What Is Art?

Cardboard - Orton

Morris, 2017. Cardboard

Cardboard” is a deliberately ambiguous photograph. Its ambiguity gives the viewer something to search for.

A story is hinted at but remains untold, the ending is not revealed, and it is left to the viewer to complete their own narrative.

An abstract from a larger image still in progress, “Cardboard” exhibits a style which is a departure from that usually seen in food photography, a partly consumed meal is the subject of a subversive still-life image.

Illuminated only by natural light, dapples of light and dark play over the subjects to create rich chiaroscuro reminiscent of an Old Master.

Use of selective focus provides the shallow depth of field needed to draw the viewer’s eye to the main subjects and does so in the characteristic manner of Vermeer and Chardin.

Technically and aesthetically, I feel that the image is successful and achieves the aims that I set when designing the image.

With regard to developing a unique style of photo-artistry, techniques used to give the image a painterly aesthetic have had mixed results. The technique used works very successfully with lighter images such as this, and has a similar effect as applying wet paint to wet paint, allowing the two to flow together, giving soft edges – a technique used by Vermeer. The same technique does not work at all well with darker images, rendering them overly dark in a way which is visually unattractive.

Katherine Frith provides a “layered” method of analysing photographs.

Firstly, the surface reading shows the remains of an unfinished meal of “junk” food: a burger and some fries, together with their cardboard containers and a drink.

The intended reading is designed to show a “fast-food” takeaway meal in a way which is much less than attractive. This subverts the usual purpose of food photography which is to portray how a recipe should look when prepared, or persuading customers to make purchases in cafeterias or restaurants. In both cases instilling a desire in the viewer to consume produce.

Finally, the cultural reading. Here the image is enticing the viewer to question something. In terms of subject, does the image make a socially relevant statement about our relationship with food?

Is the cardboard referring to the “junk” food, or the packaging in which it is contained? Perhaps both?

Is the image merely documenting one of the many uses we have found for “cardboard”? Perhaps it is a statement about the nutritional value of “junk” food? Or the impact that packaging for this type of “takeaway” food has on the environment, both in the way it is produced and disposed of?

For me, the image is aesthetically appealing even if this is not the case for the subjects themselves.

De Zayas states that ‘Photography is not Art. It is not even an Art. Art is the expression of the conception of an idea. Photography is the plastic verification of a fact’ (De Zayas, 1913, p.125).

It would appear, then, that De Zayas’ opinion agrees with, but is limited to, views held by several theorists when they suggest that photography is indexical, or provides trace evidence of something having existed.

Barthes, for example, referred to photographs as being a “certificate of presence” (Barthes, 1980).

Snyder and Allen write that “Most people, if asked, would no doubt say that, whereas the painter can paint whatever he wants, the photographer must depict “what is there.”” (Snyder and Allen, 1975, p. 148).

Scruton, meanwhile, helps clarify the situation when he writes: “In other words, if a photograph is a photograph of a subject, it follows that the subject exists” (Scruton, 1981, p. 579).

Further clarification is provided by Tagg who writes: “What the photograph asserts is the overwhelming truth that ‘the thing has been there’: this was a reality which once existed, though it is ‘a reality one can no longer touch’.” (Tagg, 1988).

Do I agree with De Zayas’ point of view? Is photography the “plastic verification of a fact”?

No, I don’t.

What is art? Who decides?

Ming Thein, writing in The Huffington Post, attempts to answer these questions:

“Well, it’s a subjectively biased interpretation of something – whether that something is an event, a place, a person, or a thing, is irrelevant. It’s the bias that makes it interesting: Monet’s waterlilies are interesting because they show us his unique interpretation of the scene, according to the impressionist school — which is yet another subjective way of looking at the world. Picasso’s works are interesting because they show us his interpretation of the world. In both cases, the interpretations present us with such a unique — unprecedented — result, that we are forced to stop, look, and think. The value here is in the uniqueness of the interpretation: what the artists see is so far beyond the normal realm of comprehension for most that it becomes akin to visual magic. It’s also worth remembering that seeing is but half of the puzzle: execution is just as important.” (Thein, 2013)

I think his comments answer these two questions authoritatively. His eloquent rationale I feel justifies such a lengthy and complete quote.

Perhaps more formally, art is defined as:

“The expression or application of creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting, drawing, or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power” (Oxford English Dictionary Online, 2017).

Most people would acknowledge that a great many photographs are produced in order to be appreciated for “their beauty or emotional power” and, indeed, fine art is a genre of photography specific to this aesthetic which is both established and respected.

Furthermore, photography is not restricted to photographing what is presented before the camera lens happenchance. Images can be constructed both before the shutter mechanism is operated, and afterwards in post-processing. Both provide equal opportunity for photographers to be creative in expressing their response to their world around them, which is, after all, what art is – an artist’s response to the things they experience.

Here it is perhaps relevant to remind ourselves that Wall (in Horne, 2012) stated that all photographers are either farmers or hunters, with the former carefully cultivating their images over a period of time, and the latter stalking their images, seeking a photographic opportunity.

Quite clearly, then, what is lacking from De Zayas’ appraisal is an awareness that images can be cultivated, or constructed, over a period of time.

Placing De Zayas’ comment into historical context, it was written in 1913 – a time when computer technology was undreamt of and post-processing techniques were very limited. Ample opportunity still remained, however, for photographers to creatively “construct” images and “pictorialism”, where photographers aim to create images with a painterly aesthetic, is one of two important movements which had their origins within the formative years of photography which are discussed by Price et al, “straight photography” (akin to naturalism or realism) being the other (Price et al, 2015, pp. 15 – 17).

Fundamentally, though, De Zayas’ suggestion rings hollow for the following reason.

He suggests that art “is the expression of the conception of an idea” and we have established that this lies at the heart of the definition of the word “art”. But De Zayas goes on to say that “photography is the plastic verification of a fact”.

Yes, photography does provide trace evidence of the subjects having existed, and it is used to factually record events, forensic photography for example. But are photographers not being creative when they “design” or compose an image, for example arranging a still-life to hang on a wall or organising a group of people to document a wedding?

In terms of the development of my photographic practice, how is this relevant? How can it be applied?

Photographer Guido Mocafico specialises in still-life photography. His work is something to which I have a mixed reaction. Some of his projects I like, a lot whilst others not at all.

His project Nature Morte de Table is a series of images which recreate the lighting and composition of the great Dutch masters, with subjects which are also true to these paintings. These photographs are outstandingly beautiful. They also evoke a response, a question: “what is the value in recreating a series of images which are so faithful, in terms of lighting, composition and subject, to the paintings of the great Dutch masters?”

Clearly there is merit in studying the techniques of the old masters, and reproducing great and famous works of art has long since been a reputable, valued and established method for artists to do so.

Additionally, potentially obviously, the images exist in their own right as works of art.

But what else can I take from Mocafico’s work? What can I learn from it? How can it inform my practice – defining, shaping and refining?

The real value for me, though, is in appreciating, in really understanding, the importance of differentiating by creating something which is unique, and innovative.

Established techniques can be used to produce images which have enormous aesthetic appeal and there is tremendous value in doing so. But those techniques, the knowledge, skills and experience then can be used to record subjects which provide a different narrative, which bring into question our relationship with the world.

By creating something which is unique, we not only push ourselves to develop new skills, but we also create something which has value due to its scarcity. In other words, we create the special value which Karl Marx’s theory of “commodity fetishism” suggests obscure or “mystify” the real condition of artworks as commodities in a system of market exchange (Marx, 1990, p. 163).

“art, n.1.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2017 [Online]. Available at: http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/11125?result=1&rskey=wfSFeZ& (Accessed: 18 March 2017)

Barthes, R. (1981) Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. New York: Hill and Wang

De Zayas, Marius (1913) ‘Photography’ in Trachtenberg, Alan (1980) Classic Essays on Photography New Haven, Leete’s Island Books

Frith, Katherine Toland. (1997) Undressing the Ad: Reading Culture in Advertising. New York: Peter Lang

Horne, R. (2012) “Holly Andres, “Farmer” of Photographs” in The Wall Street Journal (3 January 2012) [Online]. Available at: http://blogs.wsj.com/photojournal/2012/02/03/holly-andres-farmer-of-photographs/ (Accessed 9 February 2017)

Marx, Karl (1990) Capital: Critique of Political Economy. London: Penguin Books Limited

Price, D. (2015) ‘Surveyors and Surveyed’, in WELLS, L. (ed) Photography – A Critical Introduction, Oxon: Routledge, 90-93

Scruton, R. (1981) ‘Photography and Representation’, Critical Inquiry, vol. 7, No. 3 (Spring, 1981), pp. 577-603 [Online]. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1343119 (Accessed 29 January 2017)

Snyder, J. and Allen, N. (1975) ‘Photography, Vision and Representation’, Critical Inquiry, vol 2, No. 1 (Autumn, 1975), pp. 143-169 [Online]. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1342806 (Accessed 03 February 2017)

Tagg, J. (1988) ‘The Burden of Representation’ PhotoPedagogy [Online]. Available at: http//www.photopedagogy.com/john-tagg.html (Accessed 30 January 2017)

Thein, Ming (2013) ‘The Line Between Art & Photography’ in The Huffington Post (18th November 2013) [Online]. Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ming-thein/art-and-photography_b_4297646.html (Accessed: 18 March 2017)



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