Photography as Art

December 31, 2001

“Photography is the art of comparison,” says the garrulous, omniscient narrator in Murray Bail’s novel, Eucalyptus, who sounds suspiciously like the author. “Anyone can take a photograph. The ‘art’ has already been composed by the subject itself, even when it’s a brick wall – really, the word ‘art’ here is an amazing pretension, since it is merely a description of feet placement…”

Whether photography is the handmaiden to art or pretender to its throne, this is a dispute that has been going on – in novels, newspapers and drawing rooms, since Nicéphore Niépce took the first photograph in 1826. Confronted with a daguerrotype shortly afterwards, the salon painter, Paul Delaroche, declared: “From today, painting is dead!”. Like Nietzsche’s obituary for God, the declaration was premature, but not unjustified. With the birth and rapid popularisation of photography, a certain kind of painting began to disappear – the miniature portrait, the antiquarian watercolours that recorded old buildings and ruins – any form of painting whose raison d’etre was purely functional or commercial was superceded by the new technique. This kind of work became the domain of hobbyists, while its professional practitioners raced out and bought photography equipment.

Many of the greatest artists, including Delacroix and Degas, saw photography as a useful tool that dispensed with the need for so many live models and sketching trips. In the long-term, the proliferation of the camera forced art to reconsider its own identity. If a photographer could capture a naturalistic image in the blink of an eye, it was up to the artist to draw images from the workshop of the imagination. Symbolism, Fauvism, Cubism, Surrealism, and various forms of Abstraction, took art in new directions, while photography hastened to follow. For every innovation in painting, photography found an echo, although some were more resounding than others. At the beginning of the 21st century, as photography itself is mutating into new ‘virtual’ forms, few would deny the medium full recognition as “art”.

It may be that in Australia, this final stage of recognition has been achieved not through large exhibitions such as Veronica’s Revenge or World Within End (both 2000), but through a photograph from Tracey Moffatt’s series, Something More, going for a record price of $74,000 at auction at the end of July. As far as I know, this particular photo is not part of a limited edition, and can already be found in numerous public and private collections. There even used to be one hanging in a corridor at the Adelphi Hotel in Melbourne. The record price is most probably a freak result, caused by the rivalry of two wealthy, reckless bidders. The real interest lies in the way this affects the prices of Moffatt’s recent work, and that of other photographers. As a rising star on the international circuit, her prices have already begun to soar far beyond the niggardly sums Australians expect to pay for a photograph.

Despite her present success and the undoubted quality of her work, it could hardly be said that Moffatt is anywhere near the top of the tree in Australian photography. She cannot be compared with great all-rounders such as David Moore, Jon Lewis or Roger Scott, and in the more rarefied world of ‘art’ photography, she is not in the same ballpark as Bill Henson. What Tracey has over these blokes is that she is ‘la mode’, and they are not. If being a slave to fashion means paying an outrageous sum for a designer dress or a foreign car, there is no reason why a big, glamorous photograph should be out-of-bounds.

While a work of art is worth whatever someone will pay for it, this have never been a gauge of aesthetic value. Moffatt’s self-portrait may now be the most expensive Australian photo, but it is a very long way from being the best. Neither should we believe that Rover Thomas’s All That Big Rain just secured by the National Gallery of Australia for the crazy price of $786,625 now qualifies as our best work of Aboriginal art. It is not even the best Rover Thomas in the NGA collection.

Big prices may create a flurry of excitement about works of art, but they tell us little about their nature. It is more illuminating to look back on photography’s struggle to be accepted as an art; at its champions and detractors, and the kinds of debates that were generated.

The obvious place to start is with Baudelaire’s Salon of 1859, in which the poet launched his famous attack on photography, which he saw as a tool of  “the idolatrous mob”. For the mob, he argues, art is nothing more than the reproduction of Nature and, since photography promises the most exact transcription of Nature, therefore “Photography and Art are the same thing.” For Baudelaire, this is an error that leads only “to the impoverishment of the French artistic genius”.

“If photography is allowed to supplement art in some of its functions,” he writes, “it will soon have supplanted or corrupted it altogether, thanks to the stupidity of the multitude which is its natural ally.” Photography should return to its true duty, “which is to be the servant of the sciences and arts.”

Compare this with a 1901 piece by George Bernard Shaw, a passionate advocate of photography for the very same reasons that Baudelaire attacked it. In triumphant tones, he writes: “If you cannot see at a glance that the old game is up, that the camera has hopelessly beaten the pencil and paint-brush as an instrument of artistic representation, then you will never make a true critic; you are only, like most critics, a mere picture-fancier.”

For Baudelaire, the temple of art is an sacred and exclusive place, that must be preserved from the desecrations of the masses. For Shaw, however, it is more like an exclusive club in which pompous asses bask in a warm fuzz of self-congratulation. In both cases, photography is the instrument for disturbing the status quo, no matter whether the motivation is iconoclastic or broadly democratic. This is perhaps why the critic Walter Benjamin was happy to agree, in 1931, that “photography as art is a very dangerous field.”

It was dangerous, partly because the obsession with ‘photography as art’ obscured the larger, more significant issue of ‘art as photography’. Benjamin argued that the widespread use of photographic reproductions would change our understanding of art itself, making it more accessible but also more ordinary. This touched on Baudelaire’s worst suspicions, but did not proceed to the same conclusions. Benjamin was a more disinterested critic of modernity, content to analyze the process without lamenting the loss of those values Baudelaire saw as “divine”. He felt that one of the problems of ‘photography as art’ was that as soon as its practitioners began to free themselves from subjects of “physiognomic, political and scientific interest”, and tried to be creative, they became complicit with the general (bourgeois) tendency to treat art as a form of escapism; as a cosmetic rearrangement of a reality that was not so pretty.

“The creative in photography,” he wrote, “is its capitulation to fashion. The world is beautiful – that is its watchword. Therein is unmasked the posture of a photography that can endow any soup can with cosmic significance but cannot grasp a single one of the human connections in which it exists…”

These thoughts apply to the dilettantes who flooded the magazines with their ‘artistic’ photographs, and to the high priests of American art photography, such as Alfred Stieglitz and Paul Strand, who adopted an aloof and disdainful stance vis-a-vis these would-be artists. For sheer purism – and perhaps snobbery – no-one equals Strand, who insisted on the specificity of the medium, and was scathing about those amateurs who tried to reproduce painterly effects with the camera. He insisted that most photography could be seen as bad painting, and most painting as bad photography. The true artist in either medium was rare, but those who blurred the distinctions would never be anything but second-rate.

The exaggerated purity of Strand’s ideas puts his work into a hard, bright time capsule. Like so many other modernist hard-liners in photography or painting, the diffusion of art into so many different directions, in the wake of the Pop movement, has made his approach seem undeniably ‘dated’.

Strand would have disapproved wholeheartedly of Tracey Moffatt’s self-portrait from the Something More series – and not simply because it was printed in a laboratory, without recourse to a lonely hands-on vigil in the darkroom. The work’s greatest sin would be its extravagant theatricality – a gleeful and melodramatic sense of artifice that would not look out of place in a film still from The Wizard of Oz, or some Hollywood hillbilly musical.

The photography critic A.D.Coleman once wrote about Paul Strand’s work: “here is art without artifice, and it takes your breath away.” Tracey Moffatt, by contrast, is completely immersed in artifice. She could conceivably argue that art without artifice is an impossibility, since the very act of selecting a subject is a way of imposing an artificial order on random, visual data. One need not follow Murray Bail’s garrulous narrator, who would hand over all credit for a photograph to the subject itself, in order to appreciate the fallacy of the photograph as an objective window onto the world. Every photograph necessarily implies a point of view, and the way we ‘read’ the work may be crucially influenced by the context in which we discover it. Therefore, there is no reason why photography should not embrace artifice wholeheartedly, falling into the arms of fashion, rather than adopting the detachment of the Venus de Milo.

Walter Benjamin was enough of a Marxist to be concerned about the distortions of fashion as one of the driving engines of capitalism. Had he lived longer, he would have witnessed the increasingly promiscuous interchange between Art and Fashion. First the two act as though mutually hostile; each claims that it has nothing to do with the other, and they will never speak again. Gradually, however, a rapprochement is brokered, and they find, little-by-little, that they have a great deal in common. Finally, with the inexorability of a Barbara Cartland story, the two become one, while discreetly keeping separate houses. On a less exalted level, rather than see Art and Fashion as two starry-eyed lovers, it may be more precise to see them as two multinational corporations that have enacted a secret merger but continue to trade under their original labels.

No wonder Tracey Moffatt titled her work, Something More. The ‘something more’ of photography and fashion, is always art. By reciprocal arrangement, the ‘something more’ of art is fashion, and reproducibility is the secret of their happy relationship. The house in which they live – happily ever after – is called Publicity, and this article has just added a small extension.

Published for The Sydney Morning Herald, Spectrum, 2001