Of all the arts, photography is surely the one in which luck plays the largest part. Luck is a funny thing, of course, and has a fixed prejudice in favour of the talented and the dedicated, but even so the point holds. It is not actually inconceivable that an amateur could pick up a camera for the very first time and take a world-class photograph with the first click of the shutter.
That wouldn't make them a world-class photographer, naturally, but it still points to a distinctively accessible quality to the medium and its principal tool. You couldn't say the same thing about a violin or a paintbrush, because in those cases the luck would have to be sustained over an implausibly long period. But since photography is a matter of instants anyway it isn't impossible for a casual amateur to hit on an image that a seasoned professional might envy. And it's an effect that has only been accentuated by a modern photographic aesthetic, which prizes the haphazard and the banal.
It does raise a problem when you visit an exhibition of photography, however, which is how much of the work you credit to the photographer and how much to the instrument in his or her hands. Where precisely does one locate the creativity: in the world's chance arrangement of those objects at that time and place, or in the photographer's realisation that it is worth freezing that particular moment? And, even if it is the latter, the fact that it is almost always a process of isolating something from the dizzying profusion of things in the world, rather than adding something to it (as it would be in the case of a new melody or a novel) muddies the ground further.
I found a lot of these question coming up when I walked round the Victoria and Albert's new Lee Miller exhibition. It is titled, with assertive bluntness, The Art of Lee Miller. So, not the life, then, which has often successfully hogged the limelight because of its picaresque glamour, and left the photographs looking like mere souvenirs. This time it's the art that headlines. We're not to think of Miller as a talented dabbler but as someone pursuing a consistent vision, which binds together the apparently dilettante nature of her portfolio, ranging from surrealist experiments with Man Ray through landscape shots of the Egyptian desert, wartime reportage and on to the heightened family album shots at her farm in Sussex.
There's no question that there are seriously good photographs here – but that still doesn't quite answer the question of whether she's a seriously good photographer, rather than an unusually persistent one with great access. And if you only had the pictures on the wall to go on I'm not sure you could ever conclusively resolve the matter. Yes, the pictures of Egypt are often very beautiful, but beauty is quite an easy trick for photography to pull off.
What convinced me, in the end, were not the pictures in the exhibition but four in the accompanying catalogue – a double spread of alternative takes and variant crops for one of Miller's most famous images, Portrait of Space. The picture shows a desert landscape shown through a derelict fly-screen. At the centre of the image is a black-framed rectangular hole, which sits above an irregular tear in the screen.
It is a compelling picture but you only really see how good it is when you see what Miller discarded. Two of her earlier frames do what any amateur would do, and place the distant bluff in the landscape perfectly – and tritely – at the centre of the black picture frame. Another drops the camera a little so that the cloud and sky fill the picture-in-picture, but doesn't get the tantalising near-miss between a dangling scrap of netting and the kink in the horizon. And none of the pictures as taken has what Miller added in the dark-room – a rim of black at top and bottom that balances the composition.
It is, in other words, an artefact not a serendipity, and what makes it so is an artist's recognition of unobvious virtues. Miller may have lucked on the subject of the picture, but she needed more than luck to know what to throw away.Reuse content