Improper Nouns

No need to add "fine art" in front of "photographer"

By David Vestal Back to

A noun is a word that stands for anything we talk or write about. Grammar is a system for using words, including nouns, clearly—teachers say, “correctly.” Folklore tells a story about “correctly.” A man knocks on the door of a house. A small boy opens the door:

Man: “I’d like to speak to your father.”
Boy: “He ain’t home.”
Man: “That’s no way to talk. Where’s your grammar?”
Boy: “She’s upstairs takin’ a lay-down.”

A “proper” noun is the name of a particular person or thing. It begins with a capital letter. Your name and mine, and that of this magazine, PHOTO Techniques, are proper nouns. So are the titles of pictures. Grammarians call all other nouns “common” nouns, but that’s too mild. Some nouns and adjectives (words that describe things or people, etc.) call for a stronger adjective because they are pernicious. That adjective is “improper.”

“Proper” is variously defined by Webster as, “4. Befitting one’s nature, qualities, etc. right; fit….6. Fine; excellent. 7. Strictly pertinent or applicable; correct; as, proper words in proper places. 8. Archaic. Honest; chaste; respectable. 9. Decorous; decent….- Syn. See FIT.” You get the drift.

“Pictorial Art”

Much is worth quoting in Chapter IV of a section titled “Pictorial Art” in part four of a big book, Naturalistic Photography, by the terrible-tempered P. H. Emerson. Chapter IV of part four is headed “Hints on Art.” I quote only part of his diatribe, but the whole thing is worth reading if you can get your hands on it. Here’s part of what Peter Henry Emerson, an American who lived and worked in England, and a very good photographer, had to say about photographic art more than a hundred years ago. It makes as much sense in 2008 as it did in 1899. The punctuation is Emerson’s:

“Never compete for prizes for ‘set subjects,’ for work of this kind leads to working from preconceived ideas, and therefore to conventionality, false sentiment, and vulgarity.
“Remember that the original state of the minds of uneducated men is vulgar, you now know why vulgar and commonplace works please the majority. Therefore, educate your mind, and fight the hydra-headed monster—vulgarity. Seize on any aspect of nature that pleases you and try and interpret it, and ignore—as nature ignores—all childish rules, such as that the lens should work only when the sun shines or when no wind blows.

“Aeolus is the breath of life of landscape.

“The chief merit of most photographs is their diagrammatic accuracy, as it is their chief vice.

“Avoid the counsels of pseudo-scientific photographers in art matters, as they have avoided the study of art.

“If you decide on taking a picture, let nothing stop you, even should you have to stand by your tripod for a day.

“Do not call yourself an ‘artist photographer’ and make ‘artist-painters’ and ‘artist-sculptors’ laugh; call your- self a photographer and wait for artists to call you brother.

“The amount of a landscape to be included in a picture is far more difficult to determine than the amount of oxidizer or alkali to be used in the developer.

“Pay no heed to the average photographer’s remarks upon ‘flat’ and ‘weak’ negatives. Probably he is flat, weak, stale, and unprofitable; your negative may be first rate, and probably is if he does not approve of it.

“Though many painters and sculptors talk about ‘going in for photography,’ you will find that very few of them can ever make a picture by photography; they lack the science, technical knowledge, and above all, the practice. Most people think they can play tennis, shoot, write novels, and photograph as well as any other person—until they try.

“Be true to yourself and individuality will show itself in your work.

“Avoid prettiness—the word looks much like pettiness—and there is but little difference between them.

“No one should take up photography who is not content to work hard and study so that he can take pictures for his own eye only. The artist works to record the beauties of nature, the bagman works to please the public, or for filthy lucre, or for metal medals.

“Do not mistake sentimentality for sentiment, and sentiment for poetry.

“Do not mistake sharpness for truth.

“The charm of nature lies in her mystery and poetry, but no doubt she is never mysterious to a donkey.

“Say as much as you can with as little material as you can.

“Hold up to scorn every coxcomb who paints ‘artist-photographer’ or ‘artist’ on his door, or stamps it on his mounts.

“Remember every photograph you publish goes out for better, or worse, to raise you up or pull you down; do not be in haste, therefore, to give yourself over to the enemy.

“When a critic has nothing to tell you save that your pictures are not sharp, be certain he is not very sharp and knows nothing at all about it.

“Photographic pictures may have one merit which no other pictures can ever have, they can be relied upon as historical records.

“Ask of critics only ‘fair play.’ Much of the criticism of to-day consists in the suppression of the truth of the author and the advocacy of the falsity of the critic. Criticism is as yet in the metaphysical stage, but it will one day become rational and of some worth….”

So now what?

We see by that last statement that Emerson was not only a severe, and sometimes mistaken, critic, but also a cockeyed optimist. Criticism is no better now than it was then. I think that is the nature of the beast, not to be overcome by good intentions. And the great bulk of art photography is now, if possible, even more preposterous than it was in Emerson’s time. He had the silliness of, say, Oscar Gustave Rejlander and Henry Peach Robinson to deplore. We have whole hordes of such unwitting phonies—people on a multitude of wrong tracks who believe in their wished-for genius, and critics, dealers, and curators who fall for the fancy trash these masters produce. Nothing is new about that but its great quantity.

What really prompted this column is the pitiful fact that many talented photographers, some of them quite competent, nevertheless call them- selves “fine-art photographers.” It’s a category, like passport or insurance photographers, and claiming it makes them seem superficial. Art schools are largely to blame: some now teach such pretentiousness as a key to success in the market, as they also teach the young “how to have a style.” No one acquires a personal style by trying to.

In private correspondence, I have persuaded one or two photographers to take “fine-art photography” off their letterheads and business cards, but many more persist. A recent letter from one quite capable photographer—who might be taken seriously except for his verbal fine-art fantasies expressed in clichés—offered this pathetic information: Unable to get his pictures into galleries, he finds that he can sell his prints quite well at craft fairs. He feels he must make his fine- art claims or risk being mistaken for a mere craftsman. He didn’t say “mere,” but that’s what he meant. How sad. He doesn’t realize that any real craftsman is worth dozens of ordinary fine-art photographers. Craft fairs are indeed the home of much deplorable kitsch, from which a sensible photographer will separate himself, but so are many photo art galleries, no less run by dilettantes who will never learn anything but how to follow fashion and charge high prices.

I may be wrong to put so much weight on such little words. But I had the luck, when studying painting long ago, to notice that good painters didn’t call themselves artists, let alone fine ones. They left that to the wannabes. They just said, “I’m a painter,” as I say, “I’m a photographer.” Self-respect doesn’t need to be propped up.

I refuse to declare that I’m ignorant by putting “fine-art photography” or “photographic art” on my letterhead or anything else that represents my work. Don’t mistake this for modesty. It’s a matter of pride.

If my stuff is art—and only fools are ever sure—my photos must establish that without my making claims. If people get it, they get it. If they don’t, they don’t. Maybe later. Let’s leave it at that. I stake my claim by making no claim.

About the Author

David Vestal
David Vestal is a photographer and teacher whose publications include The Art of Black & White Enlarging (1984) and The Craft of Photography. His photographs are exhibited internationally and are found in numerous private and public collections including New York City’s Museum of Modern Art and the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY. The wit and wisdom of his commentaries have long earned him a strong following among readers.