Saturday, November 15, 2014

Pinocchio's Furniture

This recent article in the Guardian has had the online photo world in a tizzy the past few days. If you haven't yet read it, please check it out. It only takes a minute but that's long enough to pack a wallop. Under the titillating headline "Flat, Soulless, and Stupid," Jonathan Jones lists several ways that exhibition photography falls short of the other arts. Painting or sculpture, for example. "A photograph in a gallery is a flat, soulless, superficial substitute for a painting," writes Jones, before supporting his claim with a rather flat, soulless argument. Flat? Soulless? Stupid? Them's fightin' words. They would be easy to pass off as irrelevant if they weren't coming from an art critic in a well respected journal. But they are. So what's going on here?

To give some context, Jones has a history of deliberate provocation. Why is Political Art such Elitist Twaddle? asks another of his essays. Another one gets right to the point, entitled The Tower of London Poppies Are Fake, Trite, and Inward-looking. And yet another opens with the unrebutted claim that "the moving image is much more artistically interesting than the still photograph, to me anyway." As someone in the public eye, he must know full well the likely impact of such statements.

So Jones has laid his cards on the table: 1) He's not a photography fan and 2) He relishes controversy. Knowing those two things about him, it's an open question whether the essay was half-intended as mocking satire, written just to push people's buttons and generate attention. That seems more believable than the idea that any serious critic thinks photography is limited to "unique documentary record of our own lives." So perhaps it's satire. I know I use that form sometimes, and that I deliberately blur the lines past the point where I'm no longer sure what's parody and what's real. This whole paragraph may be satire. The whole post might be. It's sometimes hard to know.

Whatever Jones' motivations, reactions have been predictable. If you vilify photography, photographers lash back. Duh. At least that's been my experience whenever I email anonymous insults privately to random photographers. But the rule also holds in a public forum. "Wow, was this written in 1969?" asks one commenter. "Cheap attention grabbing journo nonsense," writes another. A third opinion: "Jonathan Jones? A soulless and stupid man." And so on. There are 340 such comments and counting on the Guardian page, and many more elsewhere online. This one in particular is a nice rebuttal. And they're all pissed. I can find no comments in support of Jones.

Whenever I encounter a wave of lockstep sentiment —especially one I agree with— my kneejerk reaction is to question it. What if Jones is half right? I don't mean that photography can't be art. That's silly. But what if photography doesn't exhibit physically as well as, say, painting? 

Let me put it another way. Of all the art forms, I think photography loses the least when it's translated from physical form to screen. A painting or a sculpture viewed on a monitor is fairly useless. You generally need to visit the original to get a proper sense of it. But a photograph? Nowadays most photos either originate on a screen or pass through that form on their way to print. They've got digital DNA. They cross easily between screen and print, and I think most can communicate their message quite well in jpg format. But if the translation to physical object is done without proper care —which is too often the case— the resulting print will wind up a lifeless splotch of pixels. That is, it will be rather flat, soulless, and perhaps even stupid. 

Don't get me wrong. I love screens. Love them to death. Where would photography be without them? Its explosive growth in recent decades can be partly credited to the proliferation of screens. I see a few hundred photos a day on my computer and for most of them the screen obviates the need to see the print. That's great, and I think it's fairly unique to photography. Maybe I'm wrong but I don't think many sculptors out there are looking at 200 sculptures a day online.

It's the same with photography books. There's a reason they outnumber pottery or architecture books. It's because photographs and pages are both two dimensional forms. I know there are exceptions but generally that's true. "A photograph," in Jones' words, "...only has one layer of content. It's all there on the surface." That's the flat part of "Flat, Soulless, and Stupid", and on this point he's right. Literally. It's just a short hop from there to Garry Winogrand's "Photos have no narrative content. They only describe light on surface." And once you see it in those terms, Jones' proposal to replace photo exhibits with hand-held iPads is perhaps less of a stretch.

Pictures of Magazine 2: Girl reading, after Jean Baptiste Camille Corot, Vik Muniz

I've spent some of the past few days catching up on a few local exhibits in both Portland and Eugene. Considering that I couldn't make it to Paris Photo it seemed the next best thing. Ha. All in all I saw 8 shows and about 300 photos. I have to say that many indeed appeared to be flat, soulless, and stupid. 

OK, take that back. I wouldn't go quite that far. I'm glad I saw all of them. But for several of the shows, the experience of seeing prints live on a wall didn't add much to the screen experience. For example I'd already seen Delaney Allen's photos bandied about the internet before catching them at Nationale. The prints were larger and more detailed, and the subject matter oddly imaginative. But after all is said and done, big whoop. Splotches of pixels. 

The group show at Elizabeth Leach? Same deal. The prints fell into formation nice and tidy  like soldiers against the blindingly white wall. The main clue to the fact they weren't large screens was the price list: Most were in the $10 - 20K range. One might argue that Arne Swenson's covert surveillance photos achieve their goal even before reaching a screen. The nexus is him spying. The computer screen revisits the original. Then the print. By the time such an image reaches the wall of Elizabeth Leach, it's a rather limp exercise. Viz Muniz creates unbelievable collages from magazine scraps. He's a crafty genius and I'd love to see his work in person. But by the time they reached the gallery wall they'd been scanned and compressed into a digital file. Meh. Overall the show was rather off-putting. I think the desk attendant may have glanced up at me once, allowing me to feel not completely invisible for a brief moment. But I may have imagined the glance. 

Rubi Lebovitch's show at Newspace was rather sterile. Peruse them on the site and you get the general idea: weird cryptic riddles which perhaps hinted at the gallery's future curatorial direction. Ironically it was Lebovitch's non-photographic pieces which needed to be seen in person. One showed flies taped to a wall. Another was a chopped carpet. I have no idea what they were about, but I think they were the type of non-ideas which wouldn't translate easily into a jpg. Non-you had to non-be there.

One show that bucked the trend was Corey Arnold's Wildlife at Hartman. I think these beautiful inkjets must be seen in real life to have the full impact. Most were about a meter wide. Arnold has learned to dial back the saturation, sharpening, and digital artifacts to invest his photos with living energy. And the subject matter holds up its end of the bargain. I mean, how many nature/wildlife shots have we all seen? But somehow these aren't sappy. Good stuff. The jpg below will give a taste but it falls pretty far short of the print.

Head Strong, 2014, Corey Arnold

Camille Seaman's show at Camerawork probably falls into the same must-see-live category, but only because important details would be lost on a small screen. Although some of the cloud forms are gorgeous, the physical production is stiff, bright, and eager, and perhaps ultimately unbelievable, the cardinal sin of documentary work. That's not a problem for Teresa Meier. Her show at Walt O'Brien's gallery in Eugene is more concerned with Alice-In-Wonderland dreamscapes than real scenes. Meier pulls some interested combinations together but the Photoshopping is sloppy and amateurish. To pull off the Uelsmann effect you've got to sell it. She doesn't. In fact this may be one example where the prints are demonstrably inferior to the screen versions. 

Photography At Oregon's upcoming auction puts the exhibit/screen dichotomy to the test. Bidders can use online jpgs to preview the images now and see what they might like. But of the course the actual bids on November 23rd will be on real prints. It's a tall task to ask of a jpg. Can you connect to it strongly enough to commit to its physical manifestation? If a screenshot won't suffice some of actual photographs are up now at Dot Dotson's in Eugene. But I have to say most of these look pretty screeny even in print form, platinum prints by Dennis Purdy and Rebecca Zeiss being the main exceptions. Screeny. Is that even a word? 

Teresa Meier, showing at O'Brien Photo Imaging

The bright spot yesterday was the Blue Sky 40th Anniversary Show at Portland Art Museum. This is the semi-companion show to their book program I covered last week, so no need to say too much. Blue Sky has shown a very impressive roster of artists —it's a who's who of contemporary photo history. Larry Sultan, Robert Frank, Nan Goldin, etc. Major hitters, plus many great lesser knowns. And these are the original vintage prints pulled from various private collections. PAM is currently showing a few hundred of them going back to 1975. Yeah, you could sit at home and look at these on a screen. But you wouldn't. Unless maybe you're Jonathan Jones. 

So what's the difference? Why do these photos need visiting? I think much of it comes down to personal bias. I have a soft spot for photography from the 1970s and 1980s. Many of my photo heroes were active then. So when there's a chance to visit their works in person I like to take advantage. But I can't help thinking there might also be a digital twist. As I said earlier most contemporary photos either originate digitally or pass through that stage at some point. So new prints on the wall tend to feel like an extension of screens. Analogue prints don't have that issue. Remember, this may be satire. Or not.

There were very few people in the museum and I had the Blue Sky show mostly to myself. That's the way it usually is at PAM. It's a fairly large museum and most of it doesn't change much. Once you've seen a certain floor, there's not much need to go back right away. The result is floors and floors of inert pieces by famous artists that just sort of sit there in temperature controlled limbo. 

The photography section, shoved into a dark anonymous mezzanine, is exceptional only in its active curation. It has high turnover compared to the rest of the museum, renewing the work a few times annually. The rest of the museum is much more static. It might be only a matter of time before some indoor street-view app is developed allowing people to peruse the works from home. Or maybe someone can capture all the art on Instagram and we can visit from our phones. I'll probably continue to visit in person, just for old times sake. But how is the photography world going to convince Jonathan Jones? 


thechrisproject said...

"I can find no comments in support of Jones."

Well, you missed my hard-hitting, in-depth, research-backed reply on the Flak Photo Facebook post about it: "I thought there were some good points"

Then I muted the conversation because it's what reddit would refer to as a giant circle jerk.

Blake Andrews said...

Admittedly I didn't look very hard for positive comments. But I think we can agree most were anti-Jones.

Willie said...

Hi Andrew,
Greetings from Australia.
I enjoyed this post re the strange Mr. Jones.

As someone once said "They don't build statues for critics".

Perhaps Jones has the overwhelming feeling of approaching eternal legacy of being a long forgotten nonentity.

Cest la vie.

He can have his opinion, but history has already proved him wrong. That is the salient point.
His argument may have been made at the start of photography and then observers could have seen how right he was / or not.

Too late now. While some photography meets his rather self important views, there is enough around and has been for over a century to render his idea all but worthless.


Anonymous said...

The one thing I think Jones got right is that photos don't always work when hung and exhibited the way paintings generally are shown in galleries, with very few exceptions. Quote "It just looks stupid when a photograph is framed or backlit and displayed vertically in an exhibition, in the way paintings have traditionally been shown" His mistake is that he has drawn the conclusion that photography doesn't belong there at all, not entertaining the idea that it is a different medium and could successfully exist in galleries in a more appropriate way. There is no universal answer or correct way to exhibit photos (in my unqualified opinion), but I do feel that the prolific creation of images of most photographers in contrast to the slow hand made production of painted works, sculptures etc. should be represented at the printed level. Fill the fucking walls with photos, cram them in together and show more, show your shit experiments along with your best, old with new, and don't be so fucking precious about them. I have seen low rent group and prize shows that have this aesthetic, and I will generally browse the walls three or four times around and linger only on what floats my boat. Solo shows should often group photo series' jammed close together when appropriate and museums/galleries should purchase whole shows not one frame. The single 'Tulsa' image in the national gallery looks awfully lonely to me. And don't even get me started on limited editions FFS, as if they wore out the fucking negative or JPEG file or whatever making those 5 prints, print 100 of them if they are in demand! On coffee mugs, T-shirts, bumper stickers you pretentious prats! Ok maybe not always that, but pretending an easily duplicated print is somehow a one off or deliberately making it so is a little embarrassing if you ask me. But then there are times when the tried and true gallery display works, the Bill Henson retrospective I saw a few years back springs to mind, exhibited as per painting shows, and worked as such.

Stan B. said...

He states the obvious that photos are flat and surface only, then states the ludicrous- they look fine parallel to the ground, as opposed to the wall. Besides, paintings are just 2D representations of sculpture.

Unknown said...

I suspect that Jones' knee-jerk rant is fueled by his reaction to this year's Taylor Wessing prize winner. Even so, he depends on an underlying assumption that public art spaces should be reserved for exhibiting only works deemed most valuable on some elitist scale. I think that's a perennial question that still deserves some discussion... i.e. What (and why) should public art museums exhibit?

Your review is some ways fortifies Jones' position that ..."curators could provide iPads and let us scroll through a digital gallery that would easily be as beautiful and compelling as the expensive prints." But the important distinction that you strongly imply is the difference between pixel-based photographs and emulsion-based images. I can think of no reproduction methods that convey the same subtle beauty and power as a physical print created with a silver or other emulsion. As you note, the same cannot always be said of images made from pixels.

Ranger 9 said...

Maybe I read the wrong essay, but I didn't notice Jones being anti-photography. He just said it didn't make good "wall art."

I think he's right, generally. I used to exhibit photographs in galleries, and eventually I quit for reasons similar to what he discusses.

Galleries tend to be set up in terms of floor plan, proportions, lighting, etc. for viewing large single works that will be viewed from a "stand-off" distance. Certainly it's possible to make photographs that work in that type of environment, but that involves giving up the qualities that draw many of us to the photo medium: intimate detail, serialization, private relationship between viewer and work, etc.

Maybe "flat, soulless and stupid" is just a more attention-getting way of saying "doesn't fit the context."

Hernan Zenteno said...

I think Blake is right if one refer only to the shitty printed exhibitions. I always respect the craft of printing. I like do my own prints. I still remember the first time I saw and exhibition of originals prints of Sarah Moon photos made by a lost lab in some place at France. Was shocking for me. Now I scan my negatives and print with inkjet pigment printer and I can tell that is not the same photo that I see in the screen. The screen emits light, the paper reflect it. And there are variables like the kind of paper you choose and the size you print. If is well done I don't think is only a flat thing. I don't care if some specialist call it art or no. But simple is not a two dimensional thing, for me a good print mean a lot more.

Anonymous said...

The master of clickbait has returned with an article arguing, apparently in all seriousness, that the high price some fool paid for a print by Peter Lik (!) shows that "Photography is not an art. It is a technology."

Thank you, JJ. You've convinced me. Your column's titled "Jonathan Jones on art", so don't waste any more of your time on mere technology.

That article has 338 comments, a number that I presume is continuing to rise. Good for JJ. But it makes me feel a bit sorry for Sean O'Hagan, that same website's photography critic, whose most recent, "The best photography books of 2014" has got a total of just one comment in three days. Somebody please cheer him up by posting a comment or three there.