The last three months has seen an intense engagement with photography, largely because of my participation in an online workshop with Andy Ilachinski, whose work I’ve been following for ten years or so. The six weeks of the workshop are now at an end, and I’ve written my last response to the exercises Andy offered. I’ve just read through all of my postings and am pleased with their range and consistency. It’s difficult to say what I learned in the six weeks—or indeed in the three months—of reading and photographing and processing and writing, but it’s been a delight. I’m surely even more committed to the practice of photography as an integral element of my life, and even more engaged in looking and perhaps a tidge better at seeing. So now what? There’s a mountain of photobooks to read and re-read, and projects to begin, to continue, and maybe even to finish. There’s software to explore in greater depth (Lightroom, Photoshop, InDesign), and books to fashion… and of course more photographic adventures to undertake. Never a dull moment.
One of the delightful photographic discoveries of the last week or so is the work of Daido Moriyama, of whom I should have known lo these many years. Posts in the online photography workshop I’m participating in encouraged me into the beginnings of an exploration of Japanese photography, and that led to Moriyama, and indirectly to this 12-minute video, which showcases Moriyama’s unique kinetic approach to photography:
I would like to cultivate the freedom of gesture that is part of what makes Daido Moriyama such a remarkable photographer, a veritable dancer in the urban kaleidoscope.
Another of his remarkable captures:
Terry Pratchett puts it very succinctly in Small Gods:
There are billions of gods in the world. They swarm as thick as herring roe. Most of them are too small to see and never get worshipped, at least by anything bigger than bacteria, who never say their prayers and don’t demand much in the way of miracles.
They are the small gods—the spirits of places where two ant trails cross, the gods of microclimates down between the grass roots. And most of them stay that way.
Because what they lack is belief.
…what gods need is belief, and what humans want is gods. (pg. 11)
The big thundery gods stay visible, buoyed by legions of believers and serviced by hiererchies of acolytes. The lesser gods may be shrunken, and many are simply in occlusion, mostly hidden from sight and sometimes shrunk to vestigiality by dearth of believers. Sometimes they can be found in the interstitial spaces…
It was immediately obvious to me that he is the god of headaches. I winkled him out from his hiding place by performing a symmetrical transformation on this image:
I had revealed the vice-like horror of the migraine god only a week or so before:
And now gods seem to be cropping up pretty much wherever I look. Here’s a nameless Elder God, clearly not to be messed with:
and a mesomorphic god, who has obviously worked out a lot:
and a miscellaneous green godlet, who may be angling for an appearance as an alternative salad dressing:
Last week’s visit to Boston Museum of Fine Arts to see the Sheeler and Stieglitz shows, all images drawn from the MFA’s Lane Collection, reminded me of the book An Enduring Vision: Photographs from the Lane Collection which I bought a couple of years ago after an earlier visit to the MFA. I sat down to read Lyle Rexer’s introductory essay, “A Widening Circle: some images from the Lane Collection” and was brought up short by the eloquence of its first paragraph, which seems to directly address issues I’ve been thinking about:
Photographs are perhaps the most peculiar art objects because their invitation, apparently so literal, is really open-ended. Severed from the flux of temporal experience in which they originate, increasingly cut off from the rich context of historical meanings as the moments and situations they capture recede in history’s rear-view mirror, all photographs are orphaned, telling us, as Diane Arbus once remarked, everything and nothing. At the same time, the simple fact of putting a frame around a scene can suddenly invest its contents with urgency, demanding we pay attention to a set of visual relations that might otherwise have gone unnoticed—or that in truth did not even exist until time was stopped and they were framed. In a photograph it can seem as if the world is speaking to us directly of some truth, but that truth is obscure and hard to decipher, like an oracle. In the presence of a mystery that hides in plain sight, photographs solicit us to provide captions, to invest our own surmises and explanations, our own stories. (pg. 25)
Rexer goes on to tie together a number of the dominant figures of 20th century American photography, and points to a Bullock image I’ve never had occasion to study before:
(Adams, Weston, White, Sommer, Bullock, Sheeler) …all shared the notion that form is a universal constant of the world and our experience, the expression of a fundamental principle of order uniting all levels of phenomena. Form is inherent in the nature of things but obscured by circumstance. It is identified by the intuition of the photographer and fixed objectively in the composition and attributes of the photograph. The expressive photograph, then, is one that mediates a recognition of connectedness between the viewer and the greater order of the world through the artist’s artistic sensibility. The meaning of the photograph is open-ended in that it suggests connections that can be both psychological and natural, if not spiritual, as in Wynn Bullock’s famous Tide Pool (1957), an image that sets up a chain of associations from the microscopic to the heavenly. Specific place and time, the anchors of photographic reference, are only points of departure. (pg. 26)
This photograph reminds me that I’m forever finding new photographs and photographers to explore, and thus greatly complicating the question of what/who my favorites might be. This is a good thing, and not a bad thing.
Another realization: I’ve always been mostly interested in photographs and their social and historical context, and never had occasion to think much about collectors of photography, who these days pretty much have to be deep-pocketed high-rollers. I begin to see that I might owe a debt of gratitude to those who underwrite my pleasures by their support of artists and the museums that acquire their works.
So I googled Lyle Rexer and found The Edge of Vision: The Rise of Abstraction in Photography, and (almost needless to say) ordered a copy. Will it ever end?
At Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts we saw a wonderful Charles Sheeler show, which included the [silent] film Sheeler and Paul Strand made in 1921. The whole 10-minute film is wonderful, but this scene is sheer genius for the time. Or any time, come to that.
I decided to subscribe to the modern version of Aperture, primarily for the purpose of gaining access to the archive, all the way back to the first issue in 1952. There have been some problems getting set up, and the interface isn’t all that one might wish, but Pandora’s Box is now at least openable, and it’s worthwhile to keep track of some of my impressions and findings as I explore 65 or so years of high-end Photography.
I’ve poked a bit at recent issues, enough to observe that Aperture isn’t focused these days on what I think is photographically interesting, which just means that I have to do some work on understanding the dimensions of my interests, and then start seeking backwards through time for the various turning points and deviations from the Aperture that I knew 50-odd years ago. LensWork is now doing what I think Aperture used to do (and I subscribe to that as well), at least as defined by the criterion of my notions of what’s most interesting in Photography.
One of my tendencies turns out to be a species of mouldy-figism, characterized by a strong preference for an aesthetic based in the past, and emphasizing strong composition in black and white (‘mouldy fig’ is an epithet from the Culture Wars in jazz, one brief narration of which is here).
Think the pantheon of Walker Evans, Paul Strand, Paul Caponigro, Aaron Siskind, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Minor White; and include more recent discoveries Emmet Gowin, Berenice Abbott, Florence Henri, Margrethe Mather… and of course Lewis Hine and Jacques-Henri Lartigue and Henri Cartier-Bresson and August Sander… and Edward Weston and Brett Weston and (eventually) Robert Frank… (not that they’d all appreciate being lumped together). They continue to define for me the acme of Photography.
So where did I get off the bus, and become identified with crusty traditionalism? Might have been sometime in the 1970s, not too long after Vision and Expression, a 1969 show of the “younger generation of photographers” at George Eastman House. I could admit even the most fanciful of those images into my understanding of Photography, and appreciate the directions of the (entirely black-and-white) experiments at the frontiers of image-making. Soon after that I was in Nova Scotia, far from the cutting edge of the arts world, but Szarkowski’s The Photographer’s Eye (1966) and Looking At Photographs (1973) were the personal cynosure and touchstones for my understanding of Photography.
And then along came John Szarkowski’s Introduction to William Eggleston’s Guide, “the first one-man show of color photographs ever presented at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Museum’s first publication of color photography” in 1976. And the issue that hung me up was probably color. I’ve never quite caught up.
See Abigail Cane’s A Road Less Traveled: How William Eggleston Transformed Photography in America, and Dennis Haritou’s Discussion too. And Perfectly Banal: William Eggleston.
Technologically, the innovation is the vibrancy of color made possible by the dye transfer process
I did have occasion recently to see Eggleston’s work in a show at Pier 24 in San Francisco, and I’m now much less puzzled by his modes of seeing than I was. But with many of his photos I still think: so what?
I’ve been reading in Aperture Magazine Anthology: The Minor White Years, 1952-1976, a book I’ve had on the shelves for 5 years but always been a bit daunted by. Turns out to be interesting, useful, relevant… even though many of the articles within are 60 years old, and address a photography that was totally not-digital, almost entirely black-and-white, and entirely within the ‘fine art’ realm. Many of the pieces are by Minor White himself, and articulate his personal vision of mid-20th century camera work. That vision was controversial at the time, and White has always been a polarizing figure: a renowned teacher (CSFA, RIT, MIT, private students), a sometimes-impenetrable seer, a wanderer in spiritual realms, a gay person in an era that was beyond uncomfortable with such diversities, a lightning rod for people who thought differently about photography’s quiddities. And a marvelous photographer. Paul Caponigro was one of Minor White’s students. Also among photographers I revere, Carl Chiarenza and Jerry Uelsmann (see Howard Greenberg Gallery show, 2008).
Sometime in the late 1960s I got my hands on a heap of back issues of Aperture (1953-1964, with many gaps), but my engagement at the time was with the photographs, and not so much with the text. I had too much of the dancing-about-architecture attitude toward writing about aesthetics, but I was mightily affected by the photographs, and however subliminally I absorbed a lot into my own sense of what [I imagined, believed, thought] photography ought to be doing.
But now I seem to be old enough to approach the writing again, and I’m truly sorry (though not surprised) that it’s taken so long. At the moment, Minor White’s articulation of the discipline of reading photographs is what most attracts my attention.
…there are two good reasons why the reading of photographs is undertaken. First, as an object lesson to thousands that more goes on in photographs than most of us guess… Second, to explore, sound out, measure however inefficiently, not good or bad, but what a picture says. (Aperture 5:2  pg 48)
…to “read” a photograph is to communicate, to the best of one’s ability, to another person verbally or with written words what one has experienced visually in a photograph or group of them. (Aperture 5:2  pg 50)
Postpone judgement! When starting to read, experience or take part in a photograph (or picture of any kind) first put aside both like and dislike. Leave criticism to last, or better still forget to criticize. (Aperture 5:4  pg 156)
Documentary, Pictorial, Informational, or some other kind? White labels the fourth category ‘Equivalents’, following Stieglitz’ use of the term:
I have a vision of life and I try to find equivalent for it sometimes in the form of photographs… [he later said] …equivalent of my most profound life experience drawing on the symbolist notion of synthesis the possibility of suggesting one thing by meaning of another.
(from Order In Chaos, 2013 [includes some examples])
Much ink has been spilled over what Equivalent means/betokens/involves, and explicating the concept really needs its own separate post, but here’s White’s closer for the article, to chew upon meanwhile:
Actually one of the safer identifying marks of the Equivalent is a feeling that for unstatable reasons some picture is decidedly significant to you. Or again, after subjecting a photograph to one or all three of the methods heretofore given, you are tormented by the feeling that there is more. (Aperture 5:4  pg.171)
Here’s the starting point for this adventure:
The experiencing of a photograph is a personal thing and therefore its course is unprescribable. That feature of a photograph which acts as a magnet for you is the starting point. Hence start with the magnet and follow its lines of force as you feel them to the end of the journey of the photograph… (Aperture 5:4  pg.162)
I don’t find the typology of Documentary/Pictorial/Informational very satisfactory, because (1) many of my photographs don’t fit comfortably in any of those boxes, but (2) I’m somewhat loath to claim the exalted status of Equivalent for them. And, more generally, (3) where do photographs labeled with the conventional term ‘abstract’ fit? or for that matter, the ‘expressive/creative’ photographs that are by far the majority in the pages of Aperture? What seems most glaringly to be missing in this typology is the vital importance of the stories that accompany and explain many photographs, the narrative context by which they join an oeuvre/’body-of-work’. Thus, Aunt Kate might be judged to be Documentary (seen here stunningly printed on satin):
‘Documentary’ sees her as a free-standing object, simply a photograph to be read for its inherent content, but her presence in my photographic world is polyvalent. She exists because she’s a rescue, a 2×3 wafer of japanned metal with emulsion, color, an inscription. Her context is that I found her in a bin of tintypes in a Nova Scotia junk store, so she participates in a vernacular history of Nova Scotia society and culture and demography—she’s not an isolate, though we can’t provide her with provenance (no way to know her name, except Kate, or her place of origin). Aunt Kate can certainly be read as a Photograph, in isolation, but her importance and significance is as a member of a matrix of other similarly rescued photographs. Bluenose Physiognomy situates her and hundreds of other rescues as best I can, by linking them into an emergent grand narrative.
I started to make a list of characteristics of my own photographs, as means of escape from the straitjacket of Documentary/Pictorial/Informational, but quickly found myself treading idiosyncratic water as I bethought this provisional array:
- distillations (paring down to essence)
- enigmas (what YOU see is what you get)
- manifestations (something animate appearing out of seemingly nowhere)
- occlusions (something hiding)
- apprehensions of the fleeting (now you see it, now you don’t)
- encounters with the ephemeral (briefest of glimpses)
- bijoux (preciosities)
Lest this post get too complicated, I’ll stop here for the moment (promising to return to issues raised) and just point to a couple of useful resources in the Minor White vein: John Paul Caponigro’s 22 Quotes by Minor White, and Minor White: The Eye That Shapes (MOMA retrospective, 1989).
A week hence we’ll zip down to Boston to the opening of Paul Caponigro’s new show. I got out my copy of Aperture 13:1, the 1967 issue devoted entirely to Caponigro’s work, and enjoyed a deep dive into images that greatly affected me when I first saw them 50 years ago. They are as wonderful now as I found them then, and Caponigro’s words are similarly ever fresh and green:
Of all my photographs, the ones that have the most meaning for me are those I was moved to make from a certain vantage point, at a certain moment and no other, and for which I did not draw on my abilities to fabricate a picture, composition-wise or other-wise. You might say that I was taken in. Who or what takes one to a vantage point or moves one at a certain moment is a mystery to me. I have always felt after such experiences that there was more than myself involved. It is not chance. It happens often. In looking back at a particular picture and trying to recall the experience which led to it, that inexplicable element is still present. I have no other way to express what I mean than to say that more than myself is present. I cannot deny or put aside these subtle inner experiences. They are real. I feel and know them to be so. I cannot pass it off as wild imagination or hallucination. It is illusive, but the strength of it makes me yearn for it, as if trying to recall or remember an actual time, or place, or person, long past or forgotten. I hope, sometime in my life, to reach the source of it.
Is it only a bowl of fruit? Or is it invested with something that makes it more than a bowl of fruit? Or am I doing the investing when I look at the picture? Then why do I invest or shape? In themselves, images mean little. what one brings to them or what one hopes or expects from them constitutes a meaning…
A factoid that got me thinking:
Upwards of a trillion photographs will be taken in 2017, the vast majority on mobile phones (only about 10% [still 100 billion] with digital cameras); and something like 4.7 trillion photos will be “stored” by the end of 2017. Around 50 million are uploaded to Flickr (120 million “users”, many inactive) each month.
If a trillion photos are taken each year, how are we to think about the hundreds or thousands we might take? If the world has 7.5 billion people, how shall we think about being just one?
Those questions provoked this note-to-self, scribbled just before the lights went out last night:
Strive for consistency and principled engagement, and to build things that express the qualities you respect and admire. Fashion a legacy, by working to be clear about what you’re doing. Presence, engagement, candor; shun the ignoble and the invidious. Don’t succumb to pride. Practise humility and honor, don’t waste time or energy. Make things. Engage with people. Serve.
Sort of a tall order, but most of it seems entirely relevant to photography and to writing.