Here is a question that a friend asked me over a year ago. When you photograph a work of art, such as a sculpture, or a building or an automobile can you consider that a creative work of art or is it simply documentation of someone else’s creativity? (He loves to give me these questions. My friend knows I think about them for months.) The short answer is “that depends” but the real answer has been staring me in the face for over a year. It’s a quote from the late Garry Winogrand that I have taped to the sill of the same window I look out all day.
It’s a rare occasion when we actually photograph something we created. Photography is usually about interpreting a subject and that same subject matter is infinite. The Eiffel Tower has been the focus of legions of photographers and as a photographic icon the world’s biggest Erector Set continues to be a popular subject. While the photographers did not create the structure they have found almost an infinite number of ways of interpreting this famous landmark and, in a sense, made it their own creation.
You could make a case that photographers are no more than opportunistic technicians. We wait for the right conditions or manipulate conditions to our advantage. Is that art? Of course it is. We are interpreting a moment in time and capturing the moment to share with others. We may not have created the mountain, building or person but that is irrelevant. Photography is about how that subject looks after being photographed. The art is in providing a meaningful interpretation of the subject.
Let’s use portraits as an example. Are the portraits photographed by Richard Avedon art? Is a mug shot taken during a police booking art? What is the difference? I’m not sure there is any. We are making judgments based on context. The mug shot with its hard light, numbers in front of the face and the very starkness of the face provide a certain context for our judgment. Avedon’s beautifully lit portraits of famous people provide another context. Remove the numbers from the mug shot, matte it, frame it and hang it in a gallery. Does it capture the spirit of the person? Is there a stark reality to the image that mesmerizes the viewer? It’s interesting to consider. It’s all about how the thing looks photographed.