One reason I like this book so much is that Badger describes a clear division within photography between the so-called art movement and the straight movement (for lack of better terms). Although his perspective becomes clear through the course of the book, it's only in the last chapter, It's Art, But is it Photography? Some Thoughts on Photoshop that Badger really comes out swinging. "When is photography not photography?" he asks. "When it's art." Them's fight'n words, but Badger puts them out there as calmly as if he's saying "The sky is blue." And he's right.
The art/straight argument flared up last spring in the aftermath of an essay by Paul Graham. Although Graham's essay received some accolades, he was also criticized by some, including Colberg. So I was mildly surprised to read Colberg's glowing review of Badger, since Graham's essay dovetails perfectly with Badger's opinions. Although Colberg cites many chapters by name in his review, he fails to mention the last one, the chapter which in some ways serves as Badger's straight photography manifesto.
"This the crucial difference, the gulf that still divides "photographer" from "artist". The kind of prices asked for a Gursky as opposed to say, a Robert Adams or a Lee Freidlander, are enough to suggest that. The gap is not as wide as it was, and narrows daily, but it is still there. I would suggest that it represents the residue...of a prejudice pertaining in favor of the artist as opposed to the photographer, a notion that there is something not quite right about photography...
"We are rightly suspicious of documentary photography, but then again, we always should have been. All photography is an interpretation of the world....There is no such thing as an absolutely transparent photographic document, yet at its best, at its simplest, the contact with actuality is as direct as it could possibly be....
Yet for so many this marvelous faculty is not enough. For deep down, they do not believe that photography... is an art. For many... to be art, photography must be seen to be art. And that, to put it crudely, means tricking it up —making a print the size of a room, or controlling everything from first to last."
While I agree with Badger 100%, I think many in the art world would find his sentiments terrifying. If I cite Colberg as an example it's only because I think he represents a common view, that the differences between, e.g., Wall or Friedlander are only shades of grey in the great spectrum that is Photography. In which case, why can't we forget our differences and just get along?
And maybe in one sense it is all one spectrum. Yet, as Badger notes, there are fundamental differences between the two approaches, between photography as post-conceptual illustrative tool and photography as its own self-contained creative route.
The art world acknowledges this difference by treating straight photography as a second tier endeavor. Some people —I'd even venture to say most people, whether in or out of the art world— just don't get it. The idea that someone like Atget or Evans, or even an amateur snapshooter, can express something powerful by merely recording without need for more conscious intervention, strikes some as dull or, worse, meaningless.
I would agree with Badger: "If you don't get Atget, or Evans, you don't get photography." I'm not sure you could say the same about Crewdson or Wall.
I apologize if all this seems a rehash of my defense of Graham last Spring. I suppose this issue will never die completely. I just thought the recently published opinions of Gerry Badger on this topic were worth noting, and celebrating. I may have to revise my bumper sticker from Thank You, Garry to Thank You, Gerry.