If you have ever shown your work at a major portfolio review, or intend to go to one, you will find that more than 70% of your reviewers have significant academic credentials, usually a Masters in Fine Art often with a thesis concentration in art photography. You will also learn that 70% plus of the art photography hanging somewhere is from artists who have postgraduate training in the arts.
Your reviewer’s education experience forms a foundation for how they read photographs and master level photography programs usually fit into two loose academic categories. One, and the majority of schools fit into this group, embraces the concept-driven, post-modern model of photography-as-art and the other group tolerates modernist values and aspirations, while trying to move students forward into the post-modernist explorations. Photography students on university campuses, who begin their visual explorations often crash and burn when they hit the invisible post-modern barrier. Personal disappointment sets in, often painfully so, when they discover that the personal, easy-to-read urges that brought them to photography initially are suddenly highly problematic within contemporary photographic education, and art photography markets. That great work you made in Glacier National Park or your favorite saccharine flower series usually receives a polite yawn if you are lucky.
Photography professors in the post-graduate arena encourage their students to create a thesis that embraces post-modernism conceptual and representation images and eschews the truth and beauty photographs of the modernism period. As one of our previous students said after recently touring the photographic art galleries in New York for several days, “This stuff is downright ugly, but it sells for incredible prices— I just don’t get it.”
Ugly Work Values
So why is ‘ugly work’ selling while your favorite sunset photo garners rejection after rejection from the major art merchants. It’s complicated but if we review the work of conceptual artists form the 1960s and 1970s we see work that did not embrace photography as art in the modernist sense; they were looking for a kind of image that was deliberately dull and ugly. Prior to this period, fine art photographers placed a value on the viewer’s aesthetic experience of the work’s visual form, while conceptualists incorporated anti-aesthetic values that placed idea as art above the aesthetics. Academics and critics of all stripes in art world have and will continue to write about aesthetics, but an area that is consistently under study and debate is whether the art aesthetic should render visual pleasure to the audience, and for the time being, this is an area that concept-based art eliminates.
The Educator’s Role
Art educators at the post-graduate level believe that their role is to push art forward and introduce their students to a broad range of visual explorations encompassing aesthetic, philosophical, and political issues that exceed the knowledge index of the casual viewer. Consequently, many of your reviewers who have earned an MFA often share this taste for contemporary, non-pictorial, and perhaps intellectually cool images as opposed to warm, formulaic landscapes that you may admire.
Critical to understanding the interconnection between your work and the reviewer, is to recognize that they do not look at pictures; they read them and discuss structural or sub-structural meanings. While this may seem like in-depth navel gazing, this academic study governs the critical review process of art photography. This means your great flower images may sell well at the décor level with a gallery that has an audience of splendor collectors, but it is unlikely that they will see the light of day in a major art gallery unless those images portray some significant and original way of understanding flowers.
However, post-modern art photography, which emphasizes the elusiveness of meaning and knowledge through representation, may be ending as an art philosophy. Emerging in its place is a new authority built around structural realism, terms that no one outside the philosophy industry truly understand. What we do know is that digital tools have irrevocably rearranged the world of art presentation and art definitions? Often called digital dialogues, digital art photographers are presenting images that were unimaginable just 20 years ago and these visual interpretations are now beginning to dominate the world of contemporary art photography.
These factors and others generally guide the thoughts of people who will review your work at the most professional and rigorous levels. However, knowing their thoughts is one thing; what is more important is knowing your own and creating the art you need and want to make. As artists, we need to also be explorers and bring forth thematic projects that drive our ideas forward as opposed to recording a scene found in front of our lens. When you do that you will find an audience for your work among the pantheon of reviewers and critics.