WORDS Mark Tungate
PHOTOS Paolo Godezano & Jane Piedad
Every summer my wife and I take the train to Arles in the south of France for the annual photography festival, which is called Les Rencontres. Loosely translated that means “meetings,” and there are indeed opportunities to meet some of the artists whose work is on show. At another level, the meetings are virtual, as visitors discover for the first time photographers who may become personal favorites.
The festival’s setting is wonderful. Arles is a lovely, ancient Provençal town of sun-baked stone and terra cotta rooftops, dotted with the ornate 17th century townhouses of wealthy merchants – the city sits beside the Rhône and was a significant port – as well as the occasional Roman ruin. During the Rencontres its churches, town hall and other public buildings all become photography galleries. You can soak up culture as you explore the charming cobbled streets.
Artists have always been drawn to Arles: Vincent Van Gogh painted “The Starry Night” here. Which brings me to my point, which is to talk about where photography stands in the cultural landscape.
The question of whether or not photography is an art form crops up with surprising regularity. But for anybody who loves the photographs of Man Ray, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Nan Goldin, or Martin Parr, there is no debate. These are artists, full stop.
If I have a free Saturday and a choice of two or three exhibitions to see, I’ll often gravitate to the photography one. I enjoy looking at paintings too, of course, but I feel a more personal connection to photographs. It’s simple—I can take halfway decent photograph, but I am a terrible, terrible painter.
When I look at a photograph, it’s as though I’m gazing through the lens. I can almost imagine what the photographer was thinking; how he or she framed the shot and why. I feel as if I’m in the moment when the shutter fell—“the decisive moment,” as Cartier- Bresson called it. The sensation is transporting— perhaps the closest I can come to time travel.
Strangely enough, the rise of Instagram does not seem to have undermined photography’s status as an art form. Perhaps because, now we’re all taking photographs, we’ve also begun to realize just how hard it is to take a really good one. Lighting, composition, angle—there are so many elements to consider, and some of them are barely within our control. Like writing—an even more accessible art form—photography requires education, experimentation and experience. Before you can create art, you have to learn the craft.
Not so long ago I discovered a rather neat article on Medium, which talked about the difference between snapping a picture and taking a photo. For Ron Moore, the author of the piece: “Taking a picture is seeing something with your eyes and capturing that moment with a camera. Taking a photo acknowledges the difference between seeing somewhere and being somewhere.”
He doesn’t use the word, but I believe what he’s talking about here is atmosphere. Anyone can snap a picture of a view, but can you take a photograph that makes the viewer feel as if they were there? Hear the cry of the gull, feel the chill wind from the sea?
Similarly, we can all take a picture of our friends or loved ones. But can we take a portrait that allows a viewer, who has never met this person, to perceive something important about their character? To glimpse their soul? A picture is a casual souvenir. But a photograph is taken with intent. It has layers of meaning beyond the image.
I developed an interest in art rather late. My parents were not the sort who dragged their children around galleries. In order to enter journalism school at the age of 19 I had to pass a general knowledge exam: I panicked when I had no idea who Henry Moore was (a sculptor).
Almost inevitably, it was a girlfriend who gave me the key to the art world. Zoë loved talking about pictures and she communicated her passion to me. Visiting an exhibition with her was like exploring a mysterious new world. I bought books – on Picasso, the Surrealists, the Abstract Expressionists – and soon began to form tastes and opinions of my own.
Then I came across a book of photographs by Robert Doisneau. I know, I know: Doisneau’s work is the photography equivalent of Kind of Blue by Miles Davis; a primer that almost anyone can get into. “Le Baiser de l’Hôtel de Ville” (“The Kiss by the Town Hall”) is so iconic that it borders on cliché. And yet it has exactly the quality that I’ve described above: atmosphere. In fact, this one picture evokes the entire mythology of romantic Paris.
Doisneau led me to Cartier-Bresson, to Willy Ronis, to Robert Capa...and eventually to Arles. I felt differently about photography because I had discovered it on my own. Art I’d learned though Zoë, but photography was my thing.
So, yes, I believe photography is an art. And ironically, thanks to mobile phones, new artists are emerging all the time. You may not be able to make it to Arles, but you can easily revisit the “explore” option on Instagram. There are thousands and thousands of pictures. But, now and then, there is a photograph.
A Different Angle on Creativity
A British journalist based in Paris. He is editorial director of the Epica Awards, the only global creative awards judged by the specialist press. Mark is the author of six books about branding and marketing, including the recent Branded Beauty: How Marketing Changed the Way We Look.