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“this Photograph, is it You or Me?”


Thierry Maindrault’s Monthly Chronicle

It is very often during conferences, courses, symposium (hey, that is not really fashionable anymore) or in conversations that this double question has been asked to me: “what is a Photography and why is my photography now considered as Art? “. I do not think I have all the answers to this double yet very simple question, to make some philosophically definitive assertions. On the other hand, what seems obvious to me is that the use of the word “photography” has not, but absolutely not, the same meaning for the great majority of those who use it. Without wanting to play the learned pedant, I would like to highlight a few facts about this famous question. The great philosophical debates, still unfinished, will therefore not be my subject. I offer you to share some basics of the reality, the experience, and the feelings of a photographer who masters the techniques leading to this image, called a photograph. I imagine that some who have fully mastered all the photographic tools may rebel after reading this column.

For the first part of the question: “A photograph”, please let’s all come back down to earth and stop gargling, then gloating, for having done a masterpiece every time an image pops up on the screen of a smartphone. In the best of cases, a photograph is the result of the implementation of a particular technique linked to the use of light in its various variations. We use the term “a photograph” as we term “a painting” for an image made using additive techniques. Better than that, the pictorial representations will often be named by the typicality of the technique used. This is how we will say a bromide, a cyanotype, a fine-art, a baryta, etc. just as we will talk about a watercolor, a canvas, a sanguine, an Indian ink, a lithograph, etc. for paint derivatives. Therefore, the image in itself is strictly nothing, certainly not a work of Art, because of the techniques and the technologies of realization which were used. For the record, all the paintings, whether they are charcoals, areographies, or calligraphies, are not representations that have become works of Art. Given the significant anteriority of this form of expression, it has now come to be known.

If the observation that the billions of images resulting from photographic techniques are not works of Art is recognized by most photographers, we must admit that some of these images have entered into the Pantheon of the collective memory of our humanity. Before even quibbling about the conditions of realization of these artworks, let us remember the preliminary and absolute rule to join the cenacle, namely: durability and quality. Durability because the artistic classification, as I have already mentioned many times, only occurs after a generational transfer (about three generations after the death of the author) of the subjects, and of the thoughts they contain. For quality, it is obvious that its absence cannot guarantee a minimum duration in time for sustainability.

The preambles being posed, let’s see what transforms the image into an artwork of creation for the fixation of the mind. The question seems complex and opens the field to endless discussions. In the reality to make an image, from light (which plays an essential catalytic role), there is You and Me.

You, you are the subject that serves as a support for the light to allow a fixation of your image. You, alone or in more or less organized bands, you call yourself object, model, landscapes, building, personality, site, plant, ruins, animal, etc. You, you pose naked, misty, dressed, waxed, disguised, frozen, etc. You, you express fear, joy, misery, hatred, terror, life, serenity, curiosity, etc. Oh! My superb subject! Your expression and your aesthetic, sometimes exceptional, make you a real and logical attraction for the person confronted with your representation. But we must not be mistaken, the totally unusual subject, the little Togolese in tears, the evanescent bauxite cliff, the wink of a media pseudo-star, the cellist dog, are all only subjects of great interest. They cannot compose, by their mere presence, an image – a work of creation – with the vocation of becoming a work of Art. However, these are only testimonies and reportages, even if they are extremely true.

Me, I am the photographer and not much on a universal scale like everyone else, and that even applies to the great creators who have become great artists over the centuries. Me, I am the photographer who has learned, assimilated and modestly mastered a set of photographic techniques. Me, I am the thief of views and/or lab rat before becoming a neurotic, rather gifted in the mysteries of computing. Me, I wait for hours in a precise point of a landscape, I adjust my focal lengths coupled with a diaphragm, I always test my essential anticipations for portraits, I anticipate the hundredth of chromato which corresponds perfectly to the chosen medium, etc.. My prints and my projections are recognized as being of high technical quality. However, these are only reproductions, even if they are extremely realistic. I do not wish to be presumptuous in this presentation nor to be contemptuous vis-à-vis a great number of photographers who are excellent craftsmen in the noblest sense of the term or passionate amateurs capable of unprecedented technological prowess.

But, I think that a photographic work which aspires to the status of creation in the immediate future and of Art in the future, can only be an intimate symbiosis (even if it is only circumstantial) between You and Me.

I maintain that only this link, powerful or tenuous, is likely to ensure the birth of this photographic image which tells us, which moves us, which questions us, which mistreats us, which challenges us and which is not satisfied only with us being subdued. Only the fusion of the photographer in the landscape will chill you with dread or make you sweat. Only understanding the soul of objects will take you beyond the aesthetics of still life. Only spiritual synchronization with the model will open the thoughts of the unsaid to you. This is true for all areas in which photographers exercise their talent. But we should never conflate, which unfortunately has become the case even for so-called professionals of this technique. Alone, the fascinating photography for its subject or the seductive photography by the touch of the photographer cannot be assimilated to an artwork of photographic creation. The one that will become exceptional will be so by the consistency of its complexity, as for all other future works of Art.

What do you ask yourself when you are in front of a photograph that you like? If the subject fills you with enthusiasm, without you even being aware of the context, you are confronted to You. If you find pleasant the composition and the aesthetic rendering of the image by imagining an interchangeable subject, you are stationed in front of Me. If when you stay in front of the image you are surprised, taken aback, dumbfounded, drawn to somewhere else or lost in your thoughts, you have just entered into Our world. In the latter case, you can return to this photographic creation many times without getting bored; for there are always several degrees in the discovery and understanding of such artworks.

Thierry Maindrault, September 09, 2022

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