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An Artistic Philosophy–Why it’s Important

Sunday, 10. February 2013 23:30

If you study Henri Cartier-Bresson, you cannot but be struck by the quality and consistency of his work. (If you are not familiar with his photography, you might want to look here or here.) What strikes you immediately is that none of it is posed; it’s all captured. He said himself, “’Manufactured’ or staged photography does not interest me.” His work bears out his words. Even the portraits are captured; you have the feeling that as far as the subject is concerned Cartier-Bresson might as well be a piece of furniture.

This post, is not, however, to celebrate Cartier-Bresson’s work or photography in general, but to consider how one of the great artists of the twentieth century managed to do what he did and discover if his approach has anything to teach us.

He said, “To take photographs means to recognize – simultaneously and within a fraction of a second – both the fact itself and the rigorous organization of visually perceived forms that give it meaning. It is putting one’s head, one’s eye and one’s heart on the same axis.” Photojournalists, or those photographers who work in that style, spend entire lifetimes trying to master the approach set forth in the first part of the quote, an ability that Cartier-Bresson seems to have had from the outset. Perhaps it is not a learnable skill; perhaps it is one of those abilities that we either possess or do not.

And there are some of us to whom that way of working seems foreign indeed. A number of artists, even photographic artists, plan and experiment and pose models and do all sorts of intricate things, not because they lack Cartier-Bresson’s ability to size up the situation instantly, but because that is that way that works for them. For many of us, the creative act is not instantaneous, as it was for Cartier-Bresson, but rather a process, and sometimes a rather complicated and involved one that takes some time—and in some instances quite a long time.

That Cartier-Bresson’s “precise organization of forms” was instantaneous, certainly does not diminish yours or mine or anyone else’s who works at a different pace. More important—for us anyway—is the latter portion of the quote above, that we put our head, eye, and heart on the same axis. Only by doing this will our work achieve the excellence that most of us are aiming for—it must be the product of all our faculties.

The second quality of Cartier-Bresson’s body of work is the consistency of it, another goal to which many of us aspire. If you study his work and writing, what you find is that the foundation of his style is his philosophy of what photography is and his assumptions about how excellence is achieved. This philosophy informs all his work.  We are not talking about technique or environment. What we are talking about is a personal philosophy, an idea of what constitutes good work which governs his approach, technique, and choice of tools, and which enables him to engage eye, head, and heart to generate a remarkably high quality product consistently.

What Cartier-Bresson has to teach us is that if we develop our own philosophy of what makes an image or a sculpture or a poem or a play, then base our personal aesthetic and methodology that, we are more likely to facilitate full engagement and produce consistent results that are satisfying, both ourselves and our audience. It’s more than developing a style—it’s establishing a way of thinking that serves as the foundation of all our work, regardless of subject matter or medium. Our philosophies and resultant methodologies may differ drastically from that of Cartier-Bresson and from each other, but they are just as valid, and with such underpinnings, our work can improve both in consistency and quality.



Category:Aesthetics, Creativity, Originality, Photography | Comment (0) | Author:

The Art of Presentation

Sunday, 26. August 2012 23:34

The problem is not the art, but the presentation. “Context Matters,” posted earlier this year, discusses the impact of the environment on how we perceive art. But a series of recent experiences has suggested that the problem might be even more immediate than the room in which the piece is being shown or the temperature of the theatre in which we view the performance.

A very good friend of mine who teaches art at a university has said that the one skill that is lacking from almost every art curriculum is that of presentation. He teaches, among other things, printmaking.  While paper selection is a part of the art work proper, whether to frame or not is a question of presentation. Once that decision is made, the question becomes what frame. Then there is the issue of matting: to mat or not to mat? If so, how wide, what color, what shade of that color, what material, what spacing and proportion?

While the questions may be different, these sorts of decisions are not exclusive to printmakers. It is a problem that is encountered by almost everyone in the arts. What sort of pedestal do you want for that sculpture? What sort of border do you want around the digital art on the web? How can you best display your set or costume designs? And still it is ignored in almost every kind of arts class.

The artist/teacher mentioned above goes to great lengths to incorporate presentational considerations into his courses. In his classes he always brings up the question of how the students will present their work to the world. Others of us do a similar thing in other arts skills classes. But, unfortunately, we are in the minority. And there exist very few courses devoted exclusively to developing presentational skills. For example, many colleges and universities who train actors offer no courses in auditioning, the primary way actors present their abilities to directors. In a quick search, I could find only one that had a course exclusively in auditioning. I’m sure that there are others; I hope that there are others, since auditioning is so fundamental to the profession and requires a completely different set of skills from acting.

There are many approaches to solving the presentation problem, almost all of them trial and error. An acquaintance of mine, a photographer, has decided to print all of his images on canvas wraps, which represents to him a clean, easy way to present his images. Whether this will work for him I don’t know; we will have to wait and see. While it is easier and less worrisome to find one way to present and then forget it, I cannot imagine a single method of presentation working for all images—unless, of course all the images are very similar.

Many experienced artists continue to experiment and explore different methods of presentation. What worked last year, or even last week, may not work today, or for this body of work. The goal, of course, is to present their work in the best light possible, knowing that audience acceptance is what engenders success in the arts. And why wouldn’t you want to take the time and effort to present your work in the way that would make it most appealing?

“The work should be able to stand on its own without worrying about how it’s presented,” is a wonderfully idealistic and somewhat naïve view. The fact is that presentation does matter. Experienced artists take this into account and spend a great deal of time making decisions about the best method of presenting the work that they have created.

So, whether you are a school-trained artist or self-taught, or some combination of those, finding the best methods for presentation of your particular artistic vision, of your particular talents and skills may require a fairly significant investment of time and energy. The results may well be worth it in terms of developing your audience. As Hazel Dooney says, “It’s not enough just to create. Professional artists need to figure out how to show people their work. Without an audience, art is a hobby.

Category:Audience, Communication, Photography, Theatre | Comment (0) | Author:

Sell Your “Best” Work? Maybe Not…

Sunday, 10. June 2012 23:22

Recently, as I was selecting images to display in a group show, I found myself in a dilemma. The situation was that I had limited wall space, and so could only put up a few images. Selecting the images presented a problem. What criteria should I use? Did I want to show range, theme, color use, black and white (which some people associate with “fine art photography”), the pieces I liked best, the pieces that best represented me? This quandary brought up two questions: what was the proper way to choose? And what did it mean that I had pieces that I liked better than others?

To answer the first question I needed to think like a marketing/sales person. What did those coming to the show want to see, expect to see? What, if anything, that I had produced was marketable to this particular group of people? (I am not one of those who try to produce what the market wants; I find that a very unsatisfactory way to make art. I produce what, according to my instincts, needs to be. Only then do I look at it to try to determine if someone will actually want it.)

Your audience’s taste may not be yours, so selecting your favorites from all that you have made, while certainly a valid aesthetic exercise, may not be the best from a sales point of view. The very last part of my decision boiled down to a choice between a piece that I really liked because I found it to be very emotional and evocative and another that did not have these qualities for me. For this limited space show, I chose the second piece—not one that I disliked—but one that did not particularly move me emotionally. It was, in my judgment, more understandable, more comprehensible to the person who was likely to see this show.

It was, of course, a guess. I have only the most rudimentary understanding of the potential market for abstract photographic art, if such a thing really exists. Since the point of the show, for me at least, was exposure, I thought it was better to put things in front of people that I thought might interest them instead of indulging myself or attempting make some sort of “statement.” This was a marketing event and should be approached as one. So I did.

The second question was easier. I have written previously about artists feeling that what they create does not properly express their vision. That may cause the artist to dislike the artifact he/she has created, or at least love it less. This does not mean that the work is not good; it simply means that it is less successful from the artist’s point of view. The public may love it. Another reason that the artist may not be in love with his/her work is that he/she has moved on. Artists change, and these changes are often reflected in their work. This does not invalidate earlier work; it just makes it non-current, and thus non-interesting to the artist. The public is very different; they may love the older work— otherwise there would be no oldies concerts. Just because you don’t care for a piece that you created anymore does not mean that the buying public feels the same.

As artists, we would all do well to consider O. Henry’s advice and make work that pleases ourselves. But when we attempt to sell that art, we should offer whatever of our work the marketer in us thinks the audience will buy.

Category:Audience, Marketing, Photography, Presentation | Comment (0) | Author:

Art is Expensive – at Both Ends

Sunday, 6. May 2012 23:53

The price of art is on everybody’s mind again. This time the impetus is the sale of Edvard Munch’s pastel, “The Scream” at Sotheby’s New York for $119.9 million. The auction results were flashed around the world; in some cities radio stations “interrupted programming to announce the news.”  Within twelve hours of the sale, my RSS reader had picked up 22 articles and blogs related to the sale. And the range of conversations that this one transaction spawned was amazingly broad.

During the same week Lee Siegel, writing about Broadway theatre in “The Opinion Pages” of The New York Times lamented the fact that “what was once a middle-class entertainment has become a luxury item.” And it’s true. Even those of us who live far from Broadway have to decide if going to a professional theatre production or a concert is a budget-wise thing to do.

Although some have alleged that recent prices for high-dollar art have much more to do with investment speculation than with the art itself, Patricia G. Berman  says that “The Scream,” may actually be worth what was paid for it. But what gets forgotten in conversations about the value and price of contemporary art, at least that which is not inflated beyond reason by investors, is the cost of producing that art. For example, there is enormous expense in producing a play on Broadway, and beyond that is the risk for the investors.

Consider the revival of Death of a Salesman, which is the topic of Siegel’s editorial: there is not only the cost of the theatre rental, but the salaries of a world-class director, actors, and designers, not to mention all of the technicians that were required to construct and decorate the set, hang the lights, build the costumes, and those who run the show both backstage and in the house. It is an expensive undertaking.

And it is lamentable that this work, and a lot of art, is priced out of reach of many people. The reasons are complex and manifold, a reflection of the economic and cultural times in which we live.

Even art made and sold off the island of Manhattan is expensive, for all of the same reasons. Each medium has its own set of unique expenses, in addition to a huge investment of time and energy. Very few artists are in a position to give their product away. Yes, there are occasional free theatre presentations (and some of them very, very good), and artists sometimes make work for family or friends, but the reality is that if you make art, you will be required to invest not only your time but your money as well.

And, in case you didn’t know, art materials are not cheap. Even arts which have become increasingly digital, such as photography, have considerable associated expense. Yes, you can take pictures with your phone and post them on the internet, but if you are involved with fine art photography, then you probably want a more versatile camera, and you certainly need editing equipment and software, and, if you intend to show your work in galleries, you will have the expense of printing, and perhaps mounting, matting, and framing.

And all of that takes money, which is what stops a lot of young artists. They simply have do not have the funds to create their art. Some, who are driven to create, find ways to generate funding to produce their art. For those who can’t not make art of some kind, there is no choice.

In order to create, we must endure the expense.

Category:Audience, Creativity, Photography, Theatre | Comment (0) | Author:

What’s Important – the Image or the Artifact?

Monday, 23. April 2012 1:28

An acquaintance of mine recently declared that he was going to hang no more prints in his home; from now on it was to be only originals. To me this means that there will be no more lithographically printed images on his walls, but only things created by the artist. It also means that those pieces hanging on his wall will be one-of-a-kind. But I wondered what this person would do with regard to photographs. What constitutes an “original” in photography is open to discussion, if not debate.

Photographic prints do not have the uniqueness that hand-drawn or painted pieces have. This is particularly true of digital prints, which can be reproduced infinitely, with each print being just as good as the previous one. What then constitutes an “original” photograph?

There are several responses to this question. The first is to issue prints in limited editions, a procedure used by many fine art photographers. The number of prints in an issue is fixed, but different series of different sizes or formats may exist. Generally the purchasing public relies on the photographer’s integrity to guarantee the originality and scarcity of limited edition prints they might buy. Some US states have laws that regulate photography editions; some do not.

This procedure is not without its difficulties. One of these came to the fore recently when a collector sued renowned photographer William Eggleston after Eggleston created a new issue of images that had previously been printed and sold as limited editions. The new images were of a different size and printed using a different process. At stake, according to the lawsuit, is the value of the original collector’s images; he maintains that the new issue has devalued the prints he owns.

The problem gets a little cloudier with open editions, that is, editions that are essentially infinite. Then whether it is an original or not usually depends on some rules of thumb, such as whether the photographer actually printed or directed the printing of the image, or whether was it done by someone else or after the fact.

The second response to the problem of original photography is to somehow create a unique artifact. There have been two articles in photography trade magazines in recent months on making encaustic photographs, one about a photographer who uses the process and one how-to article. Even though each piece is based on the same digital print, each is unique because of the manual encaustic process used. Thus each is an original, and some would say much more than a photograph.

There are other solutions. Some photographers, like Gregori Maiofis, make prints using archaic and complicated chemical process which induce small differences print to print. This guarantees that each image in a limited edition is original.

Also recently I had a conversation with an instructor of print-making who had spent an entire semester working with a graduate student developing a process by which photographs could be used as a basis for creating plates for intaglio printing. Since each print is hand pulled and because of the unavoidable variations in every printing, each image would essentially be an original.

On the other end of the spectrum are photographers who celebrate the infinite reproducibility of the digital image.  Counted among the reproducibility advocates are those who appreciate the giclée, a reproduction of a hand-drawn or painted image. Digital files are made from the originals; then reproductions are produced using a giclée printer. Some are accepting of giclées because of their quality; some consider them mere copies. The advantage of any digital reproduction is, of course, that the image can be duplicated in an affordable format.

Money and quality are always issues, but the question really is are you interested in image only, regardless of how it was created, or do you want to own an “original” artifact?

Category:Originality, Photography | Comment (0) | Author:

Should Provocative Art Carry a Warning Label?

Monday, 16. April 2012 0:09

In case you were not aware, Houston has been home to the Fotofest Biennial for 26 years. The festival turns the entire city into one huge photographic art studio. And there are as well a number of activities both for photographers and viewers. Usually I try to get to as many of the spaces (97 this year) as I can. So yesterday a friend and I wandered through several spaces looking at contemporary Russian photography.

Every time I visit Fotofest, I come away with new ideas, feelings, and opinions. This is not a recounting of this year’s—I’m not done yet. Rather it is a look at one incident that occurred yesterday. Reactions to most of the images we saw were fairly predictable: liked some, disliked others; appreciated some, not others; discussed some, left others uncommented.

Then we got to a piece named “Abortion.” The piece was series of nine or ten photographic images of a young woman undergoing an abortion. The photographer had then drawn on the photographs and made notes (in Russian, of course). The images were numbered and then placed out of sequence.

My friend said, “This piece tests the limits of open-mindedness. I think that I am offended. There should be a warning sign.” She went on to say that you consider yourself open-minded and then you see something that goes over the line—and you didn’t even know that there was a line. She acknowledged that art had provoked her before, but this offended her. That, she declared, was a unique experience because it was the first time in her life that she had ever been offended. And she didn’t quite know what to do with the experience.

Later conversations revolved around whether photographing something, drawing and making notes on it, arranging it, and hanging it on a wall constituted art and on the photographer’s intention. We agreed that we couldn’t decide exactly what the he was trying to do. Although the piece certainly had impact, it was not a convincing anti-abortion piece, nor was it effective pro-abortion propaganda. It was not reportage. Perhaps not being able to read Russian was preventing us from understanding. This, however, was not an issue with other images and series of images we saw that day.

But my mind kept going back to her comment that there should have been a sign. The images were too small and placed too high on the wall to be examined by young children, but the question of adults was something else entirely. How is one to determine whether the art you make will be offensive to someone when there are so many people who are easily offended?

Or is this a curatorial issue? Many theatres will warn audience members when the subject matter or language of a play is considered “adult.” Movies, at least in the US, have ratings. Both of these approaches allow potential viewers to make more informed choices about whether to see the work or not. And I have been to exhibitions of visual art (usually photographic) that have a sign notifying those about to enter that the images will be graphic or explicit or whatever. I’m sure that some people appreciate such warnings. It would seem odd, however, to label individual pieces with such warnings.

Although I have made up my mind, whether the piece was art or not is certainly open for debate, as is the question of whether it is good art. It did do one of the things that I think art should do: provoke the viewer. I don’t think this is the only legitimate goal of art, but it is certainly one of them. And if it provokes to the point of offence, maybe it’s something you shouldn’t see, but then, maybe it is. And if it teaches you that there are limits to what you are willing to view, then perhaps that is useful information.

There are things that we all prefer not to look at, but perhaps, once in a while, confronting something that makes us uncomfortable may not be a terrible thing.

What do you think?

Category:Aesthetics, Audience, Photography | Comments (3) | Author:

Seeking Arts Career Advice? Be Careful

Monday, 9. January 2012 0:00

Over the last six months, I have purchased two books and enrolled in one online seminar, all designed to help me better my photographic career.  Both the books and the seminar came highly recommended by various magazines and blogs.

Unfortunately, none of them lived up to their promise. One of the books offered advice that most practicing photographers already know. It has a nice layout and some pretty good images, and it attempted some interesting concepts. But the writer, perhaps unsure of his audience, reduced the concepts and their application to convoluted inanities. I tried a few chapters only to find that same approach throughout the book. Needless to say, I did not continue.

The second book that I attempted had information that was better; however, the writer had made the presumption that his readership was only marginally intelligent. Constantly on the edge of talking down to his readers, he over-explained everything. There was never any doubt about what he was trying to say, but he said it in the most simplistic terms possible, which, regrettably, got in the way of what good information the book contained.

The online seminar was superior to either book in that it neither talked down to the participants nor was so vague or simple that it had no meaning. And there were multiple presenters, which introduced some variety. There were occasional pieces of information that, properly applied, could be quite useful, but a good portion of the information was recycled, so I’m not sure that I really got my money’s worth.

These three instances are what Mat Gleason calls the advice industry. Gleason, in an excellent article entitled “Twelve Art World Habits to Ditch in 2012,” says:

You gotta do this, and you gotta do that, and most of all you have to buy the art advice book on how you can make it on your own as an artist by doing all of this stuff on your own. Advice is now an industry. Just make the art and sell it for whatever it takes to get it out of the studio and make more. Don’t buy the book. It is probably rehashed if not flat-out plagiarized from the other books. There is no blueprint for a masterpiece and there is no blueprint for a successful art career.

And he is right. You can find people to tell you how to market your art, how to sell your art, how to find a niche, how to modify your art to fit the market. You can, in fact get advice on any aspect of your art career. The problem is that a lot of it is simplistic, vague, overdone, out-of-date, non-applicable, or recycled.

There are some writers who offer worth-while advice. I find that they fall into two distinct categories. The first group is made up of those are likely to make you mad by telling you things that you don’t want to hear or things you haven’t thought of yet or things you thought of but were afraid to attempt. They are not trying to sell you this or that system to insure your success. They are presenting opinions that you are free to adopt or reject, and they provide their reasoning, so you can make an informed decision. These are the Seth Godins and Julia Camerons and Mat Gleasons, and Hazel Dooneys, to mention a few.

The other good advice comes in the form of very specific information presented with the reasons and the results. These are how-to’s that can be quite useful in areas where your technique is weak, regardless of the level at which you are working. (Most photographers recognize Scott Kelby and Matt Kloskowski  as this type of advisor.) Once you master the presented procedures, you are free to use them as you will.

It’s the people in between that you have to worry about—those who comprise the “advice industry.” They are happy to advise you on any aspect of your art—for a price. So before you buy this or that that guarantees to make you “successful,” do your research. You may find out that the information you are seeking is already available for free, or that there are better choices, or there are no magical answers.


Category:Education, Marketing, Photography | Comment (0) | Author:

The Creative Process of Others – Can It Be Useful?

Sunday, 25. September 2011 23:51

The other day I had lunch with an actress who had just come from an audition with an internationally renowned playwright. It had gone well and she was, needless to say, excited. We talked about the meeting, what it meant to her, what it might mean to her future. She, at one point said, “I’d like to ask him how he gets from idea to paper; I’d like to know what his process is.” The first thing I thought, but did not say, was “what would be the point of that? Your procedure and his can have nothing in common, since he is a playwright and you an actor. Knowing his process might be interesting but it has no real application, and besides, he probably doesn’t know how he does it.” But then I gave the matter some more thought.

My original response was grounded in the notion that every artist, no matter what medium, has a very unique individual process. Additionally, the process which works for one type of project will not work for another. I know that my process in directing a play is far different from my process for writing, which is, in turn, far different from the process used in creating a photographic image. Actually, the process used in photography, for me at least, varies with the type of photography and image that is being created; likewise the playmaking process morphs depending upon the work being staged and the actors with whom I’m working.

And the process is so internalized as to be nearly impossible to tease out. Most of us work on what is really a subconscious level when we are creating, but there are still conscious elements that influence the paths we choose in creativity. If you talk with an artist about his/her process, the response is often something like, “I paint from 9 til noon, have a little lunch, and then paint another two hours,” or “I get up at four and write for three hours before I go to work.” You get descriptions of the structure or pattern that surrounds the actual process. Even these patterns seem to be highly individual; what works for one person won’t work at all for another.

And still, we are talking only about approach and organization: what do we do first, second, so forth. The real processes by which we create are mysterious not only to others, but to ourselves as well. We may know that if we write for so long every day, we are more productive than if we don’t. We may know that if we “trust our instincts and don’t overthink,” the photograph will be better. We may know that if we let the canvas sit and do nothing with it for a while we will have fresh eyes with which to edit it. We may know what we need to do to get ourselves into flow. Beyond that, we know very little.

Since the essence of art is to see possibilities and connections and to express them, we might, by studying others’ procedures, learn something that will allow us clearer expression or that opens a new area of thought, which in turn allows our work to develop in a different direction. I am not at all suggesting that we copy others’ procedures, but we may find something in them that triggers an idea or leads to new understanding either in terms of technique or content.

So perhaps knowing an award-winning playwright’s processes would be useful. Perhaps such knowledge might cause us to recognize potential that had, heretofore, remained untapped. Whether useful or not, it would not hurt us, and, if nothing else, could be quite interesting.

While I have thought and written about the creative artistic process before, I don’t think that I have ever, until this discussion, thought of others’ artistic processes as anything other than intellectual curiosities. Now I am beginning to think that a consideration of the way others accomplish their artistic goals may be quite useful to the working artist.


Category:Creativity, Photography, Theatre | Comments (4) | Author:

Fit the Form to the Content

Monday, 12. September 2011 0:14

Recently, I got new business cards for the photography part of my life, replacing the rather stodgy ones I had previously used. On one side is the requisite contact information; on the other is a photograph, or, more accurately, a part of a photograph. Actually, there are several different parts of different photographs in the card collection, so each card gives the impression of being unique. They are interesting and different and varied; I like them.

These new cards are “minicards” that are not only smaller but do not have the same height/width ratio as “normal” business cards. So I selected pieces of images that I have been working on to fit the format. The result is a set of unique images in a unique format.

Just as with the images for these cards, I often discover as I work on images that the original camera frame is not the correct boundary for the image, so I sometimes spend a good deal of time searching for the correct format. And I find that it is not the same for all images, even those in the same series. The point of all of this is that the form has to have an integral connection to the content. You can’t just pour the content into pre-existing forms and expect it to work.

This notion of matching form to content is not new and certainly not unique to me. War and Peace was rewritten after it had been originally published, with first three revised volumes appearing in 1867 and the remaining three published one at a time over the next two years. The original form did not work. The final form was and is intimidating to many readers. According to Writer’s Almanac,

Tolstoy did not think of his new book as a novel. He published an article in 1868, even before the final parts of book had come out, called “A Few Words Apropos of the Book War and Peace.” In the article, he wrote: “What is War and Peace? It is not a novel, still less an epic poem, still less a historical chronicle. War and Peace is what the author wanted and was able to express, in the form in which it is expressed.

And that’s it: the true marriage of from and content is what the artist wants and is able to express in the form in which it is expressed. And sometimes you have to make up the form, if one does not exist, to say what you need and want to say.

It’s the same reason that artists will sometimes switch media. They find that their “old” medium simply does not allow them to communicate what they now wish to communicate. So they find a medium, a “form” if you will, that does. And it may change numerous times over the career of an artist. August Strindberg, for example, wrote plays in a great variety of styles, and fiction, and non-fiction with an equally great variation in subject matter. He was also a painter and photographer.

Strindberg was trying to use the appropriate form and format for the content—for each project. It’s part of the art, but not an easy thing—we are often bound by what we did on the last project, what we think is expected of us, what we think will sell. It’s easier to work within existing constraints, but is the result better art?

If we are to continue to grow as artists, then we must seek out new forms and formats for our work—even if we have to start with new business cards.


Category:Communication, Creativity, Photography | Comment (0) | Author:

The Helmut Newton Exhibit: A Question of Authenticity

Monday, 29. August 2011 0:02

The Museum of Fine Arts Houston is hosting an exhibition of Helmut Newton photography until September 25, 2011. The MFAH is showing very large reproductions of images from Newton’s first three books: White Women (1976), Sleepless Nights (1978), and Big Nudes (1981). Newton was a world renowned photographer, specializing in fashion and nude photography. His work has always been controversial. This show concentrates on his personal work which, in turn, reflects his fashion work, at least in style.

This show raises a number of questions: Is this really a worth-while show? Just because you can print images that large, should you? Is Newton really an artist? Does he really have something to say about feminism? Society? Fashion? Is his work merely black and white pornography? Where is his place in the photographic canon? And now here is another: are the works presented authentic?

Why would I question the authenticity these images? Since this project began in 2007, three years after Newton’s death, and the images on display “were made specifically for the exhibition,” it stands to reason that Newton could not possibly have printed, approved of, or signed these prints, any of which actions might be taken to be proof of authenticity.

There is no question the subject matter is his; Newton’s work is unique to the point of being iconic; anyone who has studied photography will recognize it. There is no question the negatives or original prints, whichever were used as sources for the digital files, were his. But since he was not involved in the printing process, mustn’t one say they are reproductions, not prints?

Perhaps this is too fine a line for some people, but it speaks to the issue of what constitutes a “real” or “original” work of art. This is not such a difficult question for those who sculpt or paint: the original is the one the artist made; everything else is a reproduction. This is not necessarily the case with printmakers, and certainly not the case with photographers.

So the question becomes, when is a photographic print “real?” Is it an image that the photographer physically made him/herself? Is it a print perhaps made by an assistant that the photographer approved? Is it a print made by an assistant according to instructions of the photographer? Is it a print that is signed by the photographer? The Ansel Adams Gallery takes great care to distinguish between original photographs and other types of prints and reproductions. Should we expect less from museums?

The size of these images brings up another question: Are they a true representation of Newton’s art? We must remember that Newton shot originally for print. That is, his fashion work was for magazine publication, and his personal work, at least initially, was for book publication. This is a far cry from the size of pictures on exhibit at the MFAH, “some reaching nearly 8 x 8 feet.” Although the images are presented unframed and unglazed “in order to show how Newton’s work appeared in magazines,” the difference in size makes that impossible.

And another more general question arises: is the art in the concept or the execution? As noted above, these are certainly Newton’s concepts, but not his execution. Still everyone says that this is a show of Newton’s images. And I suppose they are his images, just not his prints.

So perhaps the MFAH is not misleading the public. Maybe this is not so much an exhibition of Newton’s work as it is an overpowering display of Newton’s concepts, of Newton’s subject matter, of Newton’s style, and, by extension, of Newton’s influence. Maybe the art is in the mind and eye of the artist, not in the creation of artifacts. This is indeed an idea worthy of thought, but a curious position to take for any museum that prides itself on showing only authentic, original work.





Category:Photography, Presentation | Comments (7) | Author:

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