Editing and Art

Thoughts prompted by the fantastic Vivian Maier story and subsequent debate about her place in the photography canon. While much of the discussion has been (deservedly) on the quality of the images being displayed, I’m noticing a much more interesting discussion in the subtext to many of the comments.

The featured comment in this Online Photographer post raises the question of editing, who does it, and what it means to be an artist if you haven’t chosen what you present. The implications of that question involve curation, influence, and the very nature of what Art actually is.

First, some background for anyone not in the photographic world, or any photographers who have been living under a rock. Vivian Maier took photos for herself, no one really knows much about her nor did she exhibit her work. After she died, a guy purchased her negatives and film and started scanning them. He posted the results online and things sort of took off.

Another interesting case like this is that of Charles Cushman whose massive archive of work contains all kinds of color photography from a period which is mostly documented in black and white. Cushman has generally been described as a pioneer or vernacular photographer though some blogs have considered how curation can change our perception of his work.

While it’s not uncommon for an artist to be unknown until he (it’s almost always a he) dies, in general, the work left behind has been self-selected at some level. Artists (heck, all of us) tend to abandon any work before completion if we’re not satisfied with its progress. And any completed work we end up not liking tends to be destroyed or recycled.

Photography is unique among the arts in that discards are both preserved and often indistinguishable from keepers. The print is the final state, but everything is stored as negatives. This also puts photography in the position where it is possible to have multiple edits of a photographer’s work which end up portraying the photographer in completely different ways.

As we discover huge troves of photographic images, the question of editing will only become more important. I’d love to see a photographic exhibition where multiple curators (and not just art curators) are let loose on a collection like Cushman’s or Maier’s and we can see how different the results are.

So to the big questions.  Does the fact that someone else can edit your body of work to make you look like an artist actually make you an artist? How much of being an artist means editing your own work? I’m inclined to say that it doesn’t matter who the editor is, just that it’s not art until someone has actually edited it. While Sturgeon’s Law reigns supreme, I believe it’s up to us to define what the 90% consists of.

I’m most annoyed as an art appreciator when an artist has become so famous that just authorship matters and we stop editing the art itself—just because a famous artist made something does not make it either art or good. Likewise, finding out a “priceless” famous-named artwork is in fact not by the famous name does not make that piece inherently bad. And don’t get me started on the value question, that’s a whole different post.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at njwv.wordpress.com, and the web at vossbrink.net

23 thoughts on “Editing and Art”

  1. Great post. I couldn’t agree more with the points about how worth is assigned (and removed) based on authorship rather than the merits of the work itself.

  2. Pingback: Value | n j w v
  3. In the last 6 months I went to see Winogrand and “Only in England” (Tony Ray-Jones & Martin Parr). Both exhibits featured images that were selected and printed after the photographer’s death. In the case of Ray-Jones, it was Parr who selected and (oversaw?) printed.

    I was going to say that these were the weakest images. But that’s not exactly true. I have no formal training, and in both cases it was the first time that I saw I’d seen prints of the photographer’s work. However, I found that I knew which ones were posthumous before reading the blurb.

    Some were strong, some weak, but they all seemed different.

    To be perfectly honest, in each show there were a couple posthumous shots that I thought were “originals”, but there were none that had been shot, selected and printed by the artist that caused me to think “that’s posthumous”.

    1. I’ve only seen Winogrand so I can only comment there. Two questions.

      1. When you talk about posthumous selection/printing, are you also talking about the ones from his earlier work and not just the thousands of unprocessed rolls?

      2. How much of the posthumous stuff was apparent due to being set in Los Angeles as opposed to New York?

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