Contemporary Photography in Asia
Rinko Kawauchi: Illuminace, Ametsuchi, Seeing Shadow
I've received two handsome books of current black and white photography, just before the holidays.
The first was MONO Volume One, edited by Luca Desienna (of Gomma magazine) and released in 2012 as the first part of a proposed trilogy (A Kickstarter project for Volume Two also shows a video that includes paging through the first volume).
The second, smaller book was BLACK FOREST, edited by Russell Joslin (of SHOTS magazine) and just now available. BLACK FOREST is not entirely in black and white, though the color fraction is desaturated and small.
MONO is organized as short portfolios by an individual photographer -- BLACK FOREST is organized into four “visible poems” of Joslin’s devising, with contributions by many photographers. Thus the smaller book includes the works of more artists. At least one (Roger Ballen) can be found in both books.
For each portfolio or visual poem, there is a brief and self-consciously cryptic poem-sized intro text. I am generally mistrustful of such props. They can be safely ignored here.
Both books exhibit a considerable love of blackness. This might be a by-product of modern book-printing practice, but both contain not only photos with tones that sink down below the page but the images are often presented against black, and many pages that bear no photos are also inked over.
The blackness suits both volumes’ interest in nostalgic, dreamlike states: dreams, like photographs, can seem vividly real, yet in nearly all these photos, as in dreaming, the realistic depiction is thwarted by defiances of physics, surrealist-like dissonant combinations of scale, of objects, animals, masks, realigned gravity, uncharted woods, skulls, paint-spattered walls, naked flesh and drapery. There’s a baroque quality to the extremity of detail.
Nearly all the work is made in the studio, or in controlled locations, really with only a single exception, Trent Parke’s portfolio in MONO. The notion of the camera as a window onto the world, or of the world as a supplier of image elements, is absent here.
The internet is first and foremost for shopping. So which of these books is most worthy of your cash? While I like MONO’s affordance of a deeper look at one artist’s imagery at a time, BLACK FOREST (which is also actually available!) suits me better. That said, I’ll still pony-up the speculative 29 quid for a copy of the upcoming MONO Volume Two.
The pictures show a recent bargain toy -- a 7-inch Pandigital Novel eReader (aka "PDN," or "WPDN" to specify the white variant), re-flashed to expose its Android underpinnings and updated to Android 2.1 "Eclair." I managed to pick this one up during a recent clearance at the nearby chain store Kohl's for a tidy $59 (apparently, a few folks even managed to get a $20-off deal -- an Android tablet for $40!). Even at the more-usual price of $199 the Novel is no iPad, but at that price you could by three or four of them (or at the discount, a dozen or more!) for the price of a single iPad (Addendum: Apparently they sold 440,000 PDN's in 2010). So here's a quick review of my experience thus far:
Pandigital are known as much for their digital picture frames as for their e-Readers, and the Novel kind of feels less like a slowed-down computer and more like a turbocharged picture frame. This suits its designated purpose: as a full-color eReader. Not a game machine, or a media center, though in fact it's quite capable of playing YouTube videos or being a music player if the mood should strike you to use it that way. But really the CPU wasn't designed for rapid-fire screen updates. It's a device built around a slower, simpler, long-attention-span sort of experience.
I've got several different devices on hand for comparison, including current iPhone, iPad, a couple of new and old Android phones, and various other small computers, MIDs, readers, and so forth. Given this environment, these are the things that stand out about the Novel:
So what's it good for?
Principally, it's good for its chartered design tasks: reading eBooks and light web browsing. For these, it's excellent. By stripping-away the default Pandigital/Barnes&Noble skin (re-flashing doesn't delete these features, but simply makes them companion apps within the Android Home screen), the full range of Android apps can be seen and tried. I've found that the combination of wi-fi and Google books, Aldiko, & Kindle apps, along with Google Reader and the Skyfire browser, makes it more capable that any other reader save high-end tablets like the iPad or Galaxy Tab.
More from The Cruel Radiance:
In 1986, the critic Andy Grundberg observed that postmodern photography “implies the exhaustion of the image universe: it suggests that a photographer can find more than enough images already existing in the world without the bother of making new ones.”
Perhaps telling is that a list of Grundberg's articles for the New York Times is dominated less by art criticism and more by obituaries: Irving Penn, Julius Schulmann, Arnold Newman, Gordon Parks, Avedon, Ellen Auerbach, Carl Mydans, Eddie Adams.
Which brings us to his difficulties with the very much living Robert Bergman (PDF):
...there’s a temptation to dismiss Bergman’s pictures as latter-day Bowery Bum photography... Perhaps the ambition is for our regard of the pain of others to make us more attuned to human suffering in general (come back, Susan Sontag, please), but this aim is attenuated by our prior experience of pictures in the same vein. We might expect anyone conversant with recent photographic practice to know this as an existing critical problem, which leaves us with a far less ennobled idea of what is afoot here: that Bergman is out to convince us that he is a great photographer. Unfortunately, he has appeared a half-century too late
Since when is a critical problem part of "photographic practice"? Grundberg seems to be thrashing about in his cage, unable to take in the idea that Bergman's photos are full of beauty and power despite the fact that Grundberg can't place them anywhere in his neatly compartmentalized Theory of Photography save to call them "untrained" and "fifty years too late."
Hang it up, Andy, if you can't see the pictures but only their place on your org chart.
And Bergman is a great photographer. Too bad you think that's so, like, Over.
In the immediate world, everything is to be discerned..with the whole of consciousness, seeking to perceive it as it stands: so that the aspect of a street in sunlight can roar in the heart of itself as a symphony, perhaps as no symphony can: and all consciousness is shifted from the imagined, the revisive, to the effort to perceive simply the cruel radiance of what is." - James Agee
PS: In writing this entry I found this response to Grundberg's review, from David Levi Strauss: "Grundberg’s main complaint is a bureaucratic one—that this artist should not be recognized because he was not vetted by the proper authorities."
Last night I grabbed the growing stack of unopened issues of Aperture off the living room magazine rack and started in at them. On top was the current issue, which contained an except from Susie Linfield's The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence. I'll excerpt from their excerption:
This is a book of criticism, not theory [...] It is written, in large part, against the photography criticism of Susan Sontag. [...] who was responsible for establishing a tone of suspicion and distrust in photographic criticism, and for teaching us that to be smart about photographs means to disparage them.
Another, longer except can be found here.
I find it telling that on an earlier page of Aperture we're treated to quotes from World Press Photo judges Adam Broomberg & Olier Chanarin's "Unconcerned by not Indifferent" (PDF link), an essay that, in what feels like true Sontag fashion, declares photojournalism as practiced a failure: "...the profession has turned us into voyeurs, passively consuming these images."
Broomberg and Chanarin have a catalog of editorial cliches, much like that collected by Dianne Hagaman in her essay on sports photojournalism while judging the 46th Annual POY competition, "The Joy of Victory, the Agony of Defeat: Stereotypes in Newspaper Sports Feature Photographs." B&C describe a stream of predictably editor-pleasing images:
Flicking through the 81,000 images originally submitted a sense of deja vu is inevitable. Again and again similar images are repeated, with only the actors and settings changing. Grieving mothers, charred human remains, sun sets, women giving birth, children playing with toy guns, cock fights, bull fights, Havana street scenes, reflections in puddles, reflections in windows, football posts in unlikely locations, swaddled babies, portraits taken through mosquito nets, needles in junkies’ arms, derelict toilets, Palestinian boys throwing stones, contorted Chinese gymnasts, Karl Lagerfeld, models preparing for fashion shows backstage, painted faces, bodies covered in mud, monks smoking cigarettes, pigeons silhouetted against the sky, Indian Sardus, children leaping into rivers, pigs being slaughtered.
To their credit, B&C appear to be more concerned that the industrial mechanism of photojournalism has failed, rather than the power of images themselves. The World Press rules force a streamlined decontextualisation of images, perhaps to make them more credibly "artistic" by insisting that a photo with a caption is inferior to a captioned one -- which is just blindingly blind.
The camera has always been a mechanization of representation. While it's possible to make random squiggles on photo paper with a laser pointer, that's still drawing with photographic materials, not photography. There can be no photo without a subject, without a relationship of the photographer and the viewer to that subject (and in commercial contexts, we must include, somehow the redactive eyes of the editors and publishers and Google search). To strip this away, in journalism, is just astounding.
Okay, photography does not eliminate War, or Suffering. Not with big W's and S's, anyway. But to declare the struggle lost is surely wrongheaded as well. I can definitely say that my own actions supporting Médecin Sans Frontiers (simple, small actions, involving simply writing an occasional checque) were in very large part informed and driven by photographic revelation. Are such victories not enough for the theorists? Must they have all or nothing?
There is a larger trend which is unaddressed by enterprises like World Press: the growing ability for photography in the hands of non-journalists to have an effect that can't be controlled or mediated by professional journalists or their editors and publishers or governments. I'm not just talking about images like those made at Abu Ghraib, where journalists with cameras didn't have access -- but those in the Iranian streets and elsewhere, photos that shot themselves out into the world without the fatherly hand of The New York Times to tell us that they were important.
I'm currently most hopeful about this new path for "photojournalism"-- not really an appropriate word -- as a great leveling force. Does this mean I celebrate the end of the pros? Not at all, and I think there are still many roles for them that play to their strengths. But there is more that an image can do than be a rectangle in a commercial news source.
Color study shot for Rift: Planes of Telara
Earlier this week we were privileged to have painter & storyteller James Gurney visit the art department at Trion, both to have him speak with us and also for us to get a chance to show him our game. He's best-know to the public for the Dinotopia books (favorites at our house for many years -- See See & I were also lucky enough to see the Dinotopia show at the Norton Museum in Palm Beach a few months back), and known to a lot of artists for his blog and several art technique books, including the new Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter.
We got the chance to look at some advance copies of the book and also hear him talk a little bit about (among many other things!) how the brain processes color and luminance separately -- which of course reminded me of this old post on the Black and White Brain. It's exciting to me to see someone as accomplished as Gurney coming at the same ideas from a different direction and for different purpose.
It's been several years now where I find that some of the biggest sources of information for my work in computer-graphic coloring and shading come not from computer scientists or even other people doing similar work -- instead, they come from painters. Not just realist painters, either. Gradations, highlighting, punctuation, contrast, shape -- increasingly I think of shading as a sort of painting-without-drawing.
Photoquotes has recently put up Berenice Abbott's 1951 essay, "Photography at the Crossroads." Mentioned twice already here on Photorant, it's the same essay reprinted in The Education of a Photographer (which is now also indexed on Google books).
So you needn't take my word for it:
"The stale vogue of drowning in technique and ignoring content adds to the pestilence and has become, for many, part of today’s general hysteria..."
There is little that can lead you to treasure good photography than to look at a lot of bad photography, interspersed with an occasional gem. Which is exactly what I was doing a few weeks ago on (where else?) flickr, where I was editing group pools.
When I started the New Black and White group, back in flickr's early pre-yahoo fog, there were no editing or moderation tools, it was slow and painstaking to remove each and every pic I felt didn't belong. And at first that was fine, as there were very few pics submitted. Two or three a day. I stopped messing with it, left it fallow -- came back to find a thousand pictures.
Edited those down to a few dozen, watched it fill up quickly again. Eventually the flood was far more than I could manage as anything less than a full-time job, so I ignored it for months until there were more than 55,000 photos in the pool, most of them "flickr noise" of the cute kitten variety.
Rather than even try to deal with all that, I started another group, Contemporary Black and White, and invited a few select members. I thought: at least I don't need to edit them (and I don't -- they've been contributing good stuff). But then I started wondering about the old one.....
...could I realistically edit-down the 50,000+ photos to a little kernel, throwing away 90% or more of them? Only one way to find out....
So I did. It took time, it took special tools, it took regular attacks. I worked in blocks of from 1000 to 3000 photos. As time passed, it was quick enough to see how many really endlessly-repeating tropes there were, each trotted out over and again and usually accompanied by plenty of enthusiastic flickr badges and boosting comments (especially if the photo involved a pretty girl).
As soon as I started deleting, of course, the hate emails started coming in. What was interesting, if not surprising, was that some of the worst "offenders" -- by that I mean people whose "NB&W" photos were dull, often not even black and white, and massively spam-posted all over flickr -- were the most strident of the protesters. A handful of them diffidently pulled their photos (by the hundreds) from the pool. Thank you for saving me so much time! I thought, but also couldn't help but believe that they genuinely thought they were doling-out a punishment, as if I would somehow be harmed by no longer being able to view (and congratulate) their hundreds of bare-tree-on-the-plains snaps ("Don't bother replying back as I'm blocking you." too).
Photography, especially as practiced socially on the internet, is as vulnerable as any craft to the curious backwards-expectation principle: that is, for any skill, the very best people are constantly self-critical and pushing, always knowing that they could do better -- while the weakest practitioners are quite securely smug in their belief that they've got everything licked, under control, no need to reflect or review except to roll in adulations.
In internet-style photography, this is reinforced to a staggering degree, if only because so much of photography, as generally practiced, is about flattery -- just like most online social networks.
In the aforementioned 1951 article, Berenice Abbott places the blame for photography's emphasis on flattery on the proto-pictorialist photographer Henry Peach Robinson, the creator of the famous Victorian melodrama photo "Fading Away," and most especially on his book Pictorial Photography (A sample: "It is an old canon of art, that every scene worth painting must have something of the sublime, the beautiful, or the picturesque. By its nature, photography can make no pretensions to represent the first, but beauty can be represented by its means and picturesqueness has never had so perfect an interpreter."). Personally I don't think he can quite be credited for human vanity, but the gun's still a little smoky.
It doesn't really matter where it came from, but the belief is rampant that "good" photography equals "flattering" (this was exactly the criterion given to me a recent local photo class, a class which also extolled the works of Yousef Karsh as expressing the highest of all photographic virtues). It's a flattery that aims both ways: if your pic is flattering, then it is "good" which flatters the photographer.
The cycle starts there: the photos are flattering, and deserving therefore of flattery, and flattery leads to flattery leads to flickr badges and group invitations and should a tiny shred of actual daylight get into the party the guests will be in a ruinous uproar over its harsh direct brightness.
Not that the angry messages bothered me after the first thousand photos. I stopped informing, just went at it deleting. Didn't look at the names, didn't look at anything but the pics. And saw the same two dozen shots over, and over, and over...
I started to catalog them for a while: "...cute cats, adorable soft-toned children, footprints in the sand at the beach, misty time exposures of water, streets and railroads stretching off into the distance, casual snapshots, rusting cars, ruined castles, silhouetted trees, tele shots of resting seabirds, trees and unidentifiable silhouetted figures in fog, photos of backs of heads, (abandoned) factories, tourist destinations, parked bicycles, wide-angle upshots of skyscrapers, cathedral ceilings and windows, photos of camera collections, geometric airport ceilings, exterior stairways, wistful old statues, people looking bored while drinking coffee, interesting architectural details in closeup, sunlit spiderwebs..." it was actually a relief to leave in at least a few flattering model shots, if only because they weren't another empty craggy landscape.
For the sake of completeness (no, just to be random) I kept some in place, throwing away the OTHER photos just to keep runs of clichéd ones: say, thirty black trees on white (URL approximate), or twenty men with hats, or 30 shots of animals -- in order. Moderators can't rearrange the photos, I could only do this by eliminating the pix between how many runs of shots were just the same, same, same.
What none of the protesters did is what would have redeemed them. Despite repeated patient invitations in the face of their ad hominem vitriol, not one of them was willing to say why their photo deserved consideration, why it was special or worth anyone's time to view. Not one.
I can't help but feel the person who has benefited most from the exercise, though the obvious result is a much better pool of photos, is me -- seeing in a deep way, night after night for weeks, just how many "gorgeous!!" photos are really not worth a second glance and how many of them are in the same narrow predictable range that have been little-changed since the 1860's. Now the real challenge: remembering to avoid them myself while still making photos. At least photos I'd bother putting on the web.
So many good books recently, and some good ones that I've never sung about here though I've had them for many months. There has been a special bounty of books that have no or very few photos, though they are indeed photography books. I'd like to mention four (well, four and a half) of them.
And a video.
Philip Perkis's The Sadness of Men, a true "photobook," is one of those books that has grown on me through multiple visits, until it has become one of my favorites. The pictures often need to be given time. I was a bit underwhelmed at first, despite my adoration for Perkis's and his short book Teaching Photography, Notes Assembled. which he's now put on Lulu for $19.99. I had gone too fast. Notes Assembled is short enough to read quickly during a long lunch and will reward with nourishment enough even then -- but like his photo book, it rewards repeated thoughtful chewing. Broken into a number of little anecdotes and short meditations, assignments, and puzzles, Notes comes from his experience of teaching for many years, and also includes a short passage on critiques that I think should be widely circulated (it's on pages 47-49 -- only page 48 is visible in the Google Books preview, though it contains a critical passage about practice... I've copied it below).
Perkis teaches in a university setting (and, recently, at ICP), and I expect that plenty of his experience comes from teaching university students who are less interested in photography per se than they are interested in getting their Humanities distribution requirements out of the way. This is rather different from teaching at workshops or exclusively in advanced programs, where one can be reasonably sure that the students are motivated by some desire to create and discover. Perkis starts at the root, in his exercise #1: "Go to a museum. Find a photograph that interests you. Look at it for five minutes. Don't take your eye off the picture."
No lenses, f/stops, chemistry, electronics. Don't take your eye off the picture.
Picking up a camera shows up around exercise #5.
A similar sentiment animates John Blakemore's Black and White Photography Workshop. Sure, he's going to get around to the Zone System and split-contrast printing and how the principles all map to digital but -- he spends the first half of the book talking about pictures, about photography's strength and bane, the inescapable subject, about the process of thinking and revising and rethinking and trying and discovering. Oh yeah, and here's some technical stuff to support that.
On top of it, there are some great Blakemore photos in here, and this is the cheapest way to see them, as copies of his Stilled Gaze are running in the hundreds of dollars on the usual used-book sites. In the meantime, I managed to pick up a new but remaindered copy of Black and White Workshop for a mere $3.95, a price that seems downright criminally cheap.
Back in the let's-just-talk camp, the Charles Traub-/Stephen Heller-/Adam Bell-edited The Education of a Photographer constitutes another book based on years of teaching. And like the others, it largely ignores technology as merely a fact of the photographer's life. In his foreword Heller writes that "while photography students had a wealth of material on the technique, technology, history, and theory of photography, there was a surfeit of inspirational and informative material on what it means to be a photographer." Other than the foreword, Traub's introduction and Bell's one-page afterword, the editors are largely absent from the visible stage -- the book is composed of the writings of others on photography and photographers -- always with the practitioner themselves front and center, either as the subject of someone else's writing, interviewing, or the photographer is writing for themselves (including an excerpt from Perkis's book).
Here we have Rodchenko, Levitt, Model, Brodovitch, Sultan, Wall, Crewdson -- an excellent selection of personal glimpses, even in a few cases where the glimpse has to be a bit sideways given the artist's indirectness or playful obfuscation (hi Garry). I found Clarissa Sligh's "The Plaintiff Speaks" would be moving writing even if I had no particular interest in photography. There are also some clips that can't help but raise a familiar smile among modern flickerati when we read Berenice Abbot's 1951 anxiety about too much concern over flattering, "pretty pictures" (placing the blame all the way back to Henry Peach Robinson's 1869 Pictorial Photography) or Ralph Hattersley's 1962 protests against "undercooked and nonsensical" "critiques" such as:
Perhaps conspicuous in their absence are the pictorial and f/64 canons and their famously-talkative members. Calvino, but no Cameron. Warhol, but no Weston. Which suits me fine.
Finally, a book with a lot of pictures -- Joe McNally's The Moment it Clicks, which aims most squarely at the punchy, colorful, readable-at-all-sizes, celeb-heavy sort of photography that magazine layout directors and web site media managers love. The book has been already widely pitched and hyped all over the internet, with good enough reason: McNally's pictures are appealing, many of them familiar, and his clean though tech-centric style is one that's perfectly aligned with the commercial ambitions of thousands of Canon and Nikon customers -- the same people that he has been pitching in workshops for years. He includes the technical details, which is invaluable for those who would like to learn that craft. He knows his audience, and he so clearly genuinely enjoys what he does, what's to dislike? Nothing. As my friend Jeff Pidgeon once said so succinctly: nothing to offend everyone.
Addendum: It's tragic that McNally's strongest work, imo, isn't in the book -- not easily crowd-pleasing, perhaps? A great remedy is to spend an hour and watch this great video of Joe McNally lecturing a week or two ago at Google in Mountain View.
A few rules and principles that are quite strict.
- No rudeness
- No competition
- No telling the artist what the work means about them (a critique is not psychotherapy)
- The class chooses what work will be talked about (Students should feel free to ask that their work be dealt with because they need feedback). No need to address every work in every class.
Here's the main principle:
The person whose work is being addressed can answer factual questions in the beginning, i.e., where was the picture made, what film, lens, etc. They can say nothing about intention, content, or other meaning. At this time, the rest of the group can say anything they like about the work, be it craft, aesthetics, politics, art history, et al. The are free to say anything. They can report associations in their minds, dreams and fantasies as long as it's about the work and not about the person who made the work.
Something very interesting starts to take place if this is done with openness and intelligence; the student is getting real information about what their work is communicating to a group of people who are being as honest and caring as possible. This information is for the use of the student and they can do anything they want with it. The work never has to be defended, justified, or explained. At this point, if a student wants to talk about the work just discussed, they can do so as much as they would like, and a long back and forth discussion can take place.
The role of the teacher in this process is to moderate, and to be a participant along with everyone else.
The sole purpose of the critique is for students to gain insight about their work and have information that will help them proceed to the next stage of development. As a group works together from week to week, a level of trust and understanding can develop so that people are more willing to take chances both in the discussion, but more importantly, in their work. Then you've really done something worthwhile.
It is vitally important for the group, and especially the teacher, to make clear the difference between fact (a smaller aperture gives more depth of field) and opinion (this picture has a violent edge). Making this difference clear allows the discussion to range much bigger.
I've been squinting through the details of Things As They Are: Photojournalism in Context Since 1955, another of those books I've been procrastinating at cracking. While uncredited to him, in a way this book was one of the last to fall under the shadow of John Szarkowski, who challenged the editors: "I share your hope... that your exhibition and book will be more than one more fat compendium of the pictures that editors expect photographers to make." I think they've had some really admirable success in this book.
While there are plenty of very notable exceptions, such as Raul Corrales, Peter Magubane, and even Gene Smith, I was struck by the fact that so many times strong vision comes from people who are non-natives to what they see -- whether it be Raymond Depardon, Robert Frank, or William Albert Allard. I was having a conversation recently with a friend who was raised in one culture, educated in multiple others, and who lives a quiet life here in the Bay Area today. It's speculation on my part, but we discussed the value of not speaking the language, of not having a set of shared and pre-coded expectations and assumptions. One may be inherently inclined to see only what's there, what's visible -- not to recognize the supposed identity and accepted meanings. It's induced childhood, ignorance that opens your eyes.
Here's hoping, anyway. In three weeks I will be back in Japan, hopefully not getting entirely bogged-down by visits to the bookstore.
An hour after posting this, I ran into this most unlikely newspaper photography.
When Gursky was here at SFMOMA a couple of years back, he commented that he had met the CEO of K-Mart, who also had a (probably "real" and pricey) print of "99 Cent Store" in his office. It was left ambiguous as to whether the exec felt that the photo criticized or glorified its subject... a little less ambiguous in Stallworth's discovery?
I reminds me too of the days of ancient Pixar, before Toy Story, when advertisers would repeatedly approach the studio with what they considered their Big Idea: they had seen Luxo Jr. Their quick-reacting repitilian brains had smelled food and would Pixar please do another spot just like the one that Pixar had done for the Luxo company, only for product XYZ? They simply couldn't imagine that the film had been made for any reason other than to sell more lamps.
(I actually have no idea if it had any actual effect on the sales of real-world Luxo lamps, but that was not remotely the film's intent -- the only intent was to entertain, using Pixar's then-new pre-RenderMan renderer)
This idea of wrongly-perceived purpose opens a narrow window on a problem that seems inherent with any sort of mass media -- its existence automatically valorizes any subject, even when the intent of the maker may be to condemn (a situation not inherent in Gursky -- he is usually rather deliberate in his neutrality, at least when speaking about his images). Thus "anti-gangster" films like Scarface are idolized by gangsta wanna-be's, proliferating celphone videos of misogynist "honor killings" promote more of the same, books of war photos become promoted to politely-fascinating coffee-table items, or used as images not to prevent war but to foment and celebrate it. One man's horror made into another's grand circus.
Always the old twisting knot of intent and effect. Natchwey has said he feels compelled to make the very best photos he can, with every aesthetic tool he can muster, out of respect for the people he photographs and their situations. Salgado does the same thing and gets criticized for "aesthetic anaesthesia," that somehow presenting his subjects in a compelling way wraps them up in Too Much Art. How much is too much? Does less reduce the value to the subject? The more you wriggle, the tighter the knot gets. Andreas? Ed? Henri?
I have been picking, one by one, through the many many MANY unread blog posts that have been steadily accruing in my bloglines feeds. The numbers have been intimidating. Alec Soth, 65 posts. Ed Kashi, 28 posts. Joerg Colberg, 158 posts.... even a long backlog of What the Duck. And that's just the "Shoot Me" folder. It goes on and on. I haven't even dared to get started on the flickr feeds.
These things creep up on me because I want to read in detail and my circumstances so rarely give me time and focus for anything more than a glance. And then the lists grow and keep growing while I'm trying to make time for it.
The experience pricks at a notion I've been having about just how much really, really great imagery there is in the world today. There are ways of coping, like trusting in editorial vision, at least hoping that it will be grand. You can try to be your own editor, which was the point of the Bloglines feeds. But I worry that perhaps even the greatest work just really becomes a blur -- that even at the highest levels there gets to be so much great imagery that the human capacity for distinguishing great from greater is overwhelmed & the only thing left to distinguish anything is the depth and volume of its promotional machinery.
It's been likewise apparent to me that at many of the sites with the busiest posters, there are also many busy commenters, who often seem to be in a bum's-rush against one another to comment often and early. It leaves me curious about the dynamic of the whole enterprise, and the huge impatience of it seems so antithetical to the charters of photography and art-making in general. I have to wonder, for sites like, oh, Conscientious or Mrs Deane (or non-art sites like Corante), just how steep is the dropoff in readership over the first few hours? If today's post gets a hundred hits today, how many does yesterday's post get today? Two? And what about the post from the day before?
A lot of the posts Ive been reading tonight, from the last couple of months, are cross-links and opinions and reprints of obituaries of John Szarkowski. By coincidence, this morning while visiting my office I found a shrink-wrapped copy of his book The Photographer's Eye, a copy I had purchased months ago from Amazon and that had gotten buried under paperwork on my desk. The book hammers home to me the largely-unchanging and well-determined nature of photography itself, and makes me wonder what all the hurry is about. In his introduction, Szarkowski digs out a passage from Nathaniel Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables on making Daguerreotype portraits: "We give [heaven's broad and simple sunshine] credit only for depicting the merest surface, but it actually brings out the secret character with a truth that no painter would ever venture upon, even if he could detect it... the remarkable point is that the original wears, to the world's eye... an exceedingly pleasant countenance, indicative of benevolence, openness of heart, sunny good humour, and other praiseworthy qualities of that cast. The sun, as you see, tells quite another story, and will not be coaxed out of it, after half a dozen patient attempts on my part. Here we have a man, sly, subtle, hard, imperious, and withal, cold as ice."
Compare a century later: "Everybody has this thing where they need to look one way but they come out looking another way and that's what people observe... Our whole guise is like giving a sign to the world to think of us in a certain way, but there's a point between what you want people to know about you and what you can't help people knowing about you. And that has to do with what I've always called the gap between intention and effect." -- Dianne Arbus
I will be returning to San Diego on Monday, to see the Dead Sea Scrolls, Legoland, to re-visit the Callahan exhibit in Balboa Park and to have some fun with the family. Drop a line if you're around...