Category Archives: Aesthetics

Freud and Photography

This isn’t “just” a Photo of my cat Sitting next to my TV. Freud would say its an X-Ray of My Psyche

One of the more interesting places I’ve visited is the psychoanalytic office of Sigmund Freud at 19 Berggasse in Vienna, interesting for me, at least, because it was one of the few places in Vienna I found interesting (nothing against Vienna; just personal preference. Vienna is just a little too clean and orderly for my tastes. I much prefer more down at the heels – e.g. Marseilles, Naples, Detroit). What immediately struck me were the photos that hung on the walls. Freud clearly had a thing for photography. A connoisseur of art, Freud adorned his walls with both photos and paintings and covered his shelves with various cultural knick-knacks. It’s important to remember that Freud’s psychoanalytic theories took shape and matured during the early years of photography, and, as I suspected while visiting his office, photography formed more than a casual influence on his thought.

Jean-Martin Charcot, an important mentor of Freud, used photography to record and study seizures and hysterical expressions and postures. Likewise, G.-B. Duchenne, neurologist and electrophysiologist who worked with Charcot, sought to understand neuropsychiatric patients via photographs of their faces and body postures. Freud owned the 1876 French edition of Duchenne’s Human Physiognomy, where Duchenne had published his studies. Duchenne’s photographs profoundly shaped Freud’s thinking;  Freud repeatedly used the metaphor of photography—the photographic negative, in particular— as a means to illustrate his theory of the unconscious.

Mary Bergstein, Professor at the Rhode Island School of Design, suggests that “photography penetrated the cognitive style of Freud and his contemporaries,” and “documentary photography—of art and archaeology, but also of medicine, science, and ethnography—influenced the formation of Freudian psychoanalysis.” For Freud, the fragmentary and evocative nature of photography mirrored how human memory works; the mind’s eye, both conscious and subconscious, mimics the photographic lens.

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A Deliberate Double Exposure: My 12 y/o Attempt at Profundity, circa 1970. God only Knows what Freud Would Make of It

A more interesting issue, apart from Freud’s use of photography as metaphor, is his understanding of the ontology of the photograph i.e. what is a photograph? In Freud’s era, photographs were viewed as transparent windows revealing objective truth but at the same time were thought to be subjective and dreamlike. A photo of a ruined temple, while depicting a specific place, also conjured loss, oblivion, the highly emotional reminders of the passage of time.  This produced a lot of really bad, pretentious photography (google “Alfred Stieglitz” for further details).

For Freud, far from simply producing a transparent image of reality, photographs manifested what cultural theorist Walter Benjamin called the “optical unconscious,” a term Benjamin coined to denote the visual depiction of unseen, the terrain of the imaginary. Benjamin’s concept raises the issue of the photographer’s unconscious communication. The ruined temple photo, for example, while conjuring loss, oblivion, time passing or whatever for the viewer, Freud saw also as giving entry into the coded language of the photographer’s psyche. Photography captures scenes that pass too quickly, too remotely, or too obscurely for the subject to consciously perceive. However, Freud would say that our unconscious – which is the real seat where our personal truth is found – takes in everything. The camera pictures phenomena that the photographer has unconsciously registered but not consciously processed.

Think of your unconscious as the curator of your photography. There are no accidents in photography. According to Freud, everything we present in our photos has been screened and found compelling by our unconscious psyche. Every one of your photos is your optical unconscious made visible, demonstrating the reach and complexity of your unconscious perception and, properly analyzed, gives access to the hidden psychological realities that animate you, including the style and structure of your perception, and the more nebulous regions of your psyche.

Baudelaire’s Eyes and What They Tell us About Photographic Truth

Charles Pierre Baudelaire (1821 – 1867) was a French poet, essayist, art critic, and translator of Edgar Allan Poe. He’s best known for Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil), an extended Modernist prose poem about where one might find beauty in modern, rapidly industrializing mid-19th-Century Paris. Baudelaire influenced a whole generation of Fench poets including Paul VerlaineArthur Rimbaud, and Stéphane Mallarmé, among others, and also 20th-Century artists as diverse as 60’s rock star Jim Morrison and Portuguese author Fernando Pessoa. He coined the term “modernité” to designate the fleeting, ephemeral experience of urban life and claimed that the primary responsibility of modern art was to capture and, in so doing, transform that experience.

While Baudelaire lay on his deathbed, dying of syphilis, his mother found two photographs of him he had secreted in his overcoat; apparently, he’d been keeping the two photos on his person, a hidden, guilty pleasure of some sort.  In one (that’s it above), he stares aggressively at the camera as if trying to directly meet the unmediated gaze of the ultimate viewer of the photo. Frankly, he looks pissed off, as if the camera itself were his enemy, something put between him and viewer, something that obscured the potential of a meaningful relationship between him and the person who’d view him as the subject of the photo. 

Baudelaire had been interested in photography since the 1850s. French photographer Nadar, (Gaspard-Félix Tournachon (1820 – 1910),  was one of Baudelaire’s closest friends until Baudelaire’s death in 1867 (Nadar wrote Baudelaire’s obituary in Le Figaro). Nadar remains one of the great early photo-portraitists, his portraits held by many of the great national photography collections. 

In spite of his interest in photography and his friendship with Nadar, Baudelaire never much liked photography as a means of getting at anything subjectively truthful.  He thought the camera’s lens “a dictatorship of opinion,” a device that made an end-run around the active self-questioning required of a viewing subject. Photography could not, according to Baudelaire, encroach upon “the domain of the impalpable and the imaginary”; it was competent only as a means to document objective facts.

According to Baudelaire, only with an “embodied vision”, actively interrogating what one looked at, could you possibly gain any sense of mastery over the perceived object, and such active interrogation only became possible when the subject of one’s gaze could gaze back. Real subjective visual truth came only when there could be a reciprocal interaction of the viewer and the subject.  Rather than the one-sided transaction implicit in much of Western visual art – painting or photography – Baudelaire’s idea of a truthful visual representation would be a “forest of symbols” that looked back at you “with familiar eyes.” Using this criterion, photographic portraiture was, at best, caricature.

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In secular Western culture, where science and rationality are presumed to give us insight into what is “true,”  we are used to seeing the material world through the lens of science, where subjects are turned into objects and placed in categories. Photography aides that process by its ability to document objective facts, and Baudelaire saw that as a legitimate use of photography. For Baudelaire, the problem came with photography’s attempt to capture the subjective. It can’t, because it can’t look back. There’s no real interaction between the viewing subject and photographic subject. Relationship, that which underlies subjectivity, is impossible in the one-sided encounter offered by a photograph. The image will always be distorted.

Compare what happens when you look at a photograph of a woman, how you look at it, with the way you look at that same woman encountered in the flesh, on the street; how you do so determines whether or not you let her look back.  “Truth” is found in the reciprocal gaze, between subject and object, between the man and woman walking past each other in the street.

Baudelaire would say that modern man suffers from a distorted visual culture created by the ubiquity of photographic images.  Given the extent to which photography has been normalized and now embedded in our societal consciousness, it has led us away from the truth. It has distorted our ability to understand others. It gives us only a superficial caricature, a false representation of other people, visual images of persona as opposed to the person themselves. Capitalist consumerism uses its distortions to make us want things, playing on our imagination because the image can’t interact with us.  We see other people in this “post-truth” world, where photographed people are real only to the extent they conform to our imaginations. The image world it gives us is of strangers-as-passersby who never make eye contact. It’s hard to see, really see, someone else in this world of images, surrounded by people who are all doing the same.

Believing is Seeing

Edinburgh, May 1, 2015

” What we see is not independent of our beliefs. Photographs provide evidence but no shortcut to reality. It is often said that seeing is believing. But we do not form our beliefs on the basis of what we see; rather, what we see is often determined by our beliefs. Believing is seeing, not the other way around.”

-Errol Morris, Believing is Seeing: On the Mysteries of Photography

A couple of years ago my wife and I found ourselves in Edinburgh for a day, traveling between some place or other. For those of you who’ve never been, it’s a really nice town to spend a few days – lot’s of history, good free museums, active and interesting culinary scene, great street life. We were also lucky enough to be there on May Day when Edinburgh celebrates Beltain, the Celtic neo-pagan holiday commemorating the beginning of Summer, the celebration consisting of naked people dancing around fires on Calton Hill overlooking downtown Edinburgh.

Edinburgh is also a great place for “street photography.” Given its latitude and the oblique angle of the sun, you get nice bright light contrasted with deep black lengthened shadows, which makes for the types of visual contrasts good street photographers exploit. And it’s a town of shoppers, for me at least, the perfect setting for interesting and thought-provoking visuals. Princes Street – a half-mile of upscale retail shops running east/west – being as target-rich an environment as I’ve ever experienced. So, of course, the day I was there I walked around snapping photos while the wife shopped for a kilt for her son (yup). The photos I’ve used to illustrate this post were all taken during an afternoon walking Prince Street.

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 “Street” Photography

Above is a “street photo.” I took it that day in Edinburgh. It’s an uninteresting photo. It says nothing, connotes nothing, implies nothing. It’s just a guy on a street, a throw away shot that doesn’t work on any level. But, hey, it’s properly exposed, it’s in focus, the tonality is nice, it’s framed competently (but what’s up with the big black empty space on the left?) and it’s a guy on a street. Bingo, I’m a “street photographer.” Too many “street photographers” seem to think that’s enough to qualify. If you have any questions, go here and look at what people post on public forums dedicated to showcasing “street photography.” 90% of the photos posted are no better than what I’ve posted above, many even worse. Why? They say nothing. They’re just people walking down the street. Ask the photographer ‘what’s the point’ and in all likelihood, he’ll reply with a blank stare – ‘what do you mean, what’s the point?’

Which gets me to my point. Street photos – any photo for that matter – need to say something. How do you do that? You have something to say. You must have a belief – an idea wishing to be made manifest – before you photograph, and the resulting photos should convey that idea, both individually and as a collective. Garry Winogrand’s 1960’s work, wonky and off-kilter though it was, was the result of a unified vision that worked both individually and collectively, the collective giving context to the individual, the individual stating its own visual truth.

Good “street photography” captures a fleeting moment that stands for something larger. The people and things pictured aren’t just people and things; rather, they suggest something more, some question to be answered or puzzle to solve. What is shown suggests something not shown, hints at it, implies it. It aspires to a  reality truer and deeper than anything immediately at hand, something more intense and deeper than the ordinariness of the routine life pictured – what the Greeks called anagnorisis – when the mundane surface is stripped away and the essence is revealed.

 

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Below are a number of photos I took that day in Edinburgh. I think they’re all good examples of street photography that works. They have a theme that runs through them, something I’m suggesting to you. They’re interesting visually and, and, if you’re paying close attention,  intellectually. They work both individually and collectively as a series. They have a point of view, something that I’m attempting to communicate to you the viewer. We may differ on what that point is, but the photos themselves admit of something more than their topical subjects, and they add something to each other when they’re viewed as a group. Really, that’s all you need to produce decent work. Just have something to say.

Bruce Gilden Has Balls

“I’m known for taking pictures very close, and the older I get, the closer I get” – Bruce Gilden

Bruce Gilden is an American “street photographer.”  He is best known for his in-your-face flash photos of people walking the streets of New York City.  Although he did attend some evening classes at the School of Visual Arts in New York, he’s pretty much self-taught. He has had various books of his work published, has received the European Publishers Award for Photography and is a Guggenheim Fellow. He joined Magnum in 1998. Think about that: he’s a guy who bought a camera, taught himself the craft, and ends up a member of Magnum and a Guggenheim Fellow. It wasn’t about his contacts, or his educational credentials, or the camera he used; it was because he developed his own unique vision.

Up until the digital age, he shot in B&W. Recently, Leica gave him a Leica S and he’s been shooting in color since. He’s currently working on a project he calls “Faces”, extreme color close-ups using flash (some of them are illustrating his interview below). While you might consider these photos exploitative of the subjects (and they may be) and ugly and perverse, they’re powerful correctives to the airbrushed faux reality of most visual culture.

I like Gilden. It takes a lot of balls to walk up to someone on the street and push a flash camera in their face. Does it take some special photographic talent? No. But that’s not the point. It takes a certain unified vision. The point is Gilden has created an aesthetic unique to him and hasn’t much deviated from it in 50 years. As such, he’s created a large, coherent body of work. I’ve heard people criticize his work, claiming it gimmicky and artless, something any 8th grader would be capable of. Could your kid have taken these pictures? Yes. But your kid didn’t, and Gilden did, just like it would have been within your kid’s skill set to have painted Jackson Pollock’s Alchemy, 1947. Your kid didn’t, because your kid would have never considered the aesthetic potential inherent in the medium. The genius of Pollock -and Gilden- is having seen the aesthetic others missed.

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Imagine this Guy Pointing this in Your Face on a NYC Street

This is an interview of Gilden on the occasion of a retrospective of his work exhibited at the International Center of Photography in New York.

ISP  You’ve been described as combative, confrontational, as a genius, as “one of the best street photographers currently alive.” How do you feel about these characterizations?

BG  A characterization is just like anything else. Some of it may be true, some of it may be false. Look, people don’t know me. I’m basically shy. And I guess you could say I do what I have to do. But I’m pretty good at reading situations. In other words, when you work close with a flash with someone, I have a pretty good bedside manner. If you’re comfortable doing something, run with it. When you’re uncomfortable or doing it for the wrong reasons, then you encounter problems, because people get a sense of your uneasiness. And if people feel you are doing it for commercial purposes, saying, “oh I have to get that lady with the short hair because I’m selling that picture,” it’s completely different than doing it for artistic reasons, for something that’s in your guts and in your soul. So what I do is always in my soul. I don’t take many pictures. Last year I didn’t even work that often because I decided I was really not going to shoot much more in New York City. So all my shooting has been going on outside my hometown of New York. I mean, if someone wanted me to shoot here, if I got a commission here in the city, I could do it. But now I’m starting to go elsewhere around America and see what’s there. The only problem is in America, there’s nobody on the street. I’ve been doing a lot of formal portraits in color.

ISP  How do you feel working in color?

BG  It’s quite an easy and smooth transition. If you know how to form a picture, you know how to form a picture. It doesn’t matter if it’s in black-and-white or color. I just got back a little over a month ago from the Milwaukee state fair, and I think I did some of the best work I’ve ever done.  It’s almost all formal portraits.  When I say formal portraits I mean, when I see people at the fair or in Milwaukee I ask them, “can I take a picture of your face?” And I take a picture. So there’s no studio paper. When I say formal, it means I’m asking the person I want to photograph.

ISP  They’re preparing for the shot.

BG  No, they’re just average people—my kind of people—people I’m interested in. And we take a picture, but I have an idea how I want it to look, to work. They’re very strong. So that’s what I’ve been doing the last year, year and a half.  But I’m also doing other things, too. My style might be aggressive, but I always believed in life that the people who stand back are suspect. In life, if you’re going to do something, let the people know you’re doing it. What I mean by that is you have to be somewhat—I won’t use the word “sneaky”—but… if people know you’re taking a picture and it’s supposed to be candid, you won’t get the picture many times. So you have to be smart and shrewd. But I don’t like people who stand half a block away and take a picture, because I find that sneaky.

ISP  You’re talking about the “shooting from afar” strategy.

BG  Yeah, to me that’s sneaky because you know most people—I take pictures very close—they don’t even realize I’m photographing them many times. But I approach them well. If you’re at ease, you’ll be surprised how other people many times will be put as ease by your demeanor, unless you get the wrong person, which… it happens.

ISP  Do you find that happening more now with the change in camera culture and sensitivity to pictures? With the ubiquity of cameras on the street today, the use of images has changed. As such, the response to photographers may be changing. Particularly with the rise of so-called “creep porn,” women especially might become much more aware of and concerned about being candidly photographed by men they don’t know. There are also rising anxieties about terrorism and reconnaissance, surveillance, and even pedophilia that permeate the street. Has this made your subjects more hostile? Are people really more guarded against street photographers? Do you have to work harder to capture an authentic candid picture of someone?

BG  It doesn’t change anything for me. I think it has to do with culture itself, and where you work. For example in a rich area like Kensington in London where I worked a lot, you can feel the British class system, so there’s a difference: if you’re rich and cultured, you have almost divine right, and when a plebian comes over to you and takes your picture without asking, more people will get upset than it would happen in a “bad” area. When working in a “bad” area, if you get the wrong people, it has nothing to do with the camera culture. It has to do with culture—period—which I think is more important. The rich, people in Britain, the posh and snotty, they think they own the world, ok, but if you go in a bad area, and if you don’t know how to deal with the people there or you don’t know how to feel them out or joke with them, you’ll have a problem because you’ll get that kind of response: “You’re a stranger you come in my fuckin territory and you take a picture of me!” Some people are good at dealing with that, some aren’t. You carry it in your body language.  Again, if you’re comfortable, it will be fine. I used to be a pretty good athlete, so my body language is not stiff, it’s fluid, and if you go at somebody with a fluid body motion, there’s much less chance of a problem. Then I don’t think it matters if a guy is with a woman that he’s not supposed to be with or if he had a bad day, and it doesn’t matter if you’re ten or two feet away.

It’s true though that our culture is becoming ruder, and it has nothing to do with cameras. When you walk in the streets of New York or some other large city, people are always on their cell phones. If you collide with someone on the sidewalk, even though they probably walked into you because they’re not paying attention, they’ll turn around and tell you to go fuck yourself. To go back to your question, I don’t feel that way, because I believe that if you look for that problem, you’re going to bring the problem to yourself. It’s like going into a bad area and saying,  “uh-oh, the guy’s going to pull a gun on me after I take a picture.” You can’t think like that otherwise you’ll never take a picture. I think that what I’m doing is fine. I’m not hurting anybody. And I’m doing it from my guts. I always feel that the people I photograph are my friends, even though I don’t know them. And they’re also symbols for what I see. It’s not like that person is that person. He or she reminds me of something else. It’s like being in a little movie.

ISP  In speaking about films, you’ve mentioned that working with the moving image might be hard for you because you find raising money for projects to be difficult. You’ve also found this to be the case with your photography. How much has it helped you working with Magnum? You joined them in 1998. I think we can all imagine what a highpoint that was.

BG  It helps in one way, and it doesn’t help in another way. Magnum helped me to get editorial work, which I had never really done before. But then with all this time spent at doing editorial here and there, I didn’t pursue the art market as much as I should have. Fortunately, I have been working on the Postcards from America project (I travelled to Milwaukee as part of it). Postcards is an ongoing collaborative project in which a loose group of photographers chooses a site that intrigues them and gathers there to play like a visual band. Postcards is a project on its own, but for me, as for many of the photographers involved, it’s also an experimental creative space, and it has enabled me to do very good work recently. In fact, without Postcards from America, I may not have started color. I participated in the first episode where the whole group of photographers stayed in one place.  By “group” I mean ten or eleven photographers. We stayed in Rochester. And we had to have 100 pictures in two weeks.

ISP  This was the project last year at about this time when you were with ten other Magnum photographers covering the decline of Rochester, NY in the wake of the partial halt in production at Eastman Kodak, which has its headquarters there.

BG  Yeah, and I realized—wait a second— I can’t do 100 pictures in two weeks, especially when there’s no one on the street in Rochester! That’s why I started to do the portraits. So in a way it’s good because we’re all competitive and I compete with myself: when other people are working in the same area, you don’t want to look like a schmuck and have no pictures (he laughs). It’s challenging. I borrowed a Leica M9 from Leica and I started to do digital for the first time. I did a little digital in Haiti to photograph the houses the year before because I wanted them in color at night. In Rochester I did a lot of digital work because you’re able to see what your photographs look like right away. This gave me confidence to get to that mark—to that hundred mark. I’m not saying all 100 photographs are good, but it gave me confidence. It was encouraging because you had to get a hundred pictures in a place that you wouldn’t choose to shoot. With all of that combined, I also did black-and-white, and I think the strongest pictures from that take are formal portraits in black-and-white. Doing both color and black-and-white was good,

because there was also a guy who was developing our film. We’d shoot it on Monday, and we’d get it on Tuesday. We could see what we were doing as we’d go along. And then the next place we went to was Miami, where I started to use the Leica S camera, which is the mid-size that I’ve been using since. And everything’s been in color and digital.

ISP  And what an interesting departure from the black-and-white candid work that you’ve become so famous for doing.

BG  When you’ve been doing something for so many years, it’s always nice to have a change. When I did Foreclosures, no one thought I’d do houses.

ISP  Yes, your new book, Foreclosures, is devoid of people. It’s a shocking change in subject matter.

BG  I think change is important. How many years can you do the same thing? Look, you never get a perfect picture. But also as you get older things change. My form of photography is very athletic, and I can still do it ok, that’s not a problem. Of course, you can’t bend as low, and you’re not as fast. That’s the concession to age. On the other side, on the positive side, you have more experience. So you know how to get what you want. It’s sort of a balancing act.

The transition has been quite interesting because I’ve worked in Bogotá, I’ve worked in London, I’ve worked in Miami twice, I’ve worked in Milwaukee, I just got back from the Big E Festival in Massachusetts, I’m going to the state fair in Mississippi this month coming up.  It’s exciting for me because I’d never worked in color.  And I’m doing these intense color photographs of people—my kind of people, people who interest me. I have nice conversations with them. And I don’t like asking people to take photographs, because I’m basically shy and it’s very tiring. But I’m quite good at it. If someone wants to say, “No,” they’re going to say, “No.” But I enjoy it in a certain crazy way. And if you see the pictures, I’d be surprised if you didn’t like them. They are strong.

I can tell you when something’s good of mine; I can tell you when it’s not good. We all care about our work, but I think I’m pretty clear and open. In other words, if I didn’t do well, I can admit it. Not everything that has my signature on it is a wonderful picture.

ISP  So there is also a modest side to Bruce Gilden?

BG  No, no, look: I worked hard, and I stuck with it. I’m proud of where I am, because I didn’t have a silver spoon in my mouth where I started. I had no inclination to take pictures. I’m not a technician. Having said that, I know what to do to correct things in the field. I’m not ignorant technically. I’m more interested in the person. But the form has to be correct. A good picture for me is well-framed with a strong emotional content. My pictures aren’t loose—my good pictures. Like today, you see a lot of people, and their form isn’t very good. They’re just concerned about getting the image—what they want in the image, that person, or that emotion or something. But the image isn’t formed well. To me that’s not good enough.

ISP  Do you think that’s largely a product of digital photography? Some have complained of laziness in framing since the rise of the easily erasable digital image.

BG  It’s not just digital. It also may be a product of not learning your craft in a certain way. For example, when I started photography I knew nothing. I didn’t even know when you look in the finder that’s what you supposedly got. But I looked at tons of books and magazines. And I knew what I liked and I knew what I didn’t like. So if I saw a picture I liked, I would see how it was taken, try to find out from the perspective what lens was used. And then you go out and you say, “Oh, that photographer put a person in the front here. That’s pretty good.” So, you use that, but eventually—hopefully—you become yourself. For example, when I started, I was compared to Weegee, Arbus, all these other people. Now I’m just myself, because I take my kind of pictures.

ISP  Now other people are compared to you. I’ve seen time and again in print mentions of your name as a point of comparison for someone else’s work.

BG  I feel good about that. But everybody has to find their own way eventually. And some are strong enough to do it, and others aren’t. I’m appreciative of that, and it’s funny to read it, but it takes time. Eventually some of those photographers will be referenced as their own. If I’m a step beyond, sometimes someone’s going to be a step beyond me. It’s just the nature of the beast. Records, like in baseball, are made to be broken. If someone’s still shooting in my vein without improving in twenty years, they’re doing something wrong.

ISP  You’re saying they have to develop their own eyes. This is something you spend time cultivating in your students. Can you talk to us a bit about Bruce Gilden the teacher? You travel the world for exhibitions, for photography festivals, like the upcoming Miami Street Photography Festival in early December where you will be featured. And you often offer these mentorship opportunities and intensive workshops that are very well-attended.

BG  In the workshops, I’m very blunt and honest. And I’ve devised a little system, which I won’t talk about in detail, but it’s quite simple. People who come to the class, some of them, their pictures aren’t very good.  And it’s not because of their style: I’m smart enough to see when someone has talent, and I don’t expect them to be little Gildens. I think the most important thing that I can tell them is to photograph something that you’re interested in, and to be yourself. Don’t listen to what anybody says unless you’re smart enough to realize that someone is telling you something that’s constructive—not destructive, because some people don’t want to see other people get ahead.

If someone has strength, I’ll give them assignments that will lead either in a direction to make their pictures stronger or in a direction that they haven’t been shooting. So it opens them up to something else that can help them get where they’re going, that I think they’re a little weak or they’re not paying attention to. If someone isn’t generally doing very good work, I started giving them assignments in my workshop two or three years ago that are usually basic portrait assignments. And I show them how much better their pictures are after they’ve done these portraits, which helps build their confidence. Some of them don’t continue doing portraits, and they don’t have to.

I’m very critical. If someone is good, they’ll know they’re good (he laughs) when they’re finished with my class. I also try not to be overly critical to people who just started photography and also the people who aren’t full-time photographers. If you are new, it’s a bit different than if you’ve been photographing 20 years. I always ask people, “Do you think your pictures are good?” I find that when people come into a workshop thinking they’re really good, they usually aren’t. Then we have to straighten them out. When I ask my students upfront, I get a sense of what needs to be challenged to help them improve. Look, I’m not a god, but I think I’m quite visual.  It’s ingrained in my soul. I give a lot of myself. By the end of a workshop, I’m quite exhausted, because I’m open. You can take what I say and think it’s wonderful; or, you might think it’s crap. At least I’m honest. I’m not trying to knock you down just to knock you down. If you do good work, you’ll know it once you’re finished with my workshop.

There’s one guy in my class who has become a very good friend of mine. He’s a bright guy. People looked at his work and said, “Wow! He’s taking pictures like you!” He started to use flash and color. And the pictures are really good. But they’re not mine; they’re his. You can tell when someone’s imitative and when someone’s doing it because that’s who they are. I don’t have a thin skin about that. I think he’s talented.  And he doesn’t even do photographs! Now he’s doing more of them. But before he was only taking pictures four times a year! Certain people have the spark, other people don’t. You have to deal with that. But if someone does something good, I tell them how good they are and how good the pictures are. We get into a dialogue. I think I’m pretty good at teaching, but I wouldn’t want to do it too often. I’m not going to be doing too many more workshops.

ISP  You do have one coming up in December 2nd – 6th in conjunction with the Miami Street Photography Festival.

BG  Yes, in Miami, which will allow me to return to these communities I’ve been photographing down there.  This started with the Postcards from America. But I may not be able to continue shooting when I’m in Miami this time, because with the Leica S I have to have an assistant to hold the light for me. It’s very tough. The camera’s heavy. And to get the person the way I want, I couldn’t hold the light at the same time. It’s too much unless I was maybe Hercules. And I’m not.

ISP  Is it difficult for you to not have the flash in your hand, to rely on somebody else for the flash?

BG  No because we discuss how it has to be done. The difficult thing is if they do the light wrong. Portraits aren’t as difficult as candid street photographs. In the candid street photograph, no matter how much control you have, if you’re combining things in the image, anything can go wrong. The person in the background who you wanted to look left is looking right, for example. But still my portrait assistant in Milwaukee said, “Hey look at this portrait you took!” It’s, I think, about the best one I took on that trip. He said, “Look at the other five pictures that we took till we got to this one. Anyone who says shooting portraits is easy is wrong!” because in the other five pictures… the pictures are terrible. And then I finally got what I wanted. You have to be able to recognize that. You also have to pick how close you want to get. My pictures are close. And it’s not like you can pick anybody. I walked all day around the state fair, and maybe I shot ten people in eight hours. It’s also about them agreeing to have their pictures taken and you deciding how you want their attitudes. Do you want their eyes more open? Do you want them to look directly at the camera? It’s not as simple as it looks. Still when you come from a candid street photography background, it is more simple because you’re working with just the face. It’s different than when you’re working with ten people in a photograph or with someone who doesn’t know you’re taking the picture.

ISP  With candid street photos, you often surprise your subjects. That shock of being randomly photographed can cause different reactions in your subjects, particularly when you use a hand-held flash. But in your new work, you don’t have to contend with not knowing how the sitter will react when you take the shot. People who realize they’re being photographed get an opportunity to prepare themselves mentally for the picture.

BG  Yeah, but with portraits, people sometimes get too self-conscious. I don’t like smiley pictures. When people realize they’re being photographed, they have all sorts of different reactions. Some are funny. One lady I photographed in London—in Essex, actually—who’s portrait will be in the forthcoming London book, her daughter said, “Mommy, do it! Let him take your picture!” Her daughter was probably in her twenties.  The lady got up, and she was so terrified of the camera her eyes bulged out of her head. I didn’t say a word, and she looked more and more intensely. Her daughter tried to put her at ease, but the lady was so stiff!  And it actually made for a very interesting picture. So there are a lot of factors involved.

ISP  You talk about your subjects as your “characters,” and whether it’s candid street photography or portraiture, there’s a truth of expression—an apparent unguardedness—to the people you choose and the ways you choose to frame them emotionally. This quality is lacking in the more prepared experiences that you’re talking about, like the smiley pictures. It seems to me that you have an aesthetic of sincerity. That honesty is of very high value to you artistically.

BG  My honesty, my bluntness, probably comes from my past and my relations with my father—everything I found out (that he was a gangster) and how I found out (in that his tire store, the young Gilden realized suddenly, was devoid of tires). I had a tough emotional childhood.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but I see that most people didn’t have my upbringing. At the end of the day, someone could look back at that kind of childhood and say, if they’re not strong, “Look what they took from me, my father and mother, emotionally.”

But they made me what I am, so I guess they gave me strength that I’d never realized until I was older I had. I was always a little different in that I had a lot of energy and was very athletic. I guess I was a little bit wild, but in a controlled sense. There was a lot inside that couldn’t get out.

Photography kept me alive in many ways. So I have that to put into pictures that I think a lot of other people don’t have. I think that gives my pictures strength. If someone else shoots in the same style, but they don’t have a certain background or a certain way that they related to their background, I think they’re not going to do the same kind of picture. That doesn’t mean that they’re not going to do a great picture. It’s just that I do my kind of picture.  And other people do their kind of pictures.

Take street photography: it’s always been the stepchild in the artistic world of photography. But it’s probably the hardest type of pictures to do. That doesn’t mean a street photograph is a good picture and another one isn’t. It depends on how you do it. I’ve seen a lot of bad street photography, just like I’ve seen a lot of bad photography. There’re people that are good, and there’re people that aren’t as good. There was one kid I saw who was very good, and I have a feeling that he has very good potential to be really, really good. You just feel it. He wasn’t in my workshop. He was this young guy who, when I judged the Oskar Barnack Award, he got the Newcomer Prize—a Polish guy, Piotr Zbierski. I think that Zbierski has a talent that can’t be taught. He has it in his soul. The pictures of course are a little dark, they were black-and-white.  I mean, dark in what he photographed, almost like a fairytale.

ISP  Like a Grimm’s fairy tale?

BG  Yeah, and they’re good! Most people don’t have it. He had it, and he was very young, 23 or 24. But I don’t know how he got to it.

ISP  You mention his work is dark. Your work, too, can be dark in that you often focus on what people describe as “the dark side” of people. Your photographs gravitate towards extreme and criminal subcultures.  You’ve been quoted as saying you like “bad guys” in reference to your continual return to this subject matter.

BG  My father was a tough guy, so the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

ISP  And while you are drawn to this character, you don’t romanticize it. Gangster culture, the Yakuza, the Russian mob, gangsters in the UK and Australia: you don’t romanticize them in the way that you shoot them whereas a lot of portrayals of gangster have this sheen of cool.

BG  Yeah, because they didn’t grow up with it. I learned a certain type of respect, that you don’t ask questions. I often get along with people in that culture because I know never to ask a question. I don’t want to know, because if you know, you could be responsible for putting someone else at risk. And it makes sense to me because that’s how I grew up. Look, to me, (gangsters are) just like anybody else. In some cases they can be better because at least you know who they are and what they are. So other people, like for example a corrupt policeman or a priest who’s a pedophile, you go to them for security and then they violate that. I won’t call the gangster a “bad guy,” I’ll call him a “tough guy.” Look, people take what they can; they’re not going to take liberties with tough guys, because they’re tough. And they will take it with someone else. But the thing is, I look at tough guys and see that they’re human beings. And I like them, I generally like them.  When I was in Australia with Mick Gatto, I had a great time! He was such a gentleman and a wonderful guy.  Sometimes I have admiration for tough guys—some of them. But I’ve met some I don’t like also. Those who abuse their tough-guy-ness, who try to test you, you have to stay away from them. It’s like the regular population: some people are good, some people aren’t. And they do what they do.

ISP  I see this aspect of your work not only as an engagement with your father, but also something that coheres with this critique of the economic system that I think your work mounts. Crime and criminals disrupt business-as-usual. And it seems like your work, in the most obvious way with Foreclosures, but also in your traditional street photography, poses real challenges to the way we see people as a culture, which is largely a function of economics. Your work looks where others don’t. Last year, as you’ve mentioned, at about this time you were covering the decline of Rochester, NY after Eastman Kodak cut 50,000 jobs. You’ve been

working on Foreclosures since 2008, documenting the fallout of the subprime mortgage lending crisis. You have been criticized for your use of surprise close-up flash photography in the city streets. You focus on people you describe as “the left behind” in your work. There is a truth, as we’ve mentioned, in this work often lacking in the prepared appearances of those who are ready to be photographed. That truth in itself seems to make a statement about the lack of sincerity in the visual world of ubiquitous advertising. To me, this is major source of connection in your work. Do you think your work has a central focus of economic critique?

BG  I like people who tell the truth. I hate politicians.

ISP  You recently photographed Anthony Weiner.

BG  I photographed all of them—all the New York City mayoral candidates for the New York Times Magazine—and I liked all of them on a one-to-one basis. Some more than others. But they’re politicians.

But to return to the question you raise, I can’t talk as much about Foreclosures as I could have before, because when I was preparing for it I read about 20-25 books. But that was a few years ago. It was legalized thievery, what the government did (the subprime mortgage lending crisis and its aftermath). They repealed the Glass-Steagall Act. There were no regulations on a trillion dollar industry. And there was this fantasy that everybody should own a home. It was disgusting. So no matter what I or any other people can do, we can’t come up to the heights of that. Then we bail out the banks with taxpayer money. And then you read that this quarter Chase Manhattan made outlandish profits. I mean, come on now!  Please! I’m not a fool. They say, “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” I come to the topic from that perspective. And like I said, the people I photograph are my friends.

I have always identified with the underdog. I’m not coming to this like some art director who plays in the street, then goes on to do something else. I come from the street. I’ve always been in the street. It’s something that attracts me. I didn’t have your average upbringing. My father didn’t exactly model good behavior or offer moral guidance. I had nothing to live up to and nothing I wanted to be. I didn’t have to go into my father’s business, which I used to drive a scrap metal truck for. But I didn’t have this background like I’m John Lewis, III or something. I was loose that way. I always felt that I was an underdog, an outsider. For me, you also have a certain freedom when you’re left behind in that way, because you’re not enchained or imprisoned. But I don’t have to make up a whole intellectual dialogue about what I do. I do what I feel to do… when I have the money to do it. And I’m pleased with that, with what I do. And if you’re comfortable you have a chance of doing it well.

And I also always identify with poorer people. But I’m not a bleeding-heart liberal, the kind that say, “Oh, I think she had a very bad upbringing, and that’s why she knifed you in the back.” No one’s going to knife me in the back if I can help it. I had a tough upbringing, and I survived. So I expect you to be able to survive.

I’m a realist. As a realist, you know the world’s a terrible place for many people. I don’t think it’s getting any better. The have-nots are going to be getting further and further behind. So many people are left behind by our political and economic system. And that’s the project of my Guggenheim: The Left Behind. When I was in Russia, I went 70km outside of Ykaterinaburg and I wondered, “What do these people do?” We live in New York City. If you don’t travel to see these things about the world, you may not know that people in certain countries and places are really left behind. And it’s getting worse. It’s not getting better. It’s a terrible thing.  I feel better that I’m 66 and not 25. I feel bad for my daughter. Look at the ozone! Look at what’s happening with the weather now! And who’s doing it? So many people, and all just for money.

ISP  I recently read a quotation from environmentalist Derrick Jensen that said basically that if

aliens came to Earth, systematically deforested the planet, killed 90% of life in the sea, we’d declare war on them.  But for some reason when corporations do that for profit, it’s generally accepted.

BG  Yeah, that’s a great statement! There are people who are helping the planet, people who are advancing medical research, people who are doing things that are helping humanity.  And I find… well, I’m not big on the non-profit groups, though. I spent a lot of time in Haiti. And the one I really like is Médecins sans frontières. Most of the others just know how to waste money.

ISP  I’m interested to hear what you think about the Occupy movement.

BG  Occupy Wall Street? I went down to lower Manhattan for the protests, and I think you had the wrong people for the right job, at least here in New York. Half the people down there were high on drugs, running around, and playing flutes. They looked like they’d just rubbed their chests on the ground for the last three weeks and didn’t take a bath. It’s not that I’m against that either, it’s just that it was starting to go somewhere. I met a great lady in Las Vegas who runs it out there. She’s great. The Occupy movement elsewhere has been more successful. And I agree with them and with the premise. But the Manhattan protests were a mess. The problem is that a lot of the people in the tents and stuff are people who are… losers, for fault of a better term. They seem more interested in hanging out than getting things done. If you want real economic reform, you have to defeat these guys at their own game.

I believe in Machiavellian theory. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Take that rebel who’s fighting against the government, put him in power, and he’s going to become the very thing he was once fighting against.  When you get millions of dollars in front of you, how many people aren’t going to take it? I do prefer people who are—even if I don’t like their politics—who say what they’re going to do, even if I can’t stand it, like Bush (W.). I couldn’t stand him, but at least he said he would do this, and he did it. I don’t like Obama.

ISP  In that you feel he’s insincere where you found Bush to be more genuine.

BG  I feel like he’s full of shit. Look, he said he cares about the middle class and lower class. But even progressives don’t like him. Harry Belafonte can’t stand him either. And he’s always been a progressive who supported MLK, the Civil Rights Movement, all progressive agendas. He hates Obama. And I do too, because the guy walks with the swagger of someone who knows the street, which he doesn’t. He says one thing but does another in policy, too. He said we’re not going to dig for oil in America; we are. We’re going to get out of Afghanistan; and, we’re still there. In the foreclosure crisis, which I can talk about a little because of the research I did for my new book, he decided to keep Timothy Geithner as Treasury Secretary and Ben Bernake as Federal Reserve Chairman, who were responsible for repealing the Glass-Steagall Act (an act that had imposed financial regulation in the US, and that, once repealed, contributed to the economic crisis and its resulting financial devastation). And Geithner, whether he worked on Wall Street or not, has been working for Wall Street all along. He’s part of the reason that everything went so bad for the world economy! So if you want change, you’ve got other people to put in charge of the economy. He could have pulled in Volcker, who’s a smart, good guy in that field. No, I don’t like that guy (Obama). I can’t look at him. You know, I have my opinions. Those others guys are terrible, too. But he’s no different. He wouldn’t have gotten to be President if he hadn’t been pushed by somebody. I think he made backroom deals.

ISP  Do you have any suggestions on how to get money out of politics?

BG  Well, maybe you can’t. But to me the decision to keep Bernake and Geithner really sticks, because they were complicit in the whole financial collapse around the subprime mortgage lending crisis. So it makes no sense to ask them to be responsible for changing the problems of the economic system when they had a hand in creating those very problems themselves. How do you justify keeping people who support all that Clinton and Bush (W.) did? This all started with Clinton saying that everybody should own a home. But everybody should own a home who can afford it. Anyway, let’s get back to the subject.

ISP  It is in a sense very much the subject of Foreclosures.

BG  I’ll talk about my cat (he laughs). I have three cats! They’re very nice. Three Russian Blues. They’re sweet as sugar. They calm me. I pet them all the time, I talk to them. They’re my friends. Why don’t we move to the next question.

ISP  After the discussion we’ve just had, this may be a jarring transition. But what do you think is the future for street photography? Here we have been talking about imminent environmental or financial collapse, so it seems like a strange question now.

BG  I don’t think like that. I see what’s in front of me. I think the scary thing, not only for street photography but for the world, is that everybody’s becoming the same. The cities are more homogenous now, the shops.  If you go, god knows where, you see a Starbucks. People wear the same clothes. The world is smaller. They all listen to the same music. People more and more are losing their individuality. And I think ultimately in a hundred, 200, 300 years, everybody’s going to look the same and be the same and maybe act the same.  I’m stretching that now to make a point. Whereas I look for the differences, there’re people who look for the similarities. So it makes sense that there would be a change in what pictures look like. But I don’t know.

In 1888, Kodak first made it possible for a lot of people to take pictures. Now we have the digital age and the iPhone. Everybody’s taking pictures. Maybe more people are taking them now than then, but Kodak made it affordable then. Almost everybody can take pictures now. So it must have been quite cataclysmic when that first happened. The common man could all of a sudden take pictures. You didn’t have to pay to go to a studio photographer to take a portrait.

ISP  But now the camera phones that you mention make choices for you. They make visual choices for you.

BG  I haven’t seen that myself, but I’d heard that. And it follows along what I was saying: there’s going to be less and less individuality. If you look at the movies now, so many movies are about the effects; whereas, years ago, all the movies I liked were about relationships, emotion, love. If you listen to the music from years ago, doowop and so on, it’s about boy meets girl, boy loves girl, girl drops boy, boy drops girl. It was human! We are becoming less and less human. And one thing I don’t like: we’ve become so politically correct that people are afraid to do anything because—gasp!—it’s not the right thing to be seen to do. Yet they’ll do worse things, and they’ll be accepting of worse things.

So, to answer your question, I don’t know. But I think street photography will go on until there’s no more street. It depends what you mean by street photography, too. I said to a magazine once that in street photography you could smell the street, feel the dirt by looking at the picture. You’re seeing less and less work like that. Look at most photography today, and even if it’s good, you still can’t tell who took the picture. The average picture could have been taken by 500 people; whereas, years ago, if you saw a Cartier-Bresson, you knew it was a Cartier-Bresson. You see a Winogrand, you know it’s a Winogrand. You see an Arbus, you know it’s Arbus. A Weegee’s a Weegee. The best usually have a recognizable style, a personality.

Also, a lot of street photography is confrontational, unflinching. But people don’t always like to be turned upside down. To be confronted. To think, to feel. It’s more challenging to the viewer,

some people don’t like that. But I feel it’s important as an artist to show work that challenges. If we don’t show something just because it’s difficult subject matter, who’s going to know its there? If things need changing but they aren’t shown, they’ll never be changed. I’m not saying you’re going to make a difference anyway. Look at all the war photographers, and still we have war.

ISP  What’s next for Bruce Gilden?

BG  I’m working on my Guggenheim project, The Left Behind. I got a commission in the Midlands in the UK to do a similar project. A photopoche book, one of those pocket-sized books from France, comes out this November. The London book is out this November, too. It was commissioned by the Archive of Modern Conflict and is formally titled A Complete Examination of Middlesex. But ultimately, what’s going on in my life now and in the future is my family. My daughter Nina just turned 21 and is graduating from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston this year. My wife, Sophie, speaks better English than I do even though she’s French. She was a journalist for Libération in Paris and a radio host on France Inter. I have a good wife, I can’t complain. She’s intelligent, elegant, attractive. And we love each other. Twenty-two years. Some would say it’s impossible to stay with me 22 years, but she did it!

A Day in Paris

Paris, August 17, 2017

Has photography become too easy? I’m thinking it might have. The question, I guess, is, even if it has, why would that matter?

I’ve illustrated this post with photos I’d taken on one day, August 17, 2017, a day I spent chaperoning a first time visitor to Paris. The day started bright and clear, with increasing cloudiness as the morning progressed and, by afternoon, threatening rain.

I hadn’t even thought to take a camera with me. The day was just to be a day seeing the usual sights. Of course, I had my iPhone with me, and during the day, as much as habit as anything intentional, I took a few photos of things that interested me. Some were shot using filters – I presume I just chose a random filter for the hell of it – and others were post-processed in Snapseed on my phone.

Now, I’m not claiming any of these to be portfolio quality, but in reviewing them, I’m amazed at the quality and diversity of output I got with a simple camera phone and some free apps, all in a day’s walk around town. We used to expend a lot of time and energy and creative angst to get similar results back in the film era, weeks and months of hard labor both on the street and in the darkroom….and the results were indicative of a photographer possessed of technical competence and creative mastery. Back in the film era, the results below would have been the product of innumerable creative decisions about cameras and formats and films and developing and printing processes. Now, it’s indicative of a guy with some apps on his camera phone.

So, I’m not sure what argument I should be making…is this a good thing or a bad thing?

 

Words and Photos


“Several days later Murray asked me about a tourist attraction known as the most photographed barn in America. We drove twenty-two miles into the country around Farmington. There were meadows and apple orchards. White fences trailed through rolling fields. Soon the signs started appearing. THE MOST PHOTOGRAPHED BARN IN AMERICA. We counted five signs before we reached the site. There were forty cars and a tour bus in the makeshift lot. We walked along a cow path to the slightly elevated spot set aside for viewing and photographing. All the people had cameras; some had tripods, telephoto lenses, filter kits. A man in a booth sold postcards and slides – pictures of the barn taken from the elevated spot. We stood near a groove of trees and watched the photographers. Murray maintained a prolonged silence, occasionally scrawling some notes in a little book.

“No one sees the barn,” he said finally.

A long silence followed.

“Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn.””

          Don DeLillo, White Noise (1985)


 

The Reciprocal Relationship Inherent in Visual Art (Or…Be Careful Who You Show Your Photos to)

Is This a “Good Photo?” I Think So…But It Means Something to Me in a Way it Wouldn’t for You.  That’s, in Large Part, What Makes it “Good” for Me. What Might Make it Good for You? Context Maybe?


I’ve spent most of my adult life puzzling over what “good” photography is, yet it’s only been in my later years that I think I have any real answer. There’s a reason for that, as I’ll discuss below.

Photography, an art form accessible to most everyone, seems especially susceptible to muddled standards of valuation. The average photo enthusiast, the type who congregates on photo-specific websites and forums, typically falls into the trap of confusing technical competency with artistic merit. As you mature photographically, if nothing else, you should learn at least one thing: whatever creates the perfect photo, it isn’t simply technical excellence. To the contrary, the pursuit of technical excellence often hijacks creativity by directing your creative energies into focusing on technical mastery at the expense of individual expression.

So, if we’re not simply speaking of technical excellence, then what?  Aesthetic impact, contextual appropriateness, personal response, or some undefined mixture of the above? And who gets to choose? We all do, but some choose better than others, because they have a more refined aesthetic sense. This statement, standing alone, seems circular, but it isn’t. As I’ve written elsewhere, the 18th Century German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) get’s closest to the truth with his claim that a person of wide knowledge and experience has a better basis to make aesthetic judgments. She’s seen more, thought more, reflected more, in the process refining her judgment and allowing her to better “see” a work of art by possessing a larger and more varied experiential foundation she can use to draw out the nuances pregnant in the work. Through her experience she has given herself the means to draw latent meaning from someone else’s work, work which, depending on the artist’s competency, allows a range of meaning. It’s a reciprocal relationship, the “best” photos possessing a range of latent meanings, meanings brought to fruition by an informed, cultured viewer.

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

A Simple Little Book by Dominique Pierre-Nina. It’s Full of  Beautiful Work.

Above is the cover of a small book of photographs, a gift sent me by Australian photographer – and Leicaphilia reader – Dominique Pierre-Nina. Dominique sent me the book as a Christmas present, a thoughtful gesture of thanks for the enjoyment he’s received from reading Leicaphilia. (I encourage you to do something similar). Dominique’s book “A Year with the Leica M3” consists of a written introduction and 38 B&W photographs. Sounds interesting, right? Some guy loves his M3 and wants to show others what he’s done with it. Given the parameters set by the author’s presentation, that’s the extent of what I expected, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Instead I found a holistic work of real effect, thought-provoking photos that work individually and collectively, clearly the product of someone who has learned the art of seeing the beauty in everyday things. The book is more than just a collection of individual photographs; Mr. Pierre-Nina has purposefully sequenced them (I assume) so that the impact of the work is a function both of the photographs as individual works and as one larger work created by the body of photographs sequenced and presented as a coherent whole.

Many of the photographs would work as stand-alone works, studies in form and content. While they do so, they benefit from being placed within the larger context. The context here is that chosen by Mr. Pierre-Nina. The context in which they’re been situated adds something to the work, something that’s not present in the individual photos themselves, no matter how interesting they are individually. Without context, you might no “see” their full content; with proper context, they transform from individual works to works engaged in cross-talk with other individual works, in doing so forming a larger coherent work, the book, the exhibition, whatever.

Two Sequential Pages – Left hand Page, Right hand Page. Ostensibly Nothing in Common…But They Work Together

It’s more than just content and context given by Mr.Pierre-Nina, however. It’s also about my receptivity to it. The Kantian critique above – the importance of the intellectual, emotional and aesthetic back-history that the photographer brings to the work – applies as well to the viewer. Visual art is always a two-way transaction between creator and viewer, its power the result of a reciprocal relationship between creator and viewer. The aesthetic value of any work will always be latent until recognized – better yet, discovered – by the awareness of the viewer. Mr. Pierre-Nina is lucky enough to have found an able viewer – in me. While I haven’t asked him, I’m certain he’s shown his book to others – family members, friends, a lover maybe –  and been met with the polite patronization all gifted artists are familiar with. Why? Because the reciprocal relation necessary to its proper appreciation has broken down on the viewer’s end. To put it bluntly, they’re incapable of appreciating the work because of their own deficiencies. The photographer has done his job – the failure lies with the viewer, who hasn’t done his/hers.

If, as I do, you agree with Kant, then both the photographer and the viewer have certain responsibilities in the mutual transaction of understanding and enjoying photographic presentations. Mr. Pierre-Nina can try to give you that context through words, or he could place them with a larger sequence where the sum of the work starts to explain what he sees as their meaning. In either event, assuming he’s done his part, you as the viewer need to bring to the interaction a basis of knowledge and an aesthetic sensitivity formed from that knowledge, to make them coherent. No matter how competent an artist Mr. Pierre-Nina might be (and a good part of that competency is presentation), you as viewer have the responsibility to draw the meaning from them.

Which leads us back to Mr. Pierre-Nina. I don’t think he truly understands his photography – in the sense that I don’t think he can articulate via words what it might mean, what it might suggest to an engaged viewer. I’ve come to that conclusion after having first read his explanation of the work and then looking at the work itself. This isn’t a criticism of him. It’s a reality of the reciprocal relationship that creates the meaning of a creative work. His explanation, reproduced here, might tell you something of what he thinks about his photos, and that’s helpful to a certain extent. But it isn’t the final word. What Mr. Pierre-Nina thinks isn’t the end of the matter. What he thinks of his work doesn’t do it justice; it’s an impoverished understanding of what is truly remarkable work. If anything, this is a compliment to Mr. Pierre-Nina, a man who possesses an admirable humbleness about his work when in fact the work is exceptional. Really.

Likewise with the photo that leads off the piece. Standing alone, it doesn’t say much. At best, you might agree that its “interesting”. It needs context to be more. That’s my role as the photographer, and I fail if I don’t give you the context to make sense of it. But you fail me if, as the viewer, you are unable to properly parse the latent meaning of what I’ve offered you, unable due to ignorance, inexperience, closed-mindedness, arrogance. What separates excellent work from simple pretty pictures can often be as much a result of what the viewer brings to the experience than does the photographer.

This should tell you something: Be careful who you show your work to.


Which leads me to my next subject – Immanuel Kant tells you How to Make Beautiful Photos of Ugly People – coming soon.

Writing About Photography

Is this a picture of a broken down hobby horse, or it it something else? Or is it both, or neither?

While there’s a lot of great photography, there are few, if any, thoughtful books about photography and what it means. Off the top of my head I can think of a few worth reading: Susan Sontag’s On Photography and Regarding the Pain of Others, Errol Morris’ Believing is Seeing, maybe Barthes’ Camera Lucida if for no other reason then everyone seems to refer to it, many, I suspect, without having read it. Most of the rest is poorly written and even more poorly thought through, crammed full of “post-structuralist” academic jargon, jargon being the best evidence that the writer doesn’t have any real idea what they’re talking about. Frankly, you’ll learn more about photographs by reading Vincent van Gogh’s Letters to Theo or Naifeh and Smith’s incredible biography of him, Van Gogh: A Life, both which will give you insight into what personal vision is, how one develops it  and how easy it is to compromise it unless you steadfastly guard it.

For many of us, photography isn’t simply a technology for informing or recording. It is more about the aesthetic and emotional payoff for us as the photographer, being able to create something that communicates what we see and how we see it. Every good photo has something original in its approach,  going against the grain of common seeing, evidence of the idiosyncratic way a single person sees and thinks. Good photographers, ones who create meaningful, original work, can’t do it any other way: their way of seeing is necessarily as idiosyncratic as their mind and body, and to produce photos without that idiosyncracy would be dishonest to themselves and their audience. Apeing someone else’s style is for the neophyte or the creatively barren.

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A photograph is, to use a metaphor, a visual poem. We read a poem because we want to know how the poet “sees” the subject of the poem. We read it for what Barthes calls its punctum: that peculiar way of seeing, or writing (which in a poem is the same thing)—the poet’s style. Likewise, we read a novel or an essay not simply to learn something but to see through someone’s eyes, to follow the traces of their mind on the page as they come to terms with a theme or an idea or an experience. But it’s not a static one-way thing. It’s also about discovering what we think of what the poet thinks. Writing poetry is collaboration between poet and reader, both bringing their persons to the text.

So too with photography. A photograph operates as both a document and a creation. The level at which it gets interpreted depends on the viewer. Good photography is a collaborative effort, requiring a skilled and creative photographer and an intelligent and receptive viewer. Roland Barthes makes the distinction, in Camera Lucida, between two planes of the photograph: the studium, which is the explicit subject of the image, the information we learn from it; and the punctum, “that aspect (often a detail) of a photograph that holds our gaze without condescending to mere meaning or beauty.” The punctum exists in the head of the viewer; it may change from person to person, or it may change for the same viewer at different viewings. In my experience, a photo can mean different things to me at different times.

This, obviously, has implications for one’s ability to write “about” a photograph. If “what it means” changes even for the photographer – not even mentioning the role the viewer plays – then explaining it with language seems a fool’s errand at best. There is nothing more pretentious than photographers trying to “explain” their work. My advice for those of you who think you need to: the work speaks for itself. If you feel you need to explain, the work probably isn’t very good in the first place and your explanation will simply box you in and further diminish what little impact the work itself might have. Better to shut up and let your audience decide for themselves. What they think of it may differ from what you think. That’s OK. There’s room for both, by necessity.

What Makes a Good Photograph? It Depends

Lincoln Tunnel, NYC

I’ve just returned home from a weekend trip to New York City, 18 hours there and back in a car with a 17 year old Czech girl, made to listen to an ear-bleeding mix of Justin Bieber and One Direction with some unlistenable Czech heavy metal thrown in as counterpoint. Occasionally I’d manage to commandeer the sound system long enough to attempt to educate her with examples of great classic rock and roll – The Who’s I Cant Explain, Rain by the Beatles, Turn, Turn, Turn by the Byrds etc – to which she’d listen politely and then switch back to some current overblown pop anthem.  If she’s incapable of hearing the simple brilliance of those songs, forget about schooling her in anything more esoteric, say John Coltrane’s Plays the Blues. Totally lost cause – not gonna happen.

We did have a great time in NYC, however. There for less than 36 hours, we walked half the city – Times Square to Central Park to the UN to Rockefeller Plaza Friday night, Saturday day starting at the Whitney Museum on the West Side to Washington Square to Soho, through Chinatown and Little Italy and the East Village to the Brooklyn Bridge, then the World Trade Center Memorial via Wall Street and then back up to the West Village to eat at John’s Pizza on Bleeker, my favorite place to eat in the entire universe. Sunday Morning back in the car at 5 AM, home to North Carolina. I made her listen to her music on her headphones on the trip home.

Nicki is our current international student, living with us for a year and attending high school here. She’s from Prague, smart, speaks English better than most American kids, nice kid, stunningly beautiful and completely oblivious of the fact. It was fun walking Manhattan with her. She’s a natural, having studied ballet from a young age, moving with an easy grace and elegance that’s impossible to ignore, made more so by the fact that she’s un-selfconsciously unaware of it. It was fascinating to watch other women watch her – well-dressed, rich and powerful women very obviously eyeing her jealously while trying to figure out what she’d be doing with an old guy like me – aging rock star with teenage girlfriend maybe? Rich old sugar daddy with young model? Dad with daughter? We have a lot of fun together, although she treats me with the casual disdain youth treat adults – no recognition of how cool I actually am, or rather, I think I am.

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Not NYC, but Close Enough

And she claims to love “photography”, although her definition of it is obviously different than mine. I’ve been trying to educate her about aesthetics and photography, inviting her to look at some of my photo books and hinting to her that a good photograph can be about more than something colorful or pretty. She seems completely uninterested in what I have to say about aesthetics, and, based on her lack of response to the photo books I’ve set in front of her, unimpressed by the photographers I revere.

How can one account for various tastes? Is it even possible to rank the aesthetic value of art? Do we have a basis for concluding that the Beatles are inherently better than Justin Bieber, or that Ray Metzker’s photography is qualitatively better than what’s popular on an Instagram feed?

Gottfried Leibniz, an 18th Century German philosopher, would say yes. He argued that there exists a definable, measurable, essence of aesthetics that makes one piece of art objectively better than another, citing canonical works like Michelangelo’s David or Mozart’s Lacrimosa as proof. Leibniz would say that there’s a reason these works have remained appreciated by successive generations – they’re inherently beautiful and aesthetically pleasing in a way few other works are. In this sense, Leibniz is a “Platonist,” an aesthetic theory  articulated by Plato wherein things are beautiful to the extent they mirror an eternal, timeless beauty of which individual things are a degraded manifestation.

Scottish Philosopher David Hume meanwhile, argued that beauty is subjective and there exists no ultimate criterion, no “Platonic form” to rank the relative merit of any artistic work. Consider the photography of Garry Winogrand, which offers a powerful aesthetic experience to some, others finding it shallow and banal. Hume would say that both opinions are correct, if by correct we mean legitimate for the person with the opinion.

The great German philosopher Immanuel Kant saw the truth as something in between. For Kant, aesthetic judgments are neither wholly objective nor subjective. Rather, such judgments  involve a confluence of sensory, emotional and intellectual impressions all at once – and, as such, depend on the state of mind of the observer and thus can, and usually do, change over time. That’s why 17 y/o Nicki can find a photograph of a sunset “beautiful” while finding work I love – Ray Metzker for example – uninteresting or ugly, while my aesthetic sensibility can be precisely the opposite. They are both the result of our individual life experiences.

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A Favorite Ray Metzker Photo

I think that Kant thus gives us a way out of the either/or subjective/objective dilemma posed by Leibniz and Hume. If all judgments of beauty depend on the viewer’s sensory, emotional and intellectual history, then one’s aesthetic sense is always valid but can ripen and mature and as one matures is thus able to draw upon more varied and nuanced life experiences when responding aesthetically.  This is just another way of saying that all assessments of beauty are individual and valid as such (Hume), but that some standards of beauty are the product of more experience and mature understanding, which itself means that there is a riper aesthetic understanding that mature experience leads us to (Leibniz).

If, as Kant claims,  taste is a function of experience and knowledge, then this suggests we can make relative value judgments about individual taste. The more experience, the more knowledge one possesses, the subtler and more nuanced one’s aesthetic sense becomes. One’s tastes can mature and become…better. This is why I’ve advocated broad learning – reading literature, listening to music, viewing photographs, learning history – as opposed to the quick fix of a better camera, a new lens, or a street photography seminar by the usual suspects. It’s only in that way – by becoming a citizen of the world with broad sympathies and varied interests – that you’ll create photography that matters.