Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Juror's Talk: Art of Photography Show

Julia Dolan, this year's juror for the Art of Photography Show, delved into the photography selections she made some 200 out of a field of 13,000. 

The audience listens to Julia Dolan
Nearly 100 individuals attended the talk at the San Diego Art Institute. Following the talk, there was a lively Q&A session.

One early comment she made was the general reaction of curators towards HDR (high-dynamic-range photography)  —  that it is a technique that is overdone in presenting the photographic image.  Of course, that is a bias. I, too, tend to downplay an obvious HDR look in my own work, but I admit that it is my personal bias. I wouldn't keep artists out of a show I was curating but would take the image and presentation on its own merits.

But, have no fear about this reaction to HDR and other techniques. The glamour industry and hi-tech, hi-visual impact lovers will likely turn this sensibility into something that is admired. The history of photography itself suffered from a fairly similar bias when painters kept photography out of fine art exhibits.  (See postscript below.)

For perverse reasons, I am drawn to the following sentiment of the late 19th century:  "The French influential critic and poet Baudelaire believed that lazy and uncreative painters would turn to photography.

While the fine art community has largely gotten beyond that sentiment about photography, we encounter new ones like digital art is made by a machine (and therefore 'not art') or that HDR is visually loud and annoying (and is therefore 'not art.') Changes of attitude may be accelerated as the internet and cloud communities for showing art continue to expand as well as the sheer impact of digital technology over everything we see, hear and do.

Dolan did advise the audience that the fear of digital photography was out-of-place, given the ongoing experimentation within the field of photography.  One technology does not replace the other, but simply adds another approach. And she appeared to be open to some aspects of photo-shopped imagery.

When it came to substrate, she mentioned that sometimes an image will be put on metallic paper when it would have been 'better' to have been put on paper. She also noted that it is up to the photographer to decide what substrate works best.

I recalled another juror for AOPS a few years back saying much the same thing while pointing to an image that was on metal and said it would have been better if it had been presented on paper. 

Neither Dolan, nor the other juror, explicitly stated, "and yes, that image over there on paper would have worked better on metallic paper, or laminated to distressed metal."  I like hearing that the sentiment (it's up to the artist) be explicitly stated, with examples, of a two-way street if that is what is truly meant. I may be too harsh on the way Dolan expressed her openness to various substrates, noting that others in the audience believed this is what she meant. Reading between the lines is always an interesting way to work around a question.

The fault may not be so much of the juror's but of the jurying process. All images are viewed as jpegs projected onto a screen. No object —  no actual physical photograph  —  is seen until the juror arrives at the exhibit itself.  So, for photogaphers like myself who cross many lines in experimenting with substrates, the 'object' is flattened out into a jpeg. Perhaps that is only fair to other images being shown.  However, the jpegs on paper get a more favorable presentation (yes, they look better) that jpegs that capture images that provide depth through multiple layers (the image on mylar, the patinas and brushing distressing the metal, and the metal surface itself). These multiple-layered objects are one of a kind; they are unique like paintings. By contrast, images on paper can be made as editions.  But, one cannot expect perfection in any exhibiting process, which is why stand alone exhibits are required to show such alternative sides to photography.

Dolan noted that curators are reluctant to accept face-mounted plexi images since the plexiglass is subject to scratching. Archivists at museums might ask the artist for a back up print should the plexi-mounted image suffer from surface damage.
Julia Dolan at The Art of Photography Show
Although she spoke of imagery that could be placed into the familiar categories of people, places and things, I was caught up in portraiture, particularly one image that she dwelled on to a considerable extent:  Hossein Fatemi's  Landmine Legacy.

There is a history of dealing with war and its consequences in painting and in photography.  Is it a fascination with documenting those consequences? Can one draw out some sense of humanity, perhaps a residual humanity of the survivors?

And, does photography provide a different way of picturing that imagery in a way that painting does not? 

Hossein Fatemi, Landmine Legacy
(I might mention that I had taken my 'magic' camera in lieu of the standard high end DSLRs that many attendees had. My lowly camera, more often than not, came up with photos that looked like paintings. Forgive, the lack of photorealism in these images.)

Fatemi's image reminded of the first picture in James Elkins' The Object Stares Back (1996).  I was so taken with Elkins' premise that I titled one of my solo shows after his book (with his permission).

Elkins draws on a medical journal from a French hospital that was concerned with the appearance of patients: "[h]ow a hysterical person looks; . . . does a melancholic have an identifiable expression? . . . What does it look like to have a belly so fat it scrapes the floor?"

The first image is of a naked eunuch (1906). The doctor presents a cold, albeit sympathetic, description of the eunuch. But Elkins' reaction is unsettling:  "The photograph is the harshest of all: it penetrates his privacy with an insistent intense thrust that cannot be rejected. This is the violent side of seeing, where the mere act of looking . . . becomes so forceful that it turns a human being into a naked, shivering example of a medical condition."

Imagine the subject and object reversed — where the eunuch is looking at you, notices you, notices your staring at him. This is what Elkins' asks us to do when the 'object' stares back.

In Fatemi's image, the looking back does not draw on the inhumanity of the photographer or the audience; rather, it is quite the opposite. We identify with the survivor of the landmine and find ourselves wrapped in the plant (rebirth?) held by the individual.
But whether this image works better as a photograph than as a painting, I am undecided.
However, I do find that there are unexplored visual worlds that photography might explore in ways quite different than a painter might.  In my own work, I think of what the portrait might look like if the photographer used the digital medium to his advantage —
a portraiture of the 21st century.  I sense that this might be a world beyond those defined by most photography curators simply because these are not easily classifiable, not a painting and not a photograph.  Something hovering in between these realms of seeing.

The Art of Photography Show continues at the San Diego Art Institute/Museum of the Living Artist through November 17, 2013.
Hours: Tues-Sat 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sun 12 noon to 4 p.m. Telephone:  619-236-0011


Barbarella has an interesting video interview  with Stephen Churchill, the producer of Art Of Photography Show on ArtPulseTV.

One comment made by Churchill is worth more discussion, namely, the use of image editing tools (like Photoshop) relative to the goodness of a photographic image.

What is not discussed are two things: 

(1) What is photography in the 21st century? Is it defined by the museum and gallery curators or is it far more flexible in what artists are actually doing in the medium? Does the AOPS exclude what falls over into 'digital art'?  Is that an artificial boundary since many photographers have moved into the room that also houses digital artists?

2) The straw man argument is that Photoshop (and other digital toolsets) add glitzy effects that can undermine the goodness of a photographic image.  Well, an artist in any medium can do the same thing, be it in sculpture, painting, glass making, etc. etc. The real issue is whether the image works and from what vantage point. If 'photography' is defined as X and the image looks like a Y, then the juror (or curator) draws a conclusion that Y images are not photography (or not 'good' photography).  To move beyond the abstract argument, I would challenge any curator to a mind-to-mind battle over what photography is and can be with digital toolsets.

Oh well, another disagreement in the sands of time. In my view of the future of art, tomorrow's photography will be far more digital art than either Dolan or Churchill realize.

From a recent exhibit catalog of work by the Digital Art Guild (2013):

No comments:

Post a Comment