Italians have a word dietrologia — literally translated as “behindology.” It’s the art of looking behind the surface of things to find their meanings, the hidden meanings of things. The Italian dictionary defines dietrologia as the “critical analysis of events in an effort to detect, behind the apparent causes, true and hidden designs.”
I’m pretty sure it’s a necessary trait for creativity, the ability to see more than the surface of the thing. Creativity is the ability to generate novel insights, to see behind the surface banality of a thing and suggest a glimpse of what it might mean if looked at from a novel perspective. To do that, it helps to have a head full of other things – things you’ve seen, and experienced and read about or heard or thought through. All of these things you weave together with what you’re observing and the end result is seeing something new.
The trick, of course, is to possess the ability to show others what you’ve seen. Successful creatives communicate their visions. Think of someone like Martin Scorcese in film, Trent Parke in photography, John Coltrane in music. They each have a unique vision that ties together their work and makes it theirs, and they possess the skill to tell that vision to others. There’s two parts to the creative equation – 1) seeing, and 2) telling. In order to be successful creatively, you need to be good at both. Unfortunately, recently I’m having trouble with both. I used to be a fairly proficient dietrologist. Lately, not so much. I’m, as they say, stuck, seeing nothing new or interesting. I’m hoping that eventually changes. Who knows. If past experience is any indication, one day I’ll wake up and see compelling pictures everywhere.
According to 19th-century art critic John Ruskin, the “greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way.” I’m not sure I’d go that far, but I do agree to the extent that seeing and telling seems a uniquely human thing to do, and it’s something really important to us, both as individuals and as a species. And specifically, image-making – a type of seeing and telling – is a necessary part of our emotional, psychological and intellectual make-up.
Literally, the earliest evidence we have for human culture are images, paintings of animals deep within caves that date to times before we’re sure humans even possessed language. The cave paintings of Pech Merle, Font-de-Gaume, Rouffignac, Chauvet and Lascaux are thought to be more than 30,000 years old. Bisons, lions and other extinct creatures cover the cave walls. What’s interesting about these pre-historic cave drawings is their undeniable aesthetic quality. Whatever their purpose, it was more than just transmission of knowledge, as some anthropologists claim (i.e. information about the location and movement of prey animals etc); there exists a vision behind these images, a felt need to communicate something aesthetically, the same thing that motivated Boticelli or Jasper Johns…or Walker Evans. Many animals are depicted in vivid color, with a sense of perspective and anatomical detail requiring significant artistic skill. Picasso was awed by their aesthetic power. “We have invented nothing,” he remarked after a visit to Lascaux in 1940.
The question is why the ability or desire – or both – comes and goes as it does. Part of it, for me, has been the exponential inundation we’ve experienced via digital media. Technologically compelling images are everywhere, and, as such, they no longer have any value because they have nothing beyond their surface glossiness. They say nothing by representing everything superficially, everything glossed over with the hyperreality of marketing. They’re meaningless visual trinkets mindlessly created and consumed, all alike in their technologically mandated perfection. They represent the antithesis of a unique vision, all surface, saying nothing.
I started Leicaphilia years ago because I thought there needed to be someone advocating for film photography before it was totally swallowed up by digital. In the years writing it I’ve come to see the issue in more nuanced terms. What I’ve been really criticizing is the conflation of excellent images with images that rely on technology for their visual interest. Maybe shooting film is a self-imposed means to marginalize the ability of technology to hijack the creative process for its own ends. But, let’s face it – shooting film is a pain in the ass. Mind you, I ‘love’ the process, but I’ve come to realize that you don’t get points for difficulty. As to its success or lack thereof, a photograph stands on its own. It doesn’t matter how you produced it. Or does it?
Josef Koudelka, Wenceslas Square, Prague, 22 August 1968, 5:01 PM
The view is in black and white, the grainy look of 1960’s era black and white film so typical of the journalistic photography of the time. The photo has the greyish cast of an overcast central European late-afternoon, what’s left of the day’s sun hidden somewhere behind a sky of low, scuttering clouds. Josef Koudelka, the Czech photographer taking the photo, has framed the photo horizontally in a 2:3 format, a function of the 35mm film used by the Exacta camera he was known to use throughout the ’60s. The photo is a view onto Wenceslas Square in Prague, Czechoslovakia on the afternoon of August 22, 1968. 5:01 PM to be precise. The photographer’s perspective seems to be a few floors up, seemingly in the middle of the Square itself, probably standing atop whatever monument graces the center of the Square.
Wenceslas Square, stretching out to a vanishing point, is empty, devoid of automobile or pedestrian traffic, although there are a few tiny, out-of-focus bystanders at the lower-left edge of the frame, some of them crouched together in what looks like commiseration of some sort. In the close foreground, a disembodied arm with wristwatch intrudes into the frame from the lower left, the watch face and the arm’s clenched fist positioned in the lower middle of the frame where it draws the viewer’s eye as the first plane of focus, but low enough that one’s glance wants to shift fore and aft, first the arm and wrist, then the Square behind, then the wrist again and the watch with its face on display. Presumably, the arm and fist and wristwatch belong to the photographer. The wristwatch says the time is 5:01.
Absent context, it’s unclear what this photo is asking of the viewer. The choice of black and white points to a documentary intent, although the view offered by Koudelka is banal, confusing, without an easily identified subject on which to focus. The camera’s optical focus is on the arm; the compositional focus seems to be both the Square and the watch, although, without further context, we’re not given any clues to make sense of which might have priority or what the relationship is, if any, between the two subject planes. While there’s a superficial inertia to the composition created by the compositional elements – no visible movement to be seen – upon closer viewing there’s a balanced tension radiating from the composition, a tension charged with potential energy that suggests something is about to happen, soon. The wristwatch, its minute hand in a wonky, off-axis position, connotes not stasis, but its opposite, an impending action about to shatter the delicate equilibrium of the captured moment. What it is that’s going to happen seems to be in the balance. The truth of the photo seems to be a function of the past, the present, and the future, whether it be more of what appears to be a temporary lull or rather of developing conflict and sinister atrocity. It’s as if the photographer, and us as viewers, are waiting for something to happen to help us finally make sense of what we see.
Determining anything more from within the four corners
of the photo is futile. To understand what Koudelka is trying to tell us, we
On Wednesday, August 20, 1968, soldiers from the USSR, the German Democratic Republic, the Polish People’s Republic, the Hungarian People’s Republic and the Bulgarian People’s Republic invaded the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic and occupied the Czech capital of Prague. The invasion was led Soviet troops at the behest of the leaders of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in response to the spontaneous Czechoslovak socio-political movement called the “Prague Spring,” wherein Czechoslovakia’s Communist leadership experimented with various political and social reforms deemed unacceptably liberal by Soviet standards.
Via a declaration by Czech leaders conveyed to the “People of Prague” by radio on the morning of August 21, both the Czech Army and Czech citizenry were ordered to stand down and not engage in any provocation or retaliation, as such would be counter-productive to the stated aims of the Prague Spring: “We call upon the people of Prague, in particular, the workers – Prevent any possible provocation! At this moment, defense by force is impossible! Our defense must be a dignified, prudent approach, unswerving loyalty to the process we began in January! In response, the Czech citizens who flooded the streets of Prague restricted their outrage to shouting slogans and peaceful resistance. Yet, as more residents crowded into the streets and surrounded the invader’s tanks and troop transports, Soviet soldiers fired into the crowd, killing a number of Czechs. Czechoslovak Communist Party leaders were arrested and removed to locations outside Prague and martial law was declared throughout the country, including a ban on public assembly. By that night, given limited knowledge of the Soviet dictated curfew, the occupying forces were driving their vehicles into the crowds and shooting random protestors who remained on the streets.
The next morning, August 22, Prague’s streets were empty. But as the day progressed, the news spread that there was to be a massive demonstration on Wenceslas Square at five o’clock. It was, in fact, a Soviet provocation, meant to provide a justification for the occupiers to crack down further. Warsaw Pact tanks and troop transports idled in the streets outside the Square, awaiting the arrival of what was expected to be massive crowds of Czech resisters. Czech Radio, still in the hands of Czech partisans, pleaded with its listeners to stay inside; the alternative would be a massacre. The question was – would the residents of Prague stay home?
At 5:01 Koudelka took the photo. His wristwatch tells
you as much.
There are two aspects of ethics
implicated in the practice of conflict photography: 1) the doing of it, i.e. can
the practice itself be justified ethically, or is it, as critics claim, inherently
voyeuristic and exploitative; and 2), if it can be justified ethically, is a
justification dependent on the specifics of the practice i.e. are some ways of
doing conflict photography ethically justified while others are not?
The ethical premise which justifies conflict photography as a practice is this: the photographer will be a passive observer of what’s happening in return for being able to document it. This presupposes a stance of non-intervention on the part of the photographer, whose role as witness precludes active participation in what’s being witnessed. This is what allows the photographer to stand passively aside while a Viet Cong prisoner is summarily executed on a Saigon street, or as an emaciated child lies helpless in the dirt while a vulture hovers nearby, waiting for the inevitable. The act of documenting is meant to serve a higher ethical purpose, that of educating others about what’s happening, with the understanding that the knowledge imparted by the photographer’s witness will motivate others to act.
Those others are us, the viewers. As such, we’re implicated ethically as well. The unsettling reality we’re confronted with is not simply the photographer’s ethical obligation but ours as viewers. Our response, however, is dependent to a large extent on what we’re given by the photographer. The photographer is the curator of what the viewer will see and how they will see it. The photographer must choose what to show and what not to show. This is where his power lies, it’s part of his obligation in the process, and it’s where the second ethical aspect of the practice of conflict photography is implicated. How a photographer ‘frames’ what he is presenting will constrain the potential range of viewer response. By ‘framing’, I mean both the technical specifics of the photo, but also what is chosen to be seen and what is chosen not to be seen, and, to my mind, what’s most important, the context within which the photo is presented. If the ultimate end of conflict photography practice is to activate an ethical response from the viewer, then the photographer’s responsibility is to present what’s being documented in a manner both factually and ethically true to the narrative the photographer is ‘documenting.’
Conflict photography, by definition, always has a didactic purpose. This is true, to some extent, of all photography. A photo isn’t simply a statement of fact; it is always, in some sense, an argument. As Susan Sontag notes in her monograph Regarding the Pain of Others, it is “both objective record and personal testimony, both a faithful copy or transcription of an actual moment of reality and an interpretation of that reality.” It’s only within a context that the photo can serve the purpose presupposed by the premise. A photo without context quickly floats free of any meaning imposed upon it by the photographer. If a photo isn’t given form by a narrative sequence, or description, or accompanying text, then it’s the viewer who will bring that context to the photo. And ultimately, if the viewer is left to impose meaning on the conflict photo without guidance from the photographer, the photographer has abdicated his/her ethical responsibility.
Given the didactic purpose of conflict photography, the issue of rhetorical strategy has always occupied a necessary role in the genre. Magnum Photos was founded with a moral perspective on injustice which was specific to its mission. Magnum photographer Abbas Attar, better known by his mononym ‘Abbas’, reflects the means to that end when he says “I am interested in the world, sure, but also in my vision of the world…I try to show my point of view.” As for the specific content of Magnum’s mission, Magnum member Philip Jones Griffiths epitomizes the didactic tendency of Magnum’s photography: “There is no point in pressing the shutter unless you are making some caustic comment on the incongruities of life.”
As the genre has progressed – from the ‘Heroic’ WW2 images of Capa, Chim and Rodgers to the ‘Ironic’ images of Larry Burrows’ Viet Nam era work, to 90’s era work of Giles Peress and Susan Meisalas – conflict photographers’ rhetorical strategies have become more self-consciously evident, more an obvious feature of the work. This has been the consequence both of the imagery itself, the images “more dynamic,” the pictorial emphasis on the action of conflict itself, and, with the passing of the photo magazines like Life and Look, the narrative structures in which those images have been placed. Where Life era photographers were often constrained by the editorial prerogatives of military authority and the publishing magazine, more recent conflict photographers have the ability to publish extended photo monographs that highlight their unique ethical perspectives uncompromised by bureaucratic, social or military obstruction.
In spite of the stated ethical emphasis of recent conflict photography, much of it, when wrenched out of context, as it too often is, seems gratuitous, appealing to a viewer’s baser human motives. A glimpse of an image, usually of graphic violence and human suffering, shorn of the context the viewer would need to properly understand it, appeals to viewers’ baser motives and serves no real purpose but to titillate. Traditional conflict photography tropes that utilize images of atrocity are often counter-productive, exploiting those they mean to advocate for by re-victimizing them, while causing compassion fatigue for viewers. The “forensic aesthetic”, currently in vogue, where victim and violence remain outside the frame and the photographer documents the spaces associated with the conflict, is a response to such criticisms.
I’ve long been an admirer of Josef Koudelka’s photography. A member of Magnum, he’s been producing exceptional photojournalistic work since the early 1960s, most notably his depictions of Roma (“Gypsy”) culture, which Magnum published in book form in 1975, and his documentation, at great personal risk, of the Warsaw Pact invasion of Prague in 1968. Koudelka brings a unique aesthetic to his documentary work, producing some of the most beautiful and sumptuous film photography of his era. While he considers himself a photojournalist, his works can be found in the collections of The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, among many others. It’s the tension between his aesthetics and his subject matter that gives Koudelka’s work its bite, but it also leaves him open to the standard criticisms of any documentary work that retains a strong imprint of the documentarian’s subjective eye.
Koudelka’s Wenceslas Square photo is one of his most reproduced. It’s often found in anthologies of his work, one of the iconic photos for which he is known. This has always confused me, because my exposure to it has been within the context of my appreciation of Koudelka as an artist, someone whose work I appreciated for its formal beauty and coherence. Wenceslas Square, Prague, 22 August 1968, 5:01 PM, doesn’t possess the grand aesthetic beauty Koudelka is known for. It appears uncontrived, almost accidental in its form, more of a throw-away than most of his mannered work. To put it simply, it isn’t that good of a photo if one’s criterion is formal interest. Yet, it’s considered one of his iconic photos.
The reason, of course, is context, or the lack thereof. To understand and appreciate the photo the viewer must be privy to the historical, social and political context within which the photo operates. You’ve got to know the backstory, the specifics of the conflicting parties, the historical, social and political currents that are in the process of intersecting in Wenceslas Square in Prague on August 22, 1968, at 5:01 in the afternoon. If you have that context, the photo is now charged with meaning. It makes sense. You can understand what Josef Koudelka is trying to tell you.
Ostensibly, Koudelka’s subject is an “old style” subject, the heroic resistance of a nascent democratic movement with world-historical consequences. Much of Koudelka’s Prague Spring work retains that traditional didactic style, the style made famous by Capa and Chim and Rodgers. But the photo in question – the Wenceslas Square photo – has more in common with current forensic approaches. Koudelka has always been a cerebral photographer, and at some level, he meant this simple, uncontrived photo to possess a conceptual complexity that would require de-coding by the viewer, much like what’s required of current forensic approaches. Why else place that forearm and watch as a central pictorial element? I read the photo as Koudelka’s rejoinder to the ethical problems inherent in conflict photography. It’s conflict photography as meta-narrative, a conflict photo that comments on the practice of conflict photography itself.
the photo is a factual description – ‘this is what Wenceslas Square looks like
at this time’. No coherent story is denoted, no Romantic trope of sacrifice or
heroism. No encouragement of broader connotative issues. No good vs. bad, right
vs. wrong. It leaves the didactic message, if any, embedded in the broader context
within which the photo exists.
The photo itself is sui generis, there’s no falling back on previous tropes or personal signatures. It is screaming for context, a context that the photograph, standing on its own, can’t provide. Koudelka seems to be playing on this issue of context, his photo, standing by itself, a black box, indecipherable as to motive or allegiances, a screen onto which the viewer must project their passions, beliefs, and biases if they’re to make any sense of it.
The indecipherability is accentuated by the absence of action. It makes the viewer think, question. Whatever the photograph’s attraction, it isn’t dependent on titillation nor is it exploitative in any way. The photo suggests dynamic forces operating underneath the surface calm. What those forces are, and what message they reveal, waits for the context in which they operate. In this respect, it’s honest, deferring to the inherent limitations of conflict photography and, in effect, utilizing them to comment on the practice itself. It’s almost as if Koudelka is posing himself – and his viewers – a question.
Through all of this there’s a person behind the camera, the person with the arm and the watch, presumably the person of Koudelka who ‘takes’ the photo. Koudelka is reminding us that photos aren’t disembodied statements of fact; they are subjective views, the result of infinite choices made by the photographer – where to be, when to be there, what to include, what not to include. ‘Oh, and by the way, don’t forget I’m back here, staging all of this for you’, he seems to be saying.
French philosopher Jean Baudrillard (1929-2007) was interested in the essential falsity of the world we as moderns inhabit. Much of what we take for ‘reality’ isn’t the product of our direct experience of people and things but rather comes to us via images mediated by various media – advertising, movies, magazines, the internet. Our reality – what we consider real – is constructed from this image world. The reality we construct via all this imagery Baudrillard calls ‘hyperreality, ’ a composited reality created by other people to influence you for their own ends, whether it be how you should look and dress, what sort of car you should drive, what gadgets you need to live properly.
In Simulacra and Simulation, Baudrillard claimed that in our modern media-saturated society, where we are constantly bombarded by images, all human experience is now essentially a simulation. Our image-based reality is like an infinitely detailed map existing in a one-to-one relationship with the real territory it describes. The problem is that we take these ‘maps’ of reality presented via images as more real than what actually exists. This is what Baudrillard calls “the death of the real”; all that exists for us are simulations of reality, the representations more important than the ‘real thing’. The massed collection of these simulations has resulted in the condition of ‘hyperreality’, where the distinction between the ‘real’ and simulations has collapsed.
One of Baudrillard’s core arguments is that our world is so thoroughly saturated with images that there’s no longer any way to access a ‘real-world’ that might precede this image world. The image world is our ‘real world, a world we can’t escape or opt out of. It’s now literally impossible to conceptualize a ‘reality’ that precedes and stands apart from the image reality. The causal direction between the real and the representation is now reversed; ‘reality’ is an effect of the image, rather than the image springing from a reality prior to and deeper than it. Instead of art imitating life, life now imitates art.
We naively think of reality as being separate from the images that claim to represent it. Documentary photography – and traditional notions of photography in general – have considered the relationship of images to reality as follows: there exists reality, and then images are created that reflect that reality. But is this still true in the digital age, where photographers present bright orange trains running under aqua blue-green moonlit skies? In The Evil Demon of Images (1984) Baudrillard claims that that relationship has now become inverted: now it’s the image that comes first, preceding and creating the very reality it claims to reflect, a reversal of the traditional causal relationship between reality and the image.
If you believe Baudrillard, then it raises all sorts of issues re: photography. First, if our reality is already media created, can we speak in any meaningful sense of photography as being a means of documenting a reality that precedes the photograph, or is the phot then an image of an image world, something doubly removed from an inaccessible objective reality? Is it possible to ‘believe’ a photo accurately represents a prior state of affairs? What does it do for Barthe’s understanding of the referential nature of photography as a medium, its authenticity based upon its indexical reading? It also calls into question your rights and responsibilities as a photographer. Your role as an image-maker becomes really important. Baudrillard would say you’re contributing to the creation of realities. The question then becomes: what is your responsibility in that process?
That’s me, to the right, said “Old Man’ of the title to this piece. No question, I’m old. According to at least one of my readers, (I presume) a millennial, I’m also clueless, at least to the extent I’m resistant to newer manifestations of ‘photography.’ In response to my last post, he submitted a reader’s comment dismissing me as “an old man yelling at clouds,” the proverbial addled old guy standing in his bathrobe yelling at the kids playing ball in the street, the smug implication being that the world has long ago passed me and my kind by, and I should wake up, take note of the fact and move the hell out of the way while a new generation advances our notions of creative possibilities.
Specifically, my previous post concerned my off-hand dismissal of the “photographs” of a guy who authored a piece wherein he extolled the virtues of current digital photography tech and used examples of his work to bolster his claim that current digital technologies make it difficult to not take a great photo. I metaphorically face-palmed at his claim and the “photos” illustrating it. While I didn’t come out and say it, you could infer that I found the illustrating photos to be bad, bad in a way that only someone profoundly unaware of their aesthetic incompetence could produce. And then, after taking a deeper dive into his website, it turns out he’s a relatively well-known “photographer,” having shot stuff for all sorts of ‘hip’ publications. Holy shit, I thought to myself, has it come to this, that these hyper-processed, computer-generated in-your-face graphic simulacra are now what the millennial generation consider to be ‘photography?’ Is this what we now hold out as excellence, what current ‘photographers’ are aspiring to? No thanks. If you know the history of the medium and the necessary role photography plays in the visual arts and the larger culture, if you knew the etymology of the definition ‘photography,’ if you’d read Barthes or Sontag, if you’ve ever developed a negative and wet printed it, you wouldn’t tell me that what this guy is doing is ‘photography,’ because it’s not.
So I wrote about it; there was something unsettling about the fact that the mass understanding of ‘photography’ could have arrived here, at this point; that we’d gotten here, at a place so far removed from a traditional understanding of the medium…and nobody really notices, probably because they’ve come of age in the digital era – an era wherein graphic novels, video games, photo apps and augmented realities are “the real”; because they’re so profoundly ignorant about photography and its history as a visual art, and have no real understanding of the radical shift in consciousness this all entails.
“C’mon in. Buy What We’re Selling. What Have You Got to Lose?”
Already in the 1930’s, Martin Heidegger warned of mechanized technologies transforming modern man’s internal life. For Heidegger the mechanical typewriter was a harbinger of a larger problem: by veiling the essence of writing and script, the typewriter “withdraws from man the essential rank of the hand, without him experiencing the withdrawal appropriately and recognizing that it has transformed the relation of his Being to his essence,” [italics mine] which is a convoluted Heideggerian way of saying that new technologies rob us of our creative powers without our even realizing it.
Obviously, we’re now infinitely advanced from the humble technological advances of the typewriter. Were he alive today Heidegger would go further, saying not only that we aren’t aware of our impoverishment by our technologies, but we’ve been duped into thinking that the very technologies that rob us of our creative autonomy are in fact enhancing it. We’re so mesmerized by the marketing hype produced around these technologies as a means to their replication that we’ve intellectually and emotionally refashioned our loss of autonomy as creative enhancement. It’s a textbook example of what the Existentialists called “Bad Faith,” “Stockholm Syndrome” with respect to technology.
Above is a ‘creation’ of mine. I did it completely myself, if by ‘completely’ one means pushing a button or two and initiating an algorithm created and controlled by someone else to create the end result. Likewise with the self-portrait that leads off above. Twenty years ago I could have offered these ‘creations’ to you as evidence of my artistic skills, and you’d probably be impressed, although you certainly wouldn’t accept them as ‘photographs.’ But they are ‘photographs’ in the currently accepted sense of the term – they were generated by a camera and have some link, however tenuous, to the capture of light. (That’s me, standing in front of my bathroom mirror, the car a 71 Camaro I cycled past parked on a back road.) Now? Created with the push of a button, the rest done for me by a computer algorithm and AI, whatever link they once possessed to the real now completely severed. Anyone can do it. Welcome to ‘photography.’
Why the old-man angst about inevitable technological advances? What’s at stake? it’s certainly not as simple as what I suspect digital millennials think is going on, that of resentment and inflexibility of those of us supposedly psychologically and emotionally wedded to outdated technologies and the concepts on which those traditional methods rest. It’s way more existential than that, something that’s been in the air since the inception of digital, something that forward thinkers have been warning was coming and is now upon us full-bore. It involves a fight for the real and photography as a means to document the real, recognition of the pernicious consequence of severing indexicality from photography, transforming the medium into a means of subjective expression with no link, however tenuous, to brute factuality. It’s about the ‘transformation” Heidegger sees occurring to us – to “Being’ -in this process, a transformation that’s two-fold: first, an increasing retreat of photographic consciousness from the objectively real into subjective virtual worlds, and second, the creation of those virtual worlds not by our own imaginations but imposed on us via the push of a button, the result of it all being a false consciousness confusing imaginative subjection for creative flourishing.
So, next time you smug technological sophisticates begin to feel all superior to us film era Luddites, take a step back and consider that some of us may have articulable philosophical and creative reasons for rejecting the more outre aspects of digital technologies, and those reasons may be grounded in legitimate concerns based on deep historical sympathies. In other words, we may know things, important things, you’ve never even thought about, and you may be wise to listen.
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.
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.
Sigma sd Quattro, 400 iso, Raw conversion in SPP, tweaking in Color 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?
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.
“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.
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.
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 sayand 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.”
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.
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 empeirianoted 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.
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?”
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.
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?