Photography as Art – Why does it matter?

It seems from the outset photography has been locked into some apparent need to seek legitimacy by being acknowledged as art.  Does earning that moniker somehow change photography?  It reminds me of people who wish to argue whether golf is or isn’t a sport.

Photography is.  Photography is not going away anytime soon.  Photography is a form of visual communication that engulfs our every waking moment. Photography has value, whether as a cherished remembrance of a moment or a loved one, or a Gursky photograph of absolutely nothing for which someone was willing to pay $6 million.  It makes no difference to the reality of photography whether someone deems it art or not.

Why not stop arguing about what it is not and focus on the fact that photography is just photography.  And like everything else, some will be good, some will be bad, some will be both depending on who is doing the looking, some will sell, some won’t, some will be viewed as more important to more people than others which may important to only one person, some will last, and some will fade quickly.

Why some photographers seek to have their work considered art is frankly beyond me.  The definition of art has never been ironclad and the “art world” are a fickle lot anyway.  What was fabulous yesterday is passé tomorrow.  What is art to one person is rubbish to the next, and there are as many opinions as there are people, so why fight the battle?

Is photography art?  Who cares?

John Szarkowski: The Photographer’s Eye

The six pages that make up the introduction to John Szarkowski’s 1966 book, The Photographer’s Eye, are in my opinion the clearest, most concise, most accessible and for me, the most relatable description of the essential elements of photography and why they are significant.  It may not in the end represent the only photographic philosophy I embrace, but it is one for which I am all in.  My work is, has always been predominantly consistent with the Modernist and Formalist school of thought of which Szarkowski is a leading proponent and prominent voice.

Szarkowski ends his introduction with the following:

“The history of photography has been less a journey than a growth.  Its movement has not been linear and consecutive, but centrifugal.  Photography and our understanding of it, has spread from the center; it has, by infusion, penetrated our consciousness.  Like and organism, photography was born whole.  It is in our progressive discovery of it that its history lies.”

I think this is an interesting and important description.  If one were to put an organism in a centrifuge it would separate into constituent components with the weightiest elements travelling through all the strata and ending up at the bottom of the test tube.  While photography’s origins are rooted in Modernism and Formalism, as the centrifuge spun, and photography grew, many other forms (genres) of photography became visible.  Yet traces of the Modernist origins trailed through those genres and even remained intact today in contemporary photography.  I believe Modernism, the quest for reality and purity in photographic form and function, are the weightiest element of the photographic organism and that is why the principles that define it are still in force today.

The introduction begins with:

“This book is an investigation of what photographs look like, and why they look that way.  It is concerned with photographic style and with photographic tradition: with the sense of possibilities that a photographer today takes to his work.”

“The invention of photography provided a radically new picture-making process – a process based not on synthesis but on selection.  The difference was a basic one.  Paintings were made – constructed from a storehouse of traditional schemes and skills and attitudes – but photographs, as the man on the street put it, were taken.”

“The difference raised a creative issue of a new order: how could this mechanical and mindless process be made to produce pictures meaningful in human terms – pictures with clarity and coherence and a point of view?”

He goes on to speak briefly about how quickly photography grew in popularity and how the change from wet to dry plate suddenly made photography accessible to many more people resulting in a deluge of new images many of which were “formless and accidental” and some that were “memorable and seemed significant beyond their limited intention.”  If he could only imagine the world today.

Szarkowski goes on to point out:

“But it was not only the way that photography described things that was new; it was also the things it chose to describe.  Photography was easy, cheap and ubiquitous, and it recorded anything: shop windows and sod houses and family pets and steam engines and unimportant people. And once made objective and permanent, immortalized in a picture, these trivial things took on importance.

This ‘revolution’ in the visual arts brought the world near and far to the doorstep of nearly everyone.  As the medium was new and the technology evolving, photographers had to learn how to use their tools and materials and to adjust to the limitations of the early equipment and they had to learn from each other’s work.

Sarkowski chose the photos in The Photographer’s Eye, he claimed, not because they fit a particular aesthetic or school, or were made by renowned photographers, “that they shared little in common except their success and a shared vocabulary: these pictures were unmistakeably photographs.”  He believed these photographs shared a vision of photography itself, and that “The character of this vision was discovered by photographers at work, as their awareness of photography’s potentials grew.”

Although Szarkowski claimed not, I find there are precious few photographs in the collection that do not fit into the basic model of Modernism.  There is the odd modestly abstract photograph, but on the whole, they fit very neatly into the form with which Szarkowski was most familiar and most comfortable.  He was in fact reportedly criticised late in his career for having failed to embrace Post-Modernist work.  He continued to his death to champion the idea that the camera was a ‘window’ to the world and he wasn’t keen on those who chose to use the camera as a ‘mirror’.

Since photography was being discovered by photographers, Szarkowski thought the history of the medium could be defined by “photographer’s progressive awareness of characteristics and problems that have seemed inherent in the medium.”  He posited five issues and said: “These issues do not define discrete categories of work; on the contrary they should be regarded as interdependent aspects of a single problem – as section views through the body of photographic tradition.  As such, it is hoped that they may contribute to the formulation of a vocabulary and a critical perspective more fully responsive to the unique phenomena of photography.”

And it is these five things to which I was referring in my opening paragraphs that seem so clear, concise, relevant and accessible.  With these, I don’t need the obtuse musings of Barthes, or the mad imaginings of a world about to be subsumed by automation of Flusser.  Elements of the thinking of most of the other critical theorists can be incorporated into these five categories, and if they can’t, perhaps they don’t need to be because this a pretty good list and covers more than enough territory to handle a wide swath of the photographic universe.

The five categories are, The Thing Itself, The Detail, The Frame, Time, and Vantage Point.  As Szarkowski said, they are not independent, and each element is important to ‘reading, decoding, interpreting, judging’ a photograph, or whatever other term of art you choose for the process of looking at and seeing photographic work.

Each of these categories is supported by several paragraphs of contextual explanation that can be easily read in The Photographer’s Eye so I am not going to quote them wholesale, but rather attempt to draw some of the most salient points associated with each to include as a summary of Szarkowski’s points.

The Thing Itself

  • Photography deals with the actual
  • The world itself is an artist of incomparable inventiveness and to recognise its best works and moments, to anticipate them, to clarify them and make them permanent, requires intelligence both acute and supple.
  • The factuality of pictures is different than reality itself; the subject and the picture were not the same thing even though they might appear so afterward.
  • People believe the photograph cannot lie and that what our eyes saw was illusion and the camera saw truth, but except for the fact that the image would survive the subject and become remembered reality. (Ed. However, as I have written before truth is illusory, the photograph was never and never can be truth in absolute terms.)

 

The Detail

  • Photographers are tied to the facts of things, and it is the photographer’s problem to try to force the facts to tell the truth.
  • Outside the studio, the photographer can only record what was found; fragmented and unexplained elements – not a story, but scattered and suggestive clues.
  • The compelling clarity with which a photograph records the trivial suggested the subject hadn’t been properly seen before and was perhaps not trivial but filled with undiscovered meaning.
  • Photography has never been successful at narrative.
  • If photographs cannot be read as stories, they could be read as symbols.
  • Even the large body of Civil War and WWII photography could not without extensive captioning explain what was happening.
  • The function of these pictures was not to make the story clear, but to make it real.
  • He quotes Robert Capra’s comment that expressed both the narrative poverty and symbolic power of photography when he said, “If your pictures aren’t good, you are not close enough.”

 

The Frame

  • A picture is not conceived but selected, therefore the subject is never truly discrete or wholly self-contained.
  • The edges of the frame mark the boundary of what the photographer thought was most important, even though the subject extended beyond inn all directions.
  • Choices create perceived relationships even where they do not actually exist
  • Choosing and eliminating, central acts of photography, forces a concentration on the pictures edge and the shapes that reside within.

 

Time

  • All photographs are time exposures, and each describes a unique parcel of time. (Ed. Derrida – punctum is a duration)
  • Faster lenses and film revealed fascinating details about movement that could not be discerned with the naked eye.
  • Great pleasure and beauty can be derived from fragmenting time to reveal momentary patterns and shapes previously concealed in the flux of movement.
  • He refers to Cartier-Bresson’s ‘decisive moment’, which define HCB’s commitment to this new beauty, but clarified the oft misunderstood phrase by saying ‘the thing that happens at the decisive moment is not a dramatic climax, but a visual one; a picture not a story.’

 

Vantage Point

  • Photography has taught is to see from the unexpected vantage point.
  • Pictures can give the sense of the scene while withholding its narrative meaning.
  • Necessity sometimes, and choice others puts the photographer in places providing unfamiliar perspectives.
  • If the photographer cannot move the subject the camera can be moved.
  • Altering vantage points reveals the world is richer and less simple than the mind might have guessed.

 

Aside from Szarkowski’s reference to the camera discovering truth, I find this to be a remarkably relevant text and set of guiding principles for both the photographer and the critic. Just to elaborate briefly on the issue of truth, the camera is not capable of revealing truth.  Truth is at least a four-dimensional phenomenon and a two-dimensional medium cannot render it.  Moving pictures can come closer, but they too at best are only able to work in three dimensions at any given moment.  So, the idea absolute truth, aside from the fact that we will all someday die, can be discovered at all is dubious at best.   Relative truth is somewhat more achievable, but never in a single frame.  The best we as photographers can hope to achieve in my opinion is a reasonably faithful representation of facts and reality, bounded by the limitations of our equipment and our perspectives physically and politically.

 

References

SZARKOWSKI, John. n.d. The Photographer’s Eye. 7th printi. New York: The Museum of Modern Art.

DURDEN, Mark (ed.). 2013. 50 Key Writers on Photography. First. Milton Park: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

 

Key Writers on Photography – Jacques Derrida

Derrida, a post-structuralist philosopher, most famously known as a ‘deconstructionist’ who challenged the notions of ideal and primary as actually being secondary and real.  In his writings on photography he is perhaps most noted for the idea that Barthes ‘punctum’ is actually a duration and therefore makes room for time/difference and that any ‘instant’ contains a relation to past and future.

If one considers merely the laws of physics these ideas make perfect sense.  While we refer to photographs as ‘stills’, they are in fact only still because the movement in them is beyond our ability to perceive it.  A photograph, even one at very high shutter speeds contains many ‘instants’.  Light travels at 299,792,458 m/s and in 1/500 of a second light will have travelled 14,989,623 m.  Every atom in everything in front of the lens is travelling at that speed constantly so there is movement in every photograph.  So, to Derrida’s point of there being room in any ‘instant’ for difference, he is saying we as photographers have and make choices when to release the shutter and that a few nanoseconds one way or another doesn’t necessarily change the ‘punctum’ or miss a ‘decisive moment’ but is a different place in real time.  As I noted in an earlier post about Deleuze, he believed our ability to grasp the thing itself was rooted in our ability to see the differences from all the things it is not.

Derrida asserts, “if punctum is a duration, then the artifice and techne are part of photography.”  I think this relates closely to his idea that each photo bears a relation of the present to an immediate past and future. I again find this quite intuitively obvious in large part because of the type of work I make. Much of my work involved action, whether it be wildlife or sport.  In trying to capture complex movement and ‘freeze’ a period of time that pauses the action for the benefit of the viewer, there is a great deal of choice on the part of the photographer.  This concept is less obvious perhaps for a portrait photographer, though while there clearly is an immediate past and future, it may be more difficult to discern, but I think it remains an important concept.  For my work, to capture a bird taking flight just at the moment it breaks its bond with the earth requires knowledge of behaviour, preparation, anticipation and quick reflexes.  While a wildlife photo may be more dynamic and far more obvious in its connection to past and future, the portraitist is looking for a particular expression, or just the right tilt of a head to capture something important about the subject and that moment may be equally as transitory as that which the nature, street or documentary photographer faces.  Similarly, in landscape photography, my other main focus, it is a matter of just the right light, the position of a cloud or some other aspect of the composition that is not necessarily permanently fixed that makes the photo stand out.  These are all choices a photographer makes; what to photograph and how to photograph, the artifice and techne.

I will discuss Flusser more in a subsequent post, but I will say here that the basis of my disagreements with his concepts of the programme and the apparatus subsuming the role of the photographer are rooted in Derrida’s ideas.  But neither are Derrida’s ideas definitive; just another piece of the critical theory jigsaw puzzle for which no one has the boxtop.

 

REFERENCES:

DURDEN, Mark (ed.). 2013. 50 Key Writers on Photography. First. Milton Park: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

DELEUZE, Gilles. 2002. Desert Islands: And Other Texts, 1953-1974. Los Angeles: Semiotexte.

FLUSSER, Vilém. 1983. Towards a Philosophy of Photography. English. London: Reaktion Books Ltd.

There is no unified theory in photographic critique

In the intro to Informing Contexts, Dr. Cosgrove referenced Deleuze and mentioned very briefly the idea that there is no unified theory in photographic critique and that we should therefore pick the one that suits us best.  That statement, that there is no unified theory, stood out for me for a few reasons.  First, that it is statement of the patently obvious as there are practically no unifying theories of anything that are considered immutable so why would anyone expect there to be one in photographic critique which is by its very nature subjective.  Second, thinking about the various “icons” of the critical world and how divergent some of their ideas are, unification isn’t likely anytime soon and I would argue ever.  After all, people cannot unify on whether the loo roll should go on flap up or flap down for heaven’s sake.  Third, it seemed a practical bit of advice to use whichever theory fit best. But the question remains; Which one? And lastly, who is Deleuze and what might his writing have to offer.

Given that scholars have spent a lifetime studying philosophers such as Gilles Deleuze, and that his thinking is in some ways quite different than other philosophers, it is not possible to even remotely do anything but scratch the surface and in reading scholarly summaries of his work hope to find some sense of his teachings that could be applied.

Deleuze wrote “If philosophy has a positive and direct relation to things, it is only insofar as philosophy claims to grasp the thing itself, according to what it is, in its difference from everything it is not, in other words, in its internal difference.” (Desert Islands, p32)  He makes the assertion that no two things are the same, and that even things in the same genus are in fact different. It is from these differences that identity is derived which a departure from other philosophical thought that argued difference is derived from identity, from the categories assigned.  I agree with Deleuze.  There are 7 or so billion humans on this planet and all are unquestionably human, but each is an individual unique in their own right though they may share many similarities.  It is in the digging for the differences that they emerge as individuals.  Similarly, no two photographs are the same, even of the same subject in the same place and proximal in time.  There is at minimum at temporal displacement of the shutter opening on two occasions.  The differences may not be easily discernible, yet they are always there. This perhaps is the first clue applicable to the question of photographic critique.

I have written before how David Hurn talked about our goals as humans and photographers was to achieve our maximum potential.  Deleuze writes of something similar in his 1993 Essays Critical and Clinical in which he claims:

“standards of value are internal: to live well is to fully express one’s power, to go to the limits of one’s potential, rather than to judge what exists by non-empirical, transcendent standards. Modern society still suppresses difference and alienates persons from what they can do. To affirm reality, which is a flux of change and difference, we must overturn established identities and so become all that we can become—though we cannot know what that is in advance.” “Herein, perhaps, lies the secret: to bring into existence and not to judge. If it is so disgusting to judge, it is not because everything is of equal value, but on the contrary because what has value can be made or distinguished only by defying judgment. What expert judgment, in art, could ever bear on the work to come?”  (Essays Critical and Clinical (1997). p135)

In other words, creativity is the pinnacle and critique is not constructive.  Critique is retrospective and itself has no part in creation of the next thing, and I think Deleuze is making the point that if a creator is responding to critique when embarking on the next creative episode then perhaps it is not the creator who is creating.

Photographic critique seems to have always been very much about putting things into categories; Modernist, Post-Modernist, Abstract, etc. and the lens through which the critic chooses to look; Sontagian indexicality, Bartheian studium and punctum, Cartier-Bressonian decisive moment, Flusserian examination of the programme of the apparatus.  All of these are narrow perspectives like looking at the world through a soda straw and when the prejudgements of what category a photo fits in are made a priori it is stifling.  Delueze challenges the Kantian thought and says,

“experience exceeds our concepts by presenting novelty, and this raw experience of difference actualizes an idea, unfettered by our prior categories, forcing us to invent new ways of thinking.” (Desert Islands, p 262)

Furthermore, any viewer, but most certainly a critic, brings with them armloads of baggage; the collective sum of their culture and their personal experience.  A photograph that to one person is abhorrent, pornographic, stirring of intense emotional response is to the next person none of those things.  In his paper, Negotiations, Deleuze addresses this idea with regard to philosophy, but again I think it relates to viewers of photographs and again critics in particular.

“Philosophers introduce new concepts, they explain them, but they don’t tell us, not completely anyway, the problems to which those concepts are a response. […] The history of philosophy, rather than repeating what a philosopher says, has to say what he must have taken for granted, what he didn’t say but is nonetheless present in what he did say.”
(Negotiations)

Walker Evans, and perhaps John Szarkowski as well, are perfect examples of critics whose perspective was entrenched in a love for the Modernist aesthetic and anything created in other than that style was deemed less worthy and insignificant.  To be fair Evans was unequivocal about it and it should have been no secret if he wrote a scathing criticism of your work that it needed to be taken with the understanding that his soda straw looked only in one direction.  I confess to being somewhat guilty of falling into a similar trap at times and I have been trying to “see” better when I look at work that is outside genres with which I am most comfortable and in which I work. The point, however, remains and it would be useful to know through biases and filters a critic is examining and critiquing one’s work.

Deleuze departs from the traditional image of thought espoused by Aristotle, Descartes and Husserl and believes they misconceive thinking as easy and straightforward.  In their view;

“Truth may be hard to discover—it may require a life of pure theorizing, or rigorous computation, or systematic doubt—but thinking is able, at least in principle, to correctly grasp facts, forms, ideas, etc. It may be practically impossible to attain a God’s-eye, neutral point of view, but that is the ideal to approximate: a disinterested pursuit that results in a determinate, fixed truth; an orderly extension of common sense.”  (Desert Islands, p 262)

Is this not what is seen in photographic critical theory?  Flusser is a prime example of us being led down a chapter by chapter garden path of “logical argument” each seemingly leading to a conclusion and then, just like the infomercials of American television, “but wait there is more.”  And in the end, he wants us to believe, because he took us through a step by step progression, that his is the definitive answer to the problem of a philosophy of photographic criticism.

Deleuze instead argues;

“Truth changes what we think; it alters what we think is possible. By setting aside the assumption that thinking has a natural ability to recognize the truth we attain a ‘thought without image’, a thought always determined by problems rather than solving them.  Reason is always a region carved out of the irrational—not sheltered from the irrational at all, but traversed by it and only defined by a particular kind of relationship among irrational factors.”  (Desert Islands, p 262)

From the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, I was able to find this on Deleuze’s writing on the arts.

“For Deleuze, the task of art is to produce “signs” that will push us out of our habits of perception into the conditions of creation. When we perceive via the re-cognition of the properties of substances, we see with a stale eye pre-loaded with clichés; we order the world in what Deleuze calls “representation.” In this regard, Deleuze cites Francis Bacon: we’re after an artwork that produces an effect on the nervous system, not on the brain. What he means by this figure of speech is that in an art encounter we are forced to experience the “being of the sensible.” We get something that we cannot re-cognize, something that is “imperceptible”—it doesn’t fit the hylomorphic production model of perception in which sense data, the “matter” or hyle of sensation, is ordered by submission to conceptual form. Art however cannot be re-cognized, but can only be sensed; in other words, art splits perceptual processing, forbidding the move to conceptual ordering. This is exactly what Kant in the Third Critique called reflective judgment: when the concept is not immediately given in the presentation of art. With art we reach “sensation,” or the “being of the sensible,” the sentiendum. You have to be forced to think, starting with an art encounter in which intensity is transmitted in signs or sensation.”

This strikes a somewhat familiar chord with me and evokes something of Barthes ‘punctum’, just as other writings speak to Sontag’s ‘the thing itself’, Cartier-Bresson’s ‘decisive moment’, and Szarkowski’s ‘window’.  It also suggests we cannot enter an encounter with art full of preconceived ideas or burdened with a conceptual construct that prevents from sensing the almost imperceptible.

What is one to take from this very cursory review of Deleuze?  I take that none of the key writers on photography is right, and none of them is wrong.  They are all just incomplete. To look only through a single lens is oversimplification of an infinitely complex and multiplicitous problem, and it ignores the possibility that other interpretations are possible if one changes perspective.  If every photograph is unique and every viewer is unique then the possible combinations in interpretation are theoretically infinite. Deleuze’s work address the significance of the “thing itself” which is found its differences from other things.  It challenges us to accept new experience as a novelty that forces us to think in different ways and implies that the search for absolute truths are futile efforts.  We are also to realise that creativity is at the centre of achieving human potential and that judgement does nothing to further creativity.  And lastly, that art needs to be first sensed with all the senses and only then can we forced to think.

To bring this to a close substituting the term “Photographic critical theorist” for the term “Philosopher” in the following quote seems to be a perfect statement about the challenges of critical theory in photography.

To read a philosopher is no longer to aim at finding a single, correct interpretation, but is instead to present a philosopher’s attempt to grapple with the problematic nature of reality.”  (Negotiations, p 136)

 

References:

DELEUZE, Gilles. 1997. Essays Critical and Clinical. University of Minnesota Press.

DELEUZE, Gilles. 1997. Negotiations. NYC: Columbia University Press.

DELEUZE, Gilles. 2002. Desert Islands: And Other Texts, 1953-1974. Los Angeles: Semiotexte.

STANFORD UNIVERSITY. and CENTER FOR THE STUDY OF LANGUAGE AND INFORMATION (U.S.). 1997. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University. Available at: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/deleuze/ [accessed 21 Dec 2018].

HURN, David and Bill JAY. 2009. On Being a Photographer. Third. Anacortes, WA: LensWork Publishing.

SONTAG, Susan. 1977. On Photography. Penguin Books.

BARTHES, Roland. 1981. ‘Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography’. New York Hill and Wang

FLUSSER, Vilém. 1983. Towards a Philosophy of Photography. English. London: Reaktion Books Ltd.

Robert Adams – Why People Photograph

Robert Adams, an American who abandoned his career as an English professor to become a celebrated photographer, wrote a series of essays which comprise his book Why People Photograph.  In the Foreword he writes, “Though these essays were written for a variety of occasions, they have a recurring subject – the effort we all make, photographers and non-photographers, to affirm life without lying about it.  And then to behave in accord with our vision.”

In the first section are musings by the author on a variety of topics of interest to photographers under the “What Can Help”.  He discusses the importance of colleagues, humour, writing, teaching, money and dogs.  Each section is written in a very plain and accessible way, and each is filled with examples to support the theses he puts forth.  It is practical, affirming and uplifting and thought provoking.  He doesn’t attempt definitive answers to unanswerable questions, but rather provides his own thoughts and that of others to frame a discussion around the subject that serves as a starting place for the reader to ruminate and derive one’s own conclusions.

In the second section, “Examples of Success”, he analyses work of a number of celebrated and some perhaps not as well known photographers..  Each are well referenced and rife with meaningful insights into both the person and the work they produced.  There are wee gems embedded in each of the stories.  For example, there was something that came up in both the Paul Strand and Dorothea Lange essays that I found particularly interesting and useful.  “Strand, I think, understood that combining the concrete and the universal is at the center of what makes art important.  He knew, as William Stafford was later to write, that ‘all art is local’ but is saved from being trivial by its wider applicability.”  And in the Lange essay, “There is, however, no question that her ultimate goal was art, specifics made universal.”  Lange shied away from the use of the term art about her work but in 1939 stated, in an effort to get her work exhibited at MOMA, “A documentary photograph is not a factual photograph per se, it is a photograph which carries the full meaning of the episode.”

If one looks back the work of Lange, Evans, Cartier-Bresson, Frank, and others whose photographs remain significant today as well as the work of current photographers like Nachtwey, Addario, Burtynsky, to name a few, their work endures because of the underlying “universality” conveyed through the depiction of something very specific and local to a time and place.  There is something in most of those photos to which most of us can relate.  It may not (will not) necessarily be the same thing for every viewer, but every viewer can find something in that photograph that stirs emotion, memory, empathy, etc.

It seems to me to align quite well with the idea that subject is the most important thing along with a true passion for that subject.  It is in the recognition by the viewer of ‘the thing itself’ and connection the photographer made with it that a photo carries impact, has weight or thickness which will cause it to endure.

The third and final section of the book is about Adams’ own work in the American West.  He gives remarkable insight into himself and the people and things that have influenced his work.

While this book is about photography and photographers, it also about far more and it reads more like a lovely compilation of short stories than text book.  It is a worthy addition to the library of photographers and non-photographers alike.

 

Adams, R. (1994). Why People Photograph (1st ed.). New York: Aperture.

Contemporary Photographers – Simon Roberts

Simon Roberts is British photographer whose landscape work explores the relationship people have with the land and issues of identity and belonging.  Much of Roberts’ work evokes for me a reminder of the landscapes of Monet or Renoir which depict people going about their activities as integral to the landscape they were painting.  Like the impressionists, for Roberts the individual is rarely the primary focus of a photograph, but rather he adopts a more pulled back perspective that clearly shows “people” in a space doing something.   Roberts work is also reminiscent of work by of David Hurn, Martin Parr and Robert Frank and others of that generation.

NationalProperty-03-Sheringham-A-1600x1199
Simon Roberts, National Property, Sheringham 2014

Another aspect of Roberts work is that he has found benefit in a slightly elevated perspective using the roof of his camper van as a platform. This affords a view which allows the scene to be ever so slightly “decluttered” achieving a degree of separation between elements of the photograph that would not be possible from ground level, and yet is not so elevated as to seem a different perspective to that which a viewer might experience from the ground.  It makes a scene seem clearer and yet familiar at the same time.

SR-2014-NORMANDY-P-011283-1600x1199
Simon Roberts, Normandy 2014

I think it is also a technique that allows Roberts to almost disappear from the surroundings in a way that results in better, more natural photographs than would be achieved from the ground.  It is my experience, as counter-intuitive as it may seem that people in busy places don’t look up, and while he might seem conspicuous atop a camper van, the likelihood is that he is actually less so.  People therefore would be more likely to go about their activities in more normal and natural ways allowing Roberts to capture people as they truly are in the places he chooses to photograph.  As in the example below, although he is quite nearby, nobody seems aware of his presence.

SR-2016-NORMANDY-P-045663-1600x1199
Simon Roberts, Normandy 2014

Roberts work provides some examples and insights for my work at Coul Links.  I too use elevated perspectives tending to “perch” on the higher ground where I have more commanding views.  My more recent work in trying to include people engaging in normal activity within the landscape also uses a more distant perspective and I am conscious of trying to not be noticed by my subjects, human or wildlife.  The more invisible I am the more likely I am to get a photograph of “normal” behaviour.

Work – Simon Roberts. (n.d.). Retrieved November 27, 2018, from https://www.simoncroberts.com/work/

And from personal notes taken during Simon Roberts Guest Lecture

Contemporary Photographers – Edward Burtynsky

Edward Burtynsky is a Canadian photographer, who has spent 40 + years documenting the impacts of humans on nature.

Burtynsky wrote “[we] come from nature.…There is an importance to [having] a certain reverence for what nature is because we are connected to it… If we destroy nature, we destroy ourselves.”  His work has always looked more specifically at residual landscapes, those impacted by the activity of humans and he seeks to explore how nature is transformed through industry.  He often employs elevated perspectives and people also do not feature in his photographs, but rather the aftermath of their actions.  Mines, quarries, water, air, agriculture, oil fields and refineries have all been subjects for Burtynsky, and each have left their scars on the earth as humans knowingly trade the better lives they seek for the irreparable damage they inflict on the place they live.  These contradictions which rarely seem to find the delicate balance point they require are the underlying theme and source of tension in Burtynsky’s photographs.

TLG_34_96_big Burtynsky

Edward Burtynsky, Nickel Tailings, Sudbury, Ontario, 1996

He also uses a lot of elevated perspectives and employs a variety of tools from large format cameras to drones and helicopters which allows him to tell the story in a way that can not be done from the ground.  His most recent work “The Anthropocene Project” has been done using a variety of media including stills, video, and virtual and augmented reality.

I find a lot of common ground with Burtynsky from a basic interest in how humans and nature interact, to the use of elevated perspectives to tell the story.  Until his most recent work he has generally shown what humans have done without showing humans.  There is no ambiguity in how the scars on our planet were created.  His work is powerful because the viewer finds herself somewhat torn between the ugliness that is shown in an often beautifully created photograph, and we too are left with a sort of scar of collective guilt about what mankind has done.  In “The Anthropocene Project” Burtynsky is much more direct in the way he shows people as essential elements in the scenes that mankind has created.

ANTH_TFOS_DAN_02_16_SRC_iPF_KdkGlossy_alt1_WEB Burtynsky

Edward Burtynsky, Dandora Landfill #34, Plastics Recycling, Nairobi, Kenya 2016

 

My work has a long way to go to reach the significance or quality Burtynsky has achieved and he sets a worthy bar to which to aspire.  There is much to learned from looking at his work as I move forward with my project.

 

Edward Burtynsky. (n.d.). Retrieved November 7, 2018, from https://www.edwardburtynsky.com/

 

Contemporary Photographers – Axel Hütte

 

Axel Hütte, a German photographer born in 1951, and a student of the Becher’s at the Dusseldorf School of Art, is recognised for his land and cityscape work.  He works in large format film.

Hütte’s landscape work is based in emptiness.  All evidence of humans is absent.  His work isn’t intended to convey any story and in fact seeks to blur time and space in order to revel in the sheer beauty of the scene.  Hütte also seems to eschew detail preferring his landscapes to be viewed and considered as a whole without any particular emphasis in the frame. Though he has photographed around the world, it is quite often impossible to discern from the photo itself where it was taken.  Even after reading a caption one doesn’t truly have a sense of place in most instances.

Hutte from Terra IncognitaTerra Incognita, Axel Hütte

This approach is quite the opposite of the direction I have generally taken in trying to achieve detail and clearly depict time and space in context.  And yet I am drawn to Hütte’s work.  I have done quite a lot of past work that is more like Hütte’s, though even in my recent work there are examples.  It seems in those cases, I find myself less concerned with showing a particular place in a way that it can be recognized than I am with depicting a mood or a texture that observe in that place.  Where it is and even when becomes unimportant.

untitled-11Lichen and Gorse, Ashley Rose 2018

Over the past 9 months, I have been so focused on the project work in which time and place are essential elements that I have not done as much of this sort of work.  However, these photos would have broader commercial appeal precisely because of their universality and a succumbing to the idea of simple beauty for its own sake.  There is total ambiguity about the place in the above photo.  While it happens to have been taken in Scotland and the yellow flowers are gorse, it could have just as easily been taken in a wetland in South Carolina in the USA and the flowers forsythia or wild honeysuckle.  This scene might be found in many places around the temperate zones of the world and that is why it acquires a universality to which viewers can relate.

Therein lies the appeal and success of Hütte’s landscape work.

 

Axel Hütte | artnet. (n.d.). Retrieved November 24, 2018, from http://www.artnet.com/artists/axel-hütte/
Biography of Axel Hutte | Widewalls. (n.d.). Retrieved November 24, 2018, from https://www.widewalls.ch/artist/axel-hutte/

Week 7 Reflections – A Week in Paris

Paris Photo is an expansive show almost to the point of being overwhelming for a one-day visit.  Should I attend in future I shall be sure to schedule at least two if not three days to take it in properly.  It was thankfully far more diverse in its offering than Unseen Amsterdam, and there was a pleasant mix of old and contemporary work.  Even at that, there was very little representation in the genres in which I work, either in the photos displayed or in the books offered at Paris Photo or Polycopies.  I found the contemporary work to be strongly weighted to the “fine art” end of the spectrum which is clearly where money is as that is what the galleries chose to represent.  There is probably a lesson in that.

That is not to say there wasn’t plenty of inspiration to be had.  The quality of printing was something to behold and it was interesting to see the different choices in mounting,framing and display.  There was a lot of very good work displaying excellent technique and creativity.  A fair bit of the contemporary work wasn’t to my taste or was beyond my ability to comprehend without further explanation.  I really enjoyed seeing work of the some of the arguably most significant and influential photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Richard Avedon, Robert Frank, Andres Kertesz, Joel Meyerowitz and women who defied the stereotypes and limitations of their time such as Dorothea Lange and Martine Franck.  They all had great influence on photography, yet it is interesting to contrast their work in terms of composition and technical quality with current standards of excellence.  Clearly each has brilliant work that has stood and will continue to stand the test of time, but many also had work that would likely today be considered poor work.  I reckon though that resulted in large measure from the limitations of the equipment they were using. 

A minor digression is required to lay the basis for what follows.  While in Paris and in addition to visiting photography galleries and the Paris Photo exhibition, I visited several art museums; Musee D’Orsay, Musee de L’Orangerie, the Louvre, and the “OnAir” installation at Palais de Tokyo.  It prompted me to think more about the similarities between traditional art and photography and the evolution of each.  While greatly accelerated in the case of photography, there are similarities in the trajectories of their respective histories and parallels to the trajectories in music history as well.  Recognising this has caused me to look upon contemporary photographic trends with a little less aversion than I have tended to in the past.

HCB and the others mentioned above along with many of their contemporaries not mentioned endure because they, to use an Art History analogy, were members of the school of Realism. Their subjects while being specific carry a universality to which viewers can readily relate.  Contemporary practitioners like Susan Meiselas, James Nachtwey, Lynsey Addario and LauraHenno carry on those traditions and I believe their work will endure as well. 

Just as art evolved from Romanticism and Realism to Impressionism,Dada and Surrealism, photography has followed similar trajectories, but on a less unified path: i.e. many genres are still being produced simultaneously even though they may have been under-represented at Paris Photo. As I walked around the Paris show, and it was even more pronounced at Unseen Amsterdam, that a lot of contemporary “fine art” photographers have moved into (again using Art History terms) the realm of Magic Realism and in some cases Surrealism.  I do wonder how many or which of them will be recognised as Picasso or Dali in the world of photography, or whether the work will just be a footnote somewhere in the archives of Photographic History.  Only time will tell.

There was so much to see at Paris Photo and it is impossible to sort out and write about everything I experienced there.  It has helped to have waited a week and reflected on what I saw and how I reacted to it. There were a few photographers, none of whom of which I was previously aware, whose work stopped me in my tracks; Lynn Davis, Jean-Baptiste Huyhn and Axel Hutte.  Lynn’s extraordinary cultural landscapes, Huynh’s stunning portraits, and Hutte’s utterly unique prints on glass were for me “best in show.” In further investigating Axel Hutte I discovered his landscape work and how some of his philosophies are very similar to approaches I have been taking. But more about that in another post.

Lynn Davis
Jean-Baptiste Huynh
Axel Hutte

Edward Burtynsky’s aerial environmental work resonated strongly with me and the aesthetic captured in some of Todd Hido’s work, particularly Rivers at Night, made me think about how some of that technique might be applied to my practice.

Visits to other galleries and museums also proved helpful.  I was struck by how differently I looked at art and photos.  I was particularly intrigued at the Musee D’Orsay by how many of the landscapes included indistinct images of people going about their days in harmony with the landscape.  This also resonated with me as it is what I have been trying to do during this module.

Claude Monet
Pierre-Auguste Renoir

In the end it was a week well spent seeing things that are not readily available to me in NE Scotland or in South Carolina when I am in the US, interacting with cohort mates, exchanging ideas, deepening friendships and being thankful for the opportunities that life has brought me.

What makes a practice sustainable?

What are the measures of sustainability?  Is it income, recognition, Instagram likes, self-satisfaction, specialisation, a signature style?

What is it about the likes of Henri Cartier-Bresson, David Hurn, Robert Adams, Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Cas Oorthuys, Cecil Beaton, Robert Frank, Richard Avedon that makes them relevant today?

I believe these, and others sustained their practices because they were almost all versatile and adaptable photographers.  They each had an eye for the moment, both in terms of composition and story. In the end their practices were sustainable because they made good work and their subjects were relatable.  Not every photo any of the above made was perfectly in focus or even of great significance.  Most would not win a modern competition, and many might not even be published today, but they each produced huge bodies of work throughout their careers and we are still looking at that work today.

That said, despite the substantial increase in technical quality in contemporary photography, I am not convinced that people will be looking at the work of Juno Calypso, David LaChapelle, or Edouard Taufenbach 50 years from now.  The subject matter for a marked amount of contemporary photography in my opinion is not relatable to most people and in fact is, often for me, undecipherable.  Much of the work carries no weight and seems to strive for the bizarre and absurd, the frivolous, superficial and fashionable instead of showing the realities of the world and the people in it.  There are of course as many exceptions.  Laura Henno’s work in Africa took years of research and effort.  David Chancellor’s work on the relationship between wildlife and communities likewise will endure because of its subject matter and the quality of the work.

Among the first pronouncements of this module was a statement to the effect that one’s worth as a photographer is measured by how much money one earns and how prestigious the client base; that journeymen photographers are somehow less talented, less motivated, less successful and less worthy.  By these measures Richard Prince would be considered extraordinarily successful, even though his work is largely crap.  No one will be looking at his work in 50 years other than as case studies in misappropriation.

So how can we measure sustainability?  Is there only one measure?  I think sustainability comes in different flavours.  The avantgarde contemporary photographers who are fortunate enough to garner attention and sell some high-priced work may meet a financial measure of sustainability during their lifetime, but their work may not endure.  Instagram and other social media followings and likes are not in my opinion indicators of sustainability.  How many flashes in the pan have gotten their 15 minutes of fame and promptly disappeared into oblivion?  A working commercial photographer who can stay busy with commissions and make a solid living certainly has achieved a degree of sustainability, even though their work may be relatively ordinary and have not lasting significance. Another measure, and perhaps the worthiest in my opinion, of sustainability is work of lasting relevance or interest during and beyond the photographer’s lifetime, regardless of whether that photographer was financially successful during their career.  These are the photographers that make a difference in the world and in photography it would be the category to which I would aspire were I 40 years younger and beginning a career.