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Status of Photography Paul Weiss (1961), in his Book Nine Basic Arts, classifies the nine basic arts as architecture, sculpture, painting, musicry, story, poetry, music, theater, and dance. Photography is not highly regarded by Weiss. In the last chapter he says, “They (photographers) have little and sometimes even no appreciation of the aesthetic values of experience. And when they do have such appreciation it is rarely relevant to their purposes. One need not…be an artist to use a camera with brilliance.
” (pp.216, 218) Despite the fact that painters such as Manet and Degas were highly influenced by photography, throughout art history photography has been considered less valuable and less important than painting, sculpture, dance, and drama.
When photography appeared in the last two centuries, it was hardly recognized as fine art. Around the l850s a cartoonist named Nadar drew two cartoons to humorously depict photography. The first cartoon shows that Mr. Photography asks for just a little place in the exhibition of fine arts.
In the second picture, Mr Painting kicks Photography out angrily (Rosenblum, 1984). In 1859 the French government finally yielded to the consistent pressure applied by the Society of French photographers and its supporters. A salon of photography formed a part of the yearly exhibitions held in Paris. The photographs were described as though they were works by hand, inevitably compared with paintings, and the same standards of appraisal appear. A landscape photograph, noted one critic, had the elegant look of a Theodore Rousseau. A photograph by another photographer was identified with pictures of Holman Hunt (Scharf, 1986).
The status of photography as fine art continued to be challenged in the late 19th and early 20th century. When Alfred Stieglitz introduced photography as a form of fine art, a director of a major art museum was skeptical: “Mr. Stiegitz, do you seriously think that photography is fine art?” (Public Broadcasting Services, 2000) The rejection of Stieglitz’s work by painters was even more blatant. Stieglitz said, “Artists who saw my early photographs began to tell me that they envied me; that my photographs were superior to their paintings, but that unfortunately photography was not an art…. I could not understand why the artists should envy me for my work, yet, in the same breath, decry it because it was machine-made” (cited in Leggat, 1999). In order to differentiate photography from the shadow of painting, Stieglitz encouraged photographers to use photography in the way that the medium could do best, and not “prostitute” the medium by trying to do what other media could do easily (cited in Desmond, 1956, p.54). Besides Stieglitz, other photographers defended the status of photography as a type of fine art. In the beginning of the 20th century, Man Ray went even further to abandon painting and devote himself entirely to photography. He said, “I began as a painter. In photographing my canvases I discovered the value of reproduction in black and white. The day came when I destroyed the painting and kept the reproduction” (Ray, 19??; cited in National Museum of Art/Aperture, 1994, p.7).
Henri Cartier-Bresson is another example. At first he was trained to be a painter. But after taking pictures in Africa, he switched his medium to photograhy because, “the adventure in me felt obligated to testify with a quicker instrument than a brush to the scars of the world” (cited in Squies, 1997, p.48). No doubt Man Ray, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and many others made photography a school of art. Today many art history books have little or no mention of those great masters. If I ask art majors or art history majors to what school Picasso belongs, every one of them can answer “Cubism” immediately. But if the same question is asked pertaining to Henri Cartier-Bresson, few of them ever heard of “Photography of Decisive Moment.” Further, nowadays it would be acceptable if an art school does not offer the photography emphasis, but painting is required. Even if photography courses are offered, they are electives while painting courses are compulsory. Painting overwhelmingly dominates in many art magazines such as American Artists and Art in America. Although there are several photographic magazines such as Popular Photographer and Outdoor Photographer in the market, they feature the technical aspects instead of the aesthetic. Take all of the above into consideration, it is necessary to build a theory of aesthetics of photography.
Few philosophers of art address the aesthetics of photography. Even if the topic is addressed, the way of studying photography by most photographers is highly reliant upon showing. For example, in 1977 a group of photographers held an exhibition and afterwards published a book entitled Reading Photographs: Understanding the Aesthetics of Photography. They proclaimed that “what we need, above everything else, is an informed and interested public that is aware of the scope and the nature of photography and consequently cares to go and see the best examples” (Photographers’ Gallery, 1977, p.7). However, the lower status of photography is not due to the lack of good examples, but to the lack of an aesthetic theory that locates the nature and scope of photography in terms of its relations with artist’s inner life, symbols, and reality. Since the last decade of the 20th century, the advance of digital photography has added more complexity to this issue. Digital photography is perceived as hindering rather than helping the status of photography. While conventional photography is regarded as a result of a mechanical process, digital photography is considered a result of an electronic process. Many believe that with more advanced machines, the creativity in the work declines. While further discussion of digital photography is out of the scope of this article, the preceding misperception, which can be found in both conventional and digital photography, is a focal point of this paper. Throughout history, many philosophers of art tended to develop a universal theory that can be applied well to all arts.
However, when those philosophers developed a “universal” theory, they relied on only one or two media; thus, biases are expected. For instance, Aristotle bases his theory on tragedy and claims it as the highest form of art. Susanne Langer (1957a), one of the most prominent philosophers of art in the 20th century, says in her book Feeling and Form, that the symbolic function of arts is the same in every kind of artistic expression. But she realizes that every art is different. In Problems of Art (1957b) she says that her approach to the problem of interrelations among the arts has been to take each art autonomously, and ask what it creates, what are the principles of creation in this art, and what are its scope and possible materials. A close cousin of universal aesthetical theory is “pictorialism, ” in which photographs are said to be judged in the same way that other pictures can be judged (Desmond, 1976; Sadler, 1995). Unlike universal aesthetic theory that can be applied to visual art, performing art, and literature, pictorialism confines the criteria of judgment within pictures. Pictorialism views photography as a means and art as the end, and de-emphasizes the unique and intrinsic value of photography. To rectify the situation, this paper will describe what photography is in terms of the uniqueness of the medium.
Audience’s Standpoint to Art There are two ways to approach the aesthetics of photography. First, we can look at photography from the perspective of audience. The second method is from the viewpoint of the artist. Collingwood (1950) tends to evaluate art in terms of its effect to the viewer. He states that art is not amusement but a magic that can bring the audience emotional current to keep their lives going. I appreciate the effort of Collingwood to exclude amusement art that only emphasizes mere sensuous pleasure from the genuine arts–art proper. However, how can we measure the emotional current? How can we know in what way the audience’s lives have been moved by the art? A picture that is an amusement for one person may be art proper for another. Furthermore, Collingwood (1964) asserts that art is the primary and fundamental activity of the mind. Art arises of itself and does not depend on the previous development of any other activity. It is not a kind of modified perception. He is disappointed at the whole of our education because it is an education in facing facts; it is designed to lead us away from the world of imagination in which the child lives. In his view, imagining is sharply opposed to thinking.
To imagine is to isolate the object; to think is to place it in a world of objects with which it is continuous. He concluded that each work of art is an object of imagination. The point he made about imagination can be applied to both artists and viewers, but he emphasizes the audience. He says that an object is only beautiful to a person who looks at it imaginatively, and that the kind of beauty which he finds there depends on the intensity and character of his own imaginative activity. I agree that art is an activity of imagination. A perceiver needs to imagine the implication beyond the words, the sound, or the scene bound by the frame. However, it is questionable to regard thinking as the opposite of imagination. This theory can hardly be applied to journalistic and high tech photography. Actually his assertion is inevitably contradictory. What is his purpose of writing books on aesthetics? He probably wants to discover proper ways for the reader to appreciate art. No doubt his writing is philosophical and the result of thinking! Also, I don’t think that Western education reduces imagination. From my own standpoint as an artist, imagination and thinking are complementary rather than mutually exclusive. Imagination must be based on facts. No matter how “other worldly” artistic creation is, it must rely on the facts of our real world order. As I mentioned, the viewer’s standpoint is one-sided. I suggest that combining the audience’s and the artist’s standpoints will contribute to the study of the nature of photography.
Expression of Idea of Emotion Langer (1957) tends to view art from the artist’s standpoint. She declares that art is an expression of the idea or the knowledge of emotion through symbols. However, my experience as a photographer leads me to believe that expression through the camera is based on the knowledge of both my emotion and the emotion of others. For instance, in my photograph “Japanese girl” a girl was blowing bubbles while I was taking her picture. The image of the girl and the bubbles conveys both emotion and meaning. Although her emotion dominates, my perception of her emotion drove me to add a Hoya Fog B filter on the lenses to amplify her emotion, and thus, the photo is an expression of the idea of both her and my emotions.
Langer (1957) holds that neither the external world nor the inner life of human is itself intelligible and therefore comfortable: Human comes to terms with the world and oneself by imposing symbolic forms, or patterns, which are themselves orderly and therefore intelligible. She asserts that every work of art, in whatever medium, is a “semblance” or an “appearance” through symbols. Sparspott (1965) criticizes that Langer’s theory “just leaves us right where we started in our quest for the proper way of describing a work of art” (p.425). Although the concept of “symbol” seems to be a tautology, it is still a usable term for understanding aesthetics of photography. Because the photographic image looks real, many viewers tend to forget that it is a semblance and overlook the symbolic nature of photography. Many times I have heard tourists complain, “The pictures of the place are very beautiful, but when I went there, I was very disappointed.” Sontag (1977) points out that photography is a “semblance of knowledge” or a “semblance of wisdom.” The camera’s rendering of reality must always hide more than it discloses. Thus, photography is “knowledge at bargain price” (pp. 23-24). In regarding photography as art, we must not engage the “tourist attitude” of viewing photos; rather, we must regard photos as a semblance or a symbol. To be specific, a photographer cannot take the subject as it is, and the viewer should not assume what s/he sees is what it seems.
In art there is something more than the appearance–the power of symbol. As Turner (1977) said, “Photography can use fact as a metaphor to create new fact” (Photographer’s Gallery, p.77). Another well-known photographer, Jonathan Bayer (1977), also said, “Good photographic images intrigue, present a mystery, or demand to be read. They are constructs of frustrations and ambiguities which force the viewer to actively interact with the photograph” (Photograher’s Gallery, p.9). Prominent art critic Berger holds a similar view that photography is a “quotation from appearance rather than a translation,” because the extraction from context produces a discontinuity, which is reflected in the ambiguity of a photograph’s meaning (p.128). Imitation of Reality Humans tend to organize the disorderly world in an intelligible way, as Langer says, but sometimes we reverse the process in attempt to disintegrate the world order into disorder. Sigmund Freud made an insightful point that humans have both life and death instincts-the tendency to create and to destroy. Does the world have an order? What is the relation between the art and the reality? These questions are important for us in defining what photography should be. In Bell’s well-known book Art (1921) he refers to painting as creation and to photography as imitation.
However, imitation is a strength of photography rather than a weakness. When painters regard painting as a creation, they treat the artistic realm as a self-sufficient world without the reference to reality. Therefore painters dare to ignore the existing world order and form their own. There is a controversy as to whether a universal world order exists as Kant, Hegel and Leibniz found, or whether there is no order and all things “just happen”, as Humes and existentialists suggested. Nevertheless, in everyday life we must assume that there is an order in reality or we cannot function in this world at all. Although modern artists are so revolutionary as to break many traditional rules of composition and color harmony, and do strange things such as to glue broken glasses on the canvas, they cannot make the paint float on the air, use paper as the stretched bar, or thin the oil paint with water. Because they insist that we must not judge art by the concepts of the real world and representation is not an important issue, modern art has gone into a state of anarchism. In fact, the nature, or the spatial reality, is full of order, though it has terror and ugliness. Artistic creation should be based on the real world rather than ignoring it. Photography is an imitation of reality. No matter how non-representational a photographic image is, the photographer must take a subject from reality. For example, once Grobe made a fabulous abstract image of matrical circles.
Actually it is a magnification of integrated circuits (Livingston, 1985). The image of a painting can be constructed through a pure mental process. But, when a picture had been taken, it means that the thing was really out there before. Therefore, the beauty of photography is derived from the existing world. A photographer can distort the scene by various filters, lenses, darkroom techniques, and/or digital retouching, but the skills are applied for enhancing the natural order such as making the color more saturated, polarizing the contrast, and so forth. Nonetheless, art, especially photography, also has the power to show the terror, ugliness, disorder and absurdity of the world. Sontag (1977) says that photography can reveal an “anti-hero” (p.29). In her view, American photography aspired to demystifying; some photographers used the medium to level the gaps between the beautiful and the ugly. A picture of an athlete could be taken at the moment that he falls. A photo of a beautiful woman could be taken while her make-up is messed up by rain. The camera has the power to catch so-called normal people in such a way as to make them look abnormal. However, even if you want to expose the terror and ugliness of reality, there will still be an order of terror and ugliness. Collingwood (1964) goes even further to say, “It is impossible to imagine anything that is not beautiful…ugliness is a low degree of beauty” (p.61, p.62). For example, war is terrible, but Wessing presented the horror in an order. One of his famous pictures is the scene of soldiers and nuns walking in different directions, which constructs a beautiful composition and implies a political or even a philosophical theme. In another picture showing a corpse and his weeping mother, Wessing wisely uses a high angle to form two diagonal lines amplifying the helplessness of the people. “Death of a Loyalist Soldier,” by Capa is another good example of how the terror of death can be presented in a beautiful and orderly manner.
The off-center composition and the decisive moment of the soldier’s falling reveals that it is a picture by control rather than by luck. When one judges a photographic image, reality should be as a reference. It doesn’t mean that the viewer should look at how sharp the picture is or how much the skin tone on the photo matches the real person. Instead, one should ask, “If the image on the photograph had occurred in reality, will the viewer think the image is beautiful and prefer it to the original one?” For instance, once I add a polarizer and a sepia filter on the lenses to shoot a sunset scene, the contrast is sharper and the red is more saturated. I love a sunset like that though this enhanced scene would never happen in the physical world. You may question, “Do you want the terror of war and the pain of death shown in Koen Wessing and Robert Capa to occur in this world again?” In photography showing tragic subjects, I don’t wish the incident to occur again, but the judgment should still refer to reality. Do we want to reduce war and death to “just happen,” or do we want to know why it happens and what we can do to prevent them from occurring? The order, composition, contrast, and color of the picture confers a meaning to the incident and invites us to think about our world deeply. Unlike mere imagination stated by Collingwood, it is an imagination with philosophical contemplation.
Photos by Non-Artists Besides the reality that can be perceived by our eyes, there are other levels of “reality,” which are revealed by high technology such as thermography and microscopic photography. However, can these photos which are made by non-artists for practical purposes be qualified as art? Besides the news photos taken by reporters, microscopic photos taken by doctors, thermography made by physicists, mapping satellite pictures for geographical study, and the computer enhanced pictures of planets taken by the probe “Voyager” and Hubble telescope also fall into this category. Although these pictures are extraordinarily beautiful, certainly they are made by scientists for non-artistic purposes. First, we look for the answer from the artist’s standpoint. According to Langer (1957a), art is the creation of expressive forms to present ideas of feeling, or what is called inner life. A work of art will carry the “vital import,” which is the element of felt life objectified in the work (p.60). The high tech photographic methods such as thermography and micrography are applied by a few special effect photographers. Although they may do it for illustration, they still have a “vital import,” for their fabulous images demonstrate the confidence of human wisdom, as well as the courage of exploring and demystifying the deeper structure of reality. Every kind of art should have the “vital import”, but only high tech photography imports the felt life with solid facts, the reference of reality that beyond our eyes. When we see those photos created by non-artists through the viewer’s perspective, the answer is still the same. Barthes (1981) discussed photography in his book Camera Lucida, whichoverwhelmingly centers on journalistic or realist photography. He says that the attraction certain photographs exerted upon him is advenience or even adventure.
As a spectator he is interested in photography for sentimental reasons. He states that some journalistic pictures, such as the one by Koen Wessing showing soldiers and nuns marching in Nicaragua, urges his immediacy of thinking in an ethical and political view. Barthes quoted a Latin term “Studium” to describe this kind of enthusiastic commitment (p.26). As Collingwood says, art proper is a magic that stimulates our morale to keep our lives going. Some journalistic photos can perform a function of provoking us to think about our existence and our world. Moreover, the scientific photos made with high technology, no doubt, bring us a tremendous morale. Mythology is an expression of our dream and desire, and science fiction is considered a modern mythology. If science fiction can inspire us to human wisdom and courage though we know that it is not real, then scientific photos, which bring us closer to reality and expand our imagination, should lead to a more positive psychological impact. With the high tech photographic equipment, we are able to see where no one has seen before in both micro and macro ways. We can magnify a cell 50,000 times, detect the variation of heat of any surface, scan the inner structure of a human brain, see the earth in a high latitude, and even reach out to the galaxy. It is apparent that those are surrealist pictures because we cannot see them with our naked eyes only. They are actually realist pictures and they give us “emotional current” more than science fiction. Appreciation of Process By looking closely at the nature of photography, we might question whether art appreciation is only limited to what the work is, or extended to how it is made. The former concern is more at viewer’s side while the latter is more at the artist’s side. Interestingly enough, photography is more likely to stimulate the viewer to ask about the artist’s process than painting.
When viewers look at my painting, they rarely ask me what brushes and paints I used. However, when people look at my photographs, they tend to ask, “What lenses did you use? What film is that?” Probably they think that the credit of a good painting should go to the painter, while the photographic equipment did the work in photography. Some of them even go further to think that if they have the same equipment, they can make the same pictorial effect. Actually, better equipment does not necessarily produce a better picture; although it increases the chances to create a good photograph. Prominent photographer Middleton (1997) made a valid point: “I’ll get better photos with a more expensive camera. Wouldn’t this be nice if it was true? Then all the best photographers would be the ones with the most money. Wouldn’t that be simple? Alas, the world of photography doesn’t work this way. Give John Shaw a $200 camera outfit, and his photos would still be phenomenal. Remember, it’s not the equipment, it’s the operator. No one ever asked Van Gogh what kind of brush he was using and, if you’re always asking pros what kind of cameras they’re using, you’re missing the point.” (p.47) Because people credit the photographic equipment, they regard those who do their own processing and printing as “advanced photographers.” When I was a painter, no one asked me whether I framed my works. However, after people noticed that I am a photographer, almost every of them asked me whether I did my own processing and printing. Indeed, to my experience, the darkroom work could be as routine and non-creative as using a one-touch camera.
Nonetheless, when you assess the aesthetical value of a photo, is it wrong to ask such questions as “what lenses did you use?” “what film is that?” “do you do your own processing and printing?” You should ask those questions if you don’t give the credit to the equipment and the photo lab. Actually, the technical information can enrich our aesthetical experience. This suggestion is in contradiction to the aesthetic theory which insists on feeling the art instead of thinking about it. However, the mind of the audience has both functions of feeling and thinking. It is absurd to demand the viewer to shut off the intellectual faculty and just feel about the art. Even if it could be done, the viewer might re-organize the feeling by thinking after he/she had felt the art,! If the viewer wants to share the feeling about the art with his/herr friends, he/she will present it in a systematic or at least comprehensible way. The process of conveying the feeling is no doubt an intellectual activity! You must comprehend technical information in a scientific mode of thinking. However, the thought may turn into a feeling, and eventually, an aesthetic experience. The technical information of photography is the process of production, which is qualified to be an art itself. The quotations, “love is an art” or “management is an art”, does not mean that love or management creates any physical appearance. Instead, these phrases suggest that the process creates the appearance. Consider cooking as a metaphor. In an authentic Chinese restaurant, especially those that provide Beijing dishes, the chef cooks in front of customers.
The ends (the food) and the means (the cooking techniques) are equally appreciable to the Chinese. Besides the effect on the picture, the skill of operating the equipment is also beautiful. Most people did not see how I made the picture. When I describe the process, you only can imagine it. The fascination of the skills could be viewed as an aesthetic experience. Previsualization The above observation is from the viewer’s standpoint. Now we switch to the artist’s viewpoint to see the role of technical knowledge in Photography. Edman defines art as “the realm of all controlled treatment of material, practical or other” (cited in Langer, 1957, p.110). Good art reveals the full or high percent of the artist’s control. Compared with other media such as painting, writing and composing music, photography is the most difficult art to have control. If a painter works on a painting, he/she will postvisualize the image-he/she sees what he/she is doing immediately. If the color is not good, he/she can paint over it. A composer and a writer can also enjoy the same kind of advantage. For a photographer, the story is entirely different. Often someone asks me, “The image looks great on the viewfinder; why is the print so terrible?” I always answer, “Don’t trust the viewfinder. You must previsualize the image by technical-know-how.” For instance, a sunset or a sunrise scene carries high color contrast. The range of brightness will not fit into the film’s latitude. In this case, I should add a neutral density filter for compensation.
The eyes, hair and skin of a White model is very reflective. In order to create a nice looking skin tone on the picture and avoid the red eyes effect, I should use off-camera flashing, or umbrella lighting. The above examples are simple ones for the convenience of illustration. I often encounter more complicated situations and have to consider many factors to predict what the picture will look like. Darkroom work, by the same principle, is also a work of previsualization backed by technical knowledge. There are two exceptions. A Hasselblad camera can attach to a Polaroid magazine. With this configuration, the photographer can take an instant picture to preview the possible outcome of the image before he has used the print or slide film. Also, photographers who use a high-end digital camera can preview the just-taken picture on a LCD display. However, neither approach is popular. Aesthetics is not simply a judgment of beauty. As I mentioned before, the more control the artist has, the more respectable his work. Whereas technical information seems irrelevant to aesthetics, in fact it is important for us to judge whether the photograph is a work of control or a work of chance. It is a serious challenge for the artist when he/she cannot see what he/she is doing. ConclusionTo affirm the status of photography in fine arts should be accomplished by exploring its aesthetics rather than by only showing good photos. Neither constructing a universal theory of art, nor applying pictoralism to proclaim that photography is like painting can help.
The theory of Collingwood that art as emotion and imagination is the view from the audience, thus it fails to analyze the medium’s uniqueness. Combining the viewer’s and the artist’s standpoints is a more appropriate approach for the study of aesthetics of photography. Unlike the claim by Collingwood that imagination and thinking are mutually exclusive, Langer views art as an expression of the idea of emotion. This is certainly true. A photographer must start with knowledge or ideas. Besides the knowledge of emotions, s/he should also have the knowledge of world order and technical information. The former helps both the photographer and the viewer to take reality as a reference, while the latter empowers the photographer to previsualize the image and lead the audience to the appreciation of the process.
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