If I’m An Artist, Does That Make This Art?

When, some months ago, I announced that I’d enrolled on a Fine Arts MA, a lot of my friends and colleagues asked why. Not so much why the MA, but why Fine Art in particular? A fair enough question for a man whose background was in English literature, writing, acting and taking the occasional photograph.

My stated reasons were:

1 – Time and facilities to improve my photography.

2 – A forum to broaden my artistic horizons more generally.

3 – Additional employment prospects in the arts sector (I hope).

4 – The ability to yell “But darling, I couldn’t possibly, I’m an artist!” whenever I was asked to do anything remotely taxing.

Given as I was then working as a post-surgical ward clerk grade 2, listening to the sound of dementia patient’s yelling the names of people who’d been dead for twenty years, this last had its attractions. A chance, perhaps, to really settle into creating something. Something fulfilling. Maybe. Perhaps.

The thing is, that whenever I told someone the title of the course they would invariably reply :

“I never knew you were a painter.”

Fine art, to most people, still means painting, sculpture and etc. You can see why. Go a museum of art and the walls are covered with the stuff. Photography’s a relatively new medium, and there are those who’ll say it’s a technical exercise rather than an art form. Those people are wrong, as well as unnecessarily ugly and overweight, but unfortunately it’s a persistent idea. Maybe it comes from the fact that dear old Henry Fox Talbot cooked up the whole photography game because he couldn’t sketch worth a good goddam.  Personally I ascribe the whole thing to jealousy. I can take film, light and a couple of fancy chemicals, and through the use of certain rituals turn them into a work of art. With no false modesty that makes me an alchemist, so it’s no wonder people feel a little threatened.

Is it art as well as sorcery?

Yes. Yes it is. It requires technical skill, compositional nous, knowledge of your art form and constant practice. Sounds like art to me. Plus there’s the added fact that if I’m on an MA Fine Art course then I’m an artist, therefore anything I create is art. QED.

Oddly enough, since I rediscovered photography a few years back I’ve rarely described myself as a photographer. I do now. The reason for that, is that some weeks ago I emerged blinking from the dark-room carrying a print I’d just made. And while I’ve produced thousands of images (probably approaching six figures) this one was a little different. On this one I’d loaded the film. I’d pressed the button. Pulled the film out of its cassette and wound it onto the reel. Mixed the developer. Stirred the tank, stripped the film off the reel. And after a few practice swings at the enlarger, I’d turned all of that into an honest to goodness image. Watched it swim into life in the developing tray, peered at it under the red lights as it sat in the water bath, until I could get the lights on and look at it properly.

Digital Photgraphy’s not like that. With digital I can do things I’d never manage on film. I can work with less light. Without the need to buy and store film and negatives I can shoot more freely, skim of the cream and discard the rest. I don’t miss shots while re-loading. Professional photographers have adopted digital cameras like professional soldiers adopted the automatic rifle (as Pratchett/Gaiman very nearly put it). But digital has none of the sense of anticipation, and film places a value on every image.

So yeah. I’d call myself a photographer now. A guy who paints with light. Light’s cheaper than oil paint, more portable than marble and won’t stain your clothes like acrylic, although the darkroom chemicals will eat through your shirt.

It’s art and it’s science. Keats may have complained that Newton killed the rainbow by trapping it in a prism, but no Newton no optics, no prisms no photography.

No photography and, for me at least, no art. Like Fox-Talbot, I also can’t sketch.

But my art’s art all the same.

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