Sunday, April 13, 2014

April workshop on 'the thing itself'.

Homework. There is none as such, but please continue to work with 'the thing' with any new understanding that you received during the course of the workshop session. You may wish to re-read Szarkowski and look ahead into his discussion of 'detail'.

The workshop went well from the teacher's perspective. We received some nicely representative images for workshopping that allowed us to discuss the many ways of thinking about 'the thing itself'. One aspect that came up often was that the 'thing' was often not simply the subject matter - the leg hold trap could be about pain, and the two sheep might be about the golden light of evening. We worked through the formal analysis and as a group critiqued very well. Our aim was to encourage student participation and to develop skills of analysis. We all found how individual our views about a photograph can be and yet we all could open our eyes a little wider when we finished. Baudelaire wrote about the role of art criticism as a “widening of the horizon” and that is what we experienced today.

Here is a little piece about detail which will be the topic for May: I thought it was nicely shocking to compare Art photography with something so commercial as advertising. Ansel Adams though, might have seen my point.

The Detail, Advertising and Communication

Szarkowski when he writes about Detail emphasizes how important selection of the appropriate detail is when planning a photograph: we “isolate the fragment, document it and and ....claim for it some special significance, a meaning which [goes] beyond simple description”. The image can be read as a symbol, as “filled with undiscovered meaning”.

I listened to a radio program about advertising this morning, and was struck by the parallel with selecting the detail when making/taking a photograph. The subject being discussed was the 'elevator pitch'; that one sentence, succinct, clear enunciation of an idea within the time it takes an elevator to pass from one floor to another. The main example was when Steve Jobs was trying to lure a Pepsi executive to come and work for Apple. All efforts failed, even an enormous offer of money did not sway Mr. Scully, but what finally moved him was this: “ Do you want to sell sugar water all your life or change the world?”
My point is that choosing the detail that your image will present to the world is very important. One powerful image, clearly expressed is worth more than many another rambling and unfocussed one. It will catch the viewers attention, just as a strong graphic or slogan does in advertising, and without that we cannot communicate at all, but then, with the viewer's attention held for a few seconds, if our image actually stands for something worthwhile we can bridge the communication gap between maker and viewer.
The radio program asks what business we are in and gives the example of Nike shoes: 'Shoes' is the product but what is the company's core purpose: 'Shoes' or 'Just do it!'? It is selling life style, the shoes are secondary. This also can relate to photography and selection of the appropriate subject matter or detail. If a photograph's main function is not to 'make the story clear' but to 'make it real' as Szarkowski writes, then we need to 'tap a universal desire or symbol' just as good advertising does, and that requires some pre-thought or at least a recognition of a great detail when we see it.

Good advertising and good photography have this in common, both are in the business of communication, so clarity and succinctness and the right image for the right purpose is important. Choose your detail with care.

Extra 1

Progress in photography?
A topic that surfaced during the discussion last Sunday was that of 'progress' through time. The idea that recent photography is superior, is more evolved than older styles. This idea is common enough in all areas of thought and seems self evident: are we not smarter and more advanced than our parents, is not Western civilization the pinnacle of human development? You can see that I am being provocative here; few of us today, on the brink of war or of dramatic climate change, would think so anymore, and the older we get the smarter our parents seem in retrospect.

One of the tenents of art criticism is that we cannot, or should not, class works of art by the old Victorian standards of 'progress' and that a work of art, whether it be a superb photograph from the last century, or a painting from several centuries ago or a sculpture from many thousands of years ago, be it the Greek Venus de Milo or that little earth goddess, the Venus of Willendorf, has its own special beauty that exists separately from time, is eternal. It is our job to dig a little deeper until we begin to grasp what is being presented to us. We do not judge or classify, but seek to understand, a much more humble and productive place to be.

So modernism as promoted by Szarkowski preceded post-modernism, but that is all that can be said. In fact many photographers may slide all over the map and not feel that the latest Art photography ideas are the only way to express themselves. There is a long history of art from the distant past to the near present and like the authors who line the shelves of a library, they all have something to communicate to us that pushes aside time and can be relevant to our present concerns.