Why Buy an Original Photograph?
More than any other artistic medium, photography seems to refute, by its very nature, the primacy of the original object. From its earliest days, what became the foremost visual medium of the 20th century was conventionally considered the debased byproduct of a machine. To this date the most famous essay ever written on photography, Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1935), goes to great lengths to suggest the cultural dangers that cameras could engender and to what extent they impoverish the status of original artworks. And yet, much as with every other type of Modern art – even perhaps more so since the compulsion to copy photos is so much greater – the best photography remains inextricably bound to the original object.
Expertise That Can’t Be Copied
Now that every person in the world is able not only to shoot millions of his or her own photos, but also to manipulate billions of others’ images, the skills of gifted and trained photographers are more invaluable than ever. As we increasingly experience photographic images in a disorienting and dematerialized manner, the force of the increasingly rarified, examined, processed and printed photo becomes immeasurable. Photography, as a medium and a craft, culminates with the creation of an object. The original artwork conveys as much of the artist’s vision as do the subjects it depicts, the manner in which figures are framed, the palette of tones highlighted by various chemical processes and so on. Photography remains inseparable from the properties of its physical form.
From Giclée and Gelatin to Inkjet
As much as new technologies have tended to push the photograph into electronic and digital formats, they have also allowed artists a greater range of processes for the production of original photos. Artists can manipulate these materials to a greater degree than ever before, producing effects in the finished object that complement the image it portrays. This incorporation of photography’s tactile possibilities has existed since the medium’s earliest days. For instance, a mid-19th century daguerreotype loses all meaning if not seen in its original form, with a mysterious sitter peering out from a tiny, murky, silvery frame. Since then, new types of development chemicals and myriad printing methods have increased photography’s material complexity immensely.
All these different methods of creating original photographic artworks can amplify and transform the artist’s intent. A photographer shooting with a digital camera who chooses to print his or her images with black and white ink on newsprint paper taps into viewers’ habituated experiences with newspapers and print advertising imagery. On the other hand, an artist whose photos are rendered on metallic paper or aluminum boards creates a greater sense of weight and permanence, with a more crisp and glossy finish. Collage, meanwhile, whether cut and pasted by hand or with a mouse and computer programs, remains irrevocably attached to its material properties. From the Dada artists who turned newspapers and magazines into absurd photographic poems, to contemporary collagists reorganizing our visual culture’s perpetual data deluge, the re-appropriation of found and original images is at once materially violent and visually playful. Mixed media collage conveys the former, while digital collage underlines the latter. As with watercolors and bronzes, photographic materials inform the content depicted and vice-versa.
Too often overlooked, these expressive qualities inherent to photographic materials make original photographs essential to the appreciation of an artist’s vision. Aesthetic decisions extend to the types of inks and chemicals involved, and the weight and finish of the support on which they’re printed. Such considerations can be just as important as framing, focus, tone and balance in determining the emotional and aesthetic quality of an image. Though we increasingly experience all photos in a flattening digital mode, the appreciation of true craft in the field of photography is unattainable without an understanding of the original objects created by the artists.
This article was written for ARTmine by Benjamin Sutton.