Art Of Photography Show


"Photography can revise our sense of what in the world is meaningful,
and our understanding of how the meaningful can be described."
— John Szarkowski

“The act of creation involves a terrible journey."
— Stephen Spender

Depth Charge

Photography is art's most democratic medium. By seeming to be a democratic art form, however, photography is deluged with mediocrity, imitation, or instant art-stars with no track record. A promiscuous market hypes such imagery, furthering photography's trend toward the big and the colorful and/or the easy and the banal. This may appropriately reflect our culture's state-of-mind, but given the current state-of-the-world, I need something more.

John Szarkowski wrote that “Photography is the easiest thing in the world if one is willing to accept pictures that are flaccid, limp, bland, banal, indiscriminately informative, and pointless. But if one insists on a photograph that is both complex and vigorous, it is almost impossible.” Complexity and vigor are present in the images chosen for this year’s The Art of Photography exhibition, and are character traits, no doubt, of the photographers themselves. Mastering the camera is to be expected of every photographer worth his/her salt, but developing a philosophy toward life and applying it to one’s imagemaking process distinguishes the exceptional from the average. Numerous images submitted to this competition were of flowers, sunsets, and horses of the Hallmark variety (there is a market for such imagery, just not here). Two photographs of horses, however, did make it into the top ten, one of them winning first prize. What distinguishes them? Look at the composition and the context of their making. Complexity and vigor are only two words that come to mind. They are by Gloriann Liu and Don Bartletti, whose photographs are not only of what they pointed their cameras at but of who they are and what they demand of themselves and their medium.

Liu’s In the Circle won 1st Prize, an image of enormous dynamism and intrigue not unlike the controlled chaos and compressed spaces of the 15th century Florentine master painter, Paolo Uccello. The photograph (along with her website video) shows a confluence of skilled, Afghan horsemen during a competition. Liu stands with a crowd on a hill above a vast plain where the games are played out. Everything within the environment shows her commitment to her subject matter — traveling to Afghanistan (she’s also been to Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Africa, and Central Asia), abandoning comfort, taking risks, and establishing a relationship with people before picking up her camera. All of this supports what she hopes for her images, which is that they “affect change” by showing “ordinary people whose daily lives are unknown to most Americans … and in need of our understanding and our assistance.” How we understand belongs first in our ability to see. In this capacity, Liu provides what French theorist Roland Barthes valued most in photography, "the power of expansion … I see, I feel, hence I notice, I observe, I think."

Among the 102 images chosen for this exhibition, there are documentary photographs from several continents that show people engaged in conversation, laughter, work, an argument, the daily chores of a family, and funeral preparations. There is the highest road in the world, and industry past and present. Others are of nature observed closely, extreme climates, street portraits, views looking down from an aircraft, soldiers on patrol in Iraq, circus tents, a kite runner, and much more. Like other art forms, photographs such as these can help us make sense of the world or to see it with renewed interest.

Instead of perpetuating today's climate where images are choked with irony and disaffection, I think photography should better the world. It can affirm what is inherently valuable in life, namely that it is complicated, varied, and beautiful in the most unexpected places. I am sticking my neck out here asking that photography be life-affirming and relevant, opening myself up to accusations of being sentimentally old-fashioned, naïve, or close-minded. But, for me, photography, only when it is rigorous, can contain a moral dimension. The act of photographing is not trivial; it comes with responsibility. It is nothing less than a privilege to make art, and responsibility goes with privilege. Rebecca Solnit wrote something that made me think of photography’s liability along this vein. Addressing English majors at their graduation ceremony, Solnit asserted that studying English Lit [substitute “photography”] can "enable you to analyze, to see patterns, to acquire a personal philosophy rather than a jumble of unexamined hand-me-down notions. This may enable you not to make a living but maybe to live. This least utilitarian of educations prepares you to make sense of the world, and maybe to become a producer of meanings rather than a consumer of them."

For all of us engaged in the creative process, the degree to which we are committed to making meaning is more important than anything we create. The images are the overflow when life is sufficiently challenged and stimulated to the point that all the things that engage us demand an outlet. The act of creating becomes the outward expression of our lives lived.

This was no less true for Walt Whitman, whose imagination was continually fuelled by observing the commonplace. One of his most quoted passages, below, can inspire all artmaking, and photography in particular: "I do not doubt but the majesty and beauty of the earth are latent in every iota of the world … No doubt there is far more in trivialities, vulgar persons, and rejected refuse than I have ever supposed."

Carol McCusker
Curator of Photography
Museum of Photographic Arts



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