This past week G. & I spent our Thanksgiving Vacation in Washington, D. C. In addition to running around looking at the monuments at night (in the freezing cold), touring the Capitol, sitting in the empty House gallery listening to a police officer give his rather leftist interpretation of the intricate workings of the U.S. government, and going hungry because of the atrocious cost of food in our capitol city, we whiled away several afternoons in the excellent Smithsonian museums. I’d like to take a moment to talk about the photography was saw in two to them, and to contrast these to some of the paintings we saw.
Well, first of all I’m wondering what makes a good photograph. Yes, of course, I know this is one of those unanswerable questions, like What is art and Why is this awful piece of music so famous and My 6-yr-old could paint like that what makes it worth hanging in a museum. Right. But I was a little baffled by some of the sharp contrasts we encountered. I’d like everyone to answer, of course, but I’d also like to direct you to Rosie’s photo blog for you to view some contemporary photography & maybe bring it into this discussion.
First of all, we saw a collection of photographs of NYC at the National Gallery of Art. Here are highlights. I was confused by this exhibition. I couldn’t understand why these were worthy to hang in the first art museum in the US of A, why they were supposed to be good. I mean, I’m no photographer, and I know that photographers love to mess with traditional settings, etc., but these were just out of focus, poorly arranged or not intentionally arranged at all (like aleatoric music, perhaps), oddly cropped, and so on. I felt like any hack with a camera could do better. Yet here they were, hung all neatly in their lovely rows, with plaques pronouncing how revolutionary and profound and gritty and full of the sense of life they were. Well, fine, but I didn’t get it.
Then we went on down the road to the Museum of Natural History (or, as we young-earth Intelligent Design Creationist like to call it, the Museum of Unnatural Fiction). There we were swept breathlessly away by a fantastic, gorgeous, stunning display of photographs from the current exhibition of winners from a nature photography contest. Wow! These were just wonderful. Picture after picture, crystal clear, vivid color, astonishing poses, stories printed on the sides of courageous photographers risking their lives to get the perfect picture. Take a look at this one of a giraffe at sunset, or this one of a polar bear afloat on ice. These struck me like the great sky-scapes of Tuner. Then there were astonishing compositions, like this one of an alligator’s snout above & below water. There was one of clownfish, not presented on the website, in which the camera was placed below bright orange seaweed where brilliant orange-and-black clownfish played, and the leaves of a mangrove tree were clearly visible above the water in the sky beyond! Wow. And eagles in their nests, and snow monkeys frolicking in the snow, and owls & bears & flowers. G. asked why these shouldn’t be hung up the street in the National Gallery of Art. And I had to ask the same question. What made these beautiful, carefully crafted pieces “Nature Photography” and what made those fuzzy, haphazard NYC photos art?
Well, of course, it doesn’t really matter. We had our various enjoyments in each building. And people who would be, perhaps, scared away or bored by “Fine Art” were thrilled and blessed by those photos of Creation. So that’s fine.
And then here’s another contrast we experienced. There was one particular image of a bald eagle which became the icon for the entire exhibition. When we viewed it, 5’ long & 3’ high, in stunning color, G. said it looked like a painting. We were shocked that something in nature could be that vivid, that bold, that perfectly posed. The head looked carven, as if out of wood, and painting with sharp contrast. So that was our highest compliment to these photographs: that they resembled paintings. Well, the evening before at the National Portrait Gallery, we had done just the opposite! There was a starting painting of Toni Morrison by Deborah Feingold. When we walked into the spare, primary-yellow room, her figure clad in black & grey, with a determined expression on her face, leapt out at us from the bright white canvas. Unfortunately, this image is not available online. You’ll just have to go to D. C. to see it for yourself! But we could not tell if it was a photograph or a painting. We stood looking at it & guessed before we looked at the caption. One of us thought it was a photo; one, a painting. It was a painting, but you’d be startled to know that. She was coming right off the canvas at us! Her shoulders were a good five inches away from the white background, her hands and elbows and breasts curved outward towards us; and all this in two-dimensions. It amazed me. Here’s the link to the web site of an acquaintance of mine, friend-of-a-friend, who does photorealist paintings. Again, they amaze me.
Of course, you see where I’m going with this. We gave our highest praise to the eagle photo by saying it looked like a painting; we gave our highest praise to the Toni Morrison painting by saying it looked like a photograph. Why is this? Is the goal of visual art, then, to fool its viewers into thinking it’s something it’s not? Or, to put it in different terms, is mimesis primarily a deceptive practice?
And then what about art, specifically photography, that does the opposite: that achieves its artistry by giving an image of something that could occur nowhere outside its borders? I’m talking about “avant-garde,” or specifically “surreal” works, those fantastical images of random (or not-so-random) juxtaposition like this one of paper clips and cows by Rosie.
I have not even begun to talk about the ideological or spiritual implications of these questions. It seems obvious to me that an artists could incorporate surreal elements as religious statements that there’s-more-than-meets-the-eye, or that some people could take offense at what they see as the deceit of some art, or that comments could be made on social interrelationships by visual juxtapositions, or that photography & painting can slide in and out of one another as multiple visions of the way things are & they way they should be & the way the artists sees them & the way they could be.
Feel free to speculate.