Monday, 7 February 2011

A conversation with John Gossage

Join the legendary John Gossage and Curator of photography at the Smithsonian American Art Museum Toby Jurovics for a conversation about The Pond and its role in the history of American landscape photography.

Introducing the work, Toby notes: "They are not easy photographs to understand, nor is the subject matter equally likeable." What is then that makes Gossage such a great photographer? Gerry Badger seems to have the answer(s). Here is an extract from the chapter called A Certain Sensibility: John Gossage, The Photographer as Auteur in his brilliant book The Pleasures of Good Photographs (Aperture, 2010):

"What makes a very good, or a great photographer? Is it the steady accumulation of stunning single images, in the manner of a painter, the standout pictures that catch the eye in an art gallery and immediately attract the imitators, perhaps forming the beginnings of a school? The painterly photographers, or the photographic painters, if you will, like Andreas Gursky or Jeff Wall, would seem to think so, although this is not to say that their particular ouevres are simply disconnected successions of highlights without an overaching meaning, an accusation one might certainly fling at the less-gifted followers of this tendency.

Is the great photographer characterised by style? There is a presumption, with the recent art market interest in the medium, that photographers who are artists rather than mere photographers distinguish themselves as such by exhibiting a marked style. Therefore there is a tendency, encouraged by the work of the Bechers and the Dusseldorf School, to progressively distill one´s vision, reducing the range of subject matter and its treatment until it can be claimed - usually by the gallerist - that so-and-so has developed an original and instantly recognisable style. Style equals branding, and branding means sales, so we get the fairly common phenomenon of the photographer who hits upon one extraordinary image and then repeats it, with minor variations, for the rest of his or her career. In short, the Mark Rothko´s of photography.

Or are the really great photographers drawn from the ranks of those who reject visual style in favour of a visual sensibility, those who recognise that the medium is profligate rather than reductive, and more akin to the film or the novel than the painting? Those accordingly, who tend to put content before form.

Of course, there are no rules for creating great photographers. Great artists, great photographers, reach such a pinnacle because they do not follow the norm. They break rules. They follow their instincts and convictions, not the herd and the smart money. But in my view at least, the best photographers tend to come from the last category, those whose style and individuality emanates from deep within them, and is not, as is the case I feel with all too many, something grafted on from outside."