Some time ago, I went to a talk given by Joel Sternfeld at UMass, where some of his Oxbow Archive photography was on display. I thought I’d get to be presented with some insight into that project. As it turned out, Sternfeld decided to go through all his work, including (and focusing on) some very old street photography. Good thing I love street photography so much! Joking aside, at the very end of the talk, Sternfeld had a special surprise for his audience - and who wouldn’t be giddy about getting to see new work by a great photographer? My giddy excitement quickly turned into an “uh-oh” feeling when he pulled out his iPhone and started talking about some trip to Dubai.
Maybe it’s the fact that I have spent too many years dealing with computers (don’t ask), but I’m at a stage now where I don’t get very excited about gizmos any longer. It’s great that there is a telephone that allows you to take photographs and browse the web, but I’d be more excited about a vacuum cleaner that can also clean out cat boxes and fill up cat-food bowls (People of Apple: develop an iCatVac, please - I won’t complain if it doesn’t have a camera, but its surface better not scratch easily!). So I view serious artists embracing the iPhone with a bit of skepticism, especially if the phone itself is presented as a big selling point.
For example, a little while ago, New Yorker magazine made a big fuss about a cover produced on an iPhone. I forgot the name of the artist, maybe in part because the art work reminded me of what you typically get to see at “starving artists sales”.
But sure, you can probably produce great art on an iPhone, because, after all, great art is not made by tools, it’s made by people. You can take incredibly crappy photographs with an 8x10 camera; but in the hands of someone like Sternfeld, an 8x10 camera can - and usually does - produce stellar art.
Of course, I had no idea what he would do with his iPhone, but there was Dubai. At this stage, after having seen so much work being produced in Dubai I frankly don’t see what anyone could possibly find there that we haven’t seen before. I never thought that Dubai was such an interesting photographic topic in the first place: taking photos of rich men shopping in the desert or of fancy buildings - what other message than the incredibly obvious is hidden in there?
We could even eliminate Dubai from this photographic context if we wanted to and ask what we are supposed to take away from photographs that show rich people shopping? Once you start thinking about it, it’s not much, is it? Of course, you can convince yourself of various (also incredibly obvious) ironies, such as, for example, the fact that it’s only those very people shown in the pictures who are usually able to afford the photographs. But for how long does that remain something you need to or want to think about? Well, not much longer than it took you to finish reading this sentence.
Coming back to the artist’s talk, Sternfeld presented his audience with iPhone photos he took in Dubai, photographs that, frankly, made it almost a bit hard to believe they were taken by the same artist who had produced all the other ones presented earlier. And he announced there was going to be a book, called - brace yourselves - iDubai. iDubai? iVey!
Of course, it’s unfair for me to single out this particular book. I frankly would never do it if I did not have various other of Sternfeld’s books on my book shelf, books that I would happily recommend to anyone as American master pieces to look at. And of course, I should just get over the fact that every artist can do whatever s/he wants, and sometimes, the results might just be not so great. That’s a risk any artist takes, which is why it’s unfair for me to write about this. Make no mistake, I do applaud Sternfeld for his willingness to try new things. But part of me also thinks at some stage the artist who produced American Prospects should have taken aside the artist who produced the iPhone photos…
I thought very long and hard about whether to write this post, and in the end I decided to write it because it’s not a rant about a particular book or artist - even though I’m “using” one as an example (that’s the unfair bit). What I’m really doing here is re-iterating, yet again, that the medium is not the message, and if you rely on some overhyped gizmo to produce art, then what matters still is not the gizmo, but whatever it is that is being produced with it. That’s true for a Deardorff 8x10, for a Leica M9, or for an iPhone.
Furthermore, this post is re-iterating something else I wrote earlier, namely that what I’m looking for in art is something that leaves me a different person after being exposed to it, art that asks me questions, that challenges me, instead of presenting me with the obvious.
The obvious bores me.