Meaning and Art: The Power of Straight Photography

Ed Portis

John Ruskin once asserted that the “power of art” requires a “material capable of receiving and retaining the influence of the subtlest touch of the human hand.” It is rather dubious that photography could have much of this power since skill in operating most cameras does not require a subtle touch of the hand.1 Nor for that matter did the work of Mozart, Ibsen or Faulkner, which is to say that Ruskin was viewing art very narrowly, focusing primarily on painting and sculpture. A broader definition of art is offered by the anthropologist, Richard Anderson: “Culturally significant meaning, skillfully encoded in an affecting, sensuous medium.”2 There are a number of terms open to interpretation in this definition and one, “culturally,” that only an anthropologist would find necessary. But however little it tells us about art, it does allow photography to aspire to be one, insofar as it is able to express the requisite kind of meaning. I will argue that what was once known as “straight photography” is best able to do this because it has access to a power unique to photography.


Anderson's definition also suggests that the difference between a photo of artistic merit and a mere snapshot must be seen in terms of meaning rather than of technique. Of course the term “snapshot” indicates a photo taken with minimal foresight, and surely most of them are. But more important than the effort expended is the reason it need not be great. If the aim is simply to record something of personal meaning a good deal of planning is usually neither necessary nor appropriate, and this aim is what I believe best defines a snapshot. Pictures of a child's birthday party, a family reunion, or even of a landscape serving as a memento of a family vacation need no artistic embellishment, and hints of broader or deeper meaning add nothing to the value of such pictures for the family in question. More carefully composed images might be preferred, but only a family of artists would insist upon it.3 A snapshot, meaningful only to a highly circumscribed group such as a family, is generally meaningless. If I can find deeper meaning in some other person's snapshot, either as a document or work of art, then it becomes more than a meaningless snapshot to me.


Great effort and foresight will not necessarily produce a work of artistic merit, and nothing precludes the possibility that I could come to see great artistic merit in what was once only a snapshot for me. In the latter case, the photo would be more than a snapshot without for that reason ceasing to be a snapshot. For the decisive difference among types of photography is the type of meaning which photographers attempt or actually capture, and something can be meaningful in more than one way. The meaning of any particular snapshot, for those to whom it has meaning, is straightforward and easy to capture, often requiring only that faces not be obscured. Meaning in art, on the other hand, is typically complex and elusive, and relatively difficult to express. It requires that “significant meaning” be “skillfully encoded,” or as a photographer would say, “captured.” When this occurs we have a work of artistic merit which we can call beautiful, however unfashionable the word has become in the institutional world of contemporary art.4

Beauty and Meaning

On the surface, photographic art would not seem to be too difficult, as attested by the existence of innumerable exhibitions held at community art centers and commercial galleries in every city of even modest size, as well as websites, devoted to it, replete with supposed examples. Yet most of the art work displayed in these exhibitions and galleries, let alone websites, is not work of significant artistic merit, however skillfully rendered or even aesthetically attractive it might be. Much of it is aimed at the production of decor, with the intent to please rather than to be significantly meaningful. To employ a useful, if shopworn distinction, the animating ideal of such work is prettiness rather than beauty. While everybody likes pretty pictures, for the appreciative few a snapshot is likely to be much more meaningful.


Let me quickly acknowledge that these assertions are true only with the notion of beauty I think essential for assessing artistic merit, and by the definition typically assumed in daily discourse and occasionally explicated philosophically they could not be true. By this generally assumed notion of beauty, there can be no essential difference between the beautiful and the pretty because the former is simply a superlative of the latter; the beautiful is the very, very pretty, a word to be used when something is so pretty the word does not do it justice. According to Kant beauty is the source of “disinterested pleasure,” experienced by all those with the refined sensibility required for “taste.” Just because it is disinterested this pleasure must be meaningful in itself rather than derived from some higher end or meaning. And if meaningful in itself, it must be universally appreciated by all those sufficiently equipped to experience it. If so, there must be things and images that invariably give such pleasure. This presumably is why some people not only decorate their households with images of colorful birds and flowers but also encourage live counterparts to exist in the environs of their dwellings.


Actually taste has little if anything to do with beauty, and irrespective of our feelings for our fine feathered friends we would not use them for decoration if we really considered them beautiful as opposed to pretty. The pleasure they give may be meaningful in itself, but regardless of whether it is really universal it cannot be too intense if it is disinterested. Beauty is intensely meaningful and necessarily engages us emotionally. A work of artistic merit attempts to capture and thereby express an important truth, a truth that may or may not be pleasant but is almost always illusive or ambiguous. In any case, it is never disinterested. This is perhaps an issue of terminology rather than philosophy. Kant recognized that his “beauty” is not the sole nor even the most powerful source of aesthetic experience. Specifically, the beautiful has been contrasted with the “sublime,” which is never disinterested because its power is explained in psychological terms such as fear or awe.5 Philosophers in search of universals tend to disdain the subjective and the variable, but this is of no matter to the rest of us. Meaning provokes emotion, and whether it be fear, awe, apprehension, wonder, despair, rapture or resignation, it can be characterized as subjective or psychological without for that reason being considered unreal or unjustified.


So the question is whether the word beauty is to be identified with the pretty or the “sublime,” and since this is a question of appropriateness rather than logic its answer depends upon usage and purpose.6 If my purpose is to compliment someone on a flower garden, I can use the word beautiful, but it is not necessary. I can exclaim, “how very pretty,” without offending by giving the impression that I am only being polite. Yet to say the same thing about a work of art to a serious artist is almost certainly to be received poorly, almost as much as characterizing the work as either ugly or cute. One might get away with “sublime,” but at the risk of coming across as insincere, as if one had said “interesting.” “Marvelous” or “awesome” would work, but only once or twice before they, too, would be seen as less than sincere. In the appraisal of artistic merit there is no adequate replacement for the word beauty.7 I presume that so many artists and critics find it awkward because it has been debased by the colloquial equating of the term with prettiness or, alternatively, because much of contemporary art is not really intended to be all that meaningful any more than it aims to be pretty.


Be this as it may, beauty and prettiness, while different, are not mutually exclusive in that prettiness can be employed in the effort to capture meaning. To take a hackneyed example, I doubt that the Mona Lisa would be an iconic painting if its famous smile were attached to a less than attractive female face. Yet it is only one of a number of potential elements that might contribute to an effective composition. Among the others,of course, are the patterns of line, form, texture, and color that characterize design, and the juxtaposition of similar or dissimilar subjects to highlight or reinforce the meaningful relationships the artist hopes to express or “capture.” But prettiness is certainly not essential to beauty, as attested for example by Picasso's Guernica; none of us who find it beautiful think it pretty.


To repeat: The great majority of the photos displayed in the great majority of community galleries and exhibitions are animated by the quest for prettiness rather than beauty, at least as I believe it best defined. But the artists creating these works need not concern themselves with whether they are beautiful. They can simply assume that they are. They can take for granted that a successful rendition of certain things will be considered beautiful because such things are conventionally held to be so. Rather than beauty being seen as the capturing of a meaningful truth, it is taken as a truism that some things are beautiful and others are not. As a general rule, however, anything conventionally held to be beautiful is no more than pretty because conventionality and beauty are incompatible. To the extent the meaning captured by a work of art is considered so obvious and straightforward as to be a truism the work itself is no more than an emblem, serving much the same function as a flag. All true patriots inevitably find their flag beautiful, but this is the result of what it signifies rather than what it expresses. The same applies, obviously, to much of religious art and, for much the same reason, to an appreciable proportion of landscape art as well. At least in the land of Thoreau popular art is often a hymn to either the power and the glory or to the benign harmony of a god called Nature.8 Prettiness is combined with intense meaning, but the result is usually sentiment rather than beauty. When meaning can be articulated in words with apparent precision and presumed authority, any accompanying images are reduced to illustrations.


Artistic meaning always transcends convention because it cannot be easily or adequately expressed in words, and therefore cannot be codified, a condition of conventionality.9 Inevitably, then, this meaning is always illusive, always ambiguous. A work of artistic merit always poses a question, and although we may have an answer, and indeed may have to have an answer in order to appreciate the work, this answer is always tentative, always an interpretation. This is as true for the artist as for anyone else. Consider Ansel Adam's justifiably famous photo, Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico. Were it not for the church and especially the graveyard, this would have been a pretty but not beautiful image. To me, the graveyard signifies an important fact about the human condition and the church represents an attempt to cope with this fact, just as the village suggests a collective effort to cope with an indifferent if not hostile environment. There we are, by my reading, huddled together in the inhuman vastness of everything else. My guess is that Adams saw the church and the graveyard as expressing some sort of natural cycle where everything fits together, and interpreted the vastness of mountain, sky, and moon as representing a benign Mother Nature who will shelter us if we are nice to her. Obviously, I find my interpretation truer, and therefore more powerful than what I suppose Adam's might have been.10 Nonetheless, I could never conclusively demonstrate its superiority. In questions of beauty there are no authorities.


Although beauty transcends conventionality, claims for its universality are highly dubious. What one finds meaningful would seem to be conditioned by what kind of person one is and what one believes both about oneself and about the world in which one lives. Claims are often made that much of modern art captures emotions rather than anything about the sensual or objective world. But whatever such art captures it cannot be pure emotion because emotions do not normally exist in the abstract; they are substantively contextual. Irrespective of whether I have a precise idea of what makes me angry, for instance, it is always something. Similarly, true love always implies a beloved, for if one is in love with love itself this is simply a pathological addiction. All genuinely disassociated “emotions” are pathological. Because emotion is inextricably linked with meaning, and meaning is ultimately subjective, shared experience of beauty is possible only among those who are implicated in the hopes and fears of a common destiny or condition. So naturally notions of beauty vary with time and culture, and a history of the subject can only describe and perhaps explain in sociological terms the emergence of different aesthetic standards.11 Yet human history assumes a species, and as human beings we are implicated in a common condition if not a common destiny. Although it may mean nothing to a tree or an orangutang, for us, anything expressing some truth of the human condition is likely to be sufficiently meaningful as to be taken as universal, regardless of the philosophical technicalities of such a claim. If there were no important, inescapable truths about ourselves, there would be no beauty and no art worthy of serious consideration.

The Power of Straight Photography

Almost everything thus far asserted applies just as much to painting as to photography, but painters enjoy a couple of advantages over photographers in the effort to produce meaningful art. The first of these advantages is that a painting is much more likely to be appreciated for its craftsmanship. Even if the subject is something mundane, such as a nondescript street scene, or only conventionally pretty, the painting itself is something crafted by a human hand and is often appreciated on this basis alone. Ruskin was not completely wrong. An original painting is always prized more than a print, quite apart from the psychic or financial incentives that motivate collectors. In photography there are only prints, and only another photographer will appreciate the cleverness and skill that might have produced a meaningless image. The image is everything; there is nothing else.


For this reason, the second advantage enjoyed by the painter is even more significant than the first. The painted image is much less likely to be dismissed as meaningless or mundane than the photographic image. There are bad paintings, boring paintings and ill-conceived paintings, but none of them is akin to a snapshot. More important than the fact that every painting is the result of notable effort and attention is that the painted image, by the mere fact of being a creation, is expressive of artistic vision, good or bad. Creation implies intent and intent implies meaning. With a painting there is an assumption of meaning that encourages a disposition toward interpretation, an openness to the possibility that there may be more than what immediately meets the eye. With a photograph it is the opposite. As George Bernard Shaw pointed out, there is a “terrible truthfulness” in the photographic image that discourages the metaphoric interpretation that comes so naturally to all but the most rigorously abstract of paintings.12


Early champions of photographic art attempted, typically with very little success, to surmount this disadvantage by producing work that mimicked paintings in one way or another. Allegorical scenes usually appeared comically theatrical, and nostalgic images of peasants, hunters and such looked like actors in costume, which they almost invariably were.13 By far the most successful of these efforts to produce painterly images were associated with the orientation at the turn of the last century that came to be known as Pictorialism. This rather disparate group of photographers tended to imitate an impressionist style of painting, both because this was the dominant style at the time and because they were at pains to distinguish artistic photography from the descriptive and documentary uses of the medium. They favored soft focus lenses and many used techniques to manipulate prints by hand in the service of emotionally expressive, often romantic images. Some of these images are genuinely beautiful, and it may be safe to assert that the movement, if that is a proper characterization, was important in establishing photography as an accepted form of art.14 Yet to be accepted is not necessarily to be appreciated. The best an imitation of anything can claim is to be the equal of the imitated. And with even the best images produced by the pictorialists, such as Emerson's, Gathering Waterlilies, or Kasebier's, Blessed Art Thou Among Women, one can fairly ask whether they might have been even better images if the artists had been equally skilled painters rather than photographers.


It was not the pictorialists who established photography as a distinctive form of art but rather some of their mostly younger contemporaries who rejected Pictorialism in favor of what they called “straight photography.”15 As a self conscious movement it was initially largely an American affair, and its original manifesto was penned by Paul Strand.16 The most prominent photographer in the United States, Alfred Steiglitz, hitherto a vocal champion of Pictorialism if not a consistent practitioner, became a convert, and such luminaries as Edward Weston, Ansel Adams and Henri Cartier-Bresson were explicit advocates. Insofar as the movement can be defined simply as a rejection of painterly standards, most well known twentieth century art photographers after WWI would seem to have done so. In effect, the aesthetic standard the proponents of straight photography believed appropriate for a specifically photographic art has prevailed until recent decades. They failed, however, to give a coherent account of this aesthetic or to explain why it is essential to a specifically photographic art.


Strand's manifesto is succinct and clear. The essence of photography is its “absolute unqualified objectivity,” by which he means much the same as Shaw's “terrible truthfulness.” This essence should not be denied but rather embraced because the “potential power of every medium is dependent upon the purity of its use.” The full potential of photography can only result from “straight photographic methods,” which are contrasted with the “tricks of process or manipulation.” The latter represent both an “impotent desire to paint” and, it is implied, a lack of honesty about what one can accomplish with the medium. Clear as Strand's position may be, it is not compelling. If objective means unmediated, then there is little objective about the photographic process. It is probably impossible to produce a print corresponding to what the eyes see at a particular instance, and one wonders what other criterion than this there might be for objectivity in visual matters. Even more to the point, no photographer with artistic intentions is aiming for such a result. Every lens, from the eyes' perspective, distorts, and every effort to compose and to control tone and color is a manipulation.


It is not objectivity that is at issue for straight photography, but rather credibility. What its early proponents derided was the effort to construe images to look as if they were created rather than captured. What they really wanted, knowingly or not, was to be able to say something like: “This existed, you are seeing something real.” Although I think this credibility is crucial for specifically photographic art, other modes of art certainly can create beautiful images, including photography imitative of painting. Moreover, lack of this kind of credibility should not be confused with dishonestly. Painters who depict things, pictorialists such as Kasebier who pose their scenes, or technical wizards such as Jerry Uelsmann who create surrealistic images through photo manipulation, certainly do not compromise themselves in refusing to be bound by photographic credibility.


That this credibility exists is self evident. If it were impossible for a photograph to capture a literal reality, then it would be impossible for a photograph to deceive. Paintings do not deceive; one might make false claims as to what a painting represents but this must be done verbally rather than through the image itself. A photographer can perpetrate a fraud without uttering a word. Photographic credibility derives from the fact that, however mediated by lens and sensor, as well as a host of decisions made by the photographer, the image is a captured trace caused by emanated or reflected light. Although the chemistry is different, the root cause of photography is the same as that of seeing. Just as we can see something at present through the use of a mirror, so too can we see something at a past moment through the use of a camera. In both cases we are literally, even if indirectly, seeing the subject.17


Insofar as there is creativity in specifically photographic art it is in the control of what is seen and how it is seen. Photographic credibility may preclude “tricks of process and manipulation,” but it is certainly compatible with efforts to highlight what the artist wants to emphasize about the captured subject. The painter constructs, the photographer points.18 And insofar as each discloses a meaningful truth, the painter appeals to an imaginative possibility while the photographer stakes a claim on what most definitely was. The only truth in painting is metaphorical. Every photograph, by contrast, begins with a literal truth which the artist claims has meaning beyond the split second it undeniably existed. Interpretation might be metaphorical in that elements of the image may represent or suggest things, ideas, or feelings unseen if not invisible, but the visual elements themselves are brute facts from the past. Part of Shaw's “terrible truthfulness” is that these facts really can be brutish because they are much less susceptible to selective perception than when viewed by unaided eyes.


Due to the photo's power to force us to see things we might have otherwise neglected, or even preferred to ignore, photography has been frequently characterized as particularly prone to a surrealistic presentation of reality.19 If surrealism is no more than surprising juxtaposition or seeming exaggeration, such a characterization might be appropriate. But there are no limp clocks in photography. However strange the juxtaposition, or ludicrous the seeming exaggeration, the straight photographic image can never be dismissed as absurd. The surrealist painter asks us to “imagine this,” the straight photographer says “behold.” With a surrealist painting you might wonder what was running through the painter's mind, but with a photograph you almost have to ask yourself what you are seeing. This is the power of straight photography.


This power renders most photographs, even a stranger's snapshots, at least mildly interesting. It does not in itself make them meaningful, let alone beautiful, but it certainly amplifies whatever meaning they have. Photographs of the distant past have enhanced documentary meaning just because they are photographs rather than drawings or paintings. A painting might very well convey more information than a photograph of the same subject, but to no avail in most circumstances. When the option exists, no matter how competent and trusted the interpreter, we are more confident seeing it ourselves. As art, photography does not possess any such inherent advantage. Yet photography and painting are two different endeavors, no more in competition with one another than either competes with sculpture. To the extent, however, the photographer creates rather than points photographic credibility is undermined. Because we are no longer after the fact witnesses, the power of the image to compel us to ask ourselves what was represented or what was going on in the instant the shutter was released is also undermined. And without this power the photograph's ability to express the meaning which might make it beautiful is significantly diminished.


If, for example, the moon had not really been rising over Hernandez, New Mexico, at 4:05 P.M., on October 31, 1941, but had been added to the image by Adams in the darkroom, neither I, nor I think, most others would consider this such a compelling image. It would look the same, but instead of considering whether nature is benign or indifferent I would be asking myself what Adams was trying to tell me, at least until I concluded that he was misguided.20 So too, with any photograph of a subject constructed or posed by the photographer. In the case of images partially created by darkroom or digital manipulation we clearly have an interpretation of reality, just as as if paint were applied. Such mixed media images incorporate photographs, but are not photographs themselves. Posed images, on the other hand, most definitely are photographs and as such we are witnessing something when confronting them. Yet what we are witnessing is a production, and the question we are left with inevitably concerns the artist's intent. This intent is the meaning of the image, and its visual elements are much the same as theatrical props.21 In both cases these creations can be beautiful, but only if we are empathetic with the artist's intent. Straight photography compels us to consider what we are seeing simply because we are, indeed, seeing something. The photographer's intent leads us to a confrontation with a reality, but we are only compelled to consider what we see, not what the photographer was intending.


What we see, directly or indirectly, is always particular, but meaning, even if self-evident, is always general. Meaning, therefore, is invisible. Put differently, it is subjective or psychological. With a painting the only particular thing we see is the painting itself; after that it is all subjective construction. With a photograph we see what the camera recorded, and as a result the photograph is permeated with particularity. The particularity of photography is greater than direct seeing because, first, our powers of selective focus are diminished and, second, the continuity of experience has been frozen by the camera and we are forced to observe the particulars at a particular instant. If a beautiful photograph expresses a meaningful truth about the human condition, then its meaning must be derived primarily from a relationship among its particular elements rather than from the elements themselves.


As an example, consider Kertesz's photograph, “A Red Hussar Leaving, June, 1919, Budapest,” cogently analyzed by John Berger.22 The frame is largely filled with about ten individuals, most of them soldiers. The scene is some sort of staging area for the departure of the soldiers. In the center, dominating the image is a woman holding a toddler, and a soldier, undoubtedly the woman's spouse, looking at one another. Almost everyone else, including the toddler, is looking at the soldier. We see only the side of his face from the back, and we cannot discern for certain whether he is saying anything to the woman, but her intense, stoical expression is not one of a listener. There is nothing to say. He will soon be gone and their domestic life will be jeopardized. He is going to war, but it seems clear that she will be making the greater sacrifice, that she will be totally responsible for the life they have hitherto lived, certainly in the short term and maybe forever. For me the photograph suggests profound questions concerning the interplay of personal and public responsibilities, the costs and attractions of military service, as well as tensions inherent in certain gender roles. I find it to be a poignant, moving image; it is beautiful.


To appreciate its beauty attention must be focused on the look the woman directs at her spouse, as is encouraged by Kertesz's skill and judgment. This look transcends the particularity of the photograph and gives it a profound meaning independent of the particular circumstances and individuals. Yet these particular elements may be meaningful in themselves, and to the extent this is so the beauty of the image may be obscured. Some contemporaries of the individuals pictured, for instance, would likely have been oblivious to the beauty of the image because the soldiers represented an imminent threat to their safety. Or if the only person in the picture who could possibly still live, the toddler, were to see the photograph now, the fact that its central figure was his long deceased mother would undoubtedly overshadow the look she had on her face. This would be a very meaningful snapshot for the aged toddler, who would very likely be uninterested in the beauty of it.


So, too, for anyone primarily concerned with any documentary value of the photograph, such as information about the uniforms or weapons of the doomed army (they eventually lost). There is no reason a photograph cannot be both a beautiful image and an important document. There is, however, good reason to expect that those primarily concerned with documentation will be oblivious to the artistic merit of photographs. For the origin of artistic meaning is exactly the opposite than that of documentary meaning. The latter is gleaned from the particulars of the image while the former is derived from a general truth somehow captured by the relationship of the particular elements to one another.23


Because the truth that transfigures an image of an instant into a work of art is ambiguous if not ineffable, it not only invites but even requires contemplation. A straight photograph preserves a moment in the past by ripping it from the contextual flow of experience, freezing it as it were. Its power forces us to consider what we are seeing, and if it engages our attention for more than a moment we must consider, however briefly, why it does. If the answer to this latter question is readily apparent there is no incentive for contemplation. Paradoxically, the more knowledge we have of the particular context and sequence of events surrounding the instance captured in the photograph, the less likely we are to find it artistically meaningful. The capacity of a photographic image to be beautiful depends upon the contrast between the particularity of its visual elements and the generality of whatever meaningful truth can be found in their relationship.


For this reason there is a trade-off between narrative information and photographic beauty. A picture that tells a story might be interesting or entertaining, but its meaning is confined largely to the story. Moreover, it has to be an obvious if not boring story, because a photograph takes a moment out of its immediate context rather than putting it in. A picture may be worth a thousand words, as the saying goes, but as John Szarkowski pointed out these words “are mostly nouns and adjectives, whereas a story needs verbs.”24 The straight photographer presents us with a perspective on a very thin slice of reality. No matter how much motion may have characterized the scene at the moment of capture, the image is inherently static, frozen. What might have come after that moment, even if not a matter of sheer conjecture, is not part of the image. If the meaning of an image is derived from something exterior rather than something embedded, it cannot be a very meaningful image in itself. Similarly, the motivation of the photographer is not part of a straight photographic image, and for this reason cannot in itself be an authoritative guide to its meaning. Because we are both witnessing and interpreting an instant of reality rather than solely interpreting something created, the meaning must be embedded in the image. To discern it requires a degree of contemplation on the part of any viewer, including the photographer. It is a peculiarly cerebral affair, perhaps as much akin to poetry as painting.

The Sacrifice of Beauty

Whatever affinities straight photography might have with other forms of art, it is a relatively poor medium for self-expression. The artist takes the photograph, but light creates the image. Pointing can be a creative act but it cannot create anything other than awareness. As John Berger puts it, photographs “quote” from appearances, they do not “translate” them as does a drawing.25 Put differently, the straight photographer does not render an interpretation of reality but rather highlights aspects of it. Stephen Shore is essentially correct in maintaining that the photographer has only four “formal tools,” vantage point, frame, focus, and time, for controlling what is seen and how it is seen.26 To designate these as “tools,” however, obscures the fact that they are inescapable elements of each and every photograph, no matter what the intent or skill of the photographer. Every photographer necessarily makes a choice about each of these elements, consciously or intuitively, carefully or carelessly, with every picture taken. Yet unless a particular photographer consistently made not just peculiar but even bizarre choices, no honest expert could ever confidently attribute a photographic image to a particular photographer solely on the basis of these elements.27


In a very real sense the artist becomes lost in photographic art. The most important decision the photographer makes does not concern vantage point, frame, focus, or time, but rather what is to be photographed, the subject. Once this and the less important decisions have been made, the photographer fades away because he or she is irrelevant to our assessment of the image. It is perhaps likely that what we take to be a meaningful relationship captured by a skilled photographer corresponds to the meaning he or she intended to capture. Whether it does or not, however, should make no difference to our interpretation of what we see. In straight photography the artist's motivation is not a dimension of the image. Consequently, even the absence of any artistic aspiration or conscious attention to composition is irrelevant in the assessment of a photographic image. There is nothing particularly shocking in the fact that one of the most notable of early photographers was a boy supposedly unconcerned with questions of art, or that anonymous snapshots can be just as profoundly compelling as work produced by the most famous of photographic artists.28


It is, however, extremely inconvenient for those concerned with building a reputation, career, or fortune as an artist, and I suspect that this inconvenience is the primary reason for the decline of straight photography in the institutional network sometimes known as the “Art World.” This term refers to a loose collection of leading dealers with their galleries, curators of a small number of well endowed museums, along with the artists they support or market, and the wealthy collectors or contributors who make it all possible. This informal network is given a meaningful degree of self-consciousness by a handful of periodicals and, in recent decades, a larger number of well regarded art schools serving to certify prospective artists by awarding them MFA degrees as well as providing employment for a portion of those who achieve at least some recognition in the Art World. This is a self-contained community in two senses. First, it is relatively small. Second and more importantly, the standards and fashions of art that it supports at any particular time are determined within the community rather than from outside constituencies. The public, as Tom Wolfe puts it, “are merely tourists, autograph seekers, gawkers, parade watchers, so far as the game of success in Art is concerned.”29 Even the wealthy collectors and benefactors, dependent on gallery owners and paid consultants, are more akin to privileged camp followers than leaders.30


Within this world straight photography is more the exception than the rule. As with the Pictorialists of old, contemporary photographers contending for attention in the Art World more likely than not pose or digitally create important aspects their images.31 Yet unlike the Pictorialists, neither those of the minority, who maintain photographic credibility, nor those of the majority who do not are typically concerned with producing beautiful images. That is to say, they are not attempting to capture some fundamental but illusive truth about the human condition. Instead, the meaning of most contemporary work, at least in the Art World, is derived from documentation combined with some degree of explicit or implied social commentary.


There may be a number of reasons for the disregard for beauty, properly understood, among those who consider themselves at the cutting edge of artistic expression. One obvious candidate is the supposed influence of post-modernism, with its rejection of any sort of culturally transcendent standards by which canons could be justified and assessments of the enduring significance of art and artists might be judged. From this perspective photographs are seen “as signs that acquired their significance or value from their place within the larger system of social and cultural coding.”32 Judgments of “beauty” and the standards rationalizing them are no more than reflections of patterns of social domination. But quite apart from the implausibility that the major players in the Art World would be moved by philosophical sectarianism, post-modernism is too ill-suited to their needs to be anything more than a useful rhetoric. For if taken seriously, a post-modern perspective would affirm that either everything or nothing is art. In either case, claims of artistic merit are something to be either deconstructed or ridiculed. Yet art schools have to teach something, collectors and museums have to collect something, galleries have to sell something, and consultants have to maintain that some work is more worthy of note than others. If artistic merit is no more than convenient presumption, then there are neither masterpieces nor, of course, masters.


The Art World might be able to dispense with masterpieces but it must have presumed masters. Galleries sell names and collectors collect them. Just as important, artists and art students aspire to achieve personal recognition. This need, I think, is the most important factor creating a less than receptive environment for straight photography in general, and especially a straight photography with genuinely aesthetic aims. Personal recognition requires a personal touch, something beyond the “good eye” required for consistently producing engaging images. Yet in straight photography the personal touch is either invisible or absent. The only way a straight photographer pursuing beauty can make a distinctly personal statement is through a choice of distinctive subject matter, and about the only successful example is Diane Arbus' collection of self-possessed “freaks” and self-deluded “normal people.” The work of almost all other notable straight photographers of the past is characterized by diversity of subject matter and style, despite recurring themes and contexts. The quest for beauty, expressive of fundamental truths of the human condition, militates against specialization of particular subject matter.


The quest for the personal touch is not incompatible with the quest for beauty. Uses of the medium in ways more attuned to self-expression, although lacking the power of straight photography, are nonetheless capable of expressing profound meaning. Yet photography in the Art World is much more concerned with social commentary than expressing something supposedly of existential importance.33 Making a statement, political, anthropological, or psychological, reiterated through a series of images, a project, offers the prospect of the personal touch while avoiding the ambiguity of more encompassing truths and the uncertainties of contemplation. There is, however, a cost. Appreciation of such work requires not only an understanding of the artist's intent, which provides the personal touch, but also some sympathy with the intended message. For as a general rule, without at least an implicit appeal to some more fundamental truth, statements of any kind tend to be meaningful only to those predisposed to take them seriously. Beauty arises from intimations of fundamental truths about ourselves, and art has the power to bring into question conventional assumptions and priorities.34 But to make a more fundamental claim through a photographic image inevitably undermines the clarity with which it conveys or supports any statement concerning a specific set of circumstances. Just as there is a trade off between narrative information and photographic beauty, there is a choice to be made between pointing out the intricacies and potentialities of the here-and-now or pointing toward the deeper truths of our nature. Where there are choices, there are sacrifices.



1John Ruskin, On Art and Life, p. 70. Such considerations even led an early champion of photographic art to recant. See Nancy Newhall, P.H. Emerson: The Fight for Photography as a Fine Art, pp. 89-94.

2Robert Anderson, Calliope's Sisters: A Comparative Study of Philosophies of Art, p.238

3Most families insist on carefully composed pictures only when they serve ritual functions, such as commemorating graduations and weddings. The professionals they usually employ are skilled at producing conventionally idealized likenesses.

4See Sarah Thornton, Seven Days in the Art World, p. 63; Wendy Steiner, Venus in Exile: The Rejection of Beauty in Twentieth-Century Art; Arthur Coleman Danto, The Abuse of Beauty: Aesthetics and the Concept of Art, p. 27.

5“Beauty isn't beauty if it doesn't inspire awe for a specific proposition about reality.” Peter Schjeldahl, Let's See, p. 18.

6Because I am rejecting the beauty/sublime distinction, I have no need to define the latter term. Among many commentators on modern art the notion (and ipso facto the distinction) is embraced as an alternative to beauty, which is seen as either prettiness or as a claim to some sort of classical universalism. See the material collected in Simon Morley (ed.), The Sublime.

7Compare Robert Adams, Beauty in Photography, p.24.

8Indeed, beauty is often defined in terms of natural order. See Adams, pp. 24-5; David Bayles and Ted Orland, Art and Fear: Observations On the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, p.104. Compare Susan Sontag's cogent observations, On Photography, pp. 96-102.

9Anderson employed the phrase “skillfully encoded” in his previously quoted definition of art. This would make sense to an anthropologist looking upon works of art as cultural artifacts. In considering such artifacts as works of art, however, “skillfully embedded” would be more appropriate. “The artistic symbol, qua artistic, negotiates insight, not reference; it does not rest upon convention, but motivates and dictates conventions. It is deeper than any semantic of accepted signs and their referents, more essential than any schema that may be heuristically read.” Susanne K. Langer, Feeling and Form: A Theory of Art, p. 22.

10For the most part Adams explicitly refused to discuss the meaning of his photographs. See Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs, pp. vii, 43, 100-1, 106, 122.

11E.g., Umberto Eco, History of Beauty, p. 14.

12“There is a terrible truthfulness about photography. The ordinary academician gets hold of a pretty model, paints her as well as he can, calls her Juliet, and puts a nice verse from Shakespeare underneath, and the picture is admired beyond measure. The photographer finds the same pretty girl, he dresses her up and photographs her, and calls her Juliet, but somehow it is no good – it is still Miss Wilkins, the model. It is too true to be Juliet.” Quoted in Helmut Gernstein, Creative Photography: Aesthetic Trends, 1839-1960, p. 76.

13For an overview, see Naomi Rosenblum, A World History of Photography, pp.220-37.

14The label “pictorialism” has been applied to all attempts to establish photography as an art by painterly means. See Joel Eisinger, Trace and Transformation: American Criticism of Photography in the Modernist Period, p. 17.

15For a positive overview, see Beaumont Newhall, The History of Photography, pp. 111-33. For a critical assessment of attempts to articulate the creed, see Eisinger, pp. 52-78.

16Paul Strand, “Photography,” in Jonathan Green (ed.), Camera Work: A Critical Anthology, pp. 326-7.

17See Kendall L. Walton, Marvelous Images: On Values and the Arts, pp. 85-8. “The photograph is literally an emanation of the referent. From a real body, which was there, proceed radiations which ultimately touch me, who am here, the delayed rays of a star.” Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, p. 80.

18This is a modification of Sontag, p. 62. “The painter constructs, the photographer discloses.”

19E.g. Sontag, pp. 74-82; Janet Malcolm, Diana and the Nikon: Essays on Photography, pp. 164, 170; Rosalind Krauss, “The Photographic Conditions of Surrealism,” 3-34.

20 It makes no difference to me that the sky could not have been nearly as dark as the filter Adams employed rendered it; this is only an effective pointing device that does not essentially alter what I am looking at. See Ansel Adams, pp. 41-3.

21Consider Robert Doisneau's picture of 1950, Kiss at the Hotel de Ville. It became his most famous image because it supposedly captured the spontaneity of love, of life, and the magic of Paris. Over 40 years later it was established that the image was contrived. “Does the lack of authenticity diminish the photograph? It did for me, turning its promise of romance into a beautifully crafted lie.” Philip Gefter, Photography After Frank, p. 54. I agree with Mr. Gefter's reaction, although I would have preferred a word like “cleverly” rather than “beautifully.”

22John Berger and Jean Mohr, Another Way of Telling, pp. 101-3, 108-9.

23“A photograph which achieves expressiveness thus works dialectically: it preserves the particularity of the event recorded, and it chooses an instant when the correspondences of those particular appearances articulate a general idea.” Berger, in Berger and Mohr, p. 122.

24John Szarkowski, Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures from the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art, p154.

25Berger and Mohr, p. 96.

26Stephen Shore, The Nature of Photographs , p. 65. With digital processing I think we can expand a bit on these basic tools, especially in the ability to remove distracting elements, sufficiently irrelevant to avoid undermining credibility by doing more than “pointing.” But of course digital processing opens vast possibilities for anyone unconcerned with credibility, or even honesty.

27See as an illustration, Reyhan Harmanci, “Ansel Adams or Not? New Twists,” New York Times, Nov. 9, 2010.

28The boy genius is Jacques Henri Lartique (born 1894). See Janet Malcolm, pp. 55-61; Sanford Schwartz, The Art Presence, p. 145. Lartique was not quite the primitive he was made out to be when “discovered” in the 1960's. His father was a wealthy amateur with his own well-equipped darkroom and an array of cameras, all available to his son. See Kevin Moore, Jacques Henri Lartique: The Invention of the Artist.

29Tom Wolfe, The Painted Word, p. 27. “Fame is increasingly superfluous to the establishment of an artist's sinecure. Insider buzz and sales to collectors of the right pedigree are what count.” Schjeldahl, Let's See, p.184.

30See Sarah Thornton, Seven Days in the Art World, pp.77-104.

31If documentation is needed, it can be found in a recent compilation of the work of 121 younger photographers nominated as worthy of note by 79 individuals clearly representative of the Art World. Of these 121 up-and-comers no more than 46, by my estimate, are practicing straight photography. Vitamin PH: New Perspectives in Photography.

32Charlotte Cotton, The Photograph as Contemporary Art, p. 191.

33See T.J. Demos, “Introduction,”in Vitamin PH: New Directions in Photography, p. 10.

34See Dave Hickey, “Enter the Dragon: On the Vernacular of Beauty, “ in Bill Beckley and David Shapiro (eds.), Uncontrollable Beauty: Toward a New Aesthetics, pp. 15-24.