25 November 2006

Shutter & Palette

This past week G. & I spent our Thanksgiving Vacation in Washington, D. C. In addition to running around looking at the monuments at night (in the freezing cold), touring the Capitol, sitting in the empty House gallery listening to a police officer give his rather leftist interpretation of the intricate workings of the U.S. government, and going hungry because of the atrocious cost of food in our capitol city, we whiled away several afternoons in the excellent Smithsonian museums. I’d like to take a moment to talk about the photography was saw in two to them, and to contrast these to some of the paintings we saw.

Well, first of all I’m wondering what makes a good photograph. Yes, of course, I know this is one of those unanswerable questions, like What is art and Why is this awful piece of music so famous and My 6-yr-old could paint like that what makes it worth hanging in a museum. Right. But I was a little baffled by some of the sharp contrasts we encountered. I’d like everyone to answer, of course, but I’d also like to direct you to Rosie’s photo blog for you to view some contemporary photography & maybe bring it into this discussion.

First of all, we saw a collection of photographs of NYC at the National Gallery of Art. Here are highlights. I was confused by this exhibition. I couldn’t understand why these were worthy to hang in the first art museum in the US of A, why they were supposed to be good. I mean, I’m no photographer, and I know that photographers love to mess with traditional settings, etc., but these were just out of focus, poorly arranged or not intentionally arranged at all (like aleatoric music, perhaps), oddly cropped, and so on. I felt like any hack with a camera could do better. Yet here they were, hung all neatly in their lovely rows, with plaques pronouncing how revolutionary and profound and gritty and full of the sense of life they were. Well, fine, but I didn’t get it.

Then we went on down the road to the Museum of Natural History (or, as we young-earth Intelligent Design Creationist like to call it, the Museum of Unnatural Fiction). There we were swept breathlessly away by a fantastic, gorgeous, stunning display of photographs from the current exhibition of winners from a nature photography contest. Wow! These were just wonderful. Picture after picture, crystal clear, vivid color, astonishing poses, stories printed on the sides of courageous photographers risking their lives to get the perfect picture. Take a look at this one of a giraffe at sunset, or this one of a polar bear afloat on ice. These struck me like the great sky-scapes of Tuner. Then there were astonishing compositions, like this one of an alligator’s snout above & below water. There was one of clownfish, not presented on the website, in which the camera was placed below bright orange seaweed where brilliant orange-and-black clownfish played, and the leaves of a mangrove tree were clearly visible above the water in the sky beyond! Wow. And eagles in their nests, and snow monkeys frolicking in the snow, and owls & bears & flowers. G. asked why these shouldn’t be hung up the street in the National Gallery of Art. And I had to ask the same question. What made these beautiful, carefully crafted pieces “Nature Photography” and what made those fuzzy, haphazard NYC photos art?

Well, of course, it doesn’t really matter. We had our various enjoyments in each building. And people who would be, perhaps, scared away or bored by “Fine Art” were thrilled and blessed by those photos of Creation. So that’s fine.

And then here’s another contrast we experienced. There was one particular image of a bald eagle which became the icon for the entire exhibition. When we viewed it, 5’ long & 3’ high, in stunning color, G. said it looked like a painting. We were shocked that something in nature could be that vivid, that bold, that perfectly posed. The head looked carven, as if out of wood, and painting with sharp contrast. So that was our highest compliment to these photographs: that they resembled paintings. Well, the evening before at the National Portrait Gallery, we had done just the opposite! There was a starting painting of Toni Morrison by Deborah Feingold. When we walked into the spare, primary-yellow room, her figure clad in black & grey, with a determined expression on her face, leapt out at us from the bright white canvas. Unfortunately, this image is not available online. You’ll just have to go to D. C. to see it for yourself! But we could not tell if it was a photograph or a painting. We stood looking at it & guessed before we looked at the caption. One of us thought it was a photo; one, a painting. It was a painting, but you’d be startled to know that. She was coming right off the canvas at us! Her shoulders were a good five inches away from the white background, her hands and elbows and breasts curved outward towards us; and all this in two-dimensions. It amazed me. Here’s the link to the web site of an acquaintance of mine, friend-of-a-friend, who does photorealist paintings. Again, they amaze me.

Of course, you see where I’m going with this. We gave our highest praise to the eagle photo by saying it looked like a painting; we gave our highest praise to the Toni Morrison painting by saying it looked like a photograph. Why is this? Is the goal of visual art, then, to fool its viewers into thinking it’s something it’s not? Or, to put it in different terms, is mimesis primarily a deceptive practice?

And then what about art, specifically photography, that does the opposite: that achieves its artistry by giving an image of something that could occur nowhere outside its borders? I’m talking about “avant-garde,” or specifically “surreal” works, those fantastical images of random (or not-so-random) juxtaposition like this one of paper clips and cows by Rosie.

I have not even begun to talk about the ideological or spiritual implications of these questions. It seems obvious to me that an artists could incorporate surreal elements as religious statements that there’s-more-than-meets-the-eye, or that some people could take offense at what they see as the deceit of some art, or that comments could be made on social interrelationships by visual juxtapositions, or that photography & painting can slide in and out of one another as multiple visions of the way things are & they way they should be & the way the artists sees them & the way they could be.

Feel free to speculate.


Rosie Perera said...

Wow, a lot to think about there.

First, I'll respond to the NYC exhibit at the National Gallery of Art. I refer you to the intro provided at the NGA's website: "In 1938 Walker Evans embarked on a radically new series of photographs. He concealed his 35mm camera under his coat—its lens poking out between his buttons and a shutter release down his sleeve—and surreptitiously photographed subway riders in New York. Aware that people would inevitably compose themselves and alter their expressions if they knew they were being photographed, he did not raise the camera to his eye to look through its viewfinder, nor did he adjust its focus or exposure, or use a flash. Evans abandoned all the controls that a photographer normally employed and strove to make portraits of 'detachment and record,' dependent on chance and intuition."

The point of the exhibit was not that they were supposed to be "good" art photographs. But they are examples of documentary photography, and so they have historical importance. They show something of New York life which could not have been shown if the photographer had made his presence and activity known. Walker Evans was a pioneer in his style of documentary photography, known as "lyric documentary." I think to appreciate these photographs, you need to ignore the issues such as odd cropping and blurred images, and look at the natural expressions on the people's faces, etc. The creative idea can be separated from the technical execution of the photograph. As another example, pinhole photography is a whole realm of art photography which is based on an obsolete historical process (the camera obscura) and produces out-of-focus images, but yet there's something magical about them. And it's just plain cool that you can make a photograph out of an oatmeal box with a pinhole in it!

For further reading, see Making Sense of Documentary Photography, by James Curtis.

Now on to the nature photography contest exhibit. Thanks for that link. Awesome photos! Not only because of their technical and artistic excellence, but because of the amazing subject matter (the beauty of God's creation) and the risks the photographer probably had to take -- or at least long hours of patience -- in order to get the shot. Another amazing photo contest is the BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year. I got to see its exhibit at the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow in 2004. Wow! That's the kind of photography I aspire to.

Next topic to respond to is why do we praise photographs for looking like paintings and paintings for looking like photographs? Well, I guess we are amazed when something looks like what it is not. I suppose it shows the artist's ability to stretch a medium beyond its normal boundaries. But that's really not what makes art good. A whole lot of great photographs do not look like paintings, and vast numbers of paintings that we love do not look at all like photographs. Think of Monet, Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Michelangelo, etc. Photorealism in painting is impressive, but it's not always appealing as art. It's merely mimesis, one could say. Actually, as I understand it, striving for exact representation used to be more common in painting than it is today. The invention of the camera threw painters for a loop temporarily. They used to be in demand for portraits of rich and important people, documenting events, etc. But with photography, nobody needed painters to do that anymore. So they had to become more creative. Now photorealism in painting is a small niche. Your acquaintance Daniel Pritchett's work is good, and yet there's something a bit trite about it. I guess his paintings look like illustrations for video games to me. A bit too "computer-graphic-y" for my taste. But of course computer graphics gurus strive for the same kind of realism in their work that he does; they just use different tools to get at it.

Lastly, I want to comment on your questions about "art, specifically photography,...that achieves its artistry by giving an image of something that could occur nowhere outside its borders." Photography is not privileged in the genre of surrealism. There's a long established line of painters, including Salvador Dali, René Magritte, and the Dadaists, who have done this sort of thing. I don't see using Photoshop to juxtapose safety pins with cows as being much different from using paints to depict melting stopwatches on a canvas. There's probably a big difference in what Dali's painting means, but something rather like that could have been done with digital photography and Photoshop as well.

Surrealism has indeed been used to depict religious subject matter. Dali himself did so. I saw his Crucifixion (Corpus Hypercubus) on that same visit to Glasgow in 2004, in the St. Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art. There's a discussion of some of the spiritual implications of that work here. Mark Rothko is another painter whose spiritual art is very non-representational.
There is an excellent post on how Modernism (including surrealism, etc.) can serve the Christian artist well, on the archived version of David Taylor's Diary of an Arts Pastor blog, written by guest blogger (GB) Kelly Foster.

I'm afraid I've probably left more rabbit trails to follow on to longer expositions of these questions than I have actually answered any of them. I plan to respond later to your comment on my surrealist photo.

Rosie Perera said...

I just learned that there is a small but enthusiastic community of people who take art photos with really bad cameras on purpose, and enjoy the interesting artifacts resulting from light leaks, film curvature, a plastic lens, etc. See more about Holga cameras, also here. Now if that doesn't beat Walker Evans for unappealing art photography, I don't know what does! Here's an exception, an interesting and somewhat beautiful B&W photo done with a Holga.

Iambic Admonit said...

Thank you, Rosie. Yes, I had read all that about Evans' photography at the museum. I don't at all dispute the fact that his work is interesting, important, revolutionary, valuable, etc.; I just wonder if it's "art." I think it's worth studying, displaying, and talking about, but I felt as if it would have been better in a history of NYC museum, or a book on the history of documentary photography, or something like that. Maybe that's just the snob in me! But think about it: why should a gorgeous, highly skillful photo of a bird be relegated to the category of "nature photography," while something that's even purposefully sloppy gets to hang in the art museum?

Rosie Perera said...

OK, now I understand where your beef with the art museum lies. Why do you think "nature photography" as a category is not considered art? Just because these contest-winning photos were displayed in a Museum of Natural History does not mean the exhibitors did not think they were art. Probably they did. Perhaps your skepticism about the very idea of "natural" history from your first entrance into the museum put you in a frame of mind to think that anything in there couldn't possibly be considered art. Anyway, there is a good deal of crossover between what is art and what is history, anthropology, technology, etc. Art is unapologetically displayed as art in museums devoted to those specific fields.

I'm wondering... If those photos had been paintings, would you have asked "why should a gorgeous, highly skillful painting of a bird be relegated to the category of 'nature painting'?" Would an art museum never display nature photography might be a fair question to ask, though. Here is an example where an art museum did show an exhibit of nature photography. But interestingly, the article says "Transcending conventional nature photography, Balog explores the changing character of the American forest in his photographs of 'superlative trees.' Often he focuses on a single concentrated frame, exposing complex and swirling details of ancient trees— 'champions.' He shows sculpturally elegant trees that have survived by sheer hardiness or luck." (my italics) It seems maybe you're right, then. Maybe there has to be a certain extra element in the nature photography -- it must communicate an idea apart from simply the beauty of nature -- in order for it to be considered art. Otherwise, I guess the curators of art museums must think nature photography is nothing more than a showcase for the beauty of nature, and so it belongs in a museum of natural history along with beautiful specimens of butterflies and birds.

I think possibly the fact that these photos were award-winners in a competition also taints them as far as being considered for an art museum. Maybe there's a prejudice against contests as a venue for creating legitimate art. I don't know. It would be interesting if any museum curators were reading this and could comment on the decision-making that is involved in what to show. I know that our art gallery at Regent shows photography quite often (it has shown plenty of mine), and wouldn't turn down a beautiful photo of an eagle if it were part of a themed exhibit. I might ask Dal Schindell, our resident art expert and gallery director and board member of CIVA (Christians in the Visual Arts), what he thinks of this question.

Sesoztai said...

Fascinating! Here a thought concerning the ideological or spiritual implications of those questions "why do we praise paintings by saying they look like photographs?” etc. Could it be that we are always wanting something more, never fully satisfied with what we have? Longings for heaven. One sees a beautiful vista, say, and loves seeing it. Then one immediately wants somehow to have it more than see it. One wants to experience it more, to fully experience it. When we see a beautiful sight we try to grasp it by comparing it to something else. This might have spiritual implications in that the abily to grasp sights or fully experience things will only be granted us in heaven. Are we trying to fill a longing that can never be filled with anything other than the experiences we will have in heaven? Only in heaven can we fully enjoy things, because only in heaven will experiences be untainted with sin. I’m sorry this is terribly Christian sounding (or sounding Christian, terribly), but I believe it is true, and I don’t know of another way to put it.

Iambic Admonit said...

Thanks, Eve, that's perfect! You made me think of Lewis's great warning to artists, too, not to get so far caught up in the act and adoration of creating/subcreating as to commit idolatry. He said it something like this, in The Great Divorce:

"Every artist, poet, and musician, but for grace, is drawn away from the love of what he is telling about to the love of telling."

Hum, that's not quite an exact quote. But it came in a conversation between two artists, one reprobate & one Redeemed, and the damned painter was explaining how he had ceased to care about trying to depict light, had ceased to love light at all, and only cared for paint and canvas for their own sakes. He was saying this was a great thing, the true aesthetic and all that, and the saved painter warned him that that, indeed, is the very danger.

~ Admonit

Iambic Admonit said...

Here's the exact quote, from a href=>C. S. Lewis quotations:

"Every poet and musician and artist, but for Grace, is drawn away from love of the thing he tells, to love of the telling till, down in Deep Hell, they cannot be interested in God at all but only in what they say about Him."

I like it so much I think I'll put it up at the top of this blog, to remind us all.

Rosie Perera said...

Wow, great quote! And how appropriate as a banner quote for this blog. Thanks for adding it. It's good to be reminded of that regularly.