Sewell on Photography

When the photographer pretends that he is an artist, he is a trespasser.”

Brian Sewell is one of the few reasons for ever reading the London Evening Standard, which I often get to flick through on the train coming back from London.  Sewell is a critic whose views are always interesting to read, even when one disagrees violently with him – as I often do. But his review Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present, National Gallery, WC2 I think often hits the nail straight and firm on the subject of photography and its relations with the art establishment.

Sewell recognises the true power of photography as a recording medium as well as the triviality of using it to ape the output of painters with none of the richness of the surface. Photography went down this blind alley in the nineteenth century with the work, splendid though in some ways it was of HP Robinson and a few others, went down it again with the gums and splodges at the end of the century and the beginning of the twentieth century.

Of course some of the results of this seduction are of interest, and I would be rather less dismissive overall than Sewell of the actual work on show. Given the talent of some of the photographers involved in the National Gallery show, there are works of interest as photographs, and there is nothing inherently wrong in photographers taking some inspiration from the old masters which Sewell regards as rape and sees photographers as trespassing on art.

There are works here which I think transcend the somewhat ridiculous concept of the show. A good photograph is still a good photograph for all that.

He is right to condemn the approach that merely seeks to imitate – just as he condemns at the gallery next door “ghastly portraits based on photographs (that) are jubilantly exhibited as art.” The National Portrait Gallery should also be condemned for collecting and exhibiting rather a lot of ghastly photographs, most ghastly because they are based on ideas from painting. But the best of the photographers here are using the earlier works as references but very much developing them in their own way, much as other artists have always done over the years.

Perhaps the real problem lies with the idea of ‘fine art photography’ which would beeter have been kept reserved for the tricky task of making images for the reproduction of art works.  Sewell might label ‘fine art photography’ an oxymoron, and I’m certainly more interested in ‘fine photography photography’.

For me, the photography that is interesting isn’t worried about being art or not, and little of it stands much chance of being exhibited in the National Gallery.  There is I  think a great deal more to photography than Sewell is prepared to acknowledge, and if we had a leading gallery in London devoted to photography in the same way that, for example, the Maison européenne de la Photographie is in Paris he might have by now been educated into a slightly different view. But while our major photography gallery dedicates itself to chasing after art and presenting the medium in such an apologetic manner his views are hardly surprising.

Sewell’s review does indeed contain some interesting comments on photographers whose work he admires, including Lewis Morley – of whom he comments (all but forgotten?) – but that much despised NPG does have around 300 portraits by him.

I find it hard to disagree with Sewell’s overall view of the show, though I think I would find some work of interest despite dismissing the overall concept, and certainly lack the wit and incisiveness of his review, as well as the elitist disdain that he either believes or effects. There are times when I’m sure he takes a wicked delight in self-parody and he does it so well. Don’t miss it.

Thanks to EPUK News who shared the link to this review by Sewell which I might otherwise have missed on their Facebook page.

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