Category Archives: images

coming to grips with our lack of understanding

I was listening to a recent (July 14 2016) episode of Open Source as I walked yesterday, in which Greil Marcus was interviewed by Max Larkin about three songs (Dylan’s Ballad of Hollis Brown, Geeshie Wiley and LV Thomas’ Last Kind Words Blues, and Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground) that Marcus has written a book around (Three Songs, Three Singers, Three Nations). A short segment seemed especially relevant to issues of art and creativity that I’ve been thinking about lately, so I transcribed it when I got home:

To me, works of art, whether they’re songs, whether they’re novels, whether they’re paintings, whether they’re movies, are fictions: they’re imaginative constructs that people create and then they inhabit and then they tell you stories from that position, as if they’re true. But they’re making things up, they’re lying. These things didn’t happen. And so the fact that Geeshie Wiley and LV Thomas were from here as opposed to there, that they lived at this time as opposed to that time, all of that is interesting and will tell you something about how these songs came to be musically as part of a tradition, but will not tell you anything about why the recordings they made, and especially Motherless Child Blues and Last Kind Words Blues, are absolutely unique, why there is nothing like them. That is because they had the tools and they had the will and the desire and the genius to be able to turn that into an artifact that we can listen to and say “who ARE these people?” and when we say “who are these people, we don’t mean “are they really from Houston?” which is where they were from, was LV Thomas really a lesbian, which she was was. That’s not what we mean by “who are these people?”. It’s like, “what is this ABOUT?” How can people DO these kinds of things? It’s our sense of awe in the face of great art. It’s a sense of coming to grips with our lack of understanding of how something so beautiful, so preordained, so unlikely, has come to be.

click to hear:

The sense of the sublime that inhabits the art that moves us (musical, graphic, narrative, photographic, whatever) is hard to pin down or distill into words. We knows it when we sees it, and that sense of knowing may or may not be transitive: others may not feel or apprehend or catch or get it. I’m aware of this feeling with every batch of photographs I process and put into my Flickr photostream—there’s an ineffable something that inhabits some images, often because of some imaginative construct that I’ve put onto them in capturing or processing. Sometimes there’s a story, either manifest or lurking under the surface. Sometimes it’s just a portent, or an allusion that only comes into focus within a set of images. Here’s one that produced that sort of frisson, though I haven’t yet imagined the narrative into which it might fit:

Cambria13

inversion conversion reversion

I’m still processing our visit to the Qu’est-ce que la photographie? exhibit at the Pompidou, and looking forward to the arrival of the catalog (ordered via Amazon) and the challenge of reading the French text that accompanies the images.




Sometimes it’s a bit difficult to break out of preconceptions about stuff you think you know about –to see the familiar in new ways, and to find context and meaning for the unfamiliar. The Pompidou exhibit flung down just those challenges, and I’ve been exploring them ever since our visit. I’ll try to unpack some of that in what follows.

Consider two rather startling images, neither of which was familiar to me (and I’d never heard of the photographers either, which just goes to show my own insularity):


 


(see the Pompidou pages for Mulas’ Una mano sviluppa l’altra fissa and Rautert’s Sonne und Mond von einem negativ; and take a look at the website for Ugo Mulas (1928-1973) and a recent New Yorker piece on work by Timm Rautert (1941-))

Neither is quite what it seems at first glance, and the viewer struggles a bit before catching on.
Mulas inverts tonalities and flips horizontally: one hand becomes two. Rautert tweaks a single negative to represent two different celestial bodies.

It’s interesting to explore the notion that multiple renderings of an image can disclose things hidden or obscured in any one version, and the kindred idea that any photograph is potentially many photographs. Where does ‘truth’ or ‘reality’ lie? Is our perception of an image all subjective prevarication?

Digital tools put these questions at the ends of our fingers.

Inversion of tonalities and mirror-imaging are two techniques that are easy to play with using GIMP, and I’ve done quite a bit of that as I’ve explored tessellations of Betsy’s and my own images (see some examples and a few more). Is such manipulation merely a gimmick, or is there something more to it? This is a question that comes up often in the world of Art, and I’m learning to enjoy the ambiguities and widen my purview.

An interesting challenge came my way shortly before we left for France, as I read through the announcement of an exhibit that will open soon at the deCordova Museum in Massachusetts: Integrated Vision: Science, Nature, and Abstraction in the Art of Len Gittleman and György Kepes. Len Gittleman was our teacher in 1963-1964, and we revere him, but the description of the show brought me up short:

Gittleman’s Lunar Transformation portfolio is a series of ten vividly colored serigraphs created from black and white photographs taken during the Apollo 15 mission to the moon in 1971. Gittleman’s discerning use of color transforms the craters and crevices of the lunar surface into vibrant, colorful abstractions which aesthetically parallel the art movement of Abstract Expressionism. The serigraphs’ strong graphic presence reflects the awe-inspiring nature of their source material.

Wait a minnit, I found myself thinking, that’s not photography… and then I heard myself and had to laugh at stick-in-the-muddism. Of course it’s photography, just maybe not the comfortable and predictable sort that I know I like

As I’ve suggested in recent posts, visiting the Griffin Museum and Florence Henri and Qu’est-ce que la photographie exhibits has been ramifying across my own photographic life. This morning I woke up thinking about alternative presentations of an image that’s been a conundrum for me over more than 40 years: Poor Alice G.. I remembered that I’d once scanned a slide of the photo, but happened to reverse it, and I thought well why not? …and so




I’m not sure that either bit of trickery illuminates the tale of Poor Alice G. any further, or that these renderings have any place in Nova Scotia Faces, but the exercise did get me thinking about how confining a straight-ahead descriptive take on that gargantuan project would be.

Remember to breathe

Smacked upside the head

Sometimes it’s a bit of text, sometimes a phrase in a tune, sometimes a (photo-)graphic, but the experience is pretty much the same: a brief guffaw loosed at the sheer excellence/audacity/brio of the thing. Case in point, this from the end of a piece by Charles Simic, from New York Review of Books, which just rolled in via RSS:

Here, to give you an idea, is the beginning of a story called “Water Liars” from a collection of [Barry Hannah’s stories] called Airships:

When I am run down and flocked around by the world, I go down to Farte Cove off the Yazoo River and take my beers to the end of the pier where the old liars are still snapping and wheezing at one another. The line-up is always different, because they are always dying out, or succumbing to constipation, etc., whereupon they go back to the cabins and wait for a good day when they can come out and lie again, leaning on the rail with coats full of bran cookies. The son of the man the cove was named for is often out there. He pronounces his name Fartay, with a great French stress on the last syllable. Otherwise, you might laugh at his history or ignore it in favor of the name as it’s spelled on the sign.

I’m glad it’s not my name.

This poor dignified man has had to explain his nobility to the semiliterate of half of America before he could even begin a decent conversation with them. On the other hand, Farte, Jr., is a great liar himself. He tells about seeing ghost people around the lake and tell big loose ones about the size of the fish those ghost took out of Farte Cove in years past…

Having previously read the story and knowing what was coming, reading this far was all that was required for my purpose, which was to close my eyes and go to sleep with a smile on my face.

Maybe epiphany is a sufficiently weighty word to bear this freight of delight. I guess I could say that I live for such moments of glee, and this one sent me directly to Amazon to snag Hannah’s book on the Kindle.

A photographic example from the just-concluded trip to France is another suchlike, a scene I glimpsed for just a moment while ankling around in Pont-Aven (on the south coast of Brittany) and had the wit to capture:


Everything about this is just right: the apparent transparency of some of the figures, the dim reflection in the window glass through which I shot, the illusion of depth in the room, the moments of movement transfixed… I took a lot of pictures that I like in that fortnight, but this one seems to me the most glorious. I might never have seen the opportunity if I hadn’t just been to the Florence Henri exhibit at Jeu de Paume…

addendum: it occurred to me to try a bit of manipulation, inspired by the Qu’est-ce que la photographie? exhibit:

artful dreaming

I’ve been reading Will Gompertz What Are You Looking At? The surprising, shocking, and sometimes strange story of 150 years of modern art, and this morning woke from a dream in which I was conducting a seminar in looking at photographs, and presenting an exercise for the participants. I showed them three photographs and asked that they write a response to the question “What are you looking at?” for the three. The idea was that some would know the photographs and/or their makers already, and might write on the place of each in the photographer’s oeuvre; some would be seeing the images for the first time, and might respond more subjectively; some might respond from a technical perspective, discussing how the images were captured and processed; and some might come up with other entirely novel responses to the three pictures. These were the three that came clearly to mind in the dream:


In case they’re not familiar to you, the first is Edward Steichen’s 1903 portrait of financier J.P. Morgan (see discussion), the second is by the 18-year old Jacques-Henri Lartigue in 1912 (see discussion), and the third is from August Sander’s People of the 20th Century, taken in 1914 (see discussion).

I was just imaging the discussion that would result from everyone’s reading of each other’s responses when I woke up. What surprises me is how clear the whole thing was, the images and the process and some of the outcome.

What I love about Gompertz’ title is the various emphases one might give: WHAT are you looking at? What are you looking at? What are you LOOKING at? What are you looking at? All deliciously valid questions, of course, and applicable to any appreciation of visual material (which is just Gompertz’ point, natch). And pursuing this set of questions seems a worthwhile objective for the New Year.