Monday, September 29, 2008

The Plight of Photography as Art

For many of us working in the culture industries, we can only dream of a day when a large majority of the population takes an interest in the arts. And while only a tiny percentage actually wield paint brushes or genuinely even look at the various exhibits held at the malls, millions of Filipinos own and carry a medium used by a number of artists today: the camera.

No other medium has taken off to incredibly popularity as photography. Unfortunately, however, the number of camera-owning people has not translated into an equal number of people interested in photography as an art. In reality, the camera’s mass appeal has become like a curse on photography-based art as it has become less valued than art of more traditional media like painting and sculpture.

As Robert Quebral, one of the owners behind Blacksoup Project Art Space, an independent venue that shows photography, puts it, "Every Tom, Dick and Harry can shoot and print photos nowadays."

Tom, Dick and Harry may shoot and print and may even call themselves photographers but for those like Wawi Navarroza, the title "photographer" simply isn’t enough. Preferring the terms "artist working with medium of photography," "artist with camera" or "photo-based artist," Navarroza, who has staged solo exhibits at Blacksoup and Silverlens and is off to Russia in June to teach at the Fotomasterskie Petersburgskie School of Photography, is quick to point out that not all photographs can be called art. "The problem is oftentimes people forget that the words ‘creative’ and ‘artistic’ are two different things. The word ‘art’ is not a cosmetic you can apply to anything that happens to look ‘good’ or was superbly done." Navarroza also differentiates between commercial and art photography: commercial as being made inherently for the purpose of making you buy, while art "makes you question things, to think, to feel, to be in touch with what is ‘human’ in you. Contrary to commercial goals, art doesn’t sell you bottled dreams and aspirations; it actually smacks you in the head and wants you to wake up and be aware."

Silverlens Gallery, the result of owner/photo-based artist Isa Lorenzo’s inability to find a gallery in Manila which understood the photography medium and process, is one of the few venues solely committed to showing photography as an art form. Lorenzo shares, "I think that people in the Philippines have gotten used to seeing cliché images of sunsets and kalesas and understand those as ‘art photographs.’ In their way they are, but the photos we at Silverlens show are images that go beyond cliché and are really about a body of work with a strong idea and shown with curatorial cohesion." Seeing a further need, Lorenzo has set up the Silverlens Foundation, a grant-giving body that is offering critical support for photo-based artists to finish bodies of work and that is providing the backbone for a collection of contemporary Philippine photography.

Aside from Silverlens and Blacksoup, the only other venue this author can think of that exclusively shows photography is the Alcove at Filipinas Heritage Library with the three spaces each defining themselves distinctly. Silverlens banners being the only museum-quality space dedicated to photography and photo-based art; Blacksoup, as an independent art space, offers a more laidback setting and is ideal for quirkier work (such as the lomo exhibit last year); Alcove sets itself strictly for black-and-white photographs. Other venues which have developed a special focus for photography are Lumiere and One Workshop Gallery, although both places also show more traditional art forms, too.

That there are so little venues for photography-based art is testament to a very small market for this art form. The art industry is driven largely by the exclusive nature of pieces — of that one prized artwork unlike any other — which the very quality of photography defies. As a print, it can be continuously reproduced and while the artist only prints a select number, the easily replicated aspect, especially precarious in the age of the digital camera, can be rather a turn-off for art collectors. It "doesn’t sound seductive at all," Navarroza admits. For a living, many turn to event and commercial photography while only occasionally being able to show their photo-based art. Lorenzo smiles at this, saying, "Fortunate is the photographer who gets paid to do personal work."

While photo-based art is a long way off from being essentially appreciated as art in the Philippines (especially by those with antiquated ideas of what art is), there are signs that its recognition as an art form is increasing. A few years ago, a number of these spaces focused on photography didn’t even exist. Silverlens only launched in 2004, Blacksoup opened in 2005 and One Workshop only commenced its gallery and new studio last year. And while most photography exhibits in malls are commercial, cliché or tied to celebrities, a recent exhibit at the Mall of Asia, "Large 8," which featured photo-abstract works blown up to staggering scale, appears to herald a growing appreciation of photography as art.

Navarroza says, "Appreciating pictures for their sheer pleasurable aesthetic value, yes, we do have a lot of those. We all enjoy looking at pictures. But appreciating pictures further for their mental/spiritual/sensual/artistic implications or as critical mirrors to provoke thinking is few and far between. It requires a certain sensitivity of thought and depends on the viewer’s willingness to see beyond the 2-D image."

Appreciating at deeper levels? Seeing beyond the image? It seems that the plight of photography as art is the plight of art, indeed.

Philstar Today- The Plight of Photography as Art -
By Clarissa Chikiamco


john said...

well i guess yoiur into a deeper dimension. im into photography too but havent practiced it lately. ive been busy lately. hope you could share ideas nex time

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