Axioms or Conventions?

Discussion in 'Philosophy' started by jon w., Dec 1, 2003.

  1. When I first began browsing on PN, I was curious to discover that many
    of the contributing photographers shared certain assumptions that I
    did not, possibly because my background is slightly different.
    Moreover, many of these assumptions are treated as axioms. I think it
    might be useful to consider whether these axioms really are
    unchallengeable, or whether they are just conventions. I’ll phrase
    some of the following as personal statements, because it’s easier that
    way, but I intend to initiate a general discussion. I should make it
    absolutely clear that I am NOT suggesting that anyone who disagrees
    with me is wrong or that my approach is better than that of anyone
    else. On the contrary, I think that disagreement on such matters cn be
    the source of unexpected insights. I also don't claim to live up to
    the more grandiose pronouncements.

    1) I am not interested in being an artist. I don’t care if my images
    are art or not. What I would like to be is a critic – in the broad
    sense of ‘critically engaged’, not the narrow one of ‘someone who
    finds fault’.
    2) ‘Intelligent’ or ‘clever’ or ‘complex’ are for me much more
    complimentary adjectives than ‘beautiful’. I regard formal beauty as a
    means to an end, not the end itself, and ‘beautiful’ is not the same
    thing as ‘visually interesting’. In any case, great photographs
    themselves create the aesthetic criteria by which they should be
    judged. The career of Garry Winogrand is a good example of how this
    happens.
    3) I don’t care about making an emotional connection with my human
    subjects. I’m not interested in them as individuals at all (and I have
    Walker Evans on my side here). Similarly, I don’t want to use
    photography to express myself (or at least my emotions – and again,
    Walker Evans is on my side).
    4) Most PN photographers would agree with Robert Frank that a photo
    should ‘nullify explanation’, i.e. it should not require
    interpretation. Clarity is seen as a primary virtue. On the contrary,
    I like photos that are puzzles, that you have to work to solve, or
    that have more than one layer of meaning.
    5) Following on from the last point, there seems to be an assumption
    that a photo that relies on words to get its meaning across is somehow
    inadequate. Again, on the contrary, I think it’s interesting to create
    photos that interact with written text, and that are deliberately
    conceived as being ‘incomplete’ without it.
    6) I don’t think that the individual print on the gallery wall is the
    ideal presentation format. I find photobooks and sequences more
    interesting. This follows on from the above points, that a photo does
    not have to be a self-contained, single statement.
    7) The editors of Lenswork magazine frequently repeat the maxim, 'A
    good photograph is one that makes the viewer so aware of the subject
    that they are unaware of the print'. On the contrary, many great
    photographs thematize their own construction as photographic
    representations. Just think of the work of Lee Friedlander. The trick
    is to do this without being vulgar about it (e.g. using extreme
    wide-angle lenses, etc.).
     
  2. This is a 'big ask' Jonathan, but for what it's worth:
    1) I am not interested in being an artist. I don’t care if my images are art or not. What I would like to be is a critic – in the broad sense of ‘critically engaged’, not the narrow one of ‘someone who finds fault’.
    A perfectly legitimate stance. Being a critic and artist are not mutually exclusive though. Further, I think some of the better critical writing is finely crafted (e.g. Andy Grundberg, Estelle Jussim, Nancy Newhall) and may be thought of as literary art.
    (2) ‘Intelligent’ or ‘clever’ or ‘complex’ are for me much more complimentary adjectives than ‘beautiful’. I regard formal beauty as a means to an end, not the end itself, and ‘beautiful’ is not the same thing as ‘visually interesting’. In any case, great photographs themselves create the aesthetic criteria by which they should be judged. The career of Garry Winogrand is a good example of how this happens.
    I think recent discussion here have established that beautification is not the sole criteria for judging photographs! I depart from you slightly regarding teh criteria we should use. I agree, original artists expand our vision/understanding of the medium and so require us to try to understand their work in their terms. However, we inevitably try to relate what we see to what has been seen/read before as a way of making sense of it (I am thinking in terms of Barrett's usful schema for critiquing photographs). Also, we all have our own frames of reference and so are limited in our ability to do this.
    3) I don’t care about making an emotional connection with my human subjects. I’m not interested in them as individuals at all (and I have Walker Evans on my side here). Similarly, I don’t want to use photography to express myself (or at least my emotions – and again, Walker Evans is on my side).
    "Photograph and be photographed" (Rodechenko). You can't escape the fact. If you accept that photography is a medium of communication how can you make a meaningful communication devoid of emotion. Passion is central to powerful photography. I understand (think I do) Walker Evans' position (Mellow's biography does a fine job elucidating it) but I equally find his imagery dry. Strand does a much more satisfying job with similar subjects (IMHO). Consider why photographers such as Gene Smith, Steve McCurry, Reza, Salgado (etc., etc.),have such devoted fans. There work speaks with emotion.
    4) Most PN photographers would agree with Robert Frank that a photo should ‘nullify explanation’, i.e. it should not require interpretation. Clarity is seen as a primary virtue. On the contrary, I like photos that are puzzles, that you have to work to solve, or that have more than one layer of meaning.
    You start with a wild generalization. Each to their own. It is a democratic medium with many voices. Perhaps the development of this forum is bringing a different type of dialogue to PN?
    5) Following on from the last point, there seems to be an assumption that a photo that relies on words to get its meaning across is somehow inadequate. Again, on the contrary, I think it’s interesting to create photos that interact with written text, and that are deliberately conceived as being ‘incomplete’ without it.
    This has been seen as a legitimate collaboration for decades. Though he refuted it, don't Walker Evans' images in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men gain additional power from their cohabitation with Agee's words? Other examples abound, a recent one being the combination of Faye Godwin's images with Ted Hughes poems.
    6) I don’t think that the individual print on the gallery wall is the ideal presentation format. I find photobooks and sequences more interesting. This follows on from the above points, that a photo does not have to be a self-contained, single statement.
    Miles Orvell's American Photography argues persuasively that context is crucial to understanding images. Going back to your earlier point, we perhaps we also have to factor in the intentions of the artist in terms of how they wish their work to be viewed. A recent editorial in Lenswork made the point that commercial printing of photographic images is now of a standard that equals the original fine prints from a darkroom/lightroom and so suggests that books are in no way an inferior format for viewing images.
    I agree with you on this.
    7) The editors of Lenswork magazine frequently repeat the maxim, 'A good photograph is one that makes the viewer so aware of the subject that they are unaware of the print'. On the contrary, many great photographs thematize their own construction as photographic representations. Just think of the work of Lee Friedlander. The trick is to do this without being vulgar about it (e.g. using extreme wide-angle lenses, etc.).
    The medium is Friedlander's subject (in part).
     
  3. You make a lot of points in one posting and the best I can do is respond to a couple of them.

    "1) I am not interested in being an artist. I don’t care if my images are art or not. What I would like to be is a critic – in the broad sense of ‘critically engaged’, not the narrow one of ‘someone who finds fault’."

    I can understand your not being interested in being called an artist. With our current obsession to be accepting of everyone and inclusive of all, we have also given up the ability to appreciate real talent. I=The reality is that not everyone's vision or skills are equal..or of equal value but everyone feels that they have the right to claim the term 'artist' for themselves...whether they merit it or not. One of my complaints is the proliferation of random, unframed, unfocused, badly exposed, and unthinking shots as some sort of 'creative art' when in fact it involves much less creativity than unwrapping a stick of chewing gum. We have given up the responsibility to be 'critical'! And, as you say that does not necessarily mean 'deliberately cruel fault-finding' but, rather, an application of standards by which the a work of art may be judged. We now hold to a relativistic, situational criteria which states that my 'vision' is as valid as yours or Winogrand or Karsh or any of the 'greats'!

    "2) ‘Intelligent’ or ‘clever’ or ‘complex’ are for me much more complimentary adjectives than ‘beautiful’. I regard formal beauty as a means to an end, not the end itself, and ‘beautiful’ is not the same thing as ‘visually interesting’. In any case, great photographs themselves create the aesthetic criteria by which they should be judged. The career of Garry Winogrand is a good example of how this happens."

    We need to stop being so polite and be willing to give more than 'Nice shot!' as a comment. If I want unconditional (and shallow) praise I'll ask my mother...she likes EVERYTHING I do!

    However, I don't think that photographs can or should be examinined in isolation. Much of what passes for 'creative' and 'interesting' isn't either one. As you look at the history of photography you start to see people trying desperately to be 'clever' but who produce shots of extraordinary 'sameness' in their desire to be 'different'. Needless to say, I don't care much for the majority of contemporary photographer's work. They all seem more concerned with showing off (ego-tripping) than communicating anything of human value in their work.

    3) I don’t care about making an emotional connection with my human subjects. I’m not interested in them as individuals at all (and I have Walker Evans on my side here). Similarly, I don’t want to use photography to express myself (or at least my emotions – and again, Walker Evans is on my side).

    This is, of course, a very 'modern' point of view. However, one criterion for 'art' is how it makes the viewer 'feel'. If, when I look at somebdy's work, I simply shrug then it isn't very good art...despite what may be said in the snobby world of the art critics. For example, the (one-time) painter Jackson Pollack's work is nothing to me. Random blobs with nothing behind it...no thought...no artist...no talent...no art.

    "4) Most PN photographers would agree with Robert Frank that a photo should ‘nullify explanation’, i.e. it should not require interpretation. Clarity is seen as a primary virtue. On the contrary, I like photos that are puzzles, that you have to work to solve, or that have more than one layer of meaning."

    All of the good photographs are puzzles in that they say more about the subject than what they looked like. When I look at a portrait by Karsh, I know something more about the person than their portrait. That is the true puzzle. Looking at a photograph and saying "What the h*ll is that??" isn't much of an intellectual challenge.

    "5) Following on from the last point, there seems to be an assumption that a photo that relies on words to get its meaning across is somehow inadequate. Again, on the contrary, I think it’s interesting to create photos that interact with written text, and that are deliberately conceived as being ‘incomplete’ without it."

    I would agree with this. Too many people think that they have to add to their shot with a clever title, textual explanation or (Oh my God NO!!) a cheesy digital frame.


    "6) I don’t think that the individual print on the gallery wall is the ideal presentation format. I find photobooks and sequences more interesting. This follows on from the above points, that a photo does not have to be a self-contained, single statement."

    I don't mind a series of shots in a photobook. One of my favorite photographers is Sam Abell and I have several of his books.

    "7) The editors of Lenswork magazine frequently repeat the maxim, 'A good photograph is one that makes the viewer so aware of the subject that they are unaware of the print'. On the contrary, many great photographs thematize their own construction as photographic representations. Just think of the work of Lee Friedlander. The trick is to do this without being vulgar about it (e.g. using extreme wide-angle lenses, etc.)."

    I would understand this to mean that the image engages the person to such a degree that they 'lose themselves' in it. The objective reality of standing in a gallery or reading a book and looking at a print becomes superceded by the effect of the image. It is the opposite of the 'shrug and move-on' effect that I get when I sense the photographer is trying too hard to be clever and smug ("Ain't I great?" he asks!).

    Thank you for your thought provoking post.
     
  4. Well, this has the makings of an interesting thread. I'm going to stick to a couple of favorite points.

    "5) Following on from the last point, there seems to be an assumption that a photo that relies on words to get its meaning across is somehow inadequate." and
    "6) I don’t think that the individual print on the gallery wall is the ideal presentation format. I find photobooks and sequences more interesting."

    See the current POW discussion for an example of this. It goes along with the attitude that documentary photography or photojournalism are the poor, second-class cousins of real photography. I've even read comments from time to time implying that "documentary" is what a photo is when it isn't good enough to be "art."

    I think words and photos, or photos and more photos, work together. In my view, photography (or at least any form of journalistic or documentary photography) is crippled by the superficiality of the medium. A photo can show only the surface of things, and can only show that 1/125 s slice of the whole story. If you are not arranging the photo, you can only hope that all the elements come together to give you that signature shot that requires no support. A series of photos, or informative captions, is often stronger.

    Even that signature shot becomes stronger when it is supported by other work. Any story or idea is multifaceted; a photo, almost by definition, is only one facet. It's the difference between a window and a gem.
     
  5. The point about emotions was admittedly an oversimplified provocation. To be deliberately 'cool' and refuse interaction with the subject (which Evans did) is just a different kind of engagement. It would be more accurate to say that I'm interested in the ways in which emotion can be repressed in an image rather than foregrounded.

    I too have little time for superficially 'radical', lazy shots, that thematize the ugliness of modern life, but we have to be careful here. I photograph mainly in Venice, and I'm interested in the way the city negotiates its relation to its past, and in how it functions as a community, not in picturesque motifs. For example, I have a lot of photographs of vaporetto (water bus) stops, which seem to me to be important structures and places for thinking about these themes. Most viewers dismiss this shots as boring, and see my decision to concentrate on these structures - rather than beautiful churches and other landmarks - as a perverse celebration of ugliness. In fact, I photograph these structures not because I see them as symptomatic of the spiritual bankruptcy of modern life, blah, blah, but because I find them fascinating, as part of a wider analysis that involves a written commentary too. They're not beautiful in the way that a Renaissance church is, but they are culturally, historically, and visually interesting. On the other hand, endless shots of the Bridge of Sighs are incredibly dull.
     
  6. Hello Jonathan! Intriguing post, obviously very relevant to both your obsession and mine!

    I am interested in the interaction between text and images. I have long had a vision of combining my photographs with recordings of the voices of the subjects of the photographs describing life in the community that I am documenting, so that as yyou move through the presentation you would move through the crowd of voices.

    I don't feel strongly that each of my images has to be **strong**, as long as it is performing a function within the community of images. This liberates me from having to strain my brain trying to make each image a fresh approach, a dramatic angle, an even WIDER angle lens. Few moments in my life are overtly memorable, but I still tend to regard each moment as precious. I try to build a community of images that will, at the end, support and illuminate each other. When I add text or recorded voices to these images, it is not out of fear that the images are too weak, but rather to deepen the immersion of the viewer in the subject.

    I do happen to develop warm relationships with many of my subjects; perhaps that is a creative decision, surely influenced by who I am and how I find things working out in the city. Once in a while, I will get a sort of "fly on the wall" perspective, but more often it is very obvious that there is a relationship between the subject and me. I don't think the cool detachment of Evans is any more objective than the warm embrace of Sally Mann; the world can feel both of those ways.

    I generally react more respectfully to a photographer who has an identifiable voice across time, when I can see a vision driving the photography, rather than photography flopping around looking for a vision.
     
  7. Maybe I misread you but I take your 'I don't wanna be an artist' statement as a little tease since we both know that 'pretty' or 'ugly' is just a form of serving the content. So you are concerned with content. You want your pictures to be social commentaries, critical observations, philosophical essays on civilizations etc. Fine. But what makes art art is form and there's no way around it. And your message will be lost if you don't find the right form to serve it. And that means you have to have a good technique and strong compositional skills.

    I think you want the content to speak for itself and photography of Winogrand seems to be very close to this ideal since he was shooting hundreds of rolls of film a weak without caring about composition ... or so he and his critics would have us believe. Still, he did heavy editing of his stuff and kept only these shots which made him and his style recognizable. Here she comes again -- the form. Sorry for English.
     
  8. Ward, I agree with you 100%.

    Maria: 'And your message will be lost if you don't find the right form to serve it. And that means you have to have a good technique and strong compositional skills'.
    That's true - but it doesn't mean I have to worry about whether or not I'm an artist. In fact, I know I'm not: I'm a historian. It saves me a lot of time and energy to forget about this question, though obviously it's important for some (if you want to show in a gallery, for example). The idea of a photo that is 'only' content is a myth: like that of the completely 'transparent' photo that is a window onto 'pure reality'. The last point I mentioned in the original list was intended to suggest a completely different approach (in my academic articles, I regularly get criticized for playing formal games - e.g. using photographs to dramatize the argument!). I've always loved that Winogrand comment, 'I photograph to see what the things I'm interested in look like when photographed' (paraphrase). As you suggest, there is no contradiction: your interest in the subject and in the process of photographic representation can and should coincide.

    I photograph Venice in order to learn new things about it, and dramatize things I already know, because my curiosity about the place is voracious, and wasn't being satisfied by my archival research.
     
  9. Ward

    I'm intrigued. Do you have any examples online?
     
  10. John: In my portfolio, the two groups of Dupont Circle photographs are all drawn from an ongoing obsession. Dupont Circle is a small park and neighborhood in Washington, DC, that is a point of intersection of just about every sector of life in the city. You find lawyers and politicians sitting beside flaming queens and lifelong homeless folks sitting beside befuddled tourists. I have been shooting this community for about five years; there are probably 600 prints in the boxes! The images in the online portfolios give a reasonable feel of the project, but I really need someone to help me sift and focus the large project. Here is the location:

    http://www.photo.net/photodb/user?user_id=89457

    I really love Jonathan's Venice portfolio. I think he and I are kindred spirits.
     
  11. Ward's photos are definitely worth checking out: excellent work.

    To illustrate my original points, I attach an image. Since it’s one of mine, I hope you will forgive my egotism, but I wouldn’t be able to talk quite so clearly about a better shot by Friedlander or someone else. It is, however, shamelessly derivative of Friedlander. This image has received averages of 4.5 / 5.25 from (let us assume) a random sample of PN viewers (the average is raised by a generous score from Andy Eulass). So we can assume that nobody (with the exception of Andy) was very much impressed by it. It does, however, exemplify all the points I listed. That doesn’t mean it’s objectively ‘good’: a question that I am not qualified to answer, and don’t need to worry about. Still less does it mean that it’s art (ditto). It means that every element in it says what I need it to say, even though it (apparently) does not meet most people’s idea of a good or interesting photo.
    To refer back to the original list, I should first note that it is ugly, but interesting (to me at least). By ‘ugly’, I mean that it has grossly exaggerated grain, and most of it is drastically out of focus. By interesting, I mean that it is not a careless or thoughtless image. For example, the framing, the placement of the focal plane, and the timing were all quite precise, and had to be. It also depicts a complex space. It’s not about people as individuals really (the barman appears wooden, which is how I wanted him). It is intended as an illustration of certain themes: e.g. the possible relations between different levels of representation, and of how Venice empties out and becomes defamiliarized at night. Also, I’m interested in people whose job it is to attend tourists (like the barman). It is supposed to work like a puzzle: it initially appears to make no sense (i.e. to be one of those lazy, superficially radical shots), but a detail within it ‘solves’ the puzzle, if you look carefully. It’s part of a sequence, and ideally needs to be viewed in relation to it. It thematizes its own construction as an image: it asks the viewer to consider where I am sitting, which you need to figure out in order to understand the arrangement of space. It’s also an attempt to answer a couple of purely formal questions: how small (and dark) can the intended centre of attention or central subject be in relation to the whole picture space and still remain dominant? And at what point precisely does noise overwhelm signal? (Actually these are not ‘purely formal’ questions in the sense that they are related to my overall subject, but this connection would take too long to explain, I think.)

    I work a lot at night, hand-held without flash, partly because all the other photographers go home at night in Venice, and partly because limits interest me. So: I don’t want to make ugly, sloppy pictures to depict an ugly, chaotic world. On the contrary, I believe so strongly in the power of photography to engage meaningfully with meaningful realities that I think it can still do so on Delta 3200 pushed to 6400. It should always be possible to make a minimally coherent statement, no matter how bad the conditions, but working with a default setting of f2, 1/60 (and here, with only one chance to get it right) means having to rethink what ‘coherent’ might mean.

    (For those of you who are having difficulties ‘reading’ the image: I am sitting alone at the bar in Caffe Quadri. The ‘real’ barman is in front of me and to my right, at the edge of the picture frame. About 7 or 8m behind me is a plate glass window looking out onto Piazza San Marco. This appears as a reflection in a mirror, which is behind the bar and above the espresso machine. The barman appears again twice in this mirror: once as a straightforward reflection of his back, once as a reflection of the reflection of his front in the window. Another man outide the café walking briskly by also appears as a simple reflection, ‘next to’ the barman’s image in the glass.)
     
  12. Ward, why don't you post some text or commentary for some of the images? Andy Eulass does this too: combines a story about how the image was taken with a story about the subject (which once again indicates ow there is no contradiction between form and content).
     
  13. I am not sure if a photograph requiring LANGUAGE, a written follow up or explanatory story to keep me INTERESTED IN IMAGE PER SE belongs to genre of photography. Photojournalism or document are almost always followed by a story but nobody would use an image that wouldn't sustain my attention for one reason or another (a very bad shot of bin Ladden would do it as long as he was recognizable there). And best PJ shots stand on its own. I shoot some documentary and PJ and never explained my shots with words unless asked -- that's what a good PJ shot does, it makes you want to know more. I might be wrong. The Mannequin image you posted is very interesting as an idea but I wouldn't probably look at it if it wasn't posted here as an illustration to your story. I just wouldn't spend time looking for connective tissues and ideas hidden behind technical shortcomings of this shot. You have to make me wanna do it.
     
  14. "And best PJ shots stand on its own. I shoot some documentary and PJ and never explained my shots with words unless asked -- that's what a good PJ shot does, it makes you want to know more."

    You contradict yourself -- if the best PJ shot stands on its own, how would it make you want to know more? The problem with photography (certainly for photojournalism and documentary photography, in which things cannot be arranged) is that a photo cannot tell the whole story.

    A stellar example is Eddie Adams's famous photo of the execution of a suspected VietCong prisoner during the Tet offensive. This is one of the iconic images of the Vietnam war and is often credited (along with Nick Ut's photo of the naked girl fleeing a napalm attack) with turning the tide of public opinion against the war. It is taken as a summary of the corruption and brutality of the South Vietnamese regime.

    But the context is missing ... the general who pulled the trigger in that shot was a friend of Adams, who felt he was a decent man, and Adams points out that the photo is missing the context of the murder of civilians by the Vietcong.

    So much for the photo that stands on its own.

    On the other side of the divide, photos that are supposed to function purely as "art" may be expected to stand on their own. But even here, presenting photos alongside other photos, or words, etc., adds complexity that a single photo wouldn't achieve on its own.
     
  15. Adams' photo stands on its own. It does not tell the whole story, no photograph ever does. But it does not need words to support it and it stayed with me forever because of its purely visual impact. I do not contradict myself -- some of PJ shots are just an illustration to the story and can't be 'served' alone. To me, there's a huge difference in getting information from looking at a photograph and from reading about it. I don't dismiss the latter but I feel the power the power of photography lies purely in the visual impact. When I am in doubt, I always think of Eugene Smith's Minamata shot, the one that hooked me on photography, the one that does just fine without knowing about 750 kg of mercury compounds dumped every year into the Minamata bay.
    Yes, knowing the context gives me a full understanding of the circumstances and intentions but this knowledge has nothing to do with my gut reaction to the photograph with the way it made me feel. I know you could say that my gut approach is ridiculous without an outside knowledge because a woman bathing a girl in the picture could be the evil one. But the possiblity of misreading it has nothing to do with a photograph and everything to do with the follow up story. What I simply want to say is that photography happens on 'the gut level' first and only then I am willing to explore it further. I won't even read the title if a photograph does nothing visually.
     
  16. You're constructing a straw man here. The argument was not that photos need not be compelling, but that they can be made more compelling by words or other photos.
     
  17. Houston, we have a problem .... they can be helped but they won't be photographs anymore. They'll be photo-ESSAYS, photo-NOVELS, photo-PHILOSOPHICUS TRACTATUS. OK,I give up.
     
  18. Maria: I changed my mind. You are right. We must all subscribe to the same conventions of presentation. It is too confusing to keep track of who are photographers, who are photojournalists, who are photoessayists, and so on. It is dangerous smudge the boundaries between the categories; I apologize for my part in the deconstruction of order.
     
  19. Ah, but where I see part of the fun, and where I guess I substantially disagree with Jonathan, is in the way photographs standing alone can construct a perception of reality that may or may not accord with reality itself. The Adams photo, as discussed above, is a perfect example. I'm proud to say that I have one such photo in my own portfolio where the perception created by the image runs contrary to the reality that created the picture. To me, its an endless source of wonder how the fragments of reality we catch in our cameras can wind up creating new and imagined realities that spiral miles away from the truth (however one chooses to define the term, "truth"). Therefore, I disagree with Jonathan and believe that photos as stand-alone documents are far more compelling (assuming they have something compelling to convey) than those which rely on the spoken or written word to create perception for the viewer.

    One other point. Jonathan, you say that you don't care about whether you are perceived as an artist and that you would far prefer being perceived as critically engaged. The question I have in response to this position is simple: when is an artist not critically engaged? If we understand criticism in its "generic" sense (i.e., not the popular notion of criticism being the act of saying something negative), isn't all art an act of critical engagement? Criticism in its general sense means a conscious act of interpretation of some thing (be it tangible or intangible). What is art but an constant act of interpreting something to convey the maker's own sense of what that something means. Look at your own shot of the vaporetto stop. There is within the very finely made image a constant action of interpretation going. Choices pertaining to how you caught the scene through your lens to how you chose to render the final image are all acts of critical thought about the vaporetto stop, but they are also artistic acts in response to the impact the vaporetto stop had on you. Not at critics are artists, but in my view all artists are inherently critics. By virtue of your chosen medium for critical engagement, namely photography, you are in my view inherently both critic and artist.

    Excellent thread Jonathan. Much to think about here.
     
  20. Ouch Ward, you're teasing my stubborn-self. I am not against crossing genres and breaking boundaries but yeah, let's be clear on naming names because we all, so it seems, agree on at least one thing: there are photographs that seem self-explanatory and there are photographs that seem to need written explanations to come alive. Sorry,if I derailed the discussion.
     
  21. Maria talks of her 'gut reaction to the photograph with the way it made me feel'. This is what many people look for in a photograph, as my original post suggested. The Eddie Adams (and Gene Smith) shots are prime examples of photos that communicate directly, immediately and emotionally. Nothing wrong with this as a criterion for evaluation, of course, but I was trying to suggest that other criteria are possible. Most of the photographs I admire most are ones that haven't made sense to me at first. Assuming that I trust the photographer (or the person presenting it to me as an interesting image, worth my attention), I then have to ask, well, WHY is this interesting? Why is this person photographing a vaporetto stop instead of the Bridge of Sighs (or hand-made shop signs, or the sparse interiors of sharecroppers' cabins, or panoramic views of dull Prague streets)? Is it because they are incapable of telling the difference between the beautiful and the ugly? Let us assume not. Let us assume that it is a conscious, intelligent decision. How can we try to understand this decision? We might need some more information or some help to do so. Once I have gone away and researched or thought (or read any commentary they have provided), I can come back and see the image in an enriched way. There's a further point here. I don't believe we respond to the most complex images 'instinctively'. We have to be taught how to 'read' them: this is not just a matter of information about content (as in the PJ examples), but about their qualities as photographic images. I am not, of course, on a par with Walker Evans and Josef Sudek (who I refer to above), but I do believe that the 'Mannequin' shot is one of my best images, if not the best: BECAUSE it requires an explanation, not despite this fact. In other words, it requires the viewer to ask questions. It also, however, requires the viewer to have faith in me, which not all viewers do, of course.

    Andy, you're right: artists can be (and usually are) critics. My point was more about where we direct our energies, and how an obsession with talking about things in the terms of 'art' is not always helpful.

    To everyone: What are your 'axioms': i.e. the things you take for granted about why you photograph, what the images are for, what effect you want them to have? It's a good idea to bring these things up to the level of consciousness, instead of allowing them to remain as unspoken and unchallenged assumptions.
     
  22. P.S. Like Andy, I like photos that create 'fictional' connections between different elements, but I prefer to leave the viewer with choices. I don't like images that pre-empt your response (though in some the subject matter is so powerfully insistent as to make it difficult to argue with them, as in the Adams shot). I have some images of churches in one of my folders (I won't post any, 'cos I've been egotistical enough). My self-imposed task in these was to shoot in such a way that there was no centre of interest: not to take photos of 'nothing' (which would be boring); rather to take images of everything inside the frame; to saturate the entire negative with information, but not to organize any of it hierarchically. In other words, NOT to tell the viewer where they should be looking. (I had my reasons).
     
  23. Maria: LOL! I am so pleased that you took my snottiness in the proper spirit! I drink to you! As I look at your collections of images, I can't help but observe your understanding of what I am saying, by unconcious action if not by overt intent. Your images hang together in a community in a very beautiful way; that they need no narrative does not mean that there would be no place for narrative if you chose to explore it with the same sensitivity you explore your visual world.

    I would never say that sculpture is more valuable than painting because of the addition of the third dimension; nor would I say that combining photographs with oral history makes the project more valuable because of the added dimension. I can easily imagine an image destroyed by clumsy text blowing the mystery.

    Andy:

    "To me, its an endless source of wonder how the fragments of reality we catch in our cameras can wind up creating new and imagined realities that spiral miles away from the truth (however one chooses to define the term, "truth")."

    I agree COMPLETELY.

    "Therefore, I disagree with Jonathan and believe that photos as stand-alone documents are far more compelling"

    I don't follow you to this conclusion, however. The fact that one is endlessly delightful does not mean that the other is not also. We are discussing two very different forms. I see you **prefer** the slippery fragments of reality, and your fragments af reality are truely magical, but I don't see that it logically follows that the form is therefore more compelling.

    As an aside, I have to say that a real joy of this particular discussion has been going to look at the images that all the participants have on line. Man!! What a wonderful collection! I really feel like we form a community. Seriously, take a half an hour and wander through these pages of images. I wish we could get together with boxes of images and bottles of wine. Jonathan, maybe in Venice?
     
  24. Maria, since you brought W. Eugene Smith into the discussion, how about this quotation from the man himself: "Hardening of the categories causes art disease."

    It doesn't matter to me whether you call something a photo-essay or not. I'm only concerned with the characteristics and limitations of photography as a medium, and all of the lexicography you can muster can't alter the fact that the components of a photo essay remain photographs.

    Smith is possibly the worst photographer to cite as support for the single-photo argument, because he conceived bodies of work, rather than single photos. Smith was unsatisfied with the individual photograph, and this is what drove his excessive treatment of his assignments. Regardless of the virtues of his individual photographs, he saw them as more powerful in context than individually.

    The idea is not so much that some photos require text because they are weaker -- although that may sometimes be the case -- but that photos are inherently superficial and that added context makes them more effective.
     
  25. Jonathon, when you say a photo is good because it requires explanation, do you really mean that it requires explanation, or that it requires interpretation?

    To my mind complexity is a virtue, and a good photo should need to be read. But if it is sufficiently unreadable that it requires some attached explanation -- distinct from context -- then it is weak. The accompanying text should not explain the photo to the viewer, i.e., should not say, this photo shows this thing in this way because of this.

    One of my pet peeves is titles -- photos called "Angst," or "Freedom" or whatever. This is the worst form of explanation. It's one step down from hitting your audience with a hammer.
     
  26. I love my gut argument cause one cant' argue axioms-- either it is there or it's not. Jonathan, now I understand that your not wanting to be an aritst statement meant you don't care if your photography reaches gut level reception using photographic means only. But I hope you don't exclude the possibility of doing just that because saying all you can with the medium cannot possibly hurt. So, if photography can communicate only as much (that door was open all the time, Mr.Somerset)and you really have an urge to say more and/or everything, just make sure you did everything that could'be done using this medium. Otherwise, why not draw or paint or just write it. Yeah, I forgot photoshop.

    I don't read books about photography and please, forgive me for trivializing the whole thing but I can't help it. I can see it clear now :) Here it goes it -- to me, photography is like sex. I rather have it then talk about it. And if I want to have that post-coital chat, I better know what I am talking about otherwise the whole discussion makes no sense (Woody Allen is an exception). I should thank Jonathan for this discussion and hats off to Andrew Somerset who stopped my pseudo-intellectual burping just in time.
     
  27. I'm happy to substitute 'interpretaion' for 'explanation'. I've been thinking of the classic objection that if what the words tell you isn't 'in' the photograph, then they're just a crutch to support its shortcomings. What I was trying to say with regard to the 'Mannequin' image is that - although most viewers wouldn't necessarily 'see' what my commentary explains - all these ideas are nonetheless 'in' the image.

    Can't talking about sex itself be sexy? Certainly part of the foreplay (or maybe I'm doing it wrong). I started photographing because I read an essay by the critic Walter Benjamin, who tried to find a way of writing that would be modelled on photomontage. Great idea, I thought, but if you want to think about photography, then surely the best way to do it is with a camera? So, I don't separate 'thinking about' from 'doing'. Indeed, the whole point of it for me is to bring these things together. Which is not to say that everyone needs to be as anal and high-falutin' as me about it.

    If you want to see my attempt to construct a story on the principle of photomontage, with written quotations juxtaposed and 'flashed' up like images, and images incorporated as part of the 'argument', you can find an example in the Routledge journal 'Rethinking History', vol. 7.2 (2003), pp. 139-67. The article is entitled 'Pistols! Murder! Treason!' and is about the assassination of a spy in Venice in 1622. It includes a 'flip book' of the firing sequence of an antique pistol (filmed on a special digitial camera borrowed from a lab at 9,000 frames a second), and a four page comic strip. You can download it for a fee from Routledge's website, or alternatively, I can e-mail a copy.
     
  28. P.S. I'm all for a Venice convention, but then I always have an excuse to go there. I shall be using my new 5 by 4 field camera there throughout February.
     

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