What difference does it make if you really know your subject?

Discussion in 'Philosophy' started by Julie H, Feb 19, 2017.

  1. Norman, there can also be different audiences with differing expectations and, regardless of those expectations, differing reactions. An outside audience (those who do not know the subjects in photos) will have different insights and responses to photos of people from an inside audience (those who know the subjects).

    Those who know the subjects may well feel something insider-ish from a photo made by a photographer who also knows the subject that the outsider audience may simply not be able to get. It also amazes me sometimes how much outsider audiences can wind up getting.

    Also, those who don't know the subject may tell a photographer that he or she seems to have captured the subject's "essence," a concept that doesn't really work for me though I get what people mean when they say that.

    On the other hand, sometimes the subjects themselves and people who know the subjects say they're surprised by a portrait in a positive way when it shows them someone in a different yet telling light, in a way they hadn't before envisioned or imagined. In that last case, we're kind of turning "knowing someone" on its head, where the viewer's knowing someone may allow a photographer to introduce them as a stranger in a photograph . . . sometimes in a really cool way.
    Last edited: Mar 12, 2017
  2. "I was brought a cup of tea in bed one morning which was the nastiest cup of tea I had ever tasted until I realized it was coffee (good coffee)." — David Sylvester
  3. Norman 202

    Norman 202 i am the light

    ah, the ol' smugly duckling syndrome, eh?
  4. "Allen Herbert, while I disagree with everything you've written that is relevant to the topic under discussion "Julie

    Sort of a strong statement, Julie. There most be something I've written that at least have piqued your interest ;))

    "What difference does it make if you really know your subject?" here in the Philosophy forum. Julie.

    I suppose the difference is " you think you know your subject"...but do you really? Or, is it the persona they project ? Think of the Marlyn Monroe and how quickly and easily she posed for the camera. This candid photo captures the feeling of vunaribility in Marlyn which we now regonise as later events unfolded.

    Last edited: Mar 14, 2017
  5. Phil, I thought you already had the book. I got mine last week (see post #148).

    It's interesting reading the last part of the Baudrillard quote you give because I think he's circling around, but not quite getting, something I've been circling around in my mind for the last few days and also not quite resolving. To try to explain:

    I'm thinking about two kinds of "really knowing" that are distinct and I think recognizable in photographs: things you can point at, and things you can't. W. Eugene Smith did essays on the country doctor and the nurse midwife, and you can look at his pictures and point at the country doctor and the nurse midwife. But Robert Frank did The Americans, and I don't think you can point at "the Americans" in his pictures. The whole picture, all of the whole pictures adds up to "The Americans" but there is no 'thing' can be pointed at as being the Americans.

    I think a similar difference can be found in Sally Mann's At Twelve, where you can point at the twelve year old girls, but in Immediate Family, the 'knowing' of what is 'immediate family' is in the sum total of the body of work, not in anything you can point at.

    When I look at the Luc Delahaye book, I don't really see any of the faces (I can't remember any of them as I sit here, now), yet I get a very strong sense, or emanation of ... lives; a visceral feeling of real flesh (not a good description, but that's why I'm circling).

    Another tack on what I'm trying to say is found, I think via this poem Those Winter Sundays, by Robert Hayden:

    Sundays too my father got up early
    and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
    then with cracked hands that ached
    from labor in the weekday weather made
    banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

    I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
    When the rooms were warm, he'd call,
    and slowly I would rise and dress,
    fearing the chronic angers of that house,

    Speaking indifferently to him,
    who had driven out the cold
    and polished my good shoes as well.
    What did I know, what did I know
    of love's austere and lonely offices?​

    You could say that that's just the old cliché of teenagers not understanding their parents, but it's not that at all, to my mind. The poem itself is exactly, no more no less, than what Hayden knows. Every word gives something beyond, distinct from any cliché. Yet the poem is not about any of the things those particular words signify: you can't point at what the poem knows or is about. It's affect is what it is and can't be translated, though the last two lines, like Mann's and Frank's book titles, give you the doorway to what the author was after. The emanations from Mann's Immediate Family, from Frank's The Americans, and from the strangers in Delahaye's book work in the same way as that poem: it's just a nodding of the head, a certainty of feeling, a yes!
  6. I'm not sure it is invisible. But I can' say where it is visible, either. It's in me that I search for its location, not the picture. Just as in the poem I gave, it's more about the poet than about his father. So I'm not sure what Hemingway claims to give is his for the giving (though he does indeed allow or prompt its giving).

    [ Trivia: In L'Autre, there is one person whose mouth is open. Look at what he's doing ... ]

  7. Very true. I think Smith was really conflicted about leaving the rationally moral essay that he loved for his (very) emotional responses that he also loved. His unpublished Big Book is a giant Whitman-esque poem.

  8. To my mind, the hard problem is knowing what the core "scent" that you're onto *is* even if all you have is a scent. The Americans or Immediate Family have to be there, in the photographer's mind as the beating heart of the "knowing," even if how they're found is in the oddest places or combinations.

  9. Against that part from Phil's Baudrillard quote, here is M.M. Bakhtin thinking about that issue:

    "A soul living and experiencing its own life will light up for me with a tragic light or will assume a comical expression or will become beautiful and sublime — only insofar as I step beyond the bounds of that soul, assume a definite position outside it, actively clothe it in externally valid bodiliness, and surround it with values that are transgredient to its own object-directedness ... "

    [... ]

    "The actor both imagines a life and images it in his playacting. If he did no more than imagine it, if he played merely for the sake of experiencing this life from within — the way children play — and did not shape it through an activity that approaches it from outside, he would not be an artist. At best, he would be a sound but passive instrument in the hands of an artist (the director, the author, and the active spectator)."
  10. Reminds me of Friedlander, who, as you know, is notoriously nonverbal about his work. In interviews, I've read him saying (paraphrasing), "I look at my stuff and when I notice something resurfacing time after time, that's what I make a book from" or something like that. In other words, he finds his themes after the fact, but he finds them. They are there; they are necessary.

    Friedlander has an upcoming book called "Chain Link." Made me laugh. As if he's daring people like me to find something philosophical about chain link. Or, the opposite: he can see how deliciously philosophical the omnipresent and varied manifestations/uses of chain link are. He's a crafty one ...
  11. OT but on W.E. Smith, a true story about him by Bill Jay that I think you'll like. Here's a teaser:

    Stumbling out of bed, down the stairs and into the kitchen, I picked up the receiver to hear Gene's hesitant, incoherent voice crackling over the wires from New York City. He told me he had mailed a package of original prints to be used as his obituary in my magazine Album. "By the time you receive them, I will be dead," he said. He insisted that he was going to commit suicide, "Maybe, tonight."​

    Read the whole (short) piece HERE (it's a pdf file).
  12. Is what you "really know" real? And/or is what is real what you "really know"? Or would you agree with Salman Rushdie that 'realism isn't a set of rules, it is an intention'?

    Here is Christoph Ribbat writing about Edward Weston and Robert Frank:

    "Weston's work, in particular, could almost be called schizophrenic. His Daybooks, the diaries of his travels, develop an endlessly detailed narrative of the emotional world of this photographer, his affairs, his dinners, his mood swings. Should I drink coffee, or shouldn't I? Should I smoke? Who ate the bell-pepper I wanted to photograph today? These are some of the questions. Some are more moving than others, pondering love and his doubts in art. Inserted in this narrative are the photographs and their clear, supposedly objective view, sober and crisp, of the things in this world. A fiction unfolds, claiming that, on the one hand, there could be an artist creating almost perfect images of true beauty with his ingenious gaze — and who could yet separate them from the imperfections, dramas, and ruptures of his personal life.

    "Frank doesn't neatly delineate the boundaries between the private life and the work of the artist. There is no fictional contrast between the turmoil of the private sphere and the cold, pure beauty of art. His wife and his children aren't mere pawns in the mind-games of a master photograph. Frank cultivates, as DiPero writes, a 'damaged beauty.' The private and the personal are integral parts of the photographs. This doesn't suggest, however, that even the most intimate works aren't fictions. But these works have another focus altogether as they emphasize the emotional and sensual aspects of making art in the images themselves."

    [ ... ]

    "The closeness of [Frank's] subjects and the pain of loss threaten the authority of the images and make their borders fragile, their surfaces diffuse. His photographs make the sea, the trees, and the mountains seem less monumental. The precision of the unreflected, realistic gaze is replaced by the imprecise aesthetics of an art that knows, as Salman Rushdie writes, that 'realism isn't a set of rules, it is an intention.' "
  13. And do you "really know" fiction? Here is E.M. Forster talking about words, but I what he writes works for pictures, too:

    "... Books are composed of words, ,and words have two functions to perform: they give information or they create an atmosphere."

    "... What is this element in words that is not information? I have called it "atmosphere," but it requires stricter definition than that. It resides not in any particular word, but in the order in which words are arranged -- that is to say, in style. It is the power that words have to raise our emotions or quicken our blood. It is also something else, and to define that other thing would be to explain the secret of the universe."

    " ... common knowledge disappears and uncommon knowledge takes its place. We have entered a universe that only answers to its own laws, supports itself, internally coheres, and has a new standard of truth. Information is true if it is accurate. A poem is true if it hangs together."

    " ... Just as words have two functions -- information and creation — so each human mind has two personalities, one on the surface, one deeper down. The upper personality has a name. It is called S.T. Coleridge, or William Shakespeare, or Mrs. Humphrey Ward. It is conscious and alert, it does things like dining out, answering letters, etc., and it differs vividly and amusingly from other personalities. The lower personality is a very queer affair. In many ways it is a perfect fool, but without it there is no literature, because, unless a man dips a bucket down into it occasionally he cannot produce a first-class work."

    "... The poet wrote the poem no doubt, but he forgot himself while he wrote it, and we forget him while we read. What is so wonderful about great literature is that it transforms the man who reads it towards the condition of the man who wrote, and brings to birth in us also the creative impulse. Lost in the beauty where he was lost, we find more than we ever threw away, we reach what seems to be our spiritual home, and remember that it was not the speaker who was in the beginning but the Word.

    "... I am not asking for reverence. Reverence is fatal to literature. My plea is for something more vital: imagination."


    Do you "really know" fiction? Do you "really know" what you imagine?
  14. Frannk_quote.jpg

    Robert Frank often featured handwritten quotes in his pictures. :)
  15. I'm not concerned whether I know the subject, but as to whether it
    makes any difference, well yeah, there is a difference. I have no
    strong preference. I'm glad there are both modes ... broadens my
    world, my outlook.

    Frinstintz, some listeners strongly prefer songs with a narrative
    story in the lyric. Or at lest that the lyrics express something that
    they care about ... or can sympathise ... or understand ... or can
    sing along [even silently]. I myself prefer lyrics in languages that
    I do not comprehend. Then the vocal are like another instrument
    and I can't be distracted by the narrative content or the whatever
    the words of the lyrics may be saying.

    IOW I do prefer the aesthetics, the music, and can focus on that
    and not be pulled-at by the familiar, the what-I-know, of words in
    a language that I comprehend.

    I do like short storys, essays, some poetry, etc as read on-air in
    some radio shows ... so I do like words and narratives. I just do
    NOT care to combine them into one thing. I really LIKE having
    two things, uncombined, to experience separately.

  16. You're talking about fiction, not news, so I agree BUT the big exception is children's books: for example Maurice Sendak and Dr. Seuss. Interesting to think about why they're different.
  17. I think if your talking about your subject being a person then it is very different to me. If I know my subject such as my Grandson then I want a lot of photos of his life as he grows. If the subject is a person that I do not know basically I do not want their photo and would not take one to start with.

  18. Fair enough. But many photographers have familial responses to people beyond their biological family. See for example Steichen's epic Family of Man show, seen and loved by an estimated 9 million people; reviled and scorned by most critics. [Read more about it's polar reception here.]

    And "really knowing" is ... complicated. Take Dorothea Lange as an example:

    • she talked about needing to "get lost" and "be totally lost" and "be completely annihilated" so that she could be "pure observer"; [not knowing]
    • yet she clearly had a very clear idea of what and why she wanted to photograph; her chosen subjects were very narrowly focused; [really knowing]
    • she seemed to have an extraordinary intuitive response to her subjects; [really knowing]
    • yet by the report of her own children, she was a terrible, distant, uninvolved and uninterested mother [not knowing or not wanting to know]

    Lange was an incredibly dedicated photographer; it seemed to consume all of her attention. She was supposedly very good at being comfortable with her chosen "people." Perhaps her true family? Or at least her true interest.
  19. Lange and Steichen seem like non sequiturs given what Ross said. Ross seems to know his purpose in photographing his grandson and that purpose seems very different from Lange's and Steichen's kind of photography.

    There's a difference between someone talking about heading down to dance at their local town hall dance on a Friday night, which is generally a more low-key and non-formal kind of dancing than a prima ballerina talking about her on-stage performances, even though "dance" applies to both. Of course, Ross's grandson may be a ballet dancer, which might complicate than analogy!

    Ross, I'm curious about your photography here, more than Lange or Steichen in this context. If your grandson said he had a friend, who you'd never met, who wanted or needed his picture taken, would you take it? Do you think you could do a decent job of it? I'm not asking because I think there's a right or better answer. Just curious to hear a little more about your photo making.

  20. Yes. That's what I'm interested in. I think Ross's motivations and choices — each of our own motivations and choices — are on a par with anybody else's, including Steichen and Lange. What difference do those choices make?

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