A Rose by any Other Name…

“There are two parts to the process: taking the picture and finding ways of using it.”

– Martin Parr

“When that shutter clicks, anything else that can be done afterward is not worth consideration.”

– Edward Steichen

Two opposing viewpoints about photography (in celebration of the partisan political cauldron we’re engulfed in here in America!). I clearly am in the Parr camp, which seems to me more reasonable, pragmatic, inclusive, less arbitrary and less authoritarian – but, then again, I’m a Democrat…

I had a long talk this week with a fellow photographer who claimed that what I was doing with my images makes them no longer fall into the category of “photographs”. He couldn’t quite tell me what category they should be in – maybe digital montage, mixed media, ??? What he really meant by “photography” (when pushed) was “straight photography”, meaning a literal capture of something out in the world (the Steichen model).

The history of photography is filled with one identity crisis after another. In the relatively short history of photography (less than 200 years as opposed to painting which has been around for much longer) there have been a number of revolutionary changes that have caused confusion among photographers and audiences of photography. By far the biggest has been the introduction of digital capability. Many techniques used by photographers for years can now be done more easily and some techniques are only possible digitally. Photography has had a hard time hanging onto it’s self-image.

It is really, really hard to draw lines around these categories. The extremes are always easy to distinguish – some things are obviously not photography any longer, when they’ve been manipulated so heavily that clearly the photographic elements are playing a very secondary role. But as you move closer and closer to “straight photography” the demarcation lines become very personal and very arbitrary. My work tends to be (I think) in the gray areas where these lines are drawn and redrawn. Means I have to spend more time than I’d like talking about the process or just what this thing is, than looking at the finished product.

Many times this issue is irrelevant and I ignore it. Other times I can’t – when submitting work for juried shows, when selling your work directly (like at the Open Studio event we’re having next month), even when putting a tag on the wall next to a piece in a show describing it, you have to put a name to the category.

Sometimes I wish I was just a regular old oil painter!

7 responses to “A Rose by any Other Name…

  1. Bob, the argument is going to have less and less meaning as time goes on. What about darkroom techniques that purist photographers use to manipulate their output? And what about all those chemicals that we all would be wise to abandon for safer techniques?

    Though I am a purist when it comes to etchings, I will no longer expose myself to those chemicals either. I know there is no substitute for the delicate line of intaglio, but I’ll leave it to others to explore newer and safer methods. I’ve moved on to low tech on one end — simply pushing paint around on canvas — and high tech on the other, i. e., no inks, no acids, no mess.

  2. Love the work Bob! Bare-branched trees are a favorite image of mine and these are really great. The piece has a kind of natural beauty but foreboding feel at the same time, it’s really great. Maybe If I ever have some extra cash, this one is available as a print?
    I personally am a painter/drawer at heart, but have started working more with photography, I definitely fall into the Parr camp. Even before I began really using photographs more I always dug ‘experimental’ photography much more than traditional work. Ansel Adams type stuff obviously will always have a role to play, but I dig more non-traditional stuff.

  3. Well, heck, so I wrote the comment again and again it didn’t post. The only thing I can think of is that I included a URL, and WordPress maybe doesn’t like that (?)

    Basically, my comment was about how I discovered Jerry Uelsmann, the ultimate Parr camper, years ago. And I included a link to a particular image that reminds me of some of the work you have posted (though not these trees). I’m going to try to post this shorter comment now, without the link.

  4. If an image it’s interesting and visually poignant it doesn’t matter, really, how you (or me, or somebody else) created it…

    I can understand Steichen’s point of view (even if I’m neither a purist nor a Republican/conservator): if you consider the (unfair and not rarely dishonest) use of photo manipulation…

    Authenticity and total honesty – in pure/straight photography – could be an interesting issue…Today (even more as before, with the darkroom manipulation) image can be distorted, manipulated, falsified for political or other reasons…

    But, of course, nothing to do with your art, bob. I think the main thing is to make challengind, visually interesting images – which you do, no doubt…

  5. These trees are just around the corner from where I live – we are nestled in the country in the middle of (mostly) vineyards and (some remaining) apple orchards. And, yes, Ed, everything on my blog is available as prints in any size! Maybe someday…

    Sounds like you all are in the “Parr camp” so far, but I’d expect that from folks who are more painters. It’s some of the other photographers who tend to get uptight about this stuff! Yes, Jerry Uelsmann is definitely a Parr-fect example of what I’m talking about – he used to do his magic in the traditional darkroom. Photoshop is like the ultimate toy store for this guy!

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