Friday, August 17, 2007

Dreams Like This Pt.II

Boy oh boy - some folks certainly work themselves into an awful tizzy about this.

Over on the Landscapist (among other places) we have:

""Different photographers incorporate different approaches, and embrace
or abandon concept and/or narrative to varying degrees, but aside from subject
matter, there is often little else that distinguishes the work ..." (

This notion has been rattling around in my head ever since and it
seems to me that the entire construct is hanging by very precarious thread - the
razor-thin caveat of subject matter aside.
How does one view a picture and set subject matter aside?"

"In the medium of photography, in which a picture is inexorably linked
with that which it depicts, how does one set aside subject matter?

I believe it is near impossible to do so, especially so re: the
discussion referenced in yesterday's entry, straight photography...

Maybe in the hollowed halls of academia, where the fetish of 'concept'
reigns, subject can be (and is) set aside but isn't that what leads to the
making of pictures that are mostly self-referential academic crap?"

So, I wonder exactly what it was that Tina Modotti is showing us in the top picture here. Only the camera could have seen this slightly surreal scene of the giant peasant overlooking the city. Her eye (and ours if we were stood beside her) simply wouldn't have seen or registered the scene this way. Only the camera could convey it. Of course, Modotti was the very opposite of any kind of inhabitant of the halls of academia - even while she was very much a photographer of ideas.

Then again, on the issue of "setting aside subject matter"

Let's take the humble apple.

Does anyone looking at any of the rest of these pictures scattered through the post seriously think they are about apples? None of them are really about the apparent subject matter, which is essentially incidental... This hasn't been an issue since some time before Van Gogh, so I wonder why photographers seem to cling so desperately to it and feel so threatened that the apparent umbilical chord that they (mistakenly) believe connects them to reality is about to be severed?


f:lux said...

And there's Lee Miller, who played around with scale in her double portrait of Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning.

Is surrealism a 'false friend' to photography though, given one of the comments made on the post you link back to here?


f:lux said...

Oops, the link I copied in seems to have clipped - at the end there it should read art_miller.jpg


Federico said...

Tim, I agree with you if you’re talking about photography in general. But Christian Patterson had narrowed his observations to what he termed straight contemporary American color photography (and I imagine he was writing about photography that is not staged or posed -or the result of a photo composition, as in Modotti’s giant peasant).

In straight photography you can’t do away with subject matter so offhandedly, as if it was an insignificant component. That is, I think, a flaw in Christian’s argument.* This doesn’t mean, in my case, upholding the obsolete and false mantra about photography’s truthfulness. Eggleston’s work is a lot about colour per se, yes, but in my view it is as much about time and place (the seventies & small town America) and that’s strictly subject matter (even if his approach to "reality" is extremely subjective, tendentious, and even martian in Geoff Dyer's words). Of course, we could pinpoint specific pictures where time and place are not that important, but in general that is the case in his body of work.

*although I agree with him, and probably with you, that there are too many people doing the same thing, and too many galleries showing the same kind of pictures. But couldn’t (part of the) explanation to that be that what these photographers are dealing with is very similar subject matter? I mean: how many different ways can you photograph a mall parking lot? And America can be surprisingly homogeneous at that. And each year there are more and more photographers in America, photographing America...

cmb said...

I enjoy your posts & images departing from and returning to photography. Trying to define it can be useful (for a while), and it's fun to see what a slippery slope it can be. I think it's important though to remember that definitions should be descriptive and not prescriptive. We know that photography records light, but i agree that it's a projection to believe that it records reality or, even more far fetched, emotions we have while taking a photo. In short, a fogged piece of film is a photograph too, it couldn't be more straight.

tim atherton said...

yes, I think the notion of the "straight" or much more of a myth than most would seem to like

Luis said...

The more things change...

The argument could be made that Pictorialism is alive and well, that it never died, just went underground,
specially in the digital age.

Considering forms of color photography did not become remotely affordable until the late 50s, and things like dye transfers were still out of reach, save for some patricians, like Eggleston, we're still in the early days of color, historically speaking. One Chicago photographer who did a magnificent series titled "In Search of Myself" in dye transfers had to work two day jobs for 8 of his prime years to pay for the loans (they did not sell well at the time).

Not until digital, did color management come within the reach of the public. Ditto with self-publishing.

We are entering the age of the amateur, where the autodidact will displace the now cliche'd MFA, and new forms of marketing (as we see Tim, Julian, and others doing) the established, overly ripe and staid, paleolithic structures.

It is worth remembering that the Luministas deliberately mined the snapshot aesthetic, and that a snapshot, as my friend Arnold Gassan told me, is a fetish. It is quite easy to get lost in the echo between that and everything else.

While technology is zooming by leaps and bounds, human evolution, including that in the arts, continues at its wonky, stately pace.

--- Luis