Point, Shoot, Art!
By Rachel Jena
Three simultaneous photography exhibitions this month, but when do photographs become art? Rachel Jena has a go at answering
March is unofficial photography month in Kuala Lumpur with three key art institutions – Galeri Petronas, Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia (IAMM), and Valentine Willie Fine Art (VWFA) – hosting photography exhibitions. But with digital cameras and phone cameras commanding our lives today, the following question remains: when does photography become art and what exactly causes its change in status from mere document to art object?
There are many arty answers, but I’ll keep it simple.
Put me in a white cube
Often, it simply takes an institution – such as an art gallery - to verify its status. Or, sometimes the media comes into play. Famous examples include Dorothea Lange’s black and white photographs taken during the Great Depression. They were initially documents for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in the USA, but were highlighted in the media, introducing a wide audience to the plight of Lange’s subjects. From mere documents, they became iconic images and have fully been inducted into the hall of fame of twentieth-century photography.
‘A Common Faith: Steve McCurry’s Travels through the Muslim World’ (until Apr 8) at the IAMM gives us photographs of similar vein. McCurry’s infamous portrait of Sharbat Gula – often referred to as ‘The Afghan Girl’ – is on display here in Kuala Lumpur, though it first appeared on the cover of the National Geographic Magazine in June 1985. Accompanying her are images McCurry has captured in other countries, including one taken here during the 1992 Merdeka Day parade.
The charm lies in McCurry’s choice of freezing moments that may not exist in the coming decades, such as an image of a fellow portrait photographer in Afghanistan (who uses an antique camera), or, breakfast trays being passed between carriages of a moving train in India.
McCurry’s photographs speak volumes about our world and you may argue that it doesn’t take an institutional nod to promote these stunning Kodachrome photographs to art. However, it’s undeniable that the status of a photograph as an art object intensifies with its display in an institution of high repute.
This helps to explain the Global Tour of the Sony World Photography Awards (until Mar 28). It’s an exhibition of winning entries from the 2009 installment of the Sony World Photography Awards. 75 images line the walls of Galeri Petronas and genres run the gamut from sport to nature, fashion to current affairs.
The competition attracted over 84,000 entries this year via their official website (www.worldphotographyawards.org) and the Global Tour offers its winners – both professionals and amateurs – the opportunity to have their works seen by a global audience. KL is the tour’s penultimate stop. It’s already visited seven cities and will end its run in Berlin.
I asked the Global Tour’s Manager, Cecily Breese, when exactly photography becomes art and she said, ‘Photography by definition is art because the photographer has put himself in the moment and found beauty and reason in that moment to capture it. I don’t think the genre dictates it. The lines are very blurred these days.’
I agree that definitions today are loose. At Galeri Petronas, you’ll see photographs of the Georgian conflict by Polish-photographer, Wojciech Grzedzinski. It looks like a black and white film still and shares the space with carefully-constructed images of presents (dead animals) that Tamany Baker’s cat, Wolfie, has brought her and the polished Belle du Jour, a winning fashion shot by Christo Sankulov. And ultimately, all – different as they are - qualify as art.
‘Please stand there and don’t move’
Photography’s ubiquity makes it a challenge to pigeonhole the medium, but we can still rely on a very simple deduction: photography becomes art when visual artists choose to use it over other mediums as conduits for their practice. It sounds overly simplistic, but it’s justifiable as the medium allows for a range of possibilities, and, digital advancements magnify creative odds.
The constructed images at VWFA’s annual photography exhibition, ‘CUT2010: Parallel Universes’ (until March 27) are great examples of art photography, where compositions are often manipulated or staged.
Wimo Bayang’s images of various groups (old women, body-builders, and robots) toting plastic guns are fun, as are Sara Nuytemans and Arya Pandjalu’s playful series of images featuring four grey-clad men that wear cardboard building models on their heads at different locations.
Other artists featured in CUT2010 are Eiffel Chong and Shooshie Sulaiman (both Malaysians), Mintio (Singapore), Zhao Renhui/The Institute of Critical Zoologists (Singapore), Michael Shaowanasai (Thailand), Tanapol Kaewpring (Thailand), Frankie Callaghan (Philippines), Wawi Navarroza (Philippines), and Agan Harahap (Indonesia).
I’ve always felt photographs are capable of stirring a stronger set of emotions than other artistic mediums because we are always on the look for close encounters and similar experiences to relate to. The accuracy of the photography allows us to do so, no matter how dissimilar the subject, distant the land, or distorted the compositions are.
So, when does photography become art? I suspect you’ll find some answers of your own at the three exhibitions. This month’s photographic pilgrimage is not to be missed.
A Common Faith: Steve McCurry’s Travels through the Muslim World Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia, Jalan Lembah Perdana, KL (03 2274 2020/www.iamm.org.my).
CUT2010: Parallel Universes Valentine Willie Fine Art 1st Floor, 17 Jalan Telawi 3, Bangsar. (03 2284 2348/www.vwfa.net).
Global Tour of the Sony World Photography Awards Galeri Petronas, Level 3, Suria KLCC, PETRONAS Twin Towers, KL. (03 2051 7770/www.galeripetronas.com.my)