A photograph isn't art... it just is.

I good long while ago ago, I posted an article about Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida. At the time, one of my readers – Wigwam Jones – posted a rather awesome response, and I have been meaning to highlight it at some level – It’s been a long time coming, but here we go – I bring to you, Basically, The lovely Wigwam’s take on photography, Barthes, ad a bit of nihilistic arts theory thrown in for good measure.  


Take it away mr Jones…

Art, schmart! People worry too much over categories and argue definitions that don’t matter. I read Barthes book recently as well, I think he was brilliant. But, people find it difficult to read him – he writes thickly, it is hard to get to the point of his thrusts. It is worth the battle, however.

My take-away from Barthes’ book addresses one of the perennial questions about ‘photography-as-art’ for me – but others will continue to beat the subject to death in a circling spiral of self-examination.

The basis of Barthe’s book is simple – there are three ways to look at a photograph.

The first is the art of the making of the photograph. That is the art that the photographer experiences. No one else can share that joy, and probably no one else can feel that experience, unless something undefinable comes through the viewing of the resulting photograph itself later on. However, the art that the photographer created exists for the photographer even if the film is never even developed.

The second is the printing of the photograph. The is the artistry of the printer, the darkroom alchemist, who, if not the photographer himself (or herself) must interpret the meaning, absorb the purpose, appreciate the sign (the signifier) and bring that to the art of the print. There is also the artistry of the print itself to be considered – here choice of paper and finish and size and matting and framing all have some part to play. This again may have some impact on the ultimate viewer of the photograph, but the art that the printer creates and experiences belongs to that person alone.

The third and final art is the artistic value that the ultimate viewer puts on the photograph when it is printed and seen. Thoroughly subjective, and bereft of any meaning – it signifies only what the viewer perceives, filtered through their own layers of meaning and interpretation. The artist can say that the photograph ‘means’ this or that – but that meaning only applies to the art of the first part. It may not – or it may – apply to the meaning of the art of the third part. However, there is no rule saying it must. If the ultimate viewer X says it is crap – it is crap. If viewer Y says it is genius, it is genius. It cannot signify more than what the viewer believes it to signify.

When the photographer finds a common chord, a meme that is established, a link between art of the first part, art of the second part, and art of the third part; and this may signify meaning to many viewers, who will all proclaim it ‘art’ – and such it is, to the world at large. This link may not even have been intended – such is the case with the frustrated photographer who finds his or her work admired ‘for the wrong reasons’.

It has nothing to do with anything else. This is what people find so hard to grasp. Subject, date, place, camera used, etc, and etc ad nauseum mean precisely nothing.

This does NOT mean that the photographer took a technically precise or excellent photograph. It does NOT mean that the printer made the perfect presentation of that photograph upon paper. It does NOT mean that some overwhelming public good has been achieved, or that some pinnacle of excellence has been attained.

The ultimate definition of art is nihilist – ‘art’ means nothing, cannot be defined, and doesn’t ultimately matter. A photograph is. What it signifies may or may not be of interest to any given person.

And that, to me, is what Barthe considered when he asked what a photograph ultimately means.

(originally posted as a comment to an article about Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida. © Wigwam Jones

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