The “Catch 22” of Photography as Art
Photographers that work to sell their photographs as art are constantly faced with a general public that devalues photography. In a world where there are tens of millions of cell phone cameras constantly snap chatting and insta-gramming, the photograph is possibly the most used form of communication on the planet. Seeing is believing, right? But when photography made the jump, like all other current technologies, to digital, it was like an earth quake. This changed, not only, the recording, storing, and delivering of images, it also changed the technician’s ability to manipulate the image in ways that can be creative and break barriers in design and presentation.
Along with that, unfortunately, comes a mistrust and an opportunity for corruption. That can come in the form of doctored photos that deceive in journalism, or heavily retouched photos in advertising, causing a lack of trust among the public. The tabloids are notorious for this. Before digital, it was very difficult to doctor a photograph without detection. For over a century, a photograph of something was proof of its existence, evidence in court, the true story in the news. Yet painters have always been allowed “artistic license” to paint their ideas and perceptions and memories, and be very subjective in the presentation of their subject matter.
Photography as art has always been characterized as “of lesser value” because once you had the negative, you could make a hundred copies. But print makers and sculptors have been making multiples of prints and etchings and silk screens and castings for centuries. Contemporary print making today can be done in a myriad of ways. Ansel Adams could have printed a thousand “Moonrise” prints, but he didn’t.
I feel like the public perception of art having value is often tied to what the artist had to do to create it. A large intricate painting that might have taken months or years, that required a trained artist with a special eye for reproducing what they have seen to labor long hours…to make only this one. The rarity. Therein lies the other point of value. I worked as an artist in stained glass for twelve years and most of my work in those days were all one-of-a-kind pieces.
So an artist who has not gained notoriety in the gallery market and met the proper people, who is not a recognized name, is met with some suspicion as to the value of their creations. Yet having worked in an art museum for sixteen years, I can testify that many things qualify as valuable in the art realm that hardly deserve the moniker. Often times it seems that simply making it big is all that is required. I have hung shows that contained pipes and spare tires, popcorn, half-filled water bottles hung on wire, stacks of sticks. I realize it’s an artist’s statement. But where do we gauge the value of one expression over another?
My view (and that’s sort of what this blog is about) is that the value lies in the effectiveness of the message and the artist’s skill at communicating that message. Every person’s perception of any artwork will be colored by their own experience, so will likely be different from that of the artist. But is the viewer’s experience of the artwork satisfying, or stimulating, or distressing? Is there a definable experience? I believe if there is, then the art is successful. And if it is successful in creating a valuable experience, then how it is recorded, created, delivered, expressed, is of no consequence in establishing its value. A single line drawing by Picasso can sell for more than an old master landscape. One is a line on paper, the other a canvas that a skilled painter took hours to produce. Both being one-of-a-kind so each a rarity. Both being from talented visionary artists. But a difference in perceived value.
Much of the art being created today using digital technology can take hours, days, weeks to create. A photograph can be made to look like a painting with brush strokes and the subtleties of a hand painted canvas. It can then be printed onto canvas and can even have a hand textured surface applied to create the surface texture of a painting. This is the technology of today. If this canvas will last centuries like any painting might, if the image, when displayed, is seen and appreciated and enjoyed as a painting in a frame, is the only difference the rarity, or is it the viewer’s perception, reaction, that establish the value? You could print only one. Then you have a level playing field. Becoming skilled as a photographer and as a digital artist can take years of training with major investments in equipment. And just as anyone can pick up a brush and put some color on a canvas, though few are compelled to try, everyone with a cell phone fashions themselves a photographer.
If a photographer creates an image and prints it on canvas and frames it and hangs it on the wall in a gallery. And if a painter paints a canvas that looks identical, and hangs it on the wall next to the photographer’s canvas. And a person standing twenty feet away looking at both canvases cannot tell the difference between them. Is one more valuable as an artwork than the other, simply because of the way it was produced?
I have begun producing large canvases of my images. These are called giclée prints. They are printed on museum grade canvas and are printed with archival pigment inks. Because I have the ability to produce any number of prints from one digital image, many see these as “reproductions” when in fact they are “originals”. The digital file is essentially the photographers negative. The recorded data. It is not the artwork. The actual print made from that negative, like a silver print from a film negative, is the artwork original. The artist can choose to make as many issues or prints of a negative or file as they choose, knowing full well that the value of an item can depend on its scarcity. Of course, there must always be demand as well. Something is only worth as much as someone is willing to pay.
All images are Copyright © George Cannon – Images