Specializing or diversifying?

IMG_6561
Pikkutylli (c) Frans Mäyrä, 24/5/2020.

Having more ambition in photography often translates into developing some specializations: becoming expert in some topic, developing a unique and personal style. On the other hand, if there are no professional ambitions or pressures in one’s photography hobby, one can just continue diversifying: having fun in creative experimentation and testing one’s hand and eye in multiple different topics and styles.

2020-05-20 19.53.08
My photobook experiment, Spring 2020.

While the latter path can have a certain vague and drifting effect on one’s photography, there are also the positives: total creative freedom, constant possibility for new directions, and the sense of discovery.

IMG_5913
Tiny spider (macro photograph, (c) Frans Mäyrä, 9/5/2020)

My own experiments during the past month alone have included some insect and macro photography, testing the design and curation for a hardback photobook of my own, bird photography, black and white landscapes and nature photos. And it has been definitely fun, and this free-roaming style of hobby has also the benefit of being easy to adapt within changing conditions, such as the pandemic restrictions of this Spring.

IMG_2156
Winter plant telephoto (c) Frans Mäyrä, 26/2/2020.

Art of Photography: Vivian Maier/Ted Forbes

One of the vloggers that I regularly follow is Ted Forbes, the creator of “The Art of Photography” Youtube channel. He is a welcome alternative among all nerdy, pixel-peeping camera and lens technology focused voices there, as he actually is discussing photography as an art form.

One of Ted’a videos that I watched during this weekend was discussing Vivian Maier. This was originally published already six years ago, in March 2014, but remains interesting for reasons relating to Maier, Forbes, and to several questions of photography and as art more generally.

While listening to Ted talk about Vivian Maier’s work, it soon becomes clear that he is in a way struggling here – trying to be polite and repeatedly acknowledge the skill and significance of this self-educated, amateur photographer’s work, while also suggesting that there are reasons why he does not place Maier particularly high in his canon of great photography artists. These fundamental and underlying reasons are nowhere very explitly stated aloud in this video, though.

My interpretation is that there are two main reasons behind the hesitation of Ted Forbes – and probably many other art professionals who have somewhat similar backgrounds as Ted has. As listed in his short online cv, Ted Forbes has been educated in the Booker T Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts and the University of North Texas, and he has also spent several years as a professor at Brookhaven College, and as the Head of Digital Media at the Dallas Museum of Art, among other things. His perspective is thus not only coming from a photography aficionado, but one who has been educated in the history and practice of the arts, and who has long served both as an art educator and a gatekeeper for an art institution.

Vivian Maier is an interesting borderline case for anyone holding up the more “serious” and professional, institutional perspective into arts, since she never aimed to display her photos in art galleries, or anywhere else, publicly, and kept her practice as a secret to herself alone. It was only after her death, when certain collectors (most notably John Maloof from Chicago) bought her negatives from an auction, and started publishing them, first online, then in exhibitions and printed art books.

The first hesitancy about the photography of Vivian Maier as works of art (as expressed by Ted Forbes) relate to the fact that Maier herself had not edited and organised the photo negatives into prints, exhibitions and books herself. There is a subtle undertone of authorial intention in play here: if the person taking the photos did not conceive her work as (institutional) art, and did not complete the necessary steps involved in submitting and getting accepted as a published artist, then it is questionnable whether the photos in question are indeed art. There is sort of “other half” missing: the final process of selecting, editing and filtering the abundant raw materials (captured in estimated 150,000 surviving negatives) into actual artistic ‘oeuvre’ – cohesive vision and flow of expression as a practicing artist.

The other question mark implied by Ted Forbes’s video review is sort of extension of the first one. He repeatedly says that while he acknowledges Vivian Maier as a talented photographer (though probably into the category of “talented amateur”, rather than a “proper photography artist”), he is putting a lot of doubt over the expertise and intentions of collectors (John Maloof and Jeffrey Goldstein are explicitly mentioned), and while he tries to put it nicely, he evokes questions about non-professional, non-talented, non-artistic people having produced the “Vivian Maier as great photography artist” as a phenomenon by making sensationalist claims for maximizing publicity and their opportunities for commercial exploitation.

I have zero role these days in official, institutional art world (just to disclose, I used to study art history, among other subjects, and worked for an art museum in Tampere, during my student years). So, I do not take any stand in the debate about the status of Vivian Maier as a proper artist and the artistic value of her work. There are many art professionals and critics who have taken a more positive stance towards Vivian Maier’s work than Ted Forbes, though. It was also interesting to compare the Vivian Maier video to another one which was also dedicated to posthumous reconsideration or “rediscovery” of a photographer’s work – in this case that of Daan Hansen, an enthusiast photographer / photo hobbyist from Utrecht, who died in 2013, but whose work was published in a large-format, self-published book just before his death. In this case, Ted Forbes is in his video openly emotional and enthusiastic about the range, diversity and value of Daan’s work, even while it is obvious that (somewhat similarly to Vivian Maier), not all of Hansen’s photos are of similar artistic quality. Ted is of course also honest that Daan being both an online and offline friend of his, no doubt somehow affects his reactions to seeing Daan’s published work after his death.

One could perhaps conclude, that for people who operate within, or at some of the multiple frameworks of “art world”, the question of how something becomes valued and valuable as “art” is not a simple one. The person and personal circumstances of the artist affect deeply the perception of their work – even decades after “Biographic Fallacy”, or “Death of the Author” were first introduced into the art criticism. Also, the conditions and processes of publishing and displaying of something as art, do play an important part, as some of these kinds of processes are more prone to adding “authenticity” and value into works of art, whereas others can appear questionable and lead into overall negatively tilted evaluation – as seems to have happened for Vivian Maier, at least to a certain degree, in eyes of a critic like Ted Forbes.

LARP: Art not worthy?

worldcon75Worldcon 75 in Helsinki has generally been an excellent event with multiple cultures, diverse forms of art and innumerable communities of fandom coming together. However, what left bit of a bad taste to the mouth was the organizers’ decision yesterday to cancel a LARP (live action role-play), dealing with old people and dementia. The decision is highly controversial, and apparently based on some (non-Nordic) participants strongly communicating their upset at such a sensitive topic has been even allowed to be submitted in the form of a “game”, into the con program. On the other hand, same people would apparently be completely fine with Altzheimer and similar conditions being handled in form of a novel, for example.

There will be no doubt multiple reactions coming in to this from experts of this field in the future. My short comment: this is an unfortunate case of censorship, based on cultural perception of play and games as inherently trivializing or “fun-based” form of low culture. It seems that for some people, there still are strict cultural hierarchies even within the popular culture, with games at the very bottom – and that handling something sensitive with the form of role-play, for example, can be an insult. Such position completely ignores the work that has been done for decades in Nordic LARP and in digital indie “art games” (and also within the academic traditions of game studies) to expand the range of games and play for cultural expression, and to remove expectation or stigma of automatic trivialism from the interactive forms of art and culture. The organisers have obviously been pressurised by some vocal individuals, but the outcome in this case was a failure to stand up, explain the value and potential of role-playing games, and Nordic LARP in particular to an international audience, and make a difference. A sad day.

Link: Worldcon 75 cancellation statement (currently in updated and revised form) in Facebook regarding “The Old Home” [edit: should be “A Home for the Old”] LARP: https://www.facebook.com/worldcon75/posts/1464369666972369?sw_fnr_id=619255795&fnr_t=0.

(There has been multiple exchanges regarding this matter in Twitter, for example, but not linking them here.)

(Edit: the documentation for the said LARP is available for download here: http://bit.ly/2fyxQh7).

(Edit2: LARP scholars and experts Jaakko Stenros and Markus Montola have published a thorough account of this incident herehttps://jaakkostenros.wordpress.com/2017/08/13/how-worldcon-banned-a-larp/.)

(Edit3: Wordcon organisers have now published a more thorough explanation and reasons for their decision herehttp://www.worldcon.fi/news/statement-cancellation-larp-home-old/.)

OASIS: Season Two

There are no rules (Kati Heljakka)
There are no rules (Kati Heljakka)

Today is the opening of Second Season in OASIS, our experimental play/library/living-room space in School of Information Sciences. There will be bubbly wine and heady ideas available in OASIS today, starting 2 pm – welcome! The invitation is here: http://oasis.uta.fi/season-2-opening-oasis/ Pictured: “There are no rules”, playful work of art by Katariina Heljakka.