TUQs — The Unanswered Questions

Charles Ives composed a piece of music called The Unanswered Question for solo trumpet, string quartet and woodwind quartet. The trumpet, hidden away off stage, poses the question; the strings respond with the soft asthmatic sighs of an expiring pipe organ; the woodwinds chatter and argue until the end. It’s a wonderfully evocative piece. And the question, though often repeated, remains unanswered.

Most websites have a FAQ containing answers to questions frequently asked. This website has a TUQs containing questions not yet answered. It is the Photodocs agenda, the outline of the site.

TUQs is a list of questions about photography, each with a short bit attached to suggest why it may be worth considering. Over time, if and when I can create a longer piece that tries for an answer, I’ll update this page with a link to the new material. I’ll also update this page when new questions occur to me. Please use the comments form to send your own questions; I’ll add the best, most provocative and, if possible, try to find an answer. Please feel free to contribute your answers via the comments to posts as they appear.

What is a photograph?

This is the question that underlies all the rest. These days, virtually everyone has a camera of some sort. We are all photographers. We all make images. But what are we doing? Really? What do we make when we push that button? Is there an answer? Is there an answer based on, for example: the way photographs are made, the purposes to which they are put, the values or meanings we attach to them—as photographers, viewers, decision-makers, investors, thinkers or fun seekers?

Can a photograph be good?

During his life time, Vincent Van Gogh sold one painting. Later, after two generations of his family had preserved and promoted his work, he began to grow into the iconic figure he is today. The founder of Expressionism. On the other hand, during his life time, Pablo Picasso (a founder of Cubism) became a wealthy man from his art many times over. Were Van Gogh’s paintings not good and then gradually, increasingly good? Were Picasso’s paintings good and then even better after his death? In general, what does good have to do with sales or the price garnered at auction? Once good, always good?

Is every photograph art?

On the front page of this website I quote Ernst Gombrich as saying, in effect, there is no such thing as Art, there are only artists. While Gombrich said it and I quoted it, I didn’t mean for the statement to go unquestioned. Questions and answers about the existence or nonexistence of art are most important; they fascinate me; they are the reason this site exists.

For example, as I write these words (26 June 2007) there is news on the Internet of the recent death of Bernd Becher. In his remembrance, Mike Johnson said, “The formal beauty of their investigations has long been appreciated, and has earned for Bernd and Hilla Becher widespread acclaim as art photographers.” Look at a small collection of images he and his wife created. Are the artistic merits of the work immediately obvious?

Can there be something artistically or aesthetically unique about a photograph? Something that is not an artistic quality of, say, a painting or an etching? If so, what is it?

Does digital make a difference?

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to find supplies for doing traditional, chemistry-based photography—film, developer, paper for printing. Certainly for 35 mm format. Not too long ago, many mom-and-pop video rental stores and drug stores had a film processing machine for producing 4 by 6 or 5 by 7 inch prints from colour negative film. No longer.

Now, cameras seem to be built into everything—cell phones and laptop computers in particular. Digital imaging is becoming more ubiquitous than film ever was. Aside from ubiquity, has the transition to digital changed anything about photography? In fact, should we still be using the word photography? What qualitative or aesthetic changes are taking place that differentiate digital imaging from the old silver-based photography? Will silver-based photography survive? Revive? In what forms? What are the new features inherent in the digi part of imaging? Where will they take us as photographers and viewers?