Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Problem of Photography Pt.1 (The Gaze)

There is a lovely book of photographs by Stephen Shore called the Gardens at Giverny. It is very nicely done and has always been a favourite of mine. But I wonder at the conflicting emotions when the Metropolitan Museum of Art suggested photographing Monet's newly restored house and gardens at Giverny. Holy crap - what an incredible opportunity - to photograph Monet's Gardens. Holy crap - how on earth do you photograph Monet's Gardens.

The end result is a book that I feel reflects that. It is a beautiful collection of photographs giving us Shore's vision of the renascence of these iconic gardens, showing us their hidden and unnoticed details and late summer parched browns as well as their verdant lushness. A well executed collection of pictures by a major photographer. (I know of one landscape architect who keeps a copy on her desk. I also found, while looking for online pictures from it an interview with Stephen Shore where he notes that the contemporary photographer he is most interested in is Walid Raad which I find most encouraging in the light of what I say below).

And yet... and yet, place one or even all of these photographs beside one of Monet's paintings of his garden and they would be, I believe, immediately eclipsed (though I haven't actually stood, book in hand, before Water-Lilies or The Water-Lily Pond at the National Gallery). Certainly in many ways it's an unfair comparison, and I'm sure it was a comparison that Shore was both aware would be made and was probably constantly aware of in himself while he worked. But there is almost no other way it can be. Which brings me to what I see as the heart of the problem of photography - what I recently referred to as sustaining our gaze.

(Water-Lilies, Claud Monet)

It is one of the fundamental problems of photography that photographs rarely seem able to hold our attention for an extended period of time, never mind sustain our concentrated gaze. I find it hard to think of almost any photograph that is capable of holding a viewers gaze for even thirty minutes, never mind an hour or two or a whole afternoon. And yet I can think of numerous other works of art that can do just that.

When encountered, even a painting by a less than well known 18th Century artist - such as Gordale Scar (A View of Gordale, in the Manor of East Malham in Craven, Yorkshire, the Property of Lord Ribblesdale) by John Ward can hold our direct attention for quite some time. And yet go to an exhibition of work by say Robert Adams or Eggleston or Lee Friedlander and how long would we spend, with our gaze fixed on an individual picture? Ten minutes? Twenty minutes, thirty? I think that would be approaching unusual even for the photographically literate, to say nothing of the serious but non specialist general viewer. Possible, but rare.

(Gordale Scar (A View of Gordale, in the Manor of East Malham in Craven, Yorkshire, the Property of Lord Ribblesdale) by John Ward)

And what of travelling to see a photograph? A single photograph mind you, not a whole exhibit of a photographer's work. I can think of a good number of works of art - mainly, though not only, paintings - that I would make the time and effort to travel some way to see - to another country even (and on occasion have done so). But to do the same for a single photograph? There are less than a handful of photographs that would have the same draw (a particular Atget - tiny as it would be; possibly a Walker Evans. Maybe even something like an early Fox Talbot). For a major exhibit of a particular photographer's work, certainly I would make the effort. But for individual photographs it is hard to think of many at all.

(Parc de Scaux, Atget)

Now none of these or the following thoughts are terribly new or original, but what has prompted me to start putting them together is a growing dissatisfaction with so much of the work I see that crosses my desk almost every day in one way or another. Yes, there is all sorts of work that excels at what it is trying to do. Work that adds another little twist or tweak to a certain direction or area of photography and does so well, whether it be large format urbanscapes, deadpan portraits, large format prints, directed and arranged tableaux etc. etc. And yet almost none of it even begins to push up against what I feel are the current, long standing limitations on photography (but not inherent limitations, because I don't believe they are).

(from Sticks and Stones - Lee Friedlander)

This is what has been called "the problem of photography", and the limitation of the gaze, the holding of our attention, is the clearest symptom of the problem. As I see it there are three main causes to the problem, three main limitations, three boundaries, that photography has yet to make serious - or at least successful - attempts to break out of (and which is where I feel that so much contemporary work is lacking. I encounter little which is even pushing up against these boundaries, never mind making an effort to break through them or smash them out of the way completely).

I want to take some time in future posts to explore these boundaries and the ways they limit or restrict photography, but for now the three boundaries as I see them are:

1. The lack of time in a photograph (which is tied in some way to the minimal influence of the artists hand in a photograph). Among others, John Berger, David Hockney and Richard Benson have tried to address this problem. A photograph contains so little time because everything is compressed into a fraction of a second (and even a "long" exposure practised by the likes of Atget out of necessity or others by choice makes very little difference to this - perhaps just a little, but not enough). As Hockney put it, the imbalance between the two experiences, the first and the second lookings, is too extreme.

2. The frame. The window that seems to continually apply its internally focused tension, never allowing the photographic image beyond those borders - be they square, rectangular or circular, 8x10 inches or 8x10 feet. The photographic frame has frequently been regarded as a window (and often positively so). Yet as a window, all we can ever do is look through it. Never step through it like a door (or even break through it) to what is beyond.

3. Perspectivism. Photography has for so long been limited (from long before the invention of film) by the concept of Renaissance Perspective, a theoretical straight-jacket that photography has usually been too insecure to try and throw off, never mind break from completely. It took painting 400 years. How long is it going to take photography?

(Let's Be Honest, the Weather Helped - Walid Raad - The Atlas Group Archive)

(btw, do respond with your thoughts, criticisms or comments. Posts are moderated, but only because I kept getting too many spam and junk posts)


Stan B. said...

I think there are inherent limitations in any medium- particularly one so heavily reliant on the technological instrument of its creation. Painting and sculpture are exceedingly more pliable by their very nature (a plethora of viable materials and possible presentations).

Technology will quite probably free photography of many of its current day "limitations." We've already gone beyond the light tight box. Imagine only a hundred years from now, two hundred- we really can't. Personally, I'm not in a rush. I chose this medium because I love what it does and how it does it, and that was quite some time ago.

Struan said...

I have spent half an hour in front of exactly that Sticks and Stones photograph. More proof, if needed, that I am mundanely weird.

One man's limitation is another's intrinsic signature of the medium. The time and frame aspects are classic examples - although they are as much limitations of convention as much as hard wall technological boundaries. Perspectivism is harder to avoid, but we are due a revival of the fisheye look.

I agree that photographs do not automatically invite long inspection. Even I tend to return to photographs for many short visits rather than spend a single lengthy period with any one. Photographs intended as ART are too easily confused with the 24/7 visual junkmail that surrounds us. Again though, that could be a feature, not a bug.

f:lux said...

Without having seen Stephen Shore's Gardens at Giverny, I'll take your word that Monet's paintings of it can hold our gaze for longer. But is this necessarily a measure of the value and validity of one form compared to the other?

As an example: in exhibition, even if I only spend 30 seconds looking at a particular portrait photo, this is still likely 28-ish seconds longer than I might have dared to look at the person depicted were they physically present. Generally, unless you have a person's permission (because you are talking/listening to them, because they are performing/modelling for you etc), look at anyone for over 2 seconds and you begin to stare. Even a few extra seconds is then a relatively long time. With both painting and photography you can look as little or long and hard as you desire - an advantage of any still imagery, precisely because it isn't time-based - but with photography there is the additional sense of being able to look for as long as you dare?

If the portrait I'm looking at is painted rather than photographed, then yes, I might look at it for a longer amount of time, but after a certain point what I tend to find myself studying is render rather than subject. Painting is of the window, where photography is the window?

As with the Japanese artist whose name I can't remember... who famously considered decades of labour as mere practice for the seconds it eventually took to produce great painting, photographers can, or at least try to, distill lengthy experience into the fractions of seconds needed to produce their best images. Sort of..."a technique for focusing one's entire being on the present moment - it aims to catch life on the fly. And when it does so, it discovers not a fleeting present, but eternity in the present moment.", even when apparent spontaneity is illusory due to the amount of prior preparation involved.

In their process, does anyone take time to consider how long eventual spectators may or may not bother to contemplate the results?

The last thing I read by Hockney on photography was of the dismissive "I've been-there-done-it and I'm bored now so it must be crap" genre... so I'd be more interested to read what John Berger and Richard Benson have said about this 'lack of time' because I don't think I've understood what is meant by this.

(So I'd better go and look them up... or should I have done that before commenting? Oops...)

cheers, Lucy

mark page said...

Yeah, I think we will start to see the limitaions of painting very shortly with our increasing relationships with the internet and digital technologies.
This I believe will start to also show photography's strengths.
Paintings textures and tactile nature is lost on screen,which perhaps is part of it's ability to hold the gaze, thus levelling if not tipping the field in favour of photography...

Great topic by the way....

Phyllis said...

I am not a professional photographer. I am a PhD candidate in psychology. I have always been interested in photography and have been following your blog for some time. I think it is important to talk about the ways that artist's imaginations are limited by tradition, rather than by the limitations of the technology they employ.
The problem of time, the frame, and of perspectival realism are all interrelated...and they pervade our culture. In the sciences, quantum, systems, and chaos theory have tried to rattle the view that the world is objectively "out there" and we can represent it in our "snapshots"--static representations, descriptions, or models, of it (via math, theories, etc). In philosophy, the phenomenologists and post-structuralists have done great things to bring to light the immense creativity that we have in constituting the world through our bodily relationships with it, our languaging of it, and, as such, our ability to see the creative possibilities of it.
In the mid 90s, I was at the Andy Warhol museum in Pittbsurgh and was struck by Mariko Mori's photo "mirror of the water" (as well as the rest of her exhibition)because of its hyper-realism coupled with its clearly constructed (multiple exposures, superimpositions) nature.The Walid Raad photo at the end of this posting reminded me of something that I think many photographers don't realize: The photograph doesn't represent the world, it is an artifact (electronic or material) that is just as much part of the world as the "literal" object from which it was basically, you can do anything with it that you would do with any kind of artifact.
And, as the person who posted before me said, I think we really are entering a particular fruitful time for visual art that is based in photography...but it's not just the change in technology, it's the change in people's ways of seeing that count.

Eric Fredine said...

Great post Tim. I look forward to your continuing investigations. I think I've been struggling - or perhaps just accepting - what I see as the inherent 'smallness' or 'triviality' of photography. You've perhaps helped me understand it better.

I've been making a lot of photographs lately after a long hiatus. Even experimenting with B&W in something of a sustained effort. While I like some of the results, I can't help but accept that they are all rather small, incremental additions to the visual world.

I took in Gursky's exhibit in Vancover this summer. It felt rather 'tired' to me. Interestingly, I found his efforts at 'construction' in his new work very unconvincing - too cartoon like - almost like caricatures of his own work.


e.e.nixon said...

While I read this, once again old Marshall McLuhan came to mind, specifically (or at least notionally if one doesn't find these concepts very concrete) the ideas of hot and cold and, to me, the implicit continuum that exists between the two poles. Painting is at one point on the continuum; photography is at another point.

I don't know how one gets from hot/cold to the value judgment you are working with here. But it is a fact that Monet's work has been composting in the great heap of our cultural artifacts longer thanb Shore's. So even putting aside the amount of time we invest in looking, we may be biased, not just by the amount of hot or cold psychic energy we must invest but also by the internal temperature imbued in the work by our cultural orientation. So comments about tradition and about technology come into play.

But at the end of it all, do you really think it is apples to apples, comparing photography with any of the more traditional, more manual art forms -- painting in particular? Perhaps a unique characteristic mode of appreciation of photographs *is* the glance -- subliminally reassuring or disturbing and often repeated to reinforce our feeling.

Anonymous said...

I think the fundamental problem of photography is it's constant comparison to painting. That's what we need to break free from. Trying to make a photograph do what a painting does is futile. It's like trying to get a guitar to sound like a piano.