Our Lunar New Year sale is on! Save up to 60% on photography features like Advanced Stats Upgrade now

Ricardo Bevilaqua

Is art quality relevant?

Why a popularity ranking is unpredictable?

We want to believe that our delight in a fine painting/photography or bottle of wine is due entirely to its quality. But that’s not the way reality works.

The scientists argue that price shift the preferences of the wine tasters, so that the $90 Cabernet seems to taste better than the $35 Cabernet, even though they were actually the same wine.

Subjects consistently report that the more expensive or famous paintings and photos are better, even though they were actually the same art. It is a perennial truth of the art business that high values or fame tend to attract critical endorsement.

The attractiveness of a photo increases with the number of people liking it. Popularity is like a snowball. The popularity itself play as large a role in determining the popularity rank of a photo as its technical skills qualities. A popularity ranking is unpredictable in practice due to their extreme sensitivity to initial conditions of exposition. Why a photo is popular may not have any answer. What we call talent usually comes from success, rather than its opposite.

But stools by artist Ai Weiwei, for half a million dollars? If art quality does not predict popularity why is art so damned expensive?

Art buyer pleasure these days is to be found in having their lovely friends being awestruck, in the important business of being seen as cultured, elegant and, of course, stupendously rich. You pay a premium for a piece once owned by someone famous. Something that has been shown in a museum is worth extra. The people who are spending record amounts on art buy more than the pleasure of contemplating pictures, which they could get for $20 at any museum. They’ve purchased boasting rights.

In Henri Matisse time, his bold colors and distorted forms were outrageous. A century later, what was once shocking is now considered beautiful art. There are no rules of art that explain the evolution of art in history. Why would anyone think that their taste can predict what is necessary to make a work beautiful or meaningful? Anyone claiming to be a photo critic expert is selling something. What is considered proper photography is, like so much else, a matter of fashion. Photography history demonstrate the magnificent evanescence of what is considered sophisticated.



What is relevant in contemporary photography?

Photography is just many things. But there are amateurs policing the boundaries of what art, photography and truth are. The photography has expanded in such a way that it’s really hard to define what it really is. So no matter what you say about photography, it is, by necessity, limited to a fraction of it.

The more amateurish thinking you have, the higher you aim your ambition to find an anchor in an old practice or imitate Ansel Adams, in a kind of congealing of art photography around the set of your imaginary values of the correct image. But what about Diane Arbus or Walker Evans incapacity to print decently? Why believe that photos must have an impeachable veridical relationship to their subject matter, ever? A lot of the great Robert Capa or Brassaï pictures, for example, are staged pictures.

The difference between a descriptive photograph and art photography is an obvious authorship marker. Ansel Adams in his book "Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs", page 162, says he disappeared a prominent graffiti in the photo "Winter Sunrise". Page 40, in the very famous photo "Moonrise" the sky has been burned to black to highlight the moon--in earlier prints you could still see all the clouds. "His final, expressive print, is not how the scene looked in reality, but rather how it felt to him emotionally." In "Ansel Adams: Some Thoughts About Moonrise", by Mary Street Alinder, 1999.

Art is the prefix of words such as artifice or artificial. Art is an artifice, the product of the creativity of the artist. Expecting art to duplicate reality is a a misunderstanding of the very purpose of art.

Art is about the artist’s view of the world, not about reality. What is original is creating expressive photos that depict a personal view of the world. Why should people care about photos that do not show something real? They care for the same reasons art movements that do not represent reality, surrealism, cubism, fauvism, etc. There will always people who will praise what you do as long as your work expresses what you feel and is unique to you.

Shoot personal work all the time because that's what public gravitate toward: your vision, your voice. A big huge mistake is not to do what works for you. You have to do what's important to you, because that's what people will search you for. To be recognized out there, you have to shoot what nobody has seen before. Shoot work to define your style and build your brand.

Any art has its conventions, just like every other activity, and an artist is expected to fulfill them. However, the artist is also expected paradoxically to violate conventions, to entertain, to surprise, to outrage, to be original. From artists critics expect originality and resent it when they get it. If you don’t get rejected every now then you are really doing something wrong. You have become complacent and aren’t trying to push things. The best goal is to keep one upping your rejection. It is the profession of artists to question clichés that others accept without thinking twice. A dangerous profession, since artists are more easily rejected than clichés.

"No great artist ever sees things as they really are. If he did, he would cease to be an artist."
-Oscar Wilde

SFMOMA symposium.


Why should people care about photos that do not show something real?

"The falsification of photography didn't start with Photoshop, it started with photography. You could look at a photograph and form your own interpretation of it.
Are we that much smarter now? Colin Powell appeared before the United Nations as Secretary of State and showed photographs of plants in Iraq that he claimed produced chemical or biological weaponry. On that basis we went to war."
- Errol Morris on Photography and Reality

Eddie Adams, the AP photographer who snapped the photo of South Vietnamese General Loan executing a defenseless Vietcong prisoner, and earned a Pulitzer Prize for the picture, says: " People believe in photographs, but photographs do lie, even without manipulation. They are only half-truths. Adams discovered that Loan was a beloved hero in Vietnam, to his troops and the citizens and fought for the construction of hospitals in South Vietnam. National Review Online, Jonah Goldberg, August 26, 1999.

"On the morning of September 11, in New York, an experienced photojournalist, Thomas Hoepker, shoot a group of young people sitting by the waterfront with the plume of smoke rising across the river. The New York Times saw the photograph as a prescient symbol of indifference and amnesia. To one of photo subjects "we were in a profound state of shock and disbelief, I denounced Hoepker for not trying to ascertain the state of mind of the photograph's subjects and for misinterpreting the moment."

-"How the Truth Gets Framed by the Camera" by Louis P. Masur in "The Chronicle Review" November 23, 2007

I have always been a bit puzzled by people’s insistence that photography presents the truth or reality. In some contexts, photography might indeed represent a facet of reality, like your passport picture. But in most contexts, a photograph tends to represent first and foremost the reality the viewer wants to or prefers to see.

In the case of a novel we must actively engage with our imaginations and our memories. But for photography, we haven’t made that step, yet. We’re still stuck with people’s ideas that photography presents the truth or something real or whatever, and not the story you decided to tell.

When it comes to photography I’m really most concerned with our feeling and imagination. The reality the viewer wants to see and decided to tell can be largely biased, completely selective and therefore highly interpretative.

To the purists, the only original altar of “true” photography already exists: New device from Sony was designed to replace human shutterbugs by making its own decisions about when to take a photo.


"Photographs create the illusion of consensus"
Susan Sontag


"Art is a precious thing, the voice of the individual. The art that speaks it most unmistakably, most directly, most variously, most fully, is fiction."

-Eudora Welty


How much are manipulated photographs worth?
The most expensive photograph was sold at Christie’s New York. Andreas Gursky's Rhine II became the first photograph to be sold at auction for over $4 million. It is a manipulated photograph.

  • 1,840 Affection
  • 889,432 Photo Views
  • 20 Following