Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Taking Pictures, New Mexico Photography as Art; New York, New York, It's A Hell of A Town!

A corner of the Casa Ché Camera Collection

On to the next talk at the Museum, this one featuring Kathrine Ware, Curator of Photography, discussing the Growth of the Galleries, starting with Stieglitz in New York. 


  • November 18: Growth of the Galleries
Curator of Photography, Katherine Ware, will chronicle the impact that Photography has had on New Mexico art history, from photographic surveys to commercial galleries.
While Kathrine gave quite a nice presentation, it focused practically not at all on New Mexico, and as always, it left out Carlos Vierra, who -- as The First [Anglo -- though he was actually a "Portagee", from California, no less] Artist in Santa Fe -- made his living as a photographer, and who had a studio directly across the street from the Museum wherein we were meeting... sheesh.

I don't know why there is such a blind spot about Vierra at the very Museum that he himself practically caused to come into being and that he graced with murals and that he photographed over and over, and that he was part of practically all his life in New Mexico, but there you are. If I didn't bring him up, I doubt he'd be mentioned at all.

There is a story there, but I don't know what it is.

Yes, everything photographic (Art) started with Stieglitz in New York, and after him came many others -- in New York -- who made photography into the (Big A) Art it is today. Stieglitz, of course, is connected to New Mexico through his long-time association with Georgia O'Keeffe, the quintessential Paintrix of New Mexico. Who also took pictures from time to time.


There are a few noted photographers in New Mexico, I'm assured (I've even bought a few art photos from New Mexico photographers) but outside New York, their efforts seem of limited recognition.

There are some wonderful photographs in the Museum collection, some of them by noted New Mexicans, but it seems that this widespread and democratic art form is not so highly regarded within the New Mexico arts community as the more established arts of painting and sculpture and so on.

You get Art Photography because of Stieglitz's and the other galleries in New York, the George Eastman House in Rochester, and some determined gallery owners in Los Angeles.  There would then be a gallery or two in Santa Fe that showed and sold photographs. Voila!

It would take such a long time to discover Art Photography could be "commercial," though -- that is to say, that there was a market for Art Photos in or of New Mexico -- that it still doesn't seem to be a secure field of Artistic Endeavor.

One of the New Mexico Art Photos that we were shown was of a black and white New Mexico landscape. The photographer had scratched an "X" through the negative, and that was supposed to make this picture "art." OK. I've seen a number of such pictures. They don't move me at all.

The question seems to be one of photography as "art" versus photographic "documents." Art which rejects the subject or the creative tool may have a place, but how important can that place ever be? And rejectionist art more accurately described as documentation?

I think I've mentioned that we have thousands and thousands of photos -- both digital and film -- in boxes and albums and on hard drives and thumb drives inamidst all the other stuff here. A few of these photos I would consider "art," there are even a few "artistic" images that I took myself. But they weren't intended as "art." They were intended as documents, and the fact that they have an artistic spirit or composition is practically an accident.

I've lost as many thousands of photos as I've managed to hold on to. Some of the lost images could have been "artistic" as well. But nearly all were intended as documents first and foremost.

I've always loved photographs and photographic images, from as far back as I can remember, and to me their documentary character is far more important than any effort photographers may make to create "art." Photographs capture a moment in time and an aspect of people and place and things that lives on, essentially as long as the image lasts.

The artistic aspects of photography, however, don't escape my notice. It's just that the medium itself has always been essentially documentary in nature, regardless of any artistic potential -- potential that was recognized from the moment of invention.

Even the most overtly artistic photos are at their core, "documents." One could say that about practically any art, I suppose, but with photography, the issue is front and center.

What I found particularly odd about this talk was how New York centric it was, how even connections with New Mexico's many photographic artists had to be mediated in New York, and how, without Stieglitz in New York, there would have been -- could have been -- no photographic art in New Mexico.

I thought about that in connection with that seminal moment of creation, the Broken Wagon Wheel on the High Road to Taos in 1898.

Below are two of the iconic photos of the Tragic, Fateful Incident, taken -- one assumes -- by Ernest Bluemschein his ownself.

The first picture has the quality of Art (Big A) while the second has the quality of a well-composed snapshot. Both are documents, but the first one is compositionally painterly -- note the repetition of diagonals, the off center main subject, the slightly out of focus margins. Blumenschein appears to be thinking through how this document of an incident on the High Road can become a work of art.

The second picture tells a story -- "Bert Phillips has lunch next to our disabled wagon" -- but it lacks the refinement that characterizes the first image.

My point is that there were artistic potentials in photographs taken in and of New Mexico from very early on, as these two demonstrate clearly, and those potentials never had to be seen in New York at all to be recognized and validated.

And yet, from the Museum's standpoint, it seems "everything" must be mediated in New York or it somehow doesn't count.

If true, that's a shame.

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