuine eccentrics with a contrary voice were put aside and a tide of self-proclaimed eccentrics with all the right moves overwhelmed the fine arts. A small cabal of East Coast critics spread the word not artists and this was gobbled up by cities like Minneapolis who's own provincialism it took for granted and so were open to an outside East Coast cure; anyone who lived in Minneapolis in the early 70s knew the hunger the city felt to be a bigger player by hosting Super Bowls, having sports franchises and taking to heart the least national success by a local musician and this was of course manifested in the local arts scene and museums who initially stubbornly resisted presenting local artists, resigning them to a space such as the Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program at the venerable Minneapolis Institute of Arts which exists to this day, a type of local as yokel mentality still not entirely shed and rightly so by my estimation; pride in local culture is of course something that is entirely natural but when that pride is supplanted and directed by outsiders it becomes problematic - Minnesota should have its own voice, not New York's and yet neither succumb to its own provincialism, a delicate task.
By the late 1970s in America, fine art photographers had their uniforms and were well on their way, spreading conformity in the name of non-conformity. A rigid informal system came into existence that resembled a guild more than any group of free thinkers and bureaucracy in the form of Master's Degrees and resumes became ever more important. The Master's Degree, supposedly a guardian to ensure a certain modicum of standard became nothing more than an ID for teaching and so standards entirely set aside as they came to exist only on paper to sit alongside precious resumes, documents turned into letters of mark and reprisal with an imperative to destroy commonplace thought in the name of art and the end game spelled out in semantics so arcane and yet uniform as to be meaningless in terms of creativity. A good teacher who wasn't part of the paper bureaucracy wasn't a good teacher and if you didn't have the ID you didn't exist, in classic Capekian fashion. One's work became the least important consideration of one's artistic expression in this scenario and much energy consumed in networking and acquiring paperwork. In this fashion those who claimed to fight conformity not only becames rednecks as stodgy as any okie from Muskogee but positively embraced it with blindfolds on.
James May, The Tornado, Minnesota
State Fair, 1982
To be radical in the arts became fashionable and desirable as the meaning of the word became wholly detached from being a castout and a chic seeking out of a petit disenfranchisement became the norm therefore ensuring that one's rebellious 2nd mortgage, 401k, white picket fence and Visa card could remain intact, while, like wealthy John Lennon, they imagine they don't have them or the killing and polluting automobiles they are addicted to but provisionally against; it is disingenuousness 101. I have no problem with these relics of middle class existence in America but when an artist takes these relics to heart but then dresses themselves up in intellectual tattoos and nose rings and struts themselves as a rebel and sets about to show how far they exist outside the box and the waters the rest of us swim in then they are nothing better than straight up liars, fully hooked into the very society they purport to distance themselves from in an enclave that could be called Orwell's Happy Valley.
This push against America's supposed mid-20th century conformity perhaps has been conjured up by old photos of American streets where every man is wearing a hat and an identical overcoat yet which belies the introduction of new ideas in virtually every decade of America's existence, leading the world during its 2 centuries plus of existence in this arena and pointing up the dangers of looking at a photographic exterior and thinking one is looking at the interior. Creative work, far from being actually creative becomes merely an extension of one's identification papers, a sign of proper political thought. The fact of the matter is that these people don't live in the place they make conceptual art, in fact, far outside it, everywhere but that place and that indeed makes them a kind of liar at worst and an unwitting hypocrite at best.
The modern conceptualized photographer's radicalism is on a very short leash and like the Rolling Stones and The Beatles who may have wished they were black folks, they weren't moving to the inner city of Baltimore anytime soon and neither are our beloved radical thinkers in the fine arts giving up their pension plans or credit cards or iPhones now or ever. The idea of walking it like you talk it has no traction among the intellectual community of fine art photographers who merely play at being bohemians while in fact "white lightning is still the biggest thrill of all", thinking up nonsensical mantras about an artwork like, "invokes irreconcilable opposites in order to posit a space between." while filling the gas tank on the 10th gas guzzling automobile they've owned before getting on the freeway to commute with 10 million other free thinking and rugged conceptual individualists while taking mental notes of their project to do a photographic work reflecting the beauty of Walden Pond.
We're not talking about ignorance, lack of talent or idiocy here - these are things that, taken alone I have no problem with as I myself could be guilty of such qualities yet not feel that I should be taken to task for them. What we're talking about are those considerations alongside falsely promoting oneself and others. We're taking about lying, immorality and unethical behaviors, witting or unwitting; disingenuousness and hypocrisy raised, once again, to the level of an art. If you think artists don't lie then you haven't been paying attention to made up published drug memoirs and concentration camp experiences or the purportedly autobiographical, The Road To Stalingrad, (Ballantine Books, 1956) by Benno Zeiser which Alexander Werth called "that odious little novel" or Nabokov smacking of "the lady doth protest too much" when talking about the emotional distance between his real life and Lolita while creating various incarnations of the same book about the wonders of screwing a 12 year old which was, surprise, plagiarized down to the title, or Ilan Pappé's comments about writing history:"because of ideological reasons, not because we are truth seekers... ‘there is no such thing as truth, only a collection of narratives" and a, to me, discredited and fake ideology amounting to almost a religion that is what is at the heart of conceptual photography. Pedophile-like literature by Ginsberg and Nabokov are lauded in the name of free speech, art and breaking new ground and fucking children is certainly not conformist. Of course such people wanted to seem as if they were normal and middle class America not normal, the better to promote and enable what was after all simply a bacchanal of weird sex, drugs and liquor when it came to the beats but without the basic idea of values or families which are after all the engine off which these remora's live but otherwise too plebeian to countenance. Can't climb the mountain - well then tear it down and enlist the help of the people who live at its summit too while your at it. Never mind the flotsam and jetsam and detritus one leaves in ones wake.
William Klein, Broadway & 103rd St.
New York, 1954-55
There is nothing like a fast track and if the way is made clear many of us will take it for such is our nature and legacy as human beings. Intellectual fakirs, grifters, sleight-of-hand artists, carnival side-show hucksters and the self-deludedly untalented make up a large part of the roster of conceptual modern artists. What gives such people away is that they are always attracted to what they conceive of as the uncommon no matter how clearly uncommon this thing is not rather than the truly uncommon since what these artist's push against and define themselves as being against are always the same tired stereotypes. This betrays a pre-formed bias and agenda wherein they are predisposed to like a given piece as long as it comes from this agenda's political space; if everybody's thinking outside the box is anybody thinking outside the box? Anything perceived as popular or mainstream never gets a nod to show any balance or lack of an agenda as this would betray their own common middle class life, Laurie Anderson's Rugrat's voice-over notwithstanding. I say again, simply not wanting to be a middle class redneck is not the same thing as not being one; one needs to work at it as it were and the more one works the more one stays in that same place no matter how many people are susceptible to such a con. The thing I like about magicians on a stage is that they are on a stage - but what about when they're not? Having your underwear stolen on camera while your pants are still on is one thing but quite another in a dark alley. Conceptual fine art photography and indeed modern art in general is close to becoming the new conservatism if it isn't already, the establishment that needs to be undone and overturned; demonstrable competence needs to return and overturn glibness and obfuscation.
In reality the intellectualization of fine art photography has served only to obfuscate and not clarify by democratizing fine art photography to the point where no one knows anything when it comes to challenging those artists but yet the artists know; in effect, everyone is a Ginsberg. Ironically, an almost Buddhist claim of not knowing anything is the default intent of modern fine art photography while at the same time in smug waves of conceit, photographer after photographer trots out the most banal imagery with ardent rhetorical claims of intellectual discovery done with the zeal of a Victorian explorer in the jungles of Africa; thousands of priests who worship the mantra of "thinking outside the box" but who have no more idea of how to actually do so than a farmer, perhaps less so, since a farmer brings no baggage of preconceptions to the table and belongs to no artistic guild.
American conceptual fine art photography's default obsession with "thinking outside the box" has acquired such status for its own sake that the idea behind the concept is no longer even really thought about but taken for granted and so has become a uniform every bit as real as a recruit at boot camp and so fine art photography that resides in that intellectual place has become an entirely unaware parody of itself; one need only read the quotes near the end of this essay from reviews and artist's statements to realize how overly literate, stupidly and hilariously so.
The photographic depiction of the idea of stepping aside to look back at oneself or one's culture is a classic way to poke fun at ourselves, to rethink our affairs and maybe even provide a doorway to improve our lives. The increasing intellectualization of this concept in fine art photography has resulted in ever more obscure, trivial and downright dismal and incompetent photos that supposedly alter our perception but succeed only in elevating the prosaic to the mundane. The value of such photos in so far as how they can increase our perception of ourselves and therefore improve our lives in some small measure is taken for granted but with increasingly arcane and confusing photos of how this can be accomplished. The classic photographic scenario of enlivening the banal in order to teach us how to see more often than not simply results in large format bathos and a succumbing to that very banality, leaving one to wonder who needs to get a handle on this idea more, the photographer or the viewer.
Complicating the obvious in the wrong headed notion that every artistic photographic expression needs to be some kind of larger than life event reflects impatience and lack of nuance more than anything else. People of this political ilk confuse popularity and obscurity with quality or its lack. I once had a friend tell me that he didn't like Sarah McLachlan's music because she was too popular and this is the attitude that is at the center of the corruption of American fine art photography. How one can challenge perception and subscribe to such childish notions is beyond me. One can well imagine a sidestep to this idea that traps perceptual artists who should be more on guard against being trapped would be playing a rock song for a person, telling them it's early Liz Phair, letting them enjoy it and then watch their face fall when you tell them it's by Miley Cyrus. We are supposed to be the ones showing people these perceptual pitfalls not being entranced by them ourselves. If an apple is good it's good and it doesn't matter if it was handed to you by someone who has AIDS or a movie star.
I think of the difference between fine art photography and a more mainstream and commercial brand of photography somewhat as I think of the difference between jazz and popular music and in two ways: jazz is often thought of as a refuge from crass commercialism in light of the lack of constraints allowed by the genre itself and this is also so in fine art photography in my view. The second way is that fine art photography exists in less of a vacuum than does popular expression. By this I mean that both jazz and fine art photography and the fine arts in general for that matter exist in the modern age in specific contrast and even opposition to more popular and commercial means of expression. Fine art photography defines itself to a certain extent by what it is not and a long jazz passage may hold traction for the listener because of the specific contrast of less traditional use of musical notes and longer musical expressions as opposed to pop whereas popular music tends to be taken at face value and enjoyed for its own sake, largely devoid of higher consideration, a televising of the revolution as it were. It's simplistic to say that fine art or jazz is made for fun and without any financial imperatives but the analogy at its heart is true as far as it goes.
Fine art is often made without regard for the specific endgame whereas the outlet for commercial art is often predetermined before it is ever created. One would like to think that jazz has been a refuge for musicians and its fans respectful and knowledgeable enough to let the musicians stay at the helm creatively without Nielson ratings and sales entirely distorting and yet determining what is good in jazz the way it has increasingly been done in film and TV. The adherents and fans of fine art photography owe it to the genre and themselves to be knowledgeable about the work and its practioners in a way that doesn't enable shallow versions of a sitcom to penetrate into the art and underpin it the way a refrigerator magnet underpins a Degas. Similarly, gallery owners need to tap into that idea while still paying the rent and foundation fellowships and museums need to step up their game because at the rotten heart of fine art photography is callowness and worse, political correctness passed off as Miles Davis.
James May, Las Vegas, 2007
Increasingly artificial means of stepping aside photographically and looking at ourselves in a mirror are nearly endemic in American fine art photography. Process becomes king and in my home state of Minnesota where the fine art photography scene is particularly dismal, one photography gallery/collective in late 2010 actually had the bad form to trumpet a show with a logo that proclaims "Alternative: Where Process Is Paramount", blithely unaware of the irony of its twin declaration on the insistence of alternatives now merely done for the sake of doing it rather than seeking genuine alternatives which arrive as the result of real grievance and not imaginary politically correct grievance or conceptual puzzles and in any case real grievance, which exists against the fine arts community itself, would be rejected out of hand and so that community resides where it's erstwhile enemy resided years ago. The most important thing the organizers of this show forgot is that there has been nothing to be an alternative to in decades and the term "alternative" itself has come to mean the thing it was originally an alternative to. However I don't think a show called "Conformist Jarhead Redneck Marines" would have the desired resonance.
The poster has the bad form of admitting that process is indeed king since content and grievance is non-existent or brutally stretched and transformed into art in many cases when it comes to modern fine art photography. The power of photography exists separate from process - while process can be an important conveyor of work, in the end it holds no more promise than a xerox machine. Were this not true, photos published in all sorts of mediums would have their power diminished and Dorothea Lange looks good no matter how you see the photos and even the photographs of Joel Meyerowitz look good even though they are often significantly attached to the power of the print quality he achieves with an 8x10 view camera. Conversely, all the process in the world won't serve as a push up bra for an indifferent photo and one gets tired of seeing prints made from a 5x7 negative for apparently no reason whatsoever.
The power of photography is the connective thread to reality we all understand to a greater or lesser extent. Cut that thread and you are doing something other than photography. Cutting up photos and putting them into a collage whether you took them yourself or cut them out of a magazine is not photography nor is sandwiching negatives together or a 1001 arcane ploys artists use. To say that it is narrow minded to say so is the back of the mirror of this argument so that as many talentless people who cannot run the gamut it takes to do photography can participate in fine art photography as possible, with however, no scope for failure and with the tension of that thread to reality and failure entirely snapped by an Auto-Tunes mentality and addiction to intellectual steroids.
Alternative counter culture originally existed, for better or worse, because it was born of a pushing back against constraint and conformity. Now, the word alternate is merely a curse word to me in the fine arts, like the word comrade, as these artists cannot maintain their momentum without something to push back against and so they invent social and intellectual injustice where, relatively speaking compared to 50 years ago, there is none and so push against air, unfortunately demonizing wholesale people they don't even know exist for homophobia, racism, misogyny, and a variety of social injustices and the more the merrier as it is the very air these people breathe. They even range farther afield now saying, "Hey look, women artists in Nigeria are screwed still." The interesting idea is that if an American went to Nigeria and took a series of photos like Frank's they would probably hear charges of racism or cultural chauvinism. The middle-class is the common enemy, the one artists seek to flee yet cannot since they are eminently middle-class themselves and so they are their own enemy. Like the clueless inhabitants of Revolutionary Road[26a], they don't understand that the problem lies within themselves and their own taking for granted that they are special when in fact they are just ordinary and so doomed to tragedy for not understanding the difference; in this case the tragedy is the damage done to the genre itself and the artwork they have foisted off onto the public, turning the art scene into one giant gift shop, no coincidence considering the true nature of such artists whose culture has gentrified the inner city to the point where it is the new suburbs.
Whereas there was a certain shallow conformity thrust upon people before the mid-1960s like a suffocating blanket, reaching even to being stopped on the street and telling one to tuck one's shirt in or get a haircut, now the artist/hunter must actively seek out a nearly vanished phenomenon and make it up if they can't find it, secure in their own sense of social justice that society is as asleep at the wheel and as bad as ever and that the intellectual flags must stay unfurled. Today, one can do pretty much anything on the streets of America and in the media compared to the days of The Doors on Ed Sullivan not being able to say the word "higher" or having people trying to run you over while hitchhiking because you had long hair; on HBO's Game of Thrones mini-series in 2011 they had one woman finger fucking another while a man watched. The residue that is left over is simply crime and not a zeitgeist or ideology based in institutions which little matters to the crusading superheroes of intellectual injustice no matter how impossibly difficult it is to show it; in this manner they take crime and portray it as social injustice. In point of fact, it is quite the opposite that is being institutionalized in law and eduction as we seem intent as a country in still reacting to the 1950s.
The moment has passed and long ago and that is exactly where these artists reside, complaining about wrongs long gone, oblivious to their now denuded ecological niche and a vanished food chain to feed artistic angst. Photographers have the choice of fighting over an ever disappearing prey or redefining what that prey actually is, even if it means invention and so the world remains a terrible place of stultifying conformity and wire-tapping no matter how much our lot improves. The terrible cowboys who drink white lighting and want to lasso your intellectual freedoms are more difficult to find but make no mistake, they are there and the purveyors of fine art photography will prove it to you because if they can't find the intellectual equivalent of Frederic Wertham and Estes Kefauver they'll just make them up and so we have a cottage industry of plaster icons built and then smashed, all conveniently inside one insulated community. The W.A.R.M. Gallery in Minneapolis, an all women's collective, will go on forever in the same vein and for the same reasons that the NAACP will go on forever, even when the need for such organizations is clearly past; their juice is spent but they will manufacture anger and villains and hardened air to push against. The fact that W.A.R.M. will never fight for co-ed veteran's hospitals or the NAACP against an eminently racist Congressional Black Caucus is neither here nor there for they are fighting the good fight, no matter how doubleplusungood that fight truly is.
One of the means a photographer has to establish credibility is to establish a consistent personal visual language, a persistence of vision as it were. In so doing that language not only gives us a "rosetta stone" for the way a given photographer expresses themselves but most importantly is evidence that the photographer in fact knows what they are doing and not merely throwing darts at a wall of balloons. Far too many photographers in the fine arts are the benefactors of "happy accidents" which they are more than "happy" to take full credit for, "happily" aided by the socialization of fine art photography. The resultant purposeful obfuscating and confusion of issues of talent comes to the aid of the untalented and professionally dishonest.
Sally Mann, 'Candy Cigarette', 1989
The plain truth is that to develop a personal vision through the means of photography is a difficult and long road and beyond the ability of most people but not in fine art photography where the opposite is true and most people are artists together with their aunt and barber. One has heard it said that 90% of all art is not good but in the fine arts, with no sour grapes critical voices allowed to spoil the party, it is the opposite. Personal vision is also a subtle thing, no big deal to a field where there are competent guardians and mentors watching over the genre with a critical eye but lacking this critical voice, subject to corruption and subversion; in my state of Minnesota it is now considered bad form to critique an art show in a negative way with predictable disastrous results in the arts community there. One can give bad reviews of movies, books and plays but when it comes to fine art photography in Minnesota the incestuous nature of its social network deems this unacceptable; all men are created equal when it comes to the photographers themselves but when it comes to a critique then we're right back to the divine right of kings. If one does want to be critical one is dismissed as jealous or having one's heart in the wrong place or said to be opinionated and that happy adjunct, "That's just your opinion", confirming the socialization of fine art photography where everyone's opinion has merit and an informed opinion treated as arrogance. Housewives and taxi drivers are now photography critics who in fact couldn't tell the difference between a poorly presented black and white photo and a good one if you pointed it out to them - they have not the eyes and experience for it yet little matter, their own sheer intellect can wade through such irrelevance; in this sense, a concert pianist's default mode would be arrogance merely for playing a piano better than the audience - what tripe. In this politically correct scenario, not wanting to see a thing is the same as it not being there and these perceptual elites are in fact caught in their own perceptual trap, or as Jed Lipinski in the Village Voice once put it, "...reckless attempts to deny reality." Those who lack confidence in their own vision will thus be quick to downplay the very possibility or advisability of an assured vision in order to make themselves feel better, a situation which is a death knell for art; in this case, the bell does not in fact "toll for thee". That bell rings over at Flickr into which the fine art photographic community has been transformed, a commune of untalented voices but with sheer intellect on their side in lieu of experience that must not be edited or denied. They'll tell you the camera makes all the difference - in fact, it does not.
So you have a situation where those who cannot judge do judge, immune from the tawdry necessity of experience and secure in the notion that ferreting out questions of an ephemeral, subtle and nuanced nature when it comes to fine art photography has somehow left the field equally open to one and all. Evidently those in Minnesota involved in the arts have never heard of the scathing reviews in the New York Times in times past where new plays were broadsided if the critic felt the need to do so and the critics motives not questioned as it was taken for granted that the critic wouldn't be in the business if they didn't love the art form. It is too bad that fine art photography in 2010 has no mentor like John Campbell, who challenged, critiqued, prodded and motivated science fiction writers in the early 1940s as the editor of Astounding Stories - the result; the golden age of science fiction. Those without talent were booted off the team and history has born out Campbell's decisions. Do you think his writers mocked him for being a mud slinger or said, "That's just your opinion." or felt that since it wasn't a physical skill like playing a guitar that all was equal?
Writer's skills, though in an unseen realm, are very real and photographer's instincts and informed opinion and talent are very real no matter how difficult for those not trained to see and photographers have special eyes, either because of great instincts or experience and the overwhelming majority or people who do not have this capacity are entirely unaware of it. Thus you have just anyone bristling at the idea of their husband's or friend's photography being derided because they know or looking at an utterly muddy black and white print and unaware of it. Scale, light, contrast and composition are very real adjuncts to photography, used or purposefully not used, they exist. Fine art photography is dominated by unwell-meaning and politically correct Orwellian amateurs - artists, curators and critics and it shows. In fine art photography in essence the scenario wherein a concert pianist occupies a stage and the audience the seats is done away with and you are left with an audience of artists and an empty stage but equally valid visions which is a misuse of the word and no vision at all.
As I allude to elsewhere in this essay, the fine art photographers who worship the notion of challenging our perceptions and life styles are not themselves to have their own work challenged as this is considered bad taste. One writer I did this to by contrasting his portrayal of a group of photos as "interesting" and "mesmerizing" by saying they were dismal compared me to the Unibomber, an insane murderer, attacking my right to use the word dismal as "easy" while putting no such appurtenances to his own nomenclature.
Such people react poorly to challenge as does the greater fine arts community at large yet want the rest of America to stand by while artistic refugees from a played out 60s mentality challenge, revile and pillory Western middle class culture to assuage their own confirmation that they most assuredly are immune from unwitting stupidity and the terrors of being perceived as middle class or ordinary; there is little compassion and empathy in modern fine art photography though its practioners emphatically claim otherwise and instead a demure sighting through a microscope at the little bugs is in place, with "intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic" as Wells's Martians and chiding our "infinite complacency". The fact of the matter is that I have written another essay twice as long as this one about an arena I love and this resulted in a work about the relationship between science fiction literature and film and there is not one sarcastic or angry remark in the piece. This is because of two simple reasons: science fiction literature has a culture that polices itself and critical voices are not only allowed but encouraged and gate keepers firmly in place so that the genre is not overwhelmed and hijacked by fakirs or lackluster presentations like Independence Day or Harry Potter In Outer Space which is essentially what conceptual fine art photography has become though it emphatically presents itself as the exact opposite. In regard to the arena of conceptual art, for my money, if Laurie Anderson were a science fiction movie it would be Harry Potter In Outer Space or Plan 9 From Outer Space but not in the bad/good/funny sense, just in the bad sense. I have a fantasy where Anderson on her deathbed shouts out, "chumps!" while leaving all the money she's made to a parrot, a monkey and a fire hydrant. If they had a contest to see who would be considered the most politically correct lackwit in America it would be a close contest between Anderson and Alice Walker. Doris Day wears intellectual safety pins in her eyelids compared to those two fire-breathing "revolutionaries."
James May, Las Vegas, 2007
In most major commercial genres lack of talent is its own gatekeeper but in this regard the fine arts is a fertile field for at best the deludedly untalented and clueless and at worst intellectually and professionally dishonest people. If you have doubts a large number of such people exist in the fine arts then you haven't been privy to the conversations and events I have although simply using your eyes should be enough but it's not. Right out of college many photographers in the fine arts feel their learning period is over and want gallery shows and grants as soon as they can manage it and feel they deserve it. This seems to be motivated by the fact that they put their shoes on in the morning rather than anything of note they have produced. Whether a body of work is ready to be shown or not seems to be not only of no consideration but one the artists themselves are largely incapable of judging.
Fellowship committees that award individual artist's grants would seem to be a perfect place to sort the talented from the untalented but the confused state of fine art photography has been in place for so long and penetrated so deeply that the grant committees themselves are frequently intellectual hacks who lack the capability to come to any kind of consensus or consistency which would serve as a guiding vision without a resume in hand; there is no one to look up to because everyone is an expert and the mentor has come to be considered merely a cocky idiot. When one looks at the recipients of the Minnesota McKnight Grants the last 10 to 15 years one is struck by the same dreary names representing not just bad but often spectacularly bad photography interspersed with one hit wonders minus the wonder - photographs that often hide behind a sham of subtlety when in fact they are simply empty expressions of self and not art since the genre is subservient to ego - to say it's disheartening to see such attention given to the work is an understatement.
I don't know what the answer is but grant foundations might start by eliminating presenting resumes and limiting statements that accompany the work to a minimum or might consider having only one individual make the decisions as the committees assembled to hand out grants increasingly remind me of communist committees intent on dissemination of proper thought rather than seeking out a creative voice. One can only wonder what would happen if for only one year a fellowship foundation gave out grants based on photography that was presented without resumes or statements or even names of the artists; there might be a wholesale changing of the guard.
That suffocating blanket of conformity I mentioned earlier has now reversed places and grant committees unwittingly condone being asked to tuck your shirt in and get a haircut, never once realizing that conceptual space they have come to occupy. The zeitgeist that originally celebrated such things as an obscene R. Crumb story would now revile it as female-hating pornography by the culture that has devolved from that zeitgeist. Fine art photography in my state of Minnesota is in a shambles and has been for the last quarter century and it is the unswerving devotion to the empty-headed principles I have written about in this essay that is at the heart of it.
The wonders of cultural relativism have come to visit the individual when it comes to fine art photography in America in general and so everyone's vision is equally valid and there is no good and bad; Jack Vance once wrote something to the effect that we owe a debt of gratitude towards evil since without it there is no good - even a child knows there is no light without darkness, a funny thing to ignore among a community that works so often in black and white. Like the modern report card, there is no F to bruise delicate egos but without failure there is no such thing as success so what then is it that a gallery exhibition of photographs celebrates since nothing exists in a vacuum? Conceptual fine art photography resembles the kids soccer leagues wherein everyone from 1st to last place is given a trophy, just for showing up as it were.
Dorothea Lange December 1935.
“Resettled farm child. From Taos
Junction to Bosque Farms project,
The answer is that there is little to celebrate since critical voices are silent on critiquing the the sterile and vapid intellectualism of the artists work while bombastic on the artists own critique of our ability to perceive or of American society and its perceptions which are invariably portrayed negatively except towards those considered to be some kind of minority or disenfranchised whose problems are blamed on the skewed nature of American mainstream perceptions. While failure on the part of an artist is deemed irrelevant, failures of our society are their fuel and failure becomes poetry flung into a moral stance if you fail in the right tax bracket and success a type of debauched immorality with the exception of course of the artist's and institution's own financial successes. And of course the expansive political adjunct to this is that, in a enthusiastic spate of cultural relativism, every culture in the world is equal, except our own which, being successful, cannot be celebrated until it fails or is perceived to fail and then only to celebrate a type of payback. Morality comes to be associated with success and failure in a manner that is most unhealthy and these eternal artistic underdogs succumb therefore to a type of doublethink that is unreservedly doubleplusungood.
The penchant for artists to associate and confuse failure with morality and success with immorality when delving into the social realms is not a sign of heightened perception but rather a type of puerile reverse bigotry and political correctness passed off as reality. In the arena of documentary photography, there is no great body of documentary work depicting success and when it does such success is depicted as sterile, something to be mocked and laughed at. Stupid stereotypes of elderly Park Avenue women with pancake makeup, age spots and a poodle put paid to the notion that they ever loved as do you or I (as reflected in Sarah Greenough's statement that the Frank photo of Hoboken men at a political event had faces devoid of "the love or concern of a parent") or were ever decent in the true sense of the term and so morality is portioned out according to the size of one's bank account and presentation rather than in any objective way. That's fine in Hollywood movies but for fine art photographers to pander to such notions reveals a shallowness quite at odds with how these artists wish to project themselves. In a 1975 interview in The Boston Review with Geoffrey Movius Susan Sontag stated, "The main interest of the photographer as moralist has been war, poverty, natural catastrophes, accidents—disaster and decay. When photojournalists report that 'there was nothing to photograph,' what this usually means is that there was nothing terrible to photograph." Lacking concentration camps in the United States, we turn on ourselves and so President Bush becomes Adolph Hitler. We war on anyone who makes above a certain amount of money (minus rich artists of course) and dispense morality and IQs accordingly. Old people are another fine target and there is no lack of photos showing them living empty lives playing cards in leisure suits outside of their RVs. Photojournalism of poor people in Third World countries dispenses the goodies in the exact opposite direction; in fact, they seem deemed to be incapable of immorality - there are many stupid people in America but in Africa there are only the exploited.
In my own documentary photos of the Hopkins, MN Grande Day Parade, such notions were very much on my mind and I have sought to see how much of the tragedy and sense of unhappy decadence endemic to street photography's underpinnings I could take out and still make an image that had some compelling artistry. As a result, I purposefully sought to depict these people from a neutral stance rather than weighing them down with projections of them as clueless decaying suburbanites. That means they are allowed to be happy and ordinary and normal rather than the foil for fine art photography sharp-edged notions of American decadence and I cared not one whit that this affects my credibility as a serious fine artist or my credentials as a rebel or intellectual.
James May, Miss Cottage Grove Princess, 2008
The folks in my Hopkins parade photos are not peopled by individuals with inauthentic smiles masking wounded and empty lives. I am purposefully positing the idea that if one's documentary photos do not cater to a political audience with culturally pre-conceived ideas about their culture in the way that MSNBC or Fox News does, then one's chances of finding traction or archetypes is severely limited; in a sense, my photography as "art" then becomes invisible. In the world of documentary photography, a show called "Unhappy Days" will always have more gravitas than a show called "Happy Days", comedy or no. It is the nature of narratives to have drama and tension but it is not their nature to have only drama and without a happy ending. There is a difference between drama and simply making fun of society and without any attempt at humor other than to poke fun and without any happy endings; it becomes a dull and dreary landscape that reminds one of the eternal war in Orwell's 1984. I attempt to put artistry in my work but it is muted and a language of photography and not a language of social mockery or literature or cleverness. Some things can only be expressed visually and this is photography's strength and to add reams of text to such work only diminishes it and can lead to such words becoming a crutch as is certainly the case in American fine art photography today.
In that same Boston Review interview above, Sontag said, "...the photographer's orientation to the world is in competition with the writer's way of seeing." This is a competition that modern conceptual photography is winning/losing. This is something that seems to be at once lost on and embraced by modern conceptual photographers and speaks to how the lack of respect for photography's strengths in order to supplement their own weakness or politics circumvents and subverts the genre. Literature and film have no problem evolving within the narrow constraints of their genre because people know that to abandon those constraints not only abandons the genre itself but the tradition and the tension that goes along with it that creates that art, which is defined by what it is and not what it isn't.
That's fine but then don't define yourself within that genre. Great art exists compared to something else and without constraint there is no great. If only one man in the history of baseball hit home runs and that was 50 we wouldn't know if that was good, bad or indifferent. Having abandoned tradition and constraint, presumably over issues of conservatism or boredom, conceptual fine art photography hits home runs in an utter vacuum and the field has been gutted of true meaning and context by ghouls who have little respect for the genre. Fine art photography has become a mere adjunct to literature, healthy doses of which are more evident alongside the work than ever before. Although I mention my work as though it is in deliberate contrast to a certain sensibility, in fact my work exists on such a level not by design but by default; I do not seek to define myself and my expressions by what I am not. I merely seek to draw attention to that contrast to heighten what is my own natural bent as a photographer. I am more interested in being perceived as someone who makes honest work than work that is capable.
My Hopkins parade photos reference and point up the failures of fine art photography more than any failures of suburbia. My Hopkins photos are outside the box only in the sense that they disguise their fine art ambitions, feigning indifference and attempt to fly under the radar of stereotypes of intellectual fine art photography. I am not attempting to elevate the banality of my subject matter but rather to depict as mundane my own photographic style, stripping out the obvious or sarcastic, toeing that delicate line between success and succumbing to one's own banality and also seemingly denying their artistic origins while emphatically claiming them. As such, suburbia does become a foil for me but are left out of the discussion, a mere template to test the waters of stereotypes in conceptual fine art photography. I purposefully strip out any hint of narrative or dialectecism in the presentation of my Hopkins photos on my website as I do not view the structure of a magazine layout or comic book panels to be a strength any more endemic to photography than it is to painting. The Hopkins photos are not mystical, wise, exploratory, spiritual, haunting, potent, sacred or eccentric. What they are is simple and straightforward and above all honest and that's not all that exciting nowadays. Well, maybe not so simple and straightforward since the small body of work as a whole is meant to be a perceptual trap for the unwary when it comes to the intellectual fine arts. There is little doubt in my mind that were a museum to choose from among my 30 Hopkins and 20 Aquatennial parade photos that they would choose those that came the closest to having a Robert Frank-like depiction of people as some kind of empty headed, shallow and clueless morons.
James May, White House, Minneapolis, 1985
My body of work called Urbanscapes is a minefield of traps and very purposefully so since even back as far as 1982 I was entirely fed up with the dishonest direction fine art photography was taking. Drag the correct one of these urbanscapes off the internet onto your desktop, put it into a photo editor and change it to black and white and you'll see just one of the many tools I use to achieve my manipulation of perception - in some few of those photos, the tones are nearly identical, constructed of hues only.
Unlike the Hopkins photos which are benignly subtle, the Urbanscapes are diabolical and very much a visual version of this essay. Like a good Moriarity, I have put all the clues you need to see if you can but when it comes to perception, I think they are a clean getaway. As John Ford did in some of his westerns and Ridley Scott did hiding in plain sight in Alien, I am attempting to dupe and manipulate the viewer in an entirely non-verbal way, especially those with a fine art background since the body of Urbanscapes work is made wholly with them in mind. If you can make a person's eyeballs dance then you can manipulate them and if you can manipulate them you can dupe them and so call them out. Visual cues and ordinary objects are powerful sources of bias when used in a seemingly innocuous and innocent and even stupid manner. What's more intellectually innocuous than my own version of John Wayne by way of cheap, kitschy saturated colors to lull a viewer to sleep?
When revealed, it's kind of like showing someone a wonderful classic art style painting by Roy Krenkel in a museum and then while they're oohing and aahing telling them it was made for a science fiction paperback cover; good stuff is where you find it and never mind the window dressing. Fine art photographers take it for granted that we the people cannot see and I take it for granted that those artists are in fact the ones who have a troubled vision and need to be given a lesson.
In my Urbanscapes documentary photos, I wanted to stuff them with as many art references as I could yet make them hidden, as much as a result of the viewer's own bias as anything else. I wanted them to be perceived as stupid photos at dusk. In that sense, some of the Urbanscapes photos are as much conceptual works as others work's which are much more obviously so since I am using some of my subject matter merely to make edges vibrate or reverse apparent depth my making a background come forward and the foreground recede using color, by using the old illustrator's trick on the turning of an edge by making one side warm and the other a cool color to mimic depth to the eye, but reversing it, by making one's eyes know something is amiss by draining contrast and other considerations. I lay an overt and intentionally cheap looking false trail not only by the subject matter and choice of that subject matter's presentation but by having some pieces not play the game at all. I want these Urbanscapes to have all the seeming depth of an old bright yellow bowling shirt with bowling pin buttons or lava lamp, enjoying the kitsch while apparently succumbing to its easy charms. I want them to seem like a cheap misunderstanding of a Meyerowitz Dairyland at dusk or of William Eggleston but that is a red herring. My body of documentary urban nightscapes references film, art direction, field paintings, color theory, comic books, paperback covers, together with exploiting contrast, scale and depth, or lack of depth.
When it comes to my recent work shooting parades, there are so many wonderful documentary photographers working in the vein of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank that it is not necessary to have another. While working firmly within that general tradition, I wish to do something a bit to one side which is certainly nothing new but I wish to simply have a calmer type of document. In the case of the parade photos, I want to create photos of people that seem as if they are a kitschy archetype that you have seen before but when you think about it, you haven't and most importantly I wanted them to be devoid of an overarching judgment. I would rather fail as James May than succeed as a clone of others.
James May, San Cristobal
de Las Casas, 1977
Fine art photography has become politically subjectified to the point that no one is very eager to portray themselves as an expert on others photography while conversely an amazing amount of photographers are touted as experts at what they do; to give over that you are an expert on judging others photography is considered gauche if not sheer arrogance. Fine art photography has been entirely given over to the viewer, any viewer and everyone is an expert and no voice diminished and so it's probably time to have artist's fellowships distributed by a Nielson Ratings System since smiley hugs and non-controversial controversial work is the order of the day. Much of this can be simply written off to the amazing generational difference between the average American in terms of their desire to absorb information and opinions rather than disseminate them. At the end of the first decade of the 21st century everyone and their sister has a blog site wherein few are shy about stating categorically their opinions and expertise on everything under the sun. In 21st century America everyone is the star of their own movie and much fine art photography has become nothing more than the equivalent of blog sites. The average person working pursuing a career in fine art photography seems unwilling to look at their own work objectively or display any kind of modesty. Without a report card capable of giving over an F, one wonders then why there are so many workshops. After all, if there is no scope for failure and everyone's view is equally valid then what is there to learn aside from being brainwashed into believing the same trite stereotypes should be endlessly paraded and passed on to the next generation. If it's all about promoting variety rather than a kind of talent then why even bother going to college? The truth of the matter is that, like rock and roll, intellectualized fine art photography is played out, its original impetus long gone and what is left is a 'cargo cult' ritual acted out by people who once saw a plane. John Baldesari doesn't have the same traction he did in the 60s and neither does R. Crumb, bongo drums, bell-bottoms, smoking a joint, an electric guitar solo or bikinis.
One can only push boundaries so far before it becomes an empty gesture, devoid of meaning and simply done for the sake of a push. There is no impetus to overly conceptualized fine arts photography which today resembles a creaky rocking chair more than a cutting edge movement. Virtually every major artistic movement which had its horizons expanded and affected by the 60s counter culture movement has gone through a steady evolution, reinventing itself and building on what came before with the exception of fine art photography which has become stiff and moribund and survives today as a living fossil, a relic of a passed over and dead zeitgeist which moves about mimicking life yet unaware of its own demise and whose endless meditations on place resembles the droning of an insect. Intellectualized fine art photography at the end of the first decade of the 21st century prides itself on its cutting perception but is perhaps the least perceptive major genre in America and the one with the greatest divide between the perception and reality of the power of its own intellect.
The lack of ethical or professional guidance of any kind whatsoever within the photographic fine arts is a huge problem; workshops and colleges seem to indoctrinate more than anything else - the concept of thinking outside the box is worshipped but is ironically so narrowly defined that in reality such thinking is not allowed since at its heart it is so deeply politicized. When cutting edge becomes the norm what is it exactly that is taking place? Cutting edge compared to what? Alternative compared to what? What is alternative when it's all alternative? Why are we still pushing back against themes from the 1960s in the 21st century?
The problem of subversion and circumvention in fine art photography at this point is so deeply ingrained in the community that anyone who wanted to take on this problem head on would invariably be mockingly accused of professional jealousy, haivng an excessively conservative and reactionary bent or outright cynicism, or, as one fool recently wrote to me, "sour grapes", as if these are in and of themselves some kind of argument; they must make such charges or they risk being wrong and it is as simple as that - thinking outside the mainstream is the mainstream and they just don't get that.
Personally I can't think of anything more cynical than the fate that has overtaken fine art photography and the motives of it's practitioners, unwitting or otherwise in the last four generations. Individual expression is one thing and a communal desire to protect the integrity and standards of their genre another but the former holds sway unchallenged and the latter literally does not exist and what you end up with are taxi drivers and housewives writing reviews of photography exhibitions who don't know anything about the issues or history involved. A terrible democracy has developed in fine art photography where each republic has a population of one. Subjectivity is of course always something that is present in viewing art but in the case of fine art photography it has been stretched to the ridiculous and so the Oscar goes to... everyone. How can we have a situation where photographers are eternally critiquing the world around them yet immune to critique themselves? How does that work exactly? Would you want to have a situation where only good reviews of movies and plays are presented from within the community itself? Where are the gatekeepers?
The concept of a photographer who is an embarrassment to themselves or to the genre is simply a point of view that doesn't exist in that genre. Within the realm of fine art photography, there seems to be less love and respect and even shame for the genre itself and more built-in excuses to maintain the status quo than any other I can think of. Even hollywood films, motivated entirely by money, have a healthy amount of respect for the presentation of those films in terms of editing, cinematography, etc., and the people in those fields effective and enthusiastic guardians of the integrity of worlds of expression they obviously cherish and respect and respect is the key word here. In regard to that latter consideration, it is no surprise that Maya Deren is still practically worshipped as a ground-breaking genius by the intellectual fine arts community rather than seen as the spectacularly untalented worshipper of mindless contrariness she actually was. Unfortunately fine art photography has been taken over by contrariness and an army of clones of Maya Deren reminiscent of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, replacing those like myself who are capable of only linear thought and think anyone who burns sage is nuts.
William Eggleston, Memphis, Tenn.
Increasingly shallow and ethically dishonest means of circumventing the need to develop a personal vision have been used for years now in the arena of fine art photography, such as filters, toy cameras, misuse of large format cameras, colored pencils, you name it - anything to distract from the strength and heart of photography and lack of talent and insight of the photographer. To me fine art photography, among major artistic means of expression in America, seems to be far and away the most prone to dishonesty and political subversion. Photography more than ever seems to be considered too infantile to be left to a mere photograph and fine art photography today and for some decades has come to be multimedia as much as anything. Ironically this desire to display the multimedia scope of their interests is largely done by people who have no real background in painting, drawing or design. Erstwhile artistic multitaskers they proclaim themselves to be are in truth one dimensional photographers whose immodest reach exceeds their grasp.
The photographer is not just a photographer but a multi talented artist in the same way the mere photograph must have it's horizons expanded to become everything and nothing. It never occurs to such artists that they simply may not have anything to say with a camera but are convinced otherwise by a considerable genre wide belief that a straight photograph is too literal and commonplace to countenance when in fact it is the language of photography itself. Photography is not literature and not painting. While in some few instances it is nice to explore those parallel worlds in photographic terms a wholesale turning away from photography's strengths encourages the weak and untalented and destroys the genre itself. And of course the convenient argument is that to deny such legitimate expressions of exploration leave one as some kind of a dolt, mockingly depicted as living in a conservative past which in fact couldn't be further from the truth; they are merely people who wish to defend the integrity of fine art photography so it is not hijacked by enlightened amateurs which is exactly the current state of affairs. Why in the hell can't people who wish to draw and write leave photography alone? If the word "zen" or it's close equivalent isn't involved to some extent in fine art photographic projects then those projects aren't happening and it seems sometimes as if entire sectors of fine art photography have been given over to some kind of yoga class. In yet another beguiling irony, insisting on the quiet and subtle has a strident tone to it quite out of place with the imagined goal; nothing that is insisted upon is ephemeral, nuanced or subtle, in fact quite the opposite.
The truth as I see it is that in the United States, fine art photography, far from being a safe haven for the sensitive and perceptive has become a vast politically correct fast food joint among major areas of artistic expression. When it comes to inept politically correct double talk fine art photography has no equal as it has been dumbed down to the lowest common denominator. Alternative - I say again, alternative to what? Like James Cagney, these people are simply and boringly "professional againster's" contrary for the sake of being contrary and their rhetoric a magic prop up their sleeves. A creative genre cannot eternally define itself by opposition to that which it deems conservative without utterly corrupting itself by quickly being forced into a position where it has to manufacture bogey-men in order to justify itself because it denies the progress of society and intellectual thought. When the eternal goal is onwards and upwards one runs out of space real quickly and intellectual fine art photographers become in essence professional politicians since their stance becomes increasingly less creative and more political as revolutionary movements always do when what they oppose disappears. There is a difference between being stifled creatively and manufacturing such a scenario long after its actual passing.
In the world of fine art photography to declare one's lack of middle class values has long since come to trump actual creativity. In fact, these photographers are unfairly and inaccurately projecting their own middle class naiveté onto their audience while at the same time trumpeting through their work how successful they have been in rising above the dull and dreary and socially backward crowd they self-delightedly project their viewers to be; sharing from a soapbox. Accompanying quotes from Descartes or Voltaire prop up their photos in order to provide a type of resume of their intellectual credentials you cannot see in the work itself; you can always tell when people are mining work for quotes rather than being lovers of that literature when there is a dreary sameness in the authors they use; you won't see any quotes from Clark Ashton Smith or Jack Vance in this crowd as they emphatically do not march to the beat of their own drum - they only aspire to but there are bars in those windows and so they result to tried and true archetypes and stereotypes - iconoclasts indeed. In whatever genre of literature they use for quotes to prop up that work to slough off their middle class status they invariably will find something with a caché attached in order to show how ordinary they are not. While giving lip service to the idea of championing the notion that good things are where you find them and not where you expect them, these photographers nevertheless insist in doing the exact opposite, nodding their heads in satisfaction at how little they think of a mainstream best seller or McDonald's while at the same time boasting of work they've had published in that same mainstream's magazines or newspapers. If these people once met Alan Ginsberg or had a girlfriend from Iceland who smoked cigars then these forensic evidences of nonconformity are cherished, invoked, bandied about and almost worshipped like a sliver of wood from the true cross.
James May, Cairo, 2010
In effect this only serves to blind the photographers themselves while they pretend to hand out glasses that will enable you to see. Such an addiction to a politically derived elitism means that fine art photographers of this ilk will only find what they expect to find where they expect to find it, boring all and sundry. In this manner fine art photography has come to occupy the specific perceptual location it seeks to shy away from. The particulars are different but the perceptual locale the same in that it resides in the same karmic home of the archetypal close-minded corporate military industrial complex they wish to display their disdain for; what is a reactionary that believes emphatically they are not a reactionary? The answer is that they are intellectually lost. I would say they are lost in a perceptual trap of their own making and this is especially evident in how this community bristles at being questioned or challenged all the while promoting questions and challenge. It's hard to imagine being more intellectually adrift.
In the end all you have is a version of keeping up with the Joneses where one's membership to a wonderfully intellectual club of one is the overriding concern as is the notion that they would never stoop to being merely visual in a visual medium. They are each one the ultimate iconoclast and this is the true goal, the photography itself merely a now sufficiently and appropriately obfuscated arena in which to massage their own egos at the expense of what used to be a wonderful genre. No surprise that so much fine art photography is so bad as it is considered merely as an almost irrelevant nuisance on the fast track towards instant gratification of self. In fine art photography patience is not a virtue. It is not a surprise that such personalities have gravitated towards fine art photography like moths to a flame. Yet it is not self-immolation that is the byproduct but the immolation of fine art photography itself. To me the situation in fine art photography in this sense is very similar to 21st century hip-hop music, a genre where the bar has been lowered to the point where amateur's become millionaires because of their political approach to music while talent takes a back seat. Music that is so bad it is embarrassing is not only popular but celebrated with Grammys, ability and talent an irrelevance. Being slaves to the marketplace I don't really have a problem with that. If fine art photographers would simply be honest about this issue rather than passing themselves as some kind of phony intellectual ghetto justice fighters it would be entirely different.
In the arena of more intellectualized fine art photography, middle class politically correct orthodoxy passed off as iconoclastic intellectualism so prevalent for the last half century reminds me more of propaganda or a con game than any genuine insights into the nature of the world around us. Naive stereotypes still abound in fine art photography, the cowboys and indians have just exchanged places; there is nothing new about the new mythology.
An echo of this is a film that buys into the childish stereotypes and bias of the new mythology called This Revolution, a 2005 offering directed by Stephen Marshall and starring Rosario Dawson. This Revolution is a virtual smorgasbord of trite, politically correct and casual bigotry where successful people who just happen to be white are evil, ignorant and spiritually bankrupt and "the great unwashed" as they are at one time called in the film are the real people with the real insight into what is really going on on this earth; this attitude is wholly and increasingly reflected in fine art photography in America in the last 50 years. This Revolution contains more than just echoes of Robert Frank's The Americans.
In it's own way, This Revolution is arguably as full of racism, bigotry and shallow stereotypes as some of the worst types of films from the 1930s or 1940s and yet because this bias comes from a good place it is not only utterly excused but swallowed whole as truth by eager American youths and fine art photographers who consider rap music as the default cool and John Wayne a symbol of brutal idiocy, which John Ford threw back in their faces as long ago as 1956 with The Searchers and also in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, (1962) employing formal visual and thematic techniques in the one place those beloved pseudo-intellectuals wouldn't be able to see it, a "stupid" cowboy movie, and using John Wayne to do it. Oil, Che Guevara, Bush, imperialism, colonialism and much much more imagery are trundled out as reflecting a truly sophisticated and compassionate view of the world when in fact such thinking represents a hopelessly biased, cynical, arrogant and puerile belief system in a world much more complex and even innocent than this type of thinking is able to perceive. In this stereotype successful people are some kind of self sustaining aristocracy with immorality as their default mode when in point of fact most successful and rich people are self-made and come from middle or lower middle class backgrounds and are not demonstrably more unethical than a convenience store owner or taxi driver or college student; it is simply a convenient stereotype.
James May, Hopkins, MN, 2009
I laugh at fine art photography in the vein of This Revolution that can at once depict earnest Catholics in Latin America as soulful and spiritual people while depicting Catholics within the United States as fringe lunatics whose priests are prone to pedophilia. I laugh at photographers who consistently caption portraits of native Americans as having an innate grace, pride and spirituality while at the same time depicting a driver at an Ohio truck stop as an endemically spiritually bankrupt, decadent and generally clueless human being; provincialism passed off as compassionate and global insight. If you want to talk about a perceptual trap of unflinching hypocrisy, a film like This Revolution and much of what is found in fine art photography in America today is almost the very definition of the idea.
An obsession among American photographers working in the fine arts to show how cool and hep and with it and intellectual they truly are has set back the arts many years and it will be at least a generation before fine art photography has a chance to recover from it's own unquestioned trendiness, lack of content and mindless stereotypes; no eager viewer of the Wayang Kulit of Plato's Cave was ever more ensorcelled than are many of the present generation of fine art photographers. Photos of close-ups of paintings or wainscoting over-powered with an 8x10 view camera, boring tourist photos of Patagonia or Niagara Falls brutally twisted and transformed by reams of accompanying text to become fine art, branches and pebbles no better than that to be found on Flickr are arranged in triptychs and declared fine art, misty filters are put over lenses and the resultant photos promoted by and sold to those who are in fact "the great unwashed", all accompanied by empty and pretentious literary declarations full of imagined insight and metaphysical gibberish. One could easily come to the conclusion that such photographers have nothing to say with a camera and may never really have had anything to say. The camera is merely an extension of their childish egos and fine art photography the victim. Some photographers feel photographs alone are limited and so greatly benefit from text; this is called a magazine. In fact the truth may be that the people who feel this way are simply limited as photographers. Panoramic photos are split into sections so to emulate movement or the editing of a movie while Joe Kubert was doing the same thing with comic panels in Sgt. Rock comic books in the late 60's to far less fanfare. Nor should there have been any fanfare as it would have emulated fine art photography's penchant for elevating a trivial passing idea to the sublime, worthy of focus, worship, contemplation, a lecture and meditation, stripped of pragmatism.
Photography certainly has it's strengths and weaknesses but I have never understood people who gravitate to photography and then marginalize it's strengths in order to conceal their own weakness as photographers in a way that is eminently cynical; you can put catsup in your car's gas tank if you want to but why would you want to; just to show you can do it, out of contrariness? My own understanding of people who wish to transform photography into something it's not is more about knowingly covering up their own lack of talent in photography than of promoting demonstrably trite attempts to think outside the box; it's like becoming involved in creating comic books and then deciding that the drawings make the whole concept lack credibility from an intellectual point of view and so the comic books should become entirely text, an ironic conceptual reversal of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 which is an entirely apropos turnabout of so many conceptual photographers who need text to dress up their images; so, The Hulk is turned into a wordy and long-winded Cartesian and so is photography.
I'm trying to imagine explaining a book by using a series of photographs and I'm coming up empty though the idea doesn't lack humor for me. I have no problem with people who want to combine text and pictures but it's certainly not photography or at least it doesn't go to the strength of photography, more like a poor man's magazine yet it's promoted as ground breaking multimedia. By this definition People magazine is a multimedia presentation. Semantics plays a great role in the fraud that comprises much of fine art photography in the United States in the last 50 years and is used in a way that would have Orwell spinning in his grave, the purveyors of truth and clarity being in truth, the purveyors of semantic nonsense. No coincidence and extremely convenient that the word mere is tacked onto the front of the word craftsmanship since that craftsmanship largely doesn't exist in intellectual fine art photography to any great extent in the first place and if it did would find a hard road being recognized as such by fine art photographers who never met a word they didn't like; what can you say about people who so little understand the difference between photography and a photographic process? In the same manner that modern art was contemptuous of the skills of a mid-20th century commercial illustrator like Coby Smith or Al Parker, so too is conceptual fine art photography suspicious and disdainful of demonstrable skill yet without anything to supplant this skill with, perhaps failing to understand that the language of a genre is its own message.
"There is nothing particularly original about breaking down the intellectual, political, social and emotional walls behind which language has been imprisoned, freeing it, then watching while the poor thing is recaptured and locked up again. That process has been repeated endlessly throughout history. The wordsmiths who serve our imagination are always devoted to communication. Clarity is always their method. Universality is their aim. The wordsmiths who serve established power, on the other hand, are always devoted to obscurity. They castrate the public imagination by subjecting language to a complexity which renders it private. Elitism is always their aim. The undoubted sign of a society well under control or in decline is that language has ceased to be a means of communication and has become instead a shield for those who master it." - John Ralston Saul, "Voltaire's Bastards"
James May, Cairo, 2010
Subverting language in the name of exalting trivial photography is the norm in overly intellectualized fine art photography; statements used as adjuncts to the work are riddled with words like explorer, mystical, imposing, wisdom, and quintessential, pitiful attempts to imbue the work with qualities not at all evident in the photography itself; there is nothing moderate or shy here when it comes to misusing language, defining the work in a way that the work itself cannot do. The relationship between the work and it's attendant semantics couldn't be a more pointedly ridiculous erstwhile portmanteau if these photographers dressed in khaki and a pith helmet such is their vaunted exploratory passion. The vapid nature of much of the work is such that words like explore and wisdom are hijacked to the extent that their relative meaning becomes wholly unrecognizable, trivialized in the name of failed attempts at expanding what wasn't inherent in the work in the first place. Words are inappropriately used as bandages and crutches for what is indeed a very sick patient and one may as well describe a body of photographic work by dancing a samba or doing a review of Pride and Prejudice by showing a photo of an Emily Bronte look-alike watching grass grow. If photography cannot be separated out from drawn out explanations and text then it is not photography but some kind of weak sister masquerading as such because the more you explain it the weaker it becomes. Orwell wrote an entire book dedicated to avoiding such semantic foolishness which 6 decades on has fallen on deaf ears in the case of the so-called photographers working at what they see as the cutting edge of high-minded intellectualism. I for my part, cannot imagine using photography in a more close-minded and cynical fashion. The word creativity has changed from a verb to a noun, a faded t-shirt worn like an escutcheon. These overly complicated teenage yearnings for coolness have no problem successfully translating the gibberish wherein a rock group may bill itself as a dangerous band, the type of semantics of forever unrealized hopes of edginess so close to the hearts of mullet wearing, lighter holding fans dedicated to the parallel universe of dangerous photography. The bloated motorcycle riders surging into Sturgis, South Dakota every year also comes to mind because that is how conceptual artists see themselves as betrayed by names like "Outlaw Printer makers" for example; it is their intellectual space and just as phony. I would prefer a name like "Conformist Printmakers" so that the priority would go back to where it belongs rather than the innate hypocrisy of the rebel/conformist.
There is an entire history among the so-called avante-garde during the 2nd half of the last century which demonstrates a type of shame of genre trapped literature and art but their attempts to transform genres perhaps reveals more about their own fears of not being taken seriously, of being mistaken for white trash, than revealing how ignorant their predecessors were; and of course their predecessors are regarded as overly commonplace and rigid not to say wholesale racists, a shameful embarrassment. In some cases, disdain for mere craftsmanship comes not from a place of philosophy but from an inability or lazy, fast-track unwillingness to attain the discipline; in this context fine art photography has become the perfect place to hide.
The echoes of generational embarrassment of an unwitting nature resound throughout elements of fine art photos as it's proponents have become every bit as rigid and commonplace as the culture they pretend to react to; a lowrider but on an RV. The question is why such people would become so attracted to certain forms of the arts and then try and transform them into something they're not; they dislike it but cannot stay away. like illegal immigrants who wave the flags of a country they steadfastly refuse to comtemplate actually living in - what in the world is the imperative here? During the early 1960s there were science fiction authors who so transformed the genre in their writing that their stories were no longer even science fiction; again, one is left to wonder why in the world they were attracted to the genre in the first place - Captain Future was now transformed into a Cartesian.
Some few science-fiction writers kept writing avante-garde SF until they had succeeded in writing a story that was everything but science-fiction, doing a good job of putting that embarrassing plebeian genre behind them. Similarly there are new-wave photographers who have made careers for themselves doing everything but taking a good photograph since to do so would be too middle class to be abided. I imagine they would tell you that their new-wave sensibility precludes an interest in something as tawdry and obvious as taking a good photograph - after all, anyone can do that. The current crop of intellectual fine art photography, especially the most arcane and intellectually pretentious was born out of the 60s when boundaries were stretched to their limits and barriers came crashing down. There is no fine art photography 2.0 when it comes to the unrelenting intellectual urge to continually act as if the Watts riots just happened and everyone just came back from Woodstock. The naughty middle class has not yet learned their perceptual lessons and so must be endlessly treated to photographs of glasses of water, piles of rocks or a reflection in a pond shot through the course of a year. The explorers explore and explore until the word becomes meaningless, the process xerox-like and the original intent wholly lost. The resounding success and goal of conceptual fine art photography is to reduce it by subversion and circumvention to something else altogether, something less tawdry than actual photography, and in this it has succeeded when it comes to grant committees and museums.
Walker Evans, Houses and Billboards, Atlanta, 1936
Curators and gallery owners are overwhelmed by photographer's who are taken seriously merely because they use 8x10 view cameras or abstruse printing methods, little minding that many of these photographers have no understanding of light or print quality because the curator's themselves are not photographers and have not put in hundreds and hundreds of hours in the field and in the darkroom or in an image editing program. An endangered species nowadays the insightful patron who can judge art better than they could ever create it. The result of that fact is a hopeless muddle resembling scattershot on a target on the side of a barn. Middle class curators and photographers with hopelessly provincial views are brought in to grant committees to judge other middle class photographers with hopelessly provincial views and, recognizing a kindred spirit, award tens of thousands of dollars in fellowships to photographers who would be better off being plumbers. The guardians of a protected environment for those who eschew the common overly representational have become guardians of conformity itself.
In such an environment, honest and straightforward photographers are instantly dismissed as lacking insight and intellectualism by default, unfairly portrayed as a type of stupid cowboy movie, talent and competence taking a backseat to kowtowing the politically artistic line. Straightforward becomes a synonym for lack of sophistication and so anything that is simple is made complex just for the sake of complexity itself as well as to camouflage the photography's own callowness. An empty, complex ritual is needed to give the illusion that something is actually happening and so you have 8x10 cameras, bombastic rhetoric, and complex printing methods. In this manner it seems as if you're getting something for your money to take the place of the craftsmanship so abhorred and now all but extinct. After all, something has to take the place of the discipline that has been put aside in favor of something else of equal value; unfortunately the end product is a cheat, the complexity a magician's arm movements to hide the fakery as are the inevitable semantics about spirituality and exploration.
The many years it takes to develop a personal vision that closes the distance between the mind's vision and what is actually put on film or pixel is discredited simply because it is so very hard and takes so long to demonstrably accomplish. A short cut is in order and what better short cut than to throw the whole process into the arena of the conceptual where confusion reigns and sharp edges blunted until everyone is considered equally capable as a photographer because now it is the quality of thought that is at issue, much harder to prove or disprove, especially if the requisite intellectual political Diaspora from the evil of the 1950s is invoked. Fine art photography becomes the arena of a type of philosophical social justice and physical democracy to include those disenfranchised by lack of talent and patience. Hard on the heels of this a politically correct morality appeared as the new scale upon which to weigh one's worth as a photographer, the whole wrapped up in pseudo-intellectualism. The disenfranchised have enveloped fine art photography and made of it a train wreck; no longer close to being disenfranchised since they now utterly dominate the genre, they still claim that status as if the wolves of ordinariness are howling at their door. For it's own specific reasons fine art photography is more dishonest and has fallen farther than any other major creative genre in America and in this unequaled in the 20th century with the exception of cartoon animation in the 1970's. The difference there is that everybody who knew and liked animation saw what had come about while the people who comprise the fine art photography community are blithely unaware that the boat is sinking
James May, Cairo, 2010
What you're left with is the equivalent of a Che Guevara poster combined with lofty pure intellectualism dedicated to exploration which has served only to produce decades of stereotypes masquerading as the exact opposite. One person's opinion is now as good as another's and pointing at a piece of fine art photography and saying it's trash is not only considered one person's opinion but to be just mud slinging. The idea of an informed opinion is put aside because everybody can think and this fact is passed off as experience, equal to anybody else's experience; sheer intellect trumps talent and experience. In this scenario everyone is a photographer with equal credentials, everybody an expert. The measure of credentials now passes to a gaggle of large format cameras, unnecessarily complicated print processes wasted on bad work and oily semantics - suddenly, there you have it: a silk purse. Nothing becomes something and something becomes nothing and you have a playing field so equably muddied that you could fool a grants committee with photos made by a chimpanzee or someone from an insane asylum or photos taken by a 6 year old child. There is not a doubt in my mind that I could go to the zoo, have a monkey take some photos with a point and shoot, dress up those photos with the appropriate rhetoric and have as good a chance of winning a grant or fellowship as another applicant.
Right now as I write this there is a mother outside my window playing with her 3 kids. There is not a doubt in my mind that I could ask the kid who's about 6 to take a picture of me, his mother, his 2 sisters, the tree that's there and maybe the branches and put the work in front of a grants committee together with some artist's statement with the usual semantics, some dramatic multi-syllables, some bullshit and fool them entirely. Now that's what I call a level playing field.
So, nothing really means anything since everything is purely subjective and with no skill subset and all views equally valid and yet everything apparently means something since there is a steady outflow of work from intellectuals fine artists who have come to resemble the old fashion version of a diary, the one only the writer of it ever heard of. Today however, you hear every least and trivial thought trumped up and magnified into art but also while claiming there is no real art since even the janitor at a museum is not only an de facto artist but probably an actual piece of art; one need only point to the janitor to make it so if the janitor has not already done so.
Meanwhile a flood of empty swimming pools by the sea taken with a 4x5 view camera is hailed as art and decisions made by the wives of curators with no experience in photography other than their own infallible belief in their power to overcome all shortcomings of experience with sheer intellectual power and insight. Those people are in turn buried in Visa cards, 401K's, PTA meetings and classically bad Minnesota haircuts, the unwitting subjects of their own version of an Arbus or Frank photograph. Cleverness is taken for insight and politically correct stereotypes are trundled about as uncovering the true nature of reality, slightly disturbed photographer's are taken for visionaries. My city has become a giant closeout bin full of silver gelatin closeups of hands and leaves and out of focus porches and "meditations on place", all done with large format cameras towards no purpose whatsoever that I can see; you could make such images on a $59 scanner and they'd be just as bad. How these people even dare to call themselves photographers is something for Solomon to chew over.
James May, Revolution, Cairo, Jan. 2011
You would think that it is the manifesto of fine art photographers to be a type of physicist who's goal is to penetrate the event horizon of our own culture and view that holy grail where the laws of reality itself break down, delivering up the ultimate vision of truth; all they have really succeeded in doing is elevating the trivial to a monumental level, a twisted take on the uncertainty principle where close scrutiny reveals something other than intended, in these cases metaphysical and visual hyperbole. I'm surprised some species of fine art photographers whose desire to explore is so all encompassing haven't figured out a way to shoehorn discovering new galaxies into their work; maybe they could pass the hat among themselves for a giant telescope with a 4x5 polaroid back. Or how about a nice microscope - that has a lens doesn't it?
Conceptual photographers deliver up not art but cures and antidotes to what ails you and society, distributing high-minded vaccines like a side-show huckster that has nothing at its heart to do with photography. People write reviews about films but these reviews are not true partners to the films themselves and in no way supplant them and the true center of attention remains the film and its specific language and the strength of that specific language but in conceptualized fine art photography, the artist is reviewing their own work in a very real sense by overly contextualizing and textualizing it. By the time the artist has given the stamp of approval to his own work there is little left to think about and the odds suggest there never was in the first place given the debauched gift shop "I'm okay you're okay" nature of intellectual fine art photography.
Stephen Shore, Stampeder Motel,
Ontario, Oregon, 1973
Fine art photography has gotten to the point where it tries to be everything and anything, it natural strengths ignored and even disdained and in such instances becomes nothing. All this is done in the name of exploration but Captain Spaulding is more of what comes to mind as fine art photography's own supposed proponents have been destructive and deconstructive in their explorative dismantling of the genre but without any worry about picking up the pieces and both done in a way that parallel's their politically correct view of how much they dislike the story of America itself and seek to similarly deconstruct, dismantle and dismiss all they find not to their liking. It is taken for granted that this results in a better place but I am not so sanguine as some and one must be careful about what one deletes and what one takes for granted and what one brings to the table for dessert. Parallel to this is the more wholesale denunciation of all that has come before in a retro inquisition that ferrets out and retrofits a suit of racism and imperialism onto Columbus, Edgar Rice Burroughs or anyone else that comes into their sights which not only encompasses the vast majority of the historical landscape but distorts America's present day landscape to seem as if half the country are profiling bastards who'd like nothing more than to cut the pigtails off a chinaman. Change is the monument intellectualized photography worships but has become accelerated towards a destination where change is done for the sake of change and to bring about a heightened sense of just how far we can distance ourselves from the commonplace as well our past which is brought into the present, as if this is an endgame in itself. No surprise that some fine art photography can be thought of as a tea bag of stupid semantics in an empty cup, diluted into an unrecognizable state of evaporation.
Once many fine art photographers figure out what is required for success, a new swath of self-aware dishonest stereotypes is brought about and the con game feeds on itself in a closed and sometimes incestuous system that pretends to worship the very concept of challenge and exploration yet bitterly resents being itself challenged or explored and so reveals it's own decadence and reactionary nature. Unless you're Einstein you need to live outside the box to think outside the box. A middle class existence and the craving to deny that existence are not enough.
People in the fine arts become hypnotized by famous names like Mapplethorpe without looking at the photographs in front of them as if, once established, the name can do no wrong and so their worst photographs get carried along an iconic and unchallenging breeze of unthinking hero-worship. Unthinking, played out stereotypes about spaces, the suburbs, of the spirituality of the East or of any culture that has ever been downtrodden is taken for granted without a blink. Success as subject matter is automatically linked to a type of sterility of spirit, with the exception of the successful photographers and curators who deliver such insight of course. In this context they needn't worry that power corrupts since the artists of which I speak and their mentors bring their own type of corrupt behavior from the very start.
With the glowing certainty that they are the firmly in the court of Winston Smith in Orwell's 1984, and are only renting a studio in "The Ministry Of Love", the self-styled iconoclasts of contemporary fine art photography are victims of their own lack of perception while setting about to oh so closely monitor ours, the guardians of perception watching to see that we can never go perceptually astray while they're on the job serving up triptychs of large format out of focus leaves to our eye opening delight. "The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink." A quote from George Orwell that seems particularly appropriate when it comes to the insincerity of the present generation of non-traditional fine art photographers who attempt "to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.", another quote from Orwell; the politics of fine art photography resemble a type of childish fascism as much as anything else.
James May, Rio de Janeiro, 1985
While deriding the desire for middle class success, the very photographers who celebrate their distance from such vulgar goals unashamedly tout their least success in terms of magazine covers, exhibitions or celebrities they met. Names like Kerouac and David Byrne are their unquestioned idols and are shared among themselves with a dog-like devotion, especially if they had the least contact with such greatness. Like middle class autograph hounds many fine art photographers little realize that they themselves are the characters in the background of Robert Frank's 1955 photo titled, "Movie Premiere - Hollywood". For all their bluster about perception and seeing they cannot see themselves and so fine art photographers eagerly nibble on the cheese of the exact countless perceptual traps they berate others for, the guarding against such traps the very Bizarro-like basis of the jelly-like ground upon which their photography is based.
Fine art photography at the beginning of the 21st century is arguably as sterile, rigid, fraudulent and spiritless as the very entities it seeks to depict as such or shy away from and it is no surprise that a constancy of vision is so rare to come by seeing as happy accidents seem to comprise the centerpiece of otherwise dreary bodies of work; it is difficult to sustain a vision that doesn't exist in the first place. Much of what is passed off as fine art photography in America today is made by people who resemble Robert Frank's "Americans" more than they do the cognoscenti they strut themselves out as. In the world of performance art that closely parallel's the world of fine art photography a person like Laurie Anderson is regarded as the ultimate iconoclast all the while having the same spiked haircut for the past 40 years, a rigid uniform that is emphatically not a rigid uniform; even Anderson's ostensible philosophical opposite, Doris Day, didn't have the same haircut for 40 years and being a dedicated and hard working nymphomaniac, probably lived a wilder life than Anderson ever did. Having a fear of being middle class and in the end becoming a grifter is not the same thing as being an artist. Pop art has an honored place in the history of the fine arts as a foil but when that sensibility ceases to be self-aware it merely resides in the exact place it came from in the first place, ceasing to be a foil but just sad and uninformed hypocrisy. What we're really talking about here is top 40 radio but with a tinge of green tea, yoga and social justice in a false panel of integrity.
Joel Meyerowitz, Dairyland, Provincetown, 1976
It is by no means unusual to see entire group shows that are utterly disgraceful although comprised of photographers with a great deal of accomplishment in their resume. One such show at a notable gallery in my area in early 2009 is composed of just the worst group of photos, made by photographers notable both locally and nationally. The photos in the show are embarrassing in the lack of creativity of vision they possess, entirely succumbing to the very banality into which they unsuccessfully attempt to infuse new life. One would think this group show's theme was to see how badly one could put the usual suspects of stereotypes to work. How in the world breathing, thinking photographers can consciously put out such trash is entirely beyond my ability to understand. You can be sure of one thing though, there will be no lack of grant money among this assembled crew or verbiage on the part of the photographers and their gallery when it comes to propping up a show which I found to be nothing more than an utter disgrace to the whole tradition of photography in the fine arts. Considering the backgrounds of the artists involved, it might be one of the worst shows in the history of Minnesota. And of course, this show was textualized right up to its eyeballs.
At the same time there was an early 2009 exhibition at a local, very notable Minneapolis art center featuring a one-person show which was similarly disgraceful. At the risk of making this essay murky by not citing examples and not wanting to sharpen my knives any further by indulging in character assassination, these 2 shows and their artists will remain nameless. I can tell you that this show was accompanied by a talk in an auditorium and in the 100 minute podcast I was amazed to find that not a thing was said really, not anything, it was just nonsense.
Fine art photography has long since reached a crisis point in the quality of talent which it has attracted. I can well imagine that others such as myself are similarly disgusted by the lack of proper mentorship and reward that has occurred within the photography community. Why fine art photography would suffer such a crisis of talent at this point in history is a partial mystery. I say partial because one reason it has come on such hard times is the mindless work that has attained the status of an entrenched worship. Graphic design, cinematography, animation, literature, the general sciences and more are going through a type of golden age, at the height of their competence while artistic photography has reached the nadir of its history, executed and managed by yokels who have no more idea of what constitutes an interesting photograph than a 3 year old. Success breeds success and so exhibitions and grant money continue to follow the same individuals because so few people have the faintest clue as to what's happening and resumes become king. Resolve and surety based on experience is dismissed as a kind of untoward cockiness and the entire genre given over to joyful subjectivity, naturally hailed by those photographers with nothing to say with a camera and a burning desire to say it. The socialization and intellectual politicization of fine art photography is well under way but the rewards not equably distributed but rather weighted to those who can whip about the most trendy stereotypes.
James May, Rio de Janeiro, 1985
Curators and gallery owners only have resumes to go by when it comes to measuring success in fine art photography because they are utterly incapable of looking at the work and bringing any authority whatsoever to the table much less integrity; for this reason presenting work without a resume is unthinkable. The resume becomes the "proof" of one's competence in lieu of any other yardstick. Gallery owners neither know nor care if negatives are sandwiched together or misty filters utilized or the issues involved in such acts or whether photographers shit on a brick and slide it under a door as long as a nice resume is in evidence and sales happen; galleries and museums have long since ceased to be gate-keepers, guardians and educators and are now relegated to the role of ticket taker - this is understandable to a certain extent as one must eat but you think there would be some kind of fight underway to direct the public rather than be directed. I understand a certain amount of commercialism to enter fine art photography but not to direct it's very creation. Scenarios like that were the very reason the fine arts came about in the first place. It's like a proverbial 3rd world bureaucracy where only paper in the form of money and resumes matters and people don't exist without that paper; to paraphrase Thomas Wolfe, without a resume to go with it, I can't see a photograph. Is this or is this not the exact opposite of what our "ground-breaking iconoclasts" promote? Where is the perception in such a bankrupt circle of blindness? When you see the film "Orfeu Negro" and the scenes of a paper engorged Brazilian bureaucracy you may rest assured that these people of whom I write include themselves on the right side of that equation but they in fact are the paper pushers and I mean pushers in another sense.
It's a lot easier to say it than to do it and that is at the crux of much that is wrong in fine art photography today as the lazy and untalented are given success through mouthing unrelenting, easy stereotypes in a kind of unknowing system of welfare. In this case there is nothing ventured but something definitely gained but not on any kind of artistic playing field which is so unbalanced that the audience is the game and art on the sidelines. Why not be dismissive of the idea of grueling self-apprenticeship with at least some modicum of talent displayed when one can glide in under the radar you yourself have taken down, circumvented, subverted and destroyed and achieve success? This may seem cynical but believe me when I say that I have personally dealt with these issues and personally seen how others have dealt with them and there is a definite type of dishonesty going on here; it's like an equivalent of children running around with no adult supervision and if you think I'm saying that whole sectors of fine art photography have been given over to a type of island like that in Lord of the Flies, that is exactly what I'm saying. Cynical I may be but I believe the cynicism is wholly on the part of the types of photographers of which I write. In any event, if challenge and exploration is at the heart of what phony conceptual photography is all about then it is equally fair to challenge and explore the motives of those who create such trash and not stand on the sidelines and be a cheering section for a 3rd rate brand of photography. I believe that what you will find is that the idea of challenging and exploring in the fine arts depends entirely on what you challenge and explore and so neuters itself. Intellectual fine art photography is all passion when it comes to ripping open layers of what they feel needs it but that passion will cool considerably when asked to expose the heart of their own photography. What's good for the goose is good for me too and these types of photography of which I am so critical have existed unchallenged for too long. I felt this way about what I saw going on when I was in art school in the late 70s and I still feel the same way. That which has challenged and belittled so much of what came before can take a little of it's own medicine in this small measure considering how much credence overly intellectualized photography has gained in the last 50 years, largely unquestioned in a way that makes it's own existence seem so obviously positive that it makes me uncomfortable.
Peter Latner, Chimney Rock, Western Nebraska
Fine art photography has become the same conservative corporation it loves to laugh at. You'd think that by now you would have seen some dissent but instead the meek seemed to have inherited fine art photography riding on a false assumption of bold challenge that exists only in their semantics that has simply been taken for granted. A rebellion that every single person seems to take part in is no rebellion and Viet Nam-era counter culture art shot it's bolt a long time ago. That which iconoclastic forms of photography pushes against has been gone for many, many years now, along with people who don't like long hair and rock and roll and now rides along only on it's own jealously guarded momentum. Making every piece of art into some kind of seminal event still reacting against a distant past leaves one with a sense of boredom and a feeling that many photographers can't enjoy their art form for simply that but, like adrenaline junkies, must always strive for revelation after revelation, anti-climax after anti-climax until the earth seems populated with savvy artists who have rationalized their photography into the ground. Like it or not, the conceptual trail of fine art photography was blazed many decades ago and all we've had since is a boring series of re-runs and unnecessary sequels. This movement has now become so conservative and intrenched that it is more than ever truly the child of it's parents, riding along on momentum and the lack of anything permitted to supplant it, like a fish that has eaten every other species in it's lake.
How many more times and for how many more decades will we have to be woken up, made aware, made self-aware, by these reactionary self acclaimed psychologists who must wake up in the night with cold sweats and imagine it's 1958 and the great unwashed must be given a bath and a "found object" to hug close to their breast? When is the next phase going to follow this dictatorship of the proletariat, how many more exhibitions must we see where intellectual pedigrees are trotted out in wheelbarrows of glib semantics like the unfurling of an intellectual flag proclaiming to one and all how these photographers continue to successfully react to and pillory the closed minded conservative American zeitgeist of the 1950s? Intellectually speaking, these artist's emphatically do not live in 2010 but in a now distant Jim Crow era where fine art photographers were made to sit on the back of Ozzie and Harriet's bus and the idea of social and intellectual injustice kept alive whether present or not simply to fuel their work which ran out of gas decades ago.
Nate Larson, Tortilla Manifestation, 2002
At the other end of the spectrum, where nothing is ventured and nothing is gained in terms of achievement in the photography itself, why are cheap diffusion techniques and their cousins finding fertile ground and grant money in the fine arts; yes they're beautiful images and yes they're evocative and yes they are completely interchangeable with ads for Nike or green tea. Cheap photographic tricks discredited decades ago with quick reward and with no thought or risk behind them are not to be celebrated in the circles of the fine arts but should be properly relegated to airport gift shops next to the quilts or risk putting fine art photography in a wheel chair right next to those ultimate risk takers, the pseudo intellectuals. Crass commercialism surrounds fine art photography and the fine arts is meant to be a refuge from such and not a celebration other than in a humorous sense. Once you admit there are no issues of integrity involved then the fine arts becomes indistinguishable from commerce. I have no problem with that but if that's the way it's to be then let's start leaving those with no talent by the side of the road and stop pretending that grant money is for those who wish to disdain the commercial road. When grant money is given to photographers whose work's sole distinguishing characteristic is putting misty filters in front of their lens or other cheap tricks then you are giving grant money to people who are commercial photographers in their work ethic - go ahead and award the money but don't fool yourself into thinking that this is fine art. The masses meet cheap tricks right in the middle and issues of integrity are squeezed right out. At this more visual end of the fine art photography spectrum, you know you have a problem when fine art images are completely interchangeable with images from an ad agency or stock photo agency. This speaks to how much agencies have moved towards the fine art imagery and I don't mean to denigrate fine art photographers who make fun and entirely self-aware tributes to kitsch and pop culture. I'm speaking of serious though visually dishonest types of fine art photography behind which there is as little thought as there is too much thought behind the trivial intellectualism which are their phony cousins. Ironically what you have is cheap craftsmanship and process that is being passed off as being emphatically not so because craftsmanship has become anathema in the fine arts. Please explain to me how commercial stock photographs of Greek ruins are fine art and should get grant money when the photos themselves would be lost in a sea of similar photos at any stock agency in the world.
I myself do commercial photography but have no problem confusing the shallow anything goes nature of photographs made for consumerism and photos made with some eye towards integrity and some slightly higher purpose meant to be a refuge from the marketplace that sells cars and milk and travel dreams. Photography is a skill and when one circumvents that subtle, skillful and difficult to achieve process whereby a genuine personal vision is elicited by resorting to misty filters and semantics then you are a liar in the arena of the fine arts. In another arena, it's fine, but let's maintain a sanctuary where fine art photography at least pretends to some kind of personal integrity rather than entirely giving in to those who would subvert it's very nature by dragging it into a mental gift shop. If you feel you don't have the skills so very particular to photography then instead of seeking ways to circumvent those skills and subvert their value then think about being a plumber instead. Let's not confuse misty filters with a genuine personal photographic vision. It may be worthwhile in the same way a painting or a design is worthwhile but it's not photography in any but the shallowest and most commercial sense of the term and that is not the fine arts, or is it.
To put it even more bluntly, on the whole you have a situation where middle class rednecks obsessed with phony and shallow elite intellectualism are photographing middle class rednecks and their ephemera and much of what is passed off as fine art photography in America today has all the shallowness and intent of a tattoo while at the same time consciously attempting to convey an air of condescending superiority from a very great height from self-declared artists that is hard to swallow. Blatant disregard for truth and an outright embracing of dishonesty pervades American fine art photography. While positioning themselves as anti-establishment, fine art photographers in America in the 21st century are in fact the very establishment they seek to distance themselves from. This new establishment brooks no dissent and perhaps an entire new generation of photographers needs to take up an opposite stance and make the stereotypes of the current crop of fine art photographers the subject of a book like Robert Frank's, The Americans.
JoAnn Verburg, Exploding Triptych, 2000
"Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step towards political regeneration". - George Orwell, Politics and the English Language
In the world of fine art photography there is no such thing as a bad photographer as long as the requisite buzz-words are used in the absurdly long-winded explanations used to prop up the work; a strange fate in such a visual medium. Arcane and entirely unnecessary methods of producing prints of worthless photographs are frequently used alongside bombastic artist's statements to further prop up what would otherwise be ordinary with a capital "O"; this is one of my favorite explanations of how a photographer created his prints: "...created with Type 55 Polaroid film in a 4x5 view camera. The Polaroid negative is saved and washed, then drum scanned, and the final image is archival piezo printed on watercolor paper. The remaining prints are dual toned archival silver gelatin prints, created from 120mm negatives." Overly hyped artistic statements combined with byzantine print methods are necessary in an arena where the work is in desperate need of such co-stars since there is no question of the work standing on it's own merits. If as much work were put into the simple initial execution of a body of work there would be no need for such defensive/offensive weaponry. It's like the old Monty Python joke about a man crossing the Atlantic Ocean on a tricycle - the "tricycle, specially adapted for the crossing, was ninety feet long, with a protective steel hull, three funnels, seventeen first-class cabins and a radar scanner." Fine art photography has become a very, very special tricycle.
I love and understand the concept of print quality but it is meant to compliment the work, not to supplant it or become a "steel hull" or to bestow credibility on photos sorely in need of credibility. Print quality goes hand in hand with how a scene is photographed and does not simply exist in a vacuum; bad light and subject matter is not going to get any better in a larger format. These photographers lay a false trail of craftsmanship while decrying it's very existence as a credible idea. The reality is that, like a promoter, they simply say whatever makes them look good. The ideas, if ever they existed in the first place, are long gone, replaced by ego-centric artists entirely unprepared to ply their trade. They should have been sent back to the drawing board at the very beginning but there is no one with the resolve and competence to do so and so that's not in the cards as long as you hold the buzz-words and wear the non-traditional though no less rigid uniform that are in fact the keys to the city.
Meg Ojala, Early April Tangle, 2006
It goes without saying that these photographers would have benefited from a rigid apprenticeship or mentor were not the mentors themselves so utterly dishonest, in a hurry to promote themselves without any concept of the word ready in the equation. The whole point of having an apprenticeship is to ensure that sloppy and unprepared people don't go out into the world and disgrace the traditions of their area of expertise. Fine art colleges are the place of apprenticeship and their laissez-faire anything goes approach has been an utter failure and a disgrace to the fundamental guardian principles laid down in their charters. Put photos of a light bulb and bee next to each other: BAM! - you got yer dialecticism, your got yer art, yessiree bob! Here's yer diploma - make way world - NEXT! It is in the nature of many people to not resist the quick and easy path and it is to be guarded against because the chaperones now need chaperones; colleges should chaperone not enable intellectual quick buck artists. This has not been guarded against in the case of fine art photography and so it should come as no surprise that so much wrong-headed work has so corrupted an entire genre of photography. In this equation good photography is not valued or respected or even recognized, instead it is bombast, name recognition, resumes, incestuous relationships and success and that definition of success has little to do with competence.
When one looks at respected names from the past it is easily recognized that it is the power of the imagery that has brought such names as Brassai, Cartier-Bresson, Atget, Evans, Weegee, Leibovitz, Danny Lyon, Garry Winogrand, Mary Ellen Mark, Frank, Arbus, W. Eugene Smith and so many, many others, regardless of formats, print quality or artistic statements into the forefront. The sideshow that has evolved into non-traditional photography shows how much has been lost in the name of phony intellectualism and what a disgrace to it's own origins modern fine art photography has become. While it assuredly thinks of itself as group evolution to a finer and higher place, fine art photography has in my opinion devolved and decayed into a sorry amalgam of amateur artists and 3rd rate minds with no light of reasoning behind their eyes when it comes to their own craft, intellectual morlocks cannibalizing eloi, their own genre. There is a vacuum of incompetence just waiting to be filled but the cultural politics surrounding the intellectualization of fine art photography will not have it. I would not have any problem with bad photography per se since one shouldn't be criticized for this. What I object to is the constant seeking to upgun the photos by attaching them to themes of peace, or ecology, or meditation or a host of other stereotypes and the fact that you see this so consistently associated with weak work shows that these photographers know what it is that they are doing and the fact that it is all done with medium format to 8x10 view cameras only makes my case the stronger since they is no need to dress up these photos in such a fashion but only a seeking after a shallow credibility within their community. And let's not forget the ever present contextualization and textualization of these photos until the work itself doesn't exist with props.
In an arena where there is so much confusion between the terms well-known, famous and competent, there has perhaps never been a more apt invocation of the phrase, "the world is not a fair place" as in American fine art photography. The utter lack of a critical eye in this realm shows that there is no happy balance where each is awarded their just rewards, rather it is one's ability to network, use social skills, drink coffee and above all bring out the expected while emphatically stating otherwise that is the true expression of talent; another strange fate in a medium that touts itself as celebrating the unexpected. Drinking coffee is important because so many of these people of which I speak fancy themselves neo-beatniks in an intellectual coffee shop with the smell of an outhouse and with the manly drums of Robert Bly doing the congo in their empty heads while they write essays on their 6 year old son's Dell laptop about how stupid people who use rosaries are and multi-tasking an order for a native American dreamcatcher on Amazon.com at the same time. The next day they see a mandala in their son's tricycle wheel that inspires them to buy a third helmet for their son just in case of the untimely meteor shower and take an 8x10 view camera self-portrait of themselves re-enacting their decision to do so; in triptych format, natch. This is of course recorded in their blog, disseminated on Facebook and tweeted out to their fans on Twitter with an appropriate use of internet savvy words like trope, meme and screed.
Susan Sontag's 1977 collection of essays on photography appropriately titled, On Photography, found great traction among fine artists when it whisked us away on a whirlwind tour all about the complex, cascading juggernaut and wacky hi-jinx released on the world every time we snap a pix. No surprise it is a tedious belaboring of the obvious on the one hand and on the other a dismal attempt to force awkward metaphors onto photography in a way meant to be insightful but which to me had less insight into human nature than did an average episode of The Flintstones. When I was in art school in 1977 and our teacher forced us to read On Photography and write something about it. I actually included a quote from the episode of The Flintstones where Fred and Barney decide to become photographers. On the whole, On Photography adds up to verbose and over literate trivia trumped up to the level of intellectualism which succeeds only in a sorry bathos. Sontag is typical of people in fine art photography who, far from being the iconoclasts they perceive themselves as, merely share a belief system every bit riddled with stereotypes and disingenuousness as are the imagined forces of ignorance from which they flee but they have not run nearly smart enough to hide the fact that they are simply more credible middle class versions of a street corner intellectual fakir like Ward Churchill, that lovable comrade who never saw an anti-establishment stereotype he didn't like. Over thinking the obvious and presenting it in dense verbiage isn't nearly as much fun to read as Maza of the Moon.
Stuart Klipper, 6,143, 1999
In the course of pursuing an area of interest it is entirely normal for a person to pass from a period of uncertainty and exploration to a certain measure of competence in one's chosen field. The problem in the area of fine art photography, namely, impatience, incompetence, dishonesty and semantic frosting, have combined to highjack the field. Semantics ostensibly used to clarify have instead been used to confuse issues and have thus marginalized talent and competence. In the same way that hip hop music has now lost 2 generations in favor of a fast track to fame, fine art photography in the United States is paralyzed by incompetence and disingenuousness that at times rises to the level of an outright lie, stripped bare of content in favor of fast food intellectualism which is an empty cup served up by boring people with boring ideas, eager to share the least little thing that divests them of any association with the middle class. Being card carrying members and adherents of the middle class comprises the real challenge for many fine art photographers. Partaking in all the things that suck the fun out of life like 2nd mortgages, driver's insurance or packed date books while trying to convey in one's work a sense of the uncompromising individuality of a true rebel is a skill that would tax a magician. The true rebel's weapons of tact and flattery have given the realm of fine art photography all the flair and sophistication of a sewing circle or bridge club with the attendant odor of Ben-Gay suffusing all in a cogent coda with it's attendant airs of lapis lazuli and ancient cinnabar, and the just-in-case helmets that comprise the personality of these daring individualist's are permanently affixed to their daring heads while they tap out intellectual morse code with Jack Williamson's "folded hands", more worried about the idea of falling off a bicycle than displaying the resolve to ride one without incident and so depriving others of this resolve by attacking it.
Chris Faust, New Development, Byron, MN, 1993
Fine art photography does in fact possess the potential for competence every bit as real as the skills a concert pianist displays, though certainly less obvious. Subtlety is not the same thing as confusion. No one would think of jumping up on a stage while a concert pianist performs and say, "Hey, no problem, I can do that". Yet everybody and their sister have no problem jumping onto the stage of fine art photography and declaring themselves experts in the name of the crassness of craftsmanship and the easy virtues of pseudo-intellectualism. Semantic props are not only encouraged but rewarded and many people who, in the normal course of events would be relegated to the level of suburban hobbyists have made careers in the fine arts; the line between the amateur and professional has become entirely blurred and the field itself thus entirely compromised; museums across the country have photos in their collections that are embarrassing. Fine art photography has become one big trailer park, entirely hijacked by people who's real passion and talent is not photography but a fear of being mistaken for an ordinary human being, devoid of any real quality of being special or unique or talented, an army of Willy Loman's marching across the stage entirely unaware they are acting. Fine art photography's own subtlety has been ruthlessly exploited to hide weakness and so become a playing field where the last thing to be judged good or bad is the work itself. Socialism in this sense works well for these non-traditional artists as representational photography has been relegated to the intellectual sidelines by some as a cute, but outdated and puerile method for expressing oneself as an artist by those shopping cart iconoclasts who have helped shape and transform photography into a metaphysical Walmart.
Great care is taken among the elite conceptual photographer's to never stray far from literature as this is a certain measure of the ultimate credibility of one's photography. Higher learning is not meant to be used as a fast-food weapon to promote yourself and fend off others with quote-dropping to prove you're with it, but to be enjoyed for it's own sake. I don't need to have Proust blown in my face like a vapid puff of smoke merely to prove one knows Proust even exists but to authentically support a stream of thought. Meanwhile we are meant to believe that intellectually minded fine art photographers are the easiest people to amuse who ever lived as they churn out endless streams of large format images on a bewildering array of politically correct print stock that have no more weight to them than saying, "I photographed it because it was shiny".
James May, Guatemala, 1977
I think I'll someday actually scream out loud if I see thick, shiny lipstick put on one more pig of a photograph of a close-up of hands, or some woman stretching her arms out on a windswept plain or what is really just distinctly average stock travel photography elevated to the level of fine art by putting a triptych matte over it or by bad poetry, all just because an artist is embarrassed by their own work or because they don't wish to seem mundane because straight photography is tabu if you're to have any real credibility. It's a situation where more work and thought is put into not coming off as ordinary than into the work itself which is, surprise, ordinary if not downright incompetent and amateurish. And then to think that these same people hold yearly workshops and are teachers; it is downright discouraging if not frightening. The other fun part is that the great majority of these "iconoclasts" have their own flash-based websites, carefully crafted to give that maximum hep and tasteful spiritual feeling which, of course, the photographer's didn't do themselves because, despite their great talent, they can't write simple XHTML or CSS; that is to be left to mere craftsman There's nothing like opening up fine art photography websites to be greeted with a drearily similar panoply of native-American chants, Indian sitars, Chinese symbols or mandalas. These people who are so convinced they are mold breakers themselves come from a mold as conservative and uniform ridden as a marine platoon and with their own array of modular weaponry.
Museum galleries and auditoriums have become a green tea drinking version of an old style carnival side show where artist and curator, minus tattoos but not necessarily the mullets, mawkishly combine to shill an eager public with snake oil and cures guaranteed to give meaning to the mundane and enrich the banal, to bestow complexity where none is called for, to over think the most trite and trivial ideas in a forum resembling the Home Shopping Network in it's incessant bullshit if not it's compassionate verve and elan. It is not unusual to attend a 100 minute lecture by the artist and curator that accompanies an exhibition and listen to 100 minutes of exactly nothing about an exhibit that is exactly nothing, but emphatically done with large format cameras to add credibility and give weight to meaningless work, as much overkill and inappropriateness as fishing with hand grenades. This reminds me of the Warner Brothers cartoon where an entire tree is used to make a single toothpick.
In the end nothing is ever conveyed but bathos, no useful ideas, merely the illusion of such, the illusion that an idea has been conveyed that will open one's eye, prove useful in life when in fact you have elaborately and with great flourish been given an empty plate, courtesy of the artist's overblown ideas about their own cleverness, the covert rationalization of a fugue state; a hysterical flight from one's own identity and it's banal and middle class environment. It's hard to think outside the box unless you've lived outside the box. The work becomes merely an incompetent conveyance for the smug self-assurance that they do not have ordinary minds when in fact the entire scenery has as much gravitas and sophistication as an episode of Survivor. There is a difference between wanting to share discoveries and having a passion for demonstrating how stupid and middle class you're not, trotting out a seemingly endless stream of fine art stereotypes to prop up a structure that fell while still on the drawing board. Meanwhile, fine art photography in the United States is taking a severe beating.
When people talk about the dumbing down of America it's done in the context of an event happening to somebody else, somewhere else. In the case of fine art photography in the United States, you don't have to look afield for answers; that dumbing is happening now, it's we, us, here, now. Vietnam-era reactionary photography masquerading as progressive is alive and well and acts as if the average American today are 2 naive contestants being interviewed by Groucho Marx on "You Bet Your Life" in the mid-1950s. Those people don't exist anymore and the average American is far more image savvy now then they were then. It wouldn't be wrong to say that the average American is more sophisticated when it comes to imagery than the average photographer who works in the arena of the fine arts - certainly one could make an argument that America has moved on and fine art photographers continue to ply the same tired stereotypical photographs with the requisite clever titles as has been the case for decades now. Fine art photographers still seem to be entranced by Duchamp's pre-World War I found objects as if they were unveiled only yesterday. A famous quotation by George Orwell goes: "In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act." Anyone who stood up and tried to say anything about the current state of fine art photography would not only be a voice in the wilderness but probably see any hopes of a career in the fine arts cut short. The revolutionary protesters of the 60s are now trite hacks who don't enjoy having their assumptions challenged any more than their parents or Nixon did and that makes them the worst sort of hypocrites.
As more and more museums became involved with fine art photography, revenue streams became an issue, and understandably so; what worth is it to display what you believe is good work if your gallery has to close it's doors. This being so, museums and gallerys have gone from being teachers to the general public about what is good and worthwhile in fine art photography to having to increasingly pander to the tastes of the general public who have no education whatsoever in fine art photography although much more image conscious and savvy than 5 decades ago. This has resulted in a hopeless and hapless muddying of the waters of what started out as a great tradition. Name recognition is the order of the day and photographers who become famous in the media start selling prints like crazy. You might as well have Nielsen ratings as who knew who and who hung out with who become factors in the fine arts.
James May, Corumba, Brazil, 1983
I don't have such a problem with this as it is merely the nature of the world we live in; that doesn't mean that museums and galleries should entirely give up their important role as educators. The problem is that galleries and museums have become so polluted with this obsession with intellectualizing photography and the hook set so deep that I don't see an end to it anytime soon. It is obvious that many of us want to improve our scope and understanding of the world around us, it is a part of human nature. What you will get from the current trend in non-traditional photography is the exact opposite of a deepening of perception. All you will get is a crass upgunning of tired, rigid and played out stereotypes that are just as trite and shallow as re-runs of sitcoms. True evolution if needed will come in it's own time and in a natural progression and not as a result of running pell-mell and in a rebellious fashion from your parents world and arrogantly and judgmentally throwing away wholesale all that has gone before in favor of a value system that is utterly corrupt. Looking at an endless parade of work geared to prove to the world how eccentric and outside the box a stream of middle class photographers with middle class values are is not entertaining but merely boring and somewhat sad. They clearly don't have a truly eccentric bone in their bodies and are just as clearly uncomfortable in their own skin. Today's rebellious photographer's seem to have a desperate need to be thought of as cool as well as sharing that American penchant for wanting to be thought of as better than everybody else but have not the faintest idea of how to go about it; perhaps a nice tattoo would be in order. In their dreams they are counter-culture hippies with mod, polka dot shirts and belt buckles as big as your head but in their staid and prim hearts they are straight-laced rednecks, a Devil's Island of middle class soberness from which they cannot escape.
Why an entire genre of photography should have to suffer for this is something I do not understand. If you want to be a rebel or cool or "on the road" or eccentric then I have a clue for you: it's not something you can put on like a suit of clothes and the obvious yearning for fine art photographers to be all these things they are not reveals more about how ordinary and hopelessly middle class they are than their metaphysical ramblings passed off as zen art can hide. The unfortunate aspect of these erstwhile iconoclasts is that they cannot aspire to their goal of coolness without knocking out the props from photographers who are comfortable in their own skin and have nothing to prove to anybody. Many photographers would just like to do some nice work that is personal and non-commercial without having their feet held to the endless litany of bullshit emanating from the fires of the shadow play in Plato's Cave, without having to act as if a body of work they create is some headline event of perception and self-awareness, without having to write crap to go along with their photographs to ensure their dimensionality and acceptance.
Most of all it would be nice not to have to compete with an entire genre of photography that is simply bad and made to look not so only by camouflaging streams of nonsensical accoutrements that have nothing to do with photography per se. I mean bad in the sense of bad, bad, bad, not good, incompetent, not merely different. Because this is not at all an issue of conservative vs. liberal but rather one of character, forthrightness and competence vs. corrupt and glib side-stepping and long ago played out stereotypes that are entirely conservative, just not in a traditionally recognizable way; who in the hell locked those almighty doors of perception when it comes to seeing this? Do you have to put on a bowling shirt and wear horn rimmed glasses to see that you've arrived right back at your parents drive-in? You like photography, fine, honor it, honor it's strengths and particular character. If you want to use bottles to hammer nails, that's fine, but you're gonna need an awful lot of goddam bottles.
James May, Singapore, 1986
The reason why there is no open debate and critical forums that allow one to take a negative view of the more intellectual brand of fine art photography is that it is so easy to beat down and ridicule. Once they stop trying to show you're nothing more than an intellectual hobo, winning such a debate would be child's play but it is simply not in the interests of the fine art photographic community to do so. They like to give lip service to opening the doors of perception in the glib statements that accompany their work but it doesn't really work that way in real life; in real life they might as well be wearing uniforms and marching in lockstep. There's no need on the part of our iconoclast's to criticize representational photography since at this stage of the game it is taken for granted among the cognoscenti that it is entirely too commonplace to even debate. In any event, the disdain for mainstream photography is evident and implied in every line of the ridiculous captions that accompany intellectually minded photography. Some of them are so funny that you'd think they were written tongue and cheek but nope, they're dead serious.
Check out some of these pretentious gems: "...is the most haunting, perhaps the most spiritually potent. Less cerebral than many of her subjects, the sacred trees provide an associative, mystical counterpoint for her perspicacious 5 x 7 camera. The sacred trees, themselves, are imposing gnarly beasts that embody the wisdom of a philosopher and the moves of an escape artist. It is impossible not to be mesmerized by their elegant eccentric posture, anthropomorphic roots and soaring canopy,..."
Posturing indeed. Purple prose worthy of Weird Tales pulp magazines at their height in the 1930's or an evocation of dancing azure fountains in a lost jungle city in H. Rider Haggard's She. In looking at the photo in question I found it more than possible to "not be mesmerized" although the combination of the photo and the swelling strains of it's crutch-like prose did leave me cross-eyed. I imagine perspicacious pronounced the way Daffy Duck would.
James May, Costa Rica, 1979
Here's another: "Drawing is often at the heart of these photographs, though the materials are not usual. Single lines are drawn across space through bamboo stalks suspended in water, or dirt stacked in vases, or a tower of roses, or hammers stacked in a tool shed. The SPILLS pictures use milk to draw their own vessels, humorously exploring ideas about the container and the contained."
Yeah, that's pretty goddam humorous all right, just not in the way they meant it to be. Nevertheless, I could have easily split a gut on that one. "...the container and the contained" - I bet these people wake themselves up at night laughing hysterically not to mention what great fun they probably are at parties. Probably really easy to pick up chicks with that kind of repartee too. The Marx Brothers got nothing on these people.
Here's more from the first one - it's so rich I couldn't resist: "...vision sensitizes us to a certain kind of beauty, a way of seeing, that is inextricably linked to the notion of time. It is a vision that informs us that our sense of beauty, of seeing, is not immobile. In À la Recherché du Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time), Marcel Proust wrote 'true beauty is indeed the one thing incapable of answering expectations of an over romantic imagination.'”
Yeah, well, that all seems to be pretty much correct (LOL). I guess "true beauty" couldn't make it to the phone. I also have great love for the next one:
"I use my hands and the tools and materials of domesticity - threads, fabrics, beads, needles - to assert the validity of "women's work" and the feminine view. The ritual of a repetitive handwork process is meditative and honors my connections to female ancestors and to the divine feminine."
That one makes me blush. I'm assuming the person who wrote it is a congenital idiot. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful - but not as wonderful as this next one:
"The creation of peace and healing on both global and personal dimensions have been central concerns in my work..."
Man, did that last one ever feel good. "The creation of peace and healing..." - and on a global scale no less. I bet the person who wrote it drinks a lot of green tea - they certainly shit their brains out at some indefinite time in the past; it's great to know that there are people creating art to fend off the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse - whoever wrote that is entirely deserving of Clark Ashton Smith's description of a "forbidden piece of human mechanism"
This next is lifted from a photographer who defines herself as a fine artist and wrote about how white people should think: "Recognizing and disavowing whiteness concurrently may appear contradictory. Both are strategies necessary for the creation of white identities capable of acknowledging the gross historical injustices carried out in their names and accepting ongoing culpability in the maintenance of historical inequalities..." A pretty typical attitude and one that is apparently unaware of its own racism in the name of social justice. To be honest, after reading so many statements from the new breed of social crusaders who take it for granted that evil is everywhere but among their own crowd, it makes me want to go out and create some photographs that promote social injustice.
David Goldes, Meshbowl Holding Water,
You need more so here is more: "Much of my work references the history of female artistic and domestic practices by using repetitive, methodical processes and materials categorized as feminine."
<idiot>"Sacred feminine iconography and spirituality is the subject matter of much of my work."<idiot/>
You can easily find a thousand examples of this type of awful writing accompanying the most awkwardly pretentious and uncreative photographs which means that even the combined powers of the Justice League of America and the Avengers together couldn't take these people in hand. At a time in Unites States history when racism and sexism is at an all-time low, artistic concerns with such things as reflected in artist's statements are at an all time high. If this doesn't give you some insight into the smug and politically correct co-opting of social injustice by a group of self-righteous do-gooders then nothing, I think, will; the idea that these types are some superior moral breed of people is laughable yet that is exactly what they promote themselves as.
I will restate what I think is at work with these people: they believe that sheer intellect, moral positioning and their own egos and politics trump experience, information and talent and browbeat and demonize those that disagree rather than debate and do so in a manner that is fascist and there should be no mistaking the fact that these people are very political, whether they are aware of it or not. Why people would willingly ignore social progress and create bogey-men to fight is not something I understand unless it is the American penchant to put down other people simply to make oneself feel better. It's simply mind-boggling and quite an industry too.
When researching Minnesota artist's statements it to difficult to find any that didn't use buzz words like social injustice or diversity, as if a great yet faceless sea of evil henchmen are marching on us all. Non-stop and to me extremely inadvisable mental renditions of "Guernica" dot the conceptual artistic Minnesota and American landscape as if we are living in Sebastopol in 1942; one need only walk into a college campus or YWCA and look at the posters to get the feel that one is in a refugee center in Bosnia. There's nothing like yet another stupid stereotype about evil corporations to get the artistic juices flowing. Such people couldn't come over as more stupid if they stood with their hands on their hips wearing a superhero costume; if they're a champion of social justice and multiculturalism, what does that make the rest of us and why do we need to be preached to in such a manner?
The fact of the matter is that intellectual art as social commentary throws about concerns about free speech as if it is an endangered species in America when nothing could be further from the truth. One's own free speech is severely curtailed if you yourself challenge the arts community in a not Minnesota Nice way and their unrelenting, smug and politically correct dogma - freedom of speech is not something that flows two ways in this culture which itself is markedly intolerant and even fascist. But because it comes from a good place, good to them in other words, unbridled bias and intolerance is the norm, especially if you pick the right victim. The right victim has become sectors of politically approved scenes of America itself and it has been that way a long, long time. Even when representational photographers do documentary work one could easily characterize it as simply making fun of people as we are presented in these cases with an endless parade of images of trailer homes with the American flag or old people playing golf in a moonscape in Nevada , perfectly crafted in a Frank-like black and white manner to emphasize American emptiness while the same person will show black and white photos of Latin America, a area that is arguably actually decadent and empty, as smiling innocent faces like monkeys in a zoo who are absolved of criticism because, however much the photographer will state otherwise, they are looked at as not as fully responsible as Americans in some mysterious way little understood and so are not held to a fully human standard. It is blithely and unwitting bigotry and prejudice cutting in two directions in a manner that is entirely unaware of its own cultural provincialism and stereotypes while trying to feed us perception. That brings us to the last bit of chicanery which is to go to the Ukraine, the South Pole or some other obscure spot on the globe and take ordinary photographs that take on an instant caché based on location and not any inherent vision.
The one thing I can say with certainty that at least The 3 Stooges knew they were being fools. How in the world one can claim to be an intellectual who consistently thinks outside the box and at the same time be involved with the creation of such dull and lifeless art and accompanying statements is simply and quite honestly completely beyond my poor ability to comprehend. I think it could literally drive one to drink if you had to compete in an arena where such nonsense is considered worthwhile. The sad thing is that I didn't even have to look hard for these literary diamonds - they pervade the arts community. In fact, it would be much more challenging to not find such literary delights they are so all pervasive. Certainly it would be more of a challenge than creating such an insipid combination of image and writing. It is impossible for me to hold the thought in my head that these people care for or treasure in any way, creativity or the idea of the fine arts their output is so disgraceful. And was that person writing about a triptych - you betcha. And that brings us to the last lovable trait of some of our iconoclastic geniuses: they want to paint and draw as well, a skill they have even less talent at than photography if such a thing is possible because with some of these people one is already scratching the very bottom of the Jungian heap in terms of creativity.
Vanessa Winship, Eastern Anatolia, 2007
I don't want to have to prove what an iconoclast I am in order to have a career in the fine arts; and anyway, if everyone is an iconoclast then by definition no one is an iconoclast; that means every photographer pushing the envelope thinks all the other photographers are shadowy cardboard cutouts, with no real life or depth of their own - the entire concept is corrupt foolishness; a movie where everyone in the cast in the star. This onward and upwards idea means an awful lot of idols busted not to say bottles used as hammers; and it won't be the Hulk going on a rampage who did it because he is now a Cartesian Dualist, new and improved and squeaky clean. And what do you have when the Hulk is no longer green and huge and angry and super-strong: an ordinary middle class guy with delusions of grandeur. Who does that remind you of? And what kind of smoke and mirrors, large format cameras and misty filters and triptych mattes and cuttlefish ink will he have to resort to to convince everyone he's still green and huge and angry and super strong? I kinda liked him the way he was.
With so many great photographers out there like Bruce Davidson, Steven Shore, Sebastião Salgado, George Tice and so many more, I don't understand why their work is not more celebrated and why so much trash has come to the fore. I suspect that it's the fact that to achieve a unique personal vision but while staying firmly within a tradition is such an at once daunting and discredited task and to tell you the truth, most photographers working in the fine arts simply aren't up to it. I have seen echoes of this idea with photographers I have known and this helps explain the idea behind subversion and circumvention. To me, at the heart of it is the idea of a photographer who is fundamentally honest and a photographer who is fundamentally dishonest. That's all it is really. The idea behind the over intellectualization of photography has been at least partially to confuse the issue and not because we have seen a wave of intellectual giants whose work holds such sheer intellectual power that they have outgrown the artform itself, far from it and arguably the exact opposite. Fear of being ordinary and of being left behind seems to be a big driving force rather than an assurance of competence on a distinctly cerebral level. Unfortunately the fraud that fuels so much fine art photography has had a great success and entirely undeserved.
It may seem as if I am saying that there should be no testing or breaking of boundaries and that representational photography is the only real expression of fine art photography that is valid but this is not the case. What I am saying is if one wishes to test boundaries don't do it for it's own sake and choose your genre carefully and be honest about it and respectful of that genre's traditions.
James May, Revolution, Cairo, Jan. 2011
All forms of photography have validity in direct proportion to how they treat their material and recognize and respect the genre's strengths and weaknesses. The word subversion has both good and bad connotations. At times subversion is necessary to reinvigorate a genre and at others can be considered as cutting out the legs from under worthwhile forms of expression; subversion should not be used to tear down the credibility of others in order to magnify the questionable worth of one's own process. Subversion should be used to expose weakness and not to hide weakness and like other things I have mentioned, should not be used for it's own sake merely to be trendy.
Things have gone too far and neither should iconoclasm be pursued for it's own sake and be looked at as the be all and end all of fine art photography and the smashing of idols it's ultimate and most valid form of expression. Iconoclasm is not a moral position in and of itself but is a natural expression and it cannot be purchased or learned or put on like a shirt: you either are an iconoclast or you are not; the pursuit of such for it's own sake reveals weakness not strength and reveal middle class dreams not membership in an elite club, dissatisfaction with the ordinary and with one's self rather than the pursuit of the extraordinary. When the word iconoclast is automatically associated with a positive slant then you have a clue to what is really going on as in the past being an iconoclast was problematic - now it's a medal. It's like a childish fantasy but one that doesn't acknowledge that wearing a leather jacket or having a tattoo do not carry the same tone in 1950 as 2010. But in fine art photography, in this sense, they do and everyone is a "rugged individualist" which defeats it's own meaning. It is fine art photography's failure to understand what an iconoclast actually is and to wallow in this lack of understanding that is the problem.
The more artist's proclaim their dedication to social injustice and their edginess the less I believe it. The best hope as an artist that each of us has is to recognize that each human being is unique; that does not mean we are all artists or capable of being one in a chosen area but maybe in some unchosen area and on some level. To whatever extent one can find a way to tap into that quality of uniqueness is the best hope one has of expressing one's individuality if it's important to do so. If it is important then it is just as important to be patient and honest and not look to subvert or circumvent one's way into the art world because in reality it defeats it's own purpose and diminishes one's self, others around you and one's chosen field. If you're a walking, talking stereotype and don't know it then that is a problem all the way around and the more successful you are the more of a problem it presents. People in the field of fine art photography have become mesmerized by the contrast between presentation and content in a way that is most revealing and not in a flattering way. Presentation and hype and semantics have all combined and connived and conspired to discredit representational photography in a manner most undeserving while at the same time given a type of credibility to intellectualized forms of photography that is simply shameful. Those who are confused or unduly moved by presentation versus content should probably be in another field entirely. Why so many people should gravitate to a field they have so little natural instincts for is just one big mystery to me but when it comes to fine art photography it is emphatically the case; fate has not been kind to this field nor to those who excel in it. Fine art photography seems to have become a magnet for untalented people in a way that other fields have not, becoming a dark alley with garbage strewn about and strange people with one's best interests not in their hearts slouching underneath lamp posts.
The world of fine art photography is run by rednecks awash in iPhones, iPads, laptops, digital ideas for the new world, coffee klatchs, networking and blogs. To wish for a different world is pointless, it is as it is. It is a commercial business in every sense of the term and if you approach it from any view but that you are doomed to taking photos in utter obscurity. If you wish otherwise better get your lecture hat on, your teeth whitened, create a book and don't forget some nice shoes to start pounding the pavement like a crime beat photographer because you are covering a crime of middle class conformity and inflexibility touted as an alternate lifestyle and as far as I am concerned, it is no different from walking into a Burger King or a marine boot camp because you'd better have your shit policed. If you had some work that had "fuck you" written across it in giant letters, the amount of pure bullshit you'd have to go through to get it shown on any kind of credible level would be an act that countermanded one's statement to the point where one may as well have written out the bleating of a sheep.
James May, Shoeshine Boy, Cairo, 2010
Art is supposed be hard and using arcane processes and philosophies as adjuncts to one's photography has been used to make it easy at the expense of the art form itself and has been swallowed hook, line and sinker by the enablers that are in a position to advance one's career. As I said before, my problem with what has been happening is not a question of turning my back on diversity but with people who use that diversity as a smokescreen to involve themselves where they do not belong, and that is alongside hard working and honest photographers who are not out to transform or elevate anything simply for the sake of transformation and elevation but merely to practice their craft. When it comes to paying your dues that is not a concept that is respected by artists in the fine arts photography community to any great extent and wouldn't be recognized by the enablers of which I write even if they wanted to respect such a notion. In the sense of which I write, one can either mirror one's audience and even be directed by it or one can teach. I have no problem with cats but I do have a problem with a cat that pretends to be a dog.
1. Robert Frank, The Americans (New York: Grove Press, 1959).
2. Transforming Destiny into Awareness: Robert Frank's "The Americans"
Sarah Greenough, senior curator and head of the department of photographs, National Gallery of Art - podcast at http://www.nga.gov/exhibitions/frankinfo.shtm
2a. "Information richochet" is a term attributed to Thomas Wolfe. From Conversations With Thomas Wolfe by Dorothy McInnis Scura, University Press of Mississippi, 1990 - 296 pages
3.Ben Hecht interviews Jack Kerouac, Empty Phantoms, Paul Maher, Ed., Thunder's Mouth Press, 2005
4. From a very enlightening article by Jno Cook in Afterimage, March, 1982, quoting from, Robert Frank, Les Américans (Paris: Robert Delpire, 1998), text Compiled by Alain Bosquet. You can see it here: http://www.americansuburbx.com/2009/01/theory-robert-franks-america.html
5. (BRASSAÏ) MORAND, Paul. Paris de Nuit. (Paris: Arts et Métiers Graphiques, )
6. Seeing Eye to Eye, Arthur Miller in conversation with James Carroll and Helen Epstein, Boston Review, Feb., 1989
7. Cyril M. Kornbluth, The Marching Morons, Galaxy, April, 1951
9. Nostalgie de la Boue, Rosalind Krauss, October Vol. 56, High/Low: Art and Mass Culture (Spring, 1991), pp. 111-120 - although it is normally taken to mean "ascribing higher spiritual values to people and cultures considered "lower" than oneself, the romanticization of the faraway primitive which is also the equivalent of the lower class close to home.", Pasztory, Esther,
10. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, (New York: A. S. Barnes & Co., 1851)
11. Robert E. Howard, Lines Written In the Realization That I Must Die, from Always Comes Evening, Glenn Lord, Ed., Arkham House, 1957
12. Broadway Boogie Woogie, Piet Mondrian (Dutch, 1872-1944) 1942-43. Oil on canvas, 50 x 50" (127 x 127 cm)
12a. See number 20
13. Georges Sorel, Letter to Daniel Halevy (1907)
14. Dorothy McInnis Scura, Conversations with Tom Wolfe, Univ. Press of Mississippi, 1990
16. That lovable historian, Díaz del Castillo, Bernal (1963) . The Conquest of New Spain. Penguin Classics. J. M. Cohen (trans.) (6th printing (1973) ed.). Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books
16a. Phillip Francis Nowlan, Armageddon 2419, Amazing Stories, August, 1928
17. Footloose, Paramount Pictures, 1984, Dir. Herbert Ross
18. L.A. Times interview, Apr. 22, 2010
19. Lyric from Joni Mitchell's song Woodstock, 1970, MCA Records
20. Allen Ginsberg, Howl and Other Poems, San Francisco: The City Lights Pocket Bookshop, (1956). Introduction by William Carlos Williams. The Pocket Poets Series: Number Four.
21. Lyrics from Joni Mitchell's song The Boho Dance, Hissing of Summer Lawns, Asylum Records, 1975 - The title is taken from Tom Wolfe's book, The Painted Word.
22. Dead Kennedys song from, Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables, 1980, Cherry Red/Alternative Tentacles Records
23. Lyric from Okie from Muskogee from the album of the same name by Merle Haggard and the Strangers, 1969, Capital Records - an anti-protest song that won The Academy of Country Music Single of the Year.
24. Finding Joe Smith by Alison Morse, review at MNArtists.org of a Joe Smith work at the Soap Box Factory Bi-annual Survey of Minnesota Artists, A Theory of Values, Oct. 13, 2010
25. Alexander Werth, Russia At War, 1941-45, Dutton 1964
26. Book review by DAVID PRYCE-JONES: RAUS MIT UNS - THE ETHNIC CLEANSING OF PALESTINE BY ILAN PAPPE (ONEWORLD PUBLICATIONS 313PP, Published in: www.literaryreview.co.uk November 13, 2006
26a. Richard Yates, Revolutionary Road, Little, Brown, Dec., 1961, 337 pg.
27. Jed Lipinski review of George Packer's Interesting Times: Writings From A Turbulent Decade, Village Voice, Sept., 2009
28. H.G. Wells, War of the Worlds, 1898
29. A term credited to Jack Warner, head of Warner Bros. Studios in referring to the actor James Cagney
30. Jack Williamson, With Folded Hands..., Astounding Science Fiction, July, 1947
31. Ineffable moron.