Is photography art? The question has often been asked. My answer is “yes, but not always.” The same goes for painting and sculpture.

Photography certainly didn’t begin as art. It was a tool invented by portrait painter Jacques Mande Daguerre to capture faces. His lens work was only meant as a shortcut.

The question about photography raised its light-sensitive head again this week when Art News reported Man Ray’s original print of Le Violon d'Ingres, heading to Christie’s in May, “could become the most expensive photograph ever sold at auction.” Have you seen this thing?

Unlike other of Man Ray’s images, this one said to be of his lover Kiki de Montparnasse, isn’t art to me. Obviously, the question that goes pleading here is, what do I think art is?

Answering the call

To me, it’s never about just one thing. It’s about everything. Like life, except more organized. For an image to be art, it needs to take you past what you see, to thoughts you didn’t have before seeing it. Le Violon d’ Ingres nails you to a woman’s back. And no matter how long you look at it, you’re stuck there.

I’ll go further. Not only is Le Violon d'Ingres not art, but it’s also too jokey, too frivolous to be taken seriously. By contrast, consider Man Ray’s photograph Noire et Blanche (which fetched $3 million at Christie’s in 2017).

In my view, Noire et Blanche is art. Not because you see Kiki’s face this time, but because when paired with a mask, it reminds you that a photograph, like a mask, doesn’t represent reality. It makes you think. Here are some more ideas this picture prompted.

Noire et Blanche – black and white - put me in mind of African art’s great influence on Europe’s modern painters and sculptors.

Or is it that the woman in the photograph longs to escape the ties that bind her in her culture and looks to another? Or is she in need of camouflage, a disguise?

In other words, what you see is not all there is. (A pretty good definition of art, by the way).

More of the same

Meanwhile, Auction Daily touts another upcoming photography sale, this time of Ansel Adams prints at Sotheby’s.

He’s famous for his shot of the moon pushing at the night with beams running down shaggy mountain corridors to splinter all the rough edges. Picturesque, yes. But if you’ve seen one of these landscapes of the West, you’ve seen them all.

Adams tried in vain to get other of his photographs seen, such as his semi-abstractions of cities, which look to be about more than that. No matter. Museums and auction houses continue to offer the tried and true.

But wait, I don’t want to leave you without mentioning at least one other photograph I rank as art. It’s by Robert Mapplethorpe. Too many know him for his slinky homoerotic imagery rather than his flower prints so spectral that they can strike you as unearthly.

I’m thinking of Orchid. Looking at it is like looking into a night sky where everything is unmarred and perfect. What you see set against a blackened space is a lone white flower, its blossom like a human head, its petals like arms. The whole of it can come across like some biblical event.

Note: A reader who recently disagreed with me commented that she hoped I wouldn’t “pounce” on her for it. Know this, please. I welcome dissent. Your views, pro or con, contribute to the art experience for us all.