Photographers as Curators

Momi's Room

Key: R20120404-085124-v1

I’ve been mulling over some recent articles about “photography as art”. Whether it is, which kinds are, etc. It seems that in 2012, with a camera in everyone’s pocket, and images washing over us like tide on the beach this question is ever more relevant. In my thoughts, ideas about this are mixing with the thinking I have been doing about conceptual vs. found photography. I happened across an essay (a transcribed talk?) by Paul Graham, in which he discusses the dilemma of “straight photography” as an art form.  A selected quote:

So what is the issue? The broader art world has no problems with the work of Jeff Wall, or Cindy Sherman or Thomas Demand partly because the creative process in the work is clear and plain to see, and it can be easily articulated what the artist did: Thomas Demand constructs his elaborate sculptural creations over many weeks before photographing them; Cindy Sherman develops, acts and performs in her self-portraits. In each case the handiwork of the artist is readily apparent: something was synthesized, staged, constructed or performed. The dealer can explain this to the client, the curator to the public, the art writer to their readers, etc.

I see this fitting clearly with the idea of conceptual photography. The concept comes first, the execution of an idea (ostensibly as art, but perhaps not), and photography is the medium by which it is expressed. Just like an artist might choose to pick up a brush or a welder–instead they pick up a camera. So the conceptual photographer is an artist: the “canvas” is photography.

But where does that leave found photography (aka “straight” photography)? Graham takes a stab at it toward the end of the essay:

So, what is it we are discussing here – how do we describe the nature of this photographic creativity? My modest skills are insufficient for such things, but let me make an opening offer: perhaps we can agree that through force of vision these artists strive to pierce the opaque threshold of the now, to express something of the thus and so of life at the point they recognised it. They struggle through photography to define these moments and bring them forward in time to us, to the here and now, so that with the clarity of hindsight, we may glimpse something of what it was they perceived.

I’ll take this a bit further. It seems to me that found photographers are curators of life’s images. An infinite number of image streams flowing all around us every second, every minute, every day. The flood of photographs in 2012 is but a drop in the ocean compared to the real time image streams. And found photographers are curators, selecting the images that may be worthy of our further attention.

I like this idea of found photography as curation. It answers a lot of the nagging questions about whether such photography is art. And let us be clear: curation is not making art. This is a controversial idea, because many “fine art” photographers who do mainly straight photography consider themselves artists (1). And I say this as someone who has only dabbled in conceptual photography. Like the image above, the vast majority of my photography is found photography. There is nothing wrong with being a curator. In many respects, curators may be more important than artists. I know I generally prefer to look at curated art. At the least I think we can agree that artists need curators, and vice versa. And of course, curation, like art, is an “art” in and of itself: it requires skill, intuition, exposure to art, taste, inspiration, practice, etc. Some people are naturally better at it than others, and like any aspect of life, perhaps only a minority of people are extremely gifted in that area.

It’s more complicated than this, of course, because there is a vast “grey area” between straight photography and conceptual art photography. But I think the fundamental point is where did you start from: an idea, and you picked up a camera to realize it, or something you saw, and you took a photo to start the process of realizing something from that.

(1) Of course artists are sometimes also curators, and vice versa. I don’t mean to say that one can’t do both.

4 thoughts on “Photographers as Curators

  1. Interesting discussion, this. My take on this is that the grey area might be bigger than we think, in plain words, that imagination and realization more often than we think kicks in after the initial image was captured. Creativity is very much reactive, in that sense.

    • Hi Ove. It’s true that a lot can happen to an image between the time that it is taken and the time that it is presented to an audience. But unless there were significant “artistic” alterations, I maintain that it is still a curated image of the real world.

  2. But, isn’t everything artificial (art..?) more or less curated and part of the real world? What would be pure art, in the sense its not curated? I’m not arguing about whether you’re right or not, I’m just trying to understand your reasoning.

    • It’s a slightly subtle point, because the acts of making art and curating art are so tightly intertwined. And both are creative processes, but the first is fundamentally about creating something from an idea, and the second is about selection.

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