Is photography art?
Jonathan Friday is interviewed by Artis Svece

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Artis Svece: – Bill Jay in "Cyanide & Spirits" claimed that the first photographers were more concerned with searching for new photosensitive materials, images in the eyes of murder victims and devices to attract children's attention during the photo session, than with the question of whether photography is art or not. Still, it is one of the first theoretical questions that were asked about photography, and it still keeps popping up, although nowadays it seems outmoded. I'm not so sure whether it has been answered, but most likely, it is one of those questions we reject because we consider them to be the wrong questions. How would you characterize the development of the discussion on the relationship between photography and art? What aspects of this discussion seem to you important for us today?

Jonathan Friday: – The question, as it is typically formulated, of ‘whether photography is an art’ has a long and complex history. It was first being asked soon after the invention of the new medium and rapidly became the subject of a protracted and highly partisan dispute lasting well into the 20th century. It’s hard to say when the dispute ended because it wasn’t a theorist or critic with an unanswerable argument that won the day for photography, silencing for all time the skepticism of the doubters. Instead photography itself, or rather the work of some very extraordinary photographers, demonstrated the capacity of the medium to be a source of great art by creating a body of work that captured and sustained the aesthetic interest of a wide community of art-lovers.

Such a quick summary of the history of a now redundant debate hardly does justice to the issues. You are right for example that the question, in its classical form, is badly formulated. But we can learn from such bad questions what the right questions to ask are. So consider a counterpart question, is painting an art? If we don’t beg any questions about what is meant by ‘painting’, and therefore suppose it to be something like the application of liquid pigment onto a surface, then its obvious the correct answer is sometimes yes and sometimes no. So what we want to ask is not whether painting is an art, but what explains the special value that some instances of painting possess? This special or distinctive value is of course aesthetic value, and it is notoriously difficult to provide a satisfactory general account of such value. Setting that problem aside and supposing we have some descriptive understanding of what it is to aesthetically value an object such as a picture, then with regard to photography there are two questions: first, are there photographs that arouse such aesthetic responses? – And I find it difficult to conceive how a negative answer might be given to this question. Secondly, why are photographs valued in this way?

This latter is the hard question, and to begin to answer it is to begin to explain the art of photography. Indeed, too often it is the case that contemporary philosophers of art think the matter is at an end when they have observed the difficulty of a negative answer to this first question. I have in mind those adherents of the institutional theory of art and other sociological and historical approaches to the identification of art who argue that something is a work of art just if it is identified as such by members of a sociologically or historically determined ‘artworld’. Such theorists would rarely frame the issue in terms of aesthetic responses and aesthetic values, but merely ask ‘Are some photographs treated as an art?’ Finding that some are so treated by for example some museum, gallery and art-school directors they conclude photography is an art. To my mind this is wholly inadequate, not because it draws the wrong conclusion but because it explains nothing. To identify something as a work of art is to attribute value to it, and what we need is an explanation of what that value is and why the object or performance has that value for some people. This it seems to me is the subject matter of aesthetics.

But there is another question that is far more interesting than the traditional question about photography and art, but closely related to it. I mean the question of what kind of art photography is. Does photography constitute a wholly new art, distinct from the other pictorial arts (and in particular painting)? Or is photography an art wholly continuous with, and not to be sharply separated from, the other pictorial arts? Talbot, the British co-inventor of photography, thought the medium was just another means of doing what painters had been doing for centuries and thus that no new art came into being with its invention. By the early 20th century the great practitioners of photography were seeking to establish an independent artform, one that needed to separate itself from the influence of the influence of painting in order to create its own values and standards. I doubt there is a right or wrong here, but the issue has been very insufficiently explored by theorists of photography and confusion about it has led to a number of debates in recent decades as misconceived as those earlier ones about whether photography is art. If I had to identify an aspect of the debate about art and photography that still has some importance today, I would probably say it is the question of the conceptual and historical continuities and discontinuities between photography and other modes of pictorial art.

A. S.: – It is hard to deny that photographs are certain kind of pictures. In your book, you used a distinction of two categories of pictures - Albertian and Keplerian. Could you characterize briefly this distinction and the importance of it for the analysis of photography? Is there any difference between representation of visual phenomena in a painting and a photograph?

J. F.: – Perhaps I should note that part of my reason for drawing the distinction between Albertian and Keplerian pictures was to emphasize the importance of the question whether photography is independent of, or continuous with, other pictorial arts such as painting. But let me set that aside and try to characterize the distinction.

As the name of the two kinds of pictures suggests there is some historical basis for the distinction between Albertian and Keplerian pictures, but it might be best in this context to set the details of that history aside. The Albertian kind of picture is the more familiar of the two. The most important element of it is the thought that the picture surface functions in a manner analogous to a window through which we see the subject matter of the picture. As such an Albertian picture is a marked surface that has been composed and constituted in relation to a supposed viewing point set some distance from the surface. Viewers of the picture take up that position and stand in relation to the picture surface as one does, say, to a one-way window upon an analogue world that has been created in the imagination of the artist. The paradigms of such pictures are the great works of the Italian renaissance in which the subject matter of paintings is either fictional or an imaginatively transformed version of the real world. That fictional or fictionalised world is present to us as viewers of the picture, but as viewers of the picture we are not part of the world represented or present to the people who inhabit that world.

A Keplerian picture by contrast represents a particular person’s visual experience of the real world. Suppose for example that you are looking at a picture that represents an implicitly present but un-depicted person’s visual experience of a scene in the real world. It is as if as the viewer of the picture that hangs on the wall is looking through the eyes of someone who resides within the world of the picture, and that world is the one and only real world. If this sounds obscure it is probably because we are so used to thinking of pictures on the Albertian model that alternatives to it can be difficult to grasp. But consider Velazquez’s magnificent painting Las Meninas – which is a fantastic example of a Keplerian picture. What we see when we look at it are a group of people – including the painter, the child of the King and Queen of Spain, various servants – looking out at us, almost as if we are as interesting to them as they are to us. But if we look into the represented background of the painting we see that Velazquez has depicted a mirror and that it reflects the outlines of two people, the King and Queen. So what the painting does is represent the visual experience of the King and Queen looking at the painter, their child, and all the others. We as viewers of the picture take up the position of someone who is residing in the world of the picture and in a sense see through their eyes. A final indication of what a Keplerian picture amounts to can be had by considering the common cinematic technique variously known as ‘subjective camera’ or a ‘point of view shot’. What the spectator sees on the screen is a representation of the visual experience of one of the fictional characters in the film drama – we see through the eyes of character rather than seeing what is happening from an imaginary perspective that has no real existence in the dramatic space of the film or the consciousness of the fictional characters.

Now at different times and in different places painters have been interested in creating pictures according to both the Albertian and Keplerian models; and likewise photographers have been interested in creating pictures of both sorts. There is no clear conceptual difference between each of the two kinds of picture that results from it being produced in either of the two media. Nevertheless, the dominance of the optical features of photography – what is referred to as the ‘eye of the camera’ – does give to the photographer a very great power to create Keplerian pictures. Many of the greatest photographers did not just create photographs that represented the world; they made photographs that represented their unique subjective and imaginative visual experience of the world. When you look at a photograph by Brandt, Arbus, Cartier-Bresson or Mapplethorpe (to take but a very few examples) you are empowered to look through very distinctive eyes upon this world – and for reason these are great artists of the Keplerian picture. Of course painters have been doing the same things for centuries, but I believe the visual qualities of photographic representation, together with the indexicality of that mode of representation, typically give the photographer the advantage over the painter when it comes to creating Keplerian pictures of great visual impact. But we should be cautious of generalities here – for not only have many of the greatest photographers very successfully pursued an Albertian mode of picturing, there are painters who have been every bit as much masters of the Keplerian picture as any photographer.

A. S.: – I think your suggestion could be very productive, I mean the idea that we should reformulate the question of photography as art and look for, or let us say - thematize, continuities and discontinuities between art and photography. I am not sure whether the question of continuity can replace the question whether photography is art, because, for example, the question whether singing, sculpture or poetry is art doesn't really depend on the question whether there is some kind of continuity between sculpture and painting or literature and music. Nevertheless, the continuity/discontinuity problem helps to notice much more besides the traditional question of what is art. One obvious advantage of such a formulation is that it does away with the illusion that there is yes/no answer to the traditional question of this relationship. An apparent disadvantage is that it immediately produces or maybe breaks up into further questions. For example, it is rather easy to notice that in past and nowadays photographers use, refer to and in their own way quote other forms of art, but is it enough to notice these points of connection or allusions in order to say that there is continuity? After all, we are not talking here only about the moment when photography made its appearance, are we? And then, the notion of discontinuity seems to be meaningful only if there is some presupposition or anticipation of continuity, one wouldn't talk about discontinuity of Ancient Egypt and photography, or pottery and photography, for example. So, the notion of continuity seems to be rather crucial here. And I don't really asking about the definition of continuity. Rather, it would interesting to know which continuities between photography and other forms of art seem to you important for understanding of photography and what photography does with these continuities.

J. F.: – I wouldn’t want to wholly replace the question of whether photography is art with the question of its continuities with other media. Rather I would argue that whether the medium can be used to create works of art depends on whether what is produced within that medium has aesthetic value. The best evidence that photography has aesthetic value is the fact that very many people find such value in it. If you like, the problem of whether photography is an art (and indeed what kind of art it is) has too often been thought of as a classificatory problem rather than an evaluative question. I doubt we can answer classificatory questions about art independently of an understanding of its value in the lives of human beings. If we accept that photographs have such aesthetic value then the question is what kind of art is photography? According to one tradition of practice and theorizing it is an art continuous with and not properly separable from the other pictorial arts. Under this conception, there are no distinct aesthetic questions about photographic art, no issues in relation to the medium that could not be raised in relation to painting and drawing, and no aesthetic qualities that distinguish photography and give it independence from the other pictorial arts. According to another tradition, with the invention of photography a new art was born, and not merely a new way of doing what the other pictorial arts can do. For this latter conception there is something distinctively valuable about photography that sets it apart from the other pictorial arts. Of course those who have wanted to separate photography from painting have recognized that the medium could be used to do what painters have long done, but they have tended to think this was a betrayal of the medium’s potential.

This is part of why I would wish to shift the emphasis to the exploration of the continuities and discontinuities between photography and painting. But it has to be emphasized that attempts to pursue this line of inquiry will only be adequate if they recognize the complexity of the issues and the many different traditions of photographic art. In this context I can probably only suggest in very general terms some of points of obvious relevance.

Consider for example the distinction between the Keplerian and the Albertian conceptions of a picture. A Keplerian mode of picturing is particularly characteristic of Dutch and Flemish painting in the seventeenth century, with a concern to represent the real world as it is encountered in vision – or to create pictures that reproduce the real world in the manner of a visual description. If we take this as our model of painting, then there are clear continuities between photography and painting that are worth exploration – and it is not insignificant that many of these northern painters were interested in and used camera obscura in the composition and creation of their paintings. It is as if among these painters the ambition to photography was first articulated and we can understand much about photography by exploring these pioneers of the Keplerian picture. But even here where the continuity between painting and photography is so apparent, we might still wonder whether the invention of photography gave the artist an ability to create pictures in the Keplerian mode of greater visual forcefulness than could ever be possible with paint.

On the other hand, the Albertian conception of a picture embodied in the painting of the Italian renaissance and much French painting in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries has aims, qualities and values quite discontinuous with those of the most predominate traditions of photographic art. Of course there have been and continue to be great photographers whose work owes more to the Albertian conception of a picture, and this tradition needs to be considered as well – but the nature of the photographic medium has often been thought to be ill-suited to these ends. This is a question of criticism that I would rather set aside here, emphasizing merely that if one wants to ask questions about continuities and discontinuities, issues of a theoretical or conceptual character sensitive to the history of the both painting and photography must be addressed, as well as issues of value. A good example of this might be the question of why photographers on the whole did not follow painters in the 20th century towards abstraction. Some of course did, such as Alvin Coburn and Man Ray, but the fully non-figurative photograph is the rare exception. Clearly then, this would appear to be one of the notable discontinuities between photography and painting. But where do we look for the explanation of it – in the differing nature of the two media, in the contingent history of practice, in the aesthetic psychology of artists and spectators, or some combination of all these?

These are not easy issues and questions, but I believe we will gain a better understanding of the art of photography by pursuing them than we will by carrying on the argument about whether photography is an art. At the heart of what we will learn, I think, is some of what is valuable about photography. With the acquisition of this understanding we will no longer even want to pause over the classificatory question of whether photography is art.

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