Monday, 6 February 2012

Still Photography? The Hand of the Artist

© Esther Teichmann
'Untitled' from Mythologies
Hand tinted C-type , inks & acrylic 
100 x 128 cm

So where does 'craft' come into photography? Well in my humble opinion it appears throughout the photographic canon in many guises, from the carefully assembled composition to the hand painted photograph, or collages & many of the techniques used since the birth of the medium. More recently many of these techniques have been re-employed by contemporary photographer's & artists alike. 

One such artist is Esther Teichmann whose work varies in its appearance & style to embody the themes she wishes to portray. In using many different approaches her work has a more collective feeling of curation when arranged for display. Some of her work recently exhibited at the London Art Fair in the Photo50 show pictured above is a hand painted photograph of a woman in a boat, hand painted by Teichmann using inks & acrylic. The resulting image has the feeling of uniqueness as it is brushed upon - literally - by the artist. Although the original image is created with the use of a mechanical instrument, the colour is added by hand, thus altering the aesthetic dramatically, as she allows the inks & paint run & drip down the photograph. There is an element of chance or even accident or fate involved in creating the final result. As this work would look different if another person were to apply the ink, it instantly gives it an 'authorship' which is hers alone. 

© William Eggleston 'Los Alamos'

Authorship is a loaded word. But every artist strives to achieve this. When I am asked - by photographer's especially - what this 'authorship' is, I mention William Eggleston. His work is identifiable as an 'Eggleston' at 20 paces. That instant recognition through his style, composition, subjects & colour are the perfect example of his authorship. It is something that often comes with time & prolific output, yet an undeniable phenomenon with many photographers. This would also be the case for many artists using other mediums, but for the length of this blog I am sticking to photography for now.
© William Eggleston 'Los Alamos'

So authorship has been briefly discussed. Now what for the title of this blog, 'Still Photography?' I have had several discussions with different individuals whose opinion on what constitutes as 'photography' & there seems to be somewhat of a division between the purists & those with a more open-ended view on the subject. My opinion on the matter is that it is up to the creator of the work to decide how they wish to present their work. A perfect example of this is David Hockney's photo-collages.

© David Hockney Paint Trolley, L.A. 1985, 1985 photographic collage, 41x61 in.
Now in themselves they are one-offs, like any other unique work. However, they could also exist as a print, but the original will always hold the greater value. It is not only the construction of the image, but the appearance of it as an object that counts. It is easy to forget (& many do believe it or not) that a photograph is not just an image on a 2D surface, it is an art object, just as valid as any drawing, etching, lithograph etc...

An example of this (an image reproduced from an original collaged image) is O' Winston Link's classic photograph, here:

For those of you who are interested Hallmark (yes the card people) own the original with the collaged screen/plane. A negative was made from this, which all further prints were made from.
If you ask the average person on the street how they value a photograph compared to an etching as an art object they will often perceive the etching to have greater value. Why is this? Well, I think that it is a common problem of perception through familiarity, or unfamiliarity.... 

By this I am talking about the average knowledge people have with regards to photography versus etching for example. Most people have access to photography & can take a picture with their mobile or cell phone or with a camera, i-photo, ipad etc... (I said take a picture, not necessarily a good picture.) But the notion of making an etching or having the experience of making an etching is much less likely. Thus, as a result they place greater value upon the other form, which although it can be produced in multiples also, is not quite as familiar to them. This lack of understanding regarding the 'limited edition' is something I intend to discuss in a lecture in the future as there is still some confusion - over how many is too many - in this regard.

Anyway, I digress...

© Walter Hugo 
Muse 2011
50cm x 40cm  Glass plate ambrotype
So back to photograph as art or art object. Is it any wonder that photographer's or artists, or artists using photography (pick your title) merge on occasion? The discipline is what you make it. Once upon a time before the BA in Photography existed, many photographer's began taking pictures commercially then developed their own personal work, or artwork (lets not get bogged down in definitions again) & the career as an artist came later. Now with numerous art schools studying photography or how to become a photographic artist. The path is directed straight to the gallery rather than 'treading the boards' in the commercial sphere first. This has its ups & downs. The ups are a more focused & driven idea of what they want to say with their work. The downs can be unrealistic expectations & a blinkered notion of their future in the art world. (I could go on about this for many more paragraphs, but for your sanity I won't)

The point I'm inarticulately trying to make is that as the lines defining different disciplines blur in the art world, so does the practice. I am by no means suggesting that this is the path of all photographer's - far from it - but those who see themselves as artists using photography will often come from multiple disciplines or later explore new ones & combine those together. (See Walter Hugo's work ) Galleries reflect this with mixed media shows on the rise &  art galleries displaying photography more than ever before. The art world in the whole in the UK has exponentially exhibited more photography as time has gone on. Simon Baker position at the Tate is welcomed by those in the industry whole heartedly, long overdue in the eyes of many. With fantastic exhibitions such as 'Exposed' last year with the forthcoming William Klein/Daido Moriyama exhibition due later this year to mention just 2. The acceptance of photography as a fine art see's more photography being displayed in art fairs, traditionally confined to the historically 'older' artforms. (Yes I could wax lyrical here again about the use of the camera obscura, Vermeer & the like, but you get the picture.)

So where are we now? In a recession that's for sure. Has this had an effect on art practice? I think so. As the market reflects the times, the lower end of the buying spectrum are more cautious when spending money on art. There is an element of nostalgia in the air, for the 'good ol times' that never were. 'Craft', home cooking, interior design, cupcakes, the hand made has made a huge comeback. Is it just 'thrift' or is the need to have something tangible to feel connected to? No one could argue that shop bought jam is better than home-made, so why not have a go? What does this have to  do with art? Well, in a small way, 'the hand of the artist' is back on the table. Works made through mechanical means like the camera can seem cold & less intuitive to the uneducated eye. I am talking about a basic human need to connect to another person, through their work. What better way to do this than buy a drawing or hand-stitched artwork whereby the interaction of the work in relation to the artist is evident? Or am I back to authorship?  'Craft' is not a dirty word. One dictionary definition is as follows:

craft [krɑːft]

1. skill or ability, esp in handiwork
2. skill in deception and trickery; guile; cunning
3. (Clothing, Personal Arts & Crafts / Crafts) an occupation or trade requiring special skill, esp manual dexterity
4. (Clothing, Personal Arts & Crafts / Crafts)
a.  the members of such a trade, regarded collectively
b.  (as modifiera craft guild
5. (Transport / Nautical Terms) (Engineering / Aeronautics) (Astronautics) a single vessel, aircraft, or spacecraft
6. (Transport / Nautical Terms) (functioning as plural) ships, boats, aircraft, or spacecraft collectively
(tr) to make or fashion with skill, esp by hand
[Old English cræft skill, strength; related to Old Norse kraptr power, skill, Old High German kraft]
Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged © HarperCollins Publishers 1991, 1994, 1998, 2000, 2003
(I've changed the colours here, see if you agree with the colours chosen & what they could represent)
The notion of craftsmanship should stand for quality. To assume otherwise when connected to photography practice would be a mistake in my opinion. That is not to say that everything we see on display mixing media reflects this. But after all art is subjective. The word 'trickery' above is also very telling. Perhaps this is something that still lingers in the minds of the die-hard photographer's who feel that anything other than a traditional approach to the medium is sacrilege? 
I think that there is certainly room for both. After all traditional methods have their place & always will. We are after all still painting on canvas amongst other surfaces...

Well I will finish here & let you my beloved readers make your comments & discuss this blog if you are inclined to do so. I hope I have put the cat amongst the pigeons here, as I'm sure this discussion is far from over....


A quick addition to this post in the form of a quote I received last week regarding this blog from the esteemed Francis Hodgson, whose site I recommend wholeheartedly:

" Really good post; tons here to discuss.  The comments should fill up, big time.

There are still misconceptions about the 'style' of photographs.  For many, the style seems nailed down in the technical choices: ring flash, Speed Graflex, giant lambdas on Diasec.... For others, the style is all about the subject matter: expensive-looking girls in hotel rooms, horses in motion, victims of war... 

I have for a long time wanted to do a show in which the technical apparatus is chosen by the curators, probably a simple camera but one which still allows a little control, like a Lumix. The subject matter is also fixed, within limits.  A dozen photographers famous for their 'style' are invited to participate. 

And the point is that surely the style will show through.  A David Bailey will still look like a David Bailey, even with the 'wrong' subject and the 'wrong' equipment. Because style in photography is made by the eye and hand and brain and culture and prejudice and previous experience and desire to communicate and all the rest, just as it is in any other art form.  To say that style depends on the gear and the subject is yet again to suppose that photography is a machine product only. 

But now, with the ready availability of minimum photography to everybody, those who want to be taken seriously have to seek ever more specialized ways of presenting pictures. Giant size is the simplest.  If it costs 'n' hundreds of pounds to make and frame a large print, it is obvious that you have to have 'professional' levels of commitment to do so.  It's crap, of course.  Many perfectly small prints made by perfectly ordinary systems are wonderful, and many highly finished super-arty presentations are of meretricious nonsense.  But in the desperate search to distinguish themselves from Everyman photographers, 'serious' ones strive to make their products look like something not available to all.  And the reason?  Because they don't understand that style in photographs is much more like style in other visual arts, and much less to do with the the crude branding of equipment and subject.

Francis Hodgson" 

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