Open to Everything?
170 Years After Its Birth, Photography Must Refocus on Its Identity for the Future

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 27, 2009

There's been a lot of talk lately about the shaky finances of Annie Leibovitz, celebrity photographer and photographer of celebrity. Her creditors recently gave her a reprieve from bankruptcy, but are set to pounce again unless she can raise a lot of cash, fast.

However things turn out for Leibovitz, our thoughts on her art are not likely to be touched.

Enthusiasts will stay the course and doubters -- myself included -- will likely keep doubting.

But news of Leibovitz's finances has set me to thinking about one peculiar aspect of her work: that art lovers, both fans and foes, have had the chance to form opinions of it. Of all media, only photography would get an art critic talking about someone from the commercial side of the tracks. Only a photographer would make a fortune from pictures in magazines, but also see the same images on museum walls. Only photographs so easily cross over between high and low.

In the past few years, at the National Gallery of Art alone, we've seen shows of non-art snapshots by anonymous photographers and of deluxe "artistic" still lifes by Irving Penn -- some of which began life in Vogue magazine. We've seen images by photographic pioneers such as Francis Frith and Eugene Atget, who mostly thought of themselves as documentarians, as well as by later photographers such as Andre Kertesz, Robert Frank and Nicholas Nixon, who knew their documents were art. The Corcoran Gallery of Art has given us Leibovitz and Richard Avedon on the commercial end of things, and just closed a survey of the purely artistic reportage of William Eggleston, who pioneered the noncommercial use of color film, while the Hirshhorn Museum has shown us the esoteric conceptual photography of Christopher Williams and Walead Beshty, about as pure as art can come. By showing Ansel Adams, the Smithsonian American Art Museum landed somewhere in between.

"It's a willingness to see that photography includes all these different disciplines," says curator Sarah Greenough, who's in charge of the photography holdings at the National Gallery. "Contributions can come from almost any corner of the photographic world. . . . It does make it more complicated, but it makes it more interesting, too."

Art's other media don't get received that way. A successful commercial painter such as Tom Jung, who did the ultra-iconic "Star Wars" poster, doesn't receive art-museum attention. Amateur landscapes aren't shown at the National Gallery -- unless they're hundreds of years old. (Time can make any image, in any medium, count as significant art.) The Hirshhorn happily shows the latest art video by Douglas Gordon but not the last clever ad for Apple. It doesn't count as art; it's just video.

What makes photography alone such an equal-opportunity art form?

Merry Foresta, director of the Smithsonian Photography Initiative, says that the medium is broad in its embrace now "because it was broad in its embrace in the beginning." From the moment of Louis Daguerre's announcement of photography's birth in 1839, people have wondered whether it would turn out to be art or not, which of its images would matter and which wouldn't. "It has that kind of questioning embedded in it," says Foresta. We've inherited that open-mindedness, she thinks, to the point that her project, which is looking into the millions of photos held by every branch of the Smithsonian, can afford to ignore the entire art/non-art question.

Foresta is interested in striking images, which can have all kinds of roots: "A picture made to collect information is often made as a beautiful picture, because that's the best way to collect it." Or, as I'd say, collecting information well can count as a certain kind of beauty.

Even haphazardly collected information can have its visual appeal. At the time of the impressionists, the casualness of non-art photos had a big effect on the look of high art, even by great figures such as Manet and Degas. Once you were used to this new look in painting, you could enjoy it in the photos that launched it.

By the 1920s and '30s, when photography began to be more fully accepted as an art form, there was a natural tendency to read art into all the images that had come before, if only because they had pioneered the new medium. This was, after all, a moment when all kinds of non-art was being press-ganged into serving as art: Ritual objects from Africa were being seen and used as European modern art and so were pictures by children, the insane and the untrained; old ads were being retrofitted into the collages of Max Ernst and a pile of coat hangers could become a ready-made sculpture by Man Ray. What could be easier than to re-use, and re-see, a non-art photo as a high-art one?

Philip Brookman curates photography at the Corcoran, and has never questioned "whether photography was art, in all of its forms" -- he is hard at work on the first art-museum survey of Eadweard Muybridge, the 19th-century photographer best known for his scientific shots of horses running. He points out that photography itself has something of the ready-made built into it. Whatever a picture looks like, whether crude and amateurish or refined and artistic, there's always a sense that it simply hands its contents over for our contemplation, the way Man Ray could get us looking at those hangers or Marcel Duchamp could hand a urinal to us as art. If every object in a photo has a bit of the ready-made about it, says Brookman, it's no surprise the photograph itself should also work that way. "Once you put it up on the wall in a museum, it's art."

The 1920s also marked the moment when photography had turned its back on an earlier, more evidently "aesthetic" phase, when fine-art photos had gone all soft-focus and painterly so as to make their artiness stand out. Instead, a more modern art of photography had started embracing the crispness of commercial and industrial work. Which is where a lot of "art" photographers still had to earn their keep, while their painter friends could make a living out on the experimental cutting-edge. (Picasso didn't have to paint ads.)

Since the same photographers were making art and non-art images, it's no wonder the border between them got fuzzy. Commercial photography, at its very best, could be ambitious and experimental in a way that commercial painting has barely ever been, at least since the days of Toulouse-Lautrec. Photography was such a new medium, there was room for invention in every part of it. The fashion and editorial shots of Avedon and Penn made a real contribution to the way all photos look and work; curators such as Greenough and Brookman acknowledge that fact in what they show.

It's not that art museums never show "low" painting. The Corcoran has shown Norman Rockwell, and American Art has shown the naive marine paintings of Earl Cunningham. In most cases, however, the pictures are in quotation marks, or even parentheses. They are shown as examples of "commercial" or "outsider" art, up to something separate from what fine artists do. By including both high and low in their programming, curators of paintings can claim a commendable openness to the full range of "visual culture." Photo curators don't even make the distinction.

Painting has had centuries to set out the rules for what's exciting art and what's commercial daubing. Photography is so young, that kind of hierarchy hasn't fully jelled. In fact, especially in recent years, there's been a kind of rapprochement between what counts as art and the least arty of photos.

In today's "high" art world, content is supposed to matter more than style, and that has given a boost to the straightest of documentary photography. Just-the-facts-ma'am photos by prominent artists such as Dan Graham and Alan Sekula have a foursquare attitude that brings them close to images from newspapers or annual reports. And it's that attitude -- what my colleague Philip Kennicott calls the "fetish for raw data" -- that makes them read as credible art.

So the question isn't whether photography is art. When we look back, we find art spread right across the medium.

The question is whether, looking ahead, we'll keep seeing it spread as broad. On the commercial side especially, room for innovation may be shutting down. We're seeing repetition instead.

My gripe with Leibovitz is that she's copycatting Avedon, who had his heyday a half-century ago. In a survey of the most radical of recent fashion shots, held in February at the International Center of Photography in New York, most of the pictures could have been taken in 1982 or before. Some of the photojournalism that wins prizes is now more arty than before, but in the most cliched, old-fashioned way. Even the Hubble's deep-space shots, you could argue, are weaker than their predecessors from the early years of astronomical photography: To make the heavens more heavenly, technicians have thrown in arbitrary pastel colors, which makes the photos look more like sci-fi posters than anything fine art could learn lessons from. Commercial photography has moved away from documenting the world and toward fancifying it. But it's not clear that there are new ways left to make a photo fancy, the way there were when Adams or Avedon or even Frank were doing so.

This year, photography is celebrating its 170th birthday. There's a chance that, in its old age, it is starting to suffer straitened circumstances. Some genius may need to come along and bail it out.

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