The Art of Photography

Photography is something of a forgotten art. Perhaps it is too ubiquitous to be taken seriously as an art form. Photography is perhaps wrongly regarded as an advertising medium rather than a means to make a statement. Maybe those who are not photographers think it all happens a little too easily.

Maybe there is a little art-snobbery at work here. And certainly there are those that think that all photography is just point and press. Photography has a long history of being undervalued.

I have always been a fan of photography. Like theatre and film come from a joint root stock in acting, so fine art and photography share compositional and interpretational roots.

My respect for the work that goes into producing an excellent, inspirational photograph has increased since I have been watching my daughter do battle with her A Level photography course.

Good photography has always involved interpretation skills and the old adage that the camera never lies was never true. Darkroom trickery has always been part of the photographers art.

Sometimes that trickery as obvious – look at the surreal works of Angus McBean or the heightened reality of a Cecil Beaton picture – but many times darkroom trickery was invisible. Nowhere was this better demonstrated than by the Hollywood photographers of the 1930s and 40s. Portrait specialists like Clarence Sinclair Bull and George Hurrell made the practice of retouching into an art form.

Lined faces and all forms of aging were subtly smoothed away. As Eric and Ernie would say: “You can’t see the join.”

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Hollywood was a land of make-believe and the stills cameramen were employed to ensure that the stars maintained their image of youthful perfection – whatever their age.

However, in the early 1960s there was something of a sea change that swept through theatre, film and the fine arts. Romance and self-delusion was out and the warts and all harsh light of reality was in.

The theatre was all about looking back in anger, film was about the haves and the have nots and that taste of honey and fine art and photography followed that tradition.

Artists like Warhol and Hockney redefined what contemporary art was about. They took it away from photo-real depictions of the world and started interpreting it, while photography promptly filled the gap. It left the safe confines of the studio and started going on location.

Photo-journalism became the height of cool. The new generation of photographers had embraced the new portable 35mm single lens reflex camera and went out in search of the world as it was.

Photographers like Don McCullin, Lee Miller, Eve Arnold and Robert Capra became household names. Magnum became a photo-agency dealing specifically in photo-journalism while American news magazines like Life, Time and Newsweek placed a high regard on breaking news through photography.

Over here this form of news delivery became the preserve of the Sunday supplements. Photo-spreads made up of striking images told the story.

This emphasis on realism transferred itself to cinema portrait photographers. The shadowy art portraits which emphasised the good looks of Clark Gable or Myrna Loy were out. The new stars Michael Caine, Sean Connery, Terence Stamp, Susannah York, Jenny Aggutter and Vanessa Redgrave were captured enjoying themselves out on the streets of Swinging London.

Pop stars, actors and photographers all mixed. They were all part of contemporary culture – everything about the here and now generation was deemed to be good.

David Bailey, Terence Donovan, Brian Duffy, Patrick Lichfield all became stars – as did their models, working class girls like Jean Shrimpton and Twiggy. Some like Joanna Lumley made the leap from modelling to acting.

These photographers and their muses made great photographic art. Lighting, composition, colour and interpretation produced some truly arresting images.

But, over the years the pendulum has started to swing back the other way. Photographers are seeking perfection again. Fashion magazines are being accused of not just retouching their cover models but are now able to reshape them. Art directors can now artificially create their perfect body shape which brings us back full circle to the make-believe world of the Hollywood portrait photographers of the 1930s.

The only problem now is that the airbrushing is not only sweeping away lines it is restructuring the body in, at times, an unhelpful way.

Photography is an artists’ tool, in the same way that chalk, pencil, oil paint is to a fine artist. It is there to be used and hopefully used responsibly.

The Suffolk Monochrome Group next week opens an exhibition at the Digby Gallery situated inside the Mercury Theatre, Colchester.

It is a stunning exhibition mixing landscapes, with portraits, with abstracts, with still lives and nudes. It truly is a mixed exhibition and an inspirational exhibition.

It proves that photography can be art. That it does have something to say. That an image can be beautiful and still be anchored in the real world.

It can also offer an unblinking eye on areas of our society where change needs to happen and can be an useful tool in engineering that change.

Fine art and photography can exist side by side as theatre and film co-exist. They complement rather than distract from one another.

Photography needs to rehabilitated in the eyes of the art world. It should no longer be the poor relation to fine art.

It would be great if art galleries made photography a regular part of their exhibition schedule alongside oils, watercolour, sculpture, multi-media, installations. It may be the medium of the masses but it still requires the skill of an artist to make it speak.

Suffolk Monochrome Group exhibition is at The Digby gallery from Monday October 24 until Sunday November 13.

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