JOHN BERGER: WORDS AND IMAGES

 The Marriage Of Text And Photo

It was a bit of a blow when John Berger (Ways of Seeing), Robert Pirsig (Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance) and Leonard Cohen all died within a  year. I’m not much into hero worship but certain people are kind of constant presences in your life and so these three were for me.  I even wrote a haiku.

John Robert Leonard

Berger Pirsig and Cohen -

all in the twelve months

I was quite pleased that this does stick to the traditional 5/7/5 syllabic pattern – though some days I do think there is a vague note of E J Thribb (from Private Eye) about it.

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I read a biography of LC last year and wished I hadn’t: I’d never quite realised what a rackety life he had.  So it was with some trepidation that I picked up Joshua Sperling’s ‘A Writer Of Our Time: The Life And Works Of John Berger’ recently. It turned out to be more an examination of JB’s thought than an autobiography – though nonetheless it turns out that he, too, was something of a lady’s man.  What is it about these guys and women, for heaven’s sake?

JB is best known doubtless for ‘Ways of Seeing’ (both TV series and book) and possibly for donating half of his prize money to the Black Panthers when he won the Booker prize in 1972.  It caused quite a row.

He’s a fascinating figure: a challenging and visionary polymath, but also verbose, dogmatic and contrarian. Youtube clips like this one show him at his charismatic and charming best.   He is sometimes grouped with Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes as part of a triumvirate of authority on photographic theory (though they are all best sampled in small doses, I find).

Of particular interest to me are his thoughts on marrying photography and text - which is essentially what this website is about.  Rare is the day I don’t write a haiku of some sort and I did go through a period of trying to combine these with photographs.  Here’s an example.

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I had in mind the lovely Chinese and Japanese paintings and brushwork you see which often carries text.  The Chinese refer to the artwork as the host and the text as the guest.  Often the characters are not particularly legible and so the meaning of the text is secondary.  The problem with doing this digitally is that the text comes out far too clear and the fonts are too definitive to sit with an image.  It would be like  branding a puppy.

In 1967 Berger published, with photographer Jean Mohr,  A Fortunate Man, a book of text and photographs about the life of a country doctor.  This was an experimental attempt to match text and image creatively in book form.  Berger made the distinction between the private photograph which remains part of a private narrative for the person or family or group to which it belongs and therefore needs no particular explanation; and the public photograph which requires a context before it can make any contribution to understanding.  A Fortunate Man was his attempt to work through this idea not simply by creating a straight line of narrative around the photography but by embedding it in a radial structure of words in which neither word nor image repeats the other (as so often happens in conventional news/documentary/photobook forms).  He had had some experience of this in his work on television arts programmes and he went on to develop it in two further books (A Seventh Man and A Way Of Telling). 

We might see the text/image dilemma as physiological.  A photograph will be round your brain’s neural circuits and will have had its effect before a paragraph of text has even got its boots on.  If you are given, say, a two-page spread with words on one side and images on the other your eye always leaps to the latter.  But when it is done well, the text might be seen as slowing down the image by lengthening the viewer’s cursory glance and the image promotes the words by creating an interest in them.  That has presumably been a central issue for all news media since the invention of photography.  What about when you want to get away though from such a straight form of communication though?  What if the relationship of word and image were to be more irregular, non-linear or poetic even?

You would think that digital technology might have helped but in my experience it has simply reinforced the difficulties.  The template I use for this website makes it very difficult to insert text between the images on the photograph pages.  In software such as MS Publisher text boxes and image boxes are treated quite separately and you are restricted to a narrow range of fonts and picture formats.

These blog posts are themselves an attempt to put word and image together – though I don’t feel that I have yet reached the transcendental moment when each might inform the other in a less conventional way. I am working on it though and John Berger is a great help.

To end, here’s a photograph I produced recently which maybe could take some words?

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Maybe these? 

walking the streets

at every footfall

the city unfolds

ANSEL ADAMS' AUTOBIOGRAPHY

Little, Brown and Co, 1996

Little, Brown and Co, 1996

Go on.  Who would you say was the most popular photographer of the 20th century?  Not based on statistical evidence of sales or exhibitions or whatever – just straight out profile in the popular imagination.  I’d say it has to be Ansel Adams (1902-1984).  Cartier-Bresson might give him a run for his money but in the end I think the Frenchman is more admired by other photographers while Adams is more popular at large.

Having just read his autobiography, which I picked up locally secondhand, I can see that his personality might have had something to do with it.  He comes over as a very attractive, affable, chatty, kind of chap – very opinionated but with tremendous energy and enthusiasm. He loved a drink and good company. He didn’t take any prisoners, mind you.  Here he is in a letter to William Mortenson dismissing Pictorialist photography and celebrating Realism:  “How soon photography achieves the position of a great social and aesthetic instrument of expression depends on how soon you and your co-workers of shallow vision negotiate oblivion.” Boof!

You might now see him as part of the Romantic movement which in photography died out as a serious form in the 1970s, post-Minor White. I’ve never seen any of his prints in the flesh but even on screen you can see how he managed to squeeze every drop of tonality out of his negatives.  I guess it would have been pretty extreme – and technically difficult – at the time but in these days of Photoshop and High Dynamic Range they look pretty middle of the road, tonally speaking. You can see a good range of his images here. They are striking or overwrought depending on your taste.

Ansel in the 1950s (by J Malcolm Greany) looking rather dapper, light meter at the ready.

Ansel in the 1950s (by J Malcolm Greany) looking rather dapper, light meter at the ready.

His bottom line, always and ever, is that photography is a creative art and that to see or use it as anything else sells it short – though he himself of course had to take on commercial commissions to survive. He didn’t get on with Edward Steichen who in the late 1940s sidelined Ansel’s friend Beaumont Newhall and became Director of the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art.  “Everything we feared” writes Ansel to Beaumont, “the complete engulfing of photography as you and I see it ….into a vast picture archive.”

Steichen’s hugely popular Family Of Man exhibition – whose aim was to show “the essential oneness of mankind” – was the last straw for Ansel (even though one of his own photos was in it!)  He thought it was more suited to the United Nations than to MoMA. 

That jibe about “a vast picture archive” went to the heart of his philosophy.  For him it wasn’t so much about the subject of your photograph as the way you produced it and the communication of feeling that represented.  You had to control the whole process from visualising the photograph to developing the negative, choosing the paper, making the print and displaying it.  That could be a long process and sometimes he took several weeks working on a print to get it just right – and then over the years he would develop that further.

You might say now that for many, it is precisely the subject of a photograph rather than image quality which is its main interest.  That’s why The Family of Man was so popular.  But maybe Ansel had a point, too, because you could also say that there are limited subjects but limitless ways to capture them photographically.     

Environmentalist, pianist, inveterate letter-writer and very liberal in many of his social views, Ansel Adam’s autobiography makes a good (if meandering) read.  You go back to your own photography with renewed vigour.  Enthusiasm is such an attractive quality in a person.

JUST A MOMENT

Just how creative is photography? 

The consensus these days seems to be that the battle for photography’s status is won.  There it is hanging on the walls of major museums and art galleries – end of discussion.  But that ignores the distinction so commonly made between ‘art as photography’ (which is what artists do) and photography as art (which is what photographers do).  The clear suggestion is that one is more creative than the other.  It also omits all the other photographies: scientific, technical, medical, forensic, family, evidential, social and so on.  I thought a more interesting way of looking at it was to turn the telescope round and point it not at photography but at creativity.

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To do that I read two autobiographies by people who might generally be considered creative: Philip Glass’s ‘Words Without Music’ (Faber and Faber, 2015); and Patti Smith’s ‘Just Kids’ (Bloomsbury 2012).  I read them because they came floating up to me from the shelves of my local secondhand bookshop.  So – pretty random, which is the best way.  My question was: do these creative people see life any differently from anyone else?

Philip Glass seems to have come straight out of the stalls, looking neither to right nor to left but with one goal only: to write music.  He did whatever it took to survive financially: removal work, taxi-driving (which one time nearly cost him his life), plumbing and house maintenance.  He brought up a family and he kept a roof over their heads but he only started to earn money from the music when he was in his forties.  On the way he took care to cultivate good artistic company, to develop his technical skills, to work at composition every day and – it seems, to enjoy it as he went along.  The self-belief seems to have been unshakeable right from the start.

Patti Smith, from a later generation, tried a few things: poetry, a bit of acting, drawing and then rock and roll.  To her, artistic practice was mystical and the practitioners were mystics.  She was determined to become An Artist, and that is what she did – almost by sheer force of will.  She seems not to have had Philip Glass’s self-belief but she was practical, held down jobs and kept going.  While her friend and lover, Robert Mapplethorpe, seemed to climb to the top, she floated.  Contacts were essential-  but then, when aren’t they?

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What the two of them seem to have in common is practicality.  They kept producing work, they were ready when the chance came, they kept the wolf from the door, they moved in the right company and they would not be deflected.  Both of them seem in thrall to the idea that Artists are Different, that they are a kind of nobility, that to be an artist is “to see what others cannot” as Patti Smith puts it.  Hmmmm…yes, well.

Nearer the mark, perhaps, is the idea that Philip Glass cites from Krishnamurti, that creativity is not so much a characteristic as a moment, a kind of unrepeatable spontaneity.  That is what both he and Patti Smith exhibit.  They never seem to quite know what is coming next but have great confidence that something will come.

That’s an idea which transfers well to photography.  When I peer through the viewfinder I like to think that I am in the same position as the sculptor wrestling with form, the poet with words and the musician with sound. But creativity is not the unique preserve of the fine arts. I am also in the same position as the mechanic grappling with spanners, the cakemaker with recipes and the mathematician with numbers.  Creativity is a world where thought is momentarily suspended and memory no longer functions.  That, presumably, is why time passes so quickly.

When Robert Mapplethorpe photographed Patti Smith for the much-lauded cover of her first LP ‘Horses’ he went through numerous attempts.  The light keeps changing, his light meter malfunctions, first its jacket on and then jacket off – then all of a sudden he says:

“I got it.”

“How do you know” she asks.

“I just know.”

It came from nowhere, as these things do. You can’t predict them and you can’t repeat them. All you can do is to make your preparations and then be open to them - whatever the activity and whatever its status. For photography, you have to think about the photograph you are taking, of course, but if you are still thinking about it when you snap the shutter then you may get something technically good - but not much more than that.

BERENICE ABBOTT: HOW MANY PAGES MAKE A LIFE?

“Berenice Abbott: A Life In Photography” by Julia Van Haaften

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At a guess, I’d say that most people know of Berenice Abbott either from her documentation of the changing face of New York or from her connection to the  archive of Eugene Atget, the Parisian “Balzac of the camera”.  The basic facts of her life are simple enough.  She came from nowhere, creatively speaking, to a perhaps lucky gig as Man Ray’s studio assistant and from there to her own portrait photography practice in 1920s Paris.  She went back to the US before WW2 and set out to photograph the changing face of New York.  From there in the 1950s she moved on to scientific photography.  She was technically skilled and innovative but her big problem was that she had a genius for putting people’s backs up.  Too many movers and shakers clearly saw her as humourless and difficult.  Her persistence eventually paid off however and she began to earn serious money from her back catalogue from the 1970s onwards.  Stylistically speaking she moved away from the early influence of the surrealists to a straight, naturalistic photography.

Blossom Restaurant, 103, Bowery, Manhatten, 1935. Berenice Abbott.

Blossom Restaurant, 103, Bowery, Manhatten, 1935. Berenice Abbott.

The one photo that always popped into my mind when her name came up would have been this one , Blossom Restaurant, 103 Bowery, Manhattan.  The chap coming out was a piece of serendipity apparently but to me the most interesting thing is the enormous range of dishes set out on the menu in the restaurant window: did they do all of those every day, I wonder? It gives you an idea of the superb detail she caught with her large format camera in so many of the images.

You won’t find out the answer to that menu question in Julia Van Haaften’s recent biography,  Berenice Abbott: A Life In Photography (W.W. Norton and Co. 2018) but it is possibly one of the few details missing from this monumental book.  As a work of research it is pretty astounding.  Want to know what Berenice ate for lunch on 29th November  1928?  It’s in here at page 129.  The company she kept in Paris in the 1920s is assiduously recorded and you get sentences like this: “McAlmon enjoyed substantial financial freedom from his six-year marriage to Winifred Ellerman, called Bryher, the British shipbuilding heiress and lover of the poet H.D. – Hilda Doolittle, whose former partner had been the poet Ezra Pound.”  Got that?  It’s a sort of third-person diary so there is ample to fascinate the devoted B.A. fan. 

For the undecided, (e.g. me) it was a harder read because there is no real assessment of events, no glance at the horizon from time to time.  Was she wasting time with the Atget archive and inviting critics to see her as in thrall to him?  And why did she sell a half share in the archive to gallery owner Julian Levy for $1000 when she had paid $10,000 for the whole thing only a few years previously?  At times she seems to have had little money but more than once there is reference to her fine clothes and to her cars.  It doesn’t seem to stack up.  The bigger picture disappears in the detail. 

As for the photography – hmmmm……  There are some pretty impressive photos, no doubt about it, as you would expect in a body of work spanning half a century or so.  As a straight photographic record of people and place it’s hugely interesting and some of her photos seem now to create 1930s  New York as much as recording it.   I don’t think photography can go beyond that: it isn’t transcendental after all.  The work is one thing but the life is another. I’m not sure the life itself justifies 500 pages but this is bound to be the definitive biography for a good long while.

PHOTOGRAPHY AND THE ART MARKET BY JULIET HACKING

How The Market Makes Art and Art Makes The Market

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Here is an interesting book.  For £30 you get a handsome 266 hardback pages by the Programme Director of the MA in Contemporary Art at Sotheby’s Institute of Art.  She was previously Head of the Photography Department at Sotheby’s auction house and therefore has much experience of the book’s subject – how the art market for photography functions.

The book is divided into two sections.  The first is aimed at potential collectors and deals with how to navigate the market for art photography.  It starts off at worm’s eye level but soon enough rises to the aspirational.  If you were thinking of starting off a photograph collection then it would be pretty essential reading.  There is detailed advice on establishing authenticity, researching value, analysing auction reports, and recognising pitfalls.  Some of this works on a pretty big scale.  For example, there is what Dr Hacking describes as ‘rebranding an alternative investment portfolio as a curated collection.’ Here is what you do.  You promote a Fund (that is, you interest both private individuals and institutions with the right kind of money) and go scouting for reliably valuable photographs, hoovering up whole collections along the way and attracting more investors as you go.  With a wave of the wand, Investment Portfolio becomes Collection in its own right when you start persuading influential people to talk it up, you sponsor serious exhibitions in which it features, you promote academic conferences which highlight it and you even publish catalogues dedicated to your Collection. Having maximised your brand you then “bring it to the market” and if your timing and technique are right you should have generated such a frenzy that you will make many times what you have spent in putting the brand together.  The author says that the knack for “successful monetisation” is to “conjure up aura”.  

It is Dr Hacking’s main theme that the market is crucial to the making of Art (as opposed to art) and the second half of the book addresses that theme: how photography (or some photography anyway) became Art and therefore became very  valuable.  Dr Hacking’s argument is that there has always been, from the very beginning of photographic history, a distinction drawn between Art-as-photography and photography-as-art.  Few would argue with that. The former is what artists do and the latter is what photographers do.  There is overlap and there are grey areas: for example, in Sotheby’s, Robert Mapplethorpe has been sold as an artist in London but as a photographer in New York.  Traditionally the reverse has been more true, however: those who are big in photography may be unheard of in contemporary Art and vice versa.

Dr Hacking’s survey of the market history of photography makes clear that until well into the second half of the twentieth century it was difficult to get any sort of a decent price for a photo.  But as the value of older art went into the stratosphere, photography helped fill the market gap that was left.  Between 1975 and 1991, for example, photography prices increased by some 680%.  Then when contemporary art began to take off at the beginning of this century photography had to try and hang onto its coat-tails.  By the 21st century six figures for a photograph was no longer exceptional but 99% of all sold photography still falls outside of the contemporary art market and therefore the really, really big prices.

So, if there are these fairly simple economic arguments about supply and demand then how is it, we might ask, that the market can impute cultural value?  Surely, the price paid is a result of that very cultural value and not a determinant of it?

What enables an image to arc across the photography/Art electrodes is a complex institutional circuit, according to Dr Hacking, the wiring of which encompasses critics, dealers, writers, specialists and institutions.  In essence, Art photography is whatever this coterie decides it to be – its nose being guided by artistic pedigrees, track records, market history and personal opinion.  This does seem a curious argument.  It must lead ineluctably to the conclusion that there is no intrinsic quality in the picture itself which makes it Art.   Good, bad or indifferent – it makes no odds.  It is simply the opinions and prices which trail in their wake.  Taking the example of Andreas Gursky’s Rhin II – sold for over £3 million several years ago which was then a world record price for a photograph – you might well conclude that it is indeed a pretty mediocre image.  But the rub is that everything points to its being a very safe investment vehicle.

Like all circuits, the one described by this book might be seen as ending at its own starting point.  What underpins it, that cultural value is determined by price and price is determined by cultural value, may well be true within the walls of the auction house, but it is not necessarily so outside them. It is also an argument which has an interesting parallel with banking until 2008: that was another world in which a group of people considered themselves to be too expert by half - and look where that ended.

Towards the end of this book the author says that we should be asking not why Rhin II is so valuable but how it has come to be so.  Indeed we should, because this Foucauldian question inevitably leads us onto the issue of discourse.  Viewed from this angle we can see that the book is not so much a commentary on that discourse as part of the discourse itself.  The first half is after all a scholarly explanation of how the market functions and the second half is a scholarly account of the history of art photography based on an examination of historical values.  By its very nature it is an account for participants of all kinds and its advice will influence behaviour.

Perhaps surprisingly, there is no comparison in the book between the photographic commodity market and any other enthusiast-based commodity market.   For example, in the historic vehicle market (where Art is not in issue) prices in the last fifty years have also gone through the roof.  If a graph of comparison showed significant similarities in its peaks and troughs with those of the photography market then we might well conclude that it was overall macro-economic factors that affected value as much as judgments about Art.   Put bluntly, the quality of what is being bought doesn’t matter so long as the commodity can deliver a return.  One of Lawrence of Arabia’s series of old Broughs, for example, is always going to maintain value even if that marque’s rear cylinder did overheat with monotonous regularity.

The book is a good read.  The prose is clear, the annotation copious and the author’s pedigree impeccable.  If you want to be a collector you had better read it.  Even if you don’t, its market-based view of photographic history is, I think, a first and, whether you agree with it or not, it is very interesting food for thought.     

MORE SHADOWS, LESS LIGHT

Back To Tanizaki

The Tanizaki book that I wrote about a couple of posts below continues to smoke around my brain.  I see a link with something that Barthes says in La Chambre Claire: “I  have always had the impression that in any photograph, colour is a coating applied after the event to the original truth of black and white.”

You might think that the opposite was true: that black and white is a style applied to a world of colour.  Don’t you see colour all around you after all?

Yet when I get up each morning for my meditation session something curious happens.  Here in northern Europe at around 6.30 am in winter it is dark.  I settle into meditation and the world that I see through my half-open eyes is monochrome. 

My rudimentary understanding of the physiology of sight is that in low light levels the eye makes use of rod cells – which do not perceive colour, only black and white.   The greyscale in between those two extremes is the rod cells’ version of colour, known as “ghosting in”.  As the meditative minutes pass, the sun comes up and, even on a rainy day, light levels rise.  Cone cells then come into play and replace the monochrome of the rod cells with colour.  The same happens in reverse in the evening but artificial illumination masks it.  For that reason it is much clearer in the countryside than urban areas.  So we see in monochrome or colour depending on the amount of light available.

The decline of black and white photography might be seen as coinciding with the increasing use of electric light.  Since we are drenching the world in colour that is what we replicate photographically.  In older buildings the subtlety of shadow has profound effects.  In churches, castles, old houses, old farm buildings the eye seems often to revert to the monochrome world.  Other senses are brought into play then.  It is a more complete world because it does not rely on acute vision alone.

Seen in this way, colour photography is not a technological advance producing a more accurate view of the world.  It is a regime whose account of the world is a construction.  Your saturation slider therefore has its Faustian aspect: you can have fun - but the price you pay is dazzling.   Tanizaki’s lament for the shadows of his youth and Barthes’ insight into the nature of photography lead us inexorably to this conclusion.

IN PRAISE OF SHADOWS

Japanese Aesthetics And Photography

Cover of Penguin Vintage Classics Edition: ISBN 9780099283577

Cover of Penguin Vintage Classics Edition: ISBN 9780099283577

This much admired work was written in 1933 by Japanese novelist Junichiro Tanizaki as a hymn of praise to traditional Japanese aesthetics and might still be profitably read by the 21st century photographer.

Tanizaki’s theme is the importance of shadow in aesthetic appreciation and its disappearance under the glare of modern electric lighting.  The flicker of candlelight, the half-light from the shoji (the traditional paper screen), the dim glow of coals from the stove, glistening black lacquer – all have been destroyed by modern lighting.   There was a moment of trance, he wrote, when he raised that lacquered bowl of dark soup to his lips, “a kind of silent music evoked by the combination of lacquerware and the light of a candle flickering in the dark.”   Japanese cooking he says is “inseparable from darkness” and the beauty of a Japanese room depends on the interplay of dark and light shadow.  He evokes the experience of tasting a yokan, a traditional Japanese confection:  “You take its cool, smooth substance into your mouth and it is as if the very darkness of the room were melting.”

It is a beautiful essay and to read it is to imagine a tonal world that is very different from the one we inhabit now.  Look around our towns and cities: lighting is a kind of fetish.  It is not there to aid progress round the streets anymore nor to illuminate destinations.  Its purpose is to repel shadow – metaphorically, perhaps, to blot out what we do not wish to consider in our own psyche.

In photography, is it any coincidence that the subtle depiction of black and white shades which was once our photographic world has all but disappeared before the emergence of the backlit digital image?  Digital display – the adverts, the computer screens, the photographic projection in all its forms - has obliterated the pale washes of the analogue world. Is this not the photographic consequence of what Tanizaki was writing about in 1933?  Have we not created in digital display a harsh coating which in fact obscures the very quality we are trying to reveal in our photographs?

 

PHOTOGRAPHY AS FINE ART

Human Communication, Economic Unit, or Plaything of the Cognoscenti?

Something I read in last winter’s edition of Source has been niggling at me so I need to give it a run round the park.

Richard West interviewed Diarmuid Costello and Juliet Hacking about what they understood by the term  “art photography”.  The former saw it as a means of human communication – just like other forms of art.  The latter had a different view.  She said that art photography is whatever institutions deem it to be.  This, I thought, was refreshingly plain speaking.  Since she was a specialist in the photography department of Sothebys and is currently writing a book about art photography and the market she  knows, we may conclude, what she is talking about.

Her argument is that the institutional network will determine what is or is not art photography.  That includes galleries, auction houses, museums, critics and so on.   Their view is not random.  Partly it will be based on the pedigree of any given artist – where they studied, who has collected their work, where they have exhibited, what prizes they have won and so on.  The critical distinction seems to be between the photographic world and the art world.  Being successful in the former does not give any status in the latter.  And status in the latter is never absolute: it is constantly shifting.  Much like the fashion world, some people are in and some people aren’t.

What I find interesting about this view is that it suggests that art photography has no intrinsic quality to distinguish it from non-art photography.  Prices, pedigree, critical success and so on may all be indicators but come in the photograph's wake.  What about the work itself?  Is there absolutely nothing that can be pointed to in a photograph that makes it even good rather than indifferent (because “good” must be the first rung on the ladder to “art”)?  Nothing at all?  In the distant days when you eagerly awaited the return of your holiday snaps and you proudly showed them around, one or two would be pronounced “good ones” and even within the circle of family and friends that would usually be agreed upon.  That suggests to me that there is such a thing as Quality in a photograph.  While there may be argument about what it actually is, everyone seems to agree in practice that such a thing does exist.  There is that spontaneous reaction to it as proof.  And if you reply that art knows nothing of good or bad then you are avoiding the question.

The other interesting thing about Juliet Hacking’s view is that it could be expressed in another way: that there is in fact no such thing as art photography in any objective sense. If there is no such thing as quality how could there be? It is the product not of a creative person but of commentators.  It is a purely subjective category based largely on economics and a brahminical caste. 

I’m very much looking forward to reading her book when it comes out.  It sounds as though it will be outspoken, well-informed and iconoclastic.  Where do I order my copy?  

 

TOLSTOY'S RESURRECTION

Tolstoy Writes A Photo

In Tolstoy’s novel ‘Resurrection’ a photograph features as a literary device.  The basic plot is that the well-born Nekhlyudov, as a young man, seduces a maid, Katusha, in his aunts’ household.  She becomes pregnant, is dismissed and spirals downward in society and into prostitution.  Ten years later Nekhlyudov is doing jury service at a murder trial and is horrified to see that the defendant is Katusha.  He is overcome with remorse since he sees his own acts as the source of her downfall; and all the more so when she is mistakenly convicted and sentenced to hard labour.  He decides that he must devote himself to saving her and visits her several times in prison while she awaits transportation to Siberia.  It is during one of those visits that he passes her a photograph of them both in a family group taken at his aunts’ estate before the seduction.    The photo is a minor device that Tolstoy uses to telescope the action, to summarise what has happened over the past 250 pages.  It reminds us of Katusha’s precipitous fall and the invulnerability that Nekhlyudov’s social position confers on him.  Yet it is the way the photo functions between the two characters which is most interesting.  Nekhlyudov must see it as some sort of talisman, something which will raise her spirits.  What a mistake!  When he has gone, Katusha looks fondly at this bent and yellowing reminder of happy times but unsurprisingly her thoughts turn bitter when she considers her present fate and she hides the photo away.   A single photograph provokes smiles, then frowns then anger.  She knows that it was only a decade earlier but it seems to her to be another lifetime.  In these minor details Tolstoy seems to isolate two essential elements of the photograph in daily life: it can collapse time and it can provoke great emotion.   We are in Barthian territory here, only a good half-century earlier.  This is the power of the photo as personal artefact as opposed to its power as dream.

VERBS AND PHOTOBOOKS

Leafing, Reading, Studying?

There is no obvious verb for what you do with a photobook.  Although they usually mimick the physical form of a book of writing you can’t really say that you read them.  So what do you do?  Leafing through is too unengaged.  Studying is too academic.  Browsing sounds like passing time.  The photobook is a strange beast.  To corral photos between covers, eternally arranged in an unalterable sequence of numbered pages seems to consign them to a strange and unnatural fate.  With prose, whether fiction or non-fiction, it works because the sentence, the paragraph, the chapter or indeed the whole work are all linear by nature.  Once you have started you have to keep going along the lines to the end in order to get the full sense.  The same is not true of photographs.  They are much faster through your brain so if you are not disciplined you can be through a photobook in no time at all, and it all seems very unsatisfactory.  My method is to use a display stand such as a small easel.  Having taken a first tilt through the book I then prop it up on the stand and display a page or two a day.  I may follow its sequence or I may not.  Freed from their pen the photos seem to live and breathe more freely.       

LEARNING TO FISH

The Joys Of The Well-Stocked Photolibrary

I am just coming to the end of an MA in Photographic History which I have been taking part-time at De Montfort University in Leicester.  A couple of years ago I was looking around for a way of extending my photographic activities.  I thought about a degree in photography but found the prospectuses offputting.  I made a deal with myself: if I could find one that I understood from beginning to end then I would apply for the course.  I never found one.  But in searching I did come across the MA.  It seemed to address the question that I asked myself every time I took a photograph: what am I doing when I press the shutter button?  What is a photograph?  The MA course looks at that question from many angles: technical, historical, ethnographic, theoretical, anthropological and so on.  Then it teaches you the research methods to come up with your own answer.  It has hugely deepened my understanding of the subject and of  photographic practices even though I am in many ways still only scratching the surface.  Best of all about the course though was that it gave me the chance to browse at will in a well-stocked photographic library.  I have spent hours in that library not only pursuing my researches but also pulling books down almost at random, just because the title appealed to me or the author’s name was vaguely familiar.  Often I branched out into other sections of the library too: design, visual culture, website design, art history, optics, you name it. As I come to the end of the course I can’t help thinking of that quote from Tolstoy: “If you give a man a fish you feed him for a day but if you teach him to fish you feed him for life.” 

 

MENTAL MODELS

Are We Making It All Up?

“Mental models, our conceptual models of the way objects work, or people behave, result from our tendency to form explanations of things…….  Mental models are often constructed from fragmentary evidence with but a poor understanding of what is happening and with a kind of naïve psychology that postulates causes, mechanisms and relationships even where there are none”  (Donald Norman:  The Design of Everyday Things.)

If someone throws a ball and you catch it then you see that as a linear sequence of cause and effect.  Someone throws the ball.  I see it fly through the air.  I move to catch it.  Boom, got it!  But science says, apparently, that it’s not quite so simple.   In the brain’s neural pathways, our visual system makes primary use of the dorsal stream for fast actions and the slower, ventral stream to recognise objects.  So the dorsal stream makes sure that you catch the ball before the ventral stream has seen that it was coming.  If you apply that to photography it seems that it may be possible to press the shutter button a nanosecond before you have seen what you intend to photograph.  That would not by any means be limited to action shots, would it?.  And it may account for that small stab of surprise and then recognition that we get from time to time when we see how one of our photos has come out.

ERIC HOBSBAWM: FRACTURED TIMES

High Art, The Horse, And Photography

Reading Fractured Times by Eric Hobsbawm I find him putting into words something that has often smoked around my brain.  This is the idea that the traditional methods of judging art simply cannot be applied to modern cultural output.  He makes a characteristically striking comparison between traditional bourgeois High Art and the horse.  Once that animal had a very central and useful role in society but that has been displaced by the internal combustion engine.  The horse lives on now only as a luxury for the rich.  Similarly the traditional handmade arts have been made redundant by technological change.  The defining characteristics of creativity now are mass production and mass demand.    What distinguishes this modern creation is its multiplicity – the endless stream of sound, image and text.  Where once the single work would be the unit of attention or critique, what developed in the twentieth century and on was simply endless commentary on that endless production.  It is possible to talk about a photograph in the same way as a painting say, but to what end?  The single work is a thing of the past.  EH does not suggest for a moment that popular culture has no value.  He simply says that it is to Art what the motor car is to the horse.  It creates what he calls an entirely new landscape of the mind.  (This seems to be a remarkably accurate description of the effect of photography.)  In a wonderful phrase EH says that cultural commentators are unwilling to admit this general truth “because no class of people is enthusiastic about writing its own obituary”.  Cracking!

ERNST HAAS (2)

I’ve just finished looking through ‘Ernst Haas - Colour Correction’ a collection of the photographer’s work first published in 2011 and which I mentioned in an earlier piece below.  There are apparently 200,000 slides in the Haas archive so we can expect perhaps further volumes if this one is a success (and it was reprinted in 2016).

I found leafing through the book to be a sensuous experience.  Colour has that effect on me rather more than black and white.  Several of the images sent me into reverie.  The others were mostly interesting in a technical sense: speculating about how he achieved the effects that he did and thinking about why some had more impact than others.

The text going with the images took a familiar route through historical context – who knew whom and who influenced whom and who ignored whom.  The suggestion is that after his first MoMA show (proposed and curated by Edward Steichen) he was dropped by John Szarkowski.   Woven into this account is an aesthetic assessment, technical detail, wider context and quotations: you get a pinball effect as the subject skitters from one of these to the next. Finding the language in which to talk about a series of photos is a constant challenge even to those who do it professionally.

ERNST HAAS (1)

I've just been looking at 'Color Correction' - a volume of the non-commercial colour photography of Ernst Haas.  He says somewhere: "For me, photography became a language with which I have learnt to write both prose and poetry."

That is a very interesting idea - that photography can be divided into the equivalent of verse and prose.  Perhaps he meant that his commercial work was the prose side, some kind of linear process which marched relentlessly to a predictable conclusion. The poetry would then be something more abstract and affective:  images which made their way by association or allusion.  It is these latter which make up the volume I have been looking at.

Maybe there is something in the distinction.  On the other hand, prose can be just as allusive as poetry and rum-ti-tum poetry can be just as predictable as some prose.  All photographs both depict and allude and that is less true of words which tend to direct one's thoughts rather more firmly.    In the end EH's distinction can go only so far.  The potency of the photograph will always set it apart from words.