What is Art Photography?

Thomas Struth, National Gallery 1, London, 1985

Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present is currently on display at the National Gallery in London. The lack of natural lighting and the dark walls in the basement of the Sainsbury Wing evoke the solemn atmosphere of a crypt. In complete contrast to the liveliness of Trafalgar Square, visitors quietly whisper to each other as they slowly move from one room to the other. The show features the work of some of the best-known photographers of the 21st century displayed alongside renowned paintings from the National Gallery collection or specifically borrowed for this exhibition. The paintings add an art historical dimension to photographs produced by celebrated photographers and contemporary artists such as Jeff Wall, Rineke Dijkstra, Sam Taylor-Wood or Thomas Struth – to name just a few.

Luc Delahaye, US Bombing on Taliban Positions, 2001

Emile-Jean-Horace Vernet, The Battle of Jemappes, 1821

Martin Parr, Signs of the Times, England, 1991

Thomas Gainsborough, Mr and Mrs Andrews, about 1750

The majority of photographs are presented next to a painting, which, in turn, informs the aesthetic and formal appreciation of the photograph – one image in conversation with the other. For the most part, this conversation spans at least a century: Luc Delahaye’s spectacular panoramic photograph of a landscape in Afghanistan, captured just after the US bombed Taliban positions, references a battlefield tableaux by Emile-Jean-Horace Vernet from 1821. Martin Parr’s photograph of a rather depressing looking middle-class couple from the early 1990s references Thomas Gainsborough’s Mr and Mrs Andrews circa 1750. Or Tom Hunter’s richly textured photograph Death of Coltelli references Eugène Delacroix’s painting The Death of Sardanapalus, 1827. In all of these cases, the photographers’ approach to their subject matter is subtle and carefully considered. Even without knowledge of the art historical reference, the photographs must be appreciated for their visual and conceptual characteristics. Quite clearly, the photographs critically examine a political, social and economic condition specific to the present, while at the same time, referencing artefacts of visual culture from the past. Rather than paintings merely invigorating the photographs, it is actually the photographs that illuminate our perception of the paintings.

Tom Hunter, The Death of Coltelli, 2009

Eugène Delacroix, The Death of Sardanapalus, 1827

Despite the huge potential to establish a blossoming relationship of exchange and interplay between two artistic mediums, the title of the exhibition Seduced by Art reveals a rather one-dimensional approach to the subject matter. In the exhibition, ‘art’ refers to painting (or in some cases sculpture) that photography, it is suggested, effectively borrows from. More specifically even, photography (or photographers) are ‘seduced’ by this art, giving into the temptation, no longer able to resist the allure of some of the best known paintings of Western art history. According to the exhibition curators therefore, Rineke Dijkstra is not merely referencing the Venus, but rather, Dijsktra is seduced by her beauty, irretrievably trapped, and thus produced a photograph with uncanny similarity to Botticelli’s painting. The fact that Dijkstra, like many of her contemporaries, works within the format of the photographic series, producing dozens of typological observations that have spanned numerous countries over the period of a decade, is completely lost in the exhibition. The comparison between Dijkstra’s photograph and Botticelli, while amazingly convenient, does not necessarily illuminate her body of work as a whole. As a case in point, Dijkstra attempts to do far more in her work than the exhibition would actually suggest.

Rineke Dijkstra, Kolobrzeg, Poland, July 26, 1992 and Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, 1490 [image detail]

The premise of the exhibition (e.g. photography ‘seduced’ by painting) thus raises a number of critical questions. Many of these questions have haunted photography since its very inception. Can photography be art? Is photography an art only if it references art proper? And vice versa, is photography that does not immediately reference art proper, not an art? What about photographs – conspicuously absent in this exhibition – that reference cinema, theatre, literature, architecture, advertising, television, popular culture, mass media or indeed other photography? Is that photography not an art? What about photography that, in the first instance, only references the subject it represents? These questions in themselves point to a rather rigid definition of art inherited by the canon. This rigidity is further underlined by presenting the photographs in rooms such as still life, the portrait, the figure and so forth, as if to suggest that the foundations of contemporary photography can only be located with reference to art historical traditions. Contemporary photography is politically too complex, semiotically too loaded, visually too aware of its own histories that it could be approached, categorized and disseminated in the traditions of the ‘Old Masters’. III Originally published on photomonitor.co.uk.

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