Part 4. My afternoon on 57th St. got me to thinking: In art, one can ask, “at what point does the art breaks free from the baseline character of technique?” “What is it that makes one painting an illustration and another art?” I would imagine that the question “is it art?” would not have been asked of prior to the advent of photography. Before photography, only artists could render images. Then came photography and suddenly artists were asking of this machine, which could easily do their laborious work, “Is photography art?” (Many in the 19th century thought not.)
Prior to the marketing of roll film, the technical demands and operational costs of the photography limited its practice to a relative few professionals and serious amateurs. As roll film cameras became more popular, more people could make photographs. From those cameras came a wide range of photographic results: from impulsive, carelessly made “snap shots”of family members and travel to more deliberate, carefully crafted, technically skilled prints.
Those who purchased sophisticated equipment and were ready to devote time, effort and expense might master the techniques and at the very least produce superior quality photographs to those using basic cameras. For some the expertly made photograph might be accorded respect over the ineptly made photograph, but of course technique alone does not make art. More often, though, the many undistinguished images from 150 years of photographic practice may have been equally the results of poor technique and aesthetic failings, whatever they might be. The sophistication of cameras is now so advanced that smart phones can easily produce vivid high quality images under all manner of technically challenging circumstances. As a result, many more individuals are making many more photographs. In addition, there are all sorts of filters to make images more “artistic” by using APPS such as Hipstamatic. As painters asked, “is photography art,” so long ago, today, with the ubiquity of digital cameras, the question arises, “Are all of these photographs, being made with so many cameras, art?”
Are photographs of unfamiliar scenes art, simply because they describe that which we haven’t seen with our own eyes? For example, are the extraordinary photographs taken on Mars by Curiosity Rover art or are they technical reports conveying only the nature of the Martian Landscape as seen in the way characteristic of its camera? That photographic hardware has evolved to the degree that it no longer needs human control to make imagery suggests that human judgment will be very necessary for distinctive results.
Getting back to the artists that prompted these musings: In the shows of Metzker, Mann and Sheikh, their choice of technique and the particular way in which they use it can clearly be seen to have been integrated by their art. Their techniques were hard won. But difficulty does not automatically elevate one’s efforts to art. Fazal Sheikh makes digital prints- a simple technique, but the results are richly engaging images. The conscious decisions that these artists make are clearly manifest in their results. It’s great art when the artist’s sensibility takes primacy over technique and their art reveals a particular vision.