“Accidental Masterpieces” in the Digital Age
In his sweetly-nostalgic, elegiac essay “The Art of Being Artless,” art critic Michael Kimmelman muses on “amateur” art, particularly the photographic snapshot and “paint-by-numbers” painting genre best exemplified by 70s-styled Bob Ross in his Joy of Painting TV series. The Bob Ross phenomenon deserves its own Venetian Red post; suffice it to say, that at least once in every episode I ever watched (alright relax, it wasn’t that many), Bob intones, in his coma-inducing voice, some version of the claim: “No previous experience of any kind is required to make your masterpiece.”
Kimmelman observes that every once in a while a private snapshot contains a serendipitous and unintended mixture of elements (composition, form, light) that give it “blythe innocence, immediacy, and surrealism and comic charm” and push it into the realm of the publicly-consumed art photograph. He maintains that the boundaries between private and public photography have always been somewhat fluid. An anonymous amateur points his/her camera at something, intends one thing, but gets another. That is the happy process of an “accidental masterpiece.” The result is no less meaningful or beautiful than what is presented in attributed high-art shots. Perhaps the only point of difference is that professionals don’t on rely to such a large extent on the unexpected.
In this context, it stands to reason, that Kimmelman would go on to lament the popularity of digital photography:
Since digital technology now permits people to delete mistakes before they are printed and to preserve images in computers rather than deal with deteriorating prints…posterity is being deprived of who knows how many similar examples of creative artlessness.
Although my experience moving from film to digital parallels Kimmelman’s statement, I’m not sure the demise the “accidental masterpiece” has descended upon us. True, in the last generation and a half, photography has rooted itself inexorably as an art form. We’ve become more visually educated (although not necessarily more sophisticated). We have a huge and growing repository of images to study and emulate. Furthermore, amusing, but insidious, tools like Photoshop force “improvement,” competition even, around creating the most outrageous shot. Amateurs are now free to pursue the oxymoronic accidental masterpiece.
To test my hypothesis, I logged onto Flickr to see what “accidental masterpieces” might be buried there. Finding a happy mistake proved to be an exceedingly difficult affair. First, I culled through literally scores of pages, hundreds of shots, in the Portrait, Landscape and Still Life categories. I’m not saying these shots don’t have a place, but duded up, tricked out, glitsy and slick shots might better have been listed under the “highly-derivative fine art photography” category. Then, I thought search by the term “family shots.”
Among the 76,337 shots listed, I found a number of really interesting mistakes; some that even breeched the perimeter of Kimmelman’s magical realm. Take the above picture for example. I imagine “n2linux” (aka Matthew Freeman) was attempting to record his young son in action on the mini-golf fairway, all smiles, club in hand. He’s taken some care to get a good shot. The background stage is well-composed. The twin diagonals of the railing and two green fairways draw our eyes expertly back in space to the stairs, thus creating elements like depth and a sense of movement, hallmarks of many an “art” shot. Additionally, this the stairs at the end create anticipation in our minds of what’s beyond. The shadow of the pole shooting across the second green softens the otherwise overwhelming power of the diagonal. The child’s position creates two counterpoint diagonals—one through the lines of his hips, the other through the golf club.
The photographer was probably hoping that his child would look at the camera. But kids will be kids. Just before the press of the shutter, the boy decides he’s got more important things to do then wait for Dad. Whoops! In a flash, the picture is ruined. Or is it? As an anonymous record of a time and place—family leisure in the 21st century—it joins a larger category, “historical record.” More powerfully, the child’s pose the photo elevates the photo to a statement about childhood impatience. It’s not a portrait of a particular child, but of all children.
This photo perfectly illustrates Kimmelman’s point about the beauty of “accidental masterpieces.” All it took was luck and a split second.