Graves at the Church of Sophia, East Berlin, by Thomas Struth. St. Louis Art Museum.
I find it fitting that a photograph I use to illustrate a concern of mine represents a city that was split in two. This photograph of Berlin dates back to 1992, two years after the reunification of Germany and acts as a commentary on that divide. Scenes such as this were denied to Western photographers in the years of the Cold War.
It’s a strange photograph. I found it today hanging on the wall of a modern art gallery in the St. Louis Art Museum. On the surface, it seems little more than a snapshot. I would very surprised if it, entered in the St. Louis Photography Club competition, made the final 100 (out of 400) entries. My entry into that show, a pretty but essentially a jigsaw or chocolate box cover, did get into that final.
As I say, it’s a pretty picture. But I would not call it great art, and I would never expect to find it hanging on the wall of an art museum.
This is the divide that concerns me. Many photographers I come across make technically highly proficient images, images that in many cases fulfill the conventional aesthetics of what make for a beautiful picture, yet, again, these photographs are not great art.
Why is this?
Ultimately, it is always about context. Most photographers, including myself, are content to follow conventional paths. Sunrises, sunsets, seascapes, landscapes, portraits of beautiful women, still lives of pretty things — subjects that work to make for an attractive image. An attractive image that, in most cases, is context irrelevant.
What do I mean by that?
I mean these pictures fail to provide any sort of context beyond the simple surface attraction of the photograph. There is no commentary. You could swap out and replace the subject, landscape, person- whatever – and end up with essentially exactly the same end result.
Great art works differently. It is intensely concerned with the moment, and better it comes to capturing a moment, the better the art becomes. That’s why the Struth photograph, deliberately set in a specific time and with a specific mood that reflects or comments on that time, is hanging in the St. Louis Art Museum.
It’s ironic, really. Photography on the surface is always about capturing the moment. For some photographers, Cartier-Bresson for example, that ‘decisive moment’ is ultimate goal. Yet very few of us really do it. What we do instead is capture a faux-moment, a readily recognizable frame, that appeals to generalities and not to specifics.
I feel this intensely. It’s the reason why I find so much photography to be empty of meaning. Including much of my own. I’m trying to change this, to look for photographs that embrace context. Even if that context makes little or no sense without some real work by the viewer. Photographers who are acutely aware of how their work comments on the world around them appeal to me enormously, perhaps my favorite being Cindy Sherman.
I’ll never aspire to that level of artistry. But I am aware of it as a goal. What distresses me is how so few of my fellow photographers seem aware at all of these concepts. Is it really that hard?