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Only words?


Time for an update: I still use film, though. Not vast quantities, but I have a darkroom, and I'm not afraid to use it.

I enjoy every image I take: I hope you'll enjoy looking at them.
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Only words…

22 Apr 2021 8:06AM   Views : 248 Unique : 140


One of the things that gets under my skin is the way that people writing about photography as a collectible art use words. ‘This inexorable pull adds complexity and intrigue, inviting questions while making us unsettled. Or ‘confronted by the veracity of life’… They are words, Jim, but not as we know them.

Along with a weird approach to timelines, so that we never get the facts (Ma’am, just the facts) in a way that allows us to order them in our minds, and wilful assumptions that we’re familiar with Roland Barthes and his concept of the photographic image as a message without a code. It makes it really hard work for the average photographer (or anyone else) to do two important things – get past the prose to the writer’s meaning, and an appreciation of the pictures.

And I wonder why. An uncharitable view is that writers on ‘photography as art’ did formal training as artists or photographers, and didn’t make the grade, so they are still writing undergraduate essays, with all the flourishes and little vanities you expect from someone of 20. (I suppose that you could argue that the passive verbs and third-party reporting of traditional science writing is equally bad, just different…)


I love Iain M Banks’ science fiction, and his novels (without the ‘M’), and his informal, intelligent style. Occasionally an idea gets lost or tangled, but most of the time, his writing convinced me that he understood my view of the world, because he wrote about it the way that I like to think I do. There’s a more conscious style than in the magnificently lucid writing of Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke, but it’s balanced with wit and a certain cynicism. And that sentence reads like the sort of stuff I’m criticising…

People have told me I have a way with words, and if it’s true, I am very lucky. I didn’t do anything special, or go on lots of courses. On a good day, I like to think that I have a bit of a way with a camera – but in both areas, I know that my average day is a lot more average than I’d like. And in both media, I lack staying power for long projects or lengthy essays. But we shouldn’t expect everyone to be particularly fluent in words or pictures.

The thought I want to leave you with is that it’s a better world if we don’t jump to make judgments, and instead try, hard, to understand what the author is trying to say. They say that when you sing a hymn with joy and enthusiasm, God hears the voice of Paul Robeson. We should all aspire to be a little more godlike, so that we can read, see and hear the poetry in others’ attempts to communicate.



dudler Plus
17 1.6k 1839 England
22 Apr 2021 8:08AM
Of course, 'art' photography is a tricky thing to define... I reckon that it's not a designation you can really give yourself, and I'm suspicious of anyone who stands to make a profit from it assigning the term...
22 Apr 2021 1:14PM
Totally agree about pretentious art critics - or any other pretentious commentators for that matter !
Also another vote for Iain M Banks and indeed Iain Banks,
kaybee Plus
17 7.7k 26 Scotland
22 Apr 2021 1:52PM
Art is in the eye of the beholder ..... so they say.
If you can't see the art in a photograph (or painting) - that is fine.
If a piece of work requires some mind numbing claptrap to explain it, it has missed the point. Move on.
saltireblue Plus
10 11.8k 75 Norway
22 Apr 2021 2:38PM
People who designate themselves as a 'fine art photographer' always amuse me. A bit like wine buffs and their 'undertones of walnut and jasmine over warm coals fueled by old leather'
A photographer is a photographer, is a photographer. You can be something objective, like a landscape or a wedding photographer. Those are concrete concepts. But 'fine art' is so subjective as to mean different things to different people. I think the best description I have read to date is:
Fine art photography is first and foremost about the artist. It is not about capturing what the camera sees; it is about capturing what the artist sees. In fine art photography, therefore, the artist uses the camera as one more tool to create a work of art.
So, you could argue that a photograph designated by the photographer as 'fine art' can only be so to the person who created the image, as it what they saw, and can impossibly be what anyone else envisaged.
22 Apr 2021 3:44PM
"So, you could argue that a photograph designated by the photographer as 'fine art' can only be so to the person who created the image, as it what they saw, and can impossibly be what anyone else envisaged."
I don't agree, Malc. If I look at the photograph below, I know that it's from a series by Chris Friel entitled "Joe." It's of the Outer Hebrides, a holiday destination much loved by Chris and his teenage son Joe, and was taken as part of Friel's way of trying to deal emotionally with the devastating impact of Joe, who had long struggled with mental health issues, taking his own life.
To me, the photograph is very definitely about Chris Friel's emotional state, it's about him, and that comes through strongly when viewing the whole series. Whether or not Friel would designate the images as "Fine Art," I don't know, he's a man of few words and I doubt whether he's even remotely interested in such definitions and distinctions.
But the images are his personal response, a landscape viewed through a prism of emotional connections, rather than a literal record, and so they fall into my definition of "Fine Art." So I don't need to have taken the photograph to be able to describe it as Fine Art.
Other than that, I agree completely with the definition you quote. It's about what the artist sees... or perhaps you might say it's about what the artist feels about what he sees. Another way of looking at it...one person might be a photographer, another person might be an artist who uses a camera.

dudler Plus
17 1.6k 1839 England
22 Apr 2021 4:55PM
Like Alan, I agree with Malc about the concept of 'fine art' being about capturing what the photographer (or painter, or composer) sees. But a third-party assessment of it as successful (or not) is possible, if the image doesn't convey that to someone else. This is checkable, if the artist says what he intended: it falls over if they are deliberately obscure, of course!

Chris Friel's picture is very expressive of darkness and disorder taking away a soul, so I'll agree with Alan that it's art. And Friel's indifference to whether his pictures are art or not is fie, too. I think what annoys me is people telling me that what they do IS art - I'd be OK with being told it's intended as art, and might or might not succeed...
saltireblue Plus
10 11.8k 75 Norway
22 Apr 2021 5:19PM

Quote:I think what annoys me is people telling me that what they do IS art - I'd be OK with being told it's intended as art, and might or might not succeed...

I think, John, you have succeeded in saying what I intended to say, but failed.

22 Apr 2021 5:40PM
A popular view is that if an artist says his/her work is Art, then it is Art. The artist has at least as much right to make such a distinction as anyone else, I feel. Whether or not they should... is another matter.

I don't see the word "Art" as any kind of value judgement in itself, but only as a kind of classification. I think you can have good Art, and you can have bad Art. Art that succeeds for you, Art that doesn't.
JuBarney Plus
9 33 5 United Kingdom
22 Apr 2021 6:01PM
Love your bottom two images.
22 Apr 2021 9:13PM
Artificial Intelligence and how it is being used in creative disciplines gives an interesting slant on what is "art".
Try googling "AI and art" and read a few of the articles...
PhilScot Plus
14 901 United Kingdom
23 Apr 2021 8:16AM
This must be where a lot of club judges get their inspiration, and also some of the tripe in portrait artist/Landscape of the year
dudler Plus
17 1.6k 1839 England
23 Apr 2021 9:14AM
That's a fine link - though I have to say that the 'Artist' programmes seem to me to be pretty short of artybollocks by comparison with many other sources.

The trouble is that the AB crowd get hold of some of the best pictures...

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