Friday, December 31, 2010

A Time to Look Back & Ahead

It was 53ยบ in the North Country today. Our January thaw arrived before January did. The beaver pond that I walk past for my daily exercise has standing water and slush over the ice and the river is losing much of its ice. Walking is good for thinking.

I’ve been reading “Occam’s Razor” by Bill Jay. Bill has long been my favorite commentator on the state of photography and our son bought me a copy of his out-of-print book for Christmas, a series of essays. It is classic Bill Jay. He cuts to the chase and tells it like he sees it. The essay I read this morning was “Professors and Professionals” in which he describes the divide between academic art photographers, “a lazy dilettante, playing with inconsequential, irrelevant and largely superficial ideas...” and commercial photographers, “who, because of lack of intelligence, moral scruples or willful ignorance of the medium’s history and aesthetic issues, have compromised with commerce...”. His descriptions go on and explain the problems I have experienced trying to cross that divide.

I started photography at age 13, was largely self taught until high school when I enrolled in NYI’s correspondence course (still available today) followed by the ill-fated Famous Photographers course. After joining the Army I both attended and later taught in the Signal Center & School of still photography at Ft. Monmouth, NJ. Of course all that was based on commercial photography but I had an artistic bent and (perhaps naively) saw no reason that I could not apply my commercial photography skills to ‘personal work’ that could be considered to be art. After all Ansel Adams was doing that.

In art school after getting out of the Army I had my first encounter with the divide that Bill Jay described in his essay. Because I had changed my major I lost some credits and became aware that I needed to make up at least 6 semester hours in order to graduate as planned. The dean of students suggested that I get one of the professors to agree to grant me some credit based on my prior life experience and I thought that my photography background would be just the ticket so I approached the photography professor (there was only one) to ask what I would need to present for him to consider it. I hadn’t taken any photo courses from this fellow since I had already been through three schools and taught in one. He took one look at my work and informed me that I didn’t know as much about photography as his first semester students. Puzzled I asked what I was doing wrong and he said “Your work isn’t esoteric enough”.

Needless to say, since I wasn’t trying to be esoteric, I didn’t get the necessary credits to graduate from him. I did get them but that is another story. As a commercially trained photographer I was trying to clearly communicate with my photographs, not hide my meaning. Some time later I saw some of his photos in a faculty exhibit, blurred images of snowplows plowing snow in a blizzard printed in shades of grey, roughly zones 3-6, no blacks and no whites (Ansel would not have approved). They were in a gallery and were considered “ART” but had one of our students in the Army school where I taught turned in images with technical quality like that for their assignments we’d have flunked him out and sent him to infantry school instead. Therein lies the divide. Neither of us was seeing photography in the other’s terms.

In this weblog I have dealt the question “is it art?” several times, most recently in October, and I still have trouble with that divide. Bill Jay said that for his part he didn’t think that photography was art. He apparently didn’t think it was lesser or lower than art but simply a different animal. The real problem however isn’t how we define art, rather it is the gap that the two mindsets create. I finished my degree in Fine Art (ceramics, not photography) and, as this blog attests, I have continued photography. All this is the long way of saying that my New Year’s resolution is to continue to try to wrestle with the gap. That and lots of making photographs and I wish you all a happy and productive 2011.

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