Separate Worlds

Art Perry

Being a photographer is about being committed to the motion and rhythms of life rather than to the structure of photography itself. I am uneasy labeling myself a professional or documentary or an art photographer. I really cringe when boundaries that define someone elseís practice are applied to my own.

I take photos, yes, but to me itís merely another way of engaging the world around me, like conversation, laughter, or having a coffee or beer with people I meet. Itís not about consciously constructing art.

Who am I to create a separate world? A world I think is better or more ordered than reality?

I celebrate the world thatís in eternal motion and give back my view, as clumsy and as clever as it may be.

All my life I have traveled and looked at the paintings, read the books and poetry, listened to the music and attended the plays in the countries Iíve visited. I learn how to see and feel, not only from the work of other photographers, but also from the societies that allow me into their midst.

Anyone knowledgeable in photo history will see the tradition of street or documentary or non-fiction or what has been ludicrously labeled straight photography in my images. I believe tradition is essential for communication, for a common understanding, for pondering lifeís great questions.

There is a reason for tradition and ritual, and Iíve learned to appreciate its openness, not its closeness. Tradition sets the stage but doesnít write the script. It merely allows the audience to share a common ground, so the play can be enacted in ultimate clarity.

Thatís why I use black-and-white, thatís why I print my photos in full-frame with a black border, thatís why I use a manual Leica camera with wide-angle lens. Itís a tradition whose voice is easily heard. Once heard, whatever is being said Ė be it complex, political, iconoclastic, brutal or compassionate Ė will be clearer. You donít have to decode the medium to get the message. Thatís why I embrace the traditions I believe in.

When British filmmaker John Grierson first used the term Ďdocumentaryí in 1937 he said it was "the creative interpretation of actuality." Well, of course, a creative interpretation is also up for interpretation, but I think what he meant by creative was personal or subjective or more precisely, poetic.

I call this the "poetic position."

The photographerís stance Ė be it social, political, personal or spiritual Ė frames his or her image. A knife like a camera is just a tool, an instrument. But when a surgeon uses it on the human body, itís intent is creative. In the hands of a murderer, itís intent is destructive. Itís all how itís used.

When I use a camera I employ a poetic position. No photo can be impartial or objective, and once that fact is understood, then the poetry can be worked on. I have worked on the spontaneous visual poem for years and years now.

Itís about what William Blake said about seeing heaven in a grain of sand and eternity in the palm of your hand. You let the world happen but your personal breadth of understanding and vision shapes the photo. The more open and free you become, the more open and free are your images.

And what is poetry? The great Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky said a poet wants to listen secretly, to give expression to what is deep inside those we call the audience. Ever the poet, the French photographer Christian Boltanski says, "I raise questions to which I do not have an answer. I try to offer emotions without using words, with images."

I think Boltanski is right.

Itís about offering emotions without words. So, is my photography personal? Yes, of course. And itís also a visual document. But to label this or any of my images as a documentary photograph is too restrictive. Letís just say itís a personal moment thatís been rendered poetically. In a poetic position.

That would sit all right with me.

So whatís the deal with postmodernism? Why do so many critics say documentary work is from a time before the noncommittal crusader of postmodernism came over the horizon?

Personally Iím not happy with all the posts planted out there Ė postmodern, poststructuralist, post-Freudian, postmortem Ė we seem to want to deny the past any importance whatsoever. We have quickly and shakily leapt into a post-historical world without traditions, beliefs or common sense.

Art, that age-old touchstone of human understanding has been revamped and reshaped so massively, and so completely, that it has little if any social currency left.

Quickly put, since about 1970 the medium and the message in modern art have become hopelessly tangled up and blue. Painting can no longer be about painting or photography about photography. Postmodernists do photographs about paintings or photos about film or add text to an image to be blatantly, visually literate. For these artists, pastiche has become the style. Art is now assembled from a variety of sources.

In many ways I share postmodernismís open pluralism. For instance, I would never say categorically that Iím a photographer but rather that I am humanist with a penchant for the poetic, who happens to use photography and writing as a way to involve myself creatively with the wonder of being alive.

It would be monopic to think that my art, or any art, comes from one source. Thatís modernism, not postmodernism.

Yet the major difference between my photographs and the work of structured postmodern photographers like Ian Wallace, Cindy Sherman or Ken Lum is that they set up their photographs as film stills. They hire actors, or act themselves, to portray a documentary-type photograph.

Itís unashamedly artifice, not actuality.

For many years I worked with Ian Wallace at Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design. We shared office space, books, ideas, arguments and the occasional glass of red wine in the old Europe Hotel bar when we taught art history in downtown Vancouver.

Iíd say we admired each otherís photographic industry but, while Ian was an indoors academia spirit, I preferred the streets and people of the outside world. I guess Ian was the fabricator and I was the flaneur.

Perhaps one of his most outlandish postmodern conceits was Ianís Poverty series where he dressed up his friends, including Rodney Graham, to look poor, and then set them loose by the railway tracks as homeless. Then, once photographed, these images were mounted on high art canvas, surrounded by bright bands of painted colour, and magically they became bright tableaux of the socially low.

As the photography critic Andy Grundberg says, ĎThere is no place in the postmodern world for a belief in authenticity of experience, in the sanctity of the individual artistís vision.í

I have been a non-commercial, documentary photographer working out of Ė as opposed to in Ė Vancouver for 25 years. During that time I have attempted to find a local gallery that was both articulate and understanding to photographs of conscience. Other than the long-gone Coburg Gallery run by Bill Jefferies and the Nova Gallery run by Claudia Beck back in the late-1970s, there has not been a Vancouver director or curator in a private gallery who could appreciate the voice and the validity of documentary photographs.

The areaís main venue for photography exhibitions has been North Vancouverís Presentation House Gallery where Karen Love and Diane Evans have put together and brought in some wonderful travelling shows over the years. But Presentation Houseís documentary-based exhibitions have been, for the most part, blue chip established international artists. It has not a held continued commitment to non-established local documentary photographers.

And, for the record, Nova Gallery gave Jeff Wall his first exhibit, Destroyed Room, at the same time as it was showing Robert Frank and Walker Evans. Yes, at one stage Vancouverís conceptualist and the documentary photographers did show side-by-side. In the days of yore, a photograph was judged by its art power, not its art politics.

A few years back when my book The Tibetans: photographs won the second $50,000 Roloff Beny Photographic Book Award (Larry Towell won the first Beny Award) I thought perhaps local galleries might consider my documentary-based photography as worth exhibiting. Even Henri Cartier-Bresson wrote me a gracious letter on how much he admired and valued my Tibetans photographs.

My "travel snaps" were still viewed, in Vancouver at least, as more of those passť images from that well-trodden path of colonial and journalistic exploitation of Third World brown-skinned natives.

Itís as if I was to accuse all conceptualist photographers of being elitist eggheads.

Sure some are, most arenít.

Jeff Wall or Andreas Gursky are important artists who use photography. Just as Helen Levitt or Lewis Hine are important humanists who also use photography.

The debate about differences or artistic supremacy of conceptual or documentary photography within the art world is the stuff of blowing wind and whining orthodoxists.

Art Perry is an Associate Professor in Critical Studies at the Emily Carr Institute of Art + Design in Vancouver. Since the mid-1980s his focus has been primarily on threatened cultures that have been disrupted by political, economic or religious change. In May 2000, Perry received the Roloff Beny Photography Book Award for THE TIBETANS. Recently, The Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC acquired a portfolio of Perryís photographs from THE TIBETANS for its collection.