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Photography & media

Photographic explorations

— May 2011

Article read level: Art lover

Associated media

Cover of Photography as Fiction by Erin C. Garcia

New books from the J. Paul Getty Museum

Various authors

Everything from photographs of fairies to images of decaying fruit, from fine art to advertising; featuring the work of photographers from Japan, America and Europe, from the obscure to the famous, and as varied as Man Ray, Lewis Carroll and Andy Warhol – these three books really have something for everyone.

These three small-format publications are aimed at the general reader, providing an interesting selection of images examining photography as an art form (nothing here about photography as journalism, and little in the way of technical information). Their small size, together with their attractive but unsophisticated format, means they aren’t pretending to be small versions of ‘coffee-table’ presentation books. They just get on with the job of providing the reader with thoughtful information and well-selected images, each prefaced by a short introductory essay summarising the subject.

All the photographs belong to the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, an institution better known for its paintings – indeed, these books are intended to bring the photographic collection to greater notice. They cover developments from photography’s earliest days right up to the present, showing how the medium both mimicked art, and became an art form in itself. The viewpoint is global and some of the photographers (especially those from Japan) are little known to the general public in Europe.

Erin C. Garcia’s Photography as Fiction starts by discussing what is nowadays blindingly obvious to everyone: the fact that photographs have always been a medium for fiction. It’s quite a recent awareness. In the early days, the viewers’ gullibility was matched by the photographers’ inventiveness, with images of fairies, or portraits of people apparently set in fictional distant lands. Garcia has selected examples that demonstrate just how wide-ranging the fiction of early ‘art’ photographs could be, and how the tradition continues today. There are well-known names such as Roger Fenton, Lewis Carroll, Man Ray and Andy Warhol, together with the less familiar, and she draws her images from the across the world of fine art, advertising, film, and television.

Paul Martineau’s introduction to Still Life in Photography is the most thoughtful essay of the trio, and the most concerned with the aesthetics of photography. Still life has always been the easiest photographic form to use as an artistic form for the obvious reason that it stays still. Rather more interestingly, many contemporary artists deliberately work in the styles of the past (both artistic and photographic), achieving an atmosphere of timelessness and avoiding the visual and mental clutter of high-tech images. Irving Penn, for example, takes a colour photograph of Wormy Apples (1985), which shows absolutely nothing but apples, and we concentrate on the amazing richness of the colours, and the life, decay and death of the fruit. And Laura Letinsky, in her Untitled #43, 2001, shows us a cloth-covered table with the remnants of a meal pushed to its edge, conveying a haunting sense of absence, the viewer left to imagine the immediate past. 

These two books are written by assistant curators at the Getty, but the author of the third book,The Tree in Photographs, is Françoise Reynaud, curator of photographs at the Musée Carnavalet in Paris. I found her selection of images the most interesting, perhaps because the focus on a single subject seems to conjure up more ingenuity from the photographer and more concentration from the viewer. All the big names are here, from William Henry Fox Talbot and Ansel Adams to Alfred Stieglitz and William Eggleston, plus many less well known. The images are arranged thematically rather than chronologically, and most of them are monochrome. We see trees performing many functions for the photographer: symbols of life and death, of time and history, of sadness, of human exploitation and destruction, of hope for the future.  And as purely aesthetic objects, creating shadows and patterns that can seem eerily human.

Photography as Fiction by Erin C. Garcia is published by J. Paul Getty Museum  2011.  112 pp., 82 colour illus. ISBN  978-1606060315

Still Life in Photography by Paul Martineau is published by J. Paul Getty Museum 2010112 pp., 94 colour illus. ISBN  978-1606060339

The Tree in Photographs by Françoise Reynaud is published by J. Paul Getty Museum 2011.  112 pp. 90 colour illus. ISBN  978-1606060322





Patricia Andrew
Art historian

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