Visual Resonances

by Karin Bareman

English Essays

Critical of the Photography Critic – On Adrian Hamilton’s View of E.O. Hoppe and Ida Kar

According to Adrian Hamilton of The Independent: “However successful photographers may be in capturing the world and life, there is something in them that seems to feel that portraiture is the higher form in which their craft challenges art, just as the portrait painters of the 17th and 18th century looked up to religious art as a higher form.” This statement dressed up as fact annoyed me as much as it surprised me. After all, is that what we feel and want as photographers? To look up to portraiture as the only relevant photographic genre? To aspire to being considered as artists instead of craftsmen? Has photography then been relegated to the domain of crafts, or has it never actually risen to the exalted realm of art? Why has nobody bothered to tell us before?

It is now common knowledge that in the early days of photography, the practitioners were still in two minds about the application of the medium. Originally conceived of as a way to record and study the world and its phenomena – Eadweard Muybridge’s experiment to see whether the horse’s hooves actually hit the ground is a case in point – photography has since its early days also steadfastly busied itself with producing works of art. True enough, photography practitioners took inspiration from painting and drawing. They even tried to emulate these forms of art as can be seen in the turn of the century pictorialist pictures such as Edward Steichen’s The Pond – Moonlight. In turn, painting took the direction of abstract work, perhaps thus precipitating an abstract turn in photography. And since the early days, photography has been plagued by constant criticism about the veracity of photographic records, thus pushing the medium even further into the realm of art. Although the art world has taken a long time to catch up with photography as a valid and relevant form of art, and photographers have taken even longer to consider themselves as artists rather than craftsmen, I sincerely believed this debate had been fought and squarely won.

Some photographers naturally drift towards shooting portraits, others choose to photograph landscapes, still others make reportage or produce autonomous photographic work. All are equally valid forms of photography, as are the underlying reasons for specializing in a particular genre.

Not according to Hamilton though. Not only does he not seem to consider photography as a valid form of art, perhaps unsurprisingly when taking into account that he is reviewing turn of the century photographers E. O. Hoppe and Ida Kar who are currently on show at the National Portrait Gallery in London. But he also seems to consider portraiture as the apex of all photographic genres. I am loath to make such a value judgment. Some photographers naturally drift towards shooting portraits, others choose to photograph landscapes, still others make reportage or produce autonomous photographic work. All are equally valid forms of photography, as are the underlying reasons for specializing in a particular genre. This seems to me to be no different from painters working in the earlier mentioned 18th century, such as J.M.W. Turner and Thomas Gainsborough, to name but one English landscape and one English portrait painter. Both were influential as well as important in art history.

But having first reluctantly embraced photographic portraiture as the ultimate and perhaps only relevant form of photography, Hamilton then states: “The ambition of many of its practitioners is that the camera can catch, in the way that they believe paint cannot, the inner soul of the subject. But the very act of staging a shoot, in the studio or in the home, and the composition of the shot is an act of self-consciousness by the sitter and courtship by the photographer.” I would have thought that by now postmodernism would have taken care of eradicating any such pretentious thoughts by the artists of being able to ‘catch the soul of the subject’. Portraits, be they paintings or photographs, are necessarily an interpretation of the subject by the artist. They are a reflection of the negotiation that takes places between the artist and the sitter during the production of said portrait. Whether a portrait is staged or not, does not really matter that much. As the excellent exhibition Street & Studio at the Tate Modern Art Gallery in 2008 showed, the distinction between staged or not is more artificial than it is real. Photographers of all walks of life have used both strategies intermittently since the start of the medium.

So what is Hamilton trying to get at? Is he criticizing the medium? Is he begrudgingly praising two photographers simply because they are exhibited in a hallowed art establishment? Why is he not judging the show and the works on their artistic merits by use of contemporary art historical concepts? Why is it that photography still seems to have to justify its existence as an art form? If photographers want to succeed in their practice, it seems there is still a lot of spreading the word to do.

1 Hamilton’s article appeared on March 21st: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/features/photographers-up-close-and-personal-2247596.html

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