Photo calling

Photo ’98, a celebration of photography, once again raises the question: should editorial photographs be shown as art? Oliver Bennett explores the debate

Can an editorial photograph be art? This is a question that has exercised minds for over a century: indeed, it has become a bit of a cliché. Nonetheless, it refuses to go away, and this year the national celebration of photography, Photo ’98 – The Year of Photography and the Electronic Image, with a mass of photographic events and exhibitions – has once more thrown this contentious issue into high relief.

“It remains an intriguing question,” says Mark Haworth-Booth, curator of photography at the Victoria & Albert Museum, which opens its photography gallery this May, and author of Photography: An Independent Art (V&A Publications). “It’s as if photography has a permanent identity crisis, endemic to the medium. When I started to do photography shows 25 years ago, there was a question mark over the validity of photography as an art medium. Although it has become more integrated, the doubts remain.”

Indeed, if anything, the relationship between photography and art has become more complex in recent years. “There has been a fascinating progression in the last ten to 15 years,” says Network Photographers photo agency managing editor Neil Burgess. “Back then, there was a clearer distinction between artists and photographers. Then artists began to use photography as a medium, leading to this absurd and ridiculous situation whereby the Tate Gallery has a policy that it won’t collect photography, but will collect the work of artists using photography.”

Thus, avatars of photographic history such as Richard Avedon, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Bill Brandt are left out in the cold, whereas photographic artists like Cindy Sherman are sought after. It is a debate with its ludicrous side, particularly when Bendt and Hiller Becher, two German artists renowned for multiple photographs of water towers, won an international “sculpture” prize for their work, which quite clearly consisted of photographs.

Burgess, who chaired the annual World Press Photo competition last year, thinks part of the problem is that photography is still primarily perceived as having a documentary function. But any difference between reportage photography and art photography lies mostly, he believes, in the markets where the photographs end up. “All that distinguishes the photojournalist from the photographic artist is whether they make editions of their work, and into which market it falls.”

Photographer Paul Graham’s work is a case in point. “I found his photographs of Northern Ireland (seen in the book Troubled Land) rather limited,” says Burgess. “But, as with so much photography of its type, it has entered the art market.” Yet if the same picture was used to illustrate an article on the peace process in a magazine, he adds, it would have a lower status.

Burgess has a tongue-in-cheek recipe for turning a photograph into bona fide art – blow it up to six foot by four, edition it one of five and call it Untitled – but laments the lack of status given to photography. “Most galleries do not seem to be interested in editorial photography, which is a shame as a lot of people do want to see good reportage.”

The photographer cited in every contemporary argument about the friction between art and editorial photography is Sebastiao Salgado, best known in this country for his series on work. “Salgado is an interesting case,” says Burgess, whose agency acts for the Brazilian photographer. “After his work started to be talked about as art, Salgado made the decision not to participate in the art market. He is not represented by an art gallery, and does not ‘edition’ his prints. Whereas Sally Mann [a US photographer controversial for her pictures of her children] editions them one to ten, and charges eight times as much.”

Paul Wombell, director of the Photographers Gallery, takes a harder line: “I don’t think it is an issue if photography is considered fine art or not. Photography is more interesting – let’s celebrate the potential of the medium in its own right.” Wombell disapproves of the Cartier-Bresson show, at London’s Hayward Gallery, as most of the work was done for publication and its rightful place is on the page, not in the gallery. “There are many subtle problems with editorial photography being displayed in museums but, generally, I am concerned that this interpretation undermines its true status,” he says. “It is a fatal injustice to the medium of photography, and shows a lack of understanding of its history. And photography should not have to jump through those hoops in order to be considered worthy.”

Historical reportage such as Cartier-Bresson’s is probably more acceptable to most in the gallery context because it is more distant from its subject. Zelda Cheatle, who has her own photography gallery in London, was surprised by her recent show of Bosnian reportage photography taken by the likes of Judah Passow and Anthony Sau. “It wasn’t supposed to be a selling show, but people did buy the pictures,” she says. She thinks it unnecessarily purist when critics blast photographers such as Salgado for allowing their reportage work to sit on a gallery wall. “After all, people want to see the pictures,” she says. “Why not show in a gallery?” Particularly as there is less of a market for raw photojournalism these days, due to the emphasis on “leisure and lifestyle” in contemporary print media. “Geo, Paris-Soir – there are only a few titles left committed to photojournalism and most of those are foreign.”

It is difficult to judge why certain photographs transcend the moment, but composition is one of the reasons, an appreciation of which derives from painting. Cartier-Bresson has often invoked this to the detriment of other aspects in his work. “It certainly makes the eye travel around his pictures, and it makes sense that he was trained as a painter,” says Cheatle.

The best photographs have the lot. The winning picture in last year’s World Press Photo was the extraordinary colour photograph of an Algerian woman grieving at a hospital after a massacre, taken by “Hocine” – a false name, chosen to protect his identity – and syndicated around the world. This is an image that’s likely to have a life beyond the conflict it records, partly as it is such a universal image of grief, but also because it irresistibly brings painting to mind – it has been compared to Caravaggio – bringing the reportage as art issue back full circle. “The ‘is photography art?’ question will still be asked in 50 years time,” sighs Haworth-Booth. “But we should try harder to ignore it. After all, when you see a great Cartier-Bresson photograph, these doubts disappear.”

Henri Cartier-Bresson: Europeans is at the Hayward Gallery, South Bank, London SE1 until 5 April. Paul Graham’s work is featured at The Citibank Private Bank Photography Prize shortlist exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery, 8 Great Newport Street, London WC2 until 28 March.

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