Sunday, December 23, 2007
When we see a painting or drawing we assume that its maker intended to produce it even if we are dead wrong on the nature of that intent. With photographs there is no such assumption. Unless the image has some sort of context or tag to clue us in, they are objects just like urinals and pipes. The truth of a photograph is limited to what is indisputably in the image, and even that should be subject to skepticism. Every photograph exists outside the intent of its maker; its meaning depends on the viewer. Whether conservative or avant-garde, artists who use photography struggle to direct the viewer to the realization that it was created as a work of art even if they don’t direct the viewer to any conclusion about content. This could be signaled by the way the photo was made, a photograph crafted so that artistic intent is clear, or how it is presented, such as in a book or on a gallery wall, or both. Photographs resist such indications, signals are missed and cues are ignored: a photograph’s status as art depends on the orientation of the viewer. The question isn’t whether photography is art but for whom it is art. There is a great temptation to make photographs that are shrieking art either by conforming to a traditional template or announcing contemporary fashion.