A great photograph has the ability to evoke a timeless personal connection, to steal a frame of life and hold it eternally still. Photographic artists aim to render feelings and experiences that often escape the capacity of words to describe them, using a medium which many carry in their pockets. This medium requires the art of observation, where photographers connect and respond to varying landscapes and forms. In a time of Instagram filters and ‘selfies’, photography has exploded into modern culture, as technology allows any phone-equipped pedestrian to create ‘art’. This increased prevalence may also be responsible for the increasing acceptance of photography as an artistic medium. As its accessibility widens, it seems the distinction between humble photos and ‘photographic artworks’ narrows. In this age of instant photographic sharing and digital manipulation, how does photographic art stand against the traditional art mediums? More importantly, when does a photographic image become art?
In its beginnings, as the camera obscura, photography functioned as a supplementary tool of the artist. Its primary use was as a form of documentation; proof of the existence of reality at a particular instant. Historically, photography has been criticised by those who saw it as a danger to other fine art mediums, deemed a refuge for failed traditional artists. In an age of digital manipulation and instantaneous social network capabilities, photography has become a record of personal interest and perhaps the dominant contemporary medium. This accessibility and global visual connection has produced a generation which sees photography as an aspect of identity, an extension of moments and experiences. A quick scroll through any iPhone photo album reveals a collection of family photos, loved pets, memorable cuisines and sunsets. These visual anecdotes present totally unremarkable every day subjects. They may well never grace the halls of an art exhibition, but still remain as a vital documentation of existence. In an era when photography has become an inseparable part of our lives, and accessible to all, photography has arguably become a torrent of clichés.
Great photography can isolate truth, exposing many realities of our time. True photographic art may entertain, delight or disturb, but most of all, it provokes discussion and imparts to the viewer an enduring message from the artist. We seldom understand the extent to which photography has influenced our culture, spreading awareness of other cultures in a form of creative modern globalisation. As photography becomes more democratic and essential to everyday life, it becomes a significant format of visual communication. The growing exposure of photographic works in our everyday lives has also seen a growth in photographic works in public exhibitions. To be considered art a piece must engage the viewer’s mind as well as their eye—to be enduring the image must be able to provoke discussion and opinion.
The works of Queensland photographic artist Carl Warner represent the power and potential of photography in the mainstream of contemporary art. Warner has photographed industrial landscapes, combining these images with nature. Like an iPhone photo album, he too presents totally unremarkable every day subjects, but his works are structured and painterly in their preoccupation with urban and natural surfaces. Warner’s approach of inspiring awareness through visual images breathes fresh life into the clichéd world of still life photography. His art is underpinned by powerful ideas and narratives, allowing the viewer to receive his works as abstract forms. Warner’s works often appear in series, developing a cumulative strength through the repetition of synthetic and natural forms. These strategies also display the duration of time and change, where harsh industrial surfaces are contrasted with subdued natural beauty.
In an interview, Warner had this to say about his work:
My work considers the role of visual perception in how we make sense of the world around us, and how photo-media in particular plays off concrete reality against surface illusion. It intends to amplify the creative process in translating visual sense data into mental concepts, or, how mental concepts precede and shape our ways of seeing. It questions ways of seeing by reflecting them.1
Artists such as Warner display the rare combination of refined and masterful photographic skills with extensive compositional confidence. These technical and artistic uses of the camera are complemented with his strong personal aesthetic and understanding of visual perception. Warner is a disciplined artist who captures scenes of seemingly unworthy subjects and surfaces to create images that hold strong similarity to refined and layered abstract paintings. Warner captures what others would consider to be bland, constructed environments, but utilises his artistic and technical capacities to give new meaning and beauty to these unsuspecting subjects. This shift from a less meaningful image to one of abstract imagination is what, in many cases, makes a photograph a work of art.
Carl Warner, The Surface 22, 2004. C-type photograph, 60 x 60cm. Edition of 6. Courtesy of the artist and Jan Menton Art.
Carl Warner, The Surface 72, 2004. C-type photograph, 60 x 60cm. Edition of 6. Courtesy of the artist and Jan Menton Art.
[Its] accessibility and global visual connection has produced a generation which sees photography as an aspect of identity, an extension of moments and experiences.
1. Marsh, A., Carl Warner, 2006. Retrieved 5 October 2013 from http://www.australianphotographers.org/artists/carl-warner