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The Line Between Art and Photography | Ming Thein


Here’s a provocative question: is this image art? Why? Why not? Have a think about this carefully, for a moment. Today I’m going to crack open the lid of one of the biggest cans of worms in the whole of photography, peer inside, give you my 1.53 cents* and try not to fall inside.

*Devalued from two cents since 2009 due to underdeclared inflation, quantitative easing, foreign debt and other economic screwups.

Perhaps the biggest struggle photography has faced historically as a medium is to be taken seriously as an art form. I’d say it’s only in the last couple of decades that the results at auction have been able to hold their own against traditional art forms; even if a good chunk of us don’t understand why — myself included. (I’m probably not the only one thinking of Andreas Gursky here.) Yet we don’t have photographs insured for hundreds of millions of dollars, or exhibited behind bulletproof glass, or even the subject of exciting art heists — let alone Hollywood movies — why is this?

Culprit number one in this has to be a combination of repeatability and access. By repeatability, I mean the ability to make exact copies of an image ad infinitum; simple laws of supply and demand dictate that the more objects there are to go around, the less fighting over them ensues — and consequently, value falls. Even with an old-fashioned hand-made print — it’s possible to make more than one identical — or at least near-identical — copy of the same image from the same negative, which instantly means it can’t be as exclusive as a painting. Unless perhaps one destroys the negative or deletes the file after printing, I suppose. Though master prints still fetch some considerable coin, as do negatives, I just can’t see the same thing happening with digital files; right now, people pay for rights to use the images, but the file you download is identical to the file that’s in the image library. There is nothing stopping you – other than the law and your respect of it — from making identical duplicates.

I’ve always said the proliferation of digital photography is a good and bad thing; on one hand, talented people who wouldn’t previously have given photography a try have done so, and all of us benefit from their work, as well as a general raising of visual standards; on the other hand, access for all has devalued the individual image. I have to admit, I’m a little surprised by this; given that more people can now see just how difficult it is to achieve a given result, we’d expect that the ascribed value of an image should be closer to its intrinsic value now, right? The opposite is true: everybody can make an image, everybody can take the same photo as the pros if only they buy the same gear. And if I can take the same photo — as far as I can tell, at any rate — why bother paying for it? Blame it on the camera company marketers. In trying to push more gear to the mass markets at every-shrinking margins, they’re indirectly killing the halo effect that sold their gear in the first place. Sadly, former photographic greats like Hasselblad and Leica seem to be turning more into lifestyle brands than the makers of true tools for the artist.

In recent times, there has been nothing more democratizing than the cameraphone: not only can you take a decent(ish) quality image anywhere, any time, but you can also have it seen instantly by an extended network of people. And to make it worse, the images that are widely shared and viewed – think of them as making it into the visual culture of society – are inevitably the ones that are the shoutiest, not the best. Let’s not even go into the effect of hipstagram and the like. Take the first image in this post, for instance: in my recent flickr uploads, it’s achieved one of the highest number of views and favorites. I didn’t do anything special to promote it. Why? Obviously, people find something aesthetically pleasing about the image; does it matter that it was shot on an iPhone? Other than limiting my ability to print it at very large sizes, I can’t think of any reason why it should.

Suppose for a moment that somewhere down the line, the original file and EXIF got lost, a nice print came up at auction, and it sold for a good amount of money — because it’s a nice image. Then later on, horror of horrors, it comes to light that it was shot with a camera-phone. Would it change the perception of its value? Undoubtedly. Just because it was made with inferior equipment somehow instantly also makes the composition inferior, just like how a ‘pro’ with old or small cameras is still viewed by most clients and the public as being second-rate. Never mind the fact that it’s much more difficult to take a good image with crap equipment in the first place.


Read the full article here at Huffington Post:

The Line Between Art and Photography | Ming Thein.