Art Needs Photography, More Than Photography Needs Art…

My good friend Jon Levy does not mince his words. An award winning documentary photographer and founder/editor of the legendary Foto8 magazine, and gallery space Jon is not afraid to express an opinion that comes from a passionate position of experience. The title of this article was the beginning of his recent tweet that continued like this “art needs photography more than photography needs art. with all this NFT blah it’s enough to forget photography is just a tool. without something to say, your pictures will always be just pointless and shit, regardless of your technology or your price. say something or shut up.”

As I said Jon does not mince his words.

His words often make me think and question my own view of the photographic medium, but in this case he put into words what I think with a force of language that I would probably not use. You may not agree with his stand on this issue, but let’s spend some time to explore his assertion.

We know that the camera is our tool. Without it we cannot make images, just as the painter cannot paint without paint, but Jon suggests that photography is our tool. Just like paint it is our medium of creativity and communication. Paint can be applied with many tools, just as photography can be undertaken with different formats and cameras, but the photographic image is our medium. I use the metaphor of the painter as it seems relevant when discussing art.

Just as the term ‘fine art’ has become tainted within photography by over produced landscape imagery, so painting is out of vogue amongst those involved with contemporary art practice. Multi-media has been the fashion for some time now with constructs replacing sculpture and three dimensional collage replacing the figurative approach to image making. Just view the 2021 Turner Prize Shortlist for proof of this

Art is looking to photography and in doing so it is encouraging photographers to view their work as art and describe themselves as artists, as artists embrace photography. The problem of course is what is art? And what defines an artist? We can all agree on what constitutes a table or a chair, but art like love requires a definition that is so subjective that it becomes almost meaningless. Art is in the eye of the beholder, but also in the eye of the purchaser, and there is no more cut throat, and subjective financial market than the art market.

But it is also in the eye of the curator and the creator.

Whether or not the work created has anything to say is also a subjective judgement. So often that message is defined by a piece of text rather than the image itself. Jon mentions the format of an NFT as a definition of what is perceived as art. It’s an NFT so it must be art right? Wrong! The format does not define whether it is art or not. An image on canvas is not immediately recognised as a work of art, and neither should an NFT.

Photographer as artist and photography as art is not an argument that can be won, and it is not one I am having here. Jon suggests that art needs photography more than photography needs it. I believe that he is suggesting that photography can exist without the art market and if that is the case he is right. Photography exists and has existed for many years as a commissioned editorial practice, a documentary practice, a journalistic undertaking, within advertising, as a hobby and many other forms of engagement with the medium. Art can also exist without photography but the art market has identified it as a lucrative source of revenue. One that is easy to sell through multiple limited editions, cultural connections and iconic pop culture recognition.

The art market likes photography and it likes to sell photography. It seduces photographers with the promise of gallery shows, high prices and international fame. It promotes these ideals through events such as Photo London and Photo Paris. Photographic supermarkets open to all, but reliant on the wealthy to exist. No buyers, no galleries, no show.

The bigger the print is the more valuable it is, and the more likely it is to become an intrinsic addition to any high value interior design scheme.

I have no problem with this until such work is lauded as being more important than other work that does not fulfil the art market’s criteria. When work needs to be explained to validate its price tag it has no true meaning, and as Jon suggests its integrity value is zero.

The NFT crowd claim to be breaking through these barriers by supporting each other, but they have forgotten that the value of an image is not decided upon by desire or expectation. It is set by the buyer and their willingness to invest. The art market understands this and is more than willing to create context (or reasons to buy) where there is none and utilise hyperbole when the existing context is fragile or out of fashion. The NFT guys scream buy! While the art market whispers invest.

The art market is booming, whilst other areas of commissioned photographic practice are diminishing. The idea of collecting imaginary work with imaginary money is therefore attractive to those not able to invest in the photographic stock that the market has dictated as being of value.

A Peter Lik at $6.5 million, or an Andreas Gursky for $4,338,500, maybe a Richard Prince for  $3,973,000 or why not a Cindy Sherman for $3,890,500. The commission alone on these sales contributes nicely to the auction house profits, whilst the headlines that such sales produce further stokes the photography as art machine.

Jon suggests that your photography should say something and I agree. It should say something more than what it cost, it should say something more than who the work is represented by and it should say something more than “I know how to play the art game.” It doesn’t need to say it is ‘art’ it should be recognised as being important for what it is and not what it says it is.

I think now I will shut up.

Dr. 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, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019).

Grant’s book What Does Photography Mean to You? including 89 photographers who have contributed to the A Photographic Life podcast is on sale now £9.99

© Grant Scott 2022

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