For Want of ‘Dietrologia’

Italians have a word dietrologia — literally translated as “behindology.” It’s the art of looking behind the surface of things to find their meanings, the hidden meanings of things. The Italian dictionary defines dietrologia as the “critical analysis of events in an effort to detect, behind the apparent causes, true and hidden designs.”

I’m pretty sure it’s a necessary trait for creativity, the ability to see more than the surface of the thing. Creativity is the ability to generate novel insights, to see behind the surface banality of a thing and suggest a glimpse of what it might mean if looked at from a novel perspective. To do that, it helps to have a head full of other things – things you’ve seen, and experienced and read about or heard or thought through. All of these things you weave together with what you’re observing and the end result is seeing something new.

The trick, of course, is to possess the ability to show others what you’ve seen. Successful creatives communicate their visions. Think of someone like Martin Scorcese in film, Trent Parke in photography, John Coltrane in music. They each have a unique vision that ties together their work and makes it theirs, and they possess the skill to tell that vision to others. There’s two parts to the creative equation – 1) seeing, and 2) telling. In order to be successful creatively, you need to be good at both. Unfortunately, recently I’m having trouble with both. I used to be a fairly proficient dietrologist. Lately, not so much. I’m, as they say, stuck, seeing nothing new or interesting. I’m hoping that eventually changes. Who knows. If past experience is any indication, one day I’ll wake up and see compelling pictures everywhere.

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According to 19th-century art critic John Ruskin, the “greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way.” I’m not sure I’d go that far, but I do agree to the extent that seeing and telling seems a uniquely human thing to do, and it’s something really important to us, both as individuals and as a species. And specifically, image-making – a type of seeing and telling – is a necessary part of our emotional, psychological and intellectual make-up.

Literally, the earliest evidence we have for human culture are images, paintings of animals deep within caves that date to times before we’re sure humans even possessed language. The cave paintings of Pech MerleFont-de-GaumeRouffignac, Chauvet and Lascaux are thought to be more than 30,000 years old. Bisons, lions and other extinct creatures cover the cave walls. What’s interesting about these pre-historic cave drawings is their undeniable aesthetic quality. Whatever their purpose, it was more than just transmission of knowledge, as some anthropologists claim (i.e. information about the location and movement of prey animals etc); there exists a vision behind these images, a felt need to communicate something aesthetically, the same thing that motivated Boticelli or Jasper Johns…or Walker Evans. Many animals are depicted in vivid color, with a sense of perspective and anatomical detail requiring significant artistic skill. Picasso was awed by their aesthetic power. “We have invented nothing,” he remarked after a visit to Lascaux in 1940.

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The question is why the ability or desire – or both – comes and goes as it does. Part of it, for me, has been the exponential inundation we’ve experienced via digital media. Technologically compelling images are everywhere, and, as such, they no longer have any value because they have nothing beyond their surface glossiness. They say nothing by representing everything superficially, everything glossed over with the hyperreality of marketing. They’re meaningless visual trinkets mindlessly created and consumed, all alike in their technologically mandated perfection. They represent the antithesis of a unique vision, all surface, saying nothing.

I started Leicaphilia years ago because I thought there needed to be someone advocating for film photography before it was totally swallowed up by digital. In the years writing it I’ve come to see the issue in more nuanced terms. What I’ve been really criticizing is the conflation of excellent images with images that rely on technology for their visual interest. Maybe shooting film is a self-imposed means to marginalize the ability of technology to hijack the creative process for its own ends. But, let’s face it – shooting film is a pain in the ass. Mind you, I ‘love’ the process, but I’ve come to realize that you don’t get points for difficulty. As to its success or lack thereof, a photograph stands on its own. It doesn’t matter how you produced it. Or does it?

19 thoughts on “For Want of ‘Dietrologia’

  1. Stephen J

    Apart from all my other displays of ignorance that show no signs of abating. I have consistently refused to “tell” when it comes to my photography. I know of no more than two of my pictures that have polluted the regions that everyone now seems to inhabit.

    So Tim, forgive yourself, your website and the work displayed therein is and always has been not only original, but inspiring.

    The “tell” bit is largely a matter self confidence, and I was criticised by my last employer for that self effacing attitude on more than one occasion. Indeed, it has cut through my whole professional and “creative” life, and has done me massive damage, both psychologically and financially.

    As for that commie Ruskin, I read one of his interminable tracts (Unto this last) on the advice of a recommendation within a book by Leo Tolstoy called the “Kingdom of God is within You”.

    As ever with commies, he just couldn’t see the impossibility of tying the human character to theoretical philosophy, unlike of course his contemporary “teller” JMW Turner, just about the greatest liar (dietrologist) of them all.

    The sun is god!

  2. Rob Campbell

    First of all, lovely to see you actively off that bike, and on the keyboard!

    I gather, then, that your blank period has yet to pass. Mine continues, depite getting a sort of second-hand burst of energy from watching tv series title sequences, often the best visual parts of the whole production. It happened to me watching the French production Braquo, the Sopranos and now with Justified. Unfortunately, it appears that the value of the images that result from that kind of inspiration are often solely in my own mind; on the one hand that’s okay, because I understand having to please oneself first in these matters, but it also makes the exercise feel a little bit flat – like singing along to the music in the car, or even imagining the echo-chamber effect on your voice in the shower when, in reality, you already know that you lack the abilty to sing anywhere at all.

    It seems that these “inspired” images that come from such sources often, but not always, fail in both of your required parts: the seeing because I may simply be seeing what I want to see, and the execution as direct consequence of trying to show something that may not have been there in the first place, existing just as an extension of my desire for something to exist.

    Visual overload certainly carries a lot or responsibility. Familiarity may not always breed contempt, but it certainly dulls the senses. It’s probably the basic cause underlying extra-martital affairs: the search for a fresh dose of excitement. Maybe, as with photographic genres, it’s switching from one to another that finally informs one as to what really, really matters. With luck, you don’t find out too late in your life.

    In a way, I find that my photography has turned out to be a lot like losing my wife: when the essence of something of vital importance has died, there is an unfillable vacuum that remains.

    Stay safe.

    Rob

  3. Mark Whitney

    A year or so ago I wrote a blog post about 4 factors that I think have killed photography that has any element of, as you say, dietrologia.

    One of them was ‘visual fatigue’. The digital revolution has brought a deluge of visual images that come at us from so many sources and with such rapidity that we don’t look at them anymore. Unless we can digest content immediately, it’s lost, because another image takes its place.

    Minor White said, “At first glance a photograph can inform us. At second glance it can reach us.”

    Now Minor never gets his ‘second glance’ – there’s no will and no time left for that. The surface is where it’s at now. Photographs don’t need craftsmanship. They don’t need to express our deepest feelings. They need to be colorful, obvious, and have a kitschy hook so they can catch at least one quick glance before submerging into the flood.

    Hang in there. I think that some day real photography will have a rebirth.

    1. Stephen J

      Rob, surely the content of that website would look nicer without the “nik” style overlays?

      He doesn’t seem to be a bad snapper otherwise.

      1. Rob Campbell

        Do you mean the keylines around the images themselves?

        I have no problem with that – in many cases the image would otherwise fade away into the background… I think one just gets used to a style when going through a website, and if one is able not to be distracted, then so much the better, which might of itself suggest that borders may be a problem after all. I suppose it depends how they are handled.

        Looking at a lot of pictures by mostly “artistic” snappers in various genres, it seems there is a kind of love/hate relationship with borders: some use them all the time, and others never. I wouldn’t have dreamed of using them back in the day when presenting prints to clients; what I used to do was place the image in the centre of a larger size of paper than the print required, leaving at least an inch or two of white border. Often, I would have to print with the subject to a very tight size, which wasn’t always that easy to do because now and again there seemed to be a bit of a stretch in the dried print. How easier it has become to do things accurately with digital. Today, folks are spoiled.

        Stay safe –

        Robi

    1. Rob Campbell

      Craft, as in being good at something, usually allows one to remove the difficulty from a project.

      That said, there’s no doubt that digital has opened the door to a control that would have been pretty impossible with wet printing techniques.

      I think that the trouble arises when too much is done with digital possibilities. Then, the resulting picture can look silly rather than wonderful.

      If by craft you mean traditional film photography, then you may be looking at it from the perspective that the two, film and digital work, are the same thing. I don’t think it’s realistic to think in that way: you really need to look upon them as different forms of visual art. If you are prepared to do that, then you have to accept that they employ different craft skills. Usually, I’d believe that someone with great traditional skills can do better with digital prints (once he learns the mechanics of the digital process) than a worker without that traditional grounding. I think it leads to a more sophisticated eye.

      Rob

      1. Henry

        Hi Rob,

        Yes, I can agree with much of what you write. I would posit, though, that film and digital are in essence merely two ways to accomplish the same goal. So really not that different from each other in the grand scheme of things.

        Hope you are staying well.

  4. Lee Rust

    Nice to hear from you again.

    It used to be that the realization and display of any kind of graven image involved quite a bit of effort and talent on the part of the creator. Think of all the work involved in getting those pictures of animals onto those cave walls. Think of all those hours in the darkroom.

    Fast forward to digital imaging. It’s so easy that anybody can do it and everybody can see it. All it takes is a few flicks of a finger. Multiply by billions every day and the result is an overwhelming global blur of brilliant, murky, sharp, blurry, cleverly or randomly assembled still and moving pictures.

    The mind boggles because our brains are still calibrated for the cave painting era when imagery was rare and appreciation was high because there was plenty of time for contemplation.

    It seems to me that the era of the famous artist or photographer has passed. No more Ansels or Henris or Pablos or Leonardos. Now that everybody is on the verge of viral fame or notoriety, nobody’s creative output really matters more than that of anybody elses.

    The dominant measure of success or fame is wealth and power. Now that we worship our billionaires, we really don’t seem to care exactly how they got there. The next stage will be trillionaires.

    So make your photos for yourself and your friends and family. They don’t have to be technically perfect and it doesn’t matter how you make them as long as they mean something to you. Forget about photographic fame unless you also happen to be a billionaire.

    1. Leicaphila Post author

      Thanks Lee. I think I agree with you about this being the end of the artist, and for the reasons you’ve stated. This inundation with images is wearying. I feel like I’m overloaded with the, and the ones I see most are just visual masturbation by technophiles showing off.

    2. Rob Campbell

      That’s a lot of assumptions there, Lee. For a start, not everybody is hooked up to social media all day. There may well be zillions of images floating in space, but the fact that they exist is not the same as saying that they get seen. In fact, for the kind of material that would interest me, the opportunities for such indulgence are shrinking, if anything. Where the Vogues and Harper’s Bazaars of the pre-digital era? They exist as physical things all right (last I looked) but the content has gone. Every Vogue used to have shoots from far-flung places, exotica that drove a hunger for travel; now, you mainly get a diet of ultra-crisp studio snaps of people who are hardly people at all – more like plastic window dummies, devoid of character, skin or anything else remotely human. The mags don’t/can’t ? spend like sailors anymore. Maybe they just realised that they don’t have to do so, and can keep more of the loot for themselves: the world is full of people willing to do it for the credit line.

      Neither do I feel that our minds are still shackled to, and conditioned by cave paintings; for quite a few centuries, I’d say quite the opposite. We have achieved amazing levels of visual, graphic and imaginative ability. The thing is, I think that in recent times most of the talent has shifted to motion imagery rather than stills. Movie-making has reached truly great levels of sophistication – one can become swept away into another word within fifteen seconds of switching on the movie; that’s clever work! It’s the same with acting: was a time somebody like Olivier would be hailed a genius; today, what he used to project just looks silly, over-acted and stiff as steel. It’s so easy to latch onto the past and convince oneself that there is no longer anything out there worth squat.

      People like HC-B and Leiter, to name but two from an enormous list, did what they did because they were present in their time. Their physical world has vanished; today, people of my age are kinda tied into their imagery because it’s what we grew up admiring. Our mistake is to draw a line and refuse to look beyond it. I’m as guilty of that flaw as anyone else.

      Money. Yes, money is the common currency by which success is measured. It always has been, in everything that’s commercial. And funny thing: it’s the professionals whose names and oeuvres are remembered. You don’t need many fingers on one hand to list the famous amateurs.

      Like I mentioned earlier, we have to accept that film photography and digital imaging are distant cousins, not brothers. There is value in both as there is crap, examples of the latter outnumbering the former every time. It was ever so. If all anyone wants to do is toil away below the parapet, fine; it strikes me as more interesting to be out there with the work. Of course, the problem is that it may not always be a good idea to do that..

      Rob

      1. Mark Whitney

        Hey Rob, I’m interested by your comment about film and digital photography being distant cousins instead of brothers.

        For me personally the switch from film to digital was never about creating a new kind of image. I just saw digital as a way to create images without the need for time consuming and possibly harmful chemical processes. The end point of my work is still the same, I just get there a different way.

        I treat my digital camera as if it is a film camera with some cool new features like being able to change film speeds in the middle of the ‘roll’, having a histogram available as the lazy man’s zone system, and being able to preview my shots immediately rather than weeks later when I finally get the time to do some developing. I still use glass filters and manual settings in the field and my post processing workflow is limited to pretty much the same things I would have done in the darkroom, probably less since I don’t screw up the exposures as often.

        Of course this may just be because I’m old and set in my ways :). I hope not. I hope I do what I do to achieve my personal vision rather than being tied to a certain process. Maybe the distance between film and digital is less in the processes themselves and more in the minds of the photographers using them. We think they are different therefore they are.

        MDW

        1. Rob Campbell

          A difference also lives in the product: do we print as much work as we keep as finished file? I stopped printing ages ago when I realised that those boxes of prints just lay there, unopened and unseen, even by myself. My website allows me instant access to anything I have today that I may want to look at again.

          There’s also the matter of scale: analogue photography demanded a reasonably sized print in order to be appreciated, whereas digital photos are pretty flexible in that you can blow them up to suit your mood, and all for no expense. And at least for me, expense plays a big rôle: why would I blow my own bread just to hide something in one of those already stuffed boxes?

          Perhaps one important difference between the two types of photography is that it has now become throwaway.

      2. Stephen J

        Speaking of movies Rob, I am amazed at the abilities of their creators to ensure that almost every frame is perfectly composed. By pressing pause at any juncture their skill is clear.

        No wonder we find their work so engaging, even with feeble storylines, such as those that find their way into the Netflix database.

  5. Jinw

    I just want to give you my thanks for your effort to write this essay. Truly inspiring and thought-provoking. Take care and stay safe. – Jinw from China

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