Defining Photography

Manipulation Example 2009

Once, I came upon a thought provoking comment on some local online photography community in Lithuania. It was posted under an apparently heavily, yet skillfully manipulated image, and in fact it was done so well that, at first glance, it was rather hard to believe it was a manipulation. The text was posted by an elderly photographer who is known to write very argument-rich comments under many works on that particular website. From what I’ve noticed before, he was usually intrigued by a lot of different images in different styles made by different photographers and he seemed to be very objective with his evaluation, if slightly conservative with his approach to photography as a form of art and expression. Still, given his age, experience and especially taking into account post-soviet influence in understanding of what art is, it was only natural. However, this time the respected online critic (as strange as it may sound to some) was strongly bewildered by the author’s approach to photography and how much digital manipulation (Photoshop in particular) was part of the work. “Where does photography end and digital art begin?”, he wondered. I wondered too.

Manipulation Example

It seems the understanding of what photography is (and art photography in particular) has changed during the last few years. Few? It’s a been over a decade now since we had the launch of Nikon D1, a camera seen by many as the first big step towards the revolution brought by DSLRs. Not only was it usable and offered decent at the time resolution, it was quick and as robust as the film SLR it was largely based on, the Nikon F5. And artists – not only photographers, but all kinds – must have burst with excitement. “New ways to express ourselves”, they’d think. The beginning of the real, readily available digital imaging offered artists new ways to deceive, and trick, and provoke the viewer.

I’m an artist. At least I should be – I study at the faculty of arts, and not the kind you would think of first. We, sadly, don’t talk much about Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ansel Adams or Salvador Dali – they are too ordinary, as funny as it may sound. Too known. Too legendary and too classic. We do talk about the likes of Leigh Bowery and Marina Abramović, who, while just as known to some, are much less acceptable, at least in a country as conservative as Lithuania. And so it is good – we are taught to be less conservative, to evaluate not purely with emotions, but with our minds. To try and understand before becoming judgmental. We are taught to expand our understanding of art. Not to necessarily like, no – this remains our freedom, but to understand why artists do what they do even when it seems to be the strangest and silliest thing in the world.

And then there are lines that, not so long ago by some standards, were not to be crossed. They defined where photography ends and, for example, videography begins. But now, now we have sculpture, but also installations. Now we have theaters and video art, but also performances and video performances. We have conceptual art and art that has yet to be named and defined only to lose the definition in a year, or five, or ten. What does Vik Muniz do? Is he a sculpturer, or a master of installations, or a photographer, or a painter? He’s everything.

And we crossed the lines. Art is becoming just that, art. It’s harder and harder, sometimes, to define it and frame it. But the process of evaluation is no easier because of this, and harder still. Where does photography end? I believe it’s hard to compare such different things. A portrait made by Irving Penn can hardly be compared to a modern photographic manipulation, even though they are or can be both great works. It’s also hard to compare Irving Penn to someone like, say, Magda Berny, although they both do portraits. Too different. Both good, yet different in their purposes and thus incomparable. As long as we keep that in mind and accept photography as a way (or part of it, however small or big) to express ourselves, we should have no problems evaluating different works differently.

Keep an open mind, they teach us at the University. It’s what we all should try to do.