Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Genius of Photography and the Ghost of Misrepresentation.

BBC’s series on photography – The Genius of Photography - is packed with interesting images and thoughts, albeit burdened by some less than interesting observations by assorted experts of the field. This combination makes what promised to be a feast to the eye, a maddening source of potential frustration as well.

It is at times a parade of the blatantly obvious, a gallery of well established figures some of which, given the chance to speak their mind, frankly do not match the expectations we might have had given their fame. A far cry from the refreshingly revealing book “A New History of Photography” by Michel Frizot, this series is a confirmation of cliches, preconceived notions, and a reflection of art market interests especially highlighted by folks with a strong American accent. If it is a truism that photography was invented – or discovered as some would say – in France and England, Americans were quick to adopt it as a quintessentially New World art form, possibly like the movies. Not only did Americans take the lead in its industrialization (KODAK) and popular diffusion, they also seem to have established the very canons of its appreciation as true ART with their legions of academics and scholars. Quite a feat, considering that despite this domination photography always was practiced worldwide at very high standards, so that no country in my opinion could claim first place. But these experts were also quick to bring photography in close connection to MONEY, and in this they can rest assured that supremacy of sorts is firmly established on the basis of the American Dollar. Quite surprisingly it is from the mouth of an art dealer, Mr. Kraus of New York, that the most inspired comments on early photography are to be heard: an appreciation of the beauty of the negative as an almost abstract object. Having met him in Paris I had the pleasure of being allowed to take some free cards, charming reproductions of early 19th century British photographs, the best deal you could get on the whole Paris Photo. This even though it was obvious that I wasn’t a wealthy collector but merely a dollar less European enthusiast. As to the why of this generosity I can only speculate and be grateful.

The problem with scholars is that they may tend to trust their intuitive intellects above direct experience. So on meditating about the image on the ground glass of a field camera, one argues that its image being upside down is actually helping the photographer in the perception of abstract compositions when dealing with the subject. Now, I don’t know about you, but having worked with plate cameras for years I can assure you that the upside down thing is completely forgotten, to the point of being hardly aware of it. In real life one gets used to it fairly quickly, while if anything it is the size of the ground glass that matters. An 8x10 tends to look like the final prints for the sheer size of it, it’s practically a contact print (in colour) of what you are going to get. When in the course of one programme you get to hear a few of these misconceptions, delivered from intimidating authoritative looking men in tie, you lose heart on photography ever being truthfully represented. The only thing scholars should speculate about is the way scholars themselves react to the images, or they could quite simply ask the photographers, and elaborate on their answers and other collected facts. And this they do to an extent, but maybe they ask the wrong people, or the wrong questions, or they are simply out looking for a confirmation of rather than a challenge to their own thoughts. At the same time photographers that have enjoyed recognition, partly through the endorsement of these experts, seem to be careful not to cross them. Let’s hope a time will come when those who practice the medium and those who comment on it will blend in unbiased synergy.

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