Category Archives: Philosophy of Photography

“Be In The Now”

Me, NYC, December 2003. Photo by Jorge Alvarez

Above is a scan of a photo of me in NYC in 2003. During that year’s Christmas holidays I swapped my Paris flat for a similar walk-up apartment on W. 23rd St in Manhattan. A friend from Paris flew to NYC with me. We spent a week exploring the city, film Leicas in hand during the day, at night doing the normal things two guys temporarily unleashed on the town tend to do. If I remember correctly, it snowed like crazy for a day, and we spent that day walking lower Manhattan, reduced as it was to a small town, city sounds muffled by the snow, the usual pedestrian bustle gone, no cars or taxis running the streets. A magical NYC afternoon. I hadn’t thought much of it again till today, a day dedicated to cleaning up my workspace in anticipation of a new printer (I’ve just ordered a Canon Pro 100 PIXMA printer, having tossed an almost new Epson R3000 because of print head clogs. I will NEVER buy another Epson printer…”fool me once” and all). In so doing I found a box of old photos and decided to scan some of them, the one above included. It brings back a lot of really good memories – a great friend, NYC, a time in my life that meant something important to me.

I’m lucky never to have lost my childhood wonder of photography. It’s easy to forget how few people, historically speaking, have lived in an era where one had the ability to capture a moment in time via a photograph. Photography was only invented less than two centuries ago, and it’s only been with the introduction of the Kodak and the Leica 100 years ago where the technology advanced to the point that photography could be enjoyed by regular people. Yet, as a culture we seem completely oblivious to it all, as if it’s just a normal feature of everyday life. It’s not, and we as photographers, of all people, should never forget it.

My mother recently gave me an old photo of my Great Grandmother that had hung on my Aunt’s wall for years. My Aunt died and my mother inherited the picture which she was kind enough to give to me, knowing how much my Great Grandmother meant to me as a child. She lived with us until her death in 1970 at the age of 99, so she was more like a grandmother to me, very kind, a sweet old Dutch woman who used to give me coffee flavored sweets against the wishes of my mom. She also taught me how to tie my shoes. The photo was taken in 1896 in Amsterdam, at CJL Vermeulen’s studio on Heerenstraat 6 to be exact (all of this is written on a card glued to the back of the photo). She would have been 25 at the time. Obviously, I didn’t know her then, but I can still see in the photo the features of the woman I knew. That’s amazing, that a simple photograph has allowed me to see her as she was long before I was even born, gives me even now a window into a reality long past.

A few days after returning home from visiting my mom I had lunch with my ex-wife, a woman with whom I had lived in Amsterdam in 1996. She had no idea about the photo just given me by my mom. She gave me a photograph, of me, in Amsterdam, the one to the right. I remember exactly where she took it; I was standing on Beursstraat, a few hundred meters as the crow flies from where my Great Grandmother stood for her picture a hundred years before. Tell me that’s not cool. There’s a certain kismet about that coincidence, the universe playing a little joke on me, or maybe just a reminder that time can be a slippery thing, the present a stage for the past, the past a harbinger of the future.

 

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Me and my Grandfather, 1979

I admire Zen Buddhism, its simple austerity, emphasis on personal tranquility and its historical encouragement of education and art. Much like the Quakers (of whom I’m an erstwhile member), Zen Buddhism offers religious experience without dogma or institutional control. However, I don’t agree with their complete focus on living in the moment, the “now” at the expense of the past (or future). Everything is not “about the now.” It’s cute as a sound-bite, a pleasing soporific reminding us not to miss the moment. But it’s wrong if it minimizes or denies the profound role that past experience plays in shaping who we are at present. We are the products of our experience, our beings the sum total of the “then.” Consciousness of our past and awareness of the future is what makes us human. Cats and cattle can “live in the moment,” must live in the moment, because they’re not capable of the abstract thinking required to place oneself outside of the present.  The fact that we can is what separates us from them, it’s what makes us human. Without the past we’re unmoored, lost, without the future we’re incoherent. Living completely “in the now” is the tragedy of the Alzheimer sufferer, a spiritual and emotional life reduced to the level of brute animality. Beauty lies in the moment, yes, but the moment is evanescent, always slipping beyond our grasp. In the blink of an eye it’s a memory, and there’s no more potent means of keeping alive, reliving and refocusing the power of that moment than to memorialize it with a photo.

I’m not advocating living in the past. First and foremost, it’s important to live for the future. You need a point on the horizon to move toward. That’s what makes us human. You should always have something to wait for, plans not yet realized, goals not yet reached. At the same time you should be immersed in the past, reliving it, sharing it, learning from it. This is how you keep the past alive. My Great Grandmother and my Grandfather, both now long gone, aren’t truly gone until their memory dies. A photo can preserve that memory. That photo above keeps my Grandfather alive in a very real sense. I can picture him there, sitting at his table, remembering all his particulars. That’s truly remarkable, that I could do that after 40 years, and it’s a function of having that photo which brings it all back to me. That’s my history right there, that’s where I come from, who I am. I get to share it with you.

One more reason to take photos.

What Makes a Good Photograph? It Depends

Lincoln Tunnel, NYC

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

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

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

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Not NYC, but Close Enough

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

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

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

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

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

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A Favorite Ray Metzker Photo

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

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

The Enjoyment of Photography

I enjoy writing this blog. I find it therapeutic, allowing me to formulate thoughts in real time about things that interest me. I’ll usually start with a broad idea which i’ll gradually refine as I write, the end result bearing little resemblance to what I had initially set out to do. Writing, for me, is a process, a means of thinking through things by forcing myself to articulate them. What I end up with often surprises me, but really, the doing of it itself is the real emotional payoff.

Photography is much the same way. I’ll start with one idea which invariably will morph into something else, or it will if I leave myself open to it, which is the key to any creative pursuit- leaving oneself open to wherever your interests take you, what the Ancients would call “following ones muse.”

Paradoxically, it’s as if the best things are drawn out of you by some force separate from your willing self, coming from somewhere deeper and richer than your conscious motivations. No wonder the ancient Greeks believed in one’s muse, a creative impulse incapable of being quantified or measured, immune to rational analysis. Your muse comes and goes on its own schedule, but you connect with it only if you acknowledge it, make the time for it, open yourself up to its possibilities.

It’s remarkable what ‘the Ancients’ can teach us, which is probably the reason great minds in every generation find themselves coming back to them and why I prattle on about them on a photography blog – they have things to say which are relevant to us as photographers, things more nebulous but no less important that the technical aspects of the craft.  Stay at the level of technical expertise and you’re a craftsman, an artisan; follow your muse and you become an artist, a creator.

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It often feels like I’m treading the same ground over and over, and maybe I am. No sooner am I done with one post than I’m starting to think of the next. Ultimately, if I look at it as a series of tasks I need to complete –  creating an ongoing stream of blog posts, no obvious end in sight – the whole process seems futile, like rolling a boulder up the hill only to start all over when it comes rolling back down (itself an Ancient Greek metaphor). it’s this sense of futility, of the never ending practical demands of our goal directed daily endeavors, that creates much of the frustration and emotional emptiness of life.

Aristotle makes a distinction that applies here: the difference between telic and atelic activities. Most of the things we do aim at a final goal: photos for an assignment; a paper for a graduate seminar;  walking the dog so he can get some exercise and stay healthy etc. These are what Artistotle calls telic activities, acts we engage in for the sake of a further goal.

Goals are obviously necessary for humans, but a life exclusively goal directed is often ultimately experienced as shallow and unfulfilling. That’s because, in pursuing goals, there are only two potential outcomes  – either I fail to complete them, in which case I’m unsuccessful and frustrated, or I do complete them, they’re finished  and I now need to create and work toward a new goal. Either way, these telic activities offer me no rest and contentment, no ability to enjoy the value of having done what I’ve done, no true fulfillment. Ironic then, that it’s the model of human activity offered us by most cultures and societies down through history, and it’s the ethic enshrined at the heart of capitalism and consumerism.

How can we disengage from this goal directed treadmill that constitutes a “successful” life? Aristotle, never a man willing to accept common opinion, believed that real “success” came via contentment, and true contentment is found not in the goal directed life but rather in Atelic activity.  Atelic activities don’t aim at a goal. You do them for the sake of doing them. The enjoyment is in the doing. I walk my dog (telic);  but I can also go for a walk with my dog (atelic), no goal in mind other than the walking. Such activities are never completed: in merely walking with my dog, our aim is not to go anywhere; our aim is to enjoy the walk wherever it takes us. Atelic activities are insulated against the cycle of completion and disappearance characteristic of the telic. They are an end in itself.

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A “Wet Plate” 5×7 of an Old Tree I Used to Play Under Back in the Day

I’ve been thinking for some time about this very issue and how it applies to my photography. Thinking back, a large part of what attracted me to photography was the process itself, the end result often secondary. It’s also why I still love to use mechanical film cameras and enjoy the ‘doing’ of film photography – bulk loading film, picking film developer combinations, the entire darkroom process from developing negatives to printing them, the whole process rich in tactile enjoyment in addition to intentionality. Digital photography has taken that enjoyment from me, the digital process being about pushing buttons where once there were processes one engaged with.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I’ve been thinking of dusting off my view camera, buying some sheet film and taking some pics. Better yet, going ‘artisanal’ and doing something unique. I’ve been doing an ongoing project, documenting a local landmark before it all gets torn down and turned into whatever it is that’ll make somebody a lot of money. The project lends itself well to a slow, steady approach. Old trees, old buildings, nostalgic decay that might work well with an alternative photographic process.

It used to be that if you wanted the look of wet plate or emulsion transfers you had to start with a wet  plate or you had to engage in the laborious process of image transfers, and when you were done you’d have a unique, one-of-a-kind image that was the product of both your aesthetic sense and your technical skills. Galleries and sophisticated collectors loved that sort of stuff. It certainly separated you from the herd, giving you an authenticity the guys shooting handheld cameras couldn’t touch, and it often made up for otherwise uninspired, pedestrian subjects. Look! Such and such really looks cool done that way, the emphasis being on the technique and not the subject.

But we also took these slow approaches because the processes themselves had value and gave an enjoyment by their doing, an enjoyment seemingly apart from the mastery of the act itself. Did we take the slow approach to experience the activity itself (atelic), or was it that the slow approach yielded results we wouldn’t have achieved another way (telic)? I suspect it might have been a bit of both, some photographers finding enjoyment in the processes themselves, others fascinated by the unique results uncommon processes produced. Today that distinction has broken down. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, with what can be done digitally, there’s no real reason to do it the slow way if the results are what matter. Applying filters in Lightroom, however, isn’t going to give you the experience of the view camera, or the darkroom, or the tactile experience of your M4 loaded with Tri-X. Is that good or bad? Depends, I suppose, on your reasons for being a photographer.

Seeing Both the Car Window and the Passing Landscape

In his book Mythologies, French Philosopher Roland Barthes writes about the difficulty one has, when travelling in a car, simultaneously seeing both the countryside and the car window. Our perceptual apparatus allows us to see both, but only one at a time. To see one is not to see the other. This might explain how Barthes died in excellent health at the relatively young age of 64 – run over by a laundry truck crossing the street in front of the Sorbonne while walking to one of his classes (true). Very appropriate end for a philosopher with his head in the clouds, but not the best. Heraclitus, the guy who said it wasn’t possible to step twice into the same river, died an even more philosophic death. When his doctors couldn’t cure him of  chronic illness, Heraclitus decided to bury himself in dung, thinking this would do the trick. After covering himself in manure and sitting around for a while, he couldn’t free himself and died of starvation, trapped in a pile of shit.  My wife predicts a similar end for me.

I’ve always been fascinated by photos through windows. You may have noticed. It’s also been an interest for others more notable – Frank, Koudelka,  Kratochival, Winogrand, Friedlander, Moriyama et al. There’s something compelling about the constructed reality produced by the confluence of the reflector and the reflected. These photos help educate naive viewers that photographs don’t mirror or objectively recreate a ‘reality out there’ but rather are their own reality. And, to my mind, these photos refute Barthes’ claim that we can’t see both simultaneously – we can, via a photograph, at least as a fusion of the two that creates its own new reality.

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Roland Barthes was born in 1915 in Cherbourg, on the Atlantic coast of France, and raised by his mother in Paris after his father died in WW1. As a teen Barthes developed tuberculosus, resulting in an extended stay in a sanatorium, thanks to which he missed WW2. It also allowed him time to develop a wide range of intellectual interests. From this enforced self-education, Barthes became an early theorist of Semiology – the science of signs and meanings – whereby he attempted to explain human activity by analyzing how signs (signifiers”) construct reality.

Barthes’s first book, Writing Degree Zero (1953), considered the ways in which we employ language to think, yet are constrained within the confines of language itself, language whose meanings are arbitrary, not fixed. For example, brides wear white for weddings in America, but in China, Korea, and other Asian countries white represents death, mourning, and bad luck, and is traditionally worn at funerals. Is one culture ‘wrong’ about what white means? No. The meaning of white is not set in stone but is merely an agreed convention. This is true of all meanings in all cultures. To understand a culture, we need to first understand how meanings are produced, circulated, consumed and understood by those within it. Why? Because these meanings create that culture’s experience of the world.

Barthes was appointed to the prestigious École Pratique des Hautes Études in Paris in 1960. His next work (Elements of Semiology, 1965) looked at the primary elements of human existence – food, clothing, shelter – and how we talk about them. Semiology – the science of signs – breaks each act of communication into a signifier and the signified. The signifier is the word, gesture or object (a photograph, for example); the signified is what that word, gesture or photo means. To take an example,  a red rose can signify different things, depending on context: If I give one to a woman on Valentine’s Day it means “I love you;” if I am confronted with an image of four of them at the liquor store it’s a reminder I’d be wise to buy a bottle of Four Roses bourbon; if I see one on a t-shirt in Lancashire UK it probably means the wearer is a fan of the Lancashire Rugby team. And then there’s what Barthes calls an something’s “degree zero” of meaning: that is, its status as just a thing – in our rose example, just a piece of flora. Practically speaking however, it’s impossible to see anything this way, because as humans we seem compelled to read meanings into objects. A rose is never just a rose.

Likewise, using the same semiotic analysis, a photograph is never merely a photograph, just an innocent copy of something out there. It’s much more loaded than that. Like every other object of perception, we attach certain meanings to it, meanings dependent on the cultural context. Semiotics rejects the naive understanding of the photo as a transparent window through which we see a slice of reality, a faithful copy of a “thing out there.” While Barthes doesn’t write of it, I’m sure he’d chuckle at the story told by Picasso, now old and venerated, who, visited in his Paris studio by a vulgar nouveau-riche, was asked why he had painted his portrait of Dora Maar  in an abstract manner that clearly “didn’t look like her?” In reply, Picasso asked the man what his own wife looked like, and the man showed him a B&W photo of her he kept in his wallet, to which Picasso replied “so, she’s flat, without color and 2 inches square?”

Picasso’s point being that the “degree zero” of the painting or photo – its reality as a thing – is just a piece of canvas or paper with some markings on it, while what we read into it is what it represents, it’s “meaning.” Picasso was directing the man’s eyes from the signified to the sign itself,  in so doing demonstrating that pictures don’t inherently “represent reality” or anything else but rather that we read the reality into them.

Anyway, back to Barthes.

Starting in the early 70’s, Barthes applied his semiotics eye to mass culture – clothing, fashion, painting, iconography, typography…and photography. What he was doing now was, like Picasso in the instance above, examining the signifier itself, the painting, clothing, typography or photograph – the communicating object –  its feel and sensuality.  His interest was how signs create meanings, but it was also his attempt to alert us to more nefarious implications; as citizens of modern, capitalist culture, the self-interested workings of that culture via its scripted words and images can’t but influence what we understand as real.  In our hyper-capitalist culture, meanings constantly bombard us – via text but more and more via photographs that pretend to be neutral – with subtle but definable connotations; for Barthes, to get ourselves oriented in such a morass of meanings we must first consider the signifier itself as a filter (a “car-window”) that influences the way we see the “real” countryside beyond.

Of course, the implications of Barthes’ insights for us as photographers are fairly obvious. First, it opens up to us the fact that photographs aren’t just objective copies of something real ‘out there’ but are themselves constructed by the eye of the photographer, who is the curator of what gets seen by the viewer and the manner in which it gets seen, which then opens up the reality of photography as a creative medium – as Art – that so many would deny it. Second, it opens up the activity of the viewer as necessary to the photo’s meaning. Meaning, necessary in any coherent photograph, can be given both by the photographer but also by the viewer, and the two may not necessarily be the same.  Third, it should alert us to the power of images and their role in forming – and distorting – what we perceive. The dark side of such a remarkable technology is that it can,  in a capitalist consumer society (or in more malevolent social or political societies), be put to uses that might not serve our best interests, unless, of course, we can see through its seductive manipulations.

It’s this third implication that is the focus of Barthes’ analysis and what he’s warning us against. In doing so he’s reminding us that we, as recipients, can impose our own meanings on the texts and images we’re bombarded with. We have that power. Be critical of that photograph, Barthes is saying: It isn’t just a photo but rather an often devious means of making you see the world in a way that serve’s other’s purposes, a way that might not be your free choice and might distort your understanding. Only when you understand this will you be the master of your life’s meanings and not be mastered by a world of symbols deviously crafted to master you.

What Reality is Leica Constructing For Me With This Photo?

Maurice Merleau-Ponty and the Reason You Can’t Explain Why You Love Your Leica

 

This seems an appropriate photo for this discussion

I’ve just got done plowing my way through an important work of 20th-century French philosophy: Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s The Primacy of Perception, which reproduces a number of his works that first appeared in various publications from 1947 to 1961. I read it so you won’t have to; trust me, you don’t want to. Like much 20th century French philosophy, it’s turgid, bombastic, over-written – and fascinating in a WTF? sort of way…. but it has obvious implications for us as photographers, and particularly as “Leica photographers” who find a certain aesthetic value in the act of photographing itself. So bear with me. You might just learn something.

According to Merleau-Ponty, philosophy has long stressed thinking as opposed to doing as the way we understand things.  This is because western philosophy has always thought of the mind as something distinct from the world: there is the thinking self and then there are physical things, and it’s the mind, not the body, that is the site of thinking and learning. This is referred to in philosophy as “dualism,” the idea that your mind is something different than stuff out there, somehow roped off from that ‘out-there,’ sort of like a puppeteer pulling the strings of your physical body after first developing an intellectual understanding of how to do things.

According to Merleau-Ponty, however, this dualistic idea is wrong. He notes that we are in the habit of saying that we ‘have’ a body, which is not correct: you are not somehow outside your body… rather you are your body. Your mind is not somehow outside of time and space. Instead, it’s part of your body, a body that thinks, feels, desires, looks ahead, reflects. Thinking always emerges out of lived bodily experience, and what we do with our bodies profoundly shapes how and what we think.

Your body is the means by which you interact with the world, and, as such, it is the stuff of the world that is the necessary food for your thinking. Humans are thinking animals whose thinking is always infused with the physical, our minds not somehow apart from the rest of nature, but necessarily “embodied, ” indivisible from the physical,  and we learn not exclusively intellectually but when our embodied mind acts in the world.

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Take the example of a learned skill like dancing: Merleau-Ponty’s distinction explains why highly educated, self-conscious humans like me are usually terrible dancers, what I’ve heard referred to as suffering from the “honky pox” [for god’s sake, please do not ask me to dance]. To somebody like me who intellectualizes things, I’ll try to learn to dance by memorizing a sequence of steps, thinking my mind will then know how to move my body like a puppeteer pulls strings to move a puppet. For Merleau-Ponty, I’m an over-intellectualized idiot missing the obvious: the way to learn to dance is to move one’s physical body in space. The mind does not reflect and make a conscious decision before the body moves; the mind moves with the body.

In reply, you might say that this is true for physical activities like dancing but shouldn’t apply to all intellectual pursuits. Merleau-Ponty would respond that our body is our means of having a world. Everything we learn, think or know comes from our body. For example, walking through a meadow, rafting a river, or riding a bike in the country are how we understand geography, not by sitting in a room, looking at a map. There is no way for us to learn that bypasses the body: “the body is our anchorage in a world”.

This explains why a lot of what you know, what you’re certain about, can’t be put into words. People learn, think and value with every part of their bodies, and our bodies know things that we can never fully articulate. That doesn’t mean it’s not real, and capable of being known. That’s why you can’t explain with any specificity why you love your M4, even though you know you do and you know the experience is real. And it’s why the photographic philistines, the guys rocking their Sony A7r’s and posting at DPR review, smug in their technological sophistication, think you’re crazy to be going on and on about some ineffable magic thing your Leica possesses that you claim their digital imaging device doesn’t. But it’s the reason behind the oft-repeated claim of photographers who experience their photography as somehow more satisfying, more authentic, in winding a shutter, setting your aperture, focusing you lens, developing and handling a negative – in short, interacting with your camera’s functions and the act of photography itself – instead of the incoherent act of pushing a button and staring at a screen with a nested menu of commands to produce an intangible file that exists nowhere in particular.

One of the things you’ll hear again and again when photographers who use Leica try to articulate why they prefer it over a more technologically sophisticated device is that it just feels right, it “works.” When you say that, you’re trying to give words to body experience, to knowledge gained by doing, by interacting in a physical way with your tools, not by reading a spec sheet and internalizing the data. I think the main reason photographers continue to gravitate to old Leica’s is because they ‘work,’ they’re a perfect match between form and function. They feel right.*** That doesn’t quite get at it, but it’s as close as you can articulate it. Digital advocates sometimes seem to forget that we are animals that want to move and interact in the world, we need to do things and thereby learn, not sit back and passively watch from a screen as a device makes our decisions for us.


***Postscript: Shortly after publishing this piece, a reader named Lee Rust replied with his description of what I’m trying to get at, an articulation I’m including here on the face of the post because I think it’s gets close to the heart of that ineffable quality of using a Leica that one experiences via usage:

“The Leica M film cameras are a sensory delight. The shape, size, weight and surface textures have been consistent over many decades and are naturally suited to the hand. Just like a baseball, they are meant to be gripped and there’s nothing that sticks out and pokes. The controls are simple and clearly marked, and the buttons, dials, rings and tabs find the fingers with unambiguous tactility. The lenses are compact, the viewfinder bright and uncluttered and the rangefinder simple and direct. The shutter makes soft but complex sounds, especially when the slow speed gears add their springy little bounce. The winder advances the film and sets the shutter with a quiet creak and affirming click. The separate bottom plate and hinged back door make the loading of each new cassette a deliberate ritual of preparation and expectation.

For those who are attuned to it, a Leica M film camera makes the composition and exposure of each frame into a discrete physical experience that is quite separate from the resulting photographic image.”

The Photographer as Visual Curator

 


By Andrew Molitor. Molitor is a fellow writer on photography, variously described as iconoclastic, irrelevant, occasionally right. He swears a lot. You can find him at photothunk.blogspot.com


 

Recently, in an article in The New York Review of Books, Janet Malcolm told the story of how she had included – as a joke –  an artless, banal snapshot in her book Diana and Nikon, together with a number of other photographs that had been decreed by the relevant authorities to be Art. It’s the photo above, Untitled, 1970 by G. Botsford.  Interestingly enough, as time passed, Botsford’s photo started turning up here and there as an example of the “snapshot aesthetic”, itself a work of Art.  Malcolm, via her off-hand joke,  had decreed this photograph to be Art, and now people were willing to accept that it is Art in some meaningful sense.

This is the problem when considering photography as Art. Photography is not quite what we imagine it to be. The carefully crafted Fine Print is not, after all, the only pathway to true Art. Sometimes, a photograph can become Art simply because someone – not just anyone of course, but someone with authority within the art community – says it’s Art. 

We’ve seen this before. When Marcel Duchamp exhibited a signed urinal as a sculpture entitled Fountain, he was doing the same thing as Ms. Malcolm, whether tongue in cheek we’re not sure.

What then is Art, with a capital A? Is it whatever some pointy-headed fellow with a title like “curator” or “Professor of Arty Artness” says is Art? That feels a little thin, a bit like a cheat; you intuitively feel that this can’t be right. The opposite end of the spectrum claims that Art requires skill, talent, and labor. Sculptures made out of marble, formed with infinite patience and a deep understanding of the properties of stone, now that’s Art!

The latter sort of thinking belongs to people who look at photography with a lifted brow. As noted in the previous post here, it’s this thinking that drove much of the Pictorialist movement in the Victorian era, and which drives much of the urge to “post-process” digital photographs today. It can’t be any good, the mindset goes, unless it’s had a lot of work put into it.

Duchamp’s Fountain, and Malcolm’s joke, disagree. They say that Art is merely whatever you think is Art.

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In my opinion, neither of these positions is correct, although each has a sort of a piece of it, a single section view. Art is whatever creates an Art-like experience. If you look at it, and it makes you think, makes you feel, enlarges you as a human being, then it’s Art. I would contend that this isn’t purely subjective, because usually if it works for you, it probably works for other people as well, unless you’re a complete weirdo. The appropriate term here is inter-subjective. The two acts – the first declaring, from a position of authority, that something Is Art and the second working very very hard, with great skill, to make something which you hope is Art – are both acts which can imbue an object with Artness.

When confronted with Michelangelo’s David (a product of labor and skill) as well as with Duchamp’s Fountain (a product of a simple declaration) we likely experience that sensation of Art. We feel, we think, we expand a little. The category of things that are Art is a bit fuzzy, the edges are not at all well defined. Are raindrops on a rose petal Art? Perhaps not. Is David? Almost certainly.

An object of Art is perhaps as much a subject for meditation as it is anything else, It’s not wrong to consider such an object as merely a trigger for a process that occurs inside ourselves. Michelangelo’s David or the “willfully bad” snapshot attributed by Malcolm to G. Botsford can serve equally as a focus for meditation, as a trigger for our own internal search.

All this presents something of a problem for the photographer as artist. There’s no getting around it, you can take a random snapshot of your own feet and if you can persuade Larry Gagosian to put it up for sale with an immense price tag, it will indeed be Art. Your blurry foot picture can serve as that trigger for thought, it can create an Art-like experience. In that unlikely scenario you personally had nothing much to do with this, it’s pretty much all  Larry G’s work, his authority makes it Art-like. That doesn’t make it fake, though, it would, in that situation, really be Art with a capital A. Unfortunately for you, you’re probably not going to get Larry on board with your scheme.

The point to hang on to here is that there are many roads to that Art-like experience.

David would probably be pretty intense to look at, even if no art critic had ever mentioned it. The knowledge of stone, the skill with the chisel, the mastery of form were not wasted. The labor was real, and produced real results. The fact that Duchamp could, with a figurative wave of his hand, turn a urinal into a similar experience takes nothing away from Michelangelo. The well, here, does not have finite capacity.

Vast labor and skill, or the mere declaration by authority, both produce Art. By analogy, we can reason that photography’s relative ease takes nothing away from either Michelangelo, nor from the photographer. It is not necessary to labor endlessly, either mashing gum bichromate prints with your hands or fiddling around in Photoshop to make your photograph worthy of the name Art. You certainly may do either, and your labor and skill may produce results.

In its very essence, though, as I see it, photography is simply selection. Not to denigrate selection, it is in its own way every bit as worthy as making. In this case, selecting and making are two different activities, which ought to be viewed on an equal footing, neither being a poor cousin to the other.

This bears repeating: the act of photography, that act of selection should be considered as on the same moral plane as the act of creation that typifies a painting, a sculpture. Think of the photographer as a curator of the visual, selecting and interpreting a slice of the real for other’s consideration.

This is the essential worry photographers have about whether photography is Art. Contrary to the regularly scheduled articles about how it has just now been settled, Photography has been comfortably ensconced as an Art for over 100 years now, in part due to Duchamp and his urinal. We saw then that selecting something could indeed be viewed as co-equal with making something. Photography being, essentially, selecting, but with an optional and open-ended add-on of making, of creating, fits into this framework perfectly comfortably.

Many photographs are not Art. Looking at them generates no Art-like experience. Mostly, they’re not intended to, they’re just a document of someone’s holiday, someone’s lunch, someone’s coffee, someone’s child or dog.

What makes a photograph into Art? As we now know, Janet Malcolm declaring it to be so seems to do it. Ansel Adams demonstrated that putting a lot of work into prints might do it, producing quite a different Art-like experience. Robert Frank’s famous book partakes of a bit of both, being on the one hand a great deal of labor, but on the other hand made up largely of what appear to be snapshots, at least in the sense that they lack the lumbering and meticulous flavor of the Adams pictures.

At the end of the day, in order to be accepted into The Canon, one needs the imprimatur of some authority figure, but let us set that aside for the moment. Suppose we’re making Art for a small enough audience, and audience that will accept at least tentatively our own statement as sufficient authority. How then to produce an Art-like experience?

We’re unlikely to be able to slip that blurry picture of our own feet past this audience, they expect, demand,  more from us generous though they might be. Our authority is not Duchamp’s, even with our friends. We are granted, perhaps, a bit of leeway by our friends. Our friends feel a certain openness and generosity, but are not willing to swallow just any old thing.

I think that we do it by selecting carefully, with genuine feeling, with genuine ideas. Ansel Adams, held up as the mighty technician, literally cannot shut up on this theme. It seems that almost every page of his famously technical trilogy repeats that a picture must be a true reflection of an emotional state. Oddly enough, the Zone System people rarely mention this. His pictures are indeed sublime (although, crush the blacks and see what happens).

If we have a real idea, a real feeling, a real something-to-communicate, and we allow our pictures to reflect that, then sometimes our work might just generate an Art-like experience to someone, somewhere. We might “get through” from time to time, and it’s that communication – the curation of the visible, and the aesthetic response of the viewer –  that creates Art.

Parerga and Paralipomena – Chapter 3. Revisiting the Old, Tired Question: Can Photography Be “Art”?

Untitled, 2005, (20×30 Acrylic on Canvas)

Above is a painting I did in 2005. It’s previously been exhibited in an ‘Art Gallery’ in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, which means the gallery owner thought it appropriate to consider as ‘Art.’ Now, irrespective of what you think of the painting and my skills as a painter, chances are you don’t find it unusual that it’s considered ‘Art’ and was offered as a work of ‘Art’ by a gallery that’s in the business of selling such things. Putting aside critical valuation, we agree that a painting is a work of ‘Art.’ I took a blank canvas, took various pigments, and using a brush I made something, a thing, physically created by me from an aesthetic idea I had in my mind. Voila! Art.

Using those same criteria, photography as an ‘Art’ form can be problematic. Photography (still and moving) is a different sort of a creative medium. It has its subjective element – what’s within the frame will always depend on someone’s choice and interpretation – but generally we consider it objective, objective in the sense that it’s a mechanical reproduction of an existing set of visual phenomena. The second characteristic – its status as an objective reproduction, a truthful documentation, the fact that it’s a mechanical means to more or less faithfully record whats “out there”, is seemingly what prevents many otherwise broad-minded people from considering it ‘Art.’

The argument- Is photography ‘Art?’ – is as old as the medium itself. Early photographers naively thought to claim it as ‘Art’ by selectively photographing “scenic” things, thus mimicking the ‘artistic’ treatment of traditional subjects of representational painting – a more exacting form of landscape painting, where the goal was fidelity to the real. Later photographers, like Alfred Steiglitz, founder of the Photo-Secessionist movement, sought to claim it as ‘Art’ by rejecting the larger definition of Art and placing it on equal footing with other forms of expression commonly considered as Art:

“Photography is not an art. Neither is painting, nor sculpture, literature or music. They are only different media for the individual to express his aesthetic feelings… You do not have to be a painter or a sculptor to be an artist. You may be a shoemaker. You may be creative as such. And, if so, you are a greater artist than the majority of the painters whose work is shown in the art galleries of today.”

This doublespeak, of course, is just another way of claiming its status as an art form without using the loaded word itself, to my mind ample evidence that, deep down, even Steiglitz himself felt a wee bit self-conscious about claiming photography to be ‘Art.’ Much has happened since Steiglitz’s era. From an institutional perspective, photography has been presented in American art galleries and art museums since the 1970’s, when “post-modernist” photographers like Friedlander, Winogrand, Arbus and Eggleston, among others, became recognized within the larger ‘Art World.’

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Whatever the official Art World line, from a lay perspective there continues to be a common-sense resistance to claim photography as ‘Art.’ Even I, who’s been involved with photography as a creative medium for most of my life, cringe when a photographer bills him or herself as an “artist”, and I’d like to explore the philosophical underpinnings of that discomfort. I suspect it has something to do with the “handedness” we associate with Art, the requirement of creating some ex nihilo, something unique and new. A precondition of ‘Art’ is that the Artist physically make it, physically impose form on undifferentiated material, whether that material be words or tones or rock or canvas. In photography, you could argue, we’re not doing that; instead we’re recording something already existent, something  whose creation resides elsewhere. I’ve touched on this subject before in a piece entitled Formalism and Photography (Can Photos of Statutes Be Art?).

Untitled, 2016

How about Untitled, 2016 above? Is it ‘Art’? It’s something I did in 2016. Formally, it’s remarkably similar to Untitled, 2005 above. Like the former, it’s “modern” in the sense that it’s not representational but rather its own aesthetic reality, created from the ground up by the artist. I consider it competently drawn, its color scheme consistent and complimentary, its pictorial elements situated in an aesthetically pleasing manner. I like it, and would be pleased to have a piece like it hanging in a conspicuous place in my home or, better yet, in someone else’s home, someone who valued it enough to purchase and exhibit it. Except, its not a painting. Its a photograph, a straight-up close-up of a section of a wall of a building recently torn down in the service of progress. What I did was merely isolate it from its larger context by photographing it and, with some very minor post-processing (contrast, saturation, sharpening etc), created the finished work you see, “created it” in the sense that a series of 1’s and 0’s now resides in a certain pattern on a hard disk on my computer. Its literal creation – how those pigments came to be in the manner they are – is an unintended consequence of  building paint, weather and time.

As mentioned previously, we commonly consider a precondition of Art that the Artist physically make it, physically impose form on undifferentiated material. If this is so, then the work itself – a photograph – is problematic; have I “created” anything by simply recording it? Have I imposed form on something undifferentiated, i.e. incoherent and messy, when I photograph? Haven’t I rather just seen and selected, noted for other’s benefit as it were, something that already had a certain form, essentially simply pointing out something aesthetic that already existed, created naturally or by happenstance? Could it be the fact that I isolated the view itself be the creative act? Is that enough?

Additionally, there’s the issue of uniqueness. There’s only one of any given painting. We can reproduce it photographically, yes, but we don’t consider the reproduction to be a piece of Art. Now think about that in terms of photography. Unlike a painting, I’m able to print out my photograph in any number of sizes on any number of different media, run limited editions etc, and sell each individual print as its own work of Art. Yet, irrespective of the size or the type of medium I print it on, the underlying ‘artwork’ will be the same (or will it?). [ This has become an issue with the endless exact replicability of digital capture, as opposed to old school silver halide prints where each print is a unique individual interpretation of a negative.]

I suppose I could do the same thing with the painting i.e. photograph it and present the photographic reproduction as its own work and offer it for sale in a gallery in different sizes and on various media. Why not? Except there’s something intuitively wrong with that when we’re talking about photographic reproductions of two dimensional paintings, or so I think. What’s intuitively wrong with it are two things: first, the fact that it’s a photograph as opposed to something created ‘by hand,’ and second, that it’s not the unique created thing itself.  These facts seem to change the terms of the debate.

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A Simple Picture I Took Out My Car Window Recently. If I Hung it in a Art Gallery and Titled it Untitled 2018 Would That Make it Art?

Of course, maybe the best response, and probably the closest to the truth, is the ” Institutional” definition of Art, somewhat cynical, that holds that ‘Art’ is whatever gets exhibited in an ‘Art Gallery’. We decide what it is simply by defining it as such. This is what Marcel Duchamp was claiming for Art when he exhibited a toilette bowl as part of an exhibition of his work in a gallery, asking his audience to look at the toilette bowl aesthetically by placing it in a context where we are, by definition, asked to do these things. Duchamp’s definition simply requires that there be an intent on the part of the artist to have what’s presented be seen in a certain way, even if the creative act is simply the presentation itself. What then, of things created without the aesthetic intention, where the intention can be understood as conveying the state of things at any given moment, like a photograph? Can Nick Ut’s My Lai photos be ‘Art’ if they’re viewed in an art gallery? How about the found photographs  that Melissa Cantanese put together in her book Dive Dark Dream Slow that I’ve discussed before?

To my mind, learning to think of photography as an Art Form means first to recognize in a literal sense what a photograph is. It’s a two dimensional piece of paper with “indexical” markings on it. That’s it. That’s the most an Athenian citizen of Socrates’ time (Socrates himself, for that matter) or some primitive man pulled out of the forest in Papua, New Guinea, would be capable of seeing it as, because they’d not have the conceptual (as opposed to he intellectual) ability to do so, that conceptual ability given to us by the social, cultural and technical knowledge which we possess and which is a precondition to understanding it as something more. Without this embedded knowledge – what we take for granted – they literally couldn’t see the representational nature of the photo. They’d simply see the thing itself – the flattened 12×18 2 dimensional thing with a certain form embedded as part of it.

Somewhat paradoxically, I think it’s this two dimensional reality of photographs that opens the way to seeing them as ‘Art.’ Abstract painting only started making sense to me when I started thinking in non-representational terms, when I accepted the notion that paintings don’t need to be a transcription of anything; they can just be what they are, a thing, something with no function other than being its own reality. It’s what art historians term an understanding of the painting’s inherent “flatness.” Photos can be the same way. Forget for a second that Untitled 2016 was produced by a camera and in some sense depends on an existing visual arrangement contained somewhere “out there”; We can choose to see it as we’d see Untitled 2005. Just look at it, try to see what’s literally in front of you. Stop thinking of it as referencing something else. Just let it be itself. Analyse it in those terms. For that matter, there’s nothing keeping us from seeing Untitled 2018 in the same way…or is there?


This is the third in an ongoing series about philosophical issues and what they might have to say about photography. Part One can be found here, Part Two here.

Parerga and Paralipomena – Chapter 2

“View From the Window at Le Gras”, History’s First Photograph (J. Nicephore Niepce 1826)

I’ve been reading a lot of philosophical stuff lately, broad subjects that I’m finding myself coming back to as a mature adult. I’ve always been intrigued by the ‘big questions,’ things we often take for granted – beliefs and ideas that form the bedrock of who we are, what matters to us and how we perceive the life we’re living. The beauty of philosophical inquiry is that it can shine a critical light on settled beliefs you’ve never really thought to question, things that you’ve been taught to believe, things that might appear to you as “common sense,” beliefs you take on faith or as a member of a religious orientation or a specific national culture. In my opinion, that’s a good thing, whether we’re discussing really important things like what the good life is or more everyday things like photography – what it is, why we do it, what it means – and how it might fit into a good life.

Photography is the product of the rational secular culture originating in the West but now basically the world’s default culture, a culture whose roots lie in classical Greek thought as it’s been transmitted via the Roman conquest of Europe and Asia with an overlay of Christianity that’s driven it through the Reformation and Renaissance and into the Scientific Revolution. From all of that, everyone who has electricity and an internet connection and is able to read this, whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim or secular humanist, and whether you live in the States or China or Portugal or Argentina or Norway or Iran or Nigeria, share, to a great extent, a common heritage, intellectual in nature, that allows us to understand and empathize with each other, whatever the differing idiosyncratic permutations of our local cultures. And it’s that culture that’s brought us the amazing technological advances of the last two centuries, including photography.

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If you think about it, photography is pretty amazing. It would have seemed utterly miraculous to even the profound,sophisticated classical Greek, Roman and Medieval thinkers whose brilliance has formed the foundations of our shared culture. And yet, we accept it without a second thought, as if it’s a normal and natural part of life to be able to record and make permanent accurate visual transcriptions of what we perceive, with a phone we carry about in our pocket no less. Roland Barthes touched just a bit on this in Camera Lucida, the remarkable fact that a part of his mother, dead for years, remained behind as a physical trace on a photographic emulsion, an emulsion that not only allowed him to recreate her features two-dimensionally, but that had been touched by light that had touched her body and impregnated her very form upon it. Wow! Barthes was saying, think about that, my mother dead all these years, her body, her combination of matter and form, moldering in the earth, and yet I have what’s really real about her preserved right here, eternal, something more than just a painted imitation, but a transcription of the real thing itself, stenciled off of nature. Tell me that’s not miraculous.

Barthes doesn’t move his discussion in this direction, but this is all very ‘Aristotelian’ (after the Greek philosopher Aristotle), notions of form and matter and what’s ultimately real. Aristotle broke down everything into two things – form and matter – and taught that only form itself is coherent and real and valuable, matter having no real value except as just the stuff we’re all made of, the clay as it were, something common to everything, while our form is what defines us as beings (i.e. your form is what makes you a human, as opposed to an elephant, while it’s the elephant’s form that makes him an elephant and not a human, even though we’re both made out of the same stuff or matter). So, in thinking of what photography does, Aristotle would say that it transcribes what is ultimately valuable about the subject you’re photographing, whether it be your house or your dog or your lover, the form of the thing. He would say that Barthes, in the act of capturing his mother in a photo, has given what is defining about her at that one instant – her form – a permanence transcending the flow and flux of matter. I’m pretty sure Aristotle would find that absolutely mind-blowing.

We meanwhile, immersed in post-modern reality, don’t think twice about it. We’re blind to photography’s miraculousness in a way Aristotle could never be, just as we’re blind to many other things that should fill us with wonder. We’re blind to it because it’s just one item that constitutes the banal background of our technological reality, one more thing that just seems self-evident and obvious to us, like the fact that we use a certain language, have certain parents, are born at a certain time and place. It just is. Nothing to see here, let’s move along to think of the things that really matter – are my photos good enough to show at the corner coffee-house, does my 4th generation Summicron have good bokeh, should I spend $6000 on a Leica M10 or will fellow photographers think I’m a lightweight because my cat pictures were taken with a D200? Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), who many consider the greatest philosophical mind of the 20th century, would shake his head and say that when we do this we are blind to “being.”

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Heidegger remains a pretty controversial guy in philosophical circles, mainly because he was a Nazi, which is not something that tends to endear you to other people. His ties with the Nazis are disputed – some say, as the Rector of the University of Freiburg in the 1930’s and a recognized intellectual, he had no choice but to passively align himself in the manner he did; others point to writings and statements that seem to indicate certain affinities with Nazi theories – but they remain a hurdle you must get past if you are to engage with his incredibly rich Philosophy of Being. So, let’s put that aside for a second if that’s possible and discuss his ideas.

Heidegger’s entire philosophy is predicated on that sense of wonder I’m certain Aristotle and pre-modern thinkers would have if they’d been confronted with something like photography, but in a larger sense, wonder at the very fact that we are – what philosophers refer to as ‘being’ – which is itself something miraculous and weird and in need of contemplation and explanation. He argues that we’ve forgotten, or better yet, have never really even seen, how weird and miraculous it is that we even are, that anything is. How is it that you are you and I am me and the world is what it is? What’s that all about? He suggests that the real nature of philosophical inquiry is to explore this phenomenon, and criticizes Western philosophy since Socrates as being blind to this miraculousness, having instead pursued practical issues such as how to live and the correct way to think without taking into account the fact that we’re here and capable of doing or thinking or creating anything in the first place.

Gianni Gardin- a Sublime Photograph. My Reality is Better Because it Exists

Unfortunately, I’m not going to recommend you read Heidegger, as his writings are mostly incomprehensible except to those who’ve spent a lifetime studying him. But I think you can take something away from Heidegger and use it when thinking about photography. What I am advocating for is that, as photographers – and I think Heidegger would agree – before we divide ourselves up over trivial issues of practice and/or aesthetic theory, we should step back and think of the remarkable thing that photography is and understand that its miraculousness is the real hook that should keep us engaged and driven forward photographically. We as dedicated practitioners too often take for granted what we do and get caught up in its practical aspects to the exclusion of recognizing the gift it is, a gift we need to honor with our full attention as the doing of it is, in its own way, a spiritual practice. Whether you know it or not, it’s that that keeps you coming back to it and gives it meaning for you, something we all share.


This is the second in an ongoing series about philosophical issues and what they might have to say about photography. Part One can be found here.

Portrait of the Artist as an Old Guy

Inverness, Scotland, 2016.  Leica M5. Hot Wife. Skinny Jeans. Firm Abs. Doesn’t Negate the Facts…I’m Old.

All of the sudden, I’ve realized I’m old. ‘Old’ in a bad way, like the 50-something twice-divorced, beer-bellied guy with the comb-over who drives the Porsche, sun-glassed with ball cap backwards thinking all the young women secretly dig him. You know the guy. That’s me…except I’m 10 years older than him.

I’ve been slow to see it coming. Even now, at 60 (Really?), I pride myself on being intellectually curious and physically active, unconventional socially, culturally and creatively – all the things I associate with youth. Amelia, the smart, sophisticated, French speaking 17 y/o next door, considers me “the coolest guy in the universe” (this from her mother), even after spending a month in Europe with me, a week of which we spent on our own, just a 59 y/o guy and a 17 y/o girl sharing trains, buses and cheap hotels. You try to pull that off and maintain even a shred of your dignity. As for physical condition, all the metrics say I’m young. (I recently took an online test where you plug in your health metrics and physical performance abilities and it tells you your “health age;” I’m 18). I’ve still got hair. I wear skinny jeans without looking completely ridiculous (or so I’m told). And I’ve got a hot wife, so I assume I’m doing something right. Yet…

From a photographic perspective, however, I’m trapped in amber, my photographic world frozen circa 2004, which was when I moved from Paris, and a life filled with photography, back to my pedestrian existence in America, sort of like moving from the 30th floor office suite with an unobstructed view of the Eifel to a 6×8 cubicle with a view onto a McDonalds parking lot. In Paris I had been daily immersed in photography via SPEOS Paris and a circle of friends I knew there. I spent hours in museums and galleries and the library at the Maison Europeene de la Photographie, soaking in all I could, and better still, acquainting myself, via photographic monographs, with 20th Century photographers and photography writers of note. Were I in Paris today, there’s a good chance you’d find me in the Maison’s basement library, catching up on the 14 years of photography I’ve missed since my last visit. I can’t think of a better way of educating oneself in the practice of photography than looking at, and reading about, good photography.

By 2004, digital had mostly won the day. In the studio, we used a 4 meg Canon 1D and marveled at the ability to instantly review and address what we’d just done.  But some of us still used the darkroom and prefered film.  For photos that mattered, I used an M4  bought at an obscenely low price from a camera store on rue Beaumarche just north of the Bastille, it being a time when film cameras, even Leicas, were selling cheap. Then I moved home to the States, placed the M4 on the shelf and got on with life, which in my case meant settling in and paying the bills.

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What’s brought on my realization I’m old is that I’ve bought another Nikon D800, just for the hell of it. At the price they’re going these days,  why not? I previously owned a D800E but found it overkill for my needs, its 36 mpx files slowing my computer to a crawl, so, two years ago I sold it. The D800 I’ve just bought has been used less and cost half what I pocketed on the sale of the D800E. (This is one of the upsides of the digital era – you can buy great cameras super cheap as they are updated so frequently and past iterations quickly fall out of favor).

So now, in spite of my recent attempt at de-cluttering, I now own 6 digital cameras (!) – 3 Ricoh GXR’s, a Fuji S5 Pro, a Sigma SD Quattro and a Nikon D800. Ironic for a guy who writes a blog unfailingly critical of digital photography. Actually, I do like digital. More precisely, I love film photography and find it a richer experience than digital for any number of reasons. Film is more tactile, it slows you down and makes you think – but not in a neurotic, obtrusive way digital too often does – and you get a negative – a thing – when you’re done. Plus, mechanical film cameras are cool because they’re timeless, something digital cameras are decidedly not. My Leica IIIg, circa 1958, gives as much pleasure today as it did 60 years ago. It’s like a beautiful suit made by Battistoni, outside the parameters of fashion, timeless and elegant. My Nikon D100, circa 2002, is, in all probability, moldering in a junk heap somewhere in a third world country.

But, back to the point…Buying the D800 has reminded me once again that I’m relatively clueless about the amazing things DSLR’s can do when in competent hands, which might explain some of my antipathy to them. So, this time, in the interests of objectivity, I’m going to learn as much as I can about the camera and its capabilities with an eye to actually using more than just the basics. In short, I’m finally willing to be won over, if won over I can be.

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Paris, 2004. Leica M4, HP5. Scale Focused, Exposure Guessed.

Being old has its upsides. I’ve been around long enough to remember arguments about built-in meters, and then arguments about AF and AE, each successively dismissed by purists when introduced as unnecessary complications useless for real photographers. That was my opinion too, being young and stupid and full of opinions. Now, trapped as I am in amber, I’ve transferred those prejudices to my use of DSLR’s. I use mine much like my film cameras – ISO 400 and keep it there, either manual or aperture priority exposure, spot metering (assuming I pay any attention to the metering at all), and whatever AF mode the dial happens to be on. The rest, all those options nested in menus? Not interested. My shooting style, developed in an era of non-metered film cameras, has always been pretty rudimentary. I’ve never understood why photographers obsessed about exposure and developing, or things like the zone system (with a 35mm? Seriously?) or “metering for the highlights and developing for the shadows” (or is it the other way round?). Those were superfluous issues for techies. I’ve never given much thought to metering. You metered in your head. I’m convinced that learning to calculate proper exposure by eye is preferable to any sophisticated matrix metering system. My matrix metering system is me. I’ll often play a game with myself: guess the exposure. I’ll look at a scene, calculate correct exposure in my head, and then point a meter to see how accurate I am. Invariably I’m spot on, low light, sunlight, shadow. It’s almost automatic, the result of long years of estimating til it’s become second nature.

As such, when I do attempt to use the sophisticated features DSLR’s offer me, my choices have been more a function of my ignorance than a considered decision. I’ll shoot manual, refer to the meter (whatever its set on) occasionally. Focus? Set it to center-spot, point it at something and shoot. Most of the time, it’ll be in focus, just like film, irrespective of the mode it’s set on. In other words, I usually don’t know what I’m doing…and I don’t care, as my idea of photography isn’t about obsessing over procedural aspects or technical virtuosity, which I think is a healthy way to approach what is, and should be, about embodying one individual’s vision of the world around him. For that, the instrument you choose to use should be transparent, your attention on what’s around you. The less your camera gets in your way – requires it be in your way – the more attention you’ll have for what’s in front of you.

Parerga and Paralipomena – Chapter One

Parerga and Paralipomena is Greek for “Appendices” and “Omissions”. Arthur Schopenhauer, an influential 19th century German philosopher, published a book by that title. Given the title, you’d expect a staggeringly obtuse, unreadable scholastic tome…which it’s not. It’s actually a fascinating book, containing Schopenhauer’s thoughts on any number of things, from his mommy-issues and professional jealousies to the ultimate nature of reality ( which for him is “Will,” that striving urge we all have and which he claims every living and even inanimate thing has). In any event, the work is mostly a series of short thoughts – philosophical odds and ends – thrown together without much connection between subjects.

I always wanted to title a blog post “Parerga and Paralipomena” since it sounds cool and intellectual but really means nothing more than “odds and ends.” So bear with me as I process a few thoughts that have come to me recently, thoughts that arise out of philosophical concerns that have obvious implications for us as photographers. I expect I’ll have a number of chapters – this on Schopenhauer being merely the first of a series – so I’ll label them all the same thing – Parerga and Paralipomena – and you can ignore them if they aren’t of interest to you. Suffice it to say that you’re not going to find this on Ken Rockwell’s site. Whether that’s good or bad is up to you.

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If you’ve never read Schopenhauer I recommend him highly. In addition to being a fascinating guy with all sorts of human foibles, some of them quite entertaining, [e.g he and his mother engaged in a vicious lifetime battle about who was smarter, his mother being an early 19th century German novelist; he taught at the same university as GW Hegel, who at the time was considered the most profound intellectual on the continent – Schopenhauer considered Hegel a complete moron – while everyone considered Schopenhauer a nobody] he has much to teach artists and people with creative aspirations, given he is generally considered to have articulated a pretty impressive theory of Art and the origin and meaning behind the creative impulse.

For Schopenhauer, the reason people paint or sculpt or photograph is because it helps us distance ourselves from desiring – “willing” –  which invariably causes pain and dissatisfaction. This is something that Leicaphiles, if they’re honest with themselves, should recognize. Think of how bad you wanted that Leica M9 or MM, and think about how inevitably disappointed you are once you’d gotten it used it for a bit and then started dreaming of trading up to the M11. That’s the nature of human reality, always willing things, striving for more in an endless search for something we can never reach. For Schopenhauer, it’s that striving that powers reality and the ceaseless change that defines it. Everything from humans down to one-celled organisms exhibit it. It’s also what keeps Nikon and Leica in business, because we are constitutionally incapable of being satisfied with the status quo. Gotta have more, better. That AF on the top of the line camera from 2 years ago is now hopelessly outdated, not sufficient for rank amateurs. The 12 mpx Ricoh you bought ten years ago, junk; your photographic purposes require the 50 mpx full-frame Canon. And so it goes. We’ve all been there whether we admit it to ourselves or not. We’ve all been there because Schopenhauer says that’s the nature of human reality, we can’t avoid it.

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Or maybe we can, at least temporarily. For Schopenhauer, a temporary way to escape the pain brought about by our ceaseless striving is through aesthetic contemplation. Planning and envisioning that photograph, or acting pursuant to that envisioning, or engaging with the finished product hanging on a wall – stops you perceiving the world as separated from you, something we are constantly grasping for; rather in the simple aesthetic act, every time you find yourself lost in the willlessness of the beauty around you “one can thus no longer separate the perceiver from the perception” i.e. you stop being an unhappy, willing being and just are. From this immersion with the world you aren’t an individual who suffers in the world due to one’s individual will but, rather, you’re a “subject of cognition” to a perception that is “pure, will-less, timeless” where the essence of the world is found. You’ve just found the closest thing to nirvana human reality allows.

Think about the consequences of this and what it means for the issues we’ve been discussing on this blog for years – the simple miraculousness of photography, the joy in its doing, in contrast to the stupid and blinkered idea that the pleasure and validation you can find in photography will be found in owning and using certain equipment, or that the artistic impulse is about your tools in any significant sense. For me, my lifetime interest in photography has been about that will-less, timeless enjoyment. It’s my argument that, at base, to be a photographer has no real connection to being a camera fondler, although the enjoyment of fine photographic tools has it own aesthetic character and is legitimate in itself. Just don’t confuse it with photography, and don’t consider yourself a photographer because you’re using a Leica. That’s for shallow meatballs like Mr. Overgaard, lost souls and con men who’ve conflated the worth of the camera they use – or the bag they throw it in – with their worth as photographers. If you learn anything from a great mind like Schopenhauer, it’s don’t fall for the con.

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NEXT UP: Chapter Two – What Martin Heidegger, the Nazi Rector of the University of Freiburg, can teach you about photography

ADDENDUM: Yes I know the site is screwed up. Yes, I know the links are broken. Yes, I know the comments section doesn’t work. Yes, I’m going to fix it. And yes, I’ve really enjoyed all the supportive emails I’ve received since my last post. Keep em coming to leicaphilia@gmail.com, because its nice to know people actually read this.