Vale Robert Hughes.
Hughes was an Australian Art Critic and Historian of superb clarity and breadth of knowledge
Unlike commentators today who seem to think criticism is either a post-modern art form or impolite or both, Hughes wasn’t impressed by bullshit. He said of a wealthy collectors taste and in front of Damien Hirst’s Sculpture “The Virgin Mother”, “Isn’t it a miracle what so much money and so little ability can produce?”
I always enjoyed his writing as it seemed that every sentence contained a concept and sub-text that led you to further understanding the art being discussed. It wasn’t the turgid, self referential gobbledygook that the arts drown in today.
Take this passage from his wonderful book of Australia’s history “The Fatal Shore”…
Or this from “The Shock of the New”….
Some say he was cruel, I think he was just bluntly honest and saw art as being too worthwhile, too important, a human activity to bother mincing his words on what he saw as inferior art, “…. otherwise you turn out to be a sort of Pollyanna who wanders the world thinking every sprig of clover is a rose”.
Asked once about being a critic he said, “I’m just the piano player in the whorehouse of art”. And about his so-called elitism, “…I just have a preference for well made things to badly made things and articulate speech to mumbling”.
Which brings me to a television program that’s been running here for a few weeks on ABC called “Photo Finish”.
Each week a presenter, a photographer (professional and with a different skill set each week) and a gallery curator select three amateur “togs”, give them some gear (some very good gear, advertising for Canon) and let them loose on a specific topic with the goal of producing one uncropped (with minimal photoshop) print at the end of a set time limit, one of which is judged by the panel to be the winner.
Apart from one wag saying it was “Masterchef with a UV filter” and a photographer whose work I admire very much, Judith Crispin ( http://www.flickr.com/photos/hsien-ku/ ) commenting to me on FB “…it’s amateurism at its worst”, there has or seems to have been no comment/criticism about this program.
Well, last night the topic for the shows contestants was performance photography and by the time the program had limped to its end, I angrily looked at a newspaper that had three well written obituaries on Robert Hughes and thought, “Why have photographers not commented? Surely, they can’t be all that impressed?” I thought, “Hughes would be excoriating about this show.”
So here goes.
The idea of three amateurs going off to shoot within a time constraint and a specific brief, as a pro does, is a good one often showing how difficult it can be to “bring home the bacon”. Apart from the high–end Canon gear mentioned, there have been plastic cameras, phone cameras and medium format. What seems to be missing is a level of instruction (as many contestants say, “I’ve never used gear like this before”) that allows them a degree of confidence that they are getting their shots without worrying about the camera’s functions. In one episode they were set to do portraits with studio light: perhaps the camera’s were pre-set and light readings had been taken earlier but as presented, it must have been gut churning to cope with a medium format and studio lights whilst having half an hour to grab a portrait of a well known celebrity. I’d be packin’-me-daks!
The contestants are literally confronted with the judges who almost scream the instructions and the woman curator hardly smiles but frowns her advice whilst seemingly knowing that these people can’t ever produce art that she would like.
The noise levels in this opening sequence are like being in an Australian restaurant, so excitedly high, that you can’t hear someone talk only a metre away.
One contestant was sent to a ballet dress rehearsal and said as her jaw dropped, “There’s so much going on, where do I focus”? But she got into it and enjoyed the challenge but later saying “I think I’ve got the money-shot” was probably not the most appropriate phrase for ballet.
Another, at a dance / acting performance spent more time looking in the back of his camera and moving around so much it was like he was attacking the subject, trying to dominate it rather than letting it evolve and unfold toward him.
The comment “The actors really performed well for me” has that terrifying contemporary ring of “Mia Primo” of being more important than the thing you’re recording or the people performing.
A constant in performance photography is: 1/ The lighting is set for you: 2/ The costumes are provided too: 3/ The movements are directed or choreographed.
In other words, you don’t get to alter that; you just get to select appropriately.
Some of the judges comments then, were flabbergastingly silly: “You’ve played with the shadows really well” “The lighting, you’ve done so well”(see No.1) or “Pity you didn’t move his hand” (see No.3) or “That detail in the costume helps”(see No.2) and “You’ve captured the cleverness of the performers”, shows either a level of disrespect toward performers or a complete lack of appreciation or misunderstanding of what performers do…. another Mia Primo moment.
This series could have been really good but to me it seems cobbled together: somehow it’s too smart by half.