Thursday, May 14, 2015

Art is the idea

The art of photography has been hijacked by salesmen who get the highest returns by hawking the goods and tools of the practice as a hobby. The unfortunate consequence of this is that the language of photography has been distorted. Without clear language, it is difficult to conceptualize or discuss what the art is to an individuals expression of self.
Defining "photography" as a product—rather than as a medium which expresses an idea—distorts the thinking process. One consequence is that when a photographer confronts an image with which the photographer is unhappy or wants to improve, the solutions are thought of in terms of the marketing language: blaming (or crediting) the product instead of the creative act. Thus, the endless discussions of "technique" and "gear"—if photography is a product, and there is dissatisfaction with an image, the answer must lie in the equipment, and thus the cycle continues.
This is not a mere annoyance. It is destructive and devastating to the individual because it interferes with the creative process and prevents the photographer from correcting the root of the problem: getting in touch with what the surreal mind is trying to express.
This is not a problem unique to photography, and Marcel Duchamp made much effort to address similar misunderstandings about painting. In Marcel Duchamp: Appearance Stripped Bare, Octavio Paz summarizes the central theme of Duchamp's life and work, which is that art is an idea, not a product, technique, or tool:
I emphasize the distinction between art and the idea of the work because what the Readymades and Duchamp's other features denounce is the concept of art as an object—the "objet d'art"—that we can separate from its context in life and keep in museums and other safe deposits. . . . For the ancients as for Duchamp and the Surrealists art is a means of liberation, contemplation, or knowledge, an adventure or a passion. Art is not a category separate from life.
[Commenting on Duchamp having apparently stopped painting for 20 years:] Duchamp's silence is open; he affirms that art is one of the highest forms of existence, on condition that the artist escapes a double trap—the illusion of the work of art and the temptation to wear the mask of the artist. Both of these petrify us; the first makes a prison of a passion, and the second a profession of freedom. To think that Duchamp is a vulgar nihilist is sheer stupidity: "[. . .  Duchamp explained:] I believe that art is the only activity by which man shows himself as an individual. By this activity he can transcend his animal nature—art opens onto regions that are not bound by time or space."
. . . . Freedom is not knowledge but what one has become after knowledge. [Duchamp's] attitude teaches us—although he has never undertaken to teach us anything—that the end of artistic activity is not the finished work but freedomThe work is the road and nothing more. This freedom is ambiguous, or rather, conditional; we can lose it at any moment, above all if we take ourselves or our work too seriously. Perhaps it was to underline the provisional character of all freedom that he didn't finish the Large Glass; in this way he did not become its slave. The relation of Duchamp to his creations is contradictory and cannot be pinned down: they are his own and they belong to those who contemplate them. For this reason he has frequently given them away; they are instruments of liberation. 
Marcel Duchamp: Appearance Stripped Bare, by Octavio Paz, at 87-88 (emphasis mine).

Reading his paper, The Creative Act, Duchamp emphasizes the point that the creative act is not a conscious one, but one informed by all that the artist brings to it from life and individual experience. The tool provides: nothing.

Hijacked by the sales pitch, the pursuit of photography has become about the varieties of gear and equipment instead of the unique art which can be expressed only in a photograph. Accordingly, the first step in solving any photography problem is to change the language and start with the truth that the equipment is irrelevant. The greatest images have been taken on a diversity of equipment: from Steiglitz's and Adams' field cameras, to Capa's Contax loaded with 35mm film, to David Alan Harvey's iPhone. It's not about the gear. Photography is merely a medium like any other, and simply the one that the artist has chosen for this particular expression of an idea.


A bride and her bachelors through The Large Glass.
Accepting this truth, it's incumbent on the individual to confront: "why photography, for me?" If one is only capturing snapshots that wind up on Facebook, Instagram, or Flickr to serve as documentary evidence that an event took place at which the snapshooter was present, that's a fine use of the camera, but it isn't photography. That person need not be concerned with the emotional meanings of ISO, or how shutter speed serves to bring longer moments of time to a frozen image, or how the ideas of the mind can be matched to the world around us. And that person shouldn't refer to themselves as a "photographer"—not because it dilutes the meaning of the word (although it does), but because it imposes upon that person a set of values and criteria which may not apply to them at all. 

For the individual who is captivated by the visual, who does approach the world in a visual way, and who does tell stories visually, its necessary to accept that being a photographer is not a technical pursuit. It's a philosophy and a way of relating to the world.

There are a series of affirmative steps that one can take to walk the path that leads to great images, and we will be addressing some of those in more detail in a series of upcoming articles. But this first step is the most important: taking control of the language you use to think about images and defining photography not by the tool, but as a specific approach to realizing an artistic vision.