ZIMBABWEAN fine art photographer Philip Chudy, whose international career spans London, Edinburgh, Frankfurt and San Francisco, was recently in the country where he shared his knowledge and experiences at Harare Conversations hosted by the National Gallery of Zimbabwe in Harare.
Chudy left the country at the age of 19 destined for Europe “running away from the (colonial Ian) Smith regime”.
Disillusioned by the art scene in Europe, his interest shifted to advertising where he felt there was a straightforward purpose, interesting techniques and concepts, supported by tangible budgets. Eventually though, he was still not to be satisfied because there was no mystery.
“The question of why a person did what they did was not really a question. It was not a mystery,” he said, calling it short-term ambition and reward.
Speaking on the subject of Functionality vs Art in Photography, Chudy explained how photography is a neutral recording medium.
“It does not matter whether it’s done by an artist or a machine. If there is something in front of a camera, which is interesting in itself, then it makes an interesting photo. Basically, a robot walking around the streets will capture all sorts of interesting things about life,” Chudy said.
Artists were challenged to explore possibilities beyond that.
Drawing from a historical perspective, Chudy explained how European focus in art changed from aestheticism and making pretty pictures with interesting colours, to applications such as protesting against nuclear war and talking about homeless people.
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He noted that photography is way more suited to the latter, which is a functional role.
“The functional role photography plays is much valued commercially, scientifically and sociologically,” Chudy said.
What is the difference between art photography, and that which is merely functional? Chudy explains: “In general if it is serving a function or purpose, you can say that is its main purpose for living. It could be to flatter somebody’s ego, people love beautiful sculpture, it looks good in their living room, it looks good in their city, it makes them look avant-garde — these kinds of things are functional.
“It could be that it pushes a certain philosophy, laudable thing like helping the poor — it’s readable.”
Despite that, Chudy encouraged photographers not to avoid meaningful, and significant subject matter for fear that it will not make good art.
“Art is something personal that reveals a relationship between artist and subject matter, in a way that could not be done by a machine alone,” Chudy said.
“It is an inquiry and a search for meaning based on the question, why do I respond to something? The enquiry is a critical because how we perceive things defines how we process information and formulate political ideals.”
He continued: “We are designed in such a way that we try to make something cathartic, you try to make a conclusion, you try to get to a point where… I understand, I know what’s going on.”
Chudy added that in trying to figure something out, one becomes blind to lots of other things. He advised photographers that in terms of concept one makes successful art, it is not successful, because it is revealed as no longer a mystery.
To remain authentic, Chudy spoke against complacency, and advised artists to always check within themselves by asking if what they are doing was valid or not.