For me, Paul Graham’s The Unreasonable Apple, in which Graham lays out the argument for so-called straight photography —”photographs taken from the world as it is”— and its place in the art world, was one of those essays that seemed to come along at just the right moment. I had been thinking and writing a lot about these ideas, and the Graham essay seemed to crystalize the issue in a way that mirrored my own thoughts.
As powerful as Graham’s essay was, the real revelation for me was that it was put forth by an established art world figure. Paul Graham isn’t some outcast yelling from the back row. He’s a reputable figure in contemporary photography. Written from an insider’s perspective, his argument provided both hope and philosophical cover to many of us. Reading the essay I felt like a young kid in a Top-40 town who’s just discovered punk rock on the underground station. You mean there are others? And in positions of power? If Graham was thinking along these lines, I wondered, what did that mean for the art world at large? Was there some broader shift afoot?
If Jörg Colberg’s response to Graham is any guide, the answer is probably not. According to Colberg, photography’s problem isn’t lack of understanding. It’s too much internal debate. “People are still pulling their hair out,” he writes, “over how to differentiate between a photograph and what they call a ‘photo illustration,’ for example. Or about defining how much ‘manipulation’ is allowed until a photo stops being a photo. Or about how a lot of digital photography isn’t really photography. Or how artist XYZ took 500 individual source photographs to build a composite.”
Although Colberg doesn’t cite specific cases, his list of arguments is familiar. As he notes they seem to arise over and over, especially when straight photography is discussed. The general drift of these arguments is that touting the strengths of one form calls into question the legitimacy of others. That is, if I express a preference for straight photography, I’m seen as dogmatic or arrogant or drawing artificial definitions or claiming what is photography and what isn’t.
I think that whole line of thinking is a red herring. While there may be a small minority quibbling over definitions, most would agree that all types of photography are legitimate forms of expression. Straight, staged, composited, ray–o-graphed, jpged, sun-scorched, whatever, it’s all photography. To use Graham’s words, “it is emphatically not an either/or situation.” Few of us are “worrying themselves sick over whether it’s photography or not.” We’re beyond that. What many of us are wondering is why straight photography has been relegated to a secondary role in the art world.
Since its inception, photography has been a uniquely accurate method of visually describing the real world. Photography can also be applied —and has been used increasingly for roughly the past quarter century— as a tool to illustrate what’s in an artist’s head. Point a camera at a food prop and the picture might describe an advertising idea. Photograph an elaborate set on the street and the picture might describe a pre-conceived fantasy world. Or use a computer to collage several images and the resulting picture might approximate a painting. These are all legitimate uses of photography, but for me they are generally less interesting that what you get when you point a camera at objects as they are found in the world. When put to the task of blunt conceptual illustration, photography’s most profound and beautiful burden — to show us the world as it is— is ignored.
Even so, the art world seems to prefer this application. Why? According to Colberg it’s the sheer amount of internal debate. He writes, “If so many people in the photography world are having debates about photographs as documents, or how adding a caption changes the meaning (or whatever), or when a photo stops being a photo – why do we expect the art world to take photography seriously as an art form?” Thus the reason the art world prefers photographers like Wall, Sherman, Casebere, and Demand is that they don’t get bogged down in silly rhetoric.
Really? Personally I view internal debate as a sign of a discipline’s health. It means things are unsettled and dynamic. Would you rather photography be like pottery or glass-blowing? Do they have boundless arguments about the varying importance of cup styles or window glazings? Probably not, and that may be a reason why those crafts are not usually at the forefront of art discussions. Judging by its internal debates (and I suppose I’m adding to the pile with this essay), photography is perhaps the most vibrant and alive of all the arts. We photographers love a good argument. It seems this internal tension should attract interest in the art world not discourage it.
Instead, I think the art world’s fondness for conceptual photography is just as Graham says: “The art world doesn’t get photography”. Specifically, straight photography. Is it a craft? Is it science? Is it history? Is it art? How do we judge if a documentary image is good or not? Yes indeed it is 2010, yet these questions still linger. Unlike, say, a Crewdson image which is easily pegged as conceptual and perhaps even cinematic, rich with internal art-world references and counter movements and comparisons to Hollywood production and so on, a straight photograph taken from the real world defies easy explanation. What exactly is it? If it is taken by someone like Paul Graham, there is at least a chance it will be understood. He has a reputation and therefore the photo must mean something.
But what if the exact same photograph of reality is made by Joe Flickr? Then what is it? That is a question which will probably never be answered to everyone’s satisfaction. Yet it is the exactly the question which keeps us straight photographers going.