Do you ever look at a photograph or series of photographs and feel like you’ve seen them before? Do you experience a sense of image deja vu? Do you look at work and have no idea who the photographer is? Not because you don’t know the photographer, but because the work evidences no sense of personal visual language particular to the photographer. I do.
I find it strange that so many photographers who describe themselves as artists are producing work today that is so generic in both subject and approach. Suggesting to a serious artist that it is acceptable to consistently produce work that looks like a Warhol, a Turner, a Rothko, Hockney, Bacon, Riley or a Van Gogh for example would be rightly rejected as being both lame and inappropriate. Building a career on this basis would be even more unacceptable for the true artist and yet much of the work I see currently being created sits firmly within a very narrow common aesthetic sensibility.
The question has to be why?
Well, the answer seems to lie within the gallery based art market. I’d say that one of the most important and interesting aspects of being a photographer is being able to explore, find things, new and old, and figure out a way to tell them from your view point.
The problem is that the the art market does not want that, what they want is product. Product they can price and sell. It is at this point that external influences can take hold of the photographer.
Whilst working at an international auction house a few years ago, I found myself standing next to two framed images by the photographer Thomas Struth. The images were framed and leaning against an ‘experts’ desk, I say expert but the well spoken, expensively suited gentleman knew nothing of photography, he was in fact the salesman for the work, just as an estate agent rarely knows anything of building or architecture. I asked the expert how he decided the value of the two images, and without looking up from his desk or looking at me he responded “The bigger one is the most expensive!”
Perhaps this will come as no surprise to you but it was to me. Not because I was or am naive in the world of commerce but because there was no judgement of the quality of the image merely the profile of the photographer. From that point on the work was being priced per inch.
The art market likes a ‘sure’ thing, even it is wrapped up in the belief that its a ‘new’ thing. Therefore work that imitates or is heavily influenced by successful selling photographers is always going to be more warmly welcomed by commercial galleries and auction houses than work that cannot provide a successful selling history.
In time the spread of a selling but ultimately generic aesthetic becomes the dominant aesthetic and finally the accepted aesthetic defining an understanding of what constitutes art practice. It comes with rules, of engagement, of required context and of process. Collectors look for these rules to be followed or seemingly broken within the format of the rules. They need something to say when they are asked about the work by their friends to warrant the price tag and illustrate their taste and intelligence, so convoluted theory based conceptual jargon is expected to support the generic nature of the work.
Am I being too cynical? Maybe, but my cynicism is based on experience and some knowledge of the world of which I speak. A dominant aesthetic is I believe a dangerous thing. It can smother all other approaches to a medium and distort the possibilities of that medium. It can become a ‘go to’ aesthetic, an easy choice but inevitably an unrewarding creative solution. An approach that fits into an art world’s concept of what constitutes contemporary art practice but which shows no individuality of the artist. It is work devoid of personal visual language.
I was recently reading How To Be An Artist by Jerry Saltz. Saltz is the Senior Art Critic at the New York Magazine and received a Pulitzer Prize in Criticism in 2018. I think he is a voice that should be listened to. Throughout the book Saltz suggests thought processes to adopt if you wish to be an artist. He promotes the ideas of being true to yourself, of taking chances and dealing with negativity, in short he outlines the DNA of the true artist. At no point does he suggest that the true artist should adopt the aesthetic of another to gain acceptance.
I am not in this article calling out for a return to old ways or an adoption of new ways of photographic capture, but I am calling out for a true way. A way that is true to the photographer’s way of seeing informed by the work of others but not derivative of that work. For work that surprises, entertains, questions, challenges and informs. Surely, that is the purpose of true art and the true artist.
© Grant Scott 2020
Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Focal Press 2014) and The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Focal Press 2015). His next book New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography will be published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2019.