Photography as Fine Art

Yu, Chong-ho

May 18, 1989

Presented in "Coffee House," Tally Gallery
Bemidji State University, Minnesota


Mechanical Analogue

There are many misconceptions about modern photography. Roland Barthes said that a photographic image is a message without a code. He regarded photography as a mechanical analogue because in front of a photo the feeling of denotation by the viewer is very strong.

This is not true! In the late 1940s Aaron Siskind initiated a series of photographic still life of fish heads, rope, and other commonplace objects. It became clear that subject matter was now secondary, and abstraction most important. And it is no doubt that nowadays abstract or non-representational photography is very popular.

What is beauty?

Another misconception is the definition of beauty. photography has remained largely outside the mainstream of postmodernism. Stanley Bowman said that many photographers exist outside of the mainstream because galleries and museums play it safe, displaying and collecting works more closely related to the traditional sense of beauty, such as landscapes or portraits.

In 1915 Edward Steichen photographed a milk bottle on a tenement fire escape, an early example of a quite different idea of a beautiful photograph. And since the 1920s, ambitious professionals, those whose work gets into museums, have steadily drifted away from lyrical subjects, conscientiously exploring plain, tawdry, or even vapid materials. Susan Sontag said, "To photograph is to confer importance. There is probably no subject that cannot be beautified."

Machine-gun Photography

The third misunderstanding is that photography is a high tech and expensive art. Although photography is a matter of both art and science, the former is no doubt more important than the latter. For example, photographer Annie Brigman was a terrible technician. Her prints show large areas of carelessly retouched negatives and even casual pencil work on the prints themselves. In spite of that, her photographs are extraordinary beautiful because her hasty prints carry dreamy and mysterious effects.

If you read photography journals such as Popular Photography, you will be shocked by those high priced and fancy equipment--Bogen tripod, Nikon auto-focus zoom lenses, Cokin filters and so on. It seems that only a rich man can be a good photographer. Moreover, in movies and TV programs, the stereotype of a photographer is that a man carries a camera, point to the model and shoot pictures like shooting a machine gun. You may ask, "God, how can I afford so many rolls of film?"

Actually, all special visual effects of my photos were made by very simple and cheap methods. Moreover, I never shoot pictures like operating a machine gun. I rely on careful planning and implementation instead of luck.

Many masters such as Ansel Adams, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Man Ray objected the machine-gun approach to photography. Henri Cartier-Bresson said that it will burden the photographer with useless recordings which clutter his memory and spoil the exactness of the reportage as a whole. When Man Ray took portraits, he usually made just three to four shots.

In short, photography is an art of mind, not an art of money or high tech. For Ansel Adams, simplicity is a prime requisite. He asserted that the beauty of a great photograph does not lie in the assortment of facts about negatives, materials, papers, developers--it lies in the realization of the photographer's vision. Henri Cartier-Bresson holds the same opinion: A photographer "must be on the alert with the brain, the eye, the heart; and have a suppleness of body ... in photography, the smallest thing can be a great subject."


I have discussed what is not the right way of photography. Then, what is the authentic essence of photography? What contribute a good photo? Arthur Pope said that the artist should never write about his art--the artist speaks in terms of his medium. Ansel Adams also said that he cannot tell what a great photograph is. He can answer best by showing a great photograph, not by talking about one.

Another main point that I want to explain is that good photographs may match the 'hot thinking' of modern people. Mass communication scholar Marshal MacLuhan said that in the print media age, people's thinking pattern was 'cold'-only one thing at one time. In the visual and audio media era, 'hot thinking' became more significant-more than one things at one time. Harold Rosenberg also pointed out that many works by modern artists are no longer a subject, but an event--the art is not still. It is changing all the time. For example, a sculptor may install electronics on the statue to make it sparkling.

A still photo is one thing at one time. Thus, some photographers tried to break through this limitation. Since the 1970s multi-media presentation became popular. Nowadays the Eagle computer or the Arion dissolve control unit can program many slide projectors for one show. Computer imaging is another new direction of photography. After the artist digitized images of photos into the computers such as Amiga, Chyron and Quantel, he can animate it or program a TV show. The audience's response to those is of 'hot thinking'. Can you see this attribute in my work?

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