On photography

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I don't have anything to say in any picture. My only interest in photography is to see what something looks like as a photograph. I have no preconceptions.

-- attributed to Garry Winogrand (Wikipedia / Masters of Photography)

I thought about the Winogrand quote when I saw the Moriyama video. Moriyama comes close to saying something very similar but, more importantly, he also says that he does not see any great, big difference between what he is doing, and what any camera-equipped tourist is doing: snapping away to see what it looks like.

That, of course, goes right for the jugular of the question that will always mar photography: But is it art?

In the days when painting was the primary visual art, we were not always in doubt like that. To paint requires some basic techniques (photography used to, as well, but those mundane barriers are thoroughly gone by now.) We cannot really use technique in a strict sense as a shibboleth: no refined brush strokes to examine, et cetera. It is not like seeing the work of the casual Sunday painter versus the work of a Dutch master, is it?

But then this:

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Levine is best known for the work shown in After Walker Evans, her 1980 solo exhibition at the Metro Pictures Gallery. The works consist of famous Walker Evans photographs, rephotographed by Levine out of an Evans exhibition catalog, and then presented as Levine's artwork with no manipulation of the images. The Evans photographs made famous by his book project Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, with writings by James Agee are widely considered to be the quintessential photographic record of the rural American poor during the great depression. The Estate of Walker Evans saw it as copyright infringement, and acquired Levine's works to prohibit their sale.

Sherrie Levine

So, Ms. Levine creates facsimiles of what we are more or less certain is art (if, indeed, Walker Evans is art in a strict sense – he was, after all, primarily a documentarist -- I shall not be the judge here).

Fine art photography is photography created in accordance with the vision of the artist as photographer. Fine art photography stands in contrast to photojournalism, which provides a visual account for news events, and commercial photography, the primary focus of which is to advertise products or services.

Fine-art photography

So what makes photography fine art is the previsualization? Although I am sure many casual photographers do that -- and Evans, though being more of a photojournalist certainly also did. And some "commercial" photographers straddle this divide – think Galen Rowell.

Yet, we often feel what is what. But maybe not, or only because we are steeped in a tradition. Take away this historical knowledge, and maybe we are left with this:

A famous spoof:

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Hi Garry. You caught some nice poses here. Biggest problem is I can tell the horizon isn't straight. It doesn't look like a hill. Man at right needs to be cropped out. Sometimes I find if I shout right before I take the picture I can get people's attentions. If you had done so we would have been able to see more of their faces.

George MacWilken

Perhaps the final acid test is this:

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No, Henri did not do that (and perhaps he should have sharpened a little more, and fine-tuned his autofocus a little.)

I shall leave this can of worms out of it: what degree of digital manipulation is acceptable? Surely, for "fine art" anything goes. But for photojournalism? Is a little auto-contrast fine, but not a full HDR treatment? But what if you are Walker Evans?