The idea for this came to me absurdly early yesterday morning, and today we executed it at low tide at Drift Inn beach. About a half hour of walking meditation:
Betsy photographed the progress:
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…
I had revealed the vice-like horror of the migraine god only a week or so before:
and a mesomorphic god, who has obviously worked out a lot:
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)
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?
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):
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:
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…
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.
I also preside over a vast collection of musics from all over the globe, most recorded during the 20th century, primarily by musicians who are no longer among the living.
This morning’s RSS feed brought me a sound sample from 49 years ago, a Batwa innanga zither song from Uganda. The moment captured in the recording is GONE in a profound sense: the performer is no longer living, Batwa culture and society has changed irredeemably, nobody now living plays the instrument or sings the song, and the world of the present finds the people and the music a mere curiosity, roadkill to the Progress which produced present glories/horrors. The same sad tale can be found throughout the world. (For vastly more in this line, see Hugh Tracey‘s catalog…)
Photography and field recordings have a lot in common. The stored images and the sounds are in the strict sense memorials: they enhance and embody memory, and remind us what the present came from. This is no small thing, and worth excavating beyond the superficial.
Another bit of RSS serendipity arrived this morning in the form of a blog posting by Alan Levine (a.k.a. CogDog), whom I’ve been following for 15+ years. This one gathers photos of his parents, and investigates the realms of personal memory.
And that brings me back to Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida. I continue to try to comprehend what Camera Lucida tries to teach me about thinking about photography, and so take up Part Two, in which Barthes describes his engagement with photographs of his mother at different ages, and instantiates the concept of photography’s noeme: its essence, which Barthes identifies as “that-has-been”.
It is often said that it was the painters who invented Photography (by bequeathing it their framing, the Albertian perspective, and the optic of the camera obscura). I say: no, it was the chemists. For the noeme “That-has-been” was possible only on the day when a scientific circumstance (the discovery that silver halogens were sensitive to light) made it possible to recover and print directly the luminous rays emitted by a variously lighted object. The photograph is literally an emanation of the referent. (pg. 80)
…what I see is not a memory, an imagination, a reconstitution, a piece of Maya, such as art lavishes upon us, but reality in a past state: at once the past and the real. (pg. 82)
The photograph does not necessarily say what is no longer, but only and for certain what has been.
By way of illustration, Barthes shows us Alexander Gardner’s riveting portrait of Lewis Payne/Powell, about to be executed for the attempted assassination of W.H. Seward (1865):
The photograph is handsome, as is the boy: that is the studium.
But the punctum is: he is going to die.
I read at the same time: This will be and this has been.
I shudder over a catastrophe which has already occurred.
Whether or not the subject is already dead,
every photograph is this catastrophe. (pg. 96)
As if the above wasn’t plenty of psychic exercise for one day, the mail brought The Art of Frederick Sommer: Photography, drawing, collage (Yale, 2005). In a Tribute, Emmet Gowin says
In 1966 a chance encounter with a single photograph by Frederick Sommer changed my life… To all who now hold this book in their hands: hold on, your life may never be the same. (pg. 6)
Keith Davis wrote the Introduction, which raises the bar still higher:
Sommer photographed things in order to give life to ideas. To a degree unparallelled in any other body of American photography, he used the camera as a tool of invention, transformation, synthesis, and allusion (pg 10).
Sommer’s devotion to drawing taught him—at least intuitively—many fundamental things. He learned that representation (in any form) is mimetic in only the most simplistic way. At heart, any depiction is an act of synthesis and invention. Representation can never be disinterested or neutral: it is an inevitably personal process, a product of individual ideas, associations, and skills…. All of Sommer’s subsequent work in photography was informed by his experience in drawing. His photography reveals a deep concern for the formal coherence of the image—the relationship of internal elements to one another and to the edges of the paper. (pg. 13)
And here’s Sommer himself on Composition:
Photographic composition is the conjunction of how elements want to come together. To what degree they interact positionally. My first thought, when I look through the camera, is how does this fit on the ground glass? Is too much missing or is there too much there? Does it explain its presence? Does it have any connectedness to things? If you can’t find any way in which these elements work together and are justified in being in each other’s presence you haven’t got anything. The trick is to find what kind of combinatory art has brought together the things that are penetrating. (pg. 211)
Sure enough, the images in the book jerk me back to my first encounter with Sommer, probably in a 1962 issue of Aperture, where (as with the Caponigro 1958 image) I was suddenly aware of new ways of seeing, which continue to resonate up and down the harmonic series.
What a ride. But really every day is as varied and exciting and full of the unexpected.
Some photos seem promising in the viewfinder, but once displayed on the computer screen turn out to be underwhelming. I can see what I was after (but didn’t achieve) with this one, but didn’t process it further in the first round:
It was only later in the day, when I was considering possible symmetrical unfoldings among the day’s photographs, that it occurred to me that this one might be a candidate for the GIMP copy-flip-join treatment. I observe that my previsualization of the effects of this procedure is chancy at best, in that I’m usually surprised at what the transformation reveals, and I don’t often make exposures with the intent to produce symmetrical arrays of the resulting images. The products are mostly serendipitous.
Anyway, the result of the transform opened a whole new world of interpretation for the image, and my first thought (and hence the title of the image) was “empty wings”.
The image partakes of the myffic, because there aren’t really any wing haberdashers in our world. Looking at “empty wings” we are led to imagine that there might be, and imagine that angels might wish to rotate through a wardrobe of wings for different occasions, and that somehow a photograph has transported us thither. Or the viewer might say “humph, seaweed on the beach, just twice as much of it” and pass along to some other image.
I’m trying to pull together the vocabulary to think and talk about the effects and affects and applied aesthetics of photography—about how and why some photographs work in the sense of transfixing the viewer with an epiphany, and in the sense of spawning a feeling of unforgettability for the image. We all have our own catalogs of such images, and there’s not necessarily a lot of agreement among appreciators of photography about what truly belongs in the canon. It’s subjective and personal, and that’s basically a good thing, in the many-mansions sense.
One of the writers who has put systematic effort into exploring these matters of photographic essence is Roland Barthes, in Camera Lucida. I’ve read through the book several times, with each pass assimilating a bit more terminology and Barthian viewpoint, but it’s very French and demands a lot of a North American reader. I am no expert but…
Barthes does something very clever, while disclaiming any expertise (or, indeed, interest) in technical photography. He uses 25 photographs (many of them not familiar to most readers) to exemplify aspects he discourses upon. Who, for example, has ever given much thought to this image of Queen Victoria sitting on a horse?
(Queen Victoria, photographed by George Washington Wilson, 1863)
Barthes uses the image to introduce the idea that the photograph has a clear studium, an aboutness, something that it relates about its subject: it’s Queen Victoria, in the flesh (well, shrouded in a vast black dress) sitting on a horse. That’s what it’s a photograph of, its “historical interest” and identity in the wider world. But Barthes then points out that for him the photograph also has a punctum, an element that grabs the viewer and makes the image into something with a personal and memorable significance. Barthes’ punctum:
…beside her, attracting my eyes, a kilted groom holds the horse’s bridle: this is the punctum; for even if I do not know just what the social status of this Scotsman may be (servant? equerry?) [in fact he’s John Brown… and the horse’s name is Fyvie], I can see his function clearly: to supervise the horse’s behavior: what if the horse suddenly began to rear? (pg.57)
For me the unforgettable punctum of the photograph is John Brown’s sporran, that which marks him as a Scotsman in full folkloric costume. That’s where MY eye is drawn when I look at the image.
So here we have a couple of tools to help us talk about those effects and affects and applied aesthetics of photography to which I referred above. Barthes offers a number of others that I haven’t decoded yet myself, so another pass through Camera Lucida is on the docket.
And, going back to the “empty wings”, for me [and for sure Your Mileage May Vary] the image has a punctum in the homunculus that seems to form the point of attachment of this set of wings to our imaginary angel’s back: