Tuesday, October 2, 2012

But is it art?

There's a book of images that recently came to my attention.  It's A New American Picture, by Doug Rickard. It looks like street photography, but is it?  Rickard has his name listed as author, but is he? The book is full of images, but are they photographs made purposively by an intentional act of creative framing and capturing?

This book really stretches the limits of what should be called photographic art.

I learned about this book from The Online Photographer blog, and borrowed the above image that came from Rickard's book. As a photographic image, it's fairly strong street photography, with movement from the bottom left toward the right, directing our eye to the stationary figure in the center who is partially framed by the boarded store window behind him.  The contrast in dress and socio-economic status between the pedestrian entering from the bottom left and the man on a cell phone in a business suit in the middle is striking.  There is a story asking to be told here. It begs the viewer's imagination to get involved.

But .... Is this the creative act of an artist?  This is not Rickard's image by any reasonable definition of origin or ownership. 

Here's some of the description of the book from Amazon.com:
Rickard's methodology is anything but conventional. All of the images are appropriated from Google Street View; over a period of two years, Rickard took advantage of the technology platform's comprehensive image archive to virtually drive the unseen and overlooked roads of America--bleak places that are forgotten, economically devastated and abandoned. With an informed and careful eye, Rickard finds and decodes these previously photographed scenes of urban and rural decay. He rephotographs the machine-made images as they appear on his computer screen, framing and freeing them from their technological origins.
Anything but conventional? These are screen captures of images he didn't take!  At best, Rickard could be called an editor or a curator.  At worst, a plagiarist. What he can't be called is a photographer, a creator, or an artist.  It's not his work. It's no more than a still from a mobile surveilance camera that the "author" didn't own or set up.  This is an accidental composition discovered among the moving frames he didn't photograph, direct, plan or preconceive.

Michael Johnston, publisher of The Online Photographer blog, anticipating my objection, has a different opinion.
A number of people seem to have had their ideas of proper authorship (or credit) challenged or offended by Doug Rickard's method. To me, the method is what makes the project interesting. It's enough merely to describe what was done. Anyone can then see plainly, for themselves, what Doug's own input was, and was not. It doesn't have to be argued any further than that.
If he were pretending that he'd made the pictures in some other way than they actually were made, then I'd have a problem with it. But if the method is transparent, then it just adds to the interest. Google Street View is a common contemporary visual experience. I sometimes "go somewhere" and poke around just for the plain old pleasure of looking and seeing—same reason I go to flickr or pick up a photo book or do a random Google image search. (I like looking at pictures; so I look at pictures a lot.)
See, to me, it isn't so necessary to hash out the distinctions of authorship or ownership or credit, as long as the method, whatever it is, is clearly and honestly described. The point is looking at the pictures and whether they're good to look at; the visual results are the thing.
I disagree.  This is about integrity and creative honesty. If it is just about visual results, then a lot of fraud and deceit should be rewarded in the art world.

I have an idea.  Why don't I go for a walk and photograph some really interesting graffiti, do a little cropping, and publish the images in a book of my "authorship".  Few would permit me to profit from a Michelango masterpiece if I claim it as my own.  Many, however, have done this with graffiti by anonymous artists.  But who IS the artist? Who SHOULD be credited?  Who should legitimately profit?

Do I make my point clear by analogy?  I don't believe I can take some else's work, do some cropping or sharpening or tonal enhancements, and then publish it under my own name as an author.  Maybe as the redactor.  But not as the creator.  To do so would be audacious and fraudulent, in my opinion.

Kenneth Tanaka responded to Mike Johnston's permissive opinion with this remark:
I have to dissent about Doug Rickard. I've browsed the book and seen the prints. Interesting, but the authorship claim feels like a sticky doorknob. Personally I'll not be buying into it.

 I don't buy into it, either.  Nor am I buying the book.

1 comment:

Olivier Duong said...

Reminds me of a teacher I had:

And also reminds me of people shooting street photography in videogames.

The teacher I had actually went in and videotaped his subjets then he took photographs of the screen.

The folks taking in game shots never claimed authorship.

I have absoletely no idea what to make of Rickard's work, so many questions are raised. You cannot copy a font but you can legally print it and trace it and have no trouble after... by that same logic I believe the law will side with Rickard on this one.

It's an interesting project, like those photographers who simply picked up disposed instant pictures and made a project out of it.

But claiming authorship is a whole other ball game. I believe that legally the judge would say this falls under "fair use" but in the eyes of other artists, who are you kidding?

I wonder what would happen if I pulled up a bresson on my screen and made a photograph out of it what would happen.

I think the problem is that people are not concerned about authorship, they are more concerned about the novelty of it all (even though he is not the first).