I really like Robert Frank. If I have a photographic mentor, it would be Robert Frank. He’s known mainly for The Americans, but I prefer his earlier European work – Valencia and England/Wales, both of which have a raw immediacy and lack of pretense sometimes absent from The Americans. You see him finding his style in his European work, mistakes and all. Sometimes the ‘mistakes’ are the best parts of his work. Frank has always been open to the serendipitous, the casual look, the throw-away visual remark others would pass up without seeing the meaning pregnant within. Even so, Frank can be remarkably inarticulate about his own work, as most great artists are. Its because Art comes from a place apart from reason or words. Great Art is pre-articulate. You can’t define it, but, like pornography, you know it when you see it. So Frank’s comment, above, about B&W photography, is interesting, but it doesn’t tell us much about why B&W photography is evocative in a way not available to color photography. Once a necessity of technological constraints, black and white photography now requires a deliberate choice. Why, then, would a modern photographer opt to photograph in black and white?
A visitor to Picasso’s studio, after looking at the discombobulated forms of a portrait Picasso was painting, remarked that in his opinion good painters should paint things the way they are — objective pictures, recognizable things. Picasso, silent for a moment, asked him what he meant by “the way things are”? The visitor produced a photograph of his wife from his wallet and said, “There, you see, that is a picture of how she really is.” Picasso looked at it and said, “She is rather small, isn’t she? And flat?”
I love that story. With one simple question it deconstructs the naive assumptions that underlie our perceptions of two dimensional representations. The ‘reality’ of paintings and photographs is that they are just flat bands of pigment on a two dimensional surface. The illusion of ‘representation’ is made possible by perspectival construction. The vanishing point is the beginning of the illusion, an illusion that the picture is really a window, something we look through and see to the reality behind.
What the viewer is really doing is mentally constructing a three dimensional representation by looking through the photo and constructing its meaning from his or her own idiosyncratic visual catalogue, much like a Rorsach ink blot. At bottom, the picture remains inert, two dimensional, not ‘representative’ of anything but its own reality. This, of course, is the simple theoretical statement behind abstract painting: the painting is its own thing, its own world, an object outside of and apart from its potential to represent something else. It ‘represents’ only what it is. A Jackson Pollock drip painting is something entirely autonomous, not in any way tethered to conceit of representation. As all true Art, it is its own representation.
Jackson Pollock’s “No. 1, 1949”
This simple fact becomes further confused when we examine a photograph. The photograph, by the very means of its production, aspires to be a representation of an existing visual state of affairs. Light from something (the ‘subject’) reflected from it to the film substrate via the medium of the lens. The photograph is that subject’s visual trace. So, a photograph is something different than a representational painting (that purports to ‘represent’ a visual state of affairs). There exists an indexical relationship between the photograph and reality that does not exist in representational painting – the photograph is itself a trace of that visual reality, “something directly stenciled off the real, like a footprint or a death mask.” With this comes the almost universal popular notion that a photograph is the faithful recreation of an existing state of visual affairs. Since photography’s inception, the photo album has replaced the written page as the primary means of fixing of memory, and this is because we believe in the veracity of the photograph, it’s ability to objectively reflect and fix the past. Its this naive belief that precludes many from considering photography Art. But is this notion true? Is what is shown below what was, or is it something else?
All pictures contain form. Form is independent of, and prior to, color. Color is a secondary characteristic. Color, when employed as part of an inherently representational medium like photography, is like windex to the pictures medium; it helps obscure the autonomy of the picture as a thing. Remove the color and you have one less step to abstraction. Black and White is a way to re-establish the the formal realities of a photograph, to emphasize the often hidden form over content, a hint of what is implicit in all photography but is so easily hidden by the indexical nature of the medium. With Black and White we can help bend back the photograph to its formal essence. Its content is seen for what it is, our projection onto the photograph of what we want to see. The picture by Ralph Gibson below is a perfect example: it can be seen as a picture taken out of the side window of a vintage car, or it can be seen in its formal abstraction while not precluding its view as a representation of something ‘real.’ Had it been in color, we’d probably have seen the first at the expense of the latter.
Photography, as Robert Frank has stated, is “an art for lazy people.” And it is an easy medium to master, more so now than ever. But really good photography, evocative images that have something to say, are still as rare as hen’s teeth. It’s always been that way with every creative medium. For every Mozart, a million Salieris; for every Robert Frank, a million photographers printing super large, vibrantly colorful, resolutely superb junk. The mistake comes from thinking that Art results simply from doing something competently. Its the mistake of the Salieris of the world. True Art, the product of a unique inspiration, uses the artistic medium as a way to make statements about itself rather than the subject in front of the artist. The best black and white photography, reducing images to essential visual elements of form, shape and tonal relationships, allows the viewer to see behind the photograph’s illusion as representation in a way not available to color images.