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Why Is Photography So Difficult?

A short essay about photography`s development as an artform.

Date : 09/03/2016

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Uploaded by : Paul
Uploaded on : 09/03/2016
Subject : Photography

Photography isn't always difficult, a snapshot is a breeze and I make no claims here to be able to sum up a subject so vast. But sometimes, photographers agonise over it, do courses, enter competitions, correct colour casts with endless test strips, inhaling toxic fumes in the darkroom, manipulating gigabytes of RAW files and going through all sorts of networking contortions just to have an exhibition. Why can something that is actually really easy be so difficult?

One obvious answer is that it's difficult to be original with so many photographs and photographic opportunities. So it's difficult because it's easy or as Paul Graham said 'It's so easy it's ridiculous. It's so easy that I can't even begin – I just don't know where to start. After all, it's just looking at things.It's so difficult because it's everywhere, every place, all the time, even right now.' Perhaps this is why some of us make it difficult, we do 'serious' photography to be taken seriously, therefore it can't possibly be easy. Photography is full of such paradoxes: its reality is unreality, today is every time we look at the photograph of another day and it's both very easy and very difficult.

It also embodies some of the art world's quandaries yet it also remains slightly aloof from it. Photography-made-difficult encapsulates a central tenet of art since the classical Greek period over two thousand years ago. It's bound to be compared to painting which unfortunately for photography has a venerable lineage from classical civilisation. How can it respond to a deep-set inferiority complex or cope with pre-conceptions of what flat art is? The underlying assumption of painting until the 20th century was skill. Wladyslaw Tatarkiewicz outlines an early concept of art that has remained implicit since ancient Greece:

'The expression 'art' derives from the Latin 'ars' which in turn is a translation of the Greek, ???? in Greece – 'ars' in Rome and in the Middle Ages, even as late as the beginnings of the modern era, in the age of the Renaissance – meant skill, namely the skill required to make an object, a house, a statue, a ship, a bedstead, a pot, an article of clothing, and moreover also the skill required to command an army, to measure a field, to sway an audience. All these skills were called arts: the art of the architect, of the sculptor, the potter, the tailor, the strategist, the geometrician, the rhetorician. A skill rests upon a knowledge of rules, as so there was no art without rules, without precepts....' Theories of Art and Beauty p. 14

Even today, a consensus exists that suggests that an artwork is not a proper artwork or at least not a good one unless the artist has invested sufficient skill into it. Photography of course automated the very delicate and refined process of faithfully rendering a two-dimensional likeness of a three-dimensional space and mass. This new ability spread to the increasing hordes who could afford a camera – much of the skill was in the design and technological innovation built into the equipment. The photographer only has to position the camera, make some minor adjustments and wait for the right moment to press the shutter button.

This automation of art and its ease of application is comparable with 20th century developments in which artists who were reacting against the deep-set notion of skill in favour of expression, design and later, ideas. The colourfield painter, Jules Olitski was more of a designer than a craftsperson in terms of how he applied paint. Another parallel is how the paint was absorbed into the canvas, negating the artist's mark and creating a visual and tactile effect closer to modern inkjet prints than impressionist or abstract expressionist paintings with their comparatively 'messy' and expressive surfaces. The problem is that photography was conceived and introduced concurrently with a preoccupation with historical subject matter in western painting during the mid 19th century.

Understandably, in its early incarnations, photography was resisted as an art medium and often thought upon more as a scientific curiosity. By the second half of the 20th century when abstract art was entering the cannon, a voice had been found for photography as a documentary tool. The Family of Man exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art of 1955 was a decisive exhibition traveling through 37 different countries. At the same time, artists such as Man Ray, Edward Weston, Cartier Bresson, Lee Friedlander and Ansel Adams had set a precedent that introduced the same potential for self-referential discourse already developed for painting – utilising mistakes, novel perspectives, the frame, the decisive moment and intricate tonal variation.

John Szarkowski wrote the exhibition catalogue introduction for another MoMA exhibition 'The Photographer's Eye' in 1964. Early on he emphasises painting's commonly perceived advantage: 'Paintings were made – constructed from a storehouse of traditional schemes and skills and attitudes – but photographs, as the man on the street put it, were taken'. Such a contrast almost implicates the photographer as a thief and the painter as creator. As if to counter this deficit, he proposes a set of characteristics that 'consider the history of the medium in terms of photographers' progressive awareness': 'The thing itself', 'the detail', 'the frame' and 'time'. He was clearly priming the audience to regard photography as not a poor comparison to painting, but something that features its own vocabulary 'and a critical perspective more fully responsive to the unique phenomena of photography'. In other words, to be taken seriously upon the same walls as paintings, photography should not be compared to paintings but instead be regarded within its own discreet discourse. It had to be taken seriously and to be taken seriously had to be skilful or difficult to do.

A unique approach had been refined for photography that utilised its capacity for minor tonal and compositional variation within both the camera and darkroom afterwards particularly by Ansel Adams. Meanwhile the technology made this capacity increasingly accessible, photography was on the wall in venerable art museums and camera clubs introduced rigorous judgement of how faithfully rules had been adhered to echoing similar hierarchies and competition to the 19th century academies. Photography probably should have found a much more defined role within conceptual art of the 1970s. But by that time it had been objectified to such an extent and was infused with such rigid concerns that the more free thinking conceptual artists tended to only really use it to document their antics. Exceptions such as Sophie Calle and Cindy Sherman didn't merely document situations, they created them for the camera. Calle's photographs were less documents of performances, they were performative gestures in themselves. The act of photographing was the artwork. Meanwhile Jeff Wall's tableau vivant is a sort of parody of photography's difficult relationship to painting.

Now that the dominating art movement is not to have a one, photography has found its place among the disorientation. Still, though its process was objectified by standards of technique and discourse and adherence or otherwise to a set of rules, its object never really was. That is to say that its material substance is rarely taken seriously as the work. Painting was liberated from itself by an increasing attendance to its object with such intensity that it disappeared altogether. In many of Frank Stella's paintings the edges respond to their internal logic more than demarcate between painting and gallery. I understand this as painting's release into our space thus its ceasing to be a discrete object. The photographic object by contrast was always implicitly invisible due to its indexical relationship to its subject matter. It is a pointing device that makes history or the moment of its inception far more cogent than itself. So unlike painting the photograph was never apparent anyway. Perhaps it was destined to be the ultimate conceptual art after all.

But its fidelity to something else remains and much of its value still seems to be how faithful something else is rendered. Ansel Adam's zone system was just as much about the Yosemite national park than about his photographs of it (i.e. it mediated the two). Edward Weston, though looser in terms of subject matter was curious about how a pepper could look close up and flat. Such wonder of perception's double take gives the photograph's surface a slim chance of any recognition.

Photography is difficult because it missed the boat that liberated painting from skill and itself. Though many visitors to great institutions can still be heard proclaiming that they 'could do that', there is nonetheless a coherent set of values surrounding the idea that painting can be more about spontaneity and problem solving. It's as though photography was too easy to be accepted as an artistic skill, and too busy dwelling within that deficit to be move much beyond it. Therefore most serious photography tends to a set of discrete tasks to perform correctly. That makes it difficult.

This resource was uploaded by: Paul