In 1925, the Belgian Surrealist artist René Magritte exhibited a painting called The Treachery of Images. It consisted of a representation of a smoker’s pipe on a neutral beige background with the words Ceci n’est pas une pipe (This is not a pipe) written under the image. As Magritte himself explained:
The famous pipe. How people reproached me for it! And yet, could you stuff my pipe? No, it's just a representation, is it not? So if I had written on my picture 'This is a pipe', I'd have been lying!
With this painting, Magritte seems to be making a comment on the way representational forms of art are often perceived. The viewer may be “betrayed” into responding only to that which is represented, thereby neglecting to consider the manner in which it is represented.
This is not merely a pedantic point but has important implications for how we assess the quality of a work of representational art. Judge my painting using the technical and aesthetic criteria related to Painting, not those related to Pipes, Magritte seems to be saying.
As it is generally believed that a photograph captures reality, photography is widely considered to be the most representational of all art forms. It is therefore particularly given to the “treachery” alluded to by Magritte.
Even more so than representational drawings, paintings and sculptures, judgments of photographs are often based purely on the viewer’s emotional and subjective response to the subject matter. “Oh, what a beautiful photograph!” we say when looking at an image of a spectacular landscape, a colourful sunset or a cute child, as if we were looking at the actual three-dimensional subject, not a two-dimensional representation of that subject.
The Photograph as Art, though, is not only or even mainly concerned with accurately representing a subject, but also with aesthetic aspects of picture-making, many of which it shares with painting. As such, the viewer’s response to the subject represented in the image should form only one small aspect of an overall appraisal of a fine art photograph. Aesthetic aspects, such as the quality of light, tonal range, composition, depth of field, colour and texture are central to the practice of the fine art photographer and should therefore also be taken into account by the viewer.
I hope that the title of this blog, Ceci n’est pas une poterie (This is not a pot), will now make sense. What is shown here is a fine art photograph of a pot. Its creation was driven not just by the desire to represent the pot, but also by the aesthetic considerations mentioned above. Whether or not this is a good fine art photograph, though, is a judgment I leave up to you, dear reader.