Tag Archives: Walker Evans

Formalism and Photography (Can Photos of Statues be Art?)

Trocadero, Paris

Above is a photo of a portion of a statute that sits in the Jardins du Trocadero directly across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower.  I’ve long been intrigued by Eugene Atget’s photos of Paris from the turn of the century, so once there I went around trying to do the same thing. Atget, a commercial photographer, spent his career in anonymity documenting Paris and environs with an 8×10 view camera. In addition to photographing streets, courtyards, cafes and city denizens, he photographed a lot of architectural details…and statuary. Lot’s of statuary. Like Vivian Maier, his work was “discovered” by someone who made it know to the wider world after his death.

John Szarkowski, photography writer and curator of photography at the Met in New York, published a book about Atget wherein he claims Atget not merely a great 20th century photographer but “one of the great artists of the 20th Century.” The book Atget, published by the Museum of Modern Art, contains 100 duotone and tritone photos, most of people-less fixed scenes, statuary included. Below is the jacket’s cover photo:

What’s interesting, given the acclamation of Atget as a “great artist,” is that Atget didn’t consider himself an ‘Artist,’ He never tried to manipulate his photographs to reflect a specific artistic sensibility or any defined artistic principle. He was a working photographer trying to document things as accurately as possible. Yet it’s hard to argue with those who claim him to be an ‘Artist.’ His best work has an immense formal beauty somehow apart, or more precisely added onto, the formal beauty of his subjects.


Jardin des Tuileries, Paris

Above is a picture of a statute in the Tuileries. You could argue that it’s not the same as Atget’s; the photographer (me) attempted to impose some sort of individual sensibility onto the subject. Its a pretty straight shot…shot with a Nikon D100 modified for IR use. The only “sensibility” I brought to the photo was the composition and the choice of IR. It isn’t a straight document. Could I call it ‘Art?’   The reason I ask is because a lot of otherwise sophisticated viewers might chafe at calling Atget’s photos Art. I assume they’d say that any aesthetic value found in the photos inheres in the subject itself and not the photograph of it.

Jardin des Tuileries, Paris

Above is another photo of the same statute in the Tuileries, this time with other formal and documentary elements the photographer has chosen to include. It’s easier to claim this for ‘Art,’ because I’ve presented the pictorial elements so that their relation to each other suggests a meaning, might hint at something more than what simply appears in the picture.

What about the Trocadero photo that opens the piece? Same thing, or different? I’ve got a 16×20 platinum print of it hanging in my office. I love it. Is it a photo f a thing – a documentary record – or is it itself it’s own creation when considered apart from the content? It speaks to me both formally and emotionally. I’m sure other people, visitors to my home, have looked at it and thought of it only as a snapshot of a Parisian statute I’m inordinately fond of, when in fact what I see is a photograph with its own aesthetic worth  apart from the specific subject.

In my last post I’d referenced a few photos I’d taken on a recent walk. The premise of the piece is that everyday things can possess a formal beauty. What’s important is that you be open to it. I used a couple of photos I’d taken while walking dog to illustrate.  What I hadn’t mentioned was that one of the photos, the one I’d used to open the piece, had been germinating in my mind for some time. I’d walked past the subject daily; I’d eyed it a thousand times, each time thinking “I need to photograph that.” I finally got around to doing it. I love what I got. A 16×20 is going on a wall somewhere, for no other reason than it speaks to me. Maybe it’s my eye as a painter that’s allowed me to abstract from the objective, public nature of things ‘out there’ and consider them in their formal natures. Maybe it’s my formative years having been fascinated by Walker Evan’s photography, Evans being much like Atget in his sensibilities and aims. Maybe I’m just a photographic hack massively overthinking all of this, or worse yet palming off my cliched photos as ‘Art.’ Damned if I know.

I love this. It’s Gonna Hang on my Wall Somewhere

Unfortunately There’s No Free Lunch

The cause of these ruminations

I’m currently housebound in Raleigh, North Carolina- 4:00 PM, raining like hell outside, iTunes blasting Neil Young’s Cinnamon Girl through headphones while working through my third snifter of  Woodford Reserve Bourbon, a bottle of which a friend was foolish enough to leave here the other night with the promise that it’d be here the next time he visits (the bottle most certainly will be).  I’m printing work prints on an Epson R3000 for an exhibition I’ve entitled Car Window. There’s a couple of things presently on my  mind other than the fact that I’m glad my friend was dumb enough to leave his bottle of bourbon in my possession: first, how is it possible that the music I’m currently blasting from my iTunes account sounds so god-awful compared to what I used listen to with my Marantz amp and KLH speakers, way back in the ice-age of the 70’s?

I thought technological innovation i.e. digitization was going to revolutionize my hi-fidelity listening experience? Didn’t happen, not even close; go listen to the album I’m currently listening to – Neil Young’s Everyone Knows This is Nowhere – on vinyl on any half-decent turntable, amp and speakers, and then listen to it run thru iTunes as an mp3 and you’ll be shocked at the diminunition in audio quality we now accept as a given in the interests of quick and easy. It pisses me off when I think of the vinyl collection I once had – the usual 60’s and 70’s era Rock and Roll, but also an impressive collection of 50’s and 60’s era jazz: Coltrane, Rollins, Shorter, Monk, Gordon, Adderley, Webster, Coleman, Ellington, Miles Davis, Bill Evans – all now mp3 files on my computer and phone, pushed out through earbud headphones or streamed through my Apple TV to the attached Bose sound system, where they sound like shit – thin, tinny, screechy, hollow – whenever you try to play them at a decent volume (if ever there was a song that deserved to played loud, it’s Cinnamon Girl).

Car Window prints.  All shot with a film camera. Not sharp, bad corners, harsh bokeh.

Of course, ruminating about hi-fidelity leads me logically to the next subject, the fact that the prints I’m producing, while nice enough by current digital standards, just don’t have the depth and fullness of a comparable silver print printed in a darkroom, the tonal transitions just a little too abrupt, the obvious sharpness somehow slightly unpleasant to a discerning eye. In their defense, they certainly are easier to produce. No nasty chemicals, endless repeatability as opposed to the laborious reproducibility of a fine silver print. And those born into the digital era probably won’t even understand the differences.

A few years ago, while in Los Angeles, I saw a Walker Evans exhibition of his 1930’s Cuba photos at the Getty. Gorgeous 8×10 silver contact prints, one in particular, a frontal portrait of a Cuban stevedore that just blew me away with its simple beauty. That’s it, to the left, where, reproduced digitally and viewed on a computer monitor, it’s just another picture of some guy, nothing special. Were I to post it to some forum for critique I’m sure critics would take issue with any number of things – the framing, the lighting, the sharpness, the lack of acceptable bokeh etc etc, the usual herd animal opinions. Luckily, I saw that same print again in Paris this past Summer at the Evans exhibition at the Pompidou Center. So simple, yet profoundly arresting, impossible to look at and appreciate through the facile categories of sharpness, resolution, ease of capture, repeatabilty. It was a singular work that someone had laboriously produced in a darkroom. Art of the highest order, the exquisite confluence of singular critical decisions by Walker as to both construction and production, things that took time and thought and energy, all things the digital age promised us we could do without in our mad rush for the quick and easy.

I’ve been to my share of art exhibits and museums in my 59 years, and I can think of a number of times when I was profoundly moved by a work of art – Walker’s Cuban Stevedore, the van Gogh self-portrait at the Fogg Museum At Harvard, a huge Jackson Pollack I saw in Paris, Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus in the Uffizi in Florence, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel in the Vatican – all of them the product of a slow, discriminating  process of creation, the very processes that the digital era promises to liberate us from.  Of course, I look at myself in the mirror and see, surprisingly, just another old man, my opinions considered by the current digital generation the sad ravings of a man who’s era has come and gone. Fair enough. But remember, there’s no ‘free lunch;’ everything you gain is purchased at the cost of something else. Consider that when you’re upgrading your Nikon D whatever every two years, or you’re listening to your music with those shitty earbuds or you’re running your plastic-looking digital photos through Silver Efex. Everything has its price.