The Painterly Photograph

“There are two distinct roads in photography,” according to an early writer Charles
Caffin: “The utilitarian and the aesthetic: the goal of one being a record of facts, and the other an expression of beauty.” Caffin thought that photography as a fine art (the title of his book) “will record facts but not as facts,” and he doubtless had in mind the model of Pictorialism—taking pictures which looked as much as possible like tonalist paintings such as those of Innes and perhaps Whistler. Mapplethorpe’s X portfolio images are fusions of the pornographic picture and the kind of photographic elegance he found in Steichen and the Photo Secessionist camera work, which he admired in the exhibition The Painterly Photograph, organized by his friend John McKendrie, at the Metropolitan Museum in 1973. Before that, he could not see how photography could be an art, perhaps thinking that photography was essentially documentary, to use Caffin’s term. His new aim, as he put it, was to “play with the edge” between art and pornography. It takes a certain suspension of moralist attitude to see a Polaroid, which Mapplethorpe devoted to his own engorged penis, held erect like a blunt club by means of a leather loop around his testicles, in the same aesthetic terms as the Photo-Secessionist masterpieces in The Painterly Photograph, say Steichen’s exquisite Flatiron Building. But that was the paradox of his achievement—to show that one can sometimes barely stand to look at a photograph so beautiful one can hardly take one’s eyes off them. He was as obsessed with beauty as he was with his special approach to sex, and his aim throughout was to fuse these disparate obsessions.

The age of photography was not to begin for half a century after Kant wrote his text on aesthetics. Its inventor, Fox Talbot, because of his acknowledged deficiencies as a draftsman, sought a way in which Nature would transcribe itself, without the mediation of an artist: the photographic camera was, in his words, “Nature’s Pencil.” The camera was built upon Renaissance principles, which is why, until the invention of digitization, photographs performed forensic roles. The camera was like an eye-witness. So if one aimed at beautification, one was obliged to beautify the object of the photograph, and then record that, which Mapplethorpe did in part with lights and shadows. Thus the theory of pictorial transparency survives.

This cannot, however, have been the whole story not even for Kant who recognized that art was capable of representing as beautiful even the most paradigmatically ugly things. So the picture must somehow contribute to its beauty, since such motifs have none.

Arthur Danto, The Abuse of Beauty 82-83

Wagstaff and Mapplethorpe’s ebullient discovery that photographs can be beautiful and collectable is contingent on the shock of recognition of beauty in unlikely places, and the culture of rarity. This seems to me to have been a wrong turn, a cultural vermiform appendix— a vestigal organ apart from the progress of signification that so many other workers have more successfully explored.

Beauty (rather than pleasure), in Danto’s retelling of the encounter of The Painterly Photograph experienced by Mapplethorpe (and Wagstaff) is central. I think this is simply distracting, because it leads away from the experience of photographs as facts. Facts, rather than photographs, seem to me to essentially beautiful. Artifacts are rendered precious by scarcity Facts are simply glorious no matter how common—when they are apprehended and understood. Understanding, when experienced, need not be motivated by ironic tricks. There is pleasure in knowing something one hasn’t known before—this aspect seems far more generalizable to me.

I prefer Wagstaff’s account, though I have mixed feelings about his adoption of an aesthetic of rarity. I think photography’s aesthetic response is often triggered something else entirely—a recognition of fact. What I really appreciate most, though, is his reaction to photographs that “ape” art when ultimately photographs are so much more than that.