Looking at Photographic Images

Discussion in 'Philosophy' started by jon w., Mar 7, 2004.

  1. This question is indirectly inspired by what was surely one of the
    most unlikely 'joint' exhibitions of recent years, that of Ansel Adams
    and William Eggleston at the Hayward Gallery in London (and probably
    elsewhere), though I do hope this thread does NOT become a discussion
    of their relative merits, since this is not my intention. What was
    interesting to me was their quite different notions of how you should
    look at a photograph, and hence (implicitly) their different ideas of
    what purpose the image should serve. On the one hand, you have an
    exquisitely hand-crafted object, often monumental in subject and
    scale, which demands your concentration, that you study it at length
    in order to fully appreciate all the fine detail it contains. In other
    words, not only does the photographer adopt a patient, meditative,
    awe-struck attitude, but he implicitly demands the same attitude of
    the viewer. Each image makes the same claim, separately. On the other
    hand you have a huge proliferation of seemingly-casual images that
    seem to suggest that you take or leave them as you see fit. Maybe this
    is interesting?, they seem to say. If not, then no matter. Move on to
    the next one, at your own pace. Of course, this attitude has its
    analogue in the (relative) impermanance of colour prints, in
    comparison to the archivally-toned B and W print. I've become
    interested in taking this further: using 35 mm colour slide
    projections and sequences to suggest an even stronger sense of
    impermanance and diffidence, and combining this work with large format
    monochrome, though of course no-one is obliged to take me seriously.

    Have you ever thought about how different aspects of the medium as
    well as different styles imply or demand different kinds of response
    from the viewer, or themselves contain an implicit photographic
    philosophy? Would be interested to hear everyone's thoughts, but
    please don't tell us why Adams and/or Eggleston is a genius and/or
    tired old has-been.
  2. Only time will tell whether Eggleston's prints are more or less impermanent than

    Your question is vague and full of the prejudices that you've asked others not to bring
    to the discussion. Could you rephrase it?
  3. I saw that same show - I went for the Adams stuff, was stunned by the Eggleston stuff. The pairing of those two exhibitions definitely delivered an experience I wasn't expecting, and as a novice photographer that was pretty interesting (as well as excellent value for money).

    In a sense the exhibition slightly misrepresented Adams, for the benefit of contrast - we essentially didn't see his colour work, or his people work, but I accept it showed the essence of the Ansel Adams way of working.

    What was interesting but perhaps less obvious was their similarity as artists in one key respect - sheer obsessiveness. From the beginning, Adams printed every negative unless it was a technical failure, and catalogued a huge body of work. Eggleston, on the other hand, obsessively collects images, presenting them (unnamed, which interested me a lot) in sequences that eventually express concepts that are harder to photograph - hopes, dreams, wishes, obsessions, secrets.

    I certainly thought the images demanded a different response, not least in this one respect: in the confines of the crowded Adams exhibition I found it hard to dedicate enough time to each image, because as you say, they speak on their own, whereas for the first twenty photos on the Eggleston side I found it hard to believe I was spending enough time on each. Eventually I felt that the Eggleston work was about leaving the gallery unsettled but intrigued and 'spoken to', as well as better equipped to interpret works by photographers such as Martin Parr.

    Another exhibition that triggered this sort of experience, for me, was Cruel And Tender, where again I went to see one artist's work and left with a new insight - did you see this show?
  4. Certainly, the subject matter of both men's work is significantly different, but in neither case do I get the impression that there is not a great deal of care and thought behind each image. Both men deserve the same thoughtful approach when viewing their work.

    Adams wants me to experience the grandeur of the natural wonders that he experienced. His work puts my smallness in perspective compared to the vastness of the physical world.

    I don't get the impression from Eggleston's work that his pictures are mere random snapshots. I see that he is trying to get us to see something specific that his photographer's 'eye' has grasped. I sense a lot of thought behind his shots and that leads to reasonable questions about why he made the choices that he did.

    What does is he trying to show me here? Is there beauty in the mundane?

    At the higest levels, art (including the photographic arts) should be a communication between the artist and the viewer. It goes farther than simply inducing a physical or 'visceral' reaction. Any disgusting or horrifying image (or movie) can provoke a physical reaction in the viewer without much thought required on the part of the artist. It is a cheap shot.

    Fortunately, neither Adams nor Eggleston fall into that category. Both works require...deserve a more deliberate viewing.
  5. Eggleston makes me slightly nervous. I vasilate between thinking he's a genius or a con man with a camera. But then again, he provokes a response from me, whereas Adams really doesnt, I think because Adams just seems to be a great technician with no real independent vision.
  6. Have you ever thought about how different aspects of the medium as well as different styles imply or demand different kinds of response from the viewer, or themselves contain an implicit photographic philosophy?
    Yes definitely so. Observe the typical camera club equipment oriented media brainwashed amateur looking at the works of Julia Margaret Cameron and decrying the lack of focus in these works. That is one type of response. Observe the modernistic arty type decrying the sharply focused technically perfect print with a disparaging smirk.
    There are as many reasons for different responses as there are individual people and I dare say a lot of responses depend upon our knowledge of photography, our ideas of what constitutes art and our opinions either educated or not. Personally I don't really care what response there is to my photography. I do it for my own edification and if others like it then so be it. Cheers.
  7. Have any of the parties above had a look at the extensive and easily viewable Ansel Adams images available online from the Library of Congress?
  8. I hope that it wasn't a prejudiced question in the sense that I'm interested in exploring both the approaches I described, but perhaps my summary of them was reductive. I had hoped that people would want to discuss their own experience of looking at different kinds of photographic image more, without necessarily referring to Adams or Eggleston at all, but oh well. I don't know about 'Cruel and Tender' - what was that about?
  9. Not at all prejudiced, I was just curious how many folks are looking at these on-file images which tend to show Adams from a different perspective..
  10. Not seeing the show in question I can't really reply to it. However I have to
    take exception with what Tim van der Weert said regarding Ansel,"I think
    because Adams just seems to be a great technician with no real independent

    What many people do not understand about AA is that his style, which is
    considered over done and cliche now because everybody with a camera in
    the universe has seen his work and has attempted to replicate it, was
    revolutionary at the time. In the early part of the 20th century art photography
    was the poor stepchild of painting. It was viewed as painting for people who
    could not afford a painting. Photographers of this period, tended toward a
    very painterly, soft focused look in an effort to produce painting like
    photographs. That was the establishment. AA and others came to realize
    that photography had qualities unique to itself, and made what was a fairly
    bold move at that time to produce work that highlighted the photographic
    aspects of photography. They were so successful with their revolution, that
    they became the establishment. It is their revolution that allowed people like
    Eggleston to go even further with a more photographic and less studied type
    of photography. Now that AA and realistic landscape photography has
    become so embedded in the photographic culture, and so many have copied
    it, both well and poorly, many new artists are going back to a more painterly
    or pictorial look, because many of us are bored with photos that are mere
    documentation of a scene.

    Now there are a million "Winogrands" and "Eggelstons" out there, and in 20
    years the originals will look cliche.


Share This Page