The Horror of Technical Excellence

(© 2017 by Russ Lewis All rights reserved)


According to Brooks Jensen's editorial in the April 27th edition of LensWork magazine, the world of fine art photography is in great danger, if not already on its deathbed. Why is it in such danger? Because it's easier to make a technically excellent picture with modern equipment than it was with an 8 x 10 view camera on a tripod. We no longer have to spend days in the darkroom, saturating our clothes with the fragrance of acetic acid and endangering our lungs in order to produce Art. With the advent of improved cell-phone and point-and-shoot cameras anybody, just anybody can produce a decent picture. The mystique of fine art photography has gone the way of the dodo bird, a bird that was too easy to catch, and it won't be long before photography no longer is considered art.

There are at least four ideas in Brooks's diatribe that invite examination. The first is that in order to be art a photograph has to be technically superior. The second is that complexity and difficulty are what define a fine art photograph. The third is that a fine art photograph must be studied by the observer in order to be understood. The fourth is that the modern flood of cell-phone and point-and-shoot photographs is drowning fine art photography in a flood of triviality.

To examine these ideas you first have to answer the question: "what is art?" There's no real answer to that question, but for the purposes of my rant let's say art is something that gives you an unexplainable emotional jolt. I emphasize "you" because you're the one experiencing the jolt. The guy next to you may be numb to the same experience, but that's okay. Your reaction to art depends to a great extent on your life experiences, and his life experiences have been different from yours.

  If that's a reasonable definition of art then a picture that's a mere record of something, no matter how technically perfect, isn't art; it's reportage. On the other hand technical perfection sometimes can enhance that elusive emotional jolt. Brooks mentions the "good camera" guy who "understands" that the reason your pictures are so good is because you have a really good camera, and Brooks contends there's some truth to that idea, even though Walker Evans long ago put the kibosh on it by shooting for a while with a box camera.

Before people like Andre Kertesz and Henri Cartier-Bresson took the Leica, with its then relatively fast lens and fast film out onto the street, photography, by necessity, was done with a great beast of a camera on top of a tripod. Exposures were long enough that pictures of people had to be posed, and if the subject moved she'd be blurred in the print. Street photography – the quick capture of meaningful interactions between people and between people and their environment – was impossible, and was preceded by paintings such as Picasso's "Le Repas Frugal" (The Frugal Repast), and Degas's "L'Absinthe." These are wonderful works of art, but neither has the immediacy or accessibility of a good street photograph. 

Most of your friends and neighbors know who Ansel Adams was. Few know who Henri Cartier-Bresson was even though Henri was the most influential photographer of the twentieth century. Many of Cartier-Bresson's photographs can give you the jolt that defines art, but if you're familiar with his early pictures you realize the jolt doesn't come from technical perfection. The state of the art in the early days of street photography resulted in occasional slight motion blurs and slightly out-of-focus pictures. You had your choice between opening the lens all the way up to an aperture of perhaps f/3.5, giving you more shutter speed but less depth of field, with accompanying softness, or closing the lens to f/8, giving you more depth of field but a slow shutter speed and accompanying motion blur. Yet, with all the limitations and equipment imperfections that produced them, many of those early street photographs can give you the art jolt. 

In his editorial Brooks states that "People no longer assume that the production of a photograph is the result of arduous effort culminating in a significant accomplishment – let alone a deep or meaningful piece of artwork."

Well, if you've ever worked with a view camera you know there's a lot of arduous effort involved in getting the dang thing into position out there on the rock ledge over the canyon, extending the tripod, framing and focusing on the camera's upside-down ground glass, inserting the sheet-film holder, pulling the slide, replacing the slide after the shot, extracting and storing the holder, breaking down the camera, collapsing the tripod, and hauling everything back to the car. And whether or not all this culminates in a meaningful piece of artwork may depend on hours in the darkroom, mixing chemicals, developing film, exposing and dodging prints, washing and drying both film and prints, cleaning up everything, and running the risk while you're developing the film of screwing it up and having to start over.

  If complexity and difficulty are what define meaningful artwork, then working with a view camera always should result in meaningful artwork. But nowadays you can go out with a Nikon D810 and a VR lens, leave the tripod at home, hand-hold the same picture you'd have shot with the view camera, and without ever shutting off your darkroom lights produce the same picture you'd have made with the view camera, without the risks you faced in developing film. Somehow complexity and arduous effort just don't seem to fill the bill as parents of meaningful artwork.

  Brooks believes that nowadays if someone sees a photograph he doesn't appreciate or doesn't understand he "automatically assume[s] the fault is in the photograph." Of course the viewer assumes that, and of course he's right! And this hasn't just happened. It's always been this way. If we're talking about art, then neither understanding nor appreciation enters into the equation, and studying the work isn't going to help. When you first view a work of visual art, read a poem, or listen to a musical composition, you either get an emotional jolt or you don't. If you don't, the fault is in the artwork. Which is not to say the work is no good. It's to say the work isn't art to you. It's even possible that later in life you might come back to the work and experience the jolt. But for now the jolt is missing, and for you at least the fault is in the artwork.  For a photographer to assume that his technically perfect photograph is going to ring the art bell in everyone is chutzpah of the highest order.

Finally, we come to the problem of the overwhelming volume of fine art photographs we see today. From the way Brooks put it in the editorial I'm not sure where he's drawing the line on fine art, but he seems to imply that technical excellence defines fine art. Brooks isn't the first to bring up the problem with the current volume of selfies and similar stuff. It's been bandied about in my own local photo club, and it's true we're being swamped with trivialities. Brooks mourns because "When artistic (evidently meaning technically excellent) photographs were rare, it was assumed that they were all significant. . ." I'm not sure who, exactly assumed that, but my question is this: If we're seeing more and more technically excellent photographs, why are we complaining? Isn't that what we'd like to see: more technical excellence? 

The problem appears to be that those of us who labor to produce technically excellent pictures no longer get the kind of attention we once got, since nowadays just anyone can produce technically excellent pictures without straining anything.

  When I think about the current volume of technically excellent work I flash on the history of the first Impressionist exhibition in Paris in 1874. The Impressionists were banished from the officially sanctioned Salon, and had to exhibit in Nadar's photographic studio. The Impressionists exhibited about 165 paintings. The Salon, backed by the art establishment, exhibited paintings in every room, floor-to-ceiling, on every inch of space, and there was a lot of space. There were thousands of officially sanctioned, technically excellent paintings in the Salon. But who remembers the paintings in the Salon, and who doesn't remember the banished Impressionist paintings in Nadar's studio?

Time is the most effective art critic. Time culls visual art, poetry, and music, and when we look at what comes to us from earlier times, what we see is the best, or at least the survivors. What we don't see is the mass of garbage that existed contemporaneously with the good stuff. I suspect that in the long run that's what'll happen with photography. It certainly has been the case up to now. Brooks may have forgotten the mass of photography that's faded away, but it's there – even Henry Peach Robinson's "Fading Away," which was a classic work of pictorialism, a photographic genre that's gone the way of the dodo bird.

  At the end of his editorial, Brooks opines that artists are seen as artists "because they can do what the average person cannot," and asks: when anyone can be a photographic artist (because he owns a good camera) then what? I think the answer is that even though just anyone can make a technically excellent picture, technical excellence is not the definition of art. Effective art always requires an artist no matter what equipment he's armed with, and its the artist's eye and the artist's brain and most of all the artist's soul that make art.