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Are Good Photos by Horrible People Worthy of Your Attention?

Perhaps one of the biggest moral debates I have with myself is when I look at the good work of “bad” photographers — work that has a life of its own and work that has become culturally significant. Yet, that work has a dark side to it: the creator. Is it possible to look at photographs without ever thinking about the photographer behind them? 

It all starts with my industry: fashion. The fashion industry is notorious for various scandals surrounding sexism and exploitation. Many major fashion photographers have played central roles in such scandals. That led some to lose jobs, burning bridges with big clients, and losing all credibility. I will refrain from mentioning any 21st-century cases in this original, as I believe they are too recent to be considered when answering a question like this. If you are interested in learning more, feel free to look up the cases yourself and offer your point of view in the comments. 

There are two main camps when it comes to how art and artist are related. Some believe that art and artist are inseparable while others agree that art has a life of its own and in a way, it doesn’t matter who made it. There are valid arguments on both sides, so let’s dive in. 

Art Is a Personal Adventure for the Artist

In simplest terms, art is an expression of a point of view. It expresses the point of view of the artist. A lot of art is personal, and that naturally has deep connections that go right back to the person who created it: the artists. Each artist, photographer, painter is unique in their being, and that is seen through their art. An artist's unique perspective of the world can be communicated through their art. For example, as a fashion photographer, I choose to photograph a specific style of clothes. While I don’t exclusively photograph it, a lot of my work is indeed centered around what I personally like. Another aspect of this is a drama that is ever so prevalent in my images. It may be expressed through color, posing, or something else. One of my favorite pieces of music: Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto is also dramatic, one of my favorite artists: Hopper is also dramatic. Therefore, my work is a portrayal of who I am. I won’t go further into analyzing my work, as I find it incredibly pretentious. Feel free to check out my website and make sense of it yourself. 

In general, as photographers, the style we work in should ideally be what we love. If we love the subject matter, the images will look great. For example, because I love bikes, I can take a nice bike image. Further, I spend all day looking at fashion, and I photograph fashion because I am madly in love with the genre. 

The intention is important too. The personal part about photography and art, in general, can also be healing to the artist. Very few artists create art for others; most create it for themselves. This may lead to art becoming the artist's baby, and some of the art can’t be understood without reading into the artist's life. However, is that great art? 

Suppose Art Can Be Separated, but Should It?

According to Rankin, great photographs make you think and feel something. Therefore, art should stand on its own merits if it is ever to inspire thinking. The audience should not spend time being a biographer or research the artist’s life to death in order to benefit from the work. Don’t get me wrong, the artist’s background can be fascinating and enhance the viewer's experience. The key is to enhance. 

As much as art is a personal experience for the artist, it is also a personal experience for the audience. Individual interpretation comes from thinking and feeling. It is up to the audience to think and feel with the art. In this regard, art is separable from the artist. It is actually a great exercise trying to perceive art without any other context. The interpretation you come up with will be unique and won’t be influenced by previous opinions and points of view. 

However, still, I believe that art and artist are inseparable. What would Mozart's Requiem be without the context of his death shortly after completion? What would Platon’s photography be without the context of him being fascinated by people, yet dyslexic? Platon’s personal life influenced his work. His portraits are stripped of everything that is unimportant; they put the subject in the center. That subject is the heart, soul, and body of the image.  

Having established that art can’t be separated from the artist and that knowing about the artist enhances the experience of the art, let’s consider the following case. While admiring the art, you despise the artist’s actions. Should you, in this case, separate the art from the artist in order to perceive the work on its own merits? 

I don’t think so. 

As humans, we are all flawed, and understanding each other’s flaws is key to being able to objectively evaluate the actions of that person. Flawed artists can still produce great work; the background of the artist doesn’t make their work bad. The background of the artist just adds a new layer of meaning to what they created. Being a strong believer in no judgment, I try to simply be grateful for the awareness that is created by art, as well as the artist. When perceiving art, try to seek the awareness it creates about your own reality, not the judgment you put on art and the artist. By looking for awareness you utilize the energy in the art, yet by judging art on any merit, you destroy whatever meaning there is. 

Closing Thoughts

Can we separate art from the artist? The question does not have a definitive answer. Separating art from the artist is only a small fraction of how we perceive it. In my opinion, perceiving art is most creative for your life when you seek the awareness that artwork created for you. This awareness may be about a humanitarian crisis, or it may be about oppression of women, it may also be about pollution. The topic is up to you to choose. The artist is an integral part of the artwork, and they put their own energy into what they create; the presence of that energy can’t be ignored. Instead, it needs to be acknowledged for the awareness it creates around understanding the ultimate message behind the artwork, a message each one of us sees differently and applies differently to our existence.  

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Timothy Roper's picture

There's a big difference between viewing an artist's work (and enjoying it or not), and buying an artist's work, and it's with the buying and supporting where this issue really plays out. People buy the story as much as the physical (or, increasingly, digital) work. And if it's a "bad" story --like say watercolors by Hitler--or worse, no story at all, collectors are going to have problems with it. Conversely, for most commercial photography, most people don't know and don't care who the photographer is. But in the end, people will do whatever they personally feel comfortable with, regardless of what others think of it philosophically.

Kirk Darling's picture

Of course, this question is not merely one of art. Thomas Jefferson, for instance, is easily shown by his own writings to have been absolutely a racist pig and a rapist.

Should we then cast doubt upon his thoughts on politics? Would we not be correct in postulating that his conviction that black people are not true human beings reduce the worth of his assertion that "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness?"

"In for a penny, in for a pound."

The answer to the question is the same, whether art or politics or science (should we toss aside any of the achievements of rocketry by Werner von Braun?) or any other subject.

Deleted Account's picture

If we can accept that a murderer can also be a good husband and a loving father, we should also accept the beautiful art of an ugly character. But just as no one actually wants to live with a murderer, there is no need to hang works by criminals on one's wall or to read books of an offender.
Thousands of streets bear the names of statesmen and celebrities about whom disgusting and gruesome things later came out. Is it right to let these names stand and thus honour such people and at the same time humiliate the victims once again? Definitely not. If Hitler had been a great painter, would his paintings still be exhibited today? Definitely not. And so everyone must know where their own limit of imposition is.

Mike Ditz's picture

If Hitler had been a great and successful painter, he may have chosen a different path in life...

John Haniotakis's picture

There would have been another one in his place. Eugenics and the racial hue it gave to those movements was already there in Europe. The Austrians were far more antisemitic than the Germans at the time even before Hitler organized his party, and some of his most powerful ideological supporters were in the academia (and included professors in Italy and Spain, even in the USA). And even without Hitler, the Soviets were already building vast armaments and had started moving them to the borders of the eastern European countries. A war was inevitable. And it actually started in 1931 with Japan invading Manchuria (they had their own dreams of empire). If we consider that the Wermacht itself were making jokes about the Nazis even during the war ("Arian is tall like Himler, blonde like Hitler and fit like Goehring"), and yet they participated in a war they considered a necessary mission "to save Europe", the role of Hitler himself becomes rather small.
Back to art -would I ever buy a painting by Hitler? Absolutely not, because in this case it's just too much to consider. But would I buy a painting from someone who cheated on his taxes? Yes. I'll buy two.

jim hughes's picture

The world is full of great things that were created, invented or built by creepy people.

Mike Ditz's picture

Are you using the photos of the Lindbergh and Leibovitz books to imply they are bad people?

Mike Dochterman's picture

I hope Mr Rogers was a photographer...that way we'd at least have one photographer whose books we could buy

Chad L's picture

This goes beyond art. Most of the founding fathers of the U.S were slave owners and we conveniently ignore that fact and idolize them. Composers and other people respected from history had wives who should have been playing with dolls. Many horrible things from history get overlooked, forgotten or even ignored.

Some people will say that it was the product of the time, that society was different and should be overlooked. Should it be? I don't know. That's a question for greater minds than mine

Timothy Roper's picture

Slavery had been practiced by all civilizations for at least 10,000 years, so it was a VERY normal system of labor. There was nothing immoral about it all--until it was immoral. But if that's a little hard to grasp, think of it as a little like eating meat. It's very immoral by today's progressive standards to be killing and eating animals, and yet many people still eat meat. Heck, maybe even you do. But just know, one day you may be judged very harshly for doing so.

John Haniotakis's picture

I agree with Timothy. We practice things today that may be judged harshly in the future (IF and only IF life is even easier tomorrow). Like having pets. It may be called "Enslaving a Cat". It may even become illegal.
Back in the late 40s and 50s in many areas in Europe, young people from villages would migrate to cities to work (without salary) at the business of a relative or family friend. The compensation was "food - clothes - shelter - doctor - allowance", and for those areas still trying to recover, it was a good deal [Financially speaking, it was better than legitimate basic employment at Amazon today!!!].
The "boss" would not agree many times to receive those "voluntary slaves" because even food-shelter-clothes-doctor-allowance could be quite expensive, given the circumstances back then, with most houses not even having plumbing. Frequently the villagers would send the "pretty girl" of the family to the city, hoping she would seduce the wealthier relative. Every era in human history is vastly more complex than the modern Cartoonish Twitter Court.
At any rate, Good Art is Good Art. Dissecting the character of a past artist (without the dead artist having the opportunity to defend himself) just to find some mud (because the modern ones are all virgins, lol) doesn't speak well of the amateur judges. But with the judges being American, the mystery is not a mystery, it's about money: throw mud at someone to stir emotions, raise visibility and follower count, start a movement, cash out and buy a big house in a 99% lilly-white area of other fellow moral millionaires. If you can't become Mozart or Michelangelo, become a mud thrower or an "inquisitor".

Deleted Account's picture

You have a very simplistic view of slavery. What was legal was not necessarily right. And the comparison to vegetarianism is not only embarrassing but also completely off the mark.

Joseph Walsh's picture

Interesting article Illya - the questions you raise are really difficult ones. Personally I think that artistic (or political/intellectual etc.) works are made worse to the extent that they express, or are a product of, their creator's vices. So, Heidegger's philosophy is certainly made worse by his sympathy for Nazism, because it is (at least partly) an expression of those sympathies. But it's conceivable that a bad person could make great photos which don't contain any expression of their personal vices, in which case the photos are no worse because of who created them. But of course, judging whether this is the case is no easy task, as we can't always be sure of the intentions/emotions which went into something's creation.

John Haniotakis's picture

One would think Americans should be able to appreciate cultural differences and their development over time. In Greek night clubs, braking plates is considered an expression of joy (they actually developed over time less dangerous special plates for that purpose). In America this act would be considered vandalism. And moral/ethical codes always change over time. Today's pet owners might be considered as terrible people in the future ("oh my god your grandfather owned a dog??? terrible!").
About 150 years ago, not marrying a young woman could even classify you as a bad person ("he's letting her unmarried and unprotected, instead of ensuring her future in advance"). Those were the circumstances back then - life was more difficult, a woman had to get pregnant 5 times to end up with 2 children alive and well (due to infant mortality, childhood diseases), so they would get married as soon as they were able.
Why is it impossible to accept different ethics in the past, but we are perfectly able to accept money laundering and tax evasion through the so-called "modern abstract art" in luxury hotels?
And finally - who do we think we are today, in year 2021, to judge every single generation before us? The most hilarious part of today's American society is that somehow they spend so much time every day playing "judge of everything". I also have observed that most criticism of people of completely different worlds (those of the distant past), comes mainly from modern middle and upper middle class trust fund recipients, who declare themselves atheists, yet almost all of their judgments are based on Christian perceptions of morality (I call them closeted Evangelists). Future sociologist may include them in their studies.

Deleted Account's picture

"And finally - who do we think we are today, in year 2021, to judge every single generation before us? "
If only we would do it. But exactly the opposite is most often the case, and precisely on your grounds. "It was different times, different circumstances". Those who argue like this will never progress. How are we ever supposed to learn from the past if someone always comes along and claims that it was not man who was evil, but it was the circumstances that made man evil. That is pure relativism and denial of one's own responsibility.
One day (hopefully) our generation will also have to be judged.

John Haniotakis's picture

We do not know if the future ethics are consistent with the Christian ethics of the modern West (which, at least in theory, preach charity and doing good to others). Maybe in the future some of the things we've considered evil for centuries all of a sudden become benign. You never know.
As far as circumstances, an example would be Americans often evoking "circumstances of poverty" to explain violence in some areas. They say "it's not their fault, it's their circumstances".
(I grew up in an area in Europe were the poor areas were the most safe - well known for sleeping with your door open in the summer, so that argument wouldn't work over there).
As far as progress... that has been always a question for the philosophers. A "backwards" society in the Middle East in the 1940s was safer than Europe in the 1940s. Because of the different circumstances at that time period. Progress is something easily measured in the USA which has been politically stable and with no internal wars for decades, but in other areas of the world it's impossible to determine over a long period. It's going up, down, sideways, etc. and people living there are far more aware of the factors "circumstances", "shades of grey", and "different times", than modern Americans.
I will close by bringing up another example: in many Western-type societies not too long ago, the most moral people (and they truly believed they were the most moral, and everyone else from any political and social party truly believed they were the most moral) had no doubt that arranged marriages were the way to go. Today we believe different things. Different eras, environments, upbringing, different education and circumstances shape our system of beliefs and our feelings (to the core) differently. Of course there are always some ethics we have since birth (most adults in all societies and eras don't like theft or murder), but for most other things, our mindset is a product of our environment and circumstances.

Deleted Account's picture

"Maybe in the future some of the things we've considered evil for centuries all of a sudden become benign. You never know." Yes, we do know. And you got it wrong with "it's not their fault, its their circumstances". It is a difference between the motivation. The one is poor the other just greedy.
It is about individuals and not the society we do talk! That is a big difference.

RT Simon's picture

In the last paragraph the writer attempts to equate notions of political or social value with art, and what it may teach the viewer. I can offer a more succinct articulation. It comes from an understanding of Modernism. The main notion behind Modernism, no matter what medium or genre, is Emancipation.

Modernism is the umbrella above many progressive ideas in the world. When Modernism failed in architecture, at least it could admit it, because architecture is perhaps the grandest of all missions of cultural value, because we live in it. The visual arts are actually lower on the totem, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, for photography is closer to Modernism, which leads me to a critique that many photographers disagree with but I will repeat nonetheless: Why photograph things that people once painted, for that is not the nature of the camera. We all do it. We all make beautiful photographs, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but is not the true nature of photography, and so yes to go full circle, the creation of important social documents that teaches the viewer about the world around us, with that tacit notion of emancipation tagged at the root of its message, is very important in a progressive society. Photography becomes a practice of representation. What that means is that the photographer tries to be aware of the ideas behind the types of photographs they may take. The practice is tied to both social representation and formal aesthetics.

John Haniotakis's picture

You are opening a lot of interesting topics.

Lance Saunders's picture

Why are Peter Lindbergh and Annie Leibovitz's books visually featured twice with no references to them, are you implying they are horrible people given the title of your post and some of your commentary, '' While admiring the art, you despise the artist’s actions ?'' That seems very unfair and slanderous without you explaining why?

Mike Ditz's picture

To be fair if Annie L is brought up on these forums, a lot of torches and pitchforks come out. Not sure about Lindbergh

Mike Ditz's picture

I don't know, but look at threads about her on Fstopper or Petapixel.
It may be too simple but she was dude named Andy Leibovitz me thinks things would be different ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

kellymckeon's picture

Below is an image I captured of Mark Seliger, who is an accomplished performer/photographer and whose book is in that image along with Peter Linbergh and Annie Leibovitz.

I too am curious why the image of those three accompanied the article. Perhaps the author can jump in here and explain?

Timothy Roper's picture

Oh, and while we're at it, let's not forget what a horrible human being Steve Jobs was, anytime we use our iPhones!

John Haniotakis's picture

Yup. a) Stole key technology from Xerox without which his product would have been just an overpriced PC, and didn't even offered to pay those guys over there a few million as a well-deserved gift, b) was not big on charity if at all, c) abandoned his daughter, d) forced talented employees to keep up with the pace he had in his own mind, d) helped setting up a culture in Silicon Valley which left behind the free environment of the Xerox Research Center and became predatory cannibalistic over people's crafts and data, etc etc.
But people modify their likes and dislikes according to what's comfortable to them. A middle class stock broker in Wall Street is evil and greedy, while a billionaire speculator in Silicon Valley is a nice guy.
People say they have standards, but they don't. They violate their "standards" 10 times a day. Because they have no standards, they just have vague ideas and tastes.

Michael Krueger's picture

"Is it possible to look at photographs without ever thinking about the photographer behind them?"

I very rarely think about who the photographer is when I look at a photograph.

Mike Ditz's picture

That's interesting, I usually think of what the photographer is trying to say with the photo if anything...

Kirk Darling's picture

"What was the photographer trying to say?" is a far different proposition from "Was the photographer a nice person?"

Mike Ditz's picture

I was replying to the post above mine, about thinking about very rarely thinking who the photographer is. To me who the photographer is, often plays into what they want to say with photos...

John Haniotakis's picture

People think that Warren Buffet is a "nice person", yet anywhere Hathaway buys properties in other countries (such as in Australia/UK), the first thing they do is to evict everyone who's behind on rent, without considering any hardship whatsoever. Not even an adjustment period. And yet in the USA he's considered Santa Claus.
Buying a work of art by photographer who is not Jesus Christ is an opportunity to see both his abilities, his imagination, his world, and his flaws as well. Which in many cases happen to be our faults as well -- or things we wished we did, but he was the one who dared. An artist may open his world to us, it would be a little stupid to resort to judging him, instead of enjoying his work first and foremost.

John Haniotakis's picture

You can revise to "Abrahamic". With the exception of major crimes, the majority of the remaining moral rules etc in Western societies today are "Abrahamic", predominantly with the subtleties of Catholic and Protestant Christianity. Thus, we consider someone who doesn't donate, cheats on their spouse (or has multiple spouses), marries underage partners etc etc [insert all other things lawful, yet immoral in modern societies] as a "bad person". What's incredible is that many of those accusing/judging others on the basis of those values are calling themselves "atheists".
Now back to artists and their character, I do not know anyone who would say "I'm not buying this piece of furniture, even if it's amazing, because the carpenter flirts with his wife's sister". Or "I'm not buying this camera because the company's CEO is an unpleasant person".

Kirk Darling's picture

Well, people do say, " I'm not buying this camera because the company's CEO is an unpleasant person" and similar...but that's stupid, and even more stupid when we're talking about someone who was part--even though the chief part--of a multi-person project.

Let's keep this in the realm of artists. "I'll never see a movie with that actor in it." People say that every day.

Let's agree that we loathe, say, Bill Cosby. However, there were a thousand people working on "The Bill Cosby Show." Are we going to screw them all because of Bill Cosby?

Mike Ditz's picture

Because Henry Ford was an avowed anti semite, many Jewish car buyers avoided Ford cars from the 1920s through 1940s so some people take things into account.