There are three main things that Dominic Lopes does in his most recent book Four Arts of Photography. Firstly, he retraces and summarizes traditional thought about photography by early writers—practitioners, cultural critics—and mainstream philosophy of photography. In a systematic way, Lopes lays out in an argument, with various clear premises, scattered but recurrent traditional views about the nature of the medium and the underlying scepticism regarding the artistic capacity of photography. Secondly, and partly in response to this tradition, Lopes proposes an alternative approach—what he calls The New Theory. This New Theory promises to be broader in scope than the orthodox view: it offers a novel view on the idea of what counts as a photograph, and it aims to address and account for various photographic practices that were neglected by the tradition—mainly non-epistemic practices. Finally, interspersed in the development of the former dialectic, Lopes proposes four categories that aim to capture four ways in which photography may become art. Elegantly, he does this by responding to four different sceptical premises or assumptions of traditional theories. In doing all this, the book not only provides the reader with a helpful guide to the history of thought about photography from various traditions—something quite unusual and certainly praiseworthy, as probably the majority of books on photography are focused on a specific ideological approach: historical, critical or philosophical; it also informs us about the wide variety of photographic practices and their different sources of artistic value; furthermore, the book projects thought about photography into the future by offering a new philosophical framework and set of ideas. The first theoretical reflections on photography began at the very same time as photography was invented, and the zeitgeist of that historical moment undoubtedly influenced the conception of the new medium. Photography made its appearance at a moment when painting had reached a peak in the effort of achieving life-likeness by perfecting artists’ painting skills. According to Peter Galassi, theorist and influential former chief curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, this motivated people to compare the two practices and to think that photography—an otherwise scientific invention—may have an artistic use.1 But, of course, this same fact, also contributed to the tendency to draw attention to differences between the two media and to the raising of sceptical worries about its actual artistic potential. Photography, like painting, managed to achieve perfect life-like images and it did so with remarkable objectivity and realism—this mimetic ideal was, of course, a trademark of art or an assumption inherited from the venerable representational theory of art. However, it achieved this by mechanical means, that is automatically, without presupposing any skill or virtuosity which, in turn, was thought to limit not only the agency but also the expressive powers of the photographer—another trademark of art or an assumption deeply ingrained in the tradition as a legacy of the expression theory of art. Photography then, in contrast with painting and hand-drawn images, was defined essentially by reference to its automatism, objectivism and realism, all of them qualities that emphasized its epistemic potential but that, in turn, were thought by some to compromise its artistic capacity. This dispute between the epistemic and artistic value was very much the bone of contention of the early theorists that Lopes summarizes lucidly in the first part of the book. Now, as Lopes also makes clear, this discussion dissolved not because any theorist had won the battle, but because, eventually, it became very clear by sheer evidence of the practices that, pace the sceptics, photography was and is indeed an art. Lopes takes this fact as a point of departure; he does not take seriously the challenge of the sceptic, he just describes, for the sake of methodology (what he calls methodological scepticism), all the premises of the sceptic’s argument. And he does this in order to answer a different question that the tradition purportedly left behind: we know for a fact that photography is an art, that is not the issue anymore; but given that not all photographs are necessarily art works when and how are they art? Lopes gives four answers: that is, four ways in which photographs can be art. Each answer is revealed by a different faulty premise in the sceptic’s argument and is exemplified by a different photographic tradition. (i) Even if we believed, as the sceptic does, that photographs cannot depictively express thought, there is no reason to endorse the expression theory of art; photographs can still be art by de-familiarizing the ordinary and by revealing aspects of the world that one cannot see with the naked eye. Photographs that do this are typical of the classic tradition and are exemplified by the work of Cartier-Bresson, Edward Weston, André Kerész, Diane Arbus or the Straight Photography movement. (ii) But, contra the sceptic, photographs can indeed express thought even if they are pure photographs—that is, if they depict by ‘belief-independent feature tracking’ (87); indeed, photographs can be art by documenting a scene and expressing something beyond what is seen in the image; these photographs are what Lopes calls cast photography, photographs that duplicate scenes, where there is staging or assemblage; the type of photographs used by conceptual artists or people like Jeff Wall, Andreas Gursky, Cindy Sherman or Sherrie Levine. (iii) Now photographs do not only document scenes by ‘belief-independent feature-tracking’, as the sceptic has it; there is no reason to believe that this is in the essence of what a photograph is. Photographs can be art by exploiting different techniques inherent to the production of the image and pushing the boundaries and possibilities of the photographic process. Lopes categorizes these photographs under the label of Lyricism which is exemplified by the work of people like Helena Almeida, Richard Mosse, Catherine Yass and James Welling among others. (iv) Finally, Lopes claims that photographs can be art even if it is not in virtue of what they represent, as the sceptic suggests voicing an assumption of the representational theory of art; photographs can be art in virtue of their formal properties—provided that these properties are the focus of the work and not their depicted content, which they may nevertheless have. These Lopes calls—somehow un-intuitively, to my taste—abstract art, and instances of this category are works like Eileen Quinland’s Night Flight 33, Jessica Eaton’s cfaal 109 or Lotte Jacobi’s Photogenic. One may object, as Diarmuid Costello does in one of the two commentaries that the book includes (the other is by Cynthia Freeland), that the characterization proposed by Lopes is not really informative for the purpose of criticism. After all, the groups put together photographs that would never be part of the same category. Now I do not think Lopes proposes these labels as appreciative kinds or ‘categories of art’ that are meant to guide our appreciation given certain features that they share. ‘Classic tradition’, ‘Cast photography’, ‘Lyricism’ and ‘Abstract art’, as I understood them, are general labels that try to explain an aspect of what makes certain photographs works of art. Hence, although the photographs that fall into each group may belong to different traditions, genres or styles, it might be the case that their artistic status is justified in similar terms. Even if this is the case, one can still object that the answers Lopes gives, for when photographs are art, are too simplistic and extremely general explanations. This is a fair criticism, but Lopes never claims that these four answers exhaust the reasons that can be given as for why or when certain photographs are art. There might be other reasons why specific photographs can be considered artistic, but these are certainly important reasons why works in the medium can prima facie be considered art. A more serious objection might be that the four answers given do not really explain when or how photography becomes art. For example, Lopes claims that photographs in the classic tradition can be art appealing to the phenomenon of de-familiarization. However, this phenomenon is explained in terms of things such as transforming a three-dimensional scene into a two-dimensional image, severing the scene’s ties with its surroundings, transforming a coloured world into a black, grey and white picture, freezing an otherwise moving subject matter, etc. Now, if this is how we should understand de-familiarization, this criterion does not really distinguish art photographs from ordinary non-artistic photographs, as virtually all photographs transform world scenes in the ways described, but certainly not all photographs are art. Here again, however, we can think that there is no explicit commitment on Lopes’ part to saying that any of the four ways he proposes in which photographs can be art is meant to provide sufficient conditions to qualify a photograph as artistic. This is reasonable, but if this is the case his answers seem weaker and less conclusive than one would expect them to be. On the other hand, it might be too much to ask for a philosophical view to give sufficient conditions that explained in each and every case why particular photographs are art—that seems to be a judgement that has to be done on a case-by-case basis. Perhaps the most controversial element of the book is the New Theory of Photography that Lopes advances. This theory is proposed as a more liberal and close-to-the-practices alternative to the traditional theory. One of its main targets is the latter’s narrow conception of photography, according to which a photograph is essentially an image that depicts by belief-independent feature tracking. This is certainly a very limited notion of what counts as a photograph, among other things because it ends up excluding many actual photographs from the category by considering them closer to paintings. But the alternative Lopes proposes is arguably too broad. According to Lopes the only condition for an image to count as a photograph is that its process of production includes a ‘photographic event’—an event whereby ‘the information of [a] light image is captured and recorded on a storage medium’, no matter what further process for making marked surfaces are used before or after this event (80). Now while this conception does consider as proper photographs many more images than current artistic practices count as such and that the traditional view excludes, it also includes others that are conceived of by artists and appreciative practices as straightforward cases of painting. A case in point are photo-realist paintings such as Chuck Close’s, but also many realist and not-so-realist paintings and drawings, such as portraits or landscapes that take photographs as their source and hence include a photographic event in their process of production. Considering these paintings photographs seems to me, for the reasons alluded to, rather revisionist. The New Theory does have many advantages over the orthodox view that I do not have the space to mention here, but in the end the reader ends up suspecting that in order to leave behind traditional corseted thinking Lopes rode the pendulum a bit too far to the opposite side. All in all, this book is a great contribution to the field not only because it provides the reader with a lucid summary of the history of thought about photography but also, because it departs from it by moving from the old and now outdated question of whether photography is art to a more pressing issue of when and how photography is an art; moreover, the book opens new avenues of discussion in the philosophy of photography. The New Theory Lopes proposes may not be without its problems and it is certainly not intended to be the last word, it is more of an invitation to continue the conversation and a promising beginning of a very much needed line of thinking. Footnotes 1 Peter Galassi, Before Photography: Painting and the Invention of Photography (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1981). © British Society of Aesthetics 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the British Society of Aesthetics. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
The British Journal of Aesthetics – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 31, 2018
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