Photography is a miracle of the modern world. It gives us instant visual information from all over the planet and far beyond. It is a unique documentary record of our own lives, a simple source of creative pleasure and fun. I just wish people wouldn’t put it in art galleries.
Let me be clear: photographs on the page or screen are fascinating. Who can fail to be entranced by the first-ever pictures from the surface of a comet that were taken this week? The power of photography to show and to tell has never been greater, as modern technology takes it simultaneously to the far reaches of the solar system and ever deeper into the heart of daily life.
But that does not make it sing on a gallery wall.
It just looks stupid when a photograph is framed or backlit and displayed vertically in an exhibition, in the way paintings have traditionally been shown. A photograph in a gallery is a flat, soulless, superficial substitute for painting. Putting up massive prints is a waste of space, when the curators could provide iPads and let us scroll through a digital gallery that would easily be as beautiful and compelling as the expensive prints.
I try to suppress these thoughts, for photography exhibitions are taken desperately seriously. I recently joined the crowds at the Natural History Museum’s wildlife photographer of the year. It’s amazing how long some people can look at a photograph. I observed the observers, rapt before illuminated images that I really can’t look at for more than a few seconds.
That is because when you put a photograph on the wall I cannot help comparing it with the paintings whose framed grandeur it emulates, and I can’t help finding photography wanting.
Paintings are made with time and difficulty, material complexity, textural depth, talent and craft, imagination and “mindfulness”. A good painting is a rich and vigorous thing. A photograph, however well lit, however cleverly set it up, only has one layer of content. It is all there on the surface. You see it, you’ve got it. It is absurd to claim this quick fix of light has the same depth, soul, or repays as much looking as a painting by Caravaggio – to take a painter so many photographers emulate.
But we are encouraged to give it the same, or more, attention. Today’s glib culture endlessly flatters photography’s arty pretensions. The winning picture in the Taylor Wessing prize at the National Portrait Gallery “has clearly been inspired by Caravaggio”, raves the Evening Standard, as if this meant it was somehow as rewarding as the 17th-century master’s works. Sorry, but it ain’t.,
Why not try this experiment? Go to the National Portrait Gallery’s Taylor Wessing exhibition, then pop around the corner to see the National Gallery’s late Rembrandt show. If you can really see even a millionth of the vitality of a Rembrandt portrait in any of the NPG’s photos, we’ll just have to agree to disagree.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010