Photography in America – Bill Jay, 1980

Art and money

A major result of photography entering the Temple of Fine Art is that the money-changers are there and waiting. There is no way that this, in itself, can be argued as unseemly or unjust. It is about time that photographers were adequately rewarded for what they do best. But the old adage ‘The labourer is worthy of his hire’ can also be read as ‘The hire should be in proportion to the worth of the labourer.’ As we all know, that is not necessarily true in art photography. The rewards — by which I mean gallery sales, museum exhibitions, grants and so on – are not necessarily for the best or the most productive.

There are several reasons for this state of affairs.

Only a generation ago, very few markets existed for a photographer’s personal work, especially if it had aspirations to art as opposed to social functionalism. In this context, the photographers themselves, by a general consensus of opinion, slowly recognised the individuals who deserved reputations. The appreciation of their peers may not have been very useful (as someone said, ‘You can’t eat praise’) but at least it led to the likelihood that the right individuals were marked out for special attention. It also meant that these reputations did not spring onto the medium full-blown; there was a natural, long-term growth and a ‘paying of dues’, in the sense that a consistently high standard of work had to be maintained over many years, before the individual received recognition.

This is not true any longer. Today, the taste-makers in art photography have switched from being the photographers themselves to the gallery directors. This is unfortunate in several respects: a the gallery director is usually someone who has entered the medium from a fine-arts background, and therefore expects photographs to look like work in another medium; b the gallery is in business to make money and therefore the criterion of selection is based more on sales appeal than on merit; c the photographer who wishes to sell his work is under enormous pressure to make his prints conform to the current selling trends and to the notions of what an art photograph should look like; d because ‘differentness’ is a sales asset, there is a rapid turnover of name-photographers and a bewilderinglv large number of short-lived stylistic bandwagons.

I am well aware that this is a gross oversimplification of the perils and problems in photographic galleries. But there is enough truth in these assertions to merit attention. I do not know a single gallery director or museum curator who is a renowned photographer. In addition, time after time, I have heard a gallery director say to a photographer: ‘It’s fine work but unsaleable.’ At this point I should make my position abundantly clear. I am not suggesting that art galleries show only fine but unsaleable photographs; I am suggesting that because money is the criterion of selection we should understand that galleries can never be the arbiters of merit or makers of reputations. Yet that is precisely what has happened in the USA- the galleries have taken, or been given, the major role in determining quality. That is what is so alarming.

The creative individuals are only grist for the economic mill; collectors and gallery directors are the real influences. And that’s no laughing matter. It has led to a preponderance of shallow, slick, decor-prints swamping the worthwhile work which is not readily saleable.

I have often discussed this situation with my own students and have been forcibly struck by their total acceptance of the crucial role played by art galleries in America and by their misconceptions about the pure-art photography. They might say: ‘I thought of being a professional photographer but at least there are no compromises when selling prints in a gallery.’ Very quickly it is necessary to tell them that in my years in professional photography I never saw the degree of compromise which is necessary in the art world. In fact, after twenty years in photography, I am still shocked by the amount of hustling, self-promotion, aggressive selling, and wooing of potentially useful allies, that I encounter in the gallery world. By comparison, professional photography is a bastion of purity where quality and hard work count above all else.

In the quick-turnover, consumer-oriented selling of photographs names rise to the surface, like bubbles from the bottom of a stagnant pond, then burst and disappear. Reputations quickly ascend, and as quickly vanish.

‘Whatever happened to …’ is heard at every gathering of photographers. The more rapid the rise, seemingly the briefer the reputation. The art market has a voracious appetite for names and its belly gets bigger as the sales increase. The age of overnight success and instant-stardom — with equally instant oblivion — has arrived in photography, mimicking the world of popular music. The ego of the photographer fails to distinguish between wish-image and real goal and, like publicity, another voracious idiot, dismisses all qualitative distinctions, feasting off good and bad alike. Since the bad photographers have the’ more saleable commodity the galleries hype their reputation way beyond their capabilities. Meanwhile, the few serious photographers whose work is worth seeing have no forum for communication. Unfortunately true merit is not so promotabie as a new stylistic trick; it is the result of painstaking hard work over many years by a photographer who, with great personal integrity and moral courage, has committed his life to manifesting an ideal. For this hero of the medium, all else is a distraction.

I would be the first to applaud a gallery director who said: ‘I am in this game for the money; I will sell whatever people want to buy. I have no interest in, or knowledge of, good or bad — so keep me off the grant-awarding committees and out of the academies. I am not a pundit, I’m a salesman. As far as I’m concerned, photographs-for-decor are money-making objects. That’s it.’

Unfortunately, galleries are so often flattered by sycophantic hustlers that they have adopted the role of taste-makers – determining merit, pronouncing on aesthetics, bestowing gifts of patronage to a chosen few, even writing essays on the true role of photography and books on the medium’s history. The directors obviously believe they were specially chosen to direct the future of the medium, as well as gallery sales.

In this self-exalted position as arbiters of taste, the galleries treat photographers as well as prints as commodities. A small example occurred on Judy Dater’s recent visit to Arizona. I made repeated attempts to renew my acquaintance with her but was told by the gallery director that her time had been ‘bought’ (and the word is exact) by the gallery, and that it would be a waste of their money if Judy spent time with me.

The photographer Mike Mandel had a more serious problem at a gallery in Los Angeles. He was invited to prepare a one-man exhibition. Flattered, he accepted, and invited many of his friends to the opening. When they arrived the gallery director insisted that the entrance ‘fee’ was the purchase of one of Mandel’s books. Mike was incensed; he had not invited his friends to see his photographs only on the understanding that they bought a book. The director was adamant — no book, no entrance. So Mike gave all his friends a copy to avoid his, and their embarrassment. For denying the gallery the profit on these sales, the director sued Mike Mandel.

This overriding concern for money in the arts was epitomised in a recent issue of Time magazine. The National Endowment of the Arts (the American equivalent of the Arts Council of Great Britain) bought a whole page advertisement with the heading ‘Picture your community without the arts.’ The first two lines said ‘. . . Picture the arts gone and you picture a lot of beauty missing.’ The rest of the text was wholly money-oriented:

But the arts not only create beauty, they create jobs. Because the arts attract tourists and the dollars tourists spend in restaurants and hotels, on transportation and in stores. The arts attract industry. Businesses prefer to locate in communities with a rich cultural life. And the arts are an industry in themselves. Like any other industry they employ people, buy goods and services, and generate taxes …

Two lines about ‘beauty’; ten lines about money. That’s the way it is.

While we are on the subject of the mercenary motive in art photography it should also be noted that this encourages the single picture syndrome.

I believe that photography is different from other visual media to the degree in which meaning only emerges from a large body of work. A single photograph rarely incorporates the rich layers of a print or painting; it is as if each layer is separated print by print and only fuses in the mind of the viewer. This point could be argued (at a different time and place). Suffice to say that, in my opinion, there is something anti-photographic in the extremely high prices asked for, and received by, single photographs. While I was with Frederick Sommer a few months ago he received news that one of his prints had sold for $25 000. Ironically, other prints from the same negative were available for $750. The difference between the two prices was a ‘magic’ which Sommer claimed had taken place during printing of one and not the other. The prints looked identical. Undoubtedly, you are all aware of the astonishing escalation in price of Ansel Adams’ ‘Moonrise over Hernandez’. The last price I heard was $17 000, but by now this is sure to have been topped by another investor. By Adams’ own estimate over 900 copies of this photograph have been printed.

Again we could discuss prices of photographs for hours. My point is not that photographs are not valuable, but that price does not equate with quality (necessarily) and that the emphasis which money places on a single picture detracts from a search for life-attitude and meaning underlying the photographer’s body of work seen as an organically evolving, infinitely complex whole.

As a last observation in this list of land-mines strewn across the battlefield of art, I would like to refer again to the insular, self-centred nature of art photography. With no cross-fertilisation with other areas of the photographic spectrum art photography has become incestuous to a remarkable degree. A relatively small group of mutual admirers has a stranglehold on the growth and development of the medium. Since members of this group are teachers of photography who dictate the limits of the medium to a large group of students, who then become teachers and pass on the identical attitudes to an even larger group of their own students, it is easy to see why the medium has been glutted by such narrow-minded ideas in only a few generations.

This was brought home to me after the last national conference of the Society for Photographic Education. I had spent several days in the company of 700 academic photographers, and saw thousands of photographs, very few of which displayed any evidence of commitment, hard work, consistent struggle or effort to communicate, immediately after the conference I visited Burk Uzzle. The sheer volume of his work, at a consistently high standard, made the ‘commitment’ of the artists a bad joke. Talking of a bad joke, I expressed this view to a fellow member of SPE who remarked: ‘Ah, but Burk Uzzle is not an artist!‘ Which reminded me of the Frenchman who had just finished a book entitled One Hundred Ways to Make Love. He was promoting the book in Arizona where a cowboy barbecue was arranged in his honour. An Arizonan said to the Frenchman: ‘A hundred ways to make love! Gee, that’s incredible. In Arizona we only have one — the man gets on top of the woman and .. .’ ‘Mon Dieu,’ said the Frenchman, ‘one-hundred and one.’

Work it out. It is relevant!

Having mentioned the SPE, this organisation of photography teachers should not be underrated for the promotion of the art attitude in photography. There is little input by these photographers outside their own organisation and academic areas. It is a self-defined, self-perpetuating, self-promoting system — which works extraordinarily well for this purpose. At its annual conferences the ‘high-priests’ preach to the converted; during the remainder of the year the member receives a constant stream of exhibition posters, book announcements and sundry bumph from any other member who wishes to promote his/her work. The complete mailing list, each name and address supplied on a ready-to-use gummed label, can be bought by anyone at a modest fee. Such group identification keeps all members in touch with each other’s activities. That sounds like a fine service, and so it is. The danger is an insidious one. There is so much information and so many activities to assimilate from the artists in the organisation that the outside world, if it trickles through at all, seems too petty and insignificant. Not only is the SPE almost totally academically oriented but also it is wholly American. It seems a pity that such an efficient communications system is not used by British and European photographers. The constant drip of mail after mail ‘sensitises’ the member to an individual’s name and significance. Without this pre-sensitisation a new name from Britain does not impinge on the consciousness of the American photographic medium.

The publicity machinery, generated by academia, of the American medium does not only operate internally — it is very effective in propagandising the work of American photographers in Europe, with the active aid and abetting of photo-magazine editors on this side of the Atlantic. Think about it. i bet every one of you can instantly recall the names of at least 20 contemporary American photographers (i also bet that practically all of them would be teachers). I assure you that the typical American art photographer can not name one contemporary British photographer (excluding Brandt and Snowdon). All the publicity travels one-way, from America to Britain and never in the reverse direction. i am not talking about the occasional- exhibition or the now-and- again magazine piece, but about the constant flow of information. The SPE as an organisation, and the academic art world as a system, operate efficiently not only to promote ‘their own’ but to exclude all ‘others’. There is nothing pernicious or inviolate about this system; it is merely more efficient to control a well- defined group. A further advantage is that the younger, less secure, photographer has, at least the feeling of belonging to a group support system. This is arguably better than the fractionalism that seems to pit one group of British photographers against another.

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