David Spero shows The Social the light, discussing the relationship between photography and art at London's Barrio Central bar. Image copyright Karen McQuaid.
29 Mar 2011
Is photography art?
"Don't let's kid ourselves that the only good stuff is made in the name of art," said David Campany at The Social, in the first of two talks on the relationship between photography and art
"What's the relationship between photography and art? It's a big, pompous question and there might have been a time when I'd have given a big, pompous response but I don't have a clue any more," said writer and academic David Campany at The Social last night. "I'll try to respond in the time I have in a very personal way."
Campany got interested in photography when he was a teenager and his first contact with photography was through magazines, books and scientific studies, he said, none of which would necessarily be described as art. His first book, Art and Photography, included photographers both in and out of the art world and while he was aware there was an issue, he was still interested to see the hot debate it caused among reviewers on publication. "If you have a slightly affectionate commitment to photography it gets you into trouble because what makes photography exciting is that it exists in so many different forms," he said.
For him, photography made for magazines and papers is just as interesting as photography made for the gallery wall, and it should be left in context rather than isolated after the event. When he's teaching he prefers to show students the original magazines in which photojournalism appeared, he said, rather than single 'iconic' shots against a white background. "Art historians tend not to take photography seriously until it's seen on the wall, and that's a shame," he said, later adding, "Why do we let museums tell the history of these things?"
"Don't let's kid ourselves that the only good stuff is made in the name of art," he concluded.
Photographer David Spero took a similar tack, noting the battle of wills that took place at the Royal College of Art from 1990-93, when he was studying photography and the subject moved from the school of communications to fine art. "There was a lot of conflict with the art photographers who wanted a separation [from the photographers engaging with less conceptual questions] in the final degree show," he said.
Like Campany, Spero is wary of the process of canonisation through which documentary or fashion photographers are 'elevated' into a different milieu. He used photographer Jacob Holdt as his example, noting how the images in Holdt's 1977 book, American Pictures, were recontextualised when it was reprinted in 2007. In Holdt's original the shots, which show friends and scenes from the American underclass, are introduced with a long, politically-engaged text, and contrasted with photographs of mansions and other symbols of wealth. In the later reprint, the images are printed one by one, without text, on plain white pages, and the captions moved to the end of the book.
"Is that good or bad?" he asked. "The original book is a very careful account of the politics of the time, and shows the desperate houses of the cotton pickers alongside the mansion of the farm owner. The new book shows simple images on a white page. It raises questions about who's canonised, and what it does."
The Social is an informal discussion night run by BJP and The Photographers' Gallery on the last Monday of every month at Barrio Central, Poland Street, London W1F 8PS. Previous nights have looked at press vs documentary photography, fashion and advertising, but we're taking a night off on 25 April as it's a bank holiday.
- Luminous Books in East London is an artist curated bookshop specializing in second hand fiction, philosophy, art and curiosities.
- When The Photographer's Gallery closed to begin construction on a brand new space in Autumn 2011, many thought the bookshop would have closed with it. But in the spirit of keeping aspects of the gallery alive, talks and courses have continued to run in other locations and the Bookshop has been running from a temporary space.
- The Claire de Rouen Bookshop is not so much a place dealing with passing trade, but rather a destination people seek out, building its reputation based on word of mouth and those in the know
- Pastor Marrion P'Udongo has been called the "Oskar Schindler" of Congo, a man who's dedicated himself to saving and nurturing the lives of others. He's also been one of the most reliable fixers for photographers and journalists in the war-torn country, and he now needs your help
- Last month, CNN quietly announced it was laying off "a dozen" photojournalists across its US bureaus as, it says, the network can now rely on user-generated content thanks to new consumer technologies
- Earlier this month, Alec Soth took to eBay to raise funds for a charitable cause - the prize? A portrait commission with the Magnum photographer
- Rocco Rorandelli has been documenting the tobacco industry for the last three years, ever since he asked himself what lay behind a cigarette.
- When photographer Peter DiCampo decided to seek funds for his project Life Without Lights, he chose the Kickstarter platform instead of the more commonly used - at least in the photojournalism community - Emphas.is. But he had good reasons, he tells BJP
- Laura El-Tantawy has been working, for the past five years, on a long-term project about her homeland: Egypt. Now, as the country is undergoing massive political and social changes, she's appealing for help to continue her work
- Photographer Neil Osborne is raising funds on Emphas.is to document a success story - how one man has helped save the Black Turtle from extinction