Why Photographers Don’t Get Modern Art

It’s understandable that the great unwashed masses of the larger population might not appreciate contemporary art. But you’d think that photographers, who are creatives in their own right, would appreciate the art and creativity of others in all of its various forms. What I’ve seen instead is that, when it comes to much contemporary art, most (but not all!) photographers tend to dismiss the work outright. Instead of being more open to contemporary artwork than nonartists, photographers actually tend to be more dismissive.

As a photographer myself, I wince when I hear my peers heap scorn upon acknowledged artwork when it doesn’t meet their preconceptions of what “good art” should be. Sometimes I want to shout at a dismissive social media post, “Just because you don’t understand it, doesn’t mean that it’s bad art!” More than just a point of contention however, contemporary art is important to photographers as both a source of inspiration and creativity. By taking the time to engage with current art practices, photographers stand to grow their work, improve their own standing in the marketplace and even open the door to becoming a collected artist themselves.

If nothing else, as a photographer friend of mine recently commented, “It’s a conversation worth having.”

Two Fossils, 2017 John Raymond Mireles

What is (and is not) Modern Art?
Before we can dive into the reasons why photographers tend to eschew “modern” art, first we have to understand what exactly it is that we’re talking about. Though most people consider all non-traditional or avante guard art of this and the past century “modern art,” the label of modern art actually applies to a specific segment and style of work from the first half of the 20th century. Since then, we’ve seen various styles of art — from abstract-expressionism to minimalism and pop art — take precedence for short periods of time.

As I write this, there’s a myriad of styles and types of work so there’s no one label being applied to work created from the past thirty years to the present. Post-modernism is often used to describe recent work, however the designation is actually a philosophically oriented movement, not a specific visual style. Current work recognized by the art world as “Art” is generally referred to as contemporary art — which runs the gamut from abstract painting, some photography, performance art, conceptual art, installation art and so forth. More traditional works such as landscapes, Western themed bronze sculptures and poker playing dogs, though they may be created by currently working artists, are generally not considered contemporary art.

For the purposes of this article, I’ll use the term “contemporary art” instead of “modern art” to refer to the non-traditional art forms in question here.

Supply & Demand, 1972 by Carl Cheng

Upon viewing a work such as that above, it’s not uncommon to hear complaints along the lines of: “That’s not art.” “What’s the point?” “Where is the skill?” “That’s boring.” and the all too common “I could have done that.” When you look at the photo below, Rheine II by Andreas Gursky, all of the aforementioned critiques might come to mind as you ponder the fact that, when it sold at auction in 2011 for $4.3 million, it became the most expensive photograph ever sold.

Rheine II by Andreas Gursky

A Brief History of Art
If you’re a photographer and wondering how on Earth the photo above could be worth so much, it’s important to first know some history. Going back nearly 200 years ago, before photography existed as a medium, painting served as the primary method for visual communication. If you wanted to share a story visually, you’d have to paint it. Once photography came along, however, painting began to suffer an identity crisis since photography more conveniently and accurately represented the three-dimensional world on two-dimensional surfaces.

Meanwhile, photography was trying to establish itself as an art form. Sure photography was fine for portraits and landscapes, but was it art with a capital A? Seeing as how art was dominated by painting, photographers began trying to make their photographs look more like paintings. From these efforts, the style known as pictorialism was born. Soft, dreamy photos often devoid of fine detail became the style du jour of the late 1800's.

London, 1899 by Leonard Missonne

So here we had photographers muscling into painters’ turf and painters questioning the relevancy of their medium — to the point where the French painter Paul Delaroche famously proclaimed that “photography has killed painting.” Art as artists knew it was in question and under seige.

The answer to this existential pickle came in the form of Modernism — a movement which is probably most easily and aptly understood in the context of the commonly heard expression “form follows function.” Applying this maxim to photography, the argument was made that what photography can do better than any other medium is efficiently and effectively reproduce the visible world onto a flat surface. If we agree that this therefore serves as its function, then, according to Modernist thinking, the form of photography should consist of imagery that uses the full technical capabilities of camera and capture medium to faithfully convey maximum information about the scene being documented.

The epitomy of the modernist photographer is probably someone you’d never associate with the movement: the iconic landscape photographer Ansel Adams. Adams famously created images that were sharp from front to back, developed a still used system for pulling every bit of information from his negatives (the Zone System), precisely composed his images and created some of the most technically precise prints of all time. To this day, virtually all photographers have adopted the modernist tenants as exemplified by Ansel Adams and the many others, from Richard Avedon to Sabastio Salgado, who have followed in his wake.

If you’re a photographer, that no doubt includes you as well. Realize it or not, you’re a modernist!

The Tetons and the Snake River, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, 1942 by Ansel Adams.

Meanwhile, back in the world of painting, this notion of “form follows function” led painters in a completely different direction. If the function of painting was no longer the realistic reproduction of the visual world — that was photography’s job now — then it became free to pursue other, nonrealistic representations of time, space and form. For example, instead of a single spatial perspective, multiple perspectives (or even none) could be incorporated into a single painting. Think Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon where his nudes occupy no defined space, or Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase which depicts an abstracted figure over multiple points in time.

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907 by Pablo Picasso
Nude Descending a Staircase, 1912 by Marcel Duchamp

So… both mediums similarly embraced Modernism, but with opposite results: Photography zealously pursuing realism while painting abandoned realism in favor of conceptual abstractions. When we understand this divergence of purpose, it’s easy to see how photographers who are so steeped in the Modernist tradition of exquisitely recreating reality can find it hard to accept work that so strongly ignores this reality. Unfortunately, for photographers, the plot thickens further…

While Modernism still rules in the world of professional and enthusiast photography, it has largely been abandoned by artists working with photography as a medium. Instead of unique compositions and magic hour light, art photographers often adopt a uniform, objective perspective for all of their compositions. The straightforward shot of a banal subject in ordinary light is a common motif within art photography. What the art world considers “art,” photographers often consider boring.

Series by Bernd and Hilla Becher

This straightforward and technically unrefined aesthetic, commonly referred to as the “deadpan look” has carried itself through to portraiture as well. Compare this portrait by Alec Soth, an art world favorite, to a more stylized — and photographer friendly — portrait by Mark Seliger. Though popular commercially, Seliger’s work hardly registers in contemporary art circles.

from Sleeping by the Mississippi, 2002 by Alec Soth

In the photo below by Mark Seliger, the artifice (wardrobe and props), elegant lighting, expression, and physical beauty of the subject — all elements important to professional photographers — are anathema to the contemporary art aesthetic.

Image by Mark Seliger

Art photographers don’t even have to create the photos anymore since what is important isn’t so much the artwork but the underlying conceptual currency. For example, this Richard Prince image is in reality a photo he took of an old Marlboro ad from the 70’s. Taken from its original context, the image is now a “Deconstruction of an American archetype. Prince’s picture is a copy (the photograph) of a copy (the advertisement) of a myth (the cowboy).” That this plagiarization fetched $3.4 million at auction only serves to disgust photographers with the entire contemporary art photography genre.

Untitled 1989 by Richard Prince

In essence, the contemporary art world is essentially saying to photographers, “All the things you care about: technical mastery, creative composition and even originality of content, no longer matter.” Ouch.

It would be easy to say that all that matters is the idea or the emotion evoked — but that wouldn’t be true. Instead, what matters to the contemporary art world mafia (curators, gallery directors and reviewers) is how the work and the concept behind the work references cues within the culture, philosophy and other art works, present and past. And oh yeah, if the work is well-crafted (or was made by a famous person), so much the better.

Photography v. Contemporary
This relationship between photography and contemporary art gets trickier still, because on the other side of the equation — the side with painting and three dimensional art — the move away from craft has intensified as well. In its divorce from realism, art has increasingly focused on exploring concepts and philosophies and less on advancing art on its aesthetic merits. Postmodern art especially is about dissecting historical perspectives and denouncing traditional narratives. Basically, you have no idea what you’re looking at nor how to judge it unless you read the often densely written artist statement afixed to the nearby wall.

When the viewer is expected to comprehend concepts such as the simulacra, deconstruction and semiotics in order to appreciate an artwork, it’s not surprising when even experienced art patrons “don’t get it.” As one retired photo educator complained, “ I always have the sense that I am joining the telling of a story in the middle, trying to play catchup.” (From an article entitled “A Disturbing Trend in Photography” Petapixel 2016.)

by John Raymond Mireles

This idea that one must read additional documentation to understand an artwork contradicts those Modernist values held dear to photographers — especially the precept that an image should be complete in and of itself. A successful image in the Modernist tradition uses its visual elements to construct a narrative that is understandable to viewers without the need for external information. When you see this editorial image of the woman in sexy lingerie created by me (above), you intuitively get the story being told within.

Contrast that with the Tracy Emin installation work (below) where it’s all too easy to ask, “What the hell?” Yet the ambiguous “My Bed” made the short list for the Turner prize and is considered a seminal work by one of the groundbreaking YBA’s (Young British Artists). It last sold at auction for $2.5 million.

My Bed, 1998 by Tracy Emin

Last Thoughts
As painful as this may sound to many, the profession and study of photography are stuck in an evolutionary dead-end. While there will continue to be many great, even iconic images created in the years to come, so long as photography is wedded to the constraints of Modernism, it’s unlikely to be accepted into the world of contemporary art. That latter body of work will continue to develop and grow (and sell for ever higher amounts of money) while photography — as practiced by photographers — will be forever left behind.

A few years ago, I ran into the landscape photographer Jeff Mitchum as we both photographed an ocean sunset. He complained, with discernible bitterness, that despite the fact that his work sold to clients all over the world via galleries in upscale La Jolla and the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas, the curator of the local museum would not return his calls, much less show his work. Clearly, he failed to understand the divide between contemporary art and photography — and on which side he stood.

The important point here for those readers who are interested in making the leap into contemporary art scene is to not make that same mistake. Yes, it may take some study of art and history to comprehend the seemingly dense world of present day art, but I’ve found that the more I know about my craft and art, the more informed decisions I can make as I advance my career.

Perhaps the next time you’re in some white-walled gallery space (or looking at Beyonce’s pregnancy photos) and you’re confronted with some odd mishmash of uncrafted content that, on the surface, makes no sense, you’ll have a better understanding of why that artist made the choices that they did. Who knows? You might even like it.