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.

Cindy Sherman Case Study

As part of the assessment period preparatory work for Informing Contexts we were asked to look at a case study on Cindy Sherman and respond to the questions.

Questions for reflection.

  1. How do you feel about this more inclusive and anti-intentionalist approach to producing work?
    Sherman’s self-portraits call attention to female stereotypes. Berger Ways of Seeing addresses this topic. I question whether Sherman’s work is anti-intentionalist.  Is that even possible as a photographer?  Sherman goes to great lengths to create costumes, do make up and create sets or find locations.  Are these not all done with intention?  Whether she admits it or not she is trying to depict a particular thing with each photo and with that is an intention however conscious or subconscious that might be to communicate something to a viewer. To be truly anti-intentional one would have to close one’s eyes and take random snaps, do no editing and publish whatever came from the camera.  Otherwise there is always some level of intention in a photographer’s work.
  2. Do you give your viewers this openness of interpretation and do you think Sherman is successful in this regard?
    My work is predominantly documentary in character and focused on landscapes and nature. When humans are included it is usually to show how they interact with a place and what is around them.  Because I am not generally trying to impose an interpretation, and more importantly, because interpretation is almost solely in the realm of the viewer regardless of the photographer’s intention, I would argue my work is open.  Sherman, I suppose does succeed to a degree as there are those who argue her work is feminist and challenges the stereotypes by which women have been viewed, while others argue that her work reinforces those stereotypes. I think though because she is the model it is difficult to argue her work is exploitative of women.  I do find it difficult though to understand how she can claim no intention as I discussed above as her work is among the most intentional I can think of, and seems that it must have some purpose beyond a decades long documentation of her ‘performance art’.
  3. With respect to the Brisbane exhibit: How do you feel the curators theoretically position her work, and how do you respond to this work being shown in a gallery context?
    The curators state Sherman is a conceptual photographer not concerned with technical aspects of photography but rather with using photography as a tool to tell a story. The also state her work is an exploration of how identity and imagery are constructed. It seems to me entirely appropriate that this work is presented in a gallery, because it is only there, or perhaps to a lesser degree in a large format book, that one can see and experience the body of work and appreciate the photographs in relation to each other. The tie in to films and their relation to Sherman’s work was another important curatorial move that brings more context to the show.  It is also interesting as Sherman’s work is essentially performance art and she as the central character in this decades-long effort are captured like single frames from a film and subsequently displayed on the wall as a series of frames from that movie of her life as a photographer.

    How is the intent of the work achieved in the way the photos are presented?
    If one of the intentions is to show the effects of ageing, then the sequential display of work is able to accomplish that effectively.
    Are there paradoxes for you?
    As discussed above the whole intent bit seems to me paradoxical.  Also I cannot resolve whether the work chips away at or reinforces stereotypes and I suspect that it will continue to be interpreted both ways depending on the biases, filters, and the personal and cultural experiences each viewer brings to their viewing of her work.

  4. Do you read Sherman’s work as feminist?
    I do not. There is no questioning she is clever woman who has parlayed a theme into a career. Her allusions and tributes to a bygone era of cinema are brilliantly done for the most part, but they do not strike me at all as standing for women’s rights or in any way attempting to break stereotypes.  One might argue by making contemporary photos in a style and with sets and costumes reminiscent of the past and with the grandeur of the early work of Cecil Beaton makes a statement about how different things are now, but I don’t think it is a very substantive argument.  It is for me egocentric performance art and it does that very well.
  5. Do you invite any critical or theoretical lenses by which to consume your work and are multiple readings possible?
    I guess in a way I hope not on the question of critical or theoretical lenses.  I think of my work as being simple expressions of places at a particular time, and frequently including the beings that inhabit those places.  The intent is mostly to present a view that may not be readily accessible to most of the viewers of my work, whether that comes from seeing the dynamics of a bird on wing or breaking free from the from or returning to the bounds of earth, or the details of a plant or insect not visible to the naked eye, or a landscape with visual interest.  Will that stop someone from trying to apply a critical lens; probably not.  It is just that all too often doing so causes far more to be read into work than was ever intended by the photographer.

    Can these photos be read in multiple ways?  Of course, as I stated earlier, the reading of every photograph is subject to the limitations of the cultural and personal experiences of the viewer and while in some cases the standard deviation in interpretation may be smaller than others, each person will have their own take on any work put in front of them.

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.