Wednesday, March 12, 2014

March Seminar. The Thing itself.

Homework. Over the next three weeks, work with 'the thing itself'. Consider what is presented below, but remember that we write no prescriptions here. You are developing your own way of seeing and there are as many ways as there are people on the road.

Bill's presentation:
To accompany my presentation which uses Edward Weston as an example of Szarkowski's ideal of the thing itself , I walked around a local waterfront and took a series of images 'in the style of' this influential photographer. As I pointed out to the class, we are engaged in learning a visual art, a way of seeing, and while words and definitions are important, the essential process is visual. We learn by seeing our world and from how other photographers see it and express themselves. We learn in a very practical way by doing it: it is a very 'eyes-on' process. I found walking in the shoes of Weston, shooting within his aesthetic, to be a powerful learning process and recommend the process to you if you should feel so inclined and know a photographer you find to be simpatico.
Remember, that libraries and the internet contain loads of information.

The book by Szarkowski, 'The Photographer's Eye', that we are using as the basic framework for this course does not present the basic facts about the camera, and yet we all need a common understanding of its workings and the specialized terminology used, so the course can proceed into more technical discussions, such as Simon's discussion on depth of field. So I am presenting the central idea of 'The Thing Itself' followed by a discussion of the camera as the medium that leads to the final print.

The Thing Itself.

In the introduction to his book, 'The Photographer's Eye', John Szarkowski makes the point that the machine we use, the camera, can and does record anything that is selected for it. It takes, not makes. How then, he says, amid the great masses of photographs produced do we find images that are meaningful and “ have clarity, coherence and a point of view”?

It is within this context that his identification of the salient quality of the camera as a medium is that it produces a detailed image of 'the actual', of the 'facts'. This would seem so obvious that it would be hardly worth mentioning. We point, we shoot, we capture. So what? Interestingly enough though, this becomes less and less obvious as his book proceeds: it is within that medium, that process of photographing, that we begin to recognize that the photograph is not 'reality', but is subject to the mind of the photographer and the attributes of the camera itself. The 'thing itself' can be, as Szarkowski says, the actual subject matter, but the camera is the medium through which we proceed towards that other 'thing' the two dimensional photograph and the camera does seem to be taken for granted as a messenger of truth. If it is not, however, and the facts about the 'thing' are influenced profoundly by the intent of the photographer, then the 'truth' of the photograph is seriously in question. A photograph that is taken and has 'clarity, coherence and a point of view' is like other forms of knowledge; it is subject to the personal prejudices and world view of the photographer, either intentional and conscious or to some degree or other unconscious. How we select our fragment, frame it, from what angle, and at what speed we choose to shoot at, (how we control our camera), makes all the difference to the viewer's understanding of the two dimensional version of reality preserved in the photograph. The camera then, is under the control of the photographer, but the machine also influences the photographer as well, often in ways he is not fully aware of.

Szarkowski is making a case for photography as an art form and he is very selective
in his choices. His preference is for the kind of photographs best exemplified in the work of the American photographer Edward Weston who worked in the San Francisco area in the 20s to 50s of the last century. Weston's philosophy is exemplified in the following quote:

My work- purpose, my theme, can most nearly be stated as the recognition, recording, and preservation of the interdependence, the relativity in all things – the universality of basic form. In a single day’s work, within the radius of a mile, I might discover and record the skeleton of a bird, a blossoming fruit tree, a cloud, a smoke-stack; each of these being a part of the whole, but each, - in itself, becoming a symbol for the whole, of life.
The camera should be used for the recording of life, for rendering the very substance and quintessence of the thing itself, whether it is polished steel or palpitating flesh.
Edward Weston.

Weston's style, thanks to the efforts of Szarkowski, the curator/promoter, was for a long time the ideal for photography: clear, well crafted depictions of natural forms using a great depth of field, an emphasis on using the camera for what it does well rather than aping painting, and a focus upon a high level of commitment and craftsmanship. A contemplative examination of life itself as seen through the eyes of Americans who valued nature and believed that photography could open people's eyes to 'the real world'. He believed that the 'hand' ( the stylistic preferences of the photographer), should not show in his photographs - life, the thing itself, held centre stage. Today his photographs may seem somehow quaint and old fashioned simply because they became the standard for such a long time and then fashion moved on. But Thoreau's writings ( Walden) that valued 'wild nature' as the cure for society’s ills, and our sensuous experience of it, underlies much of his photography and through him it drives much of nature photography even today.

Weston, then, is the mind behind the camera, but the camera itself is the medium through which passes the light reflected off the subject matter to the light sensitive 'receiver' and eventually to the two- dimensional image. It is worth while having a look at this machine to understand what it does and why we can say that the photograph does not tell the truth - it tells, perhaps, a truth.

The camera.
The ancient Greeks were the first to write down a description of what would become the theory behind the workings of the camera. If a very small hole were made in an outside wall of a dark room ( a 'camera obscura', as it would later be called), the sunlit scene outside would be projected upside down on the opposite wall. That description, two thousand years later in Renaissance Italy, would be found, translated and experimented with. The room could be scaled down to box size, the small pinhole-sized aperture could be replaced by a newly invented and much larger glass lens, and the much brighter projected image could be bounced by a mirror to a glass screen at the top. To solve the problem of focusing the image ( not needed when the aperture was very small) the front of the box could be slid forward or back. This bulky instrument could be carried from place to place and drawings of 'the thing itself' made by tracing the projected image onto paper. Non-artists could draw pictures of their travels and artists ( like Vermeer) used it for assistance with composing their paintings. The stage was set for the invention of light sensitive chemicals ( mostly silver based) painted onto a metal, glass, or paper base and later the more familiar roll film, that would produce an image without that time consuming and skill testing business called drawing.

Nearly two hundred years ago the camera obscura of the artist was adapted to become the camera that we use today, a shutter was added to control the length of the exposures, which could be very long at first, and the instrument was further reduced in size not only for carrying convenience but because the shorter the distance between lens and new light sensitive plate, the brighter the light and the shorter the exposure time could be. This business of 'correct exposure' was a somewhat complex balancing act. Essentially, the light sensitive silver emulsion on the film could permit only a small range of variation in light: too little and it was underexposed and the resulting image was dark, or to much and it was overexposed and the image was too light. There were three variables ( there are three today too): the aperture size could be adjusted systematically from small to large ( f stops), thus permitting more or less light; the shutter could be opened for a longer or shorter time, and the film could be more or less sensitive, ( unlike today when we can adjust our 'iso' for each image we make, this in practice was a given, at least for each 'speed' of the whole role of film). Change any one of the two variables of speed and aperture and the other had to be adjusted also. Shortening the shutter speed would reduce the amount of light so a bigger aperture was needed to maintain a correct exposure. If, to gain a greater depth of field, the aperture was reduced then the shutter speed had to be slowed. There were no light meters, so experience and careful note taking was in order.

This triad; aperture, shutter speed and 'iso' are still the major set of controls we use to influence how our photograph will turn out. Shutter speed can blur or freeze motion, and aperture can produce a very shallow plane of focus or a very deep one. Neither is a set ideal, the correct combination depends on the specific needs of the subject matter and the wishes of the photographer. A simplified way to visualize how these work is to think of a balance scale: move a weight at one end and the other must be adjusted to even it up - to obtain a correctly balanced exposure.

The print.
The 'thing itself' has been located, the medium of the camera has captured its 'likeness' and now either as a positive print or a digital image the picture lies before us. How close however, is this two dimensional image to the original thing itself? As Szarkowski tells us, in the beginning a photograph was ridiculed as a gross distortion of reality and it took a while ( and some clever marketing,) for people to be persuaded that in fact what the camera ( 'this amazing machine') captured was the truth. While we vaguely know that this is not so, today we do tend to question reality if it does not seem to fit in with 'camera correctness'. We swallow uncritically the perspective that the camera brings, the thousands of images we experience the world through every day. But as photographers, we do need to know how it is that the camera lies.

We have eyes that are similar in some ways to the optical design of the camera, but we have two mounted side by side to give us binocular vision while the camera looks with one. We can judge the relationships of objects in depth, but we must be aware of and make allowances for our poor foolish camera which will place a power-pole on someone's head given half a chance. We need to plan our 'camera reality' carefully to make things appear real. Also, the lens we use affects how the camera portrays the subject matter before it. Try a wide angle or a telephoto and see the difference. We use this effect every time we take a photo. That shutter speed, fast or slow, really affects the reality of the photograph, as does the aperture and its influence on depth of field. Our eyes do see differently in that we can rapidly scan back and forth across the scene before us or bring one subject into sharp focus for a second while the camera cannot, it is limited to a single plane of focus for each shot. The camera has a much more limited range of light that it can work within, without over or under exposing the photograph and that, too, is not how we actually experience reality,( unless we have been trained to do so by the ubiquitous photographic image).

Finally, we as humans, experience the world around us with several senses working in seamless co-ordination, and we use our feelings and our knowledge to understand reality, the wide world of things we move among. The camera is really a limited machine and to use it successfully we need to make adjustments for, or take advantage of, all of its deficiencies. With camera knowledge we can make photographs that have clarity, coherence and a point of view that, as Weston has pointed out, can reach a long way towards expressing that powerful thing called life, a sense of reality that is embedded, like each of us, within the natural world.

Simon's presentation of depth of field.
One important ability that stems from a knowledge of how a camera works, especially the relationship between aperture and shutter speed and iso is that the size of the aperture is the principle determiner of depth of field and is a major control over how our photograph looks and what it communicates. The smaller the aperture the greater is the illusion of depth in the photograph. Weston belonged to the f64 club in San Francisco, so taking this clue we can understand that he and his friends believed that an image that was sharp from close up to far distant was a correct way to depict reality, the 'thing itself'. Of course there is only one actual point of sharp focus but a small aperture narrows the angle of light and that small angle increases the sense of acceptable sharpness, one that our eyes cannot easily detect, over a greater front-to-back distance. On the other hand one of the difficulties with the monocular camera is the difficulty in separating our subject from its background. A shallower depth of field using a larger aperture helps the photographer achieve that separation. The best way to figure this out for yourself is to do your own experimenting.

Imagine two 'takes' on the same subject. In one, the photographer uses a small aperture and makes an image that shows a landscape in all its complexity; our eyes are free to roam from side to side, building an understanding of it piece by piece; and in the other, a shallow depth of field brings our attention to one element and fades out the rest. A working knowledge of depth of field is important for any photographer.

Greg's presentation.
Greg presented three different photographers and showed how the 'ideal' as presented by Szarkowski was worked around even by people like Ansel Adams and most certainly by Jerry Uelsmann ( for whom 'the thing itself' was a dream reality. He also presented 'the scream' faces of Edvard Munch and Duchene de Boulogne ( to illustrate the difference between a painterly rendition and that of the photograph. We see the photograph and accept its reality ( not so real, as it turns out) and we see the painting and have a different reaction, it is not photo-real but is expressive; the photograph is 'in our face', while we can approach the 'Scream' as a more 'aesthetic' proposition.

Ansel Adams is one of Szarkowski's shining lights, along with Edward Weston, but whereas Weston attempted 'straight photography', (for him the moment of capture with no extensive after-processing was all important), Adams took his photograph while imagining how it would look after he had performed extensive adjustments in the darkroom. Weston's prints can be made again today from his original negatives, while Adam's negatives were simply the raw material for his personal creative work. 'The thing itself' was something more subjective and once-removed from the 'fragment' he selected in nature. He called this thinking ahead towards the final print form 'pre-visualization'. Greg pointed out that Adams had a political agenda, to influence the American public and its politicians to preserve 'wild nature' by creating new national parks. His work then is more 'commercial' in a way, more intentionally and dramatically persuasive, than Weston's more contemplative ones.

Gerry Uelsmann, has gone a very long step away from Szarkowski's ideal, with his complex darkroom piecing together of separate fragments to create 'dream imagery'. He relies however, on our recognition of the photograph as a simple presentation of 'true reality' to make us do a double take by slicing contrasting images together. While this has been done in painting ( think Salvador Dali) the shock effect in a photograph is powerful: “It is, but it isn't”.

By placing Uelsmann at the end of our seminar session, Greg has performed a similar 'shock'. We have travelled from a very 'concrete' perspective of 'the thing itself' as presented by Weston and promoted by Szarkowski to a challenge of that ideal - that 'reality' is also subjective. Weston wishes to be 'invisible' in his photographs, Uelsmann proclaims the very opposite. Both are photographers.

Extra 1.
Edward Weston. Photographer.

I have always been attracted to Edward Weston's photographs ever since I was given a 'Sierra Club' book called ' Not Man Apart' with lines from the poet Robinson Jeffers and photographs of California's Big Sur Coast. Years later, when we sailed our schooner past it in the dark on our way south I was aware of that hidden craggy coastline just off the port side. I knew this place through the eyes of photographers like Weston and in the language of Jeffers. What a powerful influence on a life the arts can exert, in this case through photographs and scraps of poetry.

Weston's images are not particularly spectacular, the subject matter does not aim to knock you over, to impress you. It is as though he is calling us to look within and view the natural forms he encompasses as aspects of ourselves. They are 'wild nature' but are sensuously intimate at the same time: the curved lines around the body of a pelican adrift near the rocks, a mass of stonecrop, the strong jagged form of a long dead tree. There are eroded rocks at Point Lobos and sandstones eaten out into raised lines. One thing though, the sense of structure, of form, is very strong: the photographer has chosen carefully and caught the underlying rhythms and masses, not it seems to impress us with his artfulness, but to help the landscape express itself. He aims to erase his own presence and play the role of assistant to the voice of nature. It is his precise skill with his antiquated cameras and slow films, purposely limiting himself to simple and demanding equipment, that has something to say to us today with our automated digital cameras. Like the poet whose words march along beside the photographs in the book, he has found freedom of expression within his tightly controlled world of care and precision.

The other day, and a cold, windy, overcast, late-winter's day it was, I decided to follow in his footsteps for a while, to limit myself to black and white images as I walked along our island shore. I set my camera to record a great depth of field and the focus on manual. I tried, as he did, to avoid any 'tricks' of camera position, and to shoot through his sensibility. I was interested to see what this experience of self-effacement would be like, what would my own imagery of natural shorelines be if the forms and rhythms of nature had precedence over my own habits, my proclivity to form attractive images?

I was walking a familiar shoreline, part of a park where I had worked as a Ranger, so I knew my subject matter well, but this time it was as if a stranger informed my photographs. One of the powerful aspects of working within nature, with 'life itself', as Weston has said, is the gradual merging of individual mind with the greater mind of the landscape. That arbutus, that rocky point with the puddle, the round granite boulder balanced within a crack in the shoreline sandstone, did not require that I stalk them but pulled me forward, directed my shots. A form of mindfulness. In one hour of cold, quick walking, my hat pulled down over my ears, fumbling with camera controls through gloved fingers I had received a kind of guidance by choosing another path, another set of mind.

The images that resulted from that shoreline walk are dark; the clouds roll out overhead. These are not conventionally attractive pictures, but they are for me a record of an approach to the world and to photography that I have learned to respect.

Extra 2
Equivalence: and some equivalents to Equivalence
While shooting 'Weston' photos I was simply taking; aware at some level that each shot was preceded by that welcome 'crunch' where my mind grew very still and completely centred: that 'alive' moment is why I prefer taking photos to processing them in a big way. But it was when I viewed them for the first time on the computer screen, unedited, that I realized how intimate they were. A contemporary of D.H. Lawrence, 'talked' about the sensuality of things, his nude photos and the still life photo of the pepper, all curves and folds, are famous after all, but it seemed that when I set out to photograph my own familiar shoreline through his sensibility a strong sexual quality was obvious. I recognize that all nature has this quality, love makes the world go round after all, but even so I don't usually turn my eyes guiltily away while looking at rocky clefts on the beach.

This was a lesson in the concept of Equivalence, first coined by the American photographer Stieghlitz, who was a major influence on the next generation of photographers that included Weston and Adams and the painter Georgia O'keeffe, (Stieglitz' wife)'KeeffeWe are all familiar with O'Keeffe's sensual flower paintings: we see the compellingly attractive flower interior and make the association with human body parts. Stieglitz borrowed the Equivalence concept from Symbolist painting, and applied it to photography, a natural fit since photographs work well as symbols . His 'cloud equivalents' are his expression of this concept.

It is the ability of one form to evoke another either through form, feeling, or by association that First Nations people on this coast used as they paddled along the shoreline: they thought of it as transformation; one form far ahead is a bear, but closer now it is a piece of drift log combined with a boulder. They did not think they were mistaken, but knew that the landscape was alive and changing its aspect all the time. So, I see forms in clouds, in negative spaces, in the curves and shapes of the beach, and make the association; one natural form brings out an association with another, and in this case, more intimate one. This may be straying away from the symbolist equivalence ideas, but if we read Jung's writings about symbolism we can readily understand that almost anything has subconscious associations and by no means are they all Freud-ly sexual.

This goes a long way to explaining why we look at a photograph and feel it, not just think about it. We may be experiencing it on a symbolic level. As we take the photo, if our minds are open to the possibilities, we can recognize a powerful form when we see it. Underlying meanings are everywhere. If I take a photograph of my raspberry canes in the snow with their supporting posts and spacers, the crosses are obvious and I cannot avoid a little interior voice reciting “between the crosses row on row, that mark our place...”. That adds a powerful symbolic association that the viewer may or may not be aware of at a conscious level but, conscious or not it will have its influence.

So, equivalence or some variation of it has its effect for good or ill. For ill, perhaps, because if I wish to have some control over the 'message' of my photograph I need to be aware of the possible ways my subconscious mind can be selecting the elements in the scene before me and how they might be received by a viewer.

Certainly though, if we understand symbolic content in the visual arts, we can use that for creating photographs that have a more powerful impact.

By the way, looking at O'Keeffe's paintings reminded me of how much photography has been influenced by painting ( and the other way round).( Notice Szarkowski shrieking “No, no, no! Photography is Separate!”)A good long look at her paintings might produce another perspective for your own photography. There is a book in the Saltspring library about O'Keeffe and Adams that you might find useful. In fact there is a whole world of Art, of painters and sculptors, that is available and has much to teach. Caravaggio and Karsh anyone?

Extra 3

How do we structure this project? How do we figure this out from an aesthetic point of view, from a conceptual point of view, from a process point of view?
from 'Wisdom' by Andrew Zucherman

This little note at the back of the photography book 'Wisdom' caught my interest. How often do we consider these questions when we are involved in a photographic project? You mean we can think about and choose our aesthetic approach? What does he mean by conceptual and process? How can I use these ideas in my own work? What is an aesthetic anyway?

 'Wisdom' is in our Saltspring library. Have a look, if only to see how he has standardized his photographic process for all the portraits and what the effect of that is. Read the very last section and the context of his questions in the above quote.