The Shifting Borders of Photojournalism and Fine Art Photography

BY Jordan G. Teicher, January 2, 2016

Disturbed by the lack of a visual record of America’s drone warfare in the Middle East, Tomas van Houtryve mounted a camera to a drone in 2013 and began flying it over American schoolyards, playgrounds, and parks – the sorts of places that have been the subject of C.I.A. drone strikes in countries like Pakistan and Yemen.

Conceptual in nature, grounded in metaphor, and presented in gorgeous black and white, his series Blue Sky Days sure looks like art. And indeed, in 2015, prints were acquired by Kansas City’s Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Photography, and work from the series is included in To See without Being Seen: Contemporary Art and Drone Warfare at St. Louis’s Kemper Art Museum from January 29 to April 24.

Or is it photojournalism? Blue Sky Days was initially published in Harper’s Magazine in 2014 and was recognized with a World Press Photo award in 2015. Van Houtryve is a member of the renowned VII photojournalism agency, and describes himself, on his website, as both an artist and a “non-fiction photographer.” So, what does one call Blue Sky Days, exactly? Does it even matter? These are the questions facing dealers and curators as the lines between art and photojournalism increasingly blur.

Of course, photojournalism and art photography were never quite the clearly segregated undertakings they’re often made out to be. In fact, many of the art world’s favorite photographers of the 20th century worked as photojournalists. Walker Evans made the majority of his work on paid assignment. Gordon Parks, whose series Segregation Story was on view at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art in 2014 and more recently at New York’s Salon 94 Freemans, photographed for Life. Prints by Weegee, who took his noir urban crime photographs for tabloid newspapers, often sell for tens of thousands of dollars at auction today. Presenting vintage photographs like those as art today is common practice, according to New York dealer Steven Kasher.

“Part of that is the aging of the collector,” he says. “People are interested in things from their youth, and when they’re older – 30, 40 years down the line – they have the time and resources to collect them. The politics embedded in the image have also cooled down, so the aesthetic and narrative functions of the picture can rise to the fore.”

Still, the transition from the page to the wall is not always seamless, particularly when it comes to conflict photography. Don McCullin has been widely exhibited in art settings, including Hauser & Wirth Somerset, in the U.K., where his show is on view through January 31. But at a November press conference announcing an exhibition of his work at Photo London in May of 2016, McCullin said he can’t always square the records he’s made of violence, famine, or pain with “the art narrative of photography,” and he doesn’t feel comfortable being called an artist.

“I’ve always thought photography is not so much of an art form but a way of communicating and passing on information,” he said, according to an article in The Guardian. “Many people misunderstand me – I’m quite happy to be called a photographer. All of a sudden the art world has caught up with photography and they are trying to hijack us.”

Many of today’s younger photojournalists, however, aren’t wrestling with that particular dilemma, and their work for publications is often stylistically closer to fine art than ever before. Editorial photographer Narayan Mahon, for example, made his foray into the art world in December 2014 with an exhibition of his series Lands in Limbo at Wisconsin’s Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. Fusing “the aesthetic and formal integrity of fine art with the informational concerns of photojournalism,” according to the museum’s website, Mahon traveled the world documenting the
unrecognized countries of Abkhazia, Northern Cyprus, Transnistria, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Somaliland. Mahon’s crossing of photographic genres seemed to mirror the evolving borders of the countries he visited. “Art is about ideas. Narayan started out with a vision for the project, and the fact that he treated it in a thorough and investigative way doesn’t diminish it. It adds to it,” says the museum’s director, Stephen Fleischman.

Accra Shepp’s photographs of the Occupy Wall Street protests in lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park, made with a 4-by-5-inch view camera, could very well have been the fruit of a magazine assignment, but they were produced independently, and Kasher exhibited them several years ago. But the show was one of only a handful of contemporary photography exhibits he’s mounted that looks like photojournalism, because the market simply isn’t there. “Anything can happen,” he says. “You can have five of the top celebrity collectors in the world say suddenly, ‘We’re going to collect photojournalism,’ and then everyone will. But the chances of that happening are slim.”

Magnum photographer Steve McCurry, on the other hand, has seemed equally at home in galleries and museums and on the cover of magazines like National Geographic, and three decades of his photographs from India are on display at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York through April 4. The exhibition is shown in partnership with the International Center of Photography (ICP), which is scheduled to open in a new space on the Bowery later this spring. The ICP’s new curator in residence, Charlotte Cotton, has also navigated both the art and media worlds, having served as curator of photography at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum as well as creative director of England’s National Media Museum. In keeping with its founding mission, ICP’s collection contains mostly documentary photography, but it has recently expanded its holdings to include more works from contemporary artists. In an October interview with 1000 Words magazine, Cotton seemed to indicate that she might continue to broaden the institution’s reach, saying she doesn’t believe in “some sort of photographic weighing scales [for] contemporary art photography and documentary photography (seen as genres, which I also don’t hold to) that have to be balanced or can cancel each other out. … I see this as an ‘either/and’ rather than an ‘either/or’ epoch of practice.”

In fact, just as photojournalists are gravitating toward fine art, fine art photographers are drawn to photojournalism. The most literal example may be Alec Soth who, for his project, Songbook, posed as a photojournalist for a made-up local newspaper called the L.B.M. Dispatch – which he actually published for several issues – as he traveled the country with the writer Brad Zellar, covering dances, football games, and other community events. An accompanying book and exhibition, however, left out Zellar’s text, injecting a more lyrical quality to the photographs that perhaps makes them more palatable for an art audience.

For photographers and artists alike, the boundaries are likely to keep shifting. Take, for example, the Open Society Foundations Documentary Photography Project, which has been organizing Moving Walls group exhibitions for the public free of charge since 1998. Last year, it showed van Houtryve’s Blue Sky Days, as well as Dutch Landscapes by Mishka Henner (whose work is on view in the Museum of Modern Art’s Ocean of Images: New Photography 2015 through March 20), and Street Ghosts by conceptual artist Paolo Cirio (whose work was shown at the New York contemporary art space Apex Art last summer), among other projects. Amy Yenkin, the program’s director, says that van Houtryve’s series, unorthodox though it may be, is representative of the kind of innovative work the program wants to keep showcasing.

“When we started it was really heavy on black and white and was very reportage-oriented,” she says. “And it was that way for a long time, even though color and digital impacted that. Now, as a program, we’re interested in kind of a broader conception of what documentary means.”