Phillip Jones Griffiths Interview

Although I have to say thanks to Jörg Colberg of Conscientious for alerting me to the Aperture interview with Philip Jones Griffiths, I find his comment on the piece pretty trivial and a little unpleasant. Whatever Jones Griffiths may say about photography doesn’t make his pictures one tiny bit less great. He would remain one of the greatest photojournalists of the 2oth century – and as well as the slide show in the Aperture Interview you can see more of his work on Magnum, including Vietnam Inc.

Colberg finds him “narrow-minded and outright disappointing (apart from intellectually lacking)”. Looking at what he writes and what Jones Griffiths says, I think that largely means that they come at photography from different perspectives. If Colberg can’t work out what Jones Griffiths was saying – and his comments suggest he didn’t – its a failure on his part .

For me – as I think with Jones Griffiths (certainly my favourite Welsh photographer) – the power of photography as a distinctive medium comes from its curious relation with reality, something that has been explored at great length but not always much light by many. For me it certainly isn’t something limited to photojournalism – and is even more important in much documentary photography, and also in much photography that comes under the rather vague category of fine art. But there are certainly works which although produced with the help of a camera don’t seem to me to be a part of the photographic tradition and that I don’t feel it appropriate to think of as photographs, although I may still appreciate them as art.

4 Responses to “Phillip Jones Griffiths Interview”

  1. halftone says:

    I read Colberg’s name-calling as his response to PJG’s opinionated (but not irrational) assault on ‘fine art photography’s’ detachment from reality. I guess it stung. As a promoter and commentator offering sustenance for ‘fine art’ at Conscientious, I’d have been more impressed to see Colberg at least try to make a case for eye-candy.

    I guess his difficulty is that Griffiths has a coherent world view that is very hard to argue with. It’s empirical, it’s anchored in observation and understanding and it is projected through his work. Colberg is obviously in difficulty here, in wanting to defend a form of photography that studiously avoids saying anything at all. It is marketably meaningless where photojournalism’s critical introspection is disruptive, inconvenient, irritant. And trying to misrepresent that essentially political collision as philosophical relativism is just more fence-sitting vacuity. Like fine art photography it explains nothing, it means nothing, it gets us no nearer any understanding. It’s no response at all.

    Now, what was PJG saying about ’emperor’s new clothes’? QED I think.

  2. Good to hear from you on >Re:PHOTO Tony.

    I often find ‘Conscientious’ annoying because of a lack of judgement in the sites he links too – often more a floundering around cyberspace than any kind of coherent guide. Perhaps the problem is that there really isn’t such an animal as ‘fine art photography’ (except in the very limited sense of making photographic reproductions of works of art.) In the end (and in the beginning too) fine art photography is simply what galleries can flog.

  3. halftone says:

    Hi Peter. I had avoided registering (yet another blog), but this really is a very interesting and long overdue yet recurrent collision. I don’t read PJG’s interview as dogmatic or intolerant at all – ‘by my standards’ surely implies acceptance of other views. But it’s up to the proponents to explain themselves, to take a position and make sense. And as you said, they need to make some effort to understand the problem. I don’t think they even know there is one, they are so embedded in orthodoxy.

    I don’t actually dislike fine art photography and I don’t think PJG does either, though he clearly opposes its substitution and passing-off as a cultural mirror that supercedes photojournalism. There is nothing inherently wrong with pretty pictures or even disturbing ones, there is room for playfulness, conceptual explorations and narcissism. But with photographs context is overwhelmingly important, and that context is our society that measures everything by economic worth.

    I don’t think either the marginalisation of photojournalism, the ‘photojournalism is dead’ proposition, nor the ascent of self-conscious art photography as a marketable form, can be divorced from that. And what determines quality in art is now a market that mimics any speculative futures market, driven by fear and greed. ‘Who is hot’ has little to do with any transcendent quality of the work and far less meaning, it’s about buzz and hype and presentation and plausibility and novelty. And if that search looks arbitrary and confused, it’s because it is anchored to so much else that is not in the photographs themelves. It’s Conscientiously part of butterfly consumerism rather than intent on critiquing it, exploring its flaws and cruelties, the stuff done in our names.

    For sure PJG is a awkward, uncompromising old bugger, and for sure, nowadays neither he nor anyone else would get the access to make an Iraq Inc. One thing you can be sure of though, photojournalists will try, fine artists will not. Someone may well go and do the beautifully lit pallid to-camera blank portraits of hapless Baghdadis in s suitably cool postmodern palette, and we’ll see the 5-foot perfect prints on the gallery walls and they’ll give us a vague discomforting sense of how lucky we are not to be them. But world-changing passion of the PJG sort is inconvenient and an absolutely necessary nutrient for democracy, where eye-candy art is a pleasurable self-indulgence that causes wind.

  4. Actually I didn’t think those prints were anywhere near perfect. I didn’t think they really bore close examination in terms of print quality, and found the one size fits all approach soon palled. I began to feel that the book would have been stronger with very different pictures, perhaps even with automat ID snaps or cameraphone pictures… Or even none at all. But at least it didn’t have silly frames!

    I didn’t mean to dismiss photographs that are called ‘fine art’, rather to suggest it as photographically a non-category. Much photography that I admire gets called ‘fine art.’ There are even some of those Magnum photographers he has little time for whose work I admire, at least at times (hard to think of a photographer who never produces dross, if only to easy to think of some who invariably do.)

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