Saturday, 15 December 2007

Photography and connoisseurship

Gruppetto, Burgundy, France, June 2007
The team passing Chateauneuf, of wine producing fame

There has been discussion at T.O.P. and The Landscapist of this article on photography criticism. At the same time, Doug Stockdale and Paul Butzi have been ruminating over pricing photography for sale.

As I went off to buy the Christmas wine today, suddenly I realised that these subjects come together. First a diversion on wine, that will prove a point that I'll make later.

On my cycling trip to France earlier in the year, wine was quite an important part of the journey. We were riding through Burgundy, past the famous vineyards. Wine was on the table every evening. One afternoon we spent at a tasting lunch run by Leflaive. 15 wines over lunch, Villages to Grand Cru.

Of the 5 of us, I would consider 2 serious wine drinkers, 2 as "anything but vinegar" drinkers and myself somewhere in the middle.

The 2 serious wine drinkers could happily tell the difference between different vineyards & distinguish characteristics of a Grand versus premier Cru. Preference was then a matter of taste. Personally, I couldn't really tell a Grand from a Premier but saw some differences in the different sources. There were definitely wines I preferred. We are talking subtle differences in very fine wines. The last 2 could tell this was all good stuff but were quite happy drinking anything.

Outside of our little group there are the masses who are happy to order a "white wine" in a bar, with no thought to grape, source, age etc.

What has this to do with photography - everything. I believe that the problem photographers and fine printers have with the selling part is the difference in connoisseurship between "us" and "them". The vast majority of art (and by extension photography) consumers, I believe, can't really tell the difference between the finest work and mini-lab snaps. Just like the majority can't tell the difference between wine from a box and the finest vintage.

The photography community is busy trying to sell top end product to an audience that can't tell the difference except for the price tag. Therein lies a problem. How one solves it, I do not know. I think maybe painters get further because more people understand the differences. Museums & galleries are full of it and there are plenty of educational programmes (including school) that generate appreciation by distinction.

Maybe less effort needs to be spent on teaching photography to photographers and more on teaching it to the non-photographers, thus raising the levels of appreciation.


  1. Martin, you raise a good point, but I think the collary to this is that those who really understand the differences in great wines did the research themselves, not from a lesson during school (well maybe in a private lesson after school - wink, wink). The point is, that if someone wants to really understand photography and a fine print in order to appreciate the neanunces, they will gladly take that study and research on themselves.

  2. That's a good point, hadn't really thought of it from that angle. I wonder, though, if those who are motivated already make the effort and maybe there is a wider audience to be reached. there are, after all, wine appreciation course available too.


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