Letter to Ian
The use of the term art medium is, to say the least, misleading, for it is the artist that creates a work of art not the medium. It is the artist in photography that gives form to content by a distillation of ideas, thought, experience, insight and understanding.
Photography would have been settled a fine art long ago if we had not, in more ways than one, gone so much into detail. We have always been too proud of the detail of our work and the ordinary detail of our processes.
-Henry Peach Robinson
Kia ora tatou:
If you read the comments in this blog, you will see that occasionally I push somebody’s buttons enough for them to post a comment. This one came in on my Roadmarks post, and it needs to be talked about. Ian (who should be thinking more about getting his passengers down safely, and less ruminating as he stares at the landscape sliding past underneath) wrote:
A question for you. I’ve got my name on the list for one of the Freeman workshops next year. I was discussing this matter recently with some other photographers and an opinion was related that a lot of what Freeman discusses in his books (and I assume his workshops) is primarily about design rather than art. I’ve got some of his books (I love them) and I can see where that viewpoint comes from. So my question is - what is the difference between design and art? Does good art require good design? Is good designing enough?.......... I haven’t really got this completely sorted but my answer is that art also has passion or story (or both).
Looking at Roadmarks before I read your post and I thought, "nicely balanced image. Interesting contrast between the snow and the almost summer baked grass in the foreground. Love the mono treatment." Technical/design thoughts??
Well, there are several issues here that all tie together. Yes, Freeman teaches visual design. He is quite unashamed about it. There are very few workshops where that is done. Most of them tend to be how-to workshops (everything you wanted to know about jpegs or your DLR and wish you’d never asked). Very few are why-to workshops. To the best of my knowledge Freeman has never used Art (art) and Design and photography in the same sentence, or indeed in the same workshop. I have taught with him 5 times and listened to him, both formally in lectures and informally (usually in the company of a fine pinot noir). He stresses the idea of design as a craft, or at least an aspect of the craft of photography.
It’s probably important here to talk about Craft and Art and to make the distinction. Craft is the skillset you develop as a photographer. At its most basic level, it is things like depth-of-field, exposure, lens choice (although that is not as basic as it seems) and lighting (which you never master). The gears, steering etc which you come to terms with when you are learning to drive; the clay, glazes and throwing techniques that the potter has to master.
Then there is the issue of composition. Frankly I hate the term. It reeks of the Rule-of-thirds, never centring your subject, and cups of tea after a C-grade competition. Composition is what you do when you want to get an honours in the Set Subject and you know the (judge?). Composition is what you do when you take a photograph.
Design is what you do when you are actively considering your subject. Design means you are actively weighing the importance of the elements in your picture space, and considering both their visual and spatial weight, not to mention their significance. Design is a higher form of Craft. Design is beyond Composition. It is the next plane beyond technique (a subset of Craft).
But it is Craft nonetheless. Because you can learn it. Craft is not to be dismissed, because you have to learn it. Ansel Adams said: the Way to Art is through Craft, not around it. Incidentally Ansel never considered himself an artist, rather a craftsman. He saw his work as being to depict the landscape the best way he could, to distil something of the magnificence he experienced into the images he made. He was as concerned with Process as he was with Content.
Art is another whole ball of wax (excuse the cliché), a product of feelings, ideas, prior knowledge and Weltaussicht. Art is about ideas. What those ideas may be is the domain of the artist. Art informs. Art makes us think, art seeks to engage us on a multiplicity of levels. It may be visceral, in the realm of feelings; it may be on a cerebral level. Or may be all of the above. But it seeks to inform.
Art is the concrete expression of the ethos of a society.
Let me unpack that. David Hockney, the celebrated English pop artist, had an 18-month affair with photography. In that time he made photographic work that had never been seen before (note: he didn’t take photos). His final image, Pear Blossom Highway, brings all those ideas together. F you study his work, and you have done a little Art History, you will see the connections. He was heavily influenced by cubism, by Picasso and Braques, by the nature of Representation and the depiction of Time and Space. Picasso questioned the concept of perspective and its depiction from a single point in Time and Space (remember those cubes you drew in Technical Drawing or Third Form Art). It’s worth noting that before the Italian architect Brunelleschi invented it in the Renaissance, all art was essentially two-dimensional. Hockney took Picasso’s ideas and added his own take to it, specifically a photographic one. Consider this: photography with a camera depicts time and space from a single point in that time and space; the human eye works quite differently. We gather a variety of different images from different points in space and from different times (or rather, over an extended period of time) and then our brain assembles them into a composite collage with a single meaning. It could therefore be said that Hockney’s images are truer to how the human eye/brain works than to the artificial representation of the camera. Human seeing is organic; the camera is a mechanical device able to function only from a single viewpoint. Hockney's oeuvre is really an essay on that difference.
The point I am trying to make here is that Hockney’s work is ideas-based, not representational. What he photographs is less important than the ideas behind the image.
Another example. If you have any interest in New Zealand art, you will at some time have seen the work of the great painter Colin McCahon. At first glance his works look huge but incomprehensible. His palette is essentially monochromatic; his subject matter is painted quite loosely and seems infested with letters and religious symbology. Look harder and you begin to see the landscape, or rather the forms of the landscape, represented in quite a symbolic way. To get a grip on McCahon’s work, you need to spend a little time looking at the life of the man himself. McCahon was a deeply spiritual but troubled man whose Roman Catholicism was a key factor in forming both his vision of the world and how he chose to depict it. In addition to this he was deeply sympathetic to maoritanga and Maori spiritual values. His painting, done as it was in essentially dark monochromatic tones, showed a strong awareness of the wairua of our landscape. He was a very complex man but a master craftsman, whose understanding of the craft of painting was profound. The questions he asked in his painting are still being uncovered. Ditto Picasso.
You will notice that in talking about these two great artists, I have made little reference to their technique. And yet, their technique is consummate. However, when we look at their work, we are faced with a wonderful puzzle that we want to unravel. We are faced with the world of ideas. Sometimes those ideas may appear simple, but they are present nonetheless. Sometimes they may seem so complex, presented in such a convoluted way that we can find no way into the maze. This is the trap that Fine Art often falls into; it becomes so self-absorbed and lives in such a rarefied place that only those who speak the language can understand it. How many exhibitions have we been to where we didn’t have a clue what the artist was on about, and so, mystified and perhaps feeling a little intellectually inferior, we left, completely dissatisfied? I know I have, and I still continue to.
To recap on a previous post: science’s job is to discover; art’s job is to explain. A great artist may show us the mundane from a totally new perspective; or equally may unpack something we may never before have considered. He/she may give us a completely new perspective on something we have taken for granted.
To return to the craft vs. art debate.
A potter who makes a teapot so perfect in its design that it doesn’t spill a single drop is, to my mind, a craftsman. Possibly a master craftsman. A ceramic artist may make the same teapot but in its design and its methods ask questions or draw comparisons with geomorphology. He might make that same teapot in a way that draws my attention to plate tectonics. Every time I break out the Dilmah, I get a mini lesson on the structure of the planet, and the earth from which the teapot was made. That is Art. It feeds me on a variety of levels. (Besides waking me up in the morning).
Ian, I sense a somewhat subtly stated question here. Do I consider my work art or craft? Am I a photographer or artist? And do I care?
I have a very close friend who has world-class status as a martial artist. He is three weeks younger than me but his reputation worldwide is phenomenal. His dedication is such that he turned down an invitation to the 1000-year birthday party of the Shaolin Temple in China because he preferred to spend the time training. A good friend to have when you go out clubbing. We have just spent some time talking about the nature of learning our individual arts, he has a level of understanding of martial arts that I will never have. Similarly while he loves photography, he acknowledges that my mastery is well ahead of his. What we do talk about is the nature of understanding, what lies beyond craft, the subtle levels of understanding that come past a certain point. In essence, the fascination lies not in the end product, it is about the journey itself and the discoveries made along the way. It is about the finer and finer, and yet increasingly significant, layers of understanding that come from constant practice of your craft and reflection upon it.
What drives me these days is a desire to see round the next corner, to discover that which I had never before considered. As I said in the post Roadmarks, I am still considering the picture made in Kyeburn. In terms of its craftsmanship (that is, exposure, technique and design), I am satisfied. For the moment. But something new has emerged for me, some layer of understanding that I am still trying to get a handle on. I am going to make a print of that image and stick it on the wall in the hall of my flat. That means I will have to pass it many times a day, and each time I go past, I will have a quick look out of the corner of my eye, in the hope that it drops its guard and gives itself away.
Today it is the best picture I have ever made. I know it’s the doorway to a room I’ve only just discovered, and one which I’m dying to explore in greater depth.
It’s just the Why of it that’s eluding me.
Ian, after having waded through all this, you possibly think I haven’t answered your question. You didn’t think I was going to do this in twenty-five-words-or-less. Did you?
Actually I have.
I have far too much respect for you to denigrate you with a cheap and facile response.