The Idea is Everything: Thoughts on Justine Varga's Maternal Line / by Neal Auch

Justine Varga and judge Dr Shaune Lakin standing by her award winning piece Maternal Line.

Justine Varga and judge Dr Shaune Lakin standing by her award winning piece Maternal Line.

The 2017 Olive Cotton Award -- which I gather is some kind of prestigious photo contest in Australia -- was recently awarded to artist Justine Varga for her wonderful work Maternal Line.  (Go here for an article on petapixel.)  In her artist statement Varga explains the piece as follows:

One day, not so long ago, I came upon my maternal grandmother hunched over a table, vigorously testing a series of pens by scribbling with each of them in turn on a piece of paper. Captivated by this busy repetition of gestures, so reminiscent of her character, I asked her to continue her task, but on a piece of 4 x 5 inch negative film. Having left these traces of her hand on this light-sensitive surface, she also, at my request, rubbed some of her saliva on the film, doubling her bodily inscription there. I then processed the film and printed it at large scale. A collaboration across generations, with her born in Hungary and me in Australia, the resulting image looks abstract but couldn’t be more realist; no perspectival artifice mediates her portrayal of herself or our genetic link, with both now manifested in the form of a photograph.

I wanted to talk about this work, and the ensuing controversy, because it speaks to a point I have made somewhat tangentially several times before on this blog: the idea is everything.  Varga's beautifully written artist statement is what elevates Maternal Line from a bunch of scribbles to a thought-provoking and moving piece of art.  It's the idea that makes this a portrait, which is something the judge understood and wisely rewarded.  (It's worth mentioning that the contest came with a $20,000 prize.  So congrats on the prize and the lovely work Justine!)   I have said it before but I'll repeat myself here: regular people who view photography want to see images that speak to them, that are about something, that strike an emotional chord.  The viewer doesn't care about the technical stuff at all, insofar as that stuff doesn't interfere with the meaning of the image.  That stuff only matters to gear-obsessed pro photography nerds.  This truth seems well understood by artists working in other mediums (film, painting, sculpture, music, etc) but somehow the point is utterly lost on a large and vocal segment of the photography community.

In a turn as predictable as it is depressing, certain "pro photog" denizens of the interwebs have taken great exception to Varga's award and have been sending hate mail, both to her and to the judge who selected the piece (Dr Shaune Lakin).  It seems that, in some eyes at least, Varga's work has committed the cardinal sin of photography: this photograph was produce without even using a camera!  However are we to then proceed to critique her choice of lighting modifier!?  However are we to have long protracted debates in the comment section weighing the pros and cons of digital vs analogue!?  Dear god won't somebody please talk about ISO noise, preferably with charts and graphs!?

Of course, complaining that Maternal Line isn't really a photograph completely misses the point.  The piece is about questioning the meaning of what constitutes a photograph.  The fact that folks are arguing in comment sections about whether or not this is technically a portrait speaks to how successful Maternal Line is as an art piece; fuelling this kind of self-reflection and intellectual debate is certainly no cause for criticism.  Note also that the fact that Varga has chosen her grandmother as a subject is telling, since the piece is about not only her own genetic blood line, but also about the artistic lineage and the history of photography that has led up to this work.

At the heart of this "controversy" is the tedious debate about whether photography is an art or a craft.  I've always been baffled by the animus certain "pro photog" types have toward the idea that we're artists.  These same narrow minded folks tend to take great exception to art, like Varga's work, that seeks to push the boundaries of the medium.  It seems to me that this is precisely the kind of exercise artists like us should be engaged in.  Do painters have this kind of argument?  After all, painting is also a technically demanding task that requires a considerable amount of skill and craft, but I'm unaware of any painters who scoff at the idea of making paintings that are about something, or that speak to the human condition.  Perhaps design would be a better analogy, since there is an explicitly practical aim in mind when one creates an iPod or a wine glass or a sports car?  But, rather often, those kinds of utilitarian objects have a certain beauty in their form that is hardly accidental.  Indeed, I know several designers and none of them seems perturbed by recognizing the artistic component of what they do.  

It seems to me completely trivial and without question that photography is art.  Of course it's art, anything can be art.  Art is about intentions and ideas and creativity, it's not about the medium and it's not about the technical stuff.  Getting angry in internet forums and sending hate mail to talented and successful artists won't change that fact.