Photography as Art

Fall (Mabon)                                           Full Back to School Moon

Into the Sierra Club to orient a new member of the Legislative Committee.  After that, a couple of hours in the new photo exhibit, Embarrassment of Riches.  The new photography curator, David Little, has pushed forward a contemporary approach to the photography and new media department.  He’s showing color photographs, unusual against the Hartwell years of classic black and white photography.  David also has an edgy, political sensibility that insists on embracing difficult questions contemporary photography either raises or documents.  Works for me.

Ate lunch at D’Amico’s and Kwo showed up.  We discussed China and its pluriform culture, especially important as we consider its rise today in the context of other Asian countries that seem to have much more homogeneous cultures:  Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Burma.  Kwo believes Confucianism and its insistence on obedience to authority has affected especially Japan and Korea, shaping their society into a perfect environment for xenophobia.

After lunch David Little gave the lecture and walk through of Embarrassment.

He began the lecture responding to a question about whether he posted information about photographs that had been photoshopped.  He does not.  His reasons reveal a good deal about contemporary photography and some of the challenges it faces.  Photography has had, David says, an obsession with technology, an obsession that has seemed to place the technical aspects of photography in the foreground.  A focus on how a photography makes a given image detracts from emphasis on the image itself, a distraction that embedded a question about photography as art within the very art historical conversation.

Do you know Degas’ paint brush?  How Goya mixed his paints and what elements he used?  Any clue about the canvas on that Rembrandt?  We do not focus first on technique and implements in the art history of other objects like painting and sculpture.  Why?  Because the image or the physical object produced commands our attention.  David suggests that the same is true of photographs, the images created by photographers.

Just as painters have long emphasized those parts of a scene that make it look beautiful, harmonious, so do photographers use various techniques to make the final image have a certain look.  Portraitists often create an image of a sitter that is not a mere copy or likeness, rather they highlight some aspects and downplay others to reveal a personality.  Photographers, as artists, have the same latitude in shaping their work.

Photoshop is only one in a long line of manipulations photographers have used.  There never has been a “straight” photograph, the real image before manipulation.  Choice of light, focus, shutter speed, subject matter manipulates the image in the camera itself.  Dark room manipulations have gone on since the development of emulsions.  David does not want to create a hierarchy of photographs in which one is more “real” and therefore a “better” image.


This image by and of Cindy Sherman is in the exhibition.  It uses a projected building facade from somewhere on the upper eastside of New York and over it Sherman has imposed one of her signature personal images.  She dresses up as many different characters in her work, this time appearing as an art patron in the coded dress of her social class.  Its creation is not the point; the point is the result, a softly satirical presentation of a type of a New Yorker.  There is no real image to find that is behind this one.  This seems evident to me in this case.

David Little’s point is that each photograph we see in the exhibition deserves the same treatment.

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