This came from a comment made to David Yarrow, that I heard when he was interviewed on a podcast.
You may like David’s pictures or not – he doesn’t care because he sells them very successfully. But the difference between his picture of an elephant and any other picture of an elephant, as explained to him by the head of the Tate Modern, is that his pictures are not just literal pictures of elephants.
Let me explain.
You go on a safari holiday and take a picture of an elephant. Most likely it’s an accurate representation of what an elephant looks like. It reminds you of being there, but it’s probably a straight record of an elephant. The comment made to David was that a record is just that: it doesn’t add anything. It’s not art.
I think this explains my feelings for landscape photography. So often it’s just a record of what a place looks like.
I often return to a photography club I was in for examples. In this case they had monthly competitions on a theme. One month was record photography. On asking, I found that it was nothing to do with music. It was about taking pictures that show a thing as it is. (I could be a Kant and bring in the idea of ding an sich, but that would imply not taking a picture at all). In other words, they wanted a straight record of what something looks like with no interpretation. It would have been snide to say that most of the members’ pictures would qualify, but they would.
I think this also goes back to a comment I made in jest: are you a photographer or do you take photographs? Do you record what is in front of you or do you interpret what you saw in the scene?
I have a large horde of old pictures that only recorded the scene. For a short period after a holiday or trip they served to show other people what it was like and to remind me where I was. Then they become yet another unplaced picture of a hill or valley. These I can happily throw away. Others are interpretive and have some merit (but little skill). For example, years ago I was around Snowden and went to a famous rock-climbing area that translates as something like the dark black cliff. So I tried to photograph it as such. Nobody else would ever get it, but I still like the picture. It’s far from being art, but it’s even farther from being a straight record of a cliff.
So I think a straight record cannot be art. A photo of graffiti is a record of someone else’s art. Even a photo of the Mona Lisa is not the painting. If you are going to take a picture of something, what are you adding of yourself?
It may sound pretentious to talk about art in photography, but why else are you doing it? If you don’t interpret, you might as well be the Google Streetview camera car.