The post title is a quote taken from Black White + Grey, a fascinating documentary about Sam Wagstaff, the collector and curator who, among other things, brought Robert Mapplethorpe to fame. The documentary makes a case for Wagstaff inventing the market for photography by beginning to collect the works of unknown and often anonymous photographers particular those of the 19th and early 20th century. In those photographs, Wagstaff found the value of photography in its distance from art and its nearness to seeing. In his own words taken from various parts of the film:
. . . it seemed somehow almost more mysterious, this black and white thing, this series of grisaille images, which were like art, which seemed to ape art in many instances particularly around the turn of the century, but were never art, thank god. They were something else . . . I came to photography after having hated it. I wondered why anyone was involved with it for years. I was in a much superior mode of endeavor called A R T. Photography is the least decorative of all the arts, we certainly can say that. It don’t hold the wall terribly well. . . It is something that I don’t really talk about particularly because I don’t think about it in verbal terms, I guess. I think of Wallace Steven’s remark that the great poem defies the intelligence almost completely. . . I would say that photography for me does the same thing.
‘It don’t hold the wall terribly well’ is not perhaps the critique that many photographers would hope for, but it does get to the heart of some of photography’s anxiety over its current place the art world, namely that the rest of the art world doesn’t take photography seriously enough. Literal attempts to hold the wall better by ever increasing the size of the prints seems not to have resulted in photography being taken any more seriously; a 42 inch inkjet print is still an inkjet print after all. A better salve for that anxiety might be to accept that photography isn’t really an art in the most traditional of senses. Photography certainly doesn’t take the level of technical skill that something like painting or sculpture takes; you can teach someone most of what they need to know about the technical aspects of photography in less than a day. Certain refinements of technical skill may take years to learn, but those pursuits are often coincidental to the act of seeing, which is really the central gift of photography. In this way, I think photography is more akin to writing than it its to other more traditional arts. The gift of a great writer is not in their ability to write a grammatically elegant sentence – although many are masters of this craft – but in their ability to see their subject more clearly and to communicate what is seen.
Of course, the part that can’t be taught in a day, and this is true of both photography and writing, is the seeing part, the act of selecting from the noise of the world a distillation that improves our understanding of the whole. This is the part of photography that sets it aside from the other arts. This is the part that ‘defies intelligence,’ and it is to this that photography should perhaps pay more attention. Instead of demanding the respect of the art world by ever increasing the technical sophistication of the end result, photography would do better to sell itself as a way of seeing, less as a form of art, and more as a life skill that can lead not just to art, but to a more interesting life. It is in that pursuit that photography will find its best hope of gaining the respect it deserves.