Category Archives: Philosophy of Photography

Further Foveon Geekiness (With Some Deeper Thinking Included)

4.8 megapixels, from the SIGMA DP2x Foveon Sensor

I know. I know. I claim to despise the pixel-peeping insanity that passes for camera evaluation many other places. Nothing worse than 100% views of receding fenceposts or closeups of the family cat to critique a sensor’s “IQ” or “corners,” or, God forbid, an optic’s “bokeh.” It’s such a blinkered, limited understanding of photo tech and the priority it should be given in assessing the relative strengths and demerits of the photographic tool you chose. It’s the equivalent of judging the aesthetic value of a Redwood tree by examining its leaves as opposed to standing back and taking the larger view of the entire tree in context. The larger view is the instructive view, obviously, and will tell you why Redwoods are such incredibly amazing trees. Examining the leaf will…tell you about the leaf. And yet…here I am with another post about the intriguing quality of the images I’m getting from my latest photographic crush, the SIGMA Foveon sensor. Bear with me.

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2640×1760 (4.8 megs) DP2x, RAW conversion in SPP, tweaking in Lightroom

I’m currently reading (actually listening to on Audible) Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, written by David Epstein. It’s an interesting book, as far as books popularizing social science research can be, and I’m struck by a point he makes in refuting the currently popular notion that true excellence is only developed via long, intense, focused interest and practice in the specific skill you’re seeking to master (the “10,000 hour” rule, etc). He cites research into the various factors most likely to be seen in the education and development of exceptional musicians. The common denominator among them is not the early age at which they took up the instrument, the assistance of parents in facilitating opportunities for rigorous instruction, or the hours spent in learning that particular instrument as opposed to more generalized musical training but rather...did the musician like his instrument. Did he or she love the violin or piano or tuba or whatever; was there, early on, a bond that the nascent musician felt with the musical tool he’d chosen (or, too often, in the case of young children, that was chosen for them). That’s it. That’s what correlates most strongly with subsequent mastery of the instrument.

SIGMA DP2x, 2640×1760 (4.8 Megs) RAW @ 100 ISO, desaturated in SPP (Pretty Much What Came out of the Camera)

This is something we, as users of traditional Leica Barnack and M cameras, understand. It’s the importance of a felt, emotional connection with your creative tool, in our case, our camera. It matters. In theory, yes, you can be as exceptional an image maker using a Pentax K1000 as you can with a Leica M4. It’s just a light-tight box, right? But we all know it’s not that simple. Nothing is really “simple” when we seek to understand the resonances of our creative impulses, what nourishes them and what thwarts their expression. When we’re talking of creative expression necessarily mediated by tools – e.g. photography – emotional and psychological fit with that tool matters. A lot.

My Boy Buddy. DP2x, 100 iso, Raw conversion in SPP, tweaking in Silver Efex Pro

Of course, the more cynical (or stupid) among us will claim to be above such things. Don’t believe a word of it. They really don’t, and neither should you. A large part of what makes us avid enthusiasts is our interest in the tools themselves. Cameras are cool things from any number of perspectives – both their superficial and functional aesthetics of endless fascination apart from their technical specifications, but so too their tech specs, they being, at base, quantifications of qualities inherent in the camera’s output, and, when all is said and done, that’s what we all claim is important – the photograph.

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Sigma sd Quattro, 400 iso, Raw conversion in SPP, tweaking in Silver Efex Pro I Wouldn’t Have Taken This Photo With a Leica

So, that’s a long-winded way of saying the truth of the matter: the equipment you use matters. It matters because, in creative endeavors, the tools you use to accomplish your ends are themselves an extension of you. Your camera isn’t something set apart from your body and mind, something distinct from your creative act. It’s an integral part of the creative act, the necessary pre-condition of the act itself. As such, it needs to be something that’s functional…but also its use itself needs to appeal to our aesthetic sense. It’s that aesthetic component of use that initially drew many of us to photography, and certainly, it’s behind why many of us retain an emotional allegiance to our film Leicas.

In addition to being necessary, it’s formative in the sense that the photos you create will, to a certain extent, be conditioned by the strengths and weaknesses of your instrument. Leica cameras became famous because they were small and unobtrusive and could be carried places larger cameras couldn’t. It certainly wasn’t because they had better image quality. For that, a view camera or a Speed Graphic. Photographers early on understood and utilized the Leica’s strengths, creating new genres of documentary photography – war photography, street photography, candid personal documentary. Meanwhile, “Fine Art” photographers necessarily used large-format view cameras so they could print large with maximum detail and subtlety.

With the digital age, some of these use distinctions are breaking down. Technology has become so good. Amateur level digital cameras are capable of routinely producing film era medium format quality. Unfortunately, our understanding of what constitutes a competent photo also seems to have shifted, more now involving technical excellence than creative vision, and this is the area where gear mania becomes counterproductive, wherein the enjoyment of the tool subsumes the larger creative act itself. Too many photographers chase technical excellence without any understanding or concern with creative excellence, which are two distinct things. Hence, we’re now inundated with banal, technically excellent photographs that digital era photographers confuse with creative excellence. It’s the triumph of the superficial, where excellence comes easily, over against the subtle and profound and visionary, where excellence is rare and always hard-won. It’s the difference between Kenny G and John Coltrane.

Technically Excellent? Not Really. Creatively Excellent? Yes. A Work of Art.

The key, I think, is to match your creative vision to the correct instrument as opposed to allowing your equipment to drive your output. And that has created my current intellectual conundrum. Truth be told, I really like my little Foveon DP2x. I find it endlessly fascinating that a camera little more the size of my iPhone, that can be bought for $200, 4.8 effective megapixels no less, can create such stunning photographs, photos that aren’t merely about details but seem to have a solidity to them that can’t be described but is most definitely there. And so, I’ve been out and about with it, taking the sort of static views you see reproduced here, potential photos I’m only seeing now because of the type of camera I have in my hands. So, the question is: is the DP2x dictating my vision to me, or am I dictating my vision to it? Does it even matter?

Sometimes….

….I just don’t feel it.

I am currently completely and utterly bereft of ideas. I’m experiencing the flipside of creative inspiration. I literally have nothing to say. I’m assuming it’s something that every creative person experiences – creative stagnation. I’ve currently got it bad. So, what more appropriate thing to do than write about it.

I’ve been sitting on the following thought for some time now, having had written it out and, like how I usually write, expected the rest to then write itself:


“The mind loves the unknown. It loves images whose meaning is unknown, since the meaning of the mind itself is unknown.” Rene Magritte

19th Century French Poet Stéphane Mallarmé (aka Étienne Mallarmé), said there were two kinds of languages: parol brute, which named things, and parole essentielle, which was language in the abstract, language that distanced us from things. Brute language aided in representing things; essential language created the fictive, self-referential realities of consciousness. For Mallarmé, parole essentielle was the language of all Art, for all Art was ultimately self-recognition, self-recovery, self-remembering, processes which were as mysterious as Being itself. It’s a distinction we as photographers intuitively understand, the distinction in photography between reportage and Art.


Unfortunately, I can’t think of anything to add to flesh out what I consider to be an essential point about creativity made by Mallarmé. Ironically, maybe the fact that I have nothing to say proves his point – creativity is ultimately self-referential i.e. it’s about what’s going on in your consciousness, not what’s going on around you. Thus, I agree with the poet Charles Simic: when the world or the people in it make no sense, the best you can do is keep quiet and listen to the silence of the night. Or, as Paul Ricoeur said, “Something must be for something to be said.”

But Art is also about experiences language can’t get at. Martin Heidegger would say that the truth of Being cannot be uttered – language can only hint at it. Writing is, at best, a rough translation of the wordless truth into words. Can visual representations like photography better get at the essential nature of things? Heidegger would say no, visual art can’t translate Being either, but it can get us closer than the written or spoken word. The gap between Seeing and Being is less than that of Saying and Being. In this, Heidegger is a Wittgensteinian….to a point. The labor of the visual artist – you, the photographer – is to point to what can’t be put into words. Notice, however, the act of pointing isn’t the truth itself.

With that in mind, below (and the one above) are a few photos I took while out on a bike ride the other day. They are images made during a fleeting moment when something I saw sparked a self-recognition, a self-remembering. Articulating it further wouldn’t be of much use even if I could, which I can’t without sliding into untruth. Truth matters. That’s the cool thing about photography: you get to point to truths you can’t put into words. But, as Mallarmé understands, there’s the truth with eyes open and then there’s the truth with eyes closed, and they’re often two distinct things.

 

Be Your Self (or… Learn the Difference Between Creativity and Emulation)

“The Self is the Way the Individual Structures Experience.” Erik Erickson

I’m amused by ‘photo critique’ forums, where people post photos and solicit comments from others. The assumption, I suppose, is that others will offer constructive criticism that I can use to improve my photos. If that’s the point, count me out. If I’m using photography as a medium for creative expression, why should I give a shit what someone else thinks of my work? It’s my work, the expression of my self; what could someone else instruct me about that? The futility of asking for aesthetic advice from other people seems to me self-evident: Allow other’s advice to color your self-expression and it’s no longer self-expression.  

This is an inherent problem in ‘Art Education.’ Most students don’t make the kinds of work they claim to admire. Rather, what they make is work that emulates successful work previously made by others, work that’s become recognized by the Academy as worthy. The irony, of course, is that the work students are taught to consider worthy and seek to emulate was itself most likely ignored or misunderstood or critically panned when made.

Strong, adventurous, challenging work is always unusual, mainly because so few people have enough confidence in the legitimacy of their own creative impulses to resist the practical influences that dumb-down real individual expression. And it’s usually only recognized with a good amount of hindsight, while the average and uninventive is too often mistaken at first glance as significant. Think of van Gogh, laboring away in painful anonymity, or Jackson Pollock, who “traded” paintings for food with his big-hearted Long Island grocer neighbor, after which the grocer would throw out the paintings as junk (can you imagine being that grocer’s heir?). Last time I was in Amsterdam I walked past the line for entrance to the van Gogh museum. It extended out the door and wound at least a half-mile down the street, tourists lined up in the thousands just to look at the paintings he couldn’t give away a century ago, while the bloated, mediocre history-piece paintings hung in fashionable salons during van Gogh’s lifetime are vanished into irrelevance, seen now as the derivative, uninspired crap they are.

Judging excellence via popularity is always a mistake – popularity usually being the product of the lowest common denominator (e.g. Kenny G. a better jazz saxophonist than Dexter Gordon? Rod McKuen a better poet than Fernando Pessoa? Thomas Kinkade a better painter than Edward Hopper?). It’s the dynamic that brings us the banalities of pop culture – Hollywood and syndicated television recycling the same trite formulas ad infinitum, Bill O’Riley History books and Dr. Phil pop psychology – the mistake of equating good with what comforts the sensibilities of the most common.

I have a rule that guides me in assessing whether I should pay attention to, or better yet, spend my money on, works of popular culture: the more a given work – a book, say, or a record album, or a movie – is breathlessly lauded via popular media, the less likely its worth my serious attention. I can think of very few ‘next great things’ that ultimately possessed any staying power. That’s not to say that I haven’t derived fleeting enjoyment from a Karl Ove Knausgaard book or a Vanilla Ice song [editor’s note: yes, Vanilla Ice. My Czech girl played me his “Ice, Ice Baby” song in the car the other day. Granted, it’s not mid-60’s Dylan goes electric brilliant, but that’s a great song when you get past the fact that it’s Vanilla Ice]; it’s just that I’ve learned the difference between transient emulation and true works of genius (genius meant in the sense the Ancients understood it, as a quality of work that transcends trends and fashions, reputation and fame, works that abolish time and place of origin).

The word genius is Latin in derivation. In Roman antiquity, it described the guardian spirit of a person or place, a spirit that linked the person or place to a particular fate. Like the Greek daimon, your genius was your unique singularity, the spirit that followed you from birth to death. It was your fate, your singular destiny. As such, it couldn’t be taught, and it couldn’t be identified to you by others. It could only be recognized by you, recognized and assented to. You would know it when you heard it. Surrender to it and it would take you where you were meant to go. Listening to others could only obscure its voice.

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Untitled, 2005, 30×40 acrylic on canvas

Above is a painting I did in 2005. I like it, but I’m not especially proud of it; it’s just something I did back then. Other people seem to like it. It hung in my office for years, and visitors would often comment on it. When I told them I’d painted it, they’d often get a look – part disbelief, incomprehension, admiration, dismissal – although almost everyone professed to like it. Mixed up in all of it were notions of class, education, taste, expectation. Complicating matters is that I don’t really think of myself as a painter; rather, I was a guy who painted for awhile until I tired of it and moved on. I had to do something with the paintings, so the better ones I hung as decoration.

People often mistake the painting for a Pollock. I wish. Granted it does look like something he might have done. And that, frankly, is the reason I don’t consider myself a painter, and that canvas nothing special. The larger issue is this: Does this painting reflect me? Or is it simply a well-crafted emulation of the creativity of others? That’s the difference between honest Art and wall decoration.

Untitled, 2005, 30×40 acrylic on canvas

Above is another of my paintings, done about the same time as the first one above. Nobody I know likes it. My wife hates it and refuses to have it hung in our house. God forbid that we hang it in our backyard cottage that we Airbnb. But …. I love it. It speaks to me. When I painted it I wasn’t attempting to do anything but create something unique to me. When I was done I said “Yup,” that’s good, just like that.” It wasn’t meant to be anything but my own. If people were to ask me what it means, I’d reply “damned if I know…but I like it.”  If people don’t like it, well, that’s their problem.

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There’s always the accomplished – those who claim a further competence – who are only too happy to critique your work, usually for a price, no less – the portfolio reviews by recognized or self-proclaimed “experts,” the photo workshops, the weekend seminars. I’ve never had a portfolio review or attended a seminar, but I have studied photography in institutional/academic settings, and I have never – not once – received criticism or advice that assisted me in any other than a marginal way; in fact, most of it, if it did anything, temporarily diverted me from the path I was on and should have been on. “Experts”, whether they be at your local camera club or they’re the Curator of Photography at the Met may, at most, be able to help you with the how, but they’ll never have a clue about the what, those things that resonate with you and that you’re capable of giving back distilled through your own unique consciousness.

If I could recommend one way to become a better photographer, it’d be to develop your own way of seeing and the rest will take care of itself. The simplest way of doing that is to think about what you want to say and not necessarily how to say it. In other words, have something to say and you’ll already have found the proper way to say it, the how being embedded in the what. This will have the added benefit of making your work your own and not derived or copied from someone else’s. Nobody but you can tell you how to do that. Speak out of your own experience; speak what you believe. In the words of Henry David Thoreau, “Dig up some of the earth you stand on, and show that.”

Can You Teach Creativity? Part Two

Studio Class, 1978, NYC. It Was About This Time I Decided I’d Rather Drive a Garbage Truck Than Photograph “Product”

[This is a follow-up to a previous post, wherein the claim was made that you can’t teach creativity…but you can teach “technique”.]

Can creativity be taught? Not if the Ancients – Plato and Aristotle – are to be believed. Plato believed that creative inspiration was a type of mania. Aristotle believed the same, considering creativity to be the product of an irrational rapture, what he termed ecstaticos. If they’re correct, then ordinary teaching methods can’t explain to a student what is, at base, irrational. The alternative is to try to teach inspiration by yourself being manic or ecstatic, in effect, attempting to infect the student with your own mania. Think of this as “the Dead Poets Society” theory of teaching creativity, after the god awful movie of the same name where Robin Williams is some eccentric high school instructor teaching his kids to write poetry because he’s crazy about it. In theory, this might work occasionally, but it’s unlikely such mania can be objectively transmitted. The best the teacher can do is give an example for the student to observe.

If creativity can’t be taught, can it be nurtured? Yes, in the sense that it can be taught to be effectively expressed using your chosen tools when it does appear. How is this taught? By teaching “craft,” i.e. competence of the fundamentals of one’s creative medium. Craft, what Aristotle called techne, is teachable because it is rule-based. The craft of photography, for example, would be teachable for Aristotle, because it is subject to a set of rules – it possesses a body of information that can be mastered via a theory, and it has a theory that could be written down and handed on to students that they could apply to the body of information. Anyone who’s had the misfortune of having to spend a year wading through Stroebel and Zakia’s Basic Photographic Materials and Processes will know what Aristotle is talking about….and why it isn’t the teaching of creativity itself.

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Is There Anything “Creative” About This Photograph? Or is it Just a Product of “Technique”? Or is it both?

All of this is predicated on the assumption that technique is separate from creativity. But is that true? In my experience, maybe, maybe not. At least for me, the more competent I became with my tools, the greater the creative possibilities that opened up to me. The more I knew “how to do,” the more I felt I had the capacity to express, the more my desire and ability to express. The photo above is a good example. It was driven by certain creative impulses, but it was only possible given I had the tools to accomplish my creative purposes, creative purposes which were themselves intimately interwoven with the potential inherent in my tools. In this sense, the distinction between techne and empeiria noted in Part One, becomes problematic. Could I have expressed myself in this manner if I hadn’t mastered the technique that produced the work? No, at least to the extent I couldn’t have expressed the sentiment conveyed via the medium of photography. Uneducated in photographic craft, I’d be limited to some other means of expressing the sentiment, writing maybe, or speech. In that case I’d need to be proficient in that medium.

To that extent, the idea that craft is separate from art, a fundamental premise of aesthetics since Plato, accepted by the Renaissance and currently a tenet of Modernism, is a false dichotomy, certainly so in technologically dependant creative media like photography. Like all either/or propositions, it does violence to the much more subtle nuances invariably involved in the motivations and capacities of human pursuits, certainly those of creativity as a practical activity. Unfortunately, what’s come down to us in history from the Greeks is largely the product of the Idealist way of thinking – represented by Plato – wherein reality was seen in stark either/or terms, the real versus confusion or error, with no practical middle ground.

However there were Greeks – many thinkers apart from Idealists like Plato and Aristotle – who recognized a more nuanced nature of things. Pyrrhonism – a type of skepticism – believed that anything capable of human mastery could never be understood in its entirety but yet culture required we attempt to transmit what we do know. How such information transmittal worked, well, we didn’t know. Basically, as to all human knowledge, the Pyrrhonists believed the best we could do would be to stay open-minded yet neutral, what they referred to as isotheneia (a balance of arguments on both sides) and aphasia (the refusal to make definitive judgments). In the issue of the relationship of technique to creativity, the Pyrrhonics would say…it’s complicated, and either/or judgments would only further unnecessarily obfuscate attempts to teach and/or encourage creativity.

Call me a Pyrrhonist.

With that in mind, in Part Three, coming shortly, I’ll teach you what I did, and what you can do, to become a better photographer. It’s simple really.

Can You Teach Creativity? Part One

 

Why do people go to Art School? (I wish I’d have asked myself when I was young; it might have saved me a lot of time, money and diverted energy). More specifically, why do people enroll in undergraduate programs in “Photography” or pursue an MFA in the same? Or, more commonly, why do we take ‘Seminars,’ either from recognized ‘experts’ or worse yet, from more rebarbative ilk, the boorish, flim-flammers peddling their nonsense to photographers who happen to use certain equipment? Why do a certain subset of us – ‘street photographers’ –  feel the need to pay good money to follow a self-appointed expert around for a day? What could we possibly learn? What could an ‘expert’ possibly ‘teach?’

I once asked this question to a semi-famous photographer who occasionally gives “street photography” classes through The Center For Documentary Studies at Duke University. Nice enough guy, but he evaded the question by mumbling some platitude while his eyes shifted nervously. Gotcha, I thought at the time, my bet being, deep down, he knew he had nothing to teach other than slavish imitation. My wife took the course. She enjoyed it. Did she become a better photographer? Probably not in any significant way she couldn’t have learned on her own with some minimal attention.

I’ve asked myself this for years, given I went to ‘Art School’ back in the day.  Was I someone who sincerely desired to express himself creatively…or was I just another sheep looking for the simple answer and thus easily led to believe in the expertise of others? If the whole endeavor was legit, what was I expecting to learn? Technique? Visual skills? Camera skills? Interpersonal skills? Street smarts? I’m stumped.  I’m willing to entertain that such pedagogical opportunities might have been of some value to me as a wannabe creator; I just don’t remember my motivations or expectations. Maybe readers who’ve attended these things – or “Art School” no less – might chime in.

So, as I usually do when I’m confused about something – good classicist I am – I go back to the Greeks for edification, ( which is a good general rule for life). Can we be taught “creativity?”

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The Dance of the Muses on Helicon.

The Dance of the Muses 

The Ancients certainly didn’t think so. The Greeks generally understood creativity to be the product of what Plato called mania, inspiration, or Aristotle called ecstaticos, genius. You either had it or you didn’t, and it came and went on its own schedule, irrespective of how hard you tried to conjure it. Paradoxically, the greater the effort to conjure, the less likely it would appear. This is because the Greeks considered such mania to be of divine origin, the gift of your “muse.”  You can’t force the hand of a god, and to attempt to do so is hubris.

 Specifically, the Greeks understood the Muses as the source of orally related knowledge of poetic lyrics and myths and were considered to be the personification of knowledge and of the arts, especially dance, literature, and music. The Muses were mythological beings who breathed inspiration and creative knowledge into mortals. The Muses lived on Mount Olympus, where they entertained the Olympian gods when they weren’t inspiring mortals. That’s the Olympians above, getting down and dirty to the ancient Greek equivalent of a Muse garage band.

The Muses did not teach at university nor did they offer weekend creative retreats or paid seminars. That’s because inspiration, the pre-condition of all creativity, couldn’t be taught.  The best mere mortals could do was to encourage the muse-inspired student and teach him to properly channel his mania when it appeared. This Greek idea of inspiration held the day in western culture through the 19th-Century, when Romantics (think of Goethe, Wordsworth, Emerson, etc) updated the idea of creativity and its sources…and ended up in the same place as the Ancients. They stressed the fundamental non-reductive individuality at the heart of all creativity and believed no group instruction could teach it.

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Helpful Hint #1: People Lying in the Street Make Great Art. Especially if They’re in Paris

My experience in 50 years of attempting creative endeavors is that the Greeks were right (they’re pretty much right about everything, actually). You can’t teach creativity; at best you can teach slavish impersonation of another’s style, which, obviously, is something distinct from creativity. What you can do is encourage inspiration. A teacher can pass along the enthusiasm necessary to be creative. The muses need to do the rest.

The Bauhaus, a 20th-Century German Modernist art and design movement, also believed that creativity couldn’t be taught. The Bauhaus promoted the radical simplification of forms, rationality and functionality. What’s interesting about Bauhaus theory is that they did believe craft was a fundamental pre-condition to any creative attempt. You couldn’t be creative if you weren’t competent to employ your tools in the cause of your creativity. As such, art instruction is legitimate for teaching the basic rules, techniques, and procedures of your chosen craft. Art teachers are really technicians. But that’s as far as they can go.

In this, the Greeks were in agreement. Classic Greek thought made a distinction between subjects that could be taught and those that could not. As noted, creativity, for the Greeks, fell into the later category.  Creativity was emperia, something which you didn’t gain via being taught by someone else, but rather something you “absorbed” via the grace of the gods. It was a gift that came and went on its own terms. In intellectual terms,  mania was not susceptible of theory, which was a prerequisite of all knowledge that could be taught. According to the Greeks, whatever could be taught had 1) a body of information, 2) a set of methods to apply to that information, and 3) a theory of how to apply the method to the info. Such subjects were called techne – crafts or sciences subject to rules – what we moderns call ‘techniques.’

You can teach technique.  And, in fact, the Greeks believed that you must learn technique to avail yourself of what the Muse offered. No technique, no creative receptivity. Can’t have one without the other. So….

To be Continued. Part Two – the Relationship of ‘Technique’ to ‘Creativity’ Or…. Will Using a Leica Make You a Better Photographer?

The Photographer as the Creator of Infinite New Realities – How Cool is That?

 

Post-Modernist Thinker of Big Thoughts, Gilles Deleuze, Paris

French philosopher Michel Foucault says that photographs form spaces called heterotopia, a concept he uses to describe places and spaces that function as something new, a unique space which is neither here nor there, simultaneously both physical and mental, spaces that have more layers of meaning or relationships to other places than immediately meet the eye. According to Foucault, photos do not “capture images: they do not fix them, they pass them on” and we are then left with utterly different spaces: images that are also “events” and “passages” and that are “absolutely unique;” photos construct “events’ that make possible the exploration of an “infinite series of new passages.”

Put in non-philosophical jargon, what Foucault is saying is that photographs always contain more than the merely visible; there are the inevitable associations to places and spaces via the imagination of the viewer and the thoughts, memories and life experiences they bring to their encounter with a photograph, which may change from time to time, from look to look, from viewing to viewing.  For Foucault, past, present and future space are necessarily conflated in the conceptual act required of recreating the visual reality of the photo, and in so doing, we create a heterotopia, a new space enclosing, while simultaneously opening up to, a new world.

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Me, Territorializing Myself via the “Double Movement” of an Assemblage, circa 1974….or, as we call it in America, A Bathroom Mirror Selfie

What is the means by which photography forms this new reality?

The photograph is a site of what French philosopher Gilles Deleuze calls “territorialization” – both de-territorialization and re-territorialization – post-modernist jargon for the claim that a photo both simultaneously gains and looses meaning, depending on who is looking at it, in what cultural era they’re doing so and with what distinct viewpoint.The act of viewing photos is always, at base, a conceptual process that is both productive and destructive, a “double movement” where the photo both accumulates meanings (re-territorialization) and is divested of meanings (de-territorialization).

Photographs are what Deleuze calls  “assemblages,” configurations of linked conceptual components in intersection with each other.  “An assemblage is the result of this process, and can be thought of as constituted by an intensification of these processes around a particular [photo] through a multiplicity of intersections of such territorializations.”  In other words, when looking at a photograph taken by Robert Frank, say, in 1958, its current meaning and interpretation may be completely different to the reading of the same photograph in the era it was taken, given the current cultural and social realities and the distinct concerns of the viewer necessarily embedded in those social and cultural realities. It’s the same photo but different assemblages.

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For Foucault and Deleuze, photographs are creations of the highest order, unique heterotopias redolent of infinite meanings lost and found. Your crummy photographs aren’t simple banal, uninspired documents of fence-posts, cats and/or your adorable kids, they’re the portal to a unique new conceptual reality – “assemblages,” formed from the intersection of your inner mental, physical, psychological, visual and spiritual dimensions at an historical moment in time with all its subjective components. Silly you, you probably had no idea. This is why we need Post-Modernist philosophers, to teach us this.

In all seriousness, we’ve become so incredibly habituated to photographs, we’ve lost sight of their remarkable nature, that maybe that’s a good enough reason to wade through the turgid jargon of thinkers like Foucault and Deleuze to get at the pearl of wisdom hidden therein, to be reminded of the miracle contained in the simple snap of the shutter. Be thankful I’m doing it for you.

It seemingly means nothing to us that we have the miraculous capability of freezing a moment otherwise destined to vanish in time…and thereby creating something new, unique. That’s a remarkably profound gift photography gives us, more so when we understand it in the way articulated by Foucault and DeLeuze – as the creation of an utterly new reality nestled inside a larger reality we share with others. The fact that we’re capable of doing so, with the simple machinery of a light-tight box, should inspire awe in you. Never forget how amazing photography really is.

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.

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?