While en route to Guangzhou, China, we spent a few fascinating days in Hong Kong. A series of events got me thinking about the old “is photography art?” question. I am not sure that such a question is ever really likely to be fully “settled.” Based on what I saw and did while in Hong Kong, I added a couple of new perspectives to my own thinking about that question. Proof again that one benefit of going half way around the world is that you see things differently after such a trip.
We spent time at the opening of the Hong Kong International Art Fair (known also as ART HK). The organizers describe the event saying:
ART HK has emerged as the leading art fair in Asia…an unparalleled opportunity to see some of the freshest and most exciting work being produced around the world today, alongside modern masters from the 20th century.
Right off the top let me say that what I know about contemporary art could barely fill this page, so I will stay away from that topic. But, walking around “the leading art fair in Asia,” I was struck by the substantial presence of photography and how the work shown at ART HK shifted the way that I see the old “is photography art” question. Roughly speaking, the work I saw could be divided into two categories.
The notably smaller volume of work was what I call “documentary derived.” To me, that means that whatever is shown in the image existed in front of the camera more or less as seen in the photograph. Documentary work fits this description, as does landscape work, nudes, etc. It is a fairly wide-ranging category, but in my mind, it always starts with the idea that the image being seen is a fairly accurate representation of what was found in front of the camera. By comparison, the vast majority of the photography I saw at ART HK used photography’s assumed “accuracy” but more as a printing technique for art that was partly or totally created in the artist’s imagination.
Those artists who view photography as just one more printing technique (with its peculiar strengths and weaknesses,) were behind most of the photographic work I saw at ART HK. To better appreciate the idea of how each printing process has unique characteristics, think about, for example, serigraphs (or silk screen printing as it is also called.) Serigraphic printing’s characteristics include its tendency to have substantial sections of color and less subtle color gradations, since the ink is usually laid on top of the paper rather than absorbed in it. There was a great deal of serigraphic work at ART HK with those same strong sections of simpler colors, made by artists who utilized that process’s characteristics. Similarly, artists who wanted to utilize photography’s illusion of accuracy used that medium’s particular characteristics to their expressive advantage.
On one hand, that division seems fairly obvious, but on the other I have never heard of such a large amount of photographically printed artwork being so fully integrated into an art fair. In the not so distant past, photography would likely have been marginalized in some corner of the venue, but in this one, the photographs were equally displayed, priced and sold along side the more traditionally printed fine-art work. Whether documentary derived photography is “art” is question likely to debated for years to come. What I saw at ART HK strongly argues that the photographic printing process is as much “art” as serigraphs or lithographs.
The artist’s hand was clearly dominant in most of the photography shown at ART HK, whether in how the photographs were staged (as in tableauxs) or assembled (as collages.) Though most of the printing was digitally done, most was done in such a way as to mimic some of the traits that we think of as unique to actual film. I came away thinking film may be all but dead for the amateur user, but in the art market, film, (or the look of film) is alive and well.
This thought tied in directly with a discussion I had with the folks who make the Holga cameras. Yes, those plastic lens Holga cameras. It was clear from talking to them that as individuals, they seem as interested in digital imaging as the next photographer, but as a company, they are substantially committed to the film end of photography.
Christine So, of the Holga Company, based in Hong Kong, put it best when she pointed out that Holga images are both anti-digital and yet also post-modern at the same time. What she meant by anti-digital seems obvious, but what she meant by the second part, the post-modern, got me thinking. I believe her point was that the visual effect generated by a Holga camera (and film) is just the kind of thing that many contemporary image-makers, who borrow from all mediums, would naturally use with that borrowing being a classically post-modern strategy.
The company behind the Holga cameras has a new site with all sorts of resources, which can be found at: http://www.holgainspire.com/
One unintended consequence of digital imaging is that increasingly people who want to use film can continue to do so with more explicit intention of using film’s particular characteristics. The film photographer of the future will use film because they want to, not because they have to do so.
Those who now view photographic printmaking as one more printing process will continue to expand that process’s place in the larger world of fine art. So, I am not sure we are much closer to settling the “is photography art?” question. What I am clear on is that today’s photographers have more strategies than ever to tell their stories, whether those stories existed in front of the camera or only in the artist’s imaginations.