“We regard the photograph, the picture on our wall, as the object itself (the man, the landscape, and so on) depicted there. This need not have been so. We could easily imagine people who did not have this relationship to pictures. Who, for example, would be repelled by photographs, because a face without color and even perhaps a face in reduced proportions struck them as inhuman.” —Ludwig Wittgenstein
What else, I should like to know, have art and artists ever done except to perceive the individual thing, isolate the object out of the welter of phenomena, elevate it, intensify it, inspire it and give it meaning?” —Thomas Mann
Luxembourg Gardens, Paris, 2003 — 2 1/4 x 2 1/4 Pinhole Negative Straight Scan
“The manner in which one waits for elements to fall into place is far more important than the assistive capability of the software in your camera […] Two truths, one created by a bunch of Adobe’s programmers to impress and allegedly to aid in creativity, the other is the truth of aggregated knowledge along with the quirks inherent in every human mind.” — Stephen Jenner
Let’s Call this “Self-Portrait, 1966″.
As you probably can tell by all the references I’ve recently made to German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1899-1976), I’ve had the misfortune of reading him at some length in the past few years. (Try reading Being and Time on your day off and you’ll better understand what I mean). I say ‘misfortune’ because he’s pretty much unreadable, obtuseness being part of his philosophical schtick, his assurance to you that he’s telling you something deep and profound if only you’re smart enough to understand.
Heidegger did say some important things, evident by his continued relevance in current academic discourse, even if, in addition to being unreadable, he was an odious fascist who embraced Nazism and flourished under it. Specifically, for our purposes, some interesting things to say about the visual artist and art, about the artist’s need for ‘authenticity’ and the process of self-definition creative pursuits offer us. [Remember: you as a photographer are a ‘visual artist’, so all of this applies to you].
Heidegger is considered an ‘Existentialist’, which, in addition to requiring you to sit in Parisian cafes and expound radical political theories, requires your belief that you don’t have any fixed nature but make yourself up as you go along i.e. there’s no such thing as ‘human nature’; you get to define yourself any way you want. For Heidegger, you are a ‘self-interpreting being’ who makes yourself what you are in the course of the activity of your life. To be human is to be an Artist of yourself.
Heidegger sees your ‘Art’ – the self-conscious practice of creating palpable expressions of your inner being i.e. you taking photos- as a part of the process of self-construction that constitutes your life. Heidegger is pointing to the immense importance of creative activities in the process of you being human. The process of creating ‘Art’ i.e. palpable things like novels or paintings or photographs – is distinct from, yet part of, that larger creative act that is your being. Think of your art as permanently fixed creative action, a temporal snapshot – a slice of life – you take from the larger evolving creative process that is your lived life.
Susan, Cape Cod. Me Looking at Her Looking at Me – A Perfect Visual Encapsulation of Heidegger’s Theory of Self
We aren’t alone in this process of creating ourselves. In Heidegger’s view, our being is also defined by the world into which we are “thrown.” Your identity is only possible in what Heidegger calls “shared forms of life” in a “public life world.” There’s no you without the context provided by others, the world you didn’t choose but rather are thrown into. If this is true it introduces a certain serendipity into your supposed ‘self-creation’; you are responsible for creating yourself, yes, but your ability to do so is circumscribed in some sense by the existential realities of others. Insofar as your palpable creations are concerned i.e. your photos, they are the creations of an interactive process that presupposes a third party, the recipient of your work – the viewer, the critic – as a necessary part of the process by which you create yourself. If your art is a formative exchange between you and your work, Heidegger also understands it as a formative exchange between your work and others, and this dynamic is as much a part of the artwork as is your relationship to the work.
Post-Heideggerian heavy thinkers like Merleau-Ponty, Hans-Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur share this ‘dialectical’ concept of truth in art. Only through this dialogue with your work and with others through your work can you authentically express yourself. The ‘meaning’ of an artwork is the sum of dialogue of differing viewpoints brought to the exchange, both spoken and unspoken, between you, and its viewer. What others think about your work matters to you.
Philosophical speculation can be fascinating. Often, though, I find myself wondering whether a given philosopher’s thought mirrors reality rather than an elaborately spun intellectual puzzle. Is Heidegger correct? Are we really somehow defined by how others see us? Are we at the mercy of other’s understanding of what we’re doing? Does it really matter what others say of our self-expression? If so, it seems to compromise the very premise of Heidegger’s notion of art as self-construction. How is it ‘me creating myself through my life and my artistic decisions’ if my truth, my definition, is also dependent on your understanding? How could you possibly participate in my own self-definition? Seems a contradiction in terms.
I don’t buy it. If my photography is a form of ‘self-creation’ I shouldn’t need input into what I’m doing. I’m doing it for me, not you, and it needs to make sense to me and if it does it doesn’t matter to me if it makes sense to you. It’s why I’ve often resisted showing my work in public. I can’t remember ever getting a comment or critique that helped me understand what I was doing. It’s why photo competitions and portfolio critiques seem deflections of creative energy, and at worst, self-destructive. It’s the off-loading of creative responsibility on others, or, at the least, a refusal to take responsibility for your creative autonomy.
Critique my work all you want, it’s your right. I’m glad it’s out there and possibly a small piece in what helps you achieve your own self-definition. But don’t confuse your critique with something that’s going to aid me on my own creative path. You can’t know. You don’t have that power…unless I cede it to you, and if I cede it you, I’m abdicating my own responsibility for self-definition.
The bottom line: use your photography in a way that makes sense to you. Stop apeing others and create photos that have meaning for you. Forget the ‘shoulds’ that others always seem to want to impose on what is a uniquely personal and singular quest. Allow others to do the same. Each of us, in exercising our creative capacities is building a self. Build the self that works for you.
“I photograph to see what things look like photographed.” Garry Winogrand
One of the things I appreciate about photography is that it gives you permission to look. Most of the time I don’t. I’m usually operating on auto-pilot, oblivious to anything around me except something that’s outside normal expectations. I suspect we all live this way, conserving our limited attention for when evolution had bred in us a need – fight/flight, sex, food. What about our aesthetic sense – which evolution has clearly prioritized as a basic human need? How might we indulge a sense of beauty? Does being a photographer assist in some way? I think it does.
Garry Winogrand was onto something when he decided to photograph things to see what they looked like when photographed. He was one of the first photographers to recognize the camera’s potential to make us see things. It both gives us permission to look and creates new visual realities, showing us things we otherwise wouldn’t see. The nice thing about the digital age is I now always carry a camera with me, which allows me to always be looking at things in terms of what they might look like photographed. Back in the film era, that really wasn’t possible, unless you were a lunatic like Winogrand who left behind 6500 unprocessed rolls of film at his death. Today, all you need is your iPhone and some attention. Winogrand would have gone nuts with an iphone.
Think of photography as a means to discover things, a way of saying “Look at what I saw!’ Often times (not always) it’s not so much a way of documenting what is but rather discovering new ways things might look if you leave yourself open to it. And because it’s about leaving yourself open to seeing how things might look, everything is opened up to you as a subject. An afternoon walk with the dogs and an iPhone can become an exercise in seeing things. This is a profound gift digital photography gives us. It turns a routine walk into an aesthetic experience…if we let it. That’s pretty cool.
All photos taken with an iPhone 8 and processed in camera with Snapseed
1978: Me the Brooding Art Photographer. What Did I think I was Doing?
Why do we take photographs? Why, for many of us, is the act of photographing so central to our lives and who we are? It’s a question I’ve been asking myself lately. I’m not sure I have the answer, but I suspect it has something to do with the fleeting nature of time and a desire to arrest its flow.
I’ve been photographing ‘seriously’ since I was 12. By ‘serious’ I mean intentionally engaged in the practice of photography as something more than merely reflexively recording meaningful moments in time. Granted, much of the pleasure I’ve derived from my interest has been centered around my fascination with cameras. What started the whole thing was a 7th-grade teacher, Mr. Smith, showing me his plain prism Nikon F. I was hooked. From there I was lucky enough to purchase a succession of increasingly impressive cameras, culminating in a Leica in 1977 (for those of you not around then, a Leica was a quasi-mystical thing that cost 5x a normal camera if you could find one; it didn’t really do anything more than a Nikon F did, rather it marked you out as photographic cognoscenti. It appealed to snobs even then.)
I’ve always understood my interest in photography to serve a larger purpose, but I’m not sure I’d have been able to articulate what that purpose is/was. Maybe that’s the point of what great thinkers have noted about language and reality; the net of language misses much of what we experience. Maybe photography is a way of articulating things language can’t. Maybe it’s an inarticulate attempt to establish a sense of permanence amidst the relentless passage of time, a way of memorializing the fact that ‘this happened.’
Me 42 Years Later
A week or so ago I was told I had 6 months to live. Aside from the more existential questions that raises (e.g. “Are you fucking kidding me?”), it brought home to me the question of what I’d been doing photographically for the past 50 years. Maybe there was a purpose in it all. Interestingly enough, one of the first things my wife told me I needed to do in the next months was to put my entire photographic library in order so she would have access to it and some sense of what she was looking at. What she said made sense to me. It seems important I do that.
But Why? When I have such limited time, what purpose could devoting much of it to cataloging a photo collection as opposed to ‘living’ whatever remaining time I have? Wouldn’t my time be better served with a trip to Europe to say goodbye to dear friends, or traveling someplace I’d always wanted to see, or simply indulging whatever particular desires I might want to indulge…smoking, drinking, recreational heroin use (I must admit, I am seriously considering buying a Ducati Panagale V4 so as to enjoy outrunning hapless North Carolina Sheriff’s Deputies throughout the backroads of the state).
I’m of the belief that people only really ‘die’ when the last person who remembers them dies. You live on in the people who love you and carry your memory. My father, who died ten years ago, seems as alive to me now as he ever has, a large reason being the photographs I have of him. It’s something more than the mere photograph itself. It’s remembering the entire experience the photo conjures as me the photographer and my father as my subject. Photos support and enlarge his memory, helping keep him alive. It’s an invaluable gift photography gives us.
Back When I Thought I’d Live Forever
So, I’ve since been told that there’s a ‘chance’ I might be cured, or at least my life prolonged past the proverbial ‘six months.’ Hope springs eternal, as they say. A few rounds of chemo, a few surgeries and I’m as good as new. I’m now considering all the things I’ve yet to do after I get through with the medical issues. I’m still going to be putting my photography in order though, just in case.
“Silence is the hidden content of the words that count.” A.G Sertillanges
I’m suspicious of critics who write about photography as an art form. I don’t think I’ve ever read a critical essay about a specific photograph or body of photographs that has in any sense added to, or explained, the experience given by the photograph itself. This is not to say that there isn’t good writing about photography. There is. Sontag and Barthes come to mind, but what they are doing is writing about photography as a practice and not attempting to explain or supplement the truth of specific photos. Reason, as expressed in language, can not articulate visual truths. Reason’s last step, according to Blaise Pascal, is to recognize its limitations.
For that matter, photographers who attempt to explain their work via written captions or accompanying essays seem to me to be missing the very point of visual art itself: visual art expresses that which can’t be expressed with words. To use a metaphor of the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant, words are a net we strain reality through. A lot gets through the net. What the visual arts offer us is a portion of that reality that gets through the net of language.
This, I think, is the power of photography and why many of us are drawn to it in a very profound way. It’s a means of expressing things that can’t be expressed verbally. The photograph above is an example. I found it on a roll of film I recently developed. I don’t now remember its specifics – why the took it, what I saw in it, if anything at the time – but now, as a finished product standing by itself, it denotes something to me. It presents something visible to me, something that resonates with me. Whatever it is, it’s not capable of being put into words. It represents that portion of reality Kant would say has slipped through the net of language.
Ludwig Wittgenstein remarked on the human urge to “run up against the limits of language.” We instinctively understand that words somehow deaden the fullness of our experiences. According to Isaiah Berlin, this is the paradox of language when faced with profundity: “the more I say the more remains to be said … as soon as I speak it becomes quite clear that, no matter how long I speak, new chasms open. No matter what I say I always have to leave three dots at the end. Whatever description I give always opens the doors to something further, something even darker, perhaps, but certainly something which is in principle incapable of being reduced to precise, clear, verifiable, objective prose.”
German philosopher Martin Heidegger agrees with Wittgenstein and Berlin…up to a point. Much of Heidegger’s philosophy is about limits, of knowledge, of words, of expression. For Heidegger, logical thought -i.e. that which can be expressed – is not sufficient when we’re trying to talk about certain things. “The very idea of “logic” disintegrates in the vortex of a more original questioning,” wrote Heidegger. Wittgenstein, Berlin and Heidegger all agree there is more of life than can be articulated. Heidegger, however, makes the further claim that what happens in the interstices between words is what’s really important. This is where we find the most profound truths. For Heidegger, this is a qualitative advance on what Kant was saying. Kant (and Wittgenstein and Berlin) was saying that some reality slips past the net of language. Heidegger is claiming that the most important part of reality slips through the net.
So, how do we communicate this most important portion of the real? Heidegger attempted to do so via language. This is the paradox of Heidegger and the reason he’s so hard to understand. He is attempting, with words, to express the truth that words miss the larger truth. This is purposeful. Heidegger holds that we should try to say something about the interstices – that the fact that we recognize an interstice means that there’s something to be said about it, however vague and preliminary that might be. Not directly, perhaps, and not even particularly clearly, but we shouldn’t abandon all efforts to use words to speak about things that lie beyond language. Unfortunately, Heidegger never took the next logical step of analyzing the visual arts and what role they might play in the process of expressing what’s true. I believe he might have found a way out of his expressive paradox had he done so.
A madness, an extraordinary fanaticism took possession of all these new sun-worshippers – Charles Baudelaire 1859
Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) was a poet, essayist, art critic, and translator of Edgar Allan Poe. His most famous work, a book of poetry titled Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil), is about finding beauty in the industrializing world of the mid-19th century. Baudelaire’s work influenced a generation of French poets including Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud and Stéphane Mallarmé. Think of him as the Patti Smith of his day. He is considered the father of the aesthetic movement now known as ‘Modernism’ and is credited with coining the term “modernity” (modernité) to designate the experience of urban life and the responsibility of the artist to capture that experience.
Baudelaire was, paradoxically, deeply ambivalent about modernity and specifically, the role mechanism played in the productions of creativity. Baudelaire’s 1856 poem, Correspondences reduces the ‘Realist’ aesthetic (i.e. the description of things as they appear, of which Photography as a practice is concerned) to irrelevance. Baudelaire saw 19th-century ‘Realism’ as something new in human history, a secular version of what the Greeks called metanoia: a change of mind, a new way of looking at oneself and the world… but it was mistaken. Reality was actually an immaterial “forest of symbols,” a dictionary of subjective associations, metaphorical forms rather than concrete phenomena. Photography, rooted in ‘Realism,’ could never represent this true reality.
In this 1859 commentary on photography, Baudelaire critiques the public’s fascination with photography. “It is useless and tedious to represent what exists because nothing that exists satisfies me…. I prefer the monsters of my fantasy to what is positively trivial.” Baudelaire’s anti-materialist perspective and this commentary on photography will influence Symbolist poets and artists in the decades after his death. Baudelaire’s aesthetics will subsequently be used to support every modernist movement from Fauvism and Cubism through Abstract Expressionism. As such, understanding Baudelaire’s thinking about photography can teach us much about the assumptions underlying both photography and modern art.
Baudelaire’s Salon of 1859 was first published in the Révue Française, Paris, June 10-July 20, 1859. This selection is from Charles Baudelaire, The Mirror of Art. Jonathan Mayne editor and translator. London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1955.
“During this lamentable period, a new industry arose which contributed not a little to confirm stupidity in its faith and to ruin whatever might remain of the divine in the French mind. The idolatrous mob demanded an ideal worthy of itself and appropriate to its nature – that is perfectly understood. In matters of painting and sculpture, the present-day Credo of the sophisticated, above all in France (and I do not think that anyone at all would dare to state the contrary), is this: “I believe in Nature, and I believe only in Nature (there are good reasons for that). I believe that Art is, and cannot be other than, the exact reproduction of Nature (a timid and dissident sect would wish to exclude the more repellent objects of nature, such as skeletons or chamber-pots). Thus an industry that could give us a result identical to Nature would be the absolute of Art.” A revengeful God has given ear to the prayers of this multitude. Daguerre was his Messiah. And now the faithful says to himself: “Since photography gives us every guarantee of exactitude that we could desire (they really believe that, the mad fools!), then photography and Art are the same thing:’ From that moment our squalid society rushed, Narcissus to a man, to gaze at its trivial image on a scrap of metal. A madness, an extraordinary fanaticism took possession of all these new sun-worshippers. Strange abominations took form. By bringing together a group of male and female clowns, got up like butchers and laundry-maids in a carnival, and by begging these heroes to be so kind as to hold their chance grimaces for the time necessary for the performance, the operator flattered himself that he was reproducing tragic or elegant scenes from ancient history. Some democratic writer ought to have seen here a cheap method of disseminating a loathing for history and for painting among the people, thus committing a double sacrilege and insulting at one and the same time the divine art of painting and the noble art of the actor. A little later a thousand hungry eyes were bending over the peepholes of the stereoscope, as though they were the attic-windows of the infinite. The love of pornography, which is no less deep-rooted in the natural heart of man than the love of himself, was not to let slip so fine an opportunity of self-satisfaction. And do not imagine that it was only children on their way back from school who took pleasure in these follies; the world was infatuated with them. I was once present when some friends were discretely concealing some such pictures from a beautiful woman, a woman of high society, not of mine—they were taking upon themselves some feeling of delicacy in her presence; but “No,” she replied. “Give them to me! Nothing is too strong for me.” I swear that I heard that; but who will believe me? “You can see that they are great ladies,” said Alexandre Dumas. “There are some still greater!“ said Cazotte.
As the photographic industry was the refuge of every would-be painter, every painter too ill-endowed or too lazy to complete his studies, this universal infatuation bore not only the mark of a blindness, an imbecility, but had also the air of a vengeance. I do not believe, or at least I do not wish to believe, in the absolute success of such a brutish conspiracy, in which, as in all others, one finds both fools and knaves; but I am convinced that the ill-applied developments of photography, like all other purely material developments of progress, have contributed much to the impoverishment of the French artistic genius, which is already so scarce. In vain may our modern Fatuity roar, belch forth all the rumbling wind of its rotund stomach, spew out all the undigested sophisms with which recent philosophy has stuffed it from top to bottom; it is nonetheless obvious that this industry, by invading the territories of art, has become art’s most mortal enemy, and that the confusion of their several functions prevents any of them from being properly fulfilled. Poetry and progress are like two ambitious men who hate one another with an instinctive hatred, and when they meet upon the same road, one of them has to give place. If photography is allowed to supplement art in some of its functions, it will soon have supplanted or corrupted it altogether, thanks to the stupidity of the multitude which is its natural ally. It is time, then, for it to return to its true duty, which is to be the servant of the sciences and arts— but the very humble servant, like printing or shorthand, which have neither created nor supplemented literature. Let it hasten to enrich the tourist’s album and restore to his eye the precision which his memory may lack; let it adorn the naturalist’s library, and enlarge microscopic animals; let it even provide information to corroborate the astronomer’s hypotheses; in short, let it be the secretary and clerk of whoever needs an absolute factual exactitude in his profession—up to that point nothing could be better. Let it rescue from oblivion those tumbling ruins, those books, prints and manuscripts which time is devouring, precious things whose form is dissolving and which demand a place in the archives of our memory—— it will be thanked and applauded. But if it be allowed to encroach upon the domain of the impalpable and the imaginary, upon anything whose value depends solely upon the addition of something of a man’s soul, then it will be so much the worse for us!
I know very well that some people will retort, “The disease which you have just been diagnosing is a disease of imbeciles. What man worthy of the name of artist, and what true connoisseur, has ever confused art with industry?” I know it; and yet I will ask them in my turn if they believe in the contagion of good and evil, in the action of the mass on individuals, and in the involuntary, forced obedience of the individual to the mass. It is an incontestable, an irresistible law that the artist should act upon the public, and that the public should react upon the artist; and besides, those terrible witnesses, the facts, are easy to study; the disaster is verifiable. Each day art further diminishes its self-respect by bowing down before external reality; each day the painter becomes more and more given to painting not what he dreams but what he sees. Nevertheless it is a happiness to dream, and it used to be a glory to express what one dreamt. But I ask you! does the painter still know this happiness?
Could you find an honest observer to declare that the invasion of photography and the great industrial madness of our times have no part at all in this deplorable result? Are we to suppose that a people whose eyes are growing used to considering the results of a material science as though they were the products of the beautiful, will not in the course of time have singularly diminished its faculties of judging and of feeling what are among the most ethereal and immaterial aspects of creation?”
Next: Walter Benjamin, (1982-1940) German Jewish philosopher, cultural critic and essayist critiques Baudelaire’s critique of photography.
It is always good to keep your eyes wide open, because you never know what you will discover. The drive to live life more alertly being an instinctive need, whether you are an artist by trade or desire, the art of seeing well is a necessary skill, which fortunately can be learned. -Michael Kimmelman
What’s the point of photography? Maybe the bigger question is: what’s the point of looking at things, really looking at them? That’s what we’re doing when we photograph. Granted, we’re placing a value on preserving how something looks, whether it be a lover, a pet, a glimpse of what we daily encounter…. but we’re also attending to it in the moment. That’s why we value simple photographic tools – mechanical rangefinders the perfect example – that get out of our way and allow us to experience the moment without having to ‘interface’ with a machine and its requirements.
A good example is the difference between using my M5 or my Ricoh GXR with the M module. I rarely even use the meter in my M5; I find it more a disturbance than a help. What I like is the big, clear 35mm window, no clutter, just a focusing patch and you’re done dealing with the machine. Look at the light, set your exposure and forget the little details. The rest is looking. The Ricoh? Great little camera, but I’m constantly fiddling with something – a menu, an ISO setting, something flashing on the damn LCD – my attention drawn away from what I’m trying to see. It’s the story of every digital camera I’ve ever used; once you reach a certain level of competency i.e. you’ve distilled the photographic act down to its basics, all those technological ‘aids’ – those things camera makers promised us would make our experience better – just get in your way.
For that matter, what’s the value of what we as photographers create? What’s the value of looking at a photo hung in a gallery or museum or published in a book? Why is it so important to us? For me, the point is the process of perceiving itself. It meets some primal need humans possess. But it also has to be disinterested to be an aesthetic experience. Looking at porn isn’t aesthetic, no matter how well done; the reason it isn’t is because we’re motivated by something other than the enjoyment of beauty. A genuinely aesthetic experience of beauty is aimless. We only fully apprehend the experience when we remain disinterested. A vested interest in what you’re looking at gives you tunnel vision. You see what you’re looking for, and as such, you don’t really see.
Photography allows me to move through the world with an attitude of detachment, in a state of heightened awareness. I’m always looking…which means I’m seeing things people habituated to their environments typically don’t. That’s pretty cool; we’re not here long. Best to pay attention while we are.
Photography – or, more precisely, film photography, where there’s typically a lag between what we see and how we see it reproduced by the camera – amplifies the enjoyment I get in looking. It allows me a second chance to see something I’ve already seen and to see it with new eyes. It’s why I find myself increasingly drawn to photograph the people I love. I’ll run a roll of HP5 through my camera in a day or two, just shooting domestic scenes around me – my wife, the kids, my dogs – and throw it in the pile of rolls to be developed at some later time. That invariable means a year or two down the road, when I’ve accumulated enough unexposed film to shame myself into doing something about it. When I develop them I’m always amazed at what I get. The banal circumstances of my domestic experience seem somehow re-valued and take on a larger meaning. The photo puts them in context. I understand what I see – and value it – just a bit better.
Howard Axelrod, in The Stars in Our Pockets, addresses the technological processes that remove us from having to pay attention. GPS is an instructive example: with it we passively navigate our environment without reference to its larger context or where within that context we fit. It’s all end result – do we get there, or don’t we. (He doesn’t address the larger issue – that we’re also using a machine to move through space which itself mitigates our environmental interaction). Axelrod asks, “Will we still be able to achieve a kind of orientation that is really a kind of wisdom?”
It’s this “orientation that is really a kind of wisdom” that photographic looking gives. The heightened attention it cultivates can be difficult to practice. Really looking with disinterest requires effort. You can’t do it if your attempts to do so are mediated by tools that divert your attention instead of focusing it. In a photographic context it requires the correct tool, something that remains transparent to our purposes. This is why we hold onto those cameras that become extensions of our seeing through excellent haptics and long usage. Usually I don’t even recall putting the M5 to my eye; it’s such a simple act, done so many times, that its reflexive now. The digital camera? Not a chance. Even though it’s full of the technologies that supposedly simplify my experience – auto exposure, autofocus, auto ISO, facial recognition, etc etc, they’re never transparent to the act; I’m always scrolling through some fucking menu, or looking for some dial to turn or button to push in response to some LCD readout. The camera is telling me what to see.
There’s a reason we love our old mechanical film cameras. When used competently and correctly, they allow us to give ourselves over to the moment. We can exist in the moment for no reason or purpose other than that of the experience alone, for the appreciation and apprehension of what’s in front of us. That’s a remarkable gift. It’s also what’s required if one wants to produce work of any meaning, work that will help others see as well.
I’ve been looking at a lot of photographs lately. Photo books, to be more precise. I spent last night looking through Josef Koudelka: Nationality Doubtful, (2014), a retrospective of Koudelka’s career published in conjunction with an exhibition of the same title co-organized by the Art Institute of Chicago and the J. Paul Getty Museum. Along with Robert Frank, Koudelka may be the photographer I admire the most. There’s something incredibly luxurious about his work, especially Gypsies and Exile – both shot with 35mm b&w film – when viewed as printed photos and not simply images on a screen. It’s something the current generation of photographers may be missing, which is a shame. The times a photograph has really moved me, not simply as an interesting visual experience but as something existentially and profoundly alive, have all been when viewing a physical print, whether hanging on a wall or printed in a book.
There’s something remarkably satisfying about looking at b&w film photographs printed in a high-end photo book on 100 weight semi-glossy fine-art photo paper. There’s a tactile dimension to the experience that incorporates both the hand and the eye. It’s so much more rewarding and inspiring than viewing the same photos on a screen, something about the instantiation of the photo as a ‘thing’ which makes the experience of the image on a screen so remarkably impoverished in comparison. Some of the most intense visual experiences I’ve ever had have been either standing in front of a matted and framed photo hanging in an exhibition or printed on the pages of a fine-art photo book. Viewed on a screen, it’s just another image, one of thousands we consume daily. Viewed on a gallery or museum wall, or as a page in a book held in one’s hands, it’s a unique thing having specific tangible qualities. One thing I’m sure of, and that’s b&w film photos print better than b&w digital photos. There’s some essential character of a printed 35mm negative that can’t be duplicated with digital capture no matter how you attempt to post-process it to mimic film. If you don’t see that, well, I’m not sure we have much to talk about.
Which leads to the larger question: Why do we love photographs? What is it about them that makes their experience so important to us? Joseph Addison, an English essayist, poet, playwright in his 1712 essay “The Pleasures of Imagination” sees it as a matter of possession (as in physical possession of a thing): “A man of polite imagination is let into a great many pleasures, that the vulgar are not capable of receiving. He can converse with a picture, and find an agreeable companion in a statue. He meets with a secret refreshment in a description, and often feels a greater satisfaction in the prospect of fields and meadows, than another does in the possession. It gives him, indeed, a kind of property in everything he sees, and makes the most rude, uncultivated parts of nature administer to his pleasures: so that he looks upon the world, as it were in another light, and discovers in it a multitude of charms, that conceal themselves from the generality of mankind.”
If you agree with Addison, the pleasure we derive from looking at photos is a solitary thing, not beholden to being shared or intensified by being experienced with others. Experiencing Art is not about shared pleasure; in fact, it’s the opposite. It’s because it’s an experience fundamentally incommunicable; I’ll be damned if I can explain to you why I sat up till 3:30 AM last night looking at Koudelka’s photos, or why I find myself obsessively going back to Robert Frank’s Valencia 1952, or why I could stand slack-jawed in front of a simple Walker Evans photograph in the Getty museum.
One thing that Koudelka, Frank, and Evans have in common, and that is their aversion to captioning their work. They present their photos without explanation, and we the viewers get to decide what it means. As Gerhard Richter has noted, “pictures which are interpretable, and which contain a meaning, are bad pictures.” A good picture “takes away our certainty because it deprives a thing of its meaning and its name. It shows us the thing in all the manifold significance and infinite variety that preclude the emergence of any single meaning and view.”