Category Archives: Aesthetics

Unfortunately There’s No Free Lunch

The cause of these ruminations

I’m currently housebound in Raleigh, North Carolina- 4:00 PM, raining like hell outside, iTunes blasting Neil Young’s Cinnamon Girl through headphones while working through my third snifter of  Woodford Reserve Bourbon, a bottle of which a friend was foolish enough to leave here the other night with the promise that it’d be here the next time he visits (the bottle most certainly will be).  I’m printing work prints on an Epson R3000 for an exhibition I’ve entitled Car Window. There’s a couple of things presently on my  mind other than the fact that I’m glad my friend was dumb enough to leave his bottle of bourbon in my possession: first, how is it possible that the music I’m currently blasting from my iTunes account sounds so god-awful compared to what I used listen to with my Marantz amp and KLH speakers, way back in the ice-age of the 70’s?

I thought technological innovation i.e. digitization was going to revolutionize my hi-fidelity listening experience? Didn’t happen, not even close; go listen to the album I’m currently listening to – Neil Young’s Everyone Knows This is Nowhere – on vinyl on any half-decent turntable, amp and speakers, and then listen to it run thru iTunes as an mp3 and you’ll be shocked at the diminunition in audio quality we now accept as a given in the interests of quick and easy. It pisses me off when I think of the vinyl collection I once had – the usual 60’s and 70’s era Rock and Roll, but also an impressive collection of 50’s and 60’s era jazz: Coltrane, Rollins, Shorter, Monk, Gordon, Adderley, Webster, Coleman, Ellington, Miles Davis, Bill Evans – all now mp3 files on my computer and phone, pushed out through earbud headphones or streamed through my Apple TV to the attached Bose sound system, where they sound like shit – thin, tinny, screechy, hollow – whenever you try to play them at a decent volume (if ever there was a song that deserved to played loud, it’s Cinnamon Girl).

Car Window prints.  All shot with a film camera. Not sharp, bad corners, harsh bokeh.

Of course, ruminating about hi-fidelity leads me logically to the next subject, the fact that the prints I’m producing, while nice enough by current digital standards, just don’t have the depth and fullness of a comparable silver print printed in a darkroom, the tonal transitions just a little too abrupt, the obvious sharpness somehow slightly unpleasant to a discerning eye. In their defense, they certainly are easier to produce. No nasty chemicals, endless repeatability as opposed to the laborious reproducibility of a fine silver print. And those born into the digital era probably won’t even understand the differences.

A few years ago, while in Los Angeles, I saw a Walker Evans exhibition of his 1930’s Cuba photos at the Getty. Gorgeous 8×10 silver contact prints, one in particular, a frontal portrait of a Cuban stevedore that just blew me away with its simple beauty. That’s it, to the left, where, reproduced digitally and viewed on a computer monitor, it’s just another picture of some guy, nothing special. Were I to post it to some forum for critique I’m sure critics would take issue with any number of things – the framing, the lighting, the sharpness, the lack of acceptable bokeh etc etc, the usual herd animal opinions. Luckily, I saw that same print again in Paris this past Summer at the Evans exhibition at the Pompidou Center. So simple, yet profoundly arresting, impossible to look at and appreciate through the facile categories of sharpness, resolution, ease of capture, repeatabilty. It was a singular work that someone had laboriously produced in a darkroom. Art of the highest order, the exquisite confluence of singular critical decisions by Walker as to both construction and production, things that took time and thought and energy, all things the digital age promised us we could do without in our mad rush for the quick and easy.

I’ve been to my share of art exhibits and museums in my 59 years, and I can think of a number of times when I was profoundly moved by a work of art – Walker’s Cuban Stevedore, the van Gogh self-portrait at the Fogg Museum At Harvard, a huge Jackson Pollack I saw in Paris, Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus in the Uffizi in Florence, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel in the Vatican – all of them the product of a slow, discriminating  process of creation, the very processes that the digital era promises to liberate us from.  Of course, I look at myself in the mirror and see, surprisingly, just another old man, my opinions considered by the current digital generation the sad ravings of a man who’s era has come and gone. Fair enough. But remember, there’s no ‘free lunch;’ everything you gain is purchased at the cost of something else. Consider that when you’re upgrading your Nikon D whatever every two years, or you’re listening to your music with those shitty earbuds or you’re running your plastic-looking digital photos through Silver Efex. Everything has its price.

What Do You See?

 I love the photo above. It’s one of a small number of photos I come back to when I review what I’ve done (…and yes, I took it with a Leica, an M8). Which is interesting, because most viewers will scan it visually and move on without much further thought. Aesthetically it’s properly done; were I to submit it to an art school critique, viewers would probably say it’s competently framed, formally interesting, if i’m lucky might use rhetorical cliches like “original,” “strong”, authentic.” Some with a picturesque bent might quibble about the decisions I’ve made, noting the pole that divides up the horizontal plane in a way upsetting to the rule bound. I can see someone saying it’s interesting… but what’s it supposed to be about? I can hear the critique moderator now talking of the mirroring of the pole by the crosses…or maybe the crosses by the pole, a commentary on man’s need to be heard etc (if you’ve ever endured an art critique you know how pretentious they can be; my standard response when I’m asked what a photo or painting “means” is to say I don’t know. That’s for the viewer to decide).

Art School Cool, circa 1977. I’m pretty sure my standing there with those crescent moons over my head was meant to mean something – what I no longer remember. I probably went to CBGB’s that night to see the Talking Heads.

As I’ve presented the photo here, without context, the “subject ” is what you will make of it. You have only the photo and whatever interpretive scheme might be floating around in your head to make sense of what you see. That’s the interesting thing about the supposedly “objective ” craft of photography. There’s an undeniable subjective element to what we do as viewers of ostensibly “objective” photographs. Your interpretation will vary depending on the formal arrangement, the context in which it’s presented to you, the knowledge and biases you bring to the viewing. While I find most post-modernist theory turgid and incomprehensible, it’s gotten one thing right – the meaning of things, whether it be a writing (a “text” in PM parlance) or a visual representation, whether a photo, drawing or painting, resides with the reader/viewer. The meaning of the photo you view depends on you. And that’s why, presented as it is to you – little context, no explanation- you might struggle to make sense of it or appreciate it in the manner I might. You might like it, hate it, be indifferent to it, depending on what criteria you bring to your viewing and how unmoored its presentation.

*************

Which leads to the following reality: the means I use to present my picture is crucial to how you will understand the photo. Effective presentation is the responsibility of the photographer, and it’s what separates the successful from the frustrated. I can publish it in a newspaper or hang it on a gallery wall, or glue it into a scrapbook, whatever choice I make signaling to the viewer what I’d like you to think about the picture. I can write a caption that identifies the objective facts of the photo [Route 61, Mississippi Delta, Leica M8];  I can go further and write a caption that puts the photo in context for you [...in Money, Mississippi, about 50 yards from where 14 y/o Emmett Till allegedly whistled at a white woman and set in motion a murder that would change American history]; I might simply place it within a sequence of other photos inviting you, by process of induction, to surmise a common thread that links those sequenced into a larger whole which both helps you interpret the individual photo while imparting a larger meaning on the collection itself. The important thing is that in each individual case, the meaning is extrinsically imposed on the photo. The single photo without context means nothing. The good photographer understands that a large part of his obligation to the viewer is to put his photos in a context that assists the viewer in making sense of the photo.

Mississippi Delta.  Same day, same camera as the first photo. Ultimately chosen for the same photo series. Does this help you make sense of the initial photo?

I suppose this explains why we might differ so radically in what we consider good photography, and it points to the difference between a naive and a sophisticated understanding of photographic quality. Naive photo critiques judge a photo on its technical and formal arrangements [Is it sharp? In focus? Good tonal values? Composition pleasing? Rule of thirds applied etc]. This is the world of gearhead forums and Flickr, the reason we chase after the newest Fuji X body with the new super-duper sensor, thinking something a little better will make the difference. Stay at this level and you’ll become a proficient photographic artisan. A more educated approach looks only to whether the photo communicates a compelling meaning. It’s also why naive photo artisans tend to be confused by and dismissive of the best things being done in the field at any given time – not only are they passing judgment with inappropriate criteria, they usually don’t possess the knowledge, experience and discernment borne of broad thinking to conjure a sufficient meaning from a work, a meaning that turns the picture into something more.

 

Transcribing the Real – Part One

Above is a photograph that immediately caught my eye among the mass of photos coming out of Las Vegas in the wake of the insanity there. It was taken by Chase Stevens, a staff photographer with the LV Review-Journal. At the risk of aestheticising other people’s misfortune, it’s a beautiful photo in its own way in addition to having documentary value. Were I to know nothing about Mr. Stevens, I’d assume he’s familiar with Frank/Friedlander/Freed/Winogrand, as the photo mirrors that aesthetic, and the use of black and white references the film era. As for its documentary value, it’s less a stand-alone photo than one in a series of photographs illustrating what happened that night, but it certainly works as one in a series. You can see the series here, along with a short article about Steven’s excellent work that night.

If you clicked through the link I’ve provided, you’re probably confused, because the photo used in the link is not the one above but rather this one:

The Las Vegas Tropicana on lockdown on Oct. 1, 2017. Chase Stevens—Las Vegas Review-Journal/AP 

same photo, but in color and obviously digital. I prefer the b&w version; you may be indifferent or prefer the later.

The B&W version is actually my creation (apologies to Mr. Stevens). I downloaded his photo as published and ran it through Silver Efex with a B&W film emulation that specified certain tone, contrast and grain values inherent in a given film stock (in this instance I think it was Kodak Plus X, maybe my favorite B&W film of all time, unfortunately no longer manufactured). I did it because my aesthetic sense told me, the first time I saw the photo, it should a ‘B&W photo’; that what seemed to me the obvious reference back to Robert Frank’s 1955 Manhattan cowboy photo required it be B&W:

Or maybe I’m overthinking this, but I suspect not.  I’m fairly certain that Mr. Stevens has some familiarity with Frank’s image, and the photo he decided to take that night owes some unconscious debt to Frank. I’m certainly not criticizing him in any way: that’s how creativity works. We learn by assimilating the work that’s come before, and if we’re good, we find a way to put our own small spin on an established aesthetic, the result being our own idiosyncratic photographic style. Creators who are truly sui generis, unique with no real creative antecedents, come along very infrequently, maybe once or twice a century in any given discipline. The painters Vincent van Gogh and Jackson Pollack come to mind, in photography HCB and Robert Frank.

*************

The larger question for me, what led me to manipulate Mr. Steven’s photo to suite my tastes, is the issue of the “objectivity” of photographs. As photographers, I assume all of us have at some point in our photographic evolution realized that the naive belief that photos objectively show “things that happened” in an unbiased way, without containing any subjective adulteration is, well, naive.

If Mr. Stevens had done what I’d done – ran his files through Silver Efex before he turned them in to his editor, would that have constituted an improper manipulation of his supposedly objective photographs that violated journalistic ethics? If so, what if, in the race to get to the scene Mr. Stevens had grabbed an old Leica loaded with Tri-X and shot his assignment with it? How would that differ, from an ethical perspective, from him shooting the scene with an M240 in RAW mode and sending the whole thing off to the editors for selection and editing? Is one more genuine, more real than the other? And if one is, what gives us the right to say so?

I’ve been thinking about these questions because I’ve been binge-watching Ken Burn’s documentary on the Viet Nam War, currently running on public television here in the States. What strikes me is the incredible aesthetic beauty of the era’s photography (as distinct from the often disturbing subject matter), most of it B&W 35mm film, a beauty that digital documentary simple is incapable of. This is the photography I cut my teeth on, so I’m biased, but my opinion is that that B&W Film documentary aesthetic, de rigeur through the late 70’s, is effective in a way that digital capture simply isn’t. Is it “more real?” No. More “objective?” No. “Better?” Yes. Of course, this claim for the relative quality of one versus the other is subjective to an extent, but I’ll argue in future posts that it has an objective basis. I may even drag a few “philosophers” into the discussion. Humor me as we proceed.