what is photography today?

Richard Avedon Photography

Can photography be termed “fine art” and, if so, what should that photography be like – must it be conceptual?

With countless essays aiming to describe the ‘meaning’ of modern art photography and definition of fine art photography, Sophie Hastings (for GQ) has written a thought provoking, enjoyable (and illuminating) read:

”Last April saw Gagosian Gallery’s acquisition of the Richard Avedon estate, which includes the late American photographer’s fashion shoots for Vogue andHarper’s Bazaar, his iconic portraits of Marilyn MonroeAndy Warhol, Francis Bacon and Alberto Giacometti and images from Avedon’s American West series, commissioned by the Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, in 1978. Gagosian is planning a major exhibition of the photographer in 2012 and the Avedon Foundation has said it chose the gallery not only due to its international reach – Gagosian has spaces in New York, Los Angeles, London, Paris, Rome and Hong Kong – but because it represents artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly, so Avedon’s work will be “seen in relation to the art of its time”.

Photography and art have long been uneasy yet dynamic bedfellows; because photography is such a wide medium, ranging from family snaps to the paparazzi, fashion to reportage, documentary to conceptual works, it has always been difficult to establish the point at which photography meets art. Can a photographer turn artist? Can photography be termed “fine art” and, if so, what should that photography be like – must it be conceptual?

Richard Avedon Photography

These questions may seem obsolete, but only last year Magnum photographer Chris Steele-Perkins accused London’s publicly funded Photographers’ Gallery of having a “very, very narrow definition of photography”, meaning it favours conceptual over street photography, portraiture and other forms mentioned before. 

Of course, many photographers, even those apparently touched by genius, don’t want to be called artists: Helmut Newton, known for his darkly atmospheric fashion shoots for Vogue Paris and hisPlayboy pictorials of Nastassja Kinski and Kristine DeBell, was one. And yet Newton’s original prints sold at Christie’s New York in 2003 for $26,290 apiece. But others, such as Cindy Sherman, Nan Goldin, Candida Höfer, Andreas Gursky, Thomas Ruff et al, clearly belong to contemporary fine-art practice.

Sherman burst onto the American art scene after college, creating the Untitled Film Stills series (1977-1980) – black and white portraits of the artist posing in different stereotypical female roles: schoolgirl, seductress, housewife, diva. She moved away from herself as model, making “Sex Pictures” in 1989, for which she photographed dolls, prosthetic body parts and genitalia, but is currently posing for the camera again, and has said, “I’m trying to make other people recognise something of themselves rather than me.” The market response to her work indicates an acceptance of photography as an art form, in America at least. In 1995, Christie’s sold a complete set ofFilm Stills to the Museum of Modern Art for $1m and in 1999, just one of the stills went for $190,000.

“Until now, photography has plodded along,” says Michael Hoppen, who opened his photography gallery in London’s Chelsea in 1993. “Finally, it has happened – people get it. Prices are through the roof, reaching five times their estimate at auction.”

Richard Avedon Photography

Hoppen is collaborating with the Royal Academy on two exhibitions of 20th-century Hungarian photographers, including Martin Munkácsi, whose work in the Twenties and Thirties redefined fashion and lifestyle photography and influenced Avedon and Henri Cartier-Bresson. But he also represents contemporary photographers, one of whom, the young Argentinian Alejandro Chaskielberg, won the photographer of the year prize at the Sony World Photography Awards 2011. Chaskielberg lived with the islanders of Argentina’s Paraná river delta for two years, photographing them at night. He said he worked “on the border of reality, creating fictional scenarios with real people, trying to push the limits of documentary photography, using technical processes to transform the natural perception of light, colours and spaces”. Photography or art? “Both. Photography has an ability to record, a moral duty to record. But there are many other things it can do.”

While Hoppen is excited by the huge potential of contemporary photography in Europe, he’s suspicious of art galleries taking on photographers simply “because they see a gap in the market”. An outfit that can’t be accused of jumping on the bandwagon is Italian gallery Brancolini Grimaldi, which has specialised in “lens-based contemporary artists” in Rome and Florence since 2005, and opened in London last April. This is the first gallery of its kind in England.

“It’s not so much about the medium as about a way of working,” says co-owner Isabella Brancolini. “At least two of our artists don’t take pictures themselves, they work with archives, incorporating photographs into their work.”

British artist Sophy Rickett, showing this month at Brancolini Grimaldi, says it “took ages to realise all artists on the gallery’s roster worked with photography. They’re such a diverse group, the photography is almost incidental.” For her video work, “To The River” a three-screen installation with nine-track sound shown at the Venice Biennale, Rickett installed spotlights along a stretch of the River Severn during the vernal equinox of 2010 in anticipation of one of the largest predicted bore waves for several years. Over several nights she filmed people on the riverbank waiting to witness this natural phenomenon.

Richard Avedon Photography

“There was a full moon, a hushed, excited anticipation but also boredom and anxiety,” she says. “I’m exploring ideas round the sublime and what people want from the landscape.” Long shots of people against the night sky are theatrically lit, with no sense of the environment except their breath in the cold air. Looped sounds from the crowds, fragments of conversation and shuffling of feet are routed to each speaker, creating a kind of super-realism and pulling the viewer around the space. “Contemporary photographers challenge photography as well as use it,” she says, and Brancolin agrees: “We are led by our artists and they all seem to be responding to the question “What is photography today?”‘

(Read the full article here.  Originally published in the August issue of British GQ)

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