Rare Species: Art? Photography? Everyone gets lumbered with a label!

One of my all time favourite photographers is David Bailey; among his many interviews I really enjoy this short one by Sarfraz Manzoor for the Guardian. In 8 minutes Bailey manages to touch on loads of fascinating topics – How to be creative in a world that wants the same old thing time after time? What is Art and why is there a perception among some that photography is not Art? What influences our photography and is ‘stealing’ ideas from other great artists acceptable? It’s a wonder how he packs it all in!

                             “I bet Michelangelo thought, ‘shit, not another ceiling!”                       David Bailey

What I love about Bailey  is that he just tells it straight, no dressing it up and no pandering to the art critics of this world. He talks about creativity and how it is difficult to do something different when people want and expect the same thing all the time, “Everyone gets lumbered with a label” he says. I have thought about this a lot in my own work. In the early days when I was starting out I found it hard to do anything other than just work through thing in a formulaic way. It’s like when I first learned to drive a car, all I could think about was the mechanics of the whole thing,  not much about where I was going and certainly not about the scenery. Nowadays, I am in auto pilot as far as the car goes and so it is with my photography; I don’t think a whole lot about the controls.  I know a lot of photographers will be horrified when I say I am not out there with a light meter, I am not spending ages or fiddling with Apps working out hyperfocal distances and worrying about which lens to use, I am much more interested in the composition and more worried about trying to create something unique than I am about whether or not it is all technically ‘correct’. What is ‘correct’ anyway? Working this way has it’s disadvantages. I have often forgotten to take the camera stabiliser off after taking hand held shots and then put the camera on the tripod and spent hours taking photos only to find later on that they are not as sharp as they should be. Despite the down-side, I don’t intend to change the way I work. I want to clear my head to think about what I am creating,  to ask myself why did I stop here, what is it about this scene that attracts me the most?  Beleive it or not that is sometimes a difficult question. So, it could be all about the sky, the wind, the power and the sensation of being small in a world where nature takes charge like the image below _MG_7192-Edit or it could be about the soft fuzzy glow and hazy light of a pastel dawn sky just touching the petals of a flower. _MG_2809-Edit-Edit-Edit Whatever it is, that is what I try to focus on and not the buttons on my camera.

“No, no, no, not like the French, the Germans and the Americans, they (the Brits) think the camera takes the picture.”

There are good tools and not so good tools but at the end of the day making a good image is nothing to do with the machine. These days everyone can take a picture, but there is a difference between making an image that is in some way ‘artistic’ and simply pressing a button. Bailey chuckles,

“A chimpanzee can take a good picture, but he’ll only do one, I’ve got the edge because I can do two”.

If you look at Bailey’s images you feel you can see the subject’s soul, if they have one. Although he denies he can see inside people, and says he would have to make a deal with the devil to get to see beyond the skin, I think most people would wonder if that was true. Looking at his image of the Kray Twins, gangland leaders infamous for violent crimes in the 1960s, one can almost see the darkness of the soul and depraved intellects through a simple black and white image. But also, I see a certain reverence, a sense of awe, perhaps the low angle of the shot gives them a hint of superhuman size and reinforces the sense of intimidation – you wouldn’t be surprised if they were holding guns. Bailey at that time knew these people pretty well and does not deny that he had a certain fascination with them and there is no doubt all of this combines to create an incredible and memorable image.


And what about this one of Andy Warhol? I don’t know much about Warhol but this image makes me want to find out more. Bailey says he has to be interested in or like his subjects, he doesn’t just shoot anyone. So, for me, he was interested in Warhol, fascinated by his thought process, and that is what I can get out of this single image.


Or this one of Jean Shrimpton, love of his life in the early days…. The way Bailey has depicted her just let’s you know he was in love with her. The emotion is just so powerful in this image that no one could miss it.


So, if Art is all about stimulating an emotional response then why would anyone not think these images were Art?

If you are going to steal, steal from the best! 

I thought it was particularly interesting that Bailey was influenced not by other photographers of his day but by painters, Picasso and Duchamp in particular. Maybe this is an important point. At which point has anyone said there was a dividing line between Art and Photography? Why should our photography not be influenced by another medium, another creative style?  Personally I spend as much time looking at the works of Frida Kahlo, Turner, Rothko and Helen Frankenthaler than I do at any modern photographer. There is no doubt that the abstract forms of Picasso and the surrealistic images of Duchamp were completely different stylistically from Bailey’s work but the fact that these artists broke new ground and set off a whole new era in painting is where there is a connection. They looked at things from a different angle, just as Bailey did in the 1960s. So, in this case, why has Photography been marginalised for so long? Why have there been so few major exhibitions of photography and why are we still fighting our way into the art world? Bailey’s Stardust exhibition at the National Gallery is a landmark for photography, they proudly claim on the announcement that “Bailey has made an outstanding contribution to photography and the visual arts, creating consistently imaginative and thought-provoking portraits.” So it is Art after all, if the National Gallery says so who is to deny it?

What is Art and who gets to decide anyway?

A couple of years back, I was doing my rounds of potential new galleries for my work and I went into a small place up here in the Highlands which shall remain nameless. They that had nice collection of original paintings, sculptures and prints mainly by local artists. I had just started my sentence with “I am a photographer” when I was well and truly put in my place by the indignant gallery owner saying, “Have  you seen the work we have upstairs? We only sell art, not photography”. I scurried out redfaced, I didn’t even think to say that I had an upcoming exhibition in New York so someone must think it was worth a look. So,  in thinking about this blog and putting my scientist hat on again I thought about this conundrum of who is making the decisions and what are they basing the decision on. I always like to go back to the root of the problem so I went to the dictionary, the Oxford Dictionary to be precise, and I looked up the meaning of a number of words. After all, if it is in the dictionary it must be true, right? I was astonished! It is there in black and white, someone has decided there is indeed a difference between Art and Photography!

Art is defined as

” The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual for, such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power”

Photography is defined as

“The art of taking and processing photographs”

And a Photograph is defined as

“A picture made using a camera, in which an image is focussed onto light sensitive material and then made visible and permanent by chemical treatment or stored digitally.”

Even more interesting is the definition of an Artist and a Photographer

An Artist is

“A person who creates works of art especially paintings or drawings”

and a Photographer is

“A person who takes photographs, especially as a job”

That last one did it for me, I think we had better all chip in and buy the guys at Oxford Dictionary a couple of tickets to Stardust at the National Gallery! 

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One thought on “Rare Species: Art? Photography? Everyone gets lumbered with a label!

  1. An interesting article. I am a member of my local art society and the only photographer who regularly exhibits with them. At one exhibition, I was stewarding when a very smart lady, clearly one of the many local ‘worthies’, informed me that I was a photographer and not an artist. I am afraid that, much like you in that gallery, I didn’t manage a suitable put down, although many came to mind later!


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