Who Cares If Photography Is Not Art?

Actually, I can live with ‘photography is just photography’.

The year is now 2015.

Yes. I’ve checked. Double-checked. And triple-confirmed.

Was I being paranoid or incoherent?

No. But you can blame my obsession with the year on Jonathan Jones.

I mean, we are already one and a half decade into the new millennium and Mr Jones, the famed art critic for The Guardian newspaper is still arguing that photography is not art?

In the Wikipedia entry on Mr Jones, he is described as having a ‘provocative and sometimes contradictory journalist(sic) style’.

Mr Jones made his most recent ‘photography is not art’ assertion on Dec 10 (2014) when he heard that Peter Lik’s ‘hollow, cliched and tasteless black and white shot of an Arizona canyon’ fetched £4.1m ($6.5m), setting a new world record.

That prompted a lengthy counter, the very next day, from Sean O’Hagan, his Guardian colleague. For full disclosure, I am a bigger fan of O’Hagan’s writings.

But I have a very simple question for him, “If photography is not art, then what is it? Just photography?”

Actually, I can live with ‘photography is just photography’.

I’ve scrolled through some of the reader comments and they mostly accused Mr Jones of ‘click-baiting’ and ‘trolling’.

If that is what he’s really out to achieve, I’ve to say he has done a wonderful job. After all, I’ve bitten the bait right?

Mr Jones has recently also written about how photography does not belong in museums.

You know what? I actually kind of agree with him on that assertion but have been too afraid to admit it publicly.

To distance myself from this ‘controversial’ (I have seen worst adjectives being used on him) writer, I should perhaps make this disclaimer: Most of my reasons are different from his.

In the past 10 years, I have made special trips to London, Paris and New York, each journey with the main intention of seeing some photography exhibitions.

London was for William Klein and Daido Moriyama at the Tate Modern; Paris for the Henri Cartier-Bresson show; and New York for Cindy Sherman.

But on all these visits, I ended up leaving the shows proper within one hour.  Yes it is insane, considering the amount of money on flight, hotel, not to mention the long long journeys from and back to Singapore.

My pet peeve visiting an exhibition is that people talk too much. Almost without fail, I would always encounter show-offs who like dispensing their opinions in the presence of their museum-visiting friends.

And because they talk too much, they also tend to loiter longer at each work.

Did I pay all the money to listen to their views or to look at the back of their heads? Of course not.

Just for the record, I visited the Klein/Moriyama exhibition twice. The first was just a quick survey, the second was after I wised up and went to the museum at a time when it was less crowded. My best advice: take the earliest slot possible and do it on a weekday.

Contradictory as it sounds, I find some photography exhibitions too overwhelming to be consumed in one session. Case in point – the Genesis exhibition by Brazilian master Sebastiao Salgado, at the National Museum of Singapore.

It was without a doubt a fantastic show with gorgeous, saliva-dripping prints, something almost impossible to replicate in other forms, although the giant books by Taschen, published in conjunction with the project, come close.

On my first visit, I left the exhibition halfway because the materials were just too serious for me to stomach in one afternoon. Fortunately, the show was free and within 30 minutes traveling time from my home and I could go back again and again, which I did.

But that has nothing to do with photography not befitting of a museum setting. The fact is, I broke up my appreciation of Genesis into smaller parts because it was too powerful, and I wanted to take them in slowly and seriously.

Photography exhibitions often don’t work for me because of another personal reason – I am attention-deficit.

For me, photography books offer a better option because I can browse at my own pace and sometimes be doing three other things at the same time. I also feel that visual narrative fits the printed book form to a T. It is certainly better in controlling the sequence in which a story needs to be told, assuming that it is linear.

In the same breath, I must also admit that at exhibitions, I tend to people watch and very often, that means not paying attention to the works. But hey, I would argue that the people is part of an exhibition. No?

On the one hand, I say that people distract me at exhibition, on the other, I just admitted loving to people-watch.

Now now, am I not being contradictory myself?

Or have I become more and more like Mr Jones – a modern-day journalist who can generate a lot of page views?

Whatever it is, I just have one last thing to add: Even if the Mr Jones and Mr O’Hagan are engaging in this latest war of words to boost web traffic, I am still sticking to the Guardian.

No, there won’t be any chance of me switching to The Times or The Telegraph.

That part, I am sure. More sure than Mr Jones’s latest belief that photography is not art.


This column appeared in the January 2015 issue of UK-based Professional Photographer Magazine.