Art Discussion: The Duration of Photography Saturday November 15, 2014

The article Chris Townsend refers to below takes a valid point but twists it into hyperbole. I agree that photographs in a gallery don’t work as effectively as paintings. Photography is my real love but for different reasons to those underlying the pursuit and accomplishments of a photograph. They don’t compete; they are fundamentally different. It is therefore, I acknowledge, an interesting topic to consider them as both make an appearance in a gallery.

Earlier this year I walked along my favourite part of London, the South Bank, finishing with several hours in the Tate Modern. There was some good photography there which by training, education and practice I’m geared up to enjoy. I know the context, the history, the cultural impact of much of it. Well some of it anyway; I don’t want that to appear as grandiose because I’m not trying to make an effect.

I found it a very pale experience. I much preferred the galleries of paintings. There are – I acknowledge – layers of meaning in a painting you simply don’t get in a photograph. Every part of it is laboured, carefully wrought, textured with significance and nuance. You sense an omniscient author, to borrow from literature, creating a universe. It might surprise you to read me say that as a photographer, but it shouldn’t. Both photography and painting are part of the wider topic of aesthetics. So what are the aesthetics of photography?

Firstly, the picture arises in a fraction of a second not the hours, days, weeks or months of a good painting. That doesn’t satisfy in any craft sense (although I’ll qualify that below) but it does satisfy in other ways. It satisfies because of the unique power of a photograph capturing that which Cartier-Bresson called (it’s tiresome but is an important concept) the decisive moment. The artistry derives not from pushing paint around but from recognizing a good composition, dramatic light and thematic interest as it occurs. There’s often a decisive moment in the mountains too, when light lasts just a few seconds. Or perhaps, as I experienced once at Pavey Ark in the Lake District, and again at Three Tarns, it might be so cold you can only manage a few seconds of photography (in the first case) or ten minutes (in the second) before you return your hands to your pockets and get walking again, fast. Cartier-Bresson didn’t mean it that way, but those examples are consistent with the basis of his idea. You’ve got a limited time to get your shot. Studio photography also collapses the time objection in comparison to painting when a shot is carefully lit, composed, and arranged.

I will add, on the point of craft, there is a craft aspect to photography which is material and most demonstrable with a fine art print. There’s a sumptuous quality to a good picture which is the equal to any painterly enjoyment, albeit different. There is a craft aspect to photography too, evident with your understanding of light, colour, composition etc both in camera and in software. I use the term aesthetic limits in regard to the latter, corresponding to darkroom practices. If you could do it in a darkroom, and you do it in Photoshop instead, that’s fine with me. If you start cutting and pasting and editing beyond that, it becomes graphics. You might disagree and you’re entitled to do so. What I do is prompt debate. It’s a semantic topic which can only be debated, not stipulated.

I stated I concur with the general idea of the article Chris cited, but it’s too extreme and absolute. A few years ago I went to a black and white photography exhibition at the National Media Museum in Bradford. There was one print, in particular, one of my companions enjoyed. Look at that, she said, it’s glowing gently, that lovely silver halide softness. Silver halide is the important chemical in print and film photography. The picture was of rocks and sea spray; perhaps that will convey the point I’m trying to make regarding possible light effects of such a subject. A print in a book might be equally beautiful but the exhibition print on the wall was larger so the impression was stronger. If you don’t appreciate that craft component – and you see it with good mountain shots too – you won’t see the point of an exhibition print.

If I had lots of money I’d buy a small library of art photography books. I’d get a lot of pleasure from browsing the shelves, cross referencing, organising the work in my mind and enjoying the particular aesthetic of photography. Twenty years ago I started collecting Lake District photography books but around five years ago lost interest when, I realised, my own work was the equal of any of it. I’m making plans for my own books now as artist (photographer) as opposed to consumer, using my Lake District, Wales, Peak District and Pyrenees portfolio. I have good shots from Scotland too, but not so many of them. The pictures here are from Scotland.