A Litmus Test for Art

vapors 1, photograph

“If all your life means to you is water running over rocks, then photograph it, but I want to create something that would not have existed without me.”

Minor White

White wasn’t one to mince words and here he is being a bit judgmental in my opinion. But his point is one I’ve been thinking about lately.

There is an interesting period in the history of photography that started in the late 19th century and extended into the early part of the 20th – that of pictorialism. Photography started off being used to capture scenes very literally. The pictorialists wanted to use photography as an art form and they moved away from focused literalism to more interpreted images, often doing much of their creative work after the shots were taken  (about a hundred years before Photoshop!). Their photographs were often very stylized, softly focused, emotional. It was an attempt to make photography “art”, which was not it’s reputation at the beginning.

The dominance of pictorialism in photography lasted only about 30 years before being taken over by photography purists who insisted that images be in focus, more “real”, less like a painting and truer to the unique capabilities of the camera.

I wonder why this trajectory has occurred. Why the turn away from pictorialism (I admit I haven’t read that far so maybe there’s a simple answer).  I find my own work leaning much more toward the pictorial than the purist. I was told recently by a very well known photographer that my work “wasn’t what contemporary photographers are doing”. Hmph!

One of the things I like about the pictorial style is the obvious imprint of the artist. I both like to see that in the work of others and I like the opportunity to express myself more easily through my work. I like the idea that what I’m creating would not have existed without me – I think that’s a very good litmus test to apply to one’s work. Try it out…



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4 responses to “A Litmus Test for Art

  1. I have been studying the Pictorialist movement as well (and that’s what I call the work I do). The photographers that did this kind of work faced the same criticism that people using Photoshop do today. The comments and arguments I hear today are almost exactly the same as I’ve read about. As with most changes in public opinion the pictorialists were slowly squeezed out starting with the photography associations starting with the Royal Photographic Society. Give me a shout if you want some suggestions of texts to read.

  2. The putting of oneself in one’s work– unstudied, intuitively, and through one’s own eyes — is what makes any art interesting, I think. On another blog, we’ve been discussing Julie Mehretu’s painting recently profiled in New Yorker. On some levels, it’s an extraordinary painting but . . . there is little intuitive about it. Every inch of it can be sourced, explained, documented. And I think that’s what White is getting at, the response of the artist in the art that cannot be explained but has the power to create response in others.

  3. Getting to the nub, Bob. I often have to evaluate work starting from my lowest threshold of “what is art?”, and work up into the avenues and outcomes that spring from that. My shorthand for answering that is, “a made thing, of which someone is aware.”

    For non-artists, I give the example: ‘if I went into the wilds, and rearranged a scattering of stones, such that, when you came upon them, you could tell no difference from the natural scatterings beyond, then my art is lost. But if I carefully pile my stones in a cairn, and you are wandering through the wilderness and come upon them, then all your daydreams that you are the first to see this vista, or that only primitive peoples passed here, will vanish, and you’ll begin to wonder, “Who made this? When? What is its meaning?” You and I will have begun a conversation across time.’

    Photography is an excellent medium to gauge the artist’s role (in his own mind): Observer/recorder; Responder to the world; Maker of worlds. I’ve seen exhibitions where a camera is positioned randomly and a timer used to take pictures with as little selectiveness as possible by the artist (observer/recorder). A look at Ansel Adams work shows a ‘responder.’ Pictorialism, in its extreme, is a making of worlds. It’s largely a question of “How far did the artist stick his hands into this?”

    Surely the Observer is passive, minimizing his existence — attempting to erase himself. The Responder says “I am part of the world, and the world moves me!” The Maker says “I see the world, I’m part of the world, and I can affect the world.”

    … If I were a psychologist, these distinctions would have some meaning to me about personality, but I’m only an artist.

  4. I truly love this once in a million image! The smoke really becomes secondary to what wants to be seen: the abstract dancing/cubist form dissolving into the atmosphere after a moment of absolute beauty. (I get this!)
    In my own work of mixed stuff collage, I glue stuff down without regard to what it might become. After wards, I look and look for some form that wants to be seen. I seem to be just the messenger. That’s OK. I take the back seat to whatever is saying “look at me!”. purely without materialistic concern. Thanks for this!

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