Arts: Diverse images that transcend artistic divide

RCA students respond to criticism by `Independent' photographer Brian Harris

Brian Harris
Friday 07 June 1996 23:02 BST
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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

Editor

Can photography be art? The Independent photographer Brian Harris raised this question (Independent 6 June) after viewing some of the work of the final year photography students. He was "appalled" by the quality and suggested that some students seek an alternative vocation.

As the controversy rages on at the Royal College of Art over the unprecedented high rate of failures and referrals of photography students, the suitability of a newspaper picture editor as assessor to a fine art course has been questioned by the students. We thank Mr Harris for his critique of students' work, albeit made after seeing the catalogue rather than the show. He eloquently illustrates the great difference between photo-journalism and contemporary art, of which he evidently, and not unreasonably, has little understanding.

A glance at contemporary art would confirm to any sceptic the importance of the photographic image across all disciplines. The majority of visual artists are multi-skilled, using a range of media in their work. This method is reflected in the RCA Fine Art Degree Show. Photography forms a proportion of the painting, printmaking and sculpture shows.

The debate is more complex than the simple question of whether photography is art. There are many more interesting and constructive ways to investigate photography's pivotal role in art, the mass media and popular culture. Any informed debate about photo graphy must inevitably cover all these crucial aspects of photography's identity as a medium.

The artist Cindy Sherman draws on and decries the iconography of Hollywood, yet also employs the language of Renaissance painting. Whilst she, rightly, never has to justify her status as an artist, Sherman has also produced fashion shots for Vogue, bridging what Mr Harris seems to see as an impossible divide.

The Canadian artist Jeff Wall produces work which encompasses straight photography as well as digital imagery, and is shown as light-boxes on the scale of advertising hoardings. Contemporary photography encompasses a variety of practices from photo-journalism to the abstract; its practitioners are aware of these complexities and choose their role knowingly.

This is nothing new. Through out this century photography has been central to art practice, from Impressionism to Pop Art, from Surrealism to Minimalism. Used directly by artists such as Duchamp, Man Ray and Moholy Nagy, photography has also had a profound effect across the visual arts.

Given this rich diversity it is sad to encounter the narrow-minded view of photography as a rigid entity, unable to transcend the purely descriptive. Photography is as wide in its concerns as the world from which it draws its images.

The work of the RCA final year photographers is complex, considered and deserving of serious attention. From the documentary to the abstract, through video and installation, the work is rich, exuberant and challenging. The depiction of a journey along a Roman Road tests our notion of history and change to the landscape. An enormous portrait has a broody presence which engulfs the gallery. These describe work by two unsuccessful students.

In assessing the students work, we would have preferred an informed opinion. As he says, Mr Harris shares our craft. He does not share our concerns though, and without even visiting the show he gave himself no chance to understand them. If we did our research as sketchily as Mr Harris, we would deserve to fail.

t The Fine Art Degree Show runs until 16 June, Royal College of Art, Kensington Gore, London SW7.

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