It’s difficult to put a precise finger on when photography became an art form. It’s commonly accepted that American photographer Alfred Stieglitz was the first photographer who attempted to establish photography as an accepted form of artistic expression rather than just as a means of recording images. Stieglitz was also a modern art promoter, and it was his efforts that really propelled photographs to become regarded as art.
For this blog post, however, I am going to concentrate on one of the most famous and influential photographers of all time, namely Emmanuel Radnitsky or, to give him his more familiar non de plume, Man Ray. Man Ray was an American artist, the son of Jewish immigrants from Russia, but he spent most of his life in Paris. He was born in Philadelphia in 1890, and displayed a keen artistic temperament from his earliest days, but mainly as a painter. In July 1921 Man Ray moved to Paris where he settled in the Montparnasse district, an area of France’s capital favoured by renowned artists such as Salvador Dali and Marcel Duchamp.
It was in Paris that Man Ray’s career as a visionary photographer really exploded. He explored imagery like no other photographer had done before him, being both enigmatic and playful. In one of his most famous works, “Le Violin d’Inges”, he had his lover, Kiki de Montparneasse, pose naked with black shapes matching those of the f-holes of a violin attached to her back. The shape of Kiki’s body perfectly mirrored the shape of a violin.
Man Ray was never the perfectionist, concentrating on the ‘what’ rather than the ‘how’. In one quotation he said:
"Of course, there will always be those who look only at technique, who ask ‘how’, while others of a more curious nature will ask ‘why’. Personally, I have always preferred inspiration to information."
I like to approach my own photography in same manner. When I see a photograph, I’m more interested in why the photograph was arrived at than the technicalities of how it was arrived at. For me, the interesting aspect is the story behind any particular art photograph. After all, there must be a reason why a photographer chose to take a particular shot at a particular time. And everyone has a story. We love hearing and telling stories. If you’ve been following my blog, you’ll know I love to explain my thinking and stories behind any particular photograph, rather than go into any depth about the amount of exposure I used, which aperture I chose or the shutter speed I selected. They’re important but they pale in comparison to the inspiration behind a photograph or work of art. When you see a great painting, do you ask the artist which oils he used, how thick was his brush or whether he worked for hours at a time or worked in short spells with plenty of breaks?
Take my art photograph “Spadina Station”, for example. I hope people are interested in why I composed this shot, and not how. To me, this photograph displays the juxtaposition of what is manufactured and what is natural. Almost everywhere you look in the photograph you see the uniform and the regular. Straight lines upon straight lines, all parallel to one another. Not just the station itself, but the buildings behind it. It creates a fantastic grid of regularity and uniformity – this is how mankind tends to work. Just here and there are irregular blotches – the tree just visible from the side of the station, the odd patches of snow and the dampness on the station walls. This is how nature works – irregularly and randomly. I think it’s fascinating how the human mind makes perceptions as we can appreciate both uniformity (we associate beauty with symmetry, which is why good-looking people tend to have symmetrical faces) and the kind of variation you see in natural wonders.
As an art photographer, I can never be sure when inspiration is likely to strike, which is something that definitely appeals to me. Just like Man Ray, I think I have a curious nature. While I may go out with a particular art print in mind I like to be surprised, and never can be totally sure what kind of image my camera will capture next and what story will unfold. That’s just the way I like it!