I am flipping through the catalog for an exhibition I saw a decade ago, Light Years Conceptual Art and the Photograph 1964–1977 and I realize how my ideas about photography have shifted over the years. When I saw this exhibition I had spent the last three years surrounded by photographers where the dominant belief seemed to be that art (or photography specifically) actually had a hell of a lot to do with announcing facts. These facts were announced with good photographs.
The second piece in the book is text and image on canvas by the artist John Baldessari. At the top of the canvas there is a black and white photograph of a California parking lot with cars from the period, palmetto palms and a tree trunk smack in the middle of the frame. Below the image, text in all caps reads:
THE ARTIST IS NOT MERELY THE SLAVISH ANNOUNCER OF A SERIES OF FACTS, WHICH IN THIS CASE THE CAMERA HAS HAD TO ACCEPT AND MECHANICALLY RECORD.
The photograph on Baldessari’s canvas is less banal now than it must have been when it was made, before the cars were vintage and provoked nostalgia. Imagine a snapshot of a 2022 parking lot full of Priuses and Teslas. Baldessari does not attempt to make the boring subject matter beautiful, instead his photograph is “bad” all around. Good photographs follow the rules. Exposure is either correct or incorrect, composition is good or bad, in focus (right) out of focus (wrong) and then there’s all the rules about editing and printing. No dust! No fingerprints! No scratches! The rules are not just technical, they trickle down to subject matter. I still remember the list my high school photography teacher made of forbidden subjects: cars (uh oh Baldessari!), friends, pets, squirrels, anything on campus. If the good photograph is art made by the “artist” then the bad photograph falls into the camp of the vernacular or worse yet—the amature. If you are not doing it right, you are doing it wrong. And here was Baldessari boldly doing it wrong.
Near the end of my time at graduate school, a male professor told me “I always thought you were a bad photographer, now I realize that it’s intentional.” I don’t think it was his intention for these words to be taken as a compliment. It wasn’t until years later that the insult began to morph into artistic fuel. At the time, I was still too young, shy, and anxious to fully commit to questioning the ideas and techniques I had been taught about photography. Ten years later, I look back on this piece by Baldessari as the spark that I so desperately needed to begin making my own rules.
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