Saturday, August 22, 2009

Math quiz: what is a photograph?

At, the Fashion & Style section of the August 23 New York Times reports from France on a case involving Liliane Bettencourt, the 86-year-old heiress to the L'Oreal fortune, and François-Marie Banier, a celebrity photographer who is accused of abus de faiblesse in the amount of some 1.3 billion euros' worth of cash, life insurance policies, and art bestowed on him by Mme. Bettencourt.

The case will soon be in court, but in the run-up the parties are maneuvering in the media. Banier, for example, describes himself as an artist, but the attorney for Mme. Bettencourt's estranged daughter recently sneered, "Calling Mr. Banier an artist is a grand word. How many artists do you know who are sponsored for a billion euros? You could construct the Louvre with that. And Mr. Banier — with his little photos — he merits that?"

Well, the art world is all about spreadsheets, and Banier replied to the attorney in proper quantitative form. His e-mail summary of his oeuvre didn't begin, "Madamina, il catalogo è questo," but it might as well have. "500,000 photographs, 27 books and catalogues, 27 exhibitions," wrote Banier. And he added: "500 paintings, 1,200 drawings, 3,000 painted photographs."

So here's your quiz.

If an artist brings to realization one image a day, 365 days a year, it will take him approximately 1370 years to accumulate the record of 500,000 moments of vision. François-Marie Banier has recorded 500,000 presses of a shutter release. Since he is only 62 years old, those 500,000 recorded presses probably can't be photographs. They haven't had time to become photographs.

But what are they?