Formalism in F. Evans, Atget, W. Evans and Kenna

Discussion in 'Philosophy' started by jonk, Apr 27, 2010.

  1. A "history" query: I've recently been comparing images by Frederick Evans, Eugene Atget, Walker Evans, and Michael Kenna. Using large format cameras which limited spontaneity, they all share a compositional formalism that appeals to me. Attempts by other photographers of similar subject matter in publications such as Lenswork seem to miss the boat. I'd like to better understand their studied geometries and its place in art history. I assume that it encompasses both Renaissance (neo-Platonic) ideals of composition as well as, for W. Evans and Kenna, early 20th century art movements.
    Can anyone recommend a good source (other than a general art history) for a discussion of this aspect of composition?
  2. Jon,
    You said, "... they all share a compositional formalism ..." Can you elaborate on that, particularly in what way you see "studied geometries"? Do you mean something different or distinct from other kinds of pictorial composition (for example that espoused by Rudolph Arnheim)?
    Do you like or dislike George Tice? How does his work compare or contrast to your group?
  3. Julie,
    I'm a beginner in learning the intellectual history of composition. I read Arnheim's "The Power of the Center"a while ago and would probably get more out of it in a seminar setting. My initial impression is that his interest is in the perceptual tensions within an image. My query is about visual balance, harmony and concepts of the ideal. I know this was an important issue in the Renaissance and I'm looking for a good source discussing it. Cubism, in its way, tried to find alternative solutions for a formal structure. A.W. Dow's notan concept also has some bearing.
    "Petit's Mobil Station" by Tice fits what I would consider to be studied geometries. Frederick Evans photographed the stairs to the chapter house in Wells cathedral many times before he was able to produce his "Sea of Steps". Whether by training or by osmosis from viewing others' work, these photographers seem to know when a picture "works" geometrically. I'd like to get more insight into why this type of image "works".
  4. I guess the first thing to learn is that Kenna (extensively) and W. Evans (to a lesser degree for his more famous pictures) used MF as well. Evans also used 35mm.
    If F. Evans' compositions look studied, it is because they were. He normally spent weeks in the churches making drawings & taking notes on the light before making the first exposure.
  5. I can't help you with a good source--it's possible to talk about historical connections and the way cultural motifs have found their way into the artworks of the time, but really getting the structure of a masterwork is usually accompanied by uncouth grunting sounds, and intellectual discourse doesn't seem to help all that much.
    To offer my two bits' worth, the formal organization of the works you reference seems to have more to do with the medieval period than the Renaissance, though some fairly sophisticated twentieth-century turns are creeping in, particularly in Kenna's work, which shows a strong Asian influence. This is the period when art backed up preparatory to making an abrupt swerve, and if you're looking for cognates I'd suggest you investigate the Pre-Raphaelites and the Aesthetic Movement.
    Composition is at root about parts and wholes, and in general the parts are shown with the same attention to detail throughout, with subordination managed by relative size and encapsulation rather than diffusion, shading, or overlapping by other parts. Photographers can't avoid perspective, but the perspective here is usually mediated by repeated graphic elements, such as F. Evans' steps and W. Evans' clapboards, rather than foreshortening, and it hasn't got the Renaissance effect of looking through a window into a moment frozen in time, or the Romantic effect of an overall atmosphere to which detail is subordinate.
    No, these pictures invite you to browse their objects, much like an illiterate parishioner in a medieval church, and Atget's details in particular have almost a Symbolist cumulative effect. As a deliberate contrast, detail is incorporated that is emotive, human, fleeting, but it remains detail, and the time of these pictures is eternal time. That's why they "work." The studied geometry is a means whereby.
  6. Thanks Charles - there's a lot to think about in your comment.
  7. About the geometry of elements coming together to make a photograph work--it is hardly determined by the camera one uses. Cartier-Bresson's Leica captured photographs that are paragons of order and geometry--where all the elements are perfectly balanced and arranged--there is an absolute love of geometric order there almost to the point of absolute formality. I find Atget to be completely informal--just the polar opposite of say the cold formality of Cartier-Bresson; really the antithesis of formalism. Atget is able to infuse his images with an original sense of spontaneous and irrepressible love and affection for what he photographs. His images are almost always quirky in an endearing way, as when his reflection appears in the window panes of the storefronts he photographed, standing beside his camera.
  8. jtk


    I especially appreciate Charles H's observation about "invitation to browse."
    "Composition" has always seemed to me to be tangential , of secondary visual value in photographs (as well as paintings). Yes, it's one factor, but it's comparable to craftsmanship more than to "art." IMO
    Man Ray, African Art and the Modernist Lens
    This perhaps mis-titled traveling exhibit and book inadvertantly compares the difference between Man Ray's work and that of Walker Evans photographing the same original subjects, African religious sculptures displayed in the gallery with their photographs (making the gallery exhibition much stronger than the book).
    Wendy Grossman PhD, the curator, didn't address the import of the very different lighting used by each photographer..her interest was the impact of African art in "modernism."
    Evans used soft, shadow-less lighting (painted with a moving light) because, reportedly, he wanted to remove the photographer's influence.
    Man Ray, by contrast, lit the same objects from the same angle and distance with sharp, theatrical light, emphasizing the features of the ebony sculptures. I think Evans completely missed the magic intended by the African sculptors, removing the excitement, handicapped by a cold theory.
    I mention this because I think "composition" is typically "studied" in futile hopes of a formula for image-making (eg Notan). In this exhibition, of what are essentially portraits or product photographs, "composition" plays virtually no carries the weight. Man Ray's images are strong, Evans' are dead.
  9. John - Surely light is an integral part of a composition. The cathedral pictures of F. Evans and J. Sudek are predicated on specific light at a specific time.
  10. jtk


    Jon, you can call light an integral part of composition if you wish, but I think there's some utility in using words more conventionally/precisely. Different strokes.
  11. jtk


    I got timed-out while expanding on the post above:
    Jon, you can call light an "integral part of composition" if you wish, but I think there's some utility in using words more conventionally/precisely. Obviously, Notan does/did (it's been around forever in good intro art/craft classes) address this matter in a primative way, but that's a minority perspective IMO.
    I think there's utility in distingishing between "composition" and "lighting." Photography is more of a craft than theoretical phenomenon IMO. "Art" is an entirely other concept, standing apart from both craft and theory. Right? Wrong?
    The "formal compositions" used by Evans and by Man Ray would probably be called identical by photographically inexperienced viewers (if such people still exist, outside academica!)...the curator didn't even notice their respective boring/ugly and exciting/beautiful natures.
  12. Using large format cameras which limited spontaneity, they all share a compositional formalism that appeals to me.​
    Walker Evans certainly used 35mm cameras on occasion (see the Smithsonian Archive site of color slides, links that lead to the color work and other stuff by the FSA and OWI). Given your statment about the influence of large format on the picture making, you might want to see if his 35mm slide work lacks the "compositional formalism" of his large format work in B&W.
  13. I think Atget is the most compositionally interesting of the group. Especially his gardens of Versailles images. If you are ever in New Haven try to arrange to see Walker Evans prints fron Cuba. They are 2 1/4 x 2 1/4 and the ones and are very formal to my recollection. Wonderful geometry with the vent stacks on deck and a pure quality of light very much contrasting with what I think of as a "grit in most his other works. It may simply be that the cuba images were printed by someone who was more comcerned with print quality than Evans was. The photos are at Yale (Yale Art Gallery) because he was the founder of the potography program there. as an asside he often cropped his photos by simply cutting the negatives with scissors.
    For truely great formalist immages look at the work of Jan Groover. Look to the edges of objects, look for ambiguity, look for compositional lines and volumes that are shared by different objects.
    Look at Westons peppers. Objects that transcend their objective meaning and become essential sensuous form and texture and volume just for the beauty of their form independent from but not divorced from their pepperness.
  14. Not a discussion, but here are some things to look at, and read. This increased my comprehension of composition.

    Look through every one of these painters: List of Flemish painters - Wikipedia

    This is a series of posts from Christopher Broadbent. He talks about his technical approach and was very illuminating for me: Large Format Photography Forum

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