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Robert Jones Photography

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Whither Art

This essay, which was written as a response on the photo.net bulletin board, best sums up why I photograph, and whether photography is an art, or merely a craft.

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Most intriguing, though, to me were Ellis Vener's comments, in particular:
“If others are looking at your work and calling it Art that is all well and good, especially if that recognition is what you are looking for. But if you start out saying ‘I will make Art today’ then you'll just pander to your own conceptions, and make Art for an audience of one.”

Ellis brings up a number of issues that are important to the development of an artist. The process of photography, to us, is — ideally — about the unfettered ability to “see” and to translate that onto film, and ultimately, paper. I fully agree with Ellis’ implication that often our preconceptions get in the way of our vision, our ability to see, and thus work becomes formulaic, hackneyed, predictable.

I believe that I am fair in inferring from his writing (and I'm familiar with his writing as well as his work) that as photographers what is more important is not to concentrate on art, but in being able to commit ourselves to the nature of our image, and more or less put ourselves at the service of bringing out the particular essence of our subject. That is, the artistry is of secondary consequence; the image, and quality and character of such is of primary importance, and art is an unconscious or subconscious by-product of committing ourselves to achieving our goals photographically. This is my own credo. The true artist is not concerned with the accoutrements of being an artist, but places his vision and commitment to same ahead of his ego. Paradoxically, only by denying his ego can he remain true to himself artistically. Once an artist's ego takes over, his concern is celebrity, not art, and it shows in the compromise and deterioration of his artistic vision.

Another paradox concerning art and photography is the reluctance of photographers to let the label “artist” adhere to them: Many shun it, and run from it as though from a plague. More than any other medium, many of our best prefer the moniker of “craftsman.” An unfortunate residue of this attitude is that many photographers will countenance nothing to do with “art talk,” and dismiss it out of hand. This, to me, is unhealthy, and a sort of atavism against which we advocates of photographic art have been taking up the banner.

Yet, the one healthy aspect of it is this: More so than any other artistic medium, photographers pride themselves in mastering technique, i.e., craft, and in perfecting each stage of the photographic process, from selecting the cameras with the sharpest lenses, choosing the film that best fits their style, passing down recipes for soup (spiced up with table salt, metol, sodium sulfite and other esoteric chemistries) rather much like a secret cabal of master chefs, and in printing and toning to achieve the ultimate image (digital is in the process of destroying all this built up knowledge and craft, but that is a topic for another day).

Of course, some photographers become so immersed in and obsessed with their craft that they can never fully emerge as artists, but this unspoken maxim by which many of photography's best abide is true: “One can be a craftsman without being an artist, but one cannot be an artist without first mastering his craft.”

In an age when so-called post modernist “artists” hang canvases of the Virgin Mother slathered in dung or even sell their own fecal material in cans for up to Museum of Modern Art for tens of thousands of dollars, we photographers who stress and demand technical excellence and commitment to the craft of photography have every right to feel proud for eschewing the easy, juvenile posturing of pretentious poseurs, and for standing up for the rigourous standards of our medium.

Which brings me full circle to assess my own status as an artist and how it squares with Ellis’ assertion than a photographer ought not be consciously pursuing art: Do I consider myself an artist? The answer is elusive, because I feel that I've only begun to scratch the surface of mastering the craft of photography. Do I aspire to being an artist? Most certainly, but I am not about to put the cart in front of the horse; I'm light years away from being satisfied with my printing technique. Ask me in 20 years.

However, I must take issue with Ellis' casting aspersions on making “Art for an audience of one.” Now, being familiar with Ellis' work as a successful commercial photographer, who employs a keen sense of symmetry and aesthetic refinement to his work, I can see where he's coming from: His images are highly polished and sophisticated, and more than fulfill the needs of his clients. As a professional photographer myself, I would give my proverbial right arm to be able to become as great a professional as he. As a professional photographer, Ellis is one of the few on photo.net who walk the walk as well as doing the talk.

That said, however — and speaking only for myself — the only reason I take on any professional assignments is to have enough sheckels to do what I love most, which is pursuing my personal artistic projects. My best work is done precisely in these projects for the simple reason that I am making art for “an audience of only one,” namely, myself.

I truly believe that as a corollary to “to thine own self be true” is the dictum that the best work is done by artists following their passions, and in directing their aesthetic and technical abilities towards bringing to artistic fruition those passions. The true artist wears his heart on his sleeve, or rather, on his Portiga Rapid or Orient paper. When he commits to making and presenting images, he is baring his soul for all the world to see. And, in baring that soul, he will be judged by his fellows: Is his soul dedicated to his passions, or his self-image?

If the answer is the latter, then his work can easily be dismissed as — at best — a narcissistic flight of fancy. But, if it is deemed the former, then he has created something universal, grand and timeless.

— Philadelphia, August 10, 2002

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