In the arts, there are few things less misunderstood than the making of straight photography. When a photograph made from real life is successful, it always appears to the viewer as if it were made as the result of a stroke of luck. Maybe luck is something we could entertain if it weren’t for the fact that there are so many photographers out there who consistently “get lucky.”
In February 2010, photographer Paul Graham gave a talk, titled “The Unreasonable Apple” at the first Museum of Modern Art Photography Forum. In it, he articulately untangles misconceptions about straight photography and why they exist. While he focuses mainly on the fine-art world’s rejection of straight photography, he provides language that also expresses what’s so special about straight photography.
Graham begins by explaining that the fine-art world understands “artists who use photography to illustrate their ideas, installations, performances and concepts, who deploy the medium as one of a range of artistic strategies to complete their work,” but misunderstands “photographs taken from the world as it is” as a “collection of random observations and lucky moments, or muddled up with photojournalism, or tarred with a semi-derogatory ‘documentary’ tag.”
This is a strange outcome, he asserts, since the bulk of twentieth-century photography is of this ilk, citing Walker Evans, Diane Arbus, Robert Frank and others as examples of photographers who have accomplished way more than simply “snapping” their environments. Nonetheless, the fine-art world at large puts aside straight photography and instead embraces conceptual photography by the likes of Jeff Wall, Cindy Sherman, Thomas Demand and others.
Why? Because they can actually see these photographers’ toil, and therefore they can easily and concretely explain their process.
The work that straight photography involves, however, flies much farther under the radar. Unlike paintings or sculptures, where the artist’s brushstrokes or chiseling is apparent, the specific talent behind the creation of straight photographs is obscured so much so that any successful image appears like a lucky break. Graham describes the unseen creative act of straight photographers as a “dance with life itself” when they “form the meaningless world into photographs, then form those photographs into a meaningful world.”
While we know how easy it is to take a picture these days, many of us also know how easy it is to take bad or uninteresting pictures. Straight photographers are not only schooled (formally or informally) in picture selection, sequencing and print- or digital file-making, but they are also carefully examining the world we live, and reacting to what they experience. It’s what enables them to be in the midst of the ever-flowing whirlwind of life at the exact right moment , time and time again.
What appears like chance occurrences to most are actually the results of the fanatically sensitive and observant lovers of real life. Using time as their material (albeit intangible), they pluck compelling fractions of seconds from the continuum of life, “measuring and folding,” Graham states, “the cloth of time itself.”