Thursday 21 November 2013

Documentary - 2

The ongoing debate about whether photography can be considered art has never been resolved. Perhaps it is best seen as a subset of a 'what is art' discussion.

One definition that Suki quoted in a comment to my last post is that art is what you find in art galleries. You do often see photography in art galleries. There are galleries devoted to photography. My favourite is The Photographers' Gallery in London. Suki quoted Grayson Perry from his recent Leith Lectures where he claimed you could tell a photograph was art if the subject wasn't smiling. Another definition is that photography is art if it is black and white. Sadly one wonders if it really does come down to this in the eyes of some. Loizart in her comment to my last post suggests that photography is best avoiding getting caught up in the 'art' debate at all and be confident in what it does best.

I saw a wonderful exhibition some months ago at The Photographers' Gallery by Laura Letinsky called 
Ill Form and Void Full. This exhibition was clearly art. It was just that the medium was photography rather than paint, clay, movement, sounds or words. It might have more in common with abstract art. Does not documentary photography have then much in common with representational art? Are they not both interpretations of what is seen? A good photograph is not just a record. It interprets. It asks questions.

I am unclear why documentary photographs should be excluded from being art or even 'fine art' just because it is documentary.A friend recently gave me a book of photographs from Life magazine. You would recognise many of the photographs in it. Life is a photo-journalist magazine and has published many wonderful photographs over the decades. Are they excluded as art because they are documentary?

Before photography much drawing, etching and painting was documentary. If a photographic portrait is documentary then is not a drawn or painted portrait? No? What if the representation was very realistic as in photo-realism? If it is hard to see quickly whether a picture is photographed or painted then why should it be denied the possibility of being art through being photographed but not if it was painted?

Is there really a line between 'documentary' and 'art'. If so how is it drawn? Who draws it? Why?

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  1. I think there's a clear-cut dividing line between 'photographic art' and 'documentary photography'. They are two concepts. They are different activities due to being differently motivated.

    But when one actually gets down to differentiating between particular individual photographic images where we don't necessarily know in which of these two contexts the image was made... This is much more complicated. How to distinguish - definitively - between what is 'documentary' and what is art? I think your words, Bel - "A good photograph is not just a record. It interprets. It asks questions" - apply to both categories of images.
    Don't they?

  2. Yes Suki - I agree that those words apply equally to both categories. That is why I think the distinction is perhaps less clear cut than you suggest.


    Well there have been so many words written about the role of intention in art that I think a discussion of that could lead us down a very well worn path.

  3. I think that interpretive documentary is 'art in its pure sense' if painted by an artist, but can be 'art in its broad sense' if photographed, and think it only fair that there is this distinction in terms of level of artistry because the image-capture methods differ vastly. A freehand artist uses only basic, unpredictable tools and materials i.e. brush, palette knife, paint, whereas a photographer employs a sophisticated, obedient servant - a camera. Former time-consuming, latter instantaneous.

    However, surely impact is more important than artistic level in matters photographic. Photos from Stuart Howat's Dales Folk Exhibition on are interpretive but not pure art in my view - but I don't care a hoot because they thrill me to the bone and as much as Rembrandt drawings, and a lot more than the Laura Letinsky photo-art exhibition Form & Void Full.
    Why is it "sad" then that some don't view photography as full-blown art? Visual art is no big deal in the grand scheme of things, and only a fraction is great.
    It's baffling that so many want to be considered artists nowadays....florists...hairdressers...cosmetic dentists... It's so American.

  4. I would agree with you about Stuart Howat's Dales Folk selection. However I'll argue that they are more than interpretive. Through taking people dressed for the countryside and photographing them not in their natural environment but in a studio setting provides a sort of contradiction that is thought provoking and poses questions. And if they thrill you to the bone as much as Rembrandt drawings I am sure he would be thrilled with that. If photography can thrill - and challenge and shock and sooth and excite and ...

    ... well, perhaps the discussion of whether or not to use the word "art" in relation to it becomes redundant.

    Thank you again so much for your thoughtful response.