Laura Gascoigne: Photography, Wrong Sort Of – January 2017

“And the Praemium Imperiale Award for Painting goes to… a photographer!” Yep, Cindy Sherman has won the Imperial Japanese gong for mastery of greasepaint for that interminable string of selfies in fancy dress we all wearied of circa 1980. If not for greasepaint, it would have to be for psychological insight – and despite her readiness to raid the dressing-up box and make her ageing self look ridiculous in the name of art, Rembrandt she ain’t.

Sherman is the least qualified non-painter to win the award so far, but she’s not the first. Bill Viola won it in 2011 and Japan’s own Hiroshi Sugimoto in 2009 – both non-painters who piggyback on the history of painting. But no hard feelings; it’s all water under the interdisciplinary bridge. As Frances Morris established at the opening of Tate Modern’s Switch House: “We don’t any longer have a hierarchy where painting is at the top.”

As if to settle the point beyond dispute, last year the Tate awarded its annual IK Prize for creative talent in the digital industry to a team from Treviso for an experimental project using artificial intelligence to compare news photographs with works in the collection. Titled Re][cognition – potty punctuation is de rigeur in the digi-world – it set out to answer the question: “Can a machine make us look afresh at great art through the lens of today’s world?”

The way it worked was this. Every day, a crop of current news photos shot by Reuters’ photographers were shown to the machine, which then scanned the collection at the rate of thousands of images a minute and spat out matches based on object, facial, compositional and context recognition.

Now this is an area I’ve long been interested in, so I went along to Tate Britain to have a look. For years I’ve been collecting news photographs that echo the compositions of old master paintings. Some subjects are naturally fertile territory – almost every refugee mother and baby is a Madonna and Child, every grieving mother a Mater Dolorosa – but the parallels go further. I was particularly pleased to find a photo of Mick Philpott and his wife Mairead at a press conference following the self-started house fire that killed their six children in 2014 doing a perfect impersonation of Adam and Eve in Masaccio’s Expulsion from Eden.

Are these coincidences? I don’t think the borrowings are deliberate; it’s more that the educated eye of the photographer, making a snap decision in the heat of the moment, matches the scene with a meaningful image in the memory, and frames it. Photographers, being blessed with human brains – and emotional intelligence – can make split-second calculations machines can’t. (If they could, CCTV would produce prize-winning photographs of people breaking open cash points or mugging old ladies.)

Of course the matches in Recognition were nonsensical. The machine was reliable enough (though not 100%) at identifying ‘a man wearing a white shirt’ or ‘a woman with dark hair’, but despite its programmers’ claims that it could determine “the age, gender and emotional state of each subject it finds”, it was defeated by the most basic of facial expressions. It saw smiles on the faces of Matteo Renzi at a press conference and Francis Bacon in a portrait by Lucian Freud because their mouths were slightly turned up at the corners. A month-old baby would not have made the same mistake; it would probably have cried. Nor, if consulted, would it have drawn a comparison between a photo of Brazilian President Michel Temer attending the launch of a banking initiative at the Planalto Palace with Anthony Caro’s 1980s sculpture Night Movements, on the basis of “prominent shapes and structures, visual layout, and colours”. If it had, its mother would have worried.

So it was sensible to include an interactive section where visitors could tap a screen and make their own connections “to see if Recognition can learn from the many personal responses humans have when looking at images”. I had some fun matching a Black Friday photo of a frenzy of red and white shopping bags with Patrick Heron’s Azalea Garden. But I was disappointed to find that visitors’ choices were not recorded on the website, where they would have exposed the machine’s inadequacies. It seems that while a computer can be programmed to fudge a fair approximation of a Rembrandt portrait, left to itself it can’t tell one thing from another.

If this experiment taught us anything, it was that however anti-hierarchical we may be, it’s too soon to open up the competition to artificial intelligence. Yet in the field of photography, that day may not be far off. I’m not talking about news photographers, who do a job no machine could possibly do and bring an acute visual intelligence to it. I’m talking about ‘fine art photographers’ as exemplified by Wolfgang Tillmans, the first photographer to be awarded the Turner Prize, who (having recently finished a stint as a Tate Trustee) has a solo show opening at Tate Modern in February. Tillmans takes egalitarianism to its logical conclusion, refusing to distinguish between motifs: if the geeks from Treviso programmed a computer to take photographs, they would look like his.

While Tillmans is larging it at Tate Modern, the work of Roger Mayne will be showing at Graves Art Gallery, Sheffield in the exhibition Street View: Photographs of Urban Life (until March 11th). Mayne, a chemistry graduate of Balliol College Oxford, was egalitarian enough to want to devote five years of his life to photographing slum children on the streets of West London. The slums have long gone, but the photographs look as fresh as the day they were taken – which may be why one was chosen as the poster image for Tate Britain’s photographic survey How We Are. In Mayne’s case the past tense would have been more accurate. In 1956 he was given a one-man-show at the ICA. Today he might take photographs for Reuters, but he would never be given a show at Tate Modern because he is the wrong sort of photographer.

Photography is now the ultimate democratic medium: anyone and everyone can click a shutter. But which images will last? In 60 years’ time, will people feel a jolt of recognition on seeing a photograph by Tillmans, or blank indifference? For a photographer who calls himself a fine artist, impartial records of reality aren’t enough: to lodge in the human mind, a photograph must mean more to a flesh-and-blood viewer than to a Recognition machine. Here painting still retains the emotional edge that the painter doesn’t have to wait for the ‘decisive moment’ to reveal meaning, since meaning is built into the composition. For what it’s worth, Sherman composes her portraits down to the last hair, which could, I suppose, be thought to bring them halfway towards meeting the criteria for a painting prize. But halfway isn’t far enough. There is still the small matter of artistic expression.

“Photography doesn’t get nearer experience. Painting gets nearer to it because it can do far more,” said David Hockney in a 1984 interview, before quoting Man Ray: “I photograph what you can’t paint, and I paint what you can’t photograph.” A wise judgment, and one the imperial family would do well to consider when awarding the next Praemium Imperiale.

Laura Gascoigne
The Jackdaw Jan/Feb 2017