What is a Photographer ?

Reactions to Photography and Photography and Artistic-Photography by Marius De Zayas

My first reaction to this is one of revulsion; the overt racism and also the smug superiority are both extremely off-putting. He is particularly offensive in when he says that “Savages” are only interested in art as decoration, with no concept of art as a means of expressing themselves. Having said that he does have a point to make, but I don’t really think he makes a convincing argument.

He begins by effectively stating that Art (capital ‘A’) is effectively dead. He actually says “the unifying idea of Art does not exist” so I am paraphrasing but this is what I take him to mean. Since all Art – good or bad – is subjective anyway, this seems an especially personal view. Does he just mean he was bored with what he finds in Art in general at the time of writing? It seems a particularly self-centred viewpoint as it assumes that Art will never progress any further.

His overall point is to dispute the ability of Art to comprehend and depict Form, because Art has been reduced to merely adjusting and altering what has gone before, and not to step back and rethink how Form should be understood. I can understand the idea that artists are always influenced by other artists and nothing appears fully formed from nothing, but he is not clear about exactly what he means by ‘Form’. This makes it a bit difficult to fully understand his argument here.

He becomes clearer when he moves on to discuss photography. At the time of writing photography was still relatively young, and photography is still trying to find a proper place in the Art environment. He says “The difference between Photography and Artistic-Photography is that, in the former, man tries to get at that objectivity of Form which generates the different conceptions that man has of Form, while the second uses the objectivity of Form to express a preconceived idea in order to convey an emotion”. This seems to me to be quite close to John Szarkowski’s concept of “Mirrors and Windows”; one is the photographer as external objective viewer, and the other is the photographer using the subject to say something about himself or his emotions.

Both these categories do seem to require that the photographer fully understands his/her intentions before taking the photograph. At the time De Zayas wrote his essay this would be largely true of Art in general (I think – not an expert on the history of art) but later artists have broken this rule as well (e.g. Jackson Pollock). As Rosalind Krauss demonstrates in her essay “Photography’s Discursive Spaces: Landscape/View”, it is not unknown for photographers to now be regarded as having made great art without ever having any artistic intentions at the time. This doesn’t negate De Zayas’ argument but it does add a degree of nuance to his categorisation

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