The idea of representation has long been a difficult one in the history of human culture. Representation involves two separate actions: seeing and creating. Both of these contain complex semiotic processes that must occur within the mind, which means that the result of representation can vary significantly from one person to the next, or even from one point in time to another for the same person. In the case of sculpture, the process of seeing takes on one of two forms: actual visual interplay with a subject or imaginary conception of a subject. Even if the subject is already real and stands before the artist, the process of seeing goes through a number of filters. When one sees a subject with one’s eyes, one not only uses the filters in the retina but also the affective filters in the mind. If one sees a man, clad in all black, walking down a street, one’s affective filter might remind one of the country singer Johnny Cash, or a Catholic priest, an executioner, or a ninja. All of those figures are associated with black clothing, but the four “images” are all quite different. Next comes the process of creating the sculpture. The sculptor is likely to create a piece of the subject that most closely resembles his own affective connections to that subject but, again, there are affective filters that guide the production of facial features and parts of the body. If one adds the phenomenon of photographing the sculpture, one adds another level of filtering, in the form of the angles chosen, the lighting and even the coloring of the picture. Seeing a sculpture in a photograph in a book or other source adds another layer of distance to the encounter with the art, but it also gives the sculpture a level of canonization. The photograph, then, captures but also reduces the sculpture to an object in a category.
Photography would seem to confer a degree of honor on a piece of sculpture. After all, the very act of taking the picture indicates that the photographer has noticed the sculpture and chosen it for some reason. By taking the picture, the photographer has already begun to add his own artistic touches to it. The angle from which the photographer chooses to take the picture can be of particular import, as the right angle can emphasize the stature of the piece, while a different angle can make the sculpture seem much less imposing than it might look in person. The lighting chosen in the photograph can make the sculpture seem much more subdued or in shadow than the space in which the sculpture appears. An additional degree of honor comes when the sculpture’s photograph is part of that sculpture’s inclusion in a book of important works of art. Because there has always been a degree of subjectivity in the canonization of pieces of art, the choice to make a sculpture part of an accepted set of artistic works is a decision that confers value without much in the way of objective support. Politics has long been a means of building this support; in ancient times and the Renaissance, the major artworks were completed at the request of patrons who wanted specific subjects and specific pieces. In modern times, the selection of certain pieces for galleries often involves determining whether or not the pieces match the aesthetic and political beliefs of art gallery owners. In any case, photography can confer a degree of canonization on pieces of sculpture.
On the other hand, though, viewing sculptures in photographs takes away the entire scope and stature of the three-dimensional object. As Bergstein indicates, “sculpturemay be the plastic art most deflated, most deprived of its substance in photographic representation.” A piece that could be several yards high is now boiled down to a photographic image. Set side by side with a photograph of a sculpture that is a foot or so high. Both of them, in the book, now have the same height, obviously distorting the relative scale of the two pieces. If you have seen Michelangelo’s David in person, the gleaming white statue in larger-than-life dimensions is a stunning sight. Seen in a photograph in a book of masterworks of art, it becomes just another artifact rather than an incredible work of genius on its own.
Photography also robs sculpture of its seeming permanence. Because the “essential physical and metaphorical fabric of photographyis perceived as soft and transparent,” the emphatic presence of a sculpture does not translate to the printed image. Works of granite, marble and bronze feel (well, seem like they would feel, since museums do not allow people to touch works) much more permanent than photographs. The Sphinx in Egypt has lasted as long as it has because of its medium. While museums do take precautions to protect their sculptures from the elements, in order to preserve the original condition as long as possible, a photograph has much less permanence. The differences in the processes also blur the idea of permanence when one takes a photograph of a sculpture. In a matter of seconds, one can take a photograph of a sculpture and then disseminate it to an infinite number of viewers through the technology of social media. Actually making that sculpture takes much more time, ranging from days to months more than making the photograph. That quick snapshot takes the painstaking work of the sculptor and places it inside the same artistic category as a candid photograph at a playground. The artistic weight of the sculpture implodes, not just in terms of the size of the piece but in terms of the sense of time that went into making it.
One of the effects of the spread of social media is the continuing insulation of people from one another, and from objects. Artistic experiences such as visits to see sculpture will become less and less important, as the images we see vicariously occupy more and more of our attention and time. While this leads to an increase in exposure, as the images per hour increase because of the convenient access, it also leads to a decrease in impact, as each image or stimulus means less, as it has less time to work its way into our consciousness. The implications for media like sculpture are significant; while there are still patrons who take the time to view the various forms of three-dimensional art, the increased emphasis on the two-dimensional, whether in still photography, the short GIF format, or the longer video, means that sculpture is set to change fundamentally as an art medium, in the process of viewing and interpreting those works.
Bergstein, Mary. “Lonely aphrodites: on the Documentary photography of sculpture," The Art Bulletin 74:3 (1992): 475-498.
Harrison, Charles. An Introduction to Art, New York: Yale University Press, 2008.