I sometimes call myself a photographer. I sometimes think of myself as an artist. I sometimes hum the word 'oxymoron' quietly to myself... But mostly I just muddle on.
Whether or not it's of interest where and when I was born, where I went to school, what my early ambitions were, where I succeeded, where I failed, is neither here nor there. I'm just an old-fashioned rhino who happens not to believe that autobiography informs the work in any useful way (utility trumps prurience in my rules), so there'll be none of that here, thank you very much.
Some sort of credo, on the other hand, feels obligatory - in the full knowledge that practically everything written by photographers about everything apart from the brute technical aspects of their craft has been at best disingenuous and boring, at worst pretentious and unreadable.
(True - take me back to the pictures)
No serious student of photography can get away with not reading Susan Sontag ('On Photography' - pub. Allen Lane/Penguin Books 1977) - her intellect is fierce and her analysis thorough, and thoroughly stimulating. However, one or two of her personal enthusiasms, the selected exemplars in her own pantheon, expose the fundamental flaws in the whole fabric of the photographic critique.
Robert Mapplethorpe, for one.
There was a huge whoo-ha in the tabloids a few years back when some Republican pea-brain wanted an exhibition of his work closed down on the grounds of its containing obscene images likely to deprave and corrupt minors. The usual critical cavalry came galloping to the defence, and the heavy artillery -Big Susan - was finally rolled out to despatch the apoplectics back to the Land of Righteous Indignation. I suspect that what upset the Jesse Helms camp most wasn't so much their losing, but learning that these filthy pictures were valued at lots and lots of greenback dollars.
The central issue - fudged then - remains: a Google search on 'gay fisting' will turn up 487,000 sites*, mostly free images, many trawling for a $30 site-subscription, but none valued as anything other than what they are - an honest means to a pleasurable end. Susan, however, maintains that Robert's gay fisting images are art - because these images sit in a canon of work that includes many other subjects, from portraiture to still-life.
This isn't the first time - nor will it be the last - that an influential critic has tacitly endorsed the mistaken notion that everything an artist does is art - that Artist = Midas. It's a convenient prop to the galleries and the auctioneers. But it ain't true. It's a myth. Artists are rare. Geniuses are rarer. There has yet to emerge - frankly, I doubt that there will ever emerge - a photographer whose work is worth a single square centimetre of a Dürer, for example - one of the artists who provided the template for the tradition that Robert worked in. Set the best of Robert's canon - his 'Calla Lily 1984', perhaps - next to a similar piece of Albrecht's - his 'Great Clump of Turf', let's say - and, honestly, we're comparing Celine Dion with Radiohead. To be sure, Robert had picked up a few good lighting and composition ideas from the f64 large-format folk - from Edward Weston, from Imogen Cunningham - and we can discuss the sensuality of the image, its luminous texture, its neo-classical formalism, whatever - we can acknowledge its technical achievement - but we will look forever at 'Calla Lily' and never find in that photograph that something else that the 'Great Clump' is actually about. 'Lily' is about itself - about décor and style - 'Clump' is about wonder, amazement, harmony, respect, and a fearful sense of otherness. It's impossible to look at 'Clump' without feeling this. The beauty of 'Lily', on the other hand, belongs in the same category of 'beauty' as the fashion world - it is a stylist's construct. The fundamental difference between Albrecht's and Robert's worlds is that Albrecht rejoices in its unity, its inclusivity, its universal connectedness - Robert in its exclusivity, its élitism, its election-by-appearance. Robert's 'Lily' is an icon of commodification - it quite properly belongs on the wall of the editorial offices of Condé Nast. The message of 'Clump' is essentially radical by contrast: a message from a hugely different time, but one that offers a discomfiting riposte to anyone who's still unsure what art is actually for.
Susan was absolutely right to defend Robert's work, of course: censorship is never anything other than a form of political control, and must always be challenged. However, the fact remains that a significant (if minor) part of Robert's output was, self-evidently, high-class porn - call it 'erotic' if you must (the standard intellectual fig-leaf) - and the porn 'artist' (from Helmut Newton to Jeff Koons) is always and forever nothing if not an emperor with no clothes. (They're taking the piss, guys! Look - it's a picture of one guy with his hand halfway up another guy's bum! Come on!) Such a photograph is not saying or doing anything other than what it says on the label - it's not a metaphor, it's not ironic, it isn't in any way transliteral - it's 'artistic' only in the most mediated sense - the hollywood sense.
I enjoy Mapplethorpe's work very much. I think he's a fine imagist. I particularly like the 'Lady' series of portraits he made in collaboration with Lisa Lyon: they're quirky, obsessive, and sexy. They don't pass the Dürer test, though.
What photographs do?
What photographs can?
Ever since the signature 'R.Mutt' appeared on a urinal submitted as a piece called "Fountain" for (and famously rejected by) the Independent Artists Exhibition in New York in 1917, it's been impossible to take seriously the idea that a pictorial representation of anyone or anything bears any relation at all - other than a kitsch gloss - to the person or thing depicted. The death of God (either at Paschendael in 1915 or at Auschwitz in 1945 - the jury is divided) finally unhinged the tenuous justification for the idea of art-as-communicant, and the secular priests of the emergent, globally dominant religions of advertising and marketing have managed to subvert even Keats' "truth is beauty, beauty, truth" to their own ends. Photography was never about truth, which is why it became so quickly the sharpest weapon in the marketing arsenal. The deployment of the arresting image in support of the astoundingly untrue claims of - let's say - the cosmetics industry, has become such a commonplace that even to notice it is uncool. It has been incumbent on several generations of children to learn how to unravel the strings of these pernicious codes - and it is to their credit, in the face of overwhelming odds in the form of 24/7 media-streamed propaganda, that a precious few have managed to go even further, and have learnt how to cheat the Logo Lords of their tithe - how to subvert the subverters.
In a very real sense, photographs can't help lying, and photography at its best helps support that relatively harmless substructure of anodyne fictions that help elucidate our lives - photographer as tooth-fairy. The more we know about its manipulative capabililites, though, the better, and the less credence we give to such appalling tosh as the Helms v Mapplethorpe defence, the closer we'll get to tipping over that utterly fatuous applecart - the entirely anachronistic link between photography and High Art.
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update (november 2005) make that 3,320,000 returns on 'gay fisting' in Google.
my, how things do move on in the grand world of the internets!