I consider my own documentary photography to be a counterpoint to Robert Frank's not so casual stereotypes of a country I know 1000 times better than Frank ever did. While I greatly admire Frank's work 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. 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; an almost Arbus-like carnival sideshow of sad and unwitting people living sad and meaningless and increasingly lonely and isolated lives which Frank himself of course rides cooly above like a full moon above scudding clouds, a somewhat arrogant position that would become de rigour for the rest of the 20th century when it came to the 'knowing' artist. 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. In this sense Robert Frank's work in "The Americans" is emminently political. 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. In my own documentary photos of the Minneapolis Aquatennial Parades, I purposefully do the opposite and every photo is shot at dusk and I document the people with projecting myself onto the lives of others I don't even know, preferring to deal in scale, light, color and contrast. 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; 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. 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 dispassioned documents. I am not afraid to ride below those scudding clouds and relate to the people I photograph or to worry about my 'art' not being obvious enough to proclaim my creativity.
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; there will never be a photograph of mine that is a portrait taken in India or Guatemala with a caption saying how much "pride" or "spirituality" the face reflects. Such 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. It is a commonly held view among Western documentary photographers that spiritualism and value resides everywhere but in their own culture and 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. 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 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 politicising and formalizing one's ignorance of others in the name of professing a desire to learn. 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 and you can be assured of that.
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. As I write this, you have far too many 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 "intellectualiztion" of photography has ostensibly been done in the name of and hidden under a cloak of progress. In reality all it is is contrariness done for it's own sake and confused with iconoclasm which is the unbroken idol these "artists" cherish. What you're left with is a combination of non-sentient cynicism, dishonesty and incompetence raised, ironically, to a fine art.
In reality the intellectualization of fine art photography has served only to obfuscate and not clarify by democratising fine art photography to the point where no one "knows" anything. 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 of 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.
American fine art photography's default obssession with "thinking outside the box" has acquired such status for it's own sake that the idea behind the concept is no longer even really thought about but taken for granted. 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, 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.
Ironically, 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 one Minnesota photography gallery/collective in late 2010 actually has 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 in any case would be rejected out of hand and the bad form of admitting that process is indeed king since content is non-existent or brutally stretched and transformed into 'art' in many cases when it comes to modern fine art photography. One of the means a photographer has to establish crediblility in this regard is to establish a consistant personal visual language, a persistance 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 baloons. 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.
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. 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 predictible disastrous results in the arts community there. 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; in this sense, a concert pianist's default mode would be arrogance merely for playing a piano better than the audience - what tripe. 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 broadsides 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. In most major commercial genres lack of talent is it's own gatekeeper but 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. 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 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 consistancy which would serve as a guiding vision; there is no one to look up to because everyone is an expert and the mentor has become merely a cocky idiot. The wonders of cultural relativism have come to visit the individual when it comes to fine art photography in America and so everyone's vision is equally valid and there is no good and bad; like the modern report card, there is no 'F'.
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. 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 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.
The lack of ethical or professional guidance of any kind whatsoever is a huge problem. 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, an excessively conservative bent or outright cynicism as if these are in and of themselves some kind of argument. 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 two generations. Individual expression is one thing and a communal desire to protect the integrity of their genre another but the former holds sway unchallenged and the latter literally does not exist. 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. The concept of a photographer who is an embarrasment to themself or to the genre is simpy 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 for the genre itself 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.
Increasingly shallow and ethically dishonest means of circumventing the need to develop a personal vision are used such as filters, toy cameras, 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 genre wide belief that a straight photograph is too literal 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 integrety of fine art photography so it is not hijacked by "enlightened" amateurs which is exactly the current state of affairs. 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. 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.
In the world of fine art photography to declare one's lack of middle class value's has come to trump actual creativity. In fact, these photographer's 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 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 work history you cannot see in the work itself. 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 obscure 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 those same mainstream magazines or newspapers.
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? Being right-wing is derided for the way that mind-set approached things and not what it approaches. This crucial difference is lost on fine art photographer's because in this sense contemporary fine art photography shares many similarities with it's hated antithesis. 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. They are each one the ultimate iconoclast and this is the true goal, the photography itself merely a now sufficiently and apropriately 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 irrelavant nuisance on the fast track towards instant gratification of self. In fine art photography patience is not a virture. It is not a surprise that such personality's 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 millionaire's because of their political approach to music while talent takes a back seat. Music that is so bad it is embarrasing is not only popular but celebrated with Grammies, ability and talent an irrelevance.
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 smorgasboard 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 1930's or 1940's 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. Oil, Che Gueverra, 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 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.
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 spriritually 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 fllm 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 obssession among American photographer's 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 ensorceled 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 brutally twisted and transformed 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 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 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; so, The Hulk is turned into a wordy and long-winded Cartesian. 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 extemely convenient that the word "mere" is tacked onto the front of the word "craftsmanship" since that craftsmanship largely doesn't exist in 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.
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 explorerer, 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 esrtwhile 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. 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. Their 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.
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 "bourgeois" 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, a shameful embarrassment. In some cases, disdain for "mere" craftsmanship comes not from a place of philosophy but from an inablity 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 everybit as rigid and commonplace as the culture they pretend to react to. 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. During the latter part of the last century 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 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 plebian 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.
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. 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.
In such an environment, honest and straighforward photographer's 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. 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 months and even years it takes to develope a personal vision that closes the distance between the mind's vision and what is actually put on film 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 intellectual 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 diapora from the evil of the 1950's 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. 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
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's 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 commitee 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.
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 curator's 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.
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 who's 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?
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 decontruct, 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. 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 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 sprirituality 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 behaviour 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.
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. 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. 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.
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 as I write this 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 photographer's 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 artist's involved, it might be one of the worst shows in the history of Minnesota.
At the same time there is an early 2009 exhibition at a local, very notable Minneapolis art center featuring a one-person show which is 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. 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 reactionary 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 it's 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. 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.
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. 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.
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. 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 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 intellectual 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 70's 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.
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 Vietnam-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 adreneline 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 intellectual 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. Fine art photography more than ever resembles camera club photography of the 50's, dressed up with an intellecual agenda but just as trite, amateurish and boring.
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 1950's?
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 evocotive and yes they are completely interchangable with ads for Nike or green tea. Cheap photographic tricks disgredited 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 psuedo intellectuals. Crass commericialism 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 indistinguishible 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 commericial 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 commerical 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 interchangable 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 anthema in the fine arts.
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 midddle class rednecks obssessed 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. Blantant 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".
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 futher 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.
It goes without saying that these photographers would have benefitted 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 Cartier-Bresson, Atget, Evans, Weegee, Leibovitz, 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. 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.
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.
Susan Sontag's 1977 collection of essays on photography appropriately titled, "On Photography", found great credence 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 everytime 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 overliterate 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 disengenuousness 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. Where in the hell is Baron von Raschke when you need him?
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 paralysed by incompetence and disengenuousness 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.
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 psuedo-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 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. 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 Wal-Mart.
The very nature of the iconoclastic shell game being played in non-traditional photography makes it an unlevel playing field in which to argue against; one is simply accused of not being sophisticated enough to understand what they are talking about or perhaps told to be satisfied with watching "Gilligan's Island" or maybe even that worst of all fates, accused of being ordinary which of course is what the game is all about; photography takes a back seat to demonstrably showing how intellectual and creative they are - there is no requirement or ability to have a nuanced debate.
Great care is taken among the elite intellectual 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".
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, suprise, 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 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; 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 overthink 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 empatically 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 imcompetent conveyence for the smug self-assurrance that they do not have ordinary minds when in fact the entire scenery has as much gravitas and sophisitication 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-1950's. 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 60's 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.
The greater part of the group of non-traditional fine art photographers in the United States today have themselves become not only the victims, but the very purveyors of the shallowness, rigidity, fakery, phoniness and hypocrisy they set out to unveil in the late 60's and early 70's.
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.
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 musuems and galleries should entirely give up their important role as educators. The problem is that galleries and museums have become so polluted with this obssession 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 judgementally 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-commericial without having their feet held to the endless litanny 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.
The fact is that the reason such indefensible trash as the intellectual genre of photography exists is because each photographer is literally surrounded by other bad photographers because the genre is so prevalent. They circle the wagons and don't critcize each other because they have a vested interest in the status quo. Far from challenging the intellect as they would have you believe their work is all about, what it's really all about is not rocking the boat, not getting fired from teaching posititons because of politics and curators not alienating photographers with resumes of shows and grant money. And anyway, who's left? They've already alienated and discredited dumbo photographers who enjoy the power of representational images. Those still in college better learn to toe the line or go commericial because you will be assoaciated with people who take photos of weather beaten barns, although that would be okay if it were out of focus, taken with a view camera, made into a silver gelatin print and had a lengthy literary essay to go along with it. There are literally no venues in the fine arts photography community to challenge or debate the merits of such work. You can pillory representational photography til you're blue in the face to great applause but it doesn't fly in the other direction. You are left with voting with your feet and finding another career.
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.
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 pisses 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 Apocalyse - I wonder if this art looks anything like an edible, anti-biotic portable grenade launcher.
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. It's simply mind-boggling and quite an industry too. 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.
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 superstrong? I kinda liked him the way he was.
with so many great photographers out there like Bruce Davidson, Steven Shore, Sebatiao Salgado, George Tice and so many, many others, 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 a daunting 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 competance 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 traditons.
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 credibilty 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. 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 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 artworld 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 intincts 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.
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.