In the late 1960s and early ’70s, when I studied photography, few schools around the country had departments devoted to it, and courses in its history were rare. You learned that—if you learned it at all—from the photographers who taught you. At Pratt Institute (where I studied after my time at Carnegie Mellon University), my teachers taught the history of the medium fueled by their intense involvement with it, past and present, and their desire for photography to be accepted as art, a battle that had been ongoing from its inception.
During the 1970s, as art photographs became marketable commodities, the landscape changed: Schools all over the country invested in photography programs and it entered the art historical canon. Nonetheless, even today, questions about its validity as art exist. If painting defines art for you, then photography is bound to seem too commercial, too rooted in science, and too mechanical and easy to produce to wear that mantle. And photography does blur the boundaries between fine and applied art; museums have long collected commercial and scientific photographs by W. Eugene Smith, Irving Penn, and Karl Blossfeldt, alongside works by self-identified artists such as Alfred Stieglitz and Paul Strand.
Museums have also collected “vernacular” photographs, made by those who were not considered artists or high-end professionals. Perhaps the best-known vernacular photographer is Eugène Atget, beloved of the Surrealists and famous for his haunting images of Paris in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In Pittsburgh, we have Charles “Teenie” Harris, who photographed from the 1930s to the ’70s for the Pittsburgh Courier, an influential African American newspaper, and whose remarkable retrospective is currently on view at Carnegie Museum of Art. Harris seems not to have considered himself an artist. Like so many others, he was a guy who made a living with a camera.
There are various ways to judge the quality of a photograph: the richness of the print, the rendering of light, the way a subject is captured and composed. Ultimately, though, even in the most abstract work, technique is in the service of content. Over the more than 40 years of his career, Harris photographed his community in a way that is deeply moving, and tells us something about ourselves, the world out of which we come, and—most significant of all—the passage of time. (How could his work not be art? Does the label even matter?)
It’s the business about time that affects me most. I was attracted to photography because of its relationship to history—the career I ultimately chose. It is well established today that photographs can lie, and, by isolating a single moment, they may always skew the truth, yet the medium has had a unique relationship to time past that for me remains extremely emotionally resonant.
Over the last decade, it’s become so easy to take pictures that, in the commercial world, photography has become somewhat de-professionalized. (My daughter, a freelance writer, routinely takes pictures for her own stories.) What does it do to our sense of the real in photographs that anyone can seamlessly alter images—pictures that may never become prints that you can hold in your hands? What are we to think about the 8,000,000,000 images on the internet site Flickr? These are questions that will occupy us well into the future. They don’t belong to Teenie’s world, but he has significant things to tell us about what could be lost and gained as we move forward.
Until next month,