Stranger (symbols)

Discussion in 'Philosophy' started by Julie H, Jul 29, 2017.

  1. It seems difficult to see a discussion about "stranger" without mentioning Diane Arbus who made a career of photographing strangers, or at least what she conceived would be considered strange by the normal society of the day.

    "I do feel I have some slight coma or something about the quality of things. I mean it’s very subtle and a little embarrassing to me, but I really believe there are things which nobody would see unless I photographed them" - Diane

    and her by now well known...."Most people go through life dreading they'll have a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their trauma. They've already passed their test in life. They're aristocrats." - Diane Arbus

    I think you can almost substitute the word "stranger" for freak for this thread. But her photos of these people weren't about alienation to me. She connected quite well, and in their lives they were not necessarily alienated from society. Its just that the society they inhabited was pretty much "stranger" to the larger society and a lot of viewers had a hard time relating to the photographs.

    But to me there is no greater total deconstruction of connecting to another being than Witkin's work with corpses. I find it hard to even write about it. Stranger in fact and symbol.
  2. Barry, don't know if you got to see the recent Arbus exhibit that's been traveling around the country. I was fortunate enough to see it on both coasts. After seeing it here in San Francisco, I happened across a essay by Sontag (linked below). I don't agree with all Sontag has to say, but she makes some interesting historical and cultural points. There's a whole host of ways we connect and Sontag does a good job in exploring the kind of connection Arbus and others actually establish. The review was written almost 45 years ago, after one of Arbus's early exhibitions, but still seems relevant today, if not more relevant given some of the now-ingrained views about Arbus's work that Sontag calls into question.

  3. I didn't get a chance to see it and I'm mad at myself for not coming up to the City to see it. Thanks for the link, I will read it.
  4. Norman 202

    Norman 202 i am the light

    Don't know. I was basing my argument on what Penn said (about taking people away from their natural environment) and what Julie inferred from it.
  5. Got it. Just read what Penn said and I see it as being about how the process transforms. As a matter of fact, he talks a lot about disconnection (from who they are).

    I think this is one of things that can be so liberating about photography. While, on one level, photos can seem almost a hyper-representation of reality, on another level, a photo is also a severing from the reality of what's being shot. By disrupting context, by framing, by stilling, we disconnect subjects from their usual predicates.

    As to his relationship to these people, I notice he uses the word "contact" and not "connection." There's something important there. Contact, to me, suggests something more surface oriented than connection.

    Avedon talked about the importance of surfaces. I think sometimes when we dive too deep, we don't actually scratch the surface.
    Last edited: Aug 9, 2017
  6. ..........
    Barry, I don't feel at all disconnected from Arbus's people, nor do I feel that she and they are disconnected. I don't see a refusal to connect between the people in her work. They may or may not be crazy about each other, but they're definitely interacting, to my eye.


    Returning to my earlier post:

    Here is the late photographer/artist David Wojnarowicz:

    "I'm a blank spot in a hectic civilization. I'm a dark smudge in the air that dissipates without notice. I feel like a window, maybe a broken window. I am a glass human. I am a glass human disappearing in rain. I am standing among all of you waving my invisible words."

    "I carry silence like a blood-filled egg, ready to drop it into someone's hands."

    "I've slipped through the keyhole of an enormous psychic erector set of child civilization. I'm the robotic kid lost from the blind eye of government and wandering edges of a computerized landscape; all civilization is turning like one huge gear in my forehead. I'm seeing my hands and feet grow thousands of miles long and millions of years old and I'm experiencing the exertion it takes to move these programmed limbs. I'm the robotic kid, the human motor-works, and surveying the scene before me I wonder: what can these feet level, what can these feet pound and flatten, what can these hands raise?"​

  7. Thanks for the link to Sontag's essay. I am stimulated and inspired very much by Susan's writings on photography and I had not come across this review before. Like you, I don't agree with everything she says but just the way she says it inspires.
  8. Barry... To your post above, I'd also include Avedon's In the American West series, his four year road trip through western states photographing people from under-the-surface walks of life, bringing to light a non-Hollywood "west" not known to many east of the Mississippi.

    He took a lot of criticism from many feeling he was trying to (re)define the west, on his terms, and out of his realm being a New Yorker. Though I have his book of American West portraits, one I like equally was authored by his assistant and photographer, Laura Wilson. In her book she documented his behind the scenes process of engagement and photographing of subjects from state to state as a kind of chronological road trip. It's one of my most valued photography books, and pretty much got me stoked on hitting up strangers on the street for conversation and portraits.
  9. This is a transcript from the documentary, Richard Avedon: Darkness and Light. He's in conversation with Sandra Bennett, who is now eighteen, but was twelve when he took her picture. She's the one who was on the cover of one of the versions of the American West books (in bib overalls with lots of freckles):

    Sandra Bennett: ... And the picture was awful, you know, your worst hair day, clothes day, and everything all in one day, the worst photo of your life that you want to bury and it is right there on the front of this book and I was mortified, I was a senior in high school, I was home coming queen, and I had this photo coming back to haunt me.

    What was very difficult for me was that you caught me, you said "vulnerable" that was true, but also bare-bottom, really exposed where I try to cover everything, my friends would wear shorts in summertime when I wouldn't ...

    Richard Avedon: What were you covering? The freckles?

    SB: Oh, absolutely!

    RA: You can't say you weren't in the pictures. That's what is confusing about photography. You can't say you weren't there. But you have to accept that you were there, and the control is with the photographer.

    I have the control in the end, but I can't do it alone, you have a lot to say, which by that I mean the way you look, the way you confront the camera, and all the experience with trusting or not trusting, you have a certain amount of control, but in the end I can tear the pictures up, I can choose the smiling one or the serious one ... or I can exaggerate something through the printing. It's lending yourself to artists.​

    [end of transcript]

    Brad, is that how you shoot? If somebody hates the picture you made, do you tell them you're the one in control and they're lending themselves to the artist?

    Not to pick on Avedon, I think the Migrant Mother wasn't too happy with Dorothea Lange, nor, according the James Agee, were the people photographed by Walker Evans in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. But I don't think that means there wasn't contact: it means that we're getting one side of the story in the picture — such are human relations. For something to show 'stranger' at least one side of the relationship has to be incomprehension, a feeling that connection is not possible; and I don't see that in any of the above. (I think Sandra Bennett has a pretty clear understanding of Avedon, whether Avedon realizes it or not.)
  10. No, not at all. For me, making a portrait of a subject is a collaboration, as brief as it is.

    No. But I've yet to have anyone tell me they didn't like their photograph. Still, if someone were to express such a feeling after handing them a print at a future encounter (or an image file via mail or email), saying something similar to the above would not even enter my mind.
  11. Thanks Brad, I'm going to Have to get it. and probably find a copy of the work itself, I always resonated to his portraits.
  12. Julie said "Barry, I don't feel at all disconnected from Arbus's people, nor do I feel that she and they are disconnected. I don't see a refusal to connect between the people in her work. They may or may not be crazy about each other, but they're definitely interacting, to my eye."

    Totally agree. That was a big part of Arbus' work was to try to connect with those subjects. But to the mainstream viewers she was bringing these people to, they were "strange". As photographers we can appreciate her ability to connect with folks that many would never dare approach because of their perceived strangeness. And considering the context of when she was working, this was very daring and hadn't really been done much in that day.
  13. Avedon is being refreshingly honest.

    So is Arbus when she says:
    Neither seems to be kidding themselves. Their self-awareness, especially as it touches their own imperfect qualities, probably plays a part in the genuineness of their photos and the kind of frankness their photos picture.
  14. What Avedon said quoted in the post above pretty much goes without saying, and is not particularly revelatory, or being "refreshingly honest." Arbus expressed a personal feeling that is similarly not surprising, being just one of many one can feel in such close and intimate encounters with another person where trust and awareness are needed to create strong and revealing portraits.
  15. I see them both as being refreshingly honest. I understand you don't. Reasonable disagreement. Had I thought it went without saying, I wouldn't have said anything.

    In any case, I didn't take them to be talking about "close," "intimate," "trust," or "awareness." Avedon's point was about exaggeration (and manipulation, IMO) and Arbus's was about her own perceived perversion. Maybe revelatory, maybe not. Maybe depends on who's listening.
  16. I do find them to be honest. Just not refreshingly or surprisingly so.

    And I didn't take them to be talking about those aspects, either.

    I agree. And for most, it goes without saying that in the end the photographer has the ability to exaggerate and manipulate what was captured. I don't think many photographers would be surprised about that.

    And certainly depends on the life experiences and awareness of the person listening.
    Last edited: Aug 10, 2017
  17. Thanks, Brad.


    Changing direction a little, I want to talk about two ways that people make other people into 'stranger' — by choosing to see those other people as "not like them."

    Hero-worshippers see celebrities, whether movie stars, athletes, or politicians, as 'stranger' in the sense that those celebrities are not "like them." Celebrities are way "up there." It's almost the definition of a celebrity.

    Bigots, or snobs, or anybody who poses him or herself as superior to some other "kind" of person chooses and promotes a self-definition that makes some other group or kind of people not the same kind of person as they are. They choose to see those other people as grossly, clearly, inferior to themselves. That other kind of person is way "down there." Not like them. Strangers.

    I'll do bigots/snobs first. Here is a sample of H.L. Mencken's writing. After listing the ugliest places on earth that he's seen, he goes on:

    "... But nowhere on this earth, at home or abroad, have I seen anything to compare to the villages that huddle along the line of the Pennsylvania from the Pittsburgh yards to Greensburg. They are incomparable in color, and they are incomparable in design. It is as if some titanic and aberrant genius, uncompromisingly inimical to man, had devoted all the ingenuity of Hell to the making of them. They show grotesqueries of ugliness that, in retrospect, become almost diabolical. One cannot imagine mere human beings concocting such dreadful things, and one can scarcely imagine human beings bearing life in them."

    "... On certain levels of the human race, indeed, there seems to be a positive libido for the ugly, as on other and less Christian levels there is a libido for the beautiful. It is impossible to put down the wallpaper that defaces the average American home of the lower middle class to mere inadvertence, or to the obscene humor of the manufacturers. Such ghastly designs, it must be obvious, give a genius to a certain type of mind."

    "... Here is something that the psychologists have so far neglected: the love of ugliness for its own sake, the lust to make the world intolerable. Its habitat is the United States. Out of the melting pot emerges a race which hates beauty s it hates truth."​

    Against the pleasure that the bigot finds in his superior invective, Sir Desmond McCarthy writes this:

    "One recognizes the impartial faculty for getting angry. It can produce sneers, tropes, tremendous metaphors; out of it some pages of memorable prose have been written. Such anger is delicious to experience, for it is accompanied by a glowing sense of superiority, and it can be an immense stimulus to composition. But it can only be cultivated at the sacrifice of some spiritual honesty: that is the price which must be paid. Success depends upon rapidly draining into general channels the contents of your private reservoir of resentments, vainglory, thwarted ambitions, wrongs and grudges. Such emotions are ductile. It is particularly easy to make, for instance, a little current of envy turn furiously the mills of righteous indignation. But then the writer must be unconscious of the sources of this energy. Hence the necessity of a certain dishonesty or lack of self-awareness which, whether inborn or acquired, may sooner or later make a fool of the specialist in invective."​

    I doubt anybody can say they haven not witnessed that kind of invective on the internet.

    Celebrities will be in my next post ...
  18. .............

    Richard Avedon, in an essay in his book of Portraits, wrote this:

    "In 1975 I had arrived at the point in my career where I was no longer interested in doing portraits of persons of power and accomplishment."​


    What's remarkable about that? It's that he doesn't say he isn't interested in doing portraits; it's that he's not interested in doing portraits of celebrities. Celebrities are different. They're not like us.

    When Avedon showed the picture of Marilyn that he (and many other arty people) thought and think was and is so revealing, I think the general public's reaction was "Duh!" As if he thought we didn't know that 'Marilyn' isn't really a person when she's not being 'Marilyn.' Big Duh! We don't thank him for telling us what we don't want to know.

    There's a collaboration between photographers, celebrities, and the general public that has many different permutations, but the common ingredient is that we don't want to know that they're like us. We want them to be 'stranger.' Being famous is a glory and a prison [ <<< boohoo! big cliché ... ]

    Last edited: Aug 10, 2017
  19. Thinking a bit more about the notion of being a stranger to oneself, I would offer many of the self-portraits of Francesca Woodman, for example:
    I'm trying my hand at fashion photography
  20. Considering actors, it's not just we, the audience, who want them to be "stranger."* They have elected a life, a big part of which is becoming a stranger in adopting the role of a character. Of course, they learn to both be that stranger and make that stranger familiar. And the best among them utilize their authentic selves to become their characters. In wanting them to be "stranger" we may actually also be wanting them to be themselves. Selves are not one-dimensional and not only hidden inner beings. Selves manifest in the roles we adopt and the lives we choose. If Judy Garland and Clark Gable are stars, why would seeing them as such be seeing them as a stranger? It's just as real as shooting Casals with his cello or a local teacher in her classroom.

    *The concept of "stranger," while interesting, is not a good context in which to see all human interaction or photographic relationship. "Stranger" may have limited usage and application and not every relationship of photographic note benefits from being seen in that context.

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