Why Photography Matters and Photography at MoMA

  By John Veldhoen

C.S. Lewis once wrote something to the effect that God pours out ideas like a painter on a canvas. I’ll leave the first part of the proposition aside, despite an interest in apologetics, since my writing is on the meaningless subject of photography, but the second portion has made me ask if photography has the ability to express ideas, or pour themselves out, inasmuch as it has as an imperative the existence of the real (which is different, it seems, from painting). Photography expresses a given-ness that other art forms do not, or cannot do as well; Photography is just as much a recording procedure, as it is a creative art. Jerry Thompson’s book “Why Photography Matters” is a brief (not to mention concise, and abrupt) attempt to define both possibilities, much as Walker Evans did (whom Thompson assisted) when he coined the expression “near documentary” to describe the sort of photograph that Evans was making. What I appreciate most about Thompson is he approaches the question precisely. He is not asking what photography means, but why it matters. That word matter is the heart of the approach. I am sympathetic to Thompson’s basic assumption about the reliability of sense experience. Thompson uses that to construct an elegant argument for a moral universe, which is implied through the lens, and therefore establishes the difficulty of asserting transcendence.

Photography focuses on the nature of individual character, and the self, on both sides of the lens. A shared mentality may account for the identity of Andrew Wyeth, and Willem de Kooning, at the same time, within the domain of painting. To say that one thing or another is exclusive is saying too much, as nobody believes that anymore. It would be like saying nobody knows the long form of determining a square root, or how a camera works, apart from being another black box, or why impasto is a technique in painting, but also in pottery. Why the exclusions do not matter (add italics to matter) is, for Thompson, the same as why Martin Luther King’s speech given in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1965, does: The “long arc of History” metes out the differences. Thompson’s book is better than I can give credit to as a reviewer might by saying how it is absolutely essential. You should read it yourself.

I showed “Photography at MoMA: 1960 to Now” to an elder photographer, and had an illuminating discussion, as I tried to parse out the tenures of different curators, and eras. We agreed that it is a really useful, gorgeous book. If I were a young person trying to see if my work went with the flow of contemporary trends in photography, or how to buck those trends, I’d want to own it (although I have to say that I think adjusting either way would be a mistake). The current chief of the photography department has an essay in the book that reflects a suspicion about “American tropisms” that is indicative of a shift towards distinction and identity, or to put it in a less long-winded way, towards judgment, that makes little sense to me. The MoMA photo department was once called the “judgement seat of photography”, and I guess it still is, after all. The book also shows a marked recurrence in the past few years of what my documentarian friend called “f-ing around with a camera”, which I’m also not particularly thrilled by; maybe because I prefer this tendency only when carried out by painters? I guess I am also too prone when asked if something matters to reply, “Matters? Why it is absolutely essential,” without recognizing a contradiction between “absolutely” and “essential” when it comes to my own understanding. For the past year of so I have been watching a painter in NY reviewing art shows. One might liken it to Vasari for 2016, despite the curmudgeonly tone. I’ve linked a recent episode here (this one is explicit towards the end, be warned) that deals expressly with the art problem I am winding down towards, despite disliking art problems (or, egad, “institutional critique”), and feeling more than a little of what I could call “odium aestheticum”, at this point.

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In addition to being on our sales team, John curates The Camera Store's book selection and is a contributing author of our blog. He likes to think about photography, talk about photography, and sometimes write about photography.