A statement about a famous photographer's undisclosed "intent" is not enough for me. Here are some reasons why.
As undergraduates, our professors drilled into us that a scientist's reputation should not sway our evaluation of the merits/demerits of a study he/she published. Similarly, when a competitive athlete I knew that I was only as good as my next race regardless of past performances. So I try to evaluate any product or outcome in and of itself. Because this orientation causes me few problems when evaluating most works of art, I didn't look at Catherine's portfolio before commenting on the picture.
The untitled photo in question is recognizable as a waterfall reduced to elements of falling water and spray in a rocky surround. The blurring that reduced its components to basic elements might have occurred when shooting or in post-processing, but that doesn't matter. The product remains a blurred image of a waterfall. Why is that worthy of a place on the wall of an exhibition? What does that imply about photography as a form of art? If the intent is to convey a message about photography, does it succeed? I don't have answers only questions. Am I being dense or what?
Catherine Opie: Untitled
Courtesy of Regan Project
In such a delicately colored image, it could be that the sRGB file simply does not carry the billions of hues that make up the original photograph. I can see theres an array of soft pinks in the waterfall with a movement to blues in both sides of the water and then blues and pinks streaking across the sky. It could be that standing in front of the actual photograph, the range of colors would make the experience captivating and worthy of lingering to be mesmerized. But we are faced with just this small representation, and I caution myself to remember that some images cannot be adequately shown by the limited gamut of a compressed jpg, especially when there is an almost complete lack of contrasting elements and formed edges and boundaries. So this is merely a peep at the photograph, not the actual test of it's value to me.
So is this glimpse of the waterfall landscape a fine photograph with its lack of detail, simple composition and blurriness qualities worth admiration? Or, is it, perhaps, just something someone also
made on a rainy day, an utterly failed attempt at abstract art? One feels challenged that if one does not appreciate it, one is missing some nuanced beauty and if one does one is foolishly following the rest of the flock.
We all know that focus, good lighting, technical prowess, brilliant composition and following "rules" are not requirements we would demand of our own art. Yet, we remain hesitant and highly suspicious of photographs that do not meet standards we have gotten used to! That's what's happening here. But we do
put up with such works at exhibitions. We trust that the curators understand something here that we do not have the background for. We give them all benefit of the doubt and pray we are not being "taken" again!
At major retrospectives, curators will even include many pictures, mere "snaps" taken at the beach or in a supermarket window or at a family barbecue, that for sure where never intended as anything but personal mementos. Artists normally carefully hone their skills at presenting a coherent body of well-0executed creative expression. A lot of ideas, of necessity, therefore, fall to the wayside if they are not obviously
strong enough to carry their own weight and survive as art in a competitive environment. Likely as not, we're deprived of a lot of new ideas ,at the edges of expectations, that are self-censored by the photographer's need for maintaining appearances.
The established artist, however, gets the freedom eventually to step out of a strict mode of assassinating one's offspring, (and actually shows of work they know that the unknown photographer could not be forgiven for). The work now only has to be a satisfactory
export of creative ideas that satisfies the artist sense of worth, as it will be grabbed feverishly by avid supporters. It could be that some of us are are not sufficiently attuned to the coding and esthetics in the new work. After all, many photographs, do indeed, require some
understanding to the homages and references to previous art that the circle of aficionado really
understands and appreciates.
My role, when I meet such work, especially knowing the command and talent of the photographer, is to ask myself what of it do
I understand and hold my judgement until I learn more. I'm hesitant to assume that because this picture seems to be what someone else would discard, that this photograph has lesser value than the obviously accomplished works of Opie that anyone can easily admire. Of course, always there is the nagging concern that the photographer could have become delusional.
But for now, I'm the one who is learning from the totality of her exceptional body of work.