After the Amateur: Notes

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1.

Film, video and photography once fell easily into two categories: professional or amateur.

Professionals mastered their crafts, often through guild-like programs of training, and sought to make a living from their abilities.

Amateurs learned on their own, or through informal clubs of like-minded aficionados, and pursued their arts for reasons other than money or wide-ranging prestige.

Professionals pursued careers. Amateurs pursued hobbies.

Professionals made images for public consumption. Amateurs made images for private use. (“The amateur is not necessarily defined by a lesser knowledge, an imperfect technique…but rather by this: he is the one who does not exhibit, the one who does not make himself heard.” Roland Barthes, “Réquichot and the Body,” 1973)

Corporations created products specifically geared for the amateur in mind—simplified, less expensive, stripped-down versions of professional equipment. Thus Kodak introduced the Brownie in 1900, initially priced at one dollar. Later in the century, 8mm and then Super-8 were promoted to the home-movie market; more adventurous amateur filmmakers took on 16mm.

Technology marketed for amateurs generally did not require as much skill or training as professional equipment. Most amateur gear produced what would be considered a lesser image quality by professionals—in the case of motion pictures, a smaller strip of film than the industry-standard 35mm, thus capable of only lower resolution.

Amateurs were those who did not need to learn, or learned only what they needed.

Professionals demanded certain levels of technical precision in order to reinforce their status as professionals. Amateurs might strive for similar levels of precision, but failing to achieve such a goal would not, of course, preclude their status as amateurs. (Nonetheless, to paraphrase Barthes, there would be no contradiction to say that someone was an “extremely skilled amateur.”)

One can fail to be a professional, but one cannot fail to be an amateur.

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2.

Where the artist fit into the scheme of amateur versus professional became open to debate.

In the American avant-garde cinema, filmmakers chose to align themselves with the amateur. They sought to reverse conventional value judgments of professional over amateur.

“The very classification ‘amateur’ has an apologetic ring. But that very word—from the Latin amator, ‘lover’—means one who does something for the love of the thing rather than for economic reasons or necessity. And this is the meaning from which the amateur filmmaker should take his cue. Instead of envying the script and dialogue writers, the trained actors, the elaborate staffs and sets, the enormous production budgets of the professional film, the amateur should make use of the one great advantage which all professionals envy him, namely, freedom—both artistic and physical.” - Maya Deren, “Amateur Versus Professional,” Movie Makers Annual, 1959

“The day is close when the 8mm home-movie footage will be collected and appreciated as folk art, like songs and the lyric poetry that was created by the people." - Jonas Mekas, “Movie Journal,” The Village Voice, 1963

“[I] have come to be called a ‘professional,’ an ‘artist’ and an ‘amateur.’ Of those three terms—‘amateur’—is the one I am truly most honored by… Why have they come to make ‘amateur’ mean: ‘inexperienced,’ ‘clumsy,’ ‘dull,’ or even ‘dangerous’? It is because an amateur is one who really lives his life—not one who simply ‘performs his duty’—and as such he experiences his work while he’s working—rather than going to school to learn his work so he can spend the rest of his life just doing it dutifully.”— Stan Brakhage, “In Defence of Amateur,” 1971

The adoption of the amateur contributed to a greater post-war project: the dissolution of borders between art and everyday life, or more specifically (pace Parker Tyler) art and lifestyle.

Filmmakers celebrated the separation of art from commercial enterprise, repositioning this separation as a kind of freedom, both spiritual and formal. For filmmakers like Deren, Mekas and Brakhage, the amateur was a true “lover” of film who engaged with the technology in a passionate fervor of poesis rather than within the impersonal structures of the capitalist industry.

For photography, however, critics looked differently at the relationship of the artist to the amateur—perhaps because amateur photography enjoyed a longer, broader history as a hobby, akin to painting watercolors and throwing pottery.

Art photographers were often professional photographers who created non-commercial pictures on the side. They brought professional standards to unusual or evocative subject matter (e.g. Edward Weston, White Radish, 1933).

“In photography’s early decades, photographs were expected to be idealized images,” Susan Sontag wrote in On Photography, published in 1977. “This is still the aim of amateur photographers, for whom a beautiful photograph is a photograph of something beautiful, like a woman, a sunset.” For Sontag, the amateur strives merely for conventionally pretty pictures, and not beyond that. The amateur photographer is the baseline of photographic aesthetics, above which both professional and artist must rise.

Writing on MOMA curator John Szarkowski’s 1966 exhibit and book The Photographer’s Eye—the first major curatorial endeavor to mix established art photography with supposedly non-art forms like journalistic photography, home pictures, Victorian cartes de visite and so on—Janet Malcolm read the event as a threat to the newly-won integrity of art photography:

“Perusing The Photographer’s Eye is a shattering experience for the advocate of photography’s claims as an art form. The accepted notion that in the hands of a great talent, and by dint of long study and extraordinary effort, photography can overcome its mechanical nature and ascend to the level of art is overturned by Szarkowski’s anthology, whose every specimen is (or as the case may be, isn’t) a work of art. (Malcolm, “Diana and Nikon,” 1976)

Malcolm and Sontag both wrote on photography at a time when the form saw an unprecedented boom in gallery sales and exhibition. Suddenly making a critical or curatorial judgment on a photograph could have an actual monetary value.

2b.

Despite hopes and fears that, as part of the post-war involution of high and low, the amateur would overturn the professional, in contemporary everyday parlance “amateur” has ultimately resisted reclassification into a term of praise.

When we today criticize artworks as “amateurish” we (still) mean: naïve, studenty, dilletantish, unlearned, uncouth, unworthy of exhibition.

But—while we might praise artists themselves for being “professional” (that is, easy for curators to work with), we use equivalents of the same word as dismissals: we don’t like work that is “too slick,” “too commercial.” Or even: “too self-aware.”

Unlike Deren, Brakhage, et al, we live in a society in which the role of the artist has become largely professionalized. That professionalization occurs at the level of the MFA program, and by extension, the academic convention of the Curriculum Vitae.

The culture of MFA programs: a simultaneous embrace and disavowal of professional status, even as the degree functions specifically to enforce and validate a categorical distinction from the amateur.

(amateur = “too sloppy”, professional = “too perfect” ?)
(amateur = “not careful enough”, professional = “too careful” ?)
(amateur = “not finished enough”, professional = “too finished” ?)

While amateurishness and slickness can be recouped as conceptual maneuvers, a distancing and thus partial disavowal of one’s own production, this gesture itself might be denounced as “too studied.”

3.

Investigate the category in order to abandon it: does “amateur” still work as a descriptor for user-generated content on the internet?

If artists can take apart obsolete technology, critics can take apart obsolete vocabulary.

Look through the idea of amateur as a different approach to the idea of defaults.

We can still find traditional “amateur photography” online (flowers, sunsets, nudes, etc.) but this isn’t the kind of work that artists engaged with the internet are drawn to. Perhaps we need a new category of “sub-amateur” or “ultra-amateur” to describe what’s happening.

Theories create names for patterns. The main goal of introducing a category like “sub-amateur” is not to impose a taxonomy (this is sub-amateur, that is amateur) but rather to begin to develop a more nuanced vocabulary to discuss observable tendencies.

But first—to backtrack:

In “Diana and Nikon,” Malcolm finds it necessary to use another classification, distinct from “amateur,” to describe a new trend in art photography of the 1970s. Now, she writes, a generation of photographers takes as its “starting point, model, and guide…the most inartistic (and presumably most purely photographic) form of all—the home snapshot.”

“The attributes previously sought by photographers—strong design, orderly composition, control over tonal values, lucidity of content, good print quality—have been stood on their heads, and the qualities now courted are formlessness, rawness, clutter, accident, and other manifestations of the camera’s formidable capacity for imposing disorder on reality—for transforming, say, a serene gathering of nice-looking people in pleasant surroundings (as one had perceived it) into a chaotic mess of lamp cords, rumpled Kleenexes, ugly food, ill-fitting clothes, grotesque gestures, and vapid expressions.”

The price of a snapshot’s ease is a loss of control. The world seeps back into the frame like the messy monsters of the unconscious.

Thus, “Robert Frank’s terrible Polaroid pictures of his friends are like anyone else’s terrible Polaroid pictures”—save, Malcolm argues, for the Duchampian valence that emerges in the gallery context.

As Sontag or Deren defined them, amateurs are lovers of beauty. They invest a certain level of devotion to the technologies they employ—so much that a talented amateur may achieve the same level of technical sophistication as the professional, even if they miss the subtlety of art.

But as the very word reveals, the snapshot is the epitome of photography at its most automatic (its “most purely photographic”—but only in one sense). Snapshots are the result of corporate interest in broadening the market for photography as widely as possible by lowering the learning curve for the successful use of cameras.

Similar motivations can be found in film: the devolution from 35mm to 16mm to 8mm to Super-8 to the video camcorder to the webcam is driven by a desire to increase user-friendliness and decrease the need for learning the technology.

The ideal camera would be one that involved no training whatsoever. Lack of formal control is traded for the assurance of image-capturing. This is the greater socio-economic mechanism that produces the default.

This historical process allows for—and encourages—the removal of the amateur’s “love” that had always been implicated in the devotion necessary to learn the technology.

The amateur enjoyed spending time with the camera, and thus could become caught up in its formal possibilities; the sub-amateur sees the camera in terms of pure and immediate functionality.

4.

Nietzsche valorized a “belief in form, but disbelief in content” in aphorisms. The sub-amateur prefers a belief in content, and a disbelief in form.

The artist appropriating sub-amateur practice often chooses to reveal this forgotten form.

Consider some familiar examples of contemporary internet art.

Guthrie Lonergan’s Internet Group Shot (2006) reveals that the snapshot imposes its own social defaults. The convention of the group shot becomes a non-technological default setting for the snapshot.

Double Happiness’s Baldy Steady Peepin (2009) ignores the functional center of the photographic set—the water-skier—in favor of the tops of heads peeping into the frame. They become enigmatic and funny in their repetition—as if the trend constituted an accidental formal default.

Oliver Laric’s 50 50 (2007) makes visible formal differences between a social-default convention of the YouTube lip-dub: variations in image and sound compression, lighting, and composition become as individually expressive as the performers themselves. These elements had been, of course, invisible or irrelevant to the original creators of each clip.

Petra Cortright’s vvebcam (2007) exposes the gap between defaults and emotive expression. Dancing pizza slices and zapping electric arcs clash with the user’s blank stare back into the monitor as she records herself.

The practice of re-reading errors and automatic settings as formal elements was already apparent in Malcolm’s 1976 discussion of the snapshot as Duchampian fodder. “Removed from their normal context of the playroom wastebasket,” she writes, artists’ snapshots “assume the aspect of elegant, ironic studies of pattern, light, texture, and special relations.” She implies that a non-artist’s snapshot would do so just as well.

A quote from Lonergan’s lecture We Did It Ourselves! that can be read as contra Malcolm: “I’m in love with the struggle of something real coming through this structure.”

Defaults reveal personality or other aspects of reality—perhaps even truth—despite being defaults, rather than merely providing analogs for the formal conventions of art.

Perhaps a peculiar frisson emerges in work that does both things simultaneously, quivering between the cool form of art and the warm touch of reality.

5.

These notes will not fall into the critical trap of simply stating, “I recognize this. It has been done before.”

Lonergan’s definition of defaults from his lecture : “Using the most widely available software for the creation of content—like MS Paint or iMovie or YouTube or Google—at the most basic user level, mostly in the way they were meant to be used, relying heavily on built-in presets.”

The concept, he said, emerged from his interest in “certain qualities” made visible from “normal people participating in this DIY internet thing.” The shift from a DIY music subculture to a DIY internet mass culture.

If the idea of defaults grows specifically out of software-based technologies, then the concept of the sub-amateur is about how that tendency already began with pre-digital technologies such as still and motion picture cameras. (Doubtlessly the concept could be extended to music production, graphic design, perhaps even writing.)

In his talk, Lonergan pointed out the webpage ChrisReid’s Super Soaker Collection, saying, “I really like how he presents this collection.” (Barthes’s observation that the amateur is “the one who does not exhibit” clearly no longer applies to the sub-amateur.)

The point here is not to look at ChrisReid as a latter-day Eugène Atget, producing a compelling, art-like formal exercise in the course of workaday documentation.

Rather, the photos must be seen as equal to the data provided in his Excel spreadsheet. The fascination comes from the absolute lack of aesthetic property, in the pure use-value of the image, rather than ironic misrecognition.

The phenomenon of defaults point to the end of the amateur, and the emergence of a new category that has always lurked within it: one that completely ignores the formal properties of images in favor of their raw instrumentality.

In order understand the sub-amateur, we need not a vocabulary of forms, but a vocabulary of functions.

Ed Halter is a critic and curator living in New York City. His writing has appeared in Artforum, Arthur, The Believer, Cinema Scope, Kunstforum, Millennium Film Journal, Moving Image Source, Rhizome, the Village Voice and elsewhere. From 1995 to 2005, he programmed and oversaw the New York Underground Film Festival, and has organized screenings and exhibitions for the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Cinematexas, Eyebeam, the Flaherty Film Seminar, the Museum of Modern Art, and San Francisco Cinematheque. He currently teaches in the Film and Electronic Arts department at Bard College, and has lectured at Harvard, NYU, Yale, and other schools as well as at Art in General, Aurora Picture Show, the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology, the Images Festival, the Impakt Festival, and Pacific Film Archive. His book From Sun Tzu to Xbox: War and Video Games was published by Thunder's Mouth Press in 2006. With Andrea Grover, he is currently editing the collection A Microcinema Primer: A Brief History of Small Cinemas. He is a founder and director of Light Industry, a venue for film and electronic art in Brooklyn, New York.