And furthermore ...

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Saturday, 20 November 2010


Photographic Curiosities

“Whoever produces kitsch ... is not to be evaluated by esthetic measures but is ethically depraved; he is a criminal.”
Herman Broch, 1933

Baudelaire was blunt in his opinion of people who thought photography was art; they were idiots. Real art was about the imagination and had nothing to do with machines. These days his invective sounds quaint, especially as most art now involves some form of technology. It’s as though someone insisted – they probably did – the typewriter would never replace the quill pen.

The argument as to whether photography is art or not became boring about twenty three years ago. At the same time it has never really been resolved. At some point we stopped wondering and decided some photos deserved to be, some didn’t. Still, it was a fight that went on longer than it should have and one result is the vast amount of photography churned out in the name of art where the only justification is its massive size, its reference to other well known works of art, the exorbitant price attached to it or its otherwise crude banality.

Back when the argument still raged people had more inventive ways to make the case. They painted on photographs, used mattes and multiple prints as if to say ‘I know this is only a photograph but it looks like art’. If they felt especially inspired they’d use multiple processes. The world is full of examples of this work and the odd thing is, they occupy a place that doesn’t quite sit with straight photography but we can’t call it art. It’s something else.

Maybe it’s kitsch but that word usually implies mass production and vulgarity whereas some of the works here are neither mass produced nor ugly. ‘Folk art’ is a more horrible term and it also suggests the creator is some backwoods naïf. Several of the people whose work is displayed here were working for a market they probably understood quite well. 

That’s one of the great things about photography. Economics demands that we attach definitions to objects; if we don’t we can’t give them a proper value. So much good photography however avoids categorization. Our response to it is purely instinctive. We like it, we can’t say why and we don’t actually need to.  The so called proto-modernist Baudelaire never realized that in the future art would be what we wanted it to be, which meant we’d never have to worry whether something was or it wasn’t. Meanwhile, like some huge toad watching insects swarm above it, a grossly indulgent art market gazes out through hooded eyes, wondering if this strange species carries a sting in its tail.



  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. John mah man..

    I will be utterly and completely frank...!

    Your blog has now become, for me, the best single source of inspiration and learning in the field of photographic dialectics since Barthe's Camera Lucida and Sontag's On photography. Many a delightful morning have I spent looking at id photos of passed-away turkish citizens, or victorian images, or pregnant essays on Lee ( Friedlander ).. today my "thank-you" box overflowed and I felt like giving dues where they are owed..!

    It's not only the quality of the writing, the thinking and the singular care lavished on your blog, but also the richness of the literature and the beauty and originality of it's angles.

    Having said that, may I be permitted a beseechment or an imploration or two ?
    Stuff like this is too good to read on wobbly monitors.. One craves to be able to take it with him, on the road, to be able to whip it out and read while resting at an oasis (!) or truck stop.

    Have you thought of self-publishing your blog ? It's ridiculously simple these days and you retain full control ( f.e. take a look at .. yeah, I know the name is ridiculous but they're really good ! )
    Not that it matters, but f.e. I personally would buy 6 copies straight of the bat to educate my photographer friends..!

    Now, you've no doubt considered all this. Please don't take offence at the blatancy (!) of my suggestions of what to do with your work.. but if "One man's treasure.." could become everybody's treasure that could be .. swell !




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