Can photography be art?

text: Taka Kawachi

September/2014

My name is Taka Kawachi and I have been asked to contribute this column for SEIN. Currently I am working in collecting photography at a company called ‘Amana’.(as of 2014) Before then I lived in New York for 25 years working in photography and as an art curator. On this occasion, I hope to increase your interest even a little through discussing the photographs I have come across up to now to spread the word.

So let’s begin by getting straight into to the big subject of “is photography capable of becoming art”. (laughs) You come across a vast number of “photographs” while surfing the internet and walking the streets. Depending on the camera, the “image” is either widely consumed in digital form or easily printed or developed. However it is not a “photograph” but more an “image”. So what makes a photograph?

Photography can generally be broken down into commercial photographs documentary photography and artistic photography. Realistically speaking, people who take commercial photography do so to make money and profit financially, especially in Japan, whereas artistic photographers don’t make money and suffer the hardship that is common among artists. That is the pattern in life established for many years. The underdog status of an artistic photographer is defined as not necessarily being commissioned by someone, but more to express ideas and feelings on a printed paper “work” (simply not an “image”). However a market to sell photographs the same way as paintings has been established in the west by putting a title or a price tag on them.

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For those who have stepped inside a gallery or art museum, you may have likely experienced a photograph that has stayed with you in your heart, was deeply meaningful to you or was an idea so inconceivable enough to make your jaw drop.

However the work is different in quality from something found on the internet or in print. Perhaps it is larger in size than imagined or perhaps due to the diverse ways it is exhibited. It is established that even a part of contemporary and modern art techniques is felt when there is a major exhibition at a prominent gallery with something of high value, breaking attendance records in the process.

For example, there was the first Japanese major retrospective of the work of German artist Andreas Gursky in 2013. One of his works was Rhine River II (1999) which was in fact the most expensive photograph ever sold. That price was an incredible $4.3 million. When you then hear that it is a print, I believe there are many people who will be surprised! However, there is a proper reason and background for the price, but even for those who view the piece as the most expensive photograph, deeply comparing it to a long time ago, and is also diversifying.

That is why though the reality is that photography is consumed like the air we breathe, depending on which course modern art is intellectually expressed may well be instrumental to the way we think about photography.

Taka Kawachi

Studied at San Francisco Art College after high school, moved to New York and curated exhibitions and edited photography collections. He returned to Japan in 2011. He has recently published two books with writings about art and photography in Europe and America (not yet available in English).

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