Monday, 17 March 2008

The Boy with the Club Foot

Do images that portray the poor, the crippled, the insane exploit their subjects. Are the cliches of photojournalism inherently exploitative in their depiction of war, pestilence, famine and death, is it an obscenity that Luc Delahaye's dead Taliban is sold as an art print, are Salgado and Nachtwey and Magnum and VII and all the others mere peddlers of a neo-colonialist exoticisation of poverty and death, and then what about Goldberg, Clark and Mikhailov and diCorcia? Is the White Cube or the walls of a wealthy collector a suitable place for an artwork or should we seek to democratize our art by showing it in of public space.


Or are these just questions that have been raked over so much, we should just ignore them. Questions that are old, really old questions, really, really old questions - at least 400 years old, according to Tom Lubbock who in the Independent last Friday described how...

"...the Neapolitan artist Salvator Rosa wrote a satirical poem about painting. He aimed his scorn especially at those who painted pictures of beggars, and those who then bought them.

Such paintings demonstrated for Rosa the glaring gap between wealth and misery, and between taste and morality.




"These pictures are so much appreciated

That you see them in the homes of the powerful

In superbly ornamented frames,

While real life beggars, wretched and naked,

Don't get a penny from the people..."


Who will pay thousands for paintings of them..." He concluded, "Quel che aboriscon vivo, aman dipinto" ("What they abhor in life, they love to see in pictures").


The Boy with the Club Foot by Jusepe de Ribera

4 comments:

Stan B. said...

Yup, it's an old question alright- and one that needs to be continually revisited and reexamined. Obviously, a lot has to do with intent and usage. Was it created and used in an informative, beneficial- or exploitative manner? Individual works and actions can sometimes raise suspicion, rightfully so, but over the long haul a person's true colors are much easier to assess.

Suppose it's slightly off topic, but I'm reminded of two anecdotes: I forget who said, "When I fed the poor they called me a saint. When I asked why the poor had no food, they called me a communist."

And then there's the Johnny Carson joke where he asks a woman if she would make love to him for a million dollars, and she replies that she'd do it in a heartbeat. When he asks her if she'd do it for five dollars, she replies quite indignantly, "Who do you think I am?" "Well, we've already established that, we're just quibbling about price."

colin pantall said...

I don't know, Stan - I'm not sure it is that interesting a question and I think we are selective and arbitrary in how we apply it as well. Boris Mikhailov, Richard Billingham, Philip Lorca diCorcia - they could all be classified as exploitative, but seem to be excused because their work is so great.


And I think that's right - we overestimate the importance of photography and waste our time being critical of it when we aren't so choosy about enforcing the same levels of criticism on areas where exploitation really does occur - labour, industry, property etc etc.

Now photography as propaganda - that's worth arguing about!

Stan B. said...

Colin, don't think we're really all that much at odds here. I think Everything should be scrutinized, always. And exceptions made, whenever and wherever necessary.

PS- I think that last part is the hard part.

colin pantall said...

Absolutely, Stan, but I think the tendency to cast blame onto photographers for the situations they photograph in is peculiar, as is the equally potent and flawed idea of the photographer as messiah.

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