Democracy, Art and Photography

Democracy has been in the news recently, hasn’t it? Something about an election.

The idea of Democratic Photography originates with pioneering colour photographer William Eggleston, for whom, photographing democratically meant treating all potential photographic subjects equally – and indeed that anything and everything was a potential photographic subject.

Eggleston was probably photography’s first post-modern figure, and this perhaps goes a long way owards explaining why he’s still one of its most controversial figures. Whether it was Eggleston or The New Topographics, the 1970s and the arrival of colour, to my mind at least, ushered in the postmodern era of Art Photography.

Prior to this time, the cannon of photography was (mostly) dominated by work which celebrated the unique possibilities of the photographic medium to document, record or freeze an instantaneous moment exemplified by Henri Cartier-Bresson. Even the more raw expressions of this such as the work of Robert Capa and Rober Frank is documentary in nature and extolls photography’s power to capture extraordinary moments from the continuum of time.

There was of course the more artistic side of the cannon such as the work of Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, but these photographers worked with photography in established artistic genres such as landscape and still life. The work was familiar in its subject matter even if the medium was still new – and both artists worked to show the technical possibilities of the medium in terms of the stunning range of tones in large format Black and White photographs.

Up to this point, we have a cannon of photography which most photographers agree on, many non-photographers are familiar with, and is unlikely to offend any artistic sensibilities. In short, it is universally agreed upon as being great work.

Eggleston in particular, as the most controversial figure within the world of Photography, and to an extent The New Topographics photographers such as Stephen Shore, are where this story changes, and is why I want to pose the question as to whether Democratic Photography is all that democratic.

To start with, even photographers disagree on Eggleston. While documentary photographers caught fragments of the interactions, gestures, and emotions of everyday life, and artistic photographers showed the beauty of the natural world, Eggleston’s work brought ordinary things in vivid colour. Personally, I (along with many others) think that it is this attention to colour and the beauty within the everyday, the apparently mundane, that is great about Eggleston’s work. Other people see snapshots of inane objects or scenes, pictures anyone could have taken of nothing special or even interesting.

Stephen Shore and the other New Topographics attact somewhat less controversy but equally are not household names in the way that Cartier-Bresson or Ansel Adams are – and I say household names because Ansel Adams was referenced in that most mainstream of all comedies, Friends. There’s a strong possibility that a lot of people aren’t going to immediately understand why they’re looking at, or being asked to look at, a picture of hotel beds, a jigsaw puzzle, or a car dealership forecourt.

It’s easy for those «in the know» to sneer at these questions, but frankly, I think they’re entirely legitimate to ask, at least (as with any question) if asked in good faith. Equally, I can explain what it is I like about Eggleston or Shore’s work, and somebody else can still disagree – and neither of us is right or wrong.

To my mind there’s little democracy in saying that those who don’t see what’s great about this (or any) work simply «don’t understand the brilliance» or «don’t get it», lifting ourselves up as the enlightened few who do. What ever happened to ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ – and if it is still here, then why is it valid for my taste in appreciating the work, and not for the other who does not?

The same debate occurs frequently with Contemporary Art, for instance, any time Turner Prize nominations are announced. I studied an Arts degree, and later worked photographing Theatre and Dance, meaning that I’m reasonably fluent in the artistic vocabulary, however, I must admit that I’ve always been somewhat uncomfortable in this world myself, and there are still things which baffle me as if, far from reading a book in a language I understand, I were in fact reading one of the many with a totally different alphabet or character set.

Many people acknowledge the fundamental lack of democracy in the Art market – a small circle of influential buyers, collectors and dealers decide precisely how astronomical the sums of money they move between themselves are, often enabling those with money to keep it or make more of it, or make it more acceptable in other circles. Furthermore, much of what is produced has become so far removed from what is widely understood as Art, with reference upon reference which requires study and training to decipher the allusions, critiques and criticisms at play. This study and training is unavailable to the vast majority of people who become disconnected and disenfranchised from Art. These people are simultaneously looked down upon as being uncultured while culture does nothing to include them. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and most beholders do not see the beauty, what is democratic about asserting that most people are wrong? That sounds more like a dictatorship to me.

Returning to Photography, I worry that the world of Art Photography has followed much the same path – that far from creating images to which people can relate or identify with, much of ‘contemporary photographic practice’ (I put it in inverted commas to show that I’m aware I might well be part of the problem) risks being unintelligible and, as a result, uninteresting to the wider world. Photography for photographers.

I’m a photographer and I have a grounding in the history of photography and where it is today. An awful lot of people are not photographers and do not have this grounding, but probably do have knowledge of a wealth of other things I perhaps know nothing about. Chances are, your friends and family, like mine, are in this group of people – the majority – who are not photographers but are people with other interests. Of course, in the age of social media, it’s easy to seek out an audience for work online outisde of our immediate social circle, but I find it rather sad to prioritise unknown and often anonymous photographers (and bots, don’t forget the bots) over my real life friends and family. Your friends and family are meant to be your biggest fans – not secretly thinking you’re full of shit.

Of course, Photography or any creative endeavour should be enjoyable first and foremost for the person doing it, and not created for (and certainly not to the exclusion of) any particular audience – real or imagined, and a recent video from Matt Day explores this topic nicely. However, what got me thinking about all of this was my own reaction to some of my recent photographs.

The first among these photographs were made a few months ago, followed by another more recent set, both of which I would be somewhat embarrassed to share. I wouldn’t be embarrassed for technical reasons but for artistic ones. I’d be embarrassed because I would feel the need to explain to people why they’re looking at that picture and what it is that’s meant to be interesting about it. I almost see Art as being like a joke – if you have to explain it, it isn’t very good.

I want to stop making photographs that need an explanation. I don’t necessarily want them to be obvious but I don’t want there to be total confusion as to why the photograph even exists – at the very least, its aesthetics alone should be enough justification. I’m learning that a photograph is not its subject. The subject can be interesting for a variety of reasons but the photograph is not automatically so. The photograph has to work on its own terms, and those terms are visual ones. I want to create more Photography and less WTF-ery. Most importantly, I want to produce fewer pictures I’m embarrassed to show my family and friends.

On which note, here are some pictures I’m not embarrassed to show my family and friends – the people who, after all, are most likely to still be reading this.

Segorbe and the surrounding area …

Valencia …

A trip to Granada and la Alpujarra …

We’re done now, thanks.

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