A ditzy comment: ‘I only listen to songs I’ve heard before.’ Well, you know what she meant; she enjoys the familiar, is comfortable with it and comforted by it. If it sounds vaguely like that Beatles song, then great, we like it. So what about visual art that looks familiar? How many paintings by lower-tier NZ artists have you seen that vaguely remind you of McCahon, Woollaston, Albrecht, Killeen, Walters? Have you heard, ‘I was painting native birds before I ever saw a Bill Hammond.’? Yeah, right. Well surprise surprise, the same thing happens in photography. I have recently agonised over a set of images that appears to take from the modern greats of NZ photography.
For one thing, we all know that there is no real originality left; everything these days is just a grab-bag of what has gone before, maybe (if we’re lucky) cleverly repackaged and sold to us anew. Further, everything, absolutely everything, has already been photographed. And with respect to these great photographers, Peter Peryer, Robin Morrison, Laurence Aberhart, Fiona Pardington, et al (not the art collective) have gone round scent-marking things by their photo-making, claiming their physical and topical territory to the extent that little is left to the aspiring photographic artist. Example; the giant clock on the hillside in Alexandra has been referred to in photographic circles as Peryer’s clock, because of his well-known photo of it. And how can you take a decent colour photo of a bach or crib and not end up with a Morrison knock-off, or an Aberhart cover when attempting a b&w photograph of a tombstone or a building facade or interior?
‘But it sells.’ Yes, it will. People like familiar artworks, even, or especially, when they can’t quite identify why they seem familiar. Art that looks somewhat like better art is popular, unchallenging, trendy, and cheap. As long as it’s well presented - all good. Galleries love it because they can sell it. And some gallery owners are perhaps too ignorant to see the obvious influences; or else—and more likely—they don’t actually care, because they know which side their bread’s buttered on.
I don’t think for a minute that everything has to be original to be good. But it has to be personal. For me, a photograph has to coax me into a state of emotional resonance with it, and it has to do this more than once. A friend, Ian Hanfling (a fine poet, if not a very productive one), says that artworks he buys are required to perform like appliances (a dishwasher or whatever): they have a job to do. And if they stop doing that job, they’re out. I like that, even if I don’t quite agree with it. (He doesn’t really want you to agree with him, he just likes provoking people into thought or reaction of some kind.)
No, the emotional resonance thing, for me, is good. I don’t get it that often, and the emotion is inevitably mixed up with an intellectual response—coloured, or discoloured, by it. Also, as a bit of a pedant, if something is really wrong with the execution of the photograph, I’m probably not going to like it. This is a complex issue with us photographers, and it will be discussed in future in great depth. But for now, I’ll claim I’m not a pedant in the camera club/photographic society sense (another great topic that will raise a few hackles) in that I’m not a stickler for the rules. Some of my favourite photographs, my own and other people’s, have been the results of accidents and other apparent carelessness. Is that just letting the medium do its thing? Maybe it’s more important to just be able to recognise when you have something good, accidentally or however, than to be a faultless technician. I’ll post some picture examples and discuss.
There’s quite a bit to get my teeth into here, and I haven’t even started on reviewing anything, or mentioned the word Digital.
by james | 13 March, 2008