Robin Kelsey: Is a Photograph a Work of Art?

This episode of Ask a Harvard Professor poses the question: What makes a photograph art? 



What makes a photograph art? A great photograph may be the result of skill and intention, or it may be the result of dumb luck: a fleeting, perfect composition captured by chance. At a time when there is a camera in every pocket, how do curators distinguish between documentary and artistic work? In this episode, Burden professor of photography Robin Kelsey, the dean of arts and humanities, explores the role of chance in artmaking generally, and in photography in particular.

Transcript (the following was prepared by a machine algorithm, and may not perfectly reflect the audio file of the interview): 

Jonathan Shaw: When is a photograph considered art? This is among the questions we'll consider today on the Harvard Magazine podcast Ask a Harvard professor. I'm Jonathan Shaw. With us now is Burden Professor of Photography Robin Kelsey, the Dean of Arts and Humanities at Harvard University. Welcome, Professor Kelsey.

Robin Kelsey: Thank you. It's great to be here.

Jonathan Shaw: You've written extensively about the role of chance in photography. Tell us about this idea and what led you to it.

Robin Kelsey: So, when photography was first introduced to the world in January of 1839 it was a magical medium. Here for the first time was a way of making pictures through the automatic action of light. Instead of an artist's hand doing the drawing, or the etching, or the painting, you had this device that created a picture automatically. The excitement about this was incredible. There's a lot of very oxygenated rhetoric that comes out at that moment about what an incredible discovery this was. But it's a complicated discovery and complicated in part as people realized at that time because chance plays a role in the production of a photographic picture in a way that it doesn't in other forms of picture making.

Robin Kelsey: So, for example, if a painter's making a painting, there's not going to be a pigeon that suddenly appears on a window cell unless the painter paints the pigeon. But a photographer making a photograph can make a photograph of a building and not notice that there's a pigeon sitting in the window cell until the photograph is made. And then, looking at the photograph, realizing that there was this accidental inclusion, and people were fascinated by this from the very beginning of photography. But it also led to other questions such as if works of art are in some sense works of art because of the intentions that were put into them by the maker, what happens when to some degree it's the sun itself that did the work of representing the world on the photographic plate?

Jonathan Shaw: How does chance complicate our understanding of photography as art?

Robin Kelsey: So, when we look at a work of art, we often think that its meaning as work of art, its very status as a work of art derives in part from the intentions that were put into it. That is that someone was painting the landscape just so because they were interpreting the world in a certain way. With photography, where things can accidentally show up in a picture, where the lighting at the time the photograph is made may take a turn, even as the photograph is being created, there is a weakening, if you will, of the intentionality of the image. So, for example, you might give a camera to a toddler who wanders around taking pictures and perhaps that toddler accidentally makes a photograph you find quite compelling.

Robin Kelsey: Well, now, you have a compelling picture, but it's hard to ascribe the compelling qualities of the picture to a conscious intention on the part of the maker, particularly in light of all the other pictures that your toddler took that are incoherent, strangely angled, and so forth. So, suddenly, you have a situation in which the image has a much more uncertain relationship to intention, which calls into question its status as art. If I take all the pictures that my toddler has made wandering around with my smartphone, and I pick out the very best one and I put it up framed on a wall, it's different than putting up a painting on the wall.

Robin Kelsey: I think for most people it seems more that I've put a lot of intention into the selection of which image to frame as opposed to the toddler actually putting a lot of intention into the image.

Jonathan Shaw: How have conceptions of chance itself changed since the beginning of photography?

Robin Kelsey: I love this question. I actually think that chance, as we understand it, has evolved throughout the history of photography in very interesting ways. So, when photography was invented, it was a time at which many people, certainly in Europe and the United States, held more traditional beliefs, often Christian, than they do now. Doctrine about the origins of the world, the origins of life and so forth had a much more hegemonic hold on the popular consciousness, but this started to come into question in the 19th Century. So, for example, when Charles Darwin came forward with his theory of evolution, it was clear to many, although Darwin tended to suppress the fact that chance played a role in mutation and therefore in natural selection.

Robin Kelsey: This was a deeply unsettling idea for people who had adhered to traditional notions of the creation of the world. So, alongside a world that increasingly seemed autonomous and governed by chance, you had a new technology that made pictures that were more governed by chance than previous forms of picture-making had been. I think the relationship is strong between those two historical developments. After all, artists, if one traces the western tradition back to the Renaissance, were thought to be inspired and in some sense to be creating in the image of the creation of the world by God. Well, just as God seem to be being displaced in the 19th Century by automatic processes prone to chance, the artist was threatened by photography to be displaced with a new form of picture-making that also was more susceptible to chance.

Jonathan Shaw: Chance can play a role in other forms of art making, of course. A recent example is the infamous Starbucks coffee cup spotted in a frame from the Game of Thrones television series. You recount a story told by Pliny the Elder about the role of chance in a painting when Protogenes was struggling to depict the foam spilling from a panting dog's mouth. What role does chance play in other forms of art making and what sets photography apart?

Robin Kelsey: Yeah, this is a very good question. So, one doesn't want to overplay the distinction between photography as an art form and painting, engraving, or drawing, and other art forms with respect to the role of chance. That is to say, since the days of Pliny the Elder, it's been recognized that chance could be a form of inspiration even in the other arts. So, Protogenes is frustrated that he can't portray the foam at the mouth of the mad dog adequately, and in his frustration throws the sponge at the picture and it strikes the dog's mouth and produces the perfect foam. And it's a wonderful story because it indicates that when one is trying to represent something that is truly random, such as the foam at a dog's mouth, that intention can actually be an obstacle.

Robin Kelsey: That it's hard for the artist to make foam that does not seem in some sense studied or arranged, and it was the sponge that did the work for Protogenes. So, this indicates that throughout the history of art it has been recognized that there was a certain role for chance. It also shows up in later painting where a painter such as Rembrandt, who was known in his own day for the looseness and freedom of his brushwork, was thought to take advantage of chance effects that would occur in the course of his painting. So, within this larger historical frame, one can see the extent to which photographers took advantage of chance as bearing some continuity with earlier artists working in other art forms. Nonetheless, this point also can be overdrawn.

Robin Kelsey: That is to say there is no question that in photography the role of chance is greater than it is in many other arts, at least as traditionally practiced.

Jonathan Shaw: It seems there is now a camera in every pocket and more photographs being taken than ever, all improving with every new generation of smartphone. How does this gradual transfer of technical mastery from operator to camera influence the role of chance?

Robin Kelsey: So, I think the easier the photographic process becomes, the more automatic the process is made, the greater the role of chance. So, in point of fact, although the role of chance, the special role of chance, was noted in photography from the very outset, early photographic processes required immense skill to handle. And I should underscore that although I've written extensively about chance in photography, great artists who've used photography have done so in ways that required inspiration, skill, historical insight in ample measure. So, sometimes when I talk about photography and chance, some practitioners get huffy thinking that I'm undercutting their capacities as photographers, but I don't see that at all.

Robin Kelsey: I see that to be a great photographer means to engage in a kind of dance with chance. And this dance has changed over time as processes have become easier and more automatic. So, today the amount of skill or knowhow required for making photographs is next to nil, which is why we can use examples of toddlers walking around taking photographs. So, in that situation, the role of chance becomes very great, and I think it brings to a certain culmination the role of chance in the medium.

Jonathan Shaw: In your 2015 book Photography and The Art of Chance, you wrote about the photographer Joe Rosenthal's iconic image raising the flag on Iwo Jima and the photographer's admission that he had no idea he had created such a perfect composition. But how should we think about the photographer who waits for sunrise knowing that the perfect suffusion of light in the sky will last a second or less, shoots repeatedly with a deliberate intent to capture that one moment relying on the technical capabilities of a modern camera?

Robin Kelsey: So, that's a great way to put the question. So, to just amplify a bit on the Rosenthal example, it's really quite a remarkable one. So, he was on Iwo Jima that day. He took over a dozen pictures, but fewer than two dozen. When he was done, he put the film in a pouch and sent it off to Guam to be processed. And when he later arrived on Guam, by which time his iconic photograph of the raising of a flag on Iwo Jima had spread around the world on the front pages of various newspapers, he was congratulated on the photograph. And he actually thought that those congratulating him were talking about a different photograph on his roll in which there was a picture that was posed of the various service people celebrating the raising of the flag.

Robin Kelsey: So, it's remarkable that with 18 or so odd photographs taken that day, one of them ending up one of the most iconic photographs ever made that he didn't know which one it was, and in fact, was thinking that it was quite a different photograph. So, I like using that example in my teaching because it's such a stunning example of the role of chance in photography. Now, as you say, there are many instances in which practitioners exert tremendous control over the medium. I think people often use Ansel Adams as the paragon of this. His zone system, his intense control, his waiting for the perfect moment, his anticipation, and so forth. And this is all absolutely true, but what's remarkable about photography is it's not always easy to tell from the image itself which was the route to its production.

Robin Kelsey: Whether it was produced through chance or whether it was produced through this remarkable exercise of skill, and intention, and determination. And that's one of the things that makes it such a perplexing medium and a difficult one as a medium of art. Because if you don't know the approach by which something was made, then you feel very uncertain in the face of a photograph in terms of ascribing particular meanings to it.

Jonathan Shaw: Since you mentioned Adams, who's famous for his landscapes of the West, you wrote your doctoral dissertation on the survey photography of Timothy O'Sullivan. What drew you to his work?

Robin Kelsey: So, Timothy O'Sullivan is a photographer who made a name for himself in the 19th Century, at least in certain circles, for his remarkable photographs of the Civil War, and many people have seen his photographs of battlefields during the war. Many don't realize they've seen O'Sullivan photographs, but they have, and then after the war, he went West and made landscape photographs. At the time I stumbled upon O'Sullivan, I was actually working on a dissertation on landscape painting in 19th Century America. But I also wanted to give a talk at the College Art Association's Annual Conference, which is something of a right of passage for graduate students in art history.

Robin Kelsey: And there was no panel that year's conference that was about landscape painting, but there was one on landscape photography, and O'Sullivan had intrigued me because his photographs, to put it bluntly, seemed weird, and I'm not the first person to think so. His photographs, in many ways, violate or diverged from the conventions for landscape photography of his day. They also seem strangely in keeping with a certain aesthetic principles that modernists embraced in the 20th Century, such that many writers had argued that he was an intuitive modernist. This is the sort of a historical explanation that art historians such as myself find unacceptable.

Robin Kelsey: I don't believe that people intuit art movements that come many decades later, so I wanted to understand why did these photographs have this strange modernist quality to them, and I spent the years working on my dissertation to answer that question.

Jonathan Shaw: How is his work unlike that of Adams?

Robin Kelsey: That's a great question because Adam's considered Timothy O'Sullivan to be a precursor. In fact, to the extent that Timothy O'Sullivan has become a part of the canon of photography. It's in no small part due to Ansel Adams, who brought O'Sullivan to the attention of many, including Beaumont Newhall, who was an early curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art. They shared a certain appreciation for the sublime aspects of the Western landscape for its grandeur, for its remarkable scale, but O'Sullivan was a very unfussy photographer in certain ways. He abided all kinds of blemishes on his prints. He would scratch numbers onto the negative and then cross out that number and put another number. His system of organizing the photographs changed.

Robin Kelsey: There were a lot of indications that he accommodated a certain kind of workmanlike this-is-a-document approach to photography. Whereas Adams wanted his prints to be absolutely exquisite, so that's a key difference between the two.

Jonathan Shaw: You described the differences in approach taken by Adams and Frederick Sommer, who is photographing chicken parts. If Sommer had been making landscapes of the American West, what do you imagine those would have looked like?

Robin Kelsey: So, Frederick Sommer is one of the greatest American photographers in my view, and is much too little known. His work, particularly during the Second World War, I think is in the company of the greatest works of photographic art that anyone has yet made. In fact, he did make photographs of the western landscape and they don't look anything like Ansel Adams' photographs. The landscapes he made were horizonless landscapes, that is, he would tilt his camera down so that it would be looking into a Canyon in Arizona, say, which was the State in which he lived. And the photographs were notable not only for not having a horizon, which was a bit disorienting, but also for not having any obvious features that would draw your attention.

Robin Kelsey: As he liked to say, people would look at his photographs and they would search around trying to figure out what the subject was, and this was quite deliberate on his part. He wanted to create a photograph in which attention was distributed evenly throughout the image. This was the exact opposite of what Ansel Adams tended to do, where he would draw your eye through the photograph to very particular features such as some rock face in Yosemite or what have you. So, they had very different notions of what made a great landscape.

Jonathan Shaw: How do you make distinctions between photography that is documentary and photography that is art?

Robin Kelsey: That's also a very good question. So, from the beginning of photography, it was recognized that this was a means of making pictures that could be used in all kinds of different social and cultural domains, so that there was a recognition fairly early on that photographs could aspire to be works of art. And in fact, the origins of photography are much more closely related to art in many ways than to science, which is contrary to what I've discovered as the conventional wisdom that many people carry around. So, the aesthetic possibilities of photography were certainly in the air, but at the same time, it was also recognized that photographs had a documentary function that was quite striking.

Robin Kelsey: In part, because people regarded the process and its automaticity, its reliance on the sun rather than the hand of an artist, to be more objective, to be more reliable, to be more truthful, and this aspect of photography was greatly heralded. And so, we have a sort of documentary function of photography and we have an art function of photography. I think we make a mistake though when we think that those two functions are somehow separate, two buckets into which photographs can be placed, "Here's an art photograph. Here is a documentary photograph." I don't think that's how it works. I think that these are both functions of photography, and any given photograph can more or less fulfill one function, or the other, or both.

Robin Kelsey: And Timothy O'Sullivan, to use that example, intrigued me a great deal because although ostensibly his photographs were being made to document the Civil War, to document these spaces of the American west for a military survey of the west, nonetheless, it's incontrovertible, I believe, that he was very concerned with certain aesthetic values, which is in part how his photographs have ended up in art museums. So, I like to think of these as two qualities that photographs can possess and they are not incompatible.

Jonathan Shaw: How do art museum curators make decisions about what photographs to collect? Does what they acquire have to be art?

Robin Kelsey: This has been a matter of considerable controversy. For many decades of the history of photography, museums did not collect photographs. One of the very earliest people to collect photographs was actually a curator of Indian art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Ananda Coomaraswamy, but not many curators followed suit. This came to change in the 1970s and 1980s when museums began to acquire photographs and a market for photographs got going. There really was no market for art photographs before then. In fact, people would be shocked to learn that you could pick up an Ansel Adams in the 1950s for $10, and he'd feel good about the sale. So, the market gets going in the 70s and 80s, museums start to collect photographs at that time, and controversy emerges about how those photographs are being assimilated into the art museum.

Robin Kelsey: To my mind, the question is less which kinds of photographs come into the museum, and the question is more how does the museum responsibly convey the history of that photograph once it's inside the museum? So, to my mind, the mistake that many museums made when they first started to acquire and display photographs was that they would display photographs that were made, say, for the Department of War in the 19th Century, as if they were made as works of art to be on a gallery wall. I don't think there's anything wrong with displaying within an art museum photographs that were made for the Department of War. But I think the responsible way to display those photographs is to acknowledge and communicate why they were made.

Robin Kelsey: Why we might see different things in them now than people at the time did, and why, if they have aesthetic values that were put into them in the 19th century, that those values would have been inserted? Because in many cases, those aesthetic qualities derive not from an expectation that these photographs would be in a museum or a gallery, but because they drive from the need for those photographs to be persuasive documents, that is documents with a visual rhetoric that went beyond the sheer evidentiary function.

Jonathan Shaw: So, an art historical perspective should shape collecting practices?

Robin Kelsey: I think an art historical perspective needs to take account of the promiscuity of photography and the fact that photographs are made for many different reasons by many institutions. And that if we are going to bring them into the art museum to discuss their aesthetic qualities, we need to be careful to trace those aesthetic qualities to the actual history of the photograph, and not to invent a too fanciful notion of intuitive precursors, and not to obscure the very difficult conditions under which many photographs had been made.

Jonathan Shaw: Is this why it's important to understand an individual photograph within the context of a series or as part of a group?

Robin Kelsey: So, I think the special role that chance plays in the production of photographs means understanding the place of any individual photograph within a larger practice is very, very important. As Alfred Stieglitz, the great photographer once said, "Photographers may get lucky, but some get luckier than others." And by that he meant it's not all luck, that great photographers develop a practice that involves tremendous skill, and acumen, and experience, and expertise, and luck still plays a role. And I think that's what Stieglitz was also acknowledging, but we can understand that role far better if we see the photographs that that photographer made within the context of their practice.

Robin Kelsey: What I find unsatisfying in the art museum is the exhibition that shows a single photograph from a multitude of practitioners, because the problem there is that any one photograph, again, has this weak intentionality that is, it's difficult in looking at the photograph to know exactly what you can infer about its production. This is also true of other pictures, but to a lesser extent. So, I find much more satisfaction coming from seeing an exhibition in which the photographer has not only taken each picture, but had a hand in some fashion in curating the selection of photographs. So, for example, the great Walker Evans show and catalog American photographs, a landmark show from the late 1930s at the Museum of Modern Art, and which has been recreated more or less at MoMA in recent years, is a marvelous show.

Robin Kelsey: Because the intelligence is evident not only in each individual photograph but in the sequence of photographs, and that's a collaborative process coming up with that sequence, in that selection, at least in many cases. So, the other aspect of this equation is the collective authorship that photography often produces. So, for example, the great Lincoln Kirstein actually supposedly had a very strong role to play in the making of American photographs. And Evans once said that Kirstein understood Evans's work better than Evans did.

Jonathan Shaw: Has the camera, by capturing everything before it, indiscriminately democratized other art forms, too?

Robin Kelsey: That's an interesting question. It is certainly true that the radically inclusive nature of photography was a matter of much comment in the years after photography was invented. One of the obligations of the artist, as traditionally understood, was to filter the natural world, taking in this and not that, emphasizing this, de-emphasizing that. Photography, by that standard, seemed radically indiscriminate. It would just represent everything, taking as much care to represent a crumpled paper bag on a street as it would the face of the President of the United States. This ran completely counter to pictorial convention and was quite unsettling at the time.

Robin Kelsey: But for this very reason, photography came to be associated with democracy with a more egalitarian ethos, and I think this is one of the more remarkable qualities of photography. And by all means, it has had its effects on other artistic media. So, the all over compositions, even of an abstract painter such as Jackson Pollock can, I think, fairly persuasively be traced to the emergence of photography and the way that it changed the making of pictures.

Jonathan Shaw: Are you working on another book at the moment?

Robin Kelsey: I am mainly working at being Dean of Arts and Humanities.

Jonathan Shaw: I thought so.

Robin Kelsey: Which is quite a distraction, but I do have a book that I've been working on photography in America during the Cold War. It's not so much about the standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union. It's more about that time period after the Second World War and moving into the 1980s. It's a time in which there was tremendous concern about the effects that cameras had on subjects. So, this is a book that's in some ways less about the photograph than it is about cameras and the process of photography. It's a story that I think is very important to tell now when we're living in a surveillance society, in which being before a camera has now become something we take for granted.

Robin Kelsey: I think it's important to remember that as recently as the 1960s and 1970s there was tremendous anxiety around the effects that cameras would have on people, making them more self conscious, making them more performative, making them less their true selves. It's a very interesting story with many interesting episodes, and I very much look forward to getting back to work on it.

Jonathan Shaw: I look forward to reading it. Thank you for joining us today.

Robin Kelsey: Thanks so much. It's been a pleasure.

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