Research – Exhibitions

Over the next week I will be visiting museums and galleries in Rotterdam, Antwerp, Liege and Brussels with an eye toward seeing different ways of exhibiting work that will help to inform the way that I will chose to exhibit my FMP.  I will be looking specifically for effective exhibition strategies, particularly with a series of work that includes a narrative sequence.  I want to see how artists and curators create a visual narrative and to see how much it depends on explanatory or accompanying text, or whether it can also be done without.

As I refine the theme of my FMP and begin to collect the work that will be required, I am also considering how it will be edited, curated and displayed. Among the ideas for my exhibition is a concept published in my FMP proposal and repeated below.

20190620_160330

I look forward to reporting on what I will have seen next week.

MA Bibliography as of 10 April 2019

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‘Saddleworth — Matthew Murray Photography’. 2019. [online]. Available at: https://www.matthewmurray.co.uk/saddleworth [accessed 25 Mar 2019].

 

Week 10 – Daniel Gustav Cramer Trilogy (2003/2013)

I first encountered Cramer’s work some months back and was taken with it then.  I found it was quite similar in overall character and aesthetic to work I hade begun pursuing in the winter.  It reminded me of the work of Axel Hutte, about whom I had written extensively in past modules.  I also think Cramer’s Trilogy work bears resemblance to that of Risaku Suzuki.    Thomas Struth’s Haptic Green also bears some resemblance the Woodlands portion of Cramer’s Trilogy, but it seems to be much more intensely about colour while Cramer’s work is more about form.

We were asked to comment on the edits Cramer choose and whether we would have done it differently.  I happen to like the photos he included and while some may be stronger than others it is important to have some distinctions.  Also, I am certain those that I might think strong are not necessarily the ones someone else might choose.  And that is I think one o f the key points of Cramer’s work, as well of that of Hutte and Suzuki, that there is no intent to dictate the narrative to the viewer.  The mystery, masking of location and even to an extent subject, force the viewer to engage with the photograph to figure out what it is, where it might be, what is in the frame and what might be just out of the frame.  So, to that end, and because there is no real overall intention to Cramer’s work beyond the three broad categories, the photographs are not intended to hang together in a linear fashion to create a narrative and therefore can be viewed in any order as standalone images, each waiting for the viewer to create their own story.

Darwent noted of Cramer’s work they are “images shot through with story and place, but which demand we ignore both place and story. This is what we are, they say, but what are we?” (Darwent, 2007) Cramer’s images are tantalising, looking familiar and foreign at the same time, clearly of something almost recognisable, but what. He presents the viewer with a puzzle to which the solution will be based in the knowledge and cultural experiences of each viewer.  For example, the underwater photos were to me as a scuba diver immediately recognisable as such, but to someone who had never dived, may have been quite confusing and disorienting.  The woodland photos were likely more familiar territory for many, and I liked how Cramer choose to include a mix of photos, some of which seem to invite the viewer in and others that seemed to want to hold the viewer out.

It is very moody and atmospheric work.  It defies time and place merging both into the space of heady dreams and fantasy.  I wish it had been published as a book as it is one I would enjoy owning.

 

References

DARWENT, Charles. 2007. ‘Weblet Importer’. [online]. Available at: http://danielgustavcramer.com/infotxt.html [accessed 1 Apr 2019].

 

Week 5 Reflections – Labels and Gazes

I have been enjoying the journey of this MA course and how it has helped me to discover a new language for thinking about and talking about the world around me.  I have spent many hours reading the luminaries of photographic critical theory and trying to find relevance to my world and my work.  I have found myself far better able to examine others’ images and articulate something more than whether I liked it or not.

I have enjoyed the deconstruction of my own practice as I search for what things are essential to me and my work, though I have found this aspect perhaps the most difficult part of the course. And I think it is more difficult in part because it is a moving target and hopefully always will be to a degree.  Humans are transient beings in an ever-changing world.  I am an unfinished project that I hope is only completed when I take my last breath.  I seek to know myself and my place in the world well enough to recognise, appreciate and enjoy the subtle evolution and variations in myself and the world around me and greet them with joy.

I have been struck how these new tools in my kit bag have found their way in and out of other aspects of my life.  For example, I have written before and speak frequently about my aversion to labels.  The following scene from Season 2 Episode 2 of the Netflix production Sense8 seemed a perfect example.  I have edited it slightly for clarity.

“I just want to understand.” 

“No, you’re not trying to understand anything because labels are the opposite of understanding.

What does courage have to do with the colour of a man’s skin” 

“Who are you?“

“Who am I? – Do you mean – where I’m from? What I one day might become? What I do? What I’ve done? What I dream? Do you mean what you see? What I’ve seen? What I fear What I one day might become? Do you mean who I love? What I’ve lost? – Do you mean what I’ve lost? “ 

“Who am I?  I guess who I am is, exactly the same as who you are; not better than, not less than. Because there is no one who has been or will ever be exactly the same as either you or me.”

Sontag wrote:

“Photography implies that we know about the world if we accept it as the camera records it.  But this is the opposite of understanding, which starts from not accepting the world as it looks. (ed. Or as someone else has labelled it) All possibility of understanding is rooted in the ability to say no.  Strictly speaking, one never understands anything from a photograph.” (Sontag, 1977: 23)

When we choose to, or allow someone else to label a person, a photograph or a photographer using a broad brush we abdicate our responsibility to consider the worth of the person as an individual or the work on the specific merits of each piece.  There are not hard and fast lines and we cannot come to any real understanding if we continue to draw them or accept someone else’s drawing of them.

In another Sense8 scene from Season 2 Episode 1 illustrates the point that the reading of an image is not only largely in the hands (mind) of the viewer but serves as a window into the psyche of the viewer as his or her reading is greatly influenced by the filters, biases and cultural setting that viewer brings to the reading.

“Art is material. 

It is wed intractably to the real world, – bound by matter and matters.

– [phones beeping] – Art is political.

– [phone vibrates] Never more so than when insisting it is not.

Art is dialectic. 

It is enriched when shared and impoverished by ownership and commodification.

It is a language of seeing and being seen.[low chuckles, murmurs]

Uh, would someone care to fill me in on the joke here?

Yes.Totally.[laughter] Is this art, Mr. Fuentes? [low chuckles]

Is it art, Mr. Valles? What do you think? Why don’t you tell us what you see?

Looks like shit-packer porn.[low murmurs, chuckles]

“Shit-packer porn.” That is; That is very interesting. Yeah, because this is where the relationship between subject and object reverses. The proverbial shoe shifting to the other foot. And what was seen now reveals the seer. Because the eyes of the beholder find not just beauty where they want, but also shallowness, ugliness, confusion, prejudice. Which is to say the beholder will always see what they want to see, suggesting that what you, Mr. Valles, want to see is in fact shit-packer porn. [class chuckling] Whereas someone else, someone with a set of eyes capable of seeing beyond societal conventions, beyond their defining biases, such a beholder might see an image of two men caught in an act of pleasure. Erotic to be sure, but also vulnerable. Neither aware of the camera. Both of them connected to the moment, to each other. To love. And as I have suggested before in this class art is love made public.” 

While I have been unable to find the one definitive reference that I feel reasonably sure I have seen or heard somewhere, it is safe to say that before this course this scene would have passed me by with not a second thought.  There are elements of Foucault, Berger, Brazin, Lacan, Silverman’s Screen Theory and others that are alluded to in the prior scene.

I do subscribe to the concept of the triangle of between the Subject – Photographer – Viewer, but I also believe the balance of power dynamic between them shifts during the life cycle of a photograph and is greatly influenced by contextual clues found in accompanying text, or in where the work is seen.  I also believe the power shifts predominantly to the viewer once the photograph leaves the direct control of the photographer and that regardless of the context most viewers will see only what their cultural and personal conditioning will allow them to see.

References

SONTAG, Susan. 1977. On Photography. Hammondsworth, UK: Penguin Books Ltd.

Sense8, Season 2, Episodes 1 and 2. 2015. Netflix

 

Week 4 – Contextualising Work

Since the beginning of the MA course, the Cromarty Cohort has had a very active and useful WhatsApp group that has been a great source of support and discussion.  I have learned perhaps as much from the interactions with my cohort as I have from the formal coursework.  It has been a place of inspiration, mutual support, friendship and quite often sanity preserving humour.  I truly treasure these relationships.

Quite often, we have had extraordinary debates on wide ranging topics and just as often we lean on each other for advice, critique and the knowledge that comes with experience.  I have not been particularly good yet at critiquing my own work and I attribute that in part to not yet being entirely certain of what I want to do.  But the course, my independent reading, and the interactions with my peers has given me a new base of knowledge, a new vocabulary, and a basis for applying the critical thinking skills honed over 40 + years of working to begin better contextualising photographic work.

What follows is a discussion with Mick Yates about his work currently underway in Cambodia.  We had talked a length before the trip about his goals and concerns.  After his second day of shooting he posted a couple of photos from the day’s work on our WhatsApp forum.  With Mick’s permission I am posting the main bits of our ‘conversation’ which proved useful for us both I think.  I find it easier to have this discussion about someone else’s work than my own, but I know when it is time to talk about mine, I know my cohort will be there for me.  In the meantime, it was enlightening to talk about Mick’s challenges all the while realising I needed to be thinking, not the same things, but in the same way.

At the very outset there were a few comments by others in the cohort, and there were a few asides that were not directly relevant to the thread that have been edited to enhance clarity.  What follows though is the main conversation between Mick and me in its entirety.   The photographs are all Mick’s work taken with an infrared camera today in Cambodia.

[01:49, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: May they rest peacefully

Yates 2019 IR_01
Mick Yates Feb 2019

[01:49, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: Cheoung Ek, the Killing Fields

Yates 2019 IR_02
Mick Yates Feb 2019

[06:42, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: Too pretty?

[08:42, 2/16/2019] Ashley Rose: It depends on whether your story is about the genocide or really about the people who survived it and what Cambodia is today.  Are the Killing Fields sources of hope that horror can be overcome, or are they an ever present pall of death that no one in Cambodia can ever escape? These may not be the right questions, and they are certainly not the only questions, but I believe they may be the kind of questions you need to be asking before you exhaust yourself physically and emotionally taking photos that you that either do not meet your needs or actually work against them.

[08:43, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: Very fair

[08:44, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: I think it does depend on the audience. In Cambodia, it must be about hope. But in the West, whilst it is hope, it’s also fundamental education, with all the horror that entails

[08:54, 2/16/2019] Ashley Rose: It is hard to see horror in any of the landscapes you have taken.  Nature has taken it back, covered it up and erased it from the possibility of discovery by anyone who hasn’t been through what happened there.  There is horror inn the museums.  You would perhaps have to go Jo Hedwig Teeuwisseor or Sergey Larenkov to convey what happened there to Western audiences

[08:54, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: I don’t know them – will look. Thanks

[08:55, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: I really don’t like the Museum stuff

Yates 2019 IR_03
Mick Yates Feb 2019

[08:56, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: Boring ..

[08:56, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: Nature never gave it up so reclaiming is easy. Humans are just a temporary thing

[08:57, 2/16/2019] Ashley Rose: Agree and it has all been seen before.  Larenkov and Teeuwisseor both did Ghosts of WWII series superimposing old images on modern scenes to show what happened there

[08:57, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: Though interesting how IR takes out shades and details

[09:00, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: I think there may be more horror in the negatives

[09:00, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: The problem of aftermath

[09:07, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: Even Sophie Ristelhueber, who I love and who ‘invented’ aftermath is almost forensic. No emotion

[09:11, 2/16/2019] Ashley Rose: Yes, and that begs the question, where is Cambodia now, and where does what happened factor into today.  Every day people who were there are dying.  More and more of the population knows of it only second hand.  Is the point to get past it or is the point to hang on to it or is the point that there are forces that want to shackle the younger generations to their inescapable past? Is there something in the Cambodian psyche that suggests this could happen again at any moment or is this something that people think can never happen again?  Is there a shift in mindset between Sarath’s generation and his grandchildren’s? Is this an aftermath story that is far enough removed from the event that the horror can be treated lightly, almost in passing as you focus on Cambodia today, or are there dark forces still at work to whom the past is closely tied that are getting in the way of the current generations progress and escape from the past?  So many questions, but all key to framing the story and guiding your shooting.

[09:11, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: All good Qs, Ash. Very good

[09:14, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: I guess a similar logic might apply to the Holocaust. Maybe we should all just forget it?

[09:27, 2/16/2019] Ashley Rose: I did not mean to suggest the past should be forgotten, but in fact many have.  It begs the question of where is the balance between remembering the past and how it affected where we are today and dwelling in it? Does that balance shift over time?   I am not naïve enough to think genocide can’t happen again, but I would like also to think that it couldn’t go on for the length of time the Nazis did without the world knowing and reacting.

[09:28, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: Ironically, as I have discovered in reading, the world actually did know, but the UK and US governments chose not to believe the Soviet/Polish propaganda. Another story

[09:29, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: Your point stands, though

[09:30, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: One of the Cambodian challenges is that there was no ‘other’ so it was like the Chinese Cultural Revolution

[09:31, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: Self-Genocide in fact

[09:35, 2/16/2019] Ashley Rose: And I can’t imagine that isn’t a bit frightening at least to the older folk who experienced it.  The thought that your neighbour was involved in slaughtering thousands for no good reason.  Zealots and ideologues are scary people.  And that undercurrent is resurfacing in many places in the world.  Does this suggest a cautionary tale?  Does the current flavour of KR harbour any allusions of the past?

[09:37, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: Agree. The vast majority just want to move on. But as I have discovered time and again, a simple conversation leads to all kinds of memories and questions. Every day I am here

[09:38, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: Maybe I am the one that needs to let this go

[09:43, 2/16/2019] Ashley Rose: Is there an element of outsider gaze tied to your history that affects your current perceptions and has the fact that you had a wee break from the heavy involvement meant that you missed a subtle shift in where Cambodia is today compared to say 15 years ago?  Not meant to be in any way disrespectful, just a question.

[09:48, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: It’s a great question. I think that when we started this, 20 years ago, there was def an outsider gaze. I mean, we paid for schools that the country couldn’t afford. Imperial, what? But we never saw it that way ofc. We did try to learn and be part of the whole, though it was hard.

Now, I find myself deeper. When the people I am working with no longer know all the answers – and in fact find new things because of this activity, it’s become even more personal.

Is there a shift here? Sadly, no. This is all buried and has been for a long time. The closest parallel is China I think

[09:52, 2/16/2019] Ashley Rose: Is that parallel to China in some way an angle from which to approach the story?  And if so, why does that similarity exist? Is it political, deeper cultural similarities, etc?  Sorry if I am droning on too long.  I am sure you must be exhausted, and my day is only beginning.  Lots to do before I get on a plane Monday morning.

[09:55, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: The parallel is the Cultural Revolution – The KR executed it on steroids. The disconnect is that Deng Xiaoping saw that prosperity for all was key – and consigned the Gang of Four to the trash can of history. Neither have really happened here, so no release

[09:56, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: No closure and a very uncertain future in other words

[09:59, 2/16/2019] Ashley Rose: And that perhaps is the heart of the story and how today is affected by the past. That comparison to China may be useful as a foil to show how Cambodia has become mired.

[10:03, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: Well, yes, though this is an MA not a PhD

[10:03, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: Not making light of your comment – it’s totally right

[10:37, 2/16/2019] Ashley Rose: And it is a practical degree not a dissertation project.

[10:37, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: Also true

 

Thank you to Mick for the conversation, and for permission to post it and his work to my CRJ.  This is merely one example in a year’s worth of great conversations, debates, and discussion between us that has made my experience on the MA all the richer.

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?  The best quote I have found to address this topic is:

“Do not call yourself an ’artist-photographer’ and make ‘artist-Painters’ and ‘artist-sculptors’ laugh; call yourself a photographer and wait for artists to call you brother.” (Peter Henry Emerson in Trachtenberg 1980: 100)

References

TRACHTENBERG, Alan (ed.). 1980. Classic Essays on Photography. Sedgewick, ME: Leete’s Island Books, Inc.

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.