Took photography too seriously in the 70’s and gave
it up for twenty years. By ’98 I no longer took anything
seriously, so had another shot.
A word about Photoshop: I always use it, at least as a
digital darkroom. The idea that some pictures are more digital
than others makes no sense to me – what matters is the way
a picture looks. How and why it was done may be fun to know,
just as it’s fun to know that Beethoven went deaf –
but so what? Wearing earplugs won’t help you write great
What constitutes manipulation? Most photos represent a
three-dimensional view in two dimensions. Is that manipulation?
Put a ruler on a print and you’ll find many objects are
not life size. Manipulation? Colorful scenes may be rendered in
tones of gray. We may be shown only a fragment of what would be
visible to the naked eye. Wide-angle or long-focus lenses are
used to create startling effects. Long or short exposures give
us images that are visually striking but clearly unnatural. Some
photographers actually dodge or burn in parts of an image, or
use filters or flash, or tilt the easel, or hand-color prints,
or solarize or cross-process the film, or choose a grainy
emulsion, or tweak contrast by using a particular grade of
paper, or shoot with litho stock or infrared. These are all
tricks meant to fool us, to manipulate the image and cloud the
mind of the beholder.
Ever read Sir Philip Sidney’s “Defense of Poesy”?
Like other apologists of his time, he was defending not poetry
per se but what we’d call fiction, which was
scorned by grave men as being demonstrably untrue. It’s a
case of Plato (who condemned poetry and music) versus Aristotle,
a fight that Aristotle won long ago by a knockout. Call it
unfair if you will, but Plato never really had a prayer.
Let’s admit it: I’m an ithyphallic
reductionist with a hard-on for physics. By me, art can deliver
new points of view but not new knowledge. The arts are endlessly
interesting – what a monkey wants to see most is another
monkey – but their function is to help us dream free of
our cage, and to give the artist that illusion of purpose that
keeps him alive.
We’re just out of the trees, and full of bush devils
who will destroy us if we don’t give them something to do
with their hands. Art keeps our demons from tearing us to rags.
Whatever comes after us will have no demons and no art.
Every photo is abstract, an abstraction of reality, a
thing. “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” and
all that. Easy to forget, when you’re looking at a photo
of a mountain, that you’re not looking at the mountain.
19th-century critics remarked that there was all the difference
in the world between a painting of a nude and a photograph of a
(blush) naked lady. Photographers should remind themselves often
that what counts is the photo itself.
That Old Objective Correlative
“Technically this is well executed but the subject
isn’t very interesting to me.” - Barry J.
you have more important things to photograph?” - Dominique
B.J. and D.S. bring up a point I’ve addressed above:
photography’s delicious confusion of a thing and its
image. Since photographic images are, I dunno, photographic, and
since the eye, being an extension of the brain, is easily
fooled, it’s tempting to think you’re looking at a
face or a figure when what you’re looking at is ink
sprayed on paper, electrons shot from guns, or elemental silver.
That’s why porn sells. I buy it myself.
But (and this is the special glory of photography) it would
be quixotic to throw away the advantage this confusion gives us.
Photographers can use the responses burned into a viewer’s
firmware to leverage the effect of their photos. They can do it
trivially, by photographing something pretty or something scary
or something weepy, or they can do it more subtly. With a few
obvious lapses I try to be subtle. Better an evocation that
leaves viewers moved without knowing why than a trivial
stimulus-response package - the latter putting the artist in the
same class as a chess player who wins by blowing cigar smoke at
his opponent or an actor who moves you to tears by wringing your
“Art Is Whatever You Can Get Away With”
(From discussion of a photo called “Honeydew”.)
Uh-oh. Kyle M. objects: “‘I’m an
ithyphallic reductionist with a hard-on for physics.’ Well
you are only cutting yourself off at the knees. You have
successfully ‘reduced’ a cultured object to
superficial sterile image of correctness.” Given the
ithyphallic metonymy, let’s be thankful that unkind cut
comes at the knees. :-) Anyway, Kyle, are we talking about the
same “reductionism”? Handy definition: reductionism
posits that all human experience derives from biological
processes explicable by the laws of chemistry and physics. (For
a more generous view see Edward O. Wilson’s recent book
An argument or a person can be reductionist, but not a photo.
This photo’s simply a still life, for which the French
have (naturally) a franker name: nature morte. I didn’t
say it, they did.
“‘By me, art can deliver new points of view
but not new knowledge.’ That is really sad to hear. The
choice to deny any possible knowledge that may come from art is
my definition of ignorance.” Yo, I’ll take
knowledge wherever I can find it, but the “knowledge”
that comes from art is, to be kind, illusory – to be less
kind, it’s propaganda. With that great American C.S.
Peirce, I believe that knowledge is a public matter – if
you can’t test it or even agree on it, it ain’t
As to ignorance, well of course. Calling any human person
ignorant is mere rhetoric, like saying that women are
effeminate. Ignorance is the human condition.
“Some people are less ignorant and more persistent
and determined and eventually break free from that proverbial
cage, they are called professional artists.” Nonsense:
professional artists are by definition folks who live by selling
their art – wedding photographers, for example. Most of
them are sweet guys, but I never met one who said he’d
Matt S. adds: “Before jumping all over Leslie for
his statement, I’d want to know what he means by
‘knowledge.’” (Hey, pile on, that’s
what I’m here for.) “Clearly, a photograph or
other work can impart raw ‘knowledge’: a picture of
two sloths mating can impart on me knowledge of how two sloths
mate. A picture (artistically composed and exposed) of a sign
that says ‘The distance between the earth and the sun is
93 million miles’ can impart that knowledge too.”
Well... A camera, like our eyes, can deliver information
that’s new to us, if only as a photocopy of an informative
text. But we were speaking about art, not photography.
“What makes ‘art’ special is the
facility with which more subtle forms of ‘knowledge,’
like ‘points of view,’ can be transmitted.”
Close, and I appreciate the sentiment, but I won’t
concede that a point of view is “knowledge” –
note that even Matt uses quotation marks.
But nobody quoted my next paragraph, which says why I think
art is such hot, such necessary stuff: We’re
just out of the trees, and full of bush devils who will destroy
us if we don’t give them something to do with their hands.
Art keeps our demons from tearing us to rags. Whatever comes
after us will have no demons and no art. I stand by that.
Mary B. writes: “Poor old wedding
photographers often get bashed as non-artists... I just had to
speak up for them/us.”
Let me speak up for you too. As I said somewhere above,
“Professional artists are by definition folks who live
by selling their art – wedding photographers, for
example.” I wasn’t being flippant. As the sun
sets on my fifteen minutes of fame, I’ll ride off praising
the unsung heroes of photography – those whose work never
turns up in museums because it doesn’t have a
revolutionary message, those who sell a long day’s work
for a few hundred dollars and won’t ever see one of their
prints on sale for $17K in a Madison Avenue gallery. Those who
get a salary from the local paper, or who spend their days in a
studio photographing clogs and Barcaloungers for mail-order
catalogs, or who (and a special star shines for them) coddle and
sweet-talk red-faced parents and wet babies into poses fit for
Some of these folks turn out wonderful work and some don’t,
but two things are certain: 1) If they didn’t exist, the
rest of us would still be using Brownies and paying a week’s
salary for a roll of film; and 2) admitting you’re a
wedding photographer or a baby photographer, or that you do
product shots or take pictures of dumpsters, is guaranteed to
shrink you to the size of a microbe in artsy-fartsy circles.
A week ago I happened to be in the Metropolitan Museum of
Art, where I transcribed these helpful hints from a gloss on the
wall next to three fuzzy photos of women’s profiles: “In
this work, Richard Prince deploys an array of strategies
(rephotographing black and white advertisements using color
film, cropping, enlarging, grouping according to gesture) to
undermine the seeming naturalness and inevitability of the mass
cultural image, revealing it to be a fiction of society’s
desires.” What wedding photographer dare aim so high?
Commenting on a photo by the masterful Garry
It’s a fine still life, and yet, and yet...this doesn’t
look and feel like an authentic G.S. I’m fishing for a
good way to express it. Let’s see.
OK: this is notional; a classic G.S. is relational.
Yes, that sounds right; I’ll stand by it.
For those who’ve forgotten their high school
philosophy, “notional” and “relational”
have special meaning in discussions of language and epistemology
by modern philosophers like Frege. As I’m using the words
here, the word has is notional in the phrase “he
has a million dollars,” relational in the phrase “he
has gone home.” Better yet, consider this abstract I just
found in a Web search: The Components of Content –
by David Chalmers proposing an account of narrow content based
upon a distinction between notional and relational content.
Notional content allows us to describe the ‘subject-eye’
view of the world, whilst relational content allows us to give
observer independent analogues of notional content.
Claudia S. writes: “hmmm... i am in my ‘so
what is the narrative?’ mode tonight. and i am feeling a
bit crotchety about formalism/mannerism as ‘art.’
... i would love to hear something about what you are
Your “what is the narrative” question reminds me
of a student joke from my days in Vermont circa 1963. Story goes
that a Bennington student brought her knitting to class.
Teacher, wishing to shake her loose from bougeois complacency,
says, “Miss Fisher, do you think your knitting may be a
substitute for masturbation?” Student answers: “Professor,
when I knit I knit, and when I masturbate I masturbate.”
In like fashion, when I photograph I photograph, and when I feel
a narrative coming on I narrate, usually in letters to old
I’m a child of the 60’s, and agree with Marshall
McLuhan that “Art is whatever you can get away with.”
I’m also an unreconstructed reductionist and a Peircean
pragmatist, and believe that only operational definitions make
sense. “Art,” like “evil” or “good,”
is shorthand a fiction we agree to believe in for the sake of
discussion. In the wake of 9/11 many atheists said “God
bless America,” and meant it. If you quoted that back to
them and said, “See, you really do believe,” they’d
roll their eyes and say you were missing the point, and they’d
be right. Any narrative or meaning you find in my photos should
be taken in the same spirit: shorthand, a convenience, a peg to
hang your feelings on. I’m a formalist and proud of it.
Plato, Rousseau, Hitler, Stalin and Mao condemned formalism in
art, reason enough to be all for it.
(Claudia answers: “i guess i hit your hot button
leslie. like what decade do you think i was a child of? this
photo regardless of what one is a child of is...Mannerism. to me
‘mannerism’ is a slavish devotion to ‘effect’
even if it is devoid of context and meaning. usually falls short
of intention. classic definition for art history students is...
According to your URL, that description (focused on
technique, devoid of meaning) is the one Delacroix used to diss
Michaelangelo. I should be happy to keep such good company, but
honesty forces me to protest: that characterization fits many,
many works in many, many schools or periods; it’s too
vague and general to be used as a definition of “mannerism.”
That said, of course my stuff is devoid of meaning and
focused on technique. Those are positive qualities in my book.
And of course it usually falls short of my intentions –
whose work doesn’t? It would be cruel indeed to point to
somebody’s art and say, “Ah – you’re
satisfied with that?”
No offense, but I believe you’re one of the innumerable
innocent victims of that arch-fiend Rousseau, author of most
modern errors. Also I suspect the Zen you’re thinking of
is the kind practiced in California.
(Claudia protests that “u don’t like us cali
Oops, I didn’t know you were a Californian. No personal
reflection intended. Besides, I’m sure it’s a great
place; I was using “California” in its pejorative
sense, the way some use the term “Mannerist.” I’ve
never been to California, but everybody tells me it’s
better than Heaven – the place angels go when they die.
One of my best friends has been urging me to move to the Bay
area for twenty years, but I can’t help noticing that he
lives in Philadelphia.
Janet S., speaking of 327.36:
Wow, this one smacked me right between the eyes. I remember once
you told me that when people comment on your images you just
agree with everything they see in the image. Your comment left
me to believe that there is never any rhyme or reason to
anything you photograph. This image however... leaves me with
the feeling that someone is on a journey that they have little
control over. The dark sickened arm, being held up and the
wrinkled lower park of the dark arm almost helplessly being
Janet: Your interpretation is exactly right; I agree with
everything you say. ;-)
In truth, whether or not the maker of an image (or story)
intends it, everything’s open to interpretation; every
story has undertones that echo the reader or viewer’s own
story. Over the last century certain skeptics tried to debunk
psychic research and parapsychology by using stage magic to
reproduce the antics of Uri Geller and others who claimed
strange powers. Their tactic was to pretend they had weird
powers too, convince the researchers, then reveal that they were
simply doing a trick. In almost every case the researchers said
the debunkers were deceiving themselves – that they did
have mysterious powers, and simply thought they were
using trickery because they were prejudiced against the truth.
The reasoning of Freud and his epigones was much the same. He
insisted that every story’s a cover story, hiding secret
meanings too strong for the storyteller to face with disguising
it. Hence the hilarious Freudian analyses of Alice in
Wonderland and Huckleberry Finn. Freud was a quack
and a charlatan. And yet, and yet...
“Everything which is possible to be believed, is an
image of Truth.” –Wm. Blake
Hands are tough because they’re attention magnets.
They’re very expressive, like faces, differing from one
person to another. Most people wave them around when they speak.
If not, that catches our attention. (The politician
speaking to the camera with folded hands glued to the desk in
front of him.)
Notice the hands in old-master portraits – the Mona
Lisa’s hands, for instance. If you look at them closely,
they’re hardly hands at all. They’re schematics of
hands, with carefully tapered fingers that express nothing. They
serve a compositional purpose, and there was no way to avoid
showing them in a full-upper-torso portrait, but I think
Leonardo was trying to sap the character of the hands so we
wouldn’t be distracted, would accept them as ornaments
only, and would concentrate on the face.
Hands are as tough to deal with as faces, but of course like
faces they can be wonderfully expressive too. We ignore their
power at our peril. The devil finds work for idle hands.
Grant Lamos posts a photo of “one dog
sniffing another dogs butt – high art huh”
“One dog sniffing another dog’s butt” is a
wholly convincing definition of high art.
In the early 60’s, before it became a color supplement
to the New York Review of Books, the Scientific
American published an article on monkey psychology. The
researcher put a monkey in a large, comfortable box. The monkey
could see out through a little window held shut by a spring. The
idea was to quantify the monkey’s interest in different
objects by measuring the length of time it was willing to hold
the window open. Turned out that monkeys weren’t much
interested in viewing a banana. They paid more attention to a
toy train that puffed and whistled. But what inspired them to
hold the window open till they dropped was the sight of another
R.P. writes: “How do I work out, being a
novice at reading photos, how big the subject is... if there is
nothing to give it a sense of scale.. and the lens used isn’t
Scale’s a big topic. We usually know how big things are
because we’ve grown up with them and have a feel for the
relative sizes of insects, pets, people, cars, houses, trees,
mountains. If we don’t recognize a given object we look
for something nearby that we do recognize, which is why
archaeologists put yardsticks in their pictures. Some photos
intentionally confuse the viewer by eliminating reference
objects and by showing small things at a level of detail we
associate with larger things. These days we’re inured to
such simple tricks as enlarged fleas, but if it’s
delicately done an image without referents and with plenty of
detail can be subtly disorienting, so the subject seems to live
in a dream space where everything looks too good to be true.
There’s irony in that, since the unreal feel comes from
the use of real detail. It’s like getting drunk on a
gallon of water.
From a note to Ernest C.
Of course all still photos are motionless; the only motion
involved are the saccades the viewer’s eye makes. Moving
the camera (or the subject) doesn’t guarantee a dynamic
photo. Some frozen-action photos of Cartier-Bresson – for
example, the deathless “Brailowsky” shot – are
dynamic in the only way possible to stills: they’re
charged with the sense of motion. They goose the eyeballs
into gear. I believe your impressionist work (and impressionism
generally) is in essence static and flat. Your “static”
geometric photos have more action and more depth than those
meant to show motion. (Footnote: what could be more active and
dynamic than an abstract, or still life, by Kline or Gorki or de
Kooning? What more static than the ultra-impressionist paintings
of Seurat and Signac?)
Remember that motion is an artifact of perception. We’re
wired to perceive events in time series. But there are other
kinds of motion, for example the way a character ambles through
the plot of a novel, or the way our mind wanders when we
contemplate puzzle pictures like Escher’s woodcuts or
Dali’s slippery oils. There are many ways to make an image
move, and to make a moving photo.
On Different Interpretations
In matters of art the customer’s always right. An act
of art thrives on ambiguities that would spoil an act of
science. New York intellectuals praised Grant Wood’s
Gothic” as an unsparing evocation of rural America’s
prune-faced Puritanism. Rural Americans admired it as an
affirmation of the country’s rock-solid resolve. Does
Joyce’s Ulysses hint that the best hero the 20th
century could produce was a clownish free-lance ad salesman, or
does it suggest that a humane modern man is in fact a better
hero than the blood-guzzling Odysseus? Is The Wizard of Oz
a charming fairy tale or an evocation of dark myths straight out
of Joseph Campbell – or a campier cult movie than Rocky
Or all of the above?
Unread books and unseen pictures are like Schrodinger’s
cat, abiding in every possible state until you open the box, at
which point the waveform collapses and they take on a value
that’s unique – not uniquely theirs, but uniquely
Certain words have become infectious. They ride living ideas
like viruses, polluting the body of discourse. We should
quarantine them. Candidates for quarantine might include art
and beauty, not to mention good and bad,
war and peace, liberal and conservative.
(I’d also go along with a ban on like used as a
stage direction, e.g. “I was like, You gotta be kidding,
you’re gonna wear that?”)
A.K. suggests that “talk of ’real’
vs. ’unreal’, ’legitimate’ vs. ’botched’
is quite a bit passe.”
Naturally the image is what matters, but sometimes one serves
as the springboard to discussion of meta-issues. Far from being
passé, epistemological issues are central to esthetics.
Once you eliminate the naive criteria of the recent past (does
the picture or story praise God, does it flatter the donor, is
it uplifting, etc), most discussions of art turn on points of
Hil posts a “nature” photo of stuffed
animals at the American Museum of Natural History. There are
I suppose there’s a truth-in-advertising issue here,
something deeply felt at this particular time and in places
where these notes are read.
Remember the young lady from Kuwait who in 1990 stood before
the world and told us how she watched helplessly while Iraqi
invaders dumped babies on the nursery floor and stole their
incubators? Statistics show that an Olympic pool could’ve
been filled with the tears shed by her CNN audience. After the
war we learned she’d made it all up. Now, when you think
about it, that turns her story into theater, and pretty good
theater too. I’d much rather witness somebody telling a
big lie that helped start a war than watch some fear-jerking
news story about Iraqi atrocities. Atrocities are a dime a
My point? If her story had been true we would’ve been
getting the news at second hand and so what. But in fact we saw
a story actually happening. We even acted a part in it
ourselves. Now, that’s history hot off the griddle.
It’s also one way art can be realer than real life.
Another reply to animadversions on Hil’s
Books could be written. Books have been written,
though never by photographers. (Think of Susan Sonntag.) The
lesson to be learned, maybe, is that everything
(including the photograph) is an object and enjoys equality
before the laws of physics. Don’t mistake the ding
for the ding an sich, the quiddity for the quidditas,
the name for the song. Don’t commit the sin of synecdoche.
Hil’s visit to the Museum reminds me of a night course
Chris and I took there twenty-five years ago, lessons on gems
taught by a famous gemologist. Everybody loved this guy. He
looked, acted and talked like a longshoreman. And he laughed at
the people who brought him cut stones of great antiquity to
admire. “This may be from Queen Isabella’s diadem!”
He’d guffaw. “Lady, this stone was made by some
volcano two hundred million years before Isa-beller was born!
There’s no such things as antique gems.” He, at
least, knew what the meaning of “is” was.
There were many comments on "Mister
Bun," a photo of a headless baby rabbit. The first one
I replied to came from Patsy Latscha. “It is very
gross, besides that general fact, just a bad pghotograph, color,
focus, it is just bad. Surely you can find something better to
post than this.”
Patsy: My flower photos would please you more, I think, but
to me there’s not much difference. Remember that cut
flowers are the severed genitals of plants. To my mind, anyway,
the flower photos are informed by the same irony as this one.
More on "Mister Bun."
Robert Graves (1895-1985) literally worshipped women. In his
last novel, Watch the North Wind Rise, he imagines
himself (or a surrogate) waking up in a future where magic
rules. Alone in the woods, with no warning, he meets the
Goddess. She’s a skinny, smelly old woman dressed in dirty
rags, walking with a stick. “Well?” she says.
“I instantly fell on my knees, seized and kissed her
filthy claw.” (Quoting from memory.) She pats his head and
says, “Yes, you’re a good boy.”
If I were sick enough to spout Aperture-speak, I’d say
this photo was an act of devotion; but that’s not all it
is. To cite another parable from the lore of the clerisy, James
Joyce, at the height of his fame, was introduced to an excited
fan. She tried to grab his arm, saying, “Let me kiss the
hand that wrote Ulysses!.” Joyce jumped back. “Oh
no,” he said, “it did a lot of other things too.”
Yuri Skanavy, referring to the rules established by
Qiang Li for his photo
forum, wrote: “Just realized that, Qiang’s rules
are quite clearly against this kind of subject matter. So,
simply put Leslie shouldn’t have posted this photo here.”
It may be so. As old-timers already know, I honor Qiang and
share my wife’s opinion that he’s one of the saints
of photography. He deserves more respect than he gets here. If I
had the energy and innate goodness to set up and run a critique
site de bonae voluntatis, I’d rule like Attila or
Stieglitz, chastizing my subjects with scorpions. (1 Kings
12:11.) This post may be close to his limit, but let’s not
be too squeamish. It’s a rabbit, not a baby or a dog or
cat. It looks no worse than what you find in any supermarket,
except for the flies. And I’ve seen more flies at a
picnic. Finally, if you’re not a vegetarian you should
visit the factories that raise the animals you eat, then tour
the slaughterhouse. It may not be all bad to remind people where
food comes from. Few of us live on flowers.
Yuri replied: “...yes, we’re hypocrites
(I hope I spell it right :)), we don’t like to see what we
eat. But, the thing is that somehow your image doesn’t
stike me as act of animal right activism. ”
Please! It’s not motivated by animal rights, human
rights, civil rights or any other rights. Take it as given that
I disbelieve in rights, period. Nor is it a Disney celebration
of the Circle of Life, whatever that may be. (I think it has
something to do with eating zebras.) Nor is it meant to epater
Far more repulsive than a few flies to me is this perpetual
quest for meaning, motive, agenda, purpose, intention,
significance. Think what you’re saying. Is gravity heavy?
Is speed fast? Is beauty beautiful? C’est à
desesperer, sans blague!
During my photographic interregnum, around 1980 it was, I
came across a little epiphany at the Kutztown Fair. That’s
a country shindig held every year in Pennsylvania Dutch country.
You can eat funnel cakes and shoo-fly pie and apple pan dowdy
and see how folks used to farm, and how a few still do. There
was one exhibit labeled Chicken Science. It included a coop full
of chickens and a sort of outdoor wood stove with a cauldron of
boiling water, iron skillets, etc. I watched as somebody paid a
dollar. A powerful lady put the bill in her apron, went to the
coop, pulled out a chicken, walked over to a chopping block,
chopped its head off, threw it on the ground and covered it with
a bushel basket while it flopped around. Obviously the next step
was to pluck and empty it and serve it up as Really Fresh Fried
Standing ten feet away, holding hands and weeping copiously,
were two tourist children, boy and girl. They’d suddenly
learned something important about KFC. The truth was a kind of
slander on their innocence.
Maybe it’s best to think of photos like this one as
necessary follies, the heat engines that drive the rest of the
machinery. Personally I think of the rest as window dressing and
masquerade. Possibly both are true to a degree.
Some regular contributors defended me against
Yuri’s comments. I answered in a doggerel sonnet:
Yuri’s sin, if sin it be,
Is the common sin of
I know it’s hard to break the habit,
this photograph is not a rabbit.
So what does it mean? He’s got me there
congenital family hair.
It’s not an appeal to free the
It has no socially redeeming porpoise.
Is it empty of affect? Deeper than ether?
Ironic? Any of either?
Maybe the moral is, “Don’t
Or: “Curiosity fed the cat.”
Telling the truth is always slander.
Sauce for the goose
Ola S. noted: “Some things nature have learnt
us to find repulsive: The stench of decompsing corpses,
excrements, slimy worms, mutilated bodies... Provocations on
this level are like opening a wound, not giving an opportunity
Any good photograph is provocative in a sense. Of course
“Yuck” or “Yum” or heavy breathing isn’t
what I’m after. It’s easy to elicit strong feelings,
but what one wants are strong thoughts. I abominate photos, or
movies or stories, that evoke pity or terror by showing you,
say, a poor abused kitty with wounded paw and big eyes starving
in an alley, or a nasty fierce man about to do naughty things to
a helpless... You get the idea. It’s like making your
audience cry by stepping on their toes – strictly from
Woolworth’s. I’m snob enough to disdain facile
ploys. Such work is sentimental in the sense defined by George
Meredith: “The sentimentalist is he who would enjoy
without incurring the immense debtorship for a thing done.”
Rather than draw tears by working for them, you give the viewer
a Three-Stooges eye-prong.
I know Ola’s just putting us on, but let’s
pretend that last note was posted by his doppelganger.
Ola! bah – it’s our parents, not Mother Nature, who
taught us that excrement’s taboo. Many cultures are quite
casual about it. Robert Mapplethorpe ate it with gusto, though
it did give him stomach problems. I myself confess to a weakness
for Limburger, Liederkranz and pont-l’eveque. As to
decomposing corpses, this photo shows a perfectly edible rabbit,
far fresher than anything you’d find at the store. It was
alive and kicking five minutes before I made the picture. Some
flies have landed on it, true – but they’ll light on
your bagel too, if you eat it outdoors in New York in July.
Finally, as I’ve already confessed, I’m a vulgar
man with low appetites. My only hope for salvation is the
redeeming power of fine art. Surely folks will be patient as I
grope my way toward the light.
Rosina P. writes from New Zealand: “I had a
pet lamb when I was about 10....one day I couldn’t find it
when I came home from school.... Dad said ‘Oh, I put it in
with that lot that went to the works.....’”
In the 40’s my parents made the mistake of giving me a
green-dyed chick for Easter. I named it Greenie and played with
it till it outgrew local zoning, at which point my parents
offered it to my Uncle Sammy, who kept chickens. He ate it. This
may help explain why I haven&’t been on speaking terms
with that side of my family for the last thirty-two years. Or
with the other side, come to think of it.
There’s a high-and-mighty NY pro who posts to
photocritique.net, patronizing "shutterbugs" and
reminding us how many shows he’s had and how much people
pay for his photos. When people called him arrogant, a sycophant
explained that there’s a big difference. He’s a pro
and takes photography more seriously than we do. He has
professional standards which may not be appropriate on a site
inhabited by amateurs. The quality of his work "shatters or
threatens the illusions" we have of ourselves as
photographers. His rapid rise in the gallery scene as an "art
photographer" deserves congratulations, but reaction of the
amateurs has been mostly negative. This is likely the result of
jealousy or insecurity.
I was impressed by X’s reasonable and calm note, in
which he points out the difference between the values and POV of
a working professional and those of the rest of us at PC. It may
be easier to understand this without getting carried away if we
think in terms of sex. The sex workers I’ve known usually
kept pretty much to themselves, but some of them were willing to
observe and criticize amateur work, which they often praised in
a way that I suspect was 90% diplomacy and good will. Because,
well, let’s face it – those of us who do it as a
hobby or for weekend recreation will never understand sex like
somebody who depends on it to pay the rent, who has to smile and
be creative even when he or she has gas or a headache, in a
world where the customer’s always right. When I don’t
feel like sex I can take pictures, and when I’m tired of
that I can play with my Hummel figurines, but a pro has to
perform without waiting for the angel of inspiration. That
necessarily makes a difference.
As X says, those of us who do sex as a hobby should
congratulate successful pros, yet we seldom do. Let’s
confess: jealousy and insecurity are the reason. I try to rise
above that level myself, but can’t help feeling envy for
those who have the tools and the talent to hit the bullseye
twenty times a day while I’m lucky to score once or twice
a week. After all, I tell myself, the software only allows us
three tries! (Speaking of photos now, of course.)
Hil posted a photo of New York graffiti which got a
good deal of attention. I couldn’t resist adding my two
My my. This post and these comments are more lit crit than
anything else. I feel right at home. Worse, I’m reminded
of a little epiphany from 1971 or thereabouts which, worst of
all, I feel bound to share with everybody. (“Fly home,
daughter, cover your ears.”)
When we moved to the city in 1970 a fancy town house three
blocks south of us was blown up by the Weather Underground. On
the big fence that hid the rubble somebody spray-painted the
motto: Nothing Is Free. A young French intellectual came
to visit. (Where are you now, Jean-Claude?) I took him for a
walk through the neighborhood and when he saw those words he
said sadly, “Ah bien sur, ’Rien n’est
“No no,” I told him, “Rien n’est
gratuit!” And at that moment I was enlightened.
BJS posted a still life done with a digital camera
and lens equivalent to 35mm focal length. I felt results weren’t
up to par, but a commenter suggested it was “Alternative
Photography” – “Has a lovely charcoal or
graphite drawing quality to it.”
When I think “alternative photography” I think of
argyrotypes, cyanotypes, chrysotypes and platino-palladiotypes,
Luminos liquid emulsion and oatmeal box cameras, Polaroid
transfers and X-rays, callotypes and kallitypes, gum bichromate
and albumen, edible prints made with nontoxic chemistry, carbro
and gumoil processes, etc. Not digital photography.
As to charcoal and graphite, beware the “painterly”
(or charcoal-y or whatever) temptation. I yield to it sometimes
myself, so I know whereof I speak. No photo can be as painterly
as paint or as graphitic as graphite. Photography has its own
qualities, which admittedly may overlap those of other graphic
media in the big Venn diagram of categories that’s sold as
Maybe the fundamental problem is that BJS’s best photos
(unlike, say, my own) are dynamic, while still life holds still
i.e., it’s static. BJS’s top-notch work conveys the
impression of a thing seen – a glimpse, an epiphany, a
recognition – one day perhaps a revelation. His photos
are, how you say, outgoing and extroverted, anabolic,
affirmative and celebratory, even if they’re photos of
somebody who’s just done up a spoonful of junk. But as I
said, still life is inherently static: contemplative, catabolic,
lysis after the crisis, a museum showcase whose central exhibit
has been removed for further study.
Here my interlocutor protested: “Hmmm. Ok. But,
‘beware’???? and ‘temptation’????
Yes! Yes! Beware, beware! His flashing eyes, his floating
Well, let’s not go too far; still, I won’t
abate my minatory mood. Making good pictures (or poems or
whatever) is largely a matter of learning to resist temptation –
the temptation to pull the bull over your audience’s eyes,
to imitate things that evoke a built-in reaction, to copy art
they’re already familiar with. This is sentimentalism in
the sense of George Meredith’s famous definition: “The
sentimentalist is he who would enjoy without incurring the
immense debtorship for a thing done.” Instead of painfully
building up an evocative image that nobody’s ever seen
before, I can photograph a cute li’l baby sucking its
toes, or make a movie of a naked lady doing hanky-panky. Those
things are guaranteed to get a reaction because large subsets of
the human race are programmed to respond to them. There are also
big cohorts programmed to respond positively to images that look
like oil paintings or charcoals, because that’s Fine Art
and confers status. My dear, so nice to see you, what sitcom did
you watch last night whilst I was reading Proust in the
original? So silly to translate it as “Remembrance of
Things Past,” don’t you think? That old Shakespeare
has a lot to answer for.
To speak more generally, remember Hemingway’s advice:
“The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in,
shock-proof shit detector. This is the writer’s radar and
all great writers have had it.” The rest of us need it
Posted a photo that looked banal. Someone said, “I
don’t like this simply because I think anyone with PS
could have made it.” Others defended it.
You folks are kind, but the true test of something like this
would be to post it (or publish it) under the name of the guy
next door and see how it flies (or flops) when nobody knows who
made it and is therefore unlikely to dig for hidden gold. I
don’t care for Agatha Christie’s stories, but was
always impressed that at one point she submitted some new books
to publishers under another name, and got them published.
It’s an article of faith with me that many (most)
photos by world-famous names are not in fact very good and would
never reach the public’s eye if they were copyrighted by
you or me. But because of the famous name we look for subtle
qualities which we then inevitably find. After all, Gene Smith
is to me what I am to my cat; if he thought photo X was worth
publishing and I don’t get it, the fault must be mine.
Made some comments on a photo by Cleeo Wright, a
landscape that’s much darker and realer than his usual
I honor and revere Ansel Adams, but his work, though
perfection of a kind, lacks the richness and depth of E.
Weston’s. A.A. created a world beyond worry, a Perelandran
paradise where Adam never fell. However much I honor and however
hard I revere him, he has in common with N. Rockwell or Currier
& Ives a certain sweetness and light that are charming but,
well, facile. E.W. did the dirty work. He even photographed a
dead human body he found in the desert. His nudes have hair
between their legs. I don’t mean we have to seek out
nastiness to be “serious”; but we need to rise above
pretty if we want to be beautiful.
I’m reminded of Samuel Johnson’s remarks on
Dryden and Pope from his “Lives of the Poets”: If
the flights of Dryden are higher, Pope continues longer on the
wing. If of Dryden’s fire the blaze is brighter, of Pope’s
the heat is more regular and constant. Dryden often surpasses
expectation, and Pope never falls below it. Dryden is read with
frequent astonishment, and Pope with perpetual delight.
It’s also worth remembering that in the 17th century
the Dutch paid far more attention to Jan Steen than to
Rembrandt, much less to Vermeer.
Art S. demurred, saying that there was nothing
visually interesting about Cleeo’s picture.
Says Art: For me to like an image there has to be
something interesting to see – one can intellectualize
that this one is good because its not like
The eye’s an extension of the brain, and seeing’s
cerebral. You know the old studies in which those born sightless
were cured at some advanced age, but never learned how to see.
Hence all those figures of speech. Do you see? No, I don’t,
quite. Well, look at it this way. Oh, sure, now I see. Cats
won’t chase photos of mice, dogs don’t bark at
photos of cats, chickens never peck at photos of corn. We see
something they don’t. The question whether there’s
“something interesting to see” sounds easy but
“A fool sees not the same tree a wise man sees.”
– William Blake
Art answered: “Leslie – I ‘see’
your point but I also think there’s a tremendous amount of
mental masturbation in the whole field of art, not just
photography. Too often I think we convince ourselves that
something is ‘excellent or boring or terrible’ based
on the reputation of the artist, ‘trendiness’,
intellectualizations, etc., etc. Let’s face it.... a lot
of art famous or otherwise just plain sucks.”
Masturbation’s much maligned. If it’s so bad, why
is it popular? But seriously, folks, I won’t argue the
awfulness of over-intellectualization. That’s one of many
reasons I swore never again to set foot in a university. But
that was long ago. Now I’m a tottery old man and less
dogmatic. Let’s admit it: there is something to be said
for “art appreciation,” though the words still gag
me. I’d rather wring whatever juice there is out of a
“work of art” than get my kicks sneering at it,
though the only way to enjoy some things (like Keane’s
paintings) is to see them as high camp or comedy.
Reputation’s a sticky point. Certainly most prolific
“artists” generate plenty of frass and scat. Past
performance is no guarantee of future results. Still, if
somebody I consider a master of the craft produces a picture
that looks absurdly bad, I have to consider the possibility that
he sees something there which isn’t (yet) clear to me, and
that if I find another way to look at it I can see it too. OK,
maybe the guy’s paresis finally kicked in and there’s
nothing there after all; but as I say, I’d rather enjoy
something than not, so I’m willing to try some of whatever
he’s been taking and see if I like the trip.
The thread then turned to discussions of the
beautiful, what it is and whether it’s necessary to make a
The problem with arguments involving truth, beauty, art,
love, honor, duty and such is that nobody can agree on the
meaning of the words. Most of us use them, I guess, as a kind of
shorthand, since it’s silly to rely on periphrasis: “The
sight of Jane Doe raises my blood pressure, the touch of her
hand induces proximate tumescence, and I’m willing to
enter into contractual arrangements that will beggar me if I
leave her.” Easier to say “I love Jane.” But
we should remember it’s only shorthand, and tendentious
shorthand at that.
Art then posted a Weston nude with the legend, “Any
question about this one?” (I.e., as an example of beauty.)
“Any question about this one?” says Art. But of
course. Read “The Fleshly School of Poetry,” by
Victorian critic Robert Buchanan, who considered obscene the
work of harmless exotics like Rossetti and Swinburne. To him I
think E.W.’s nudes would all look clinical and, well,
dirty – not nudes at all, since that word evokes the
appliances of art, just pictures of naked females.
Beauty’s strictly cultural. Most G7 citizens (now G8, I
guess) are repelled by cosmetic scarification and saucer-sized
lip disks and bound heads and infibulation, but those
enhancements are still appreciated in some quarters, as are
300-pound brides anointed in pig fat, and circumcision and
pierced lips and tongues. Oh, wait, those last examples are
all-American, aren’t they? Well, you get my point.
All right, all right, I hear you say, you didn’t mean
matters of fashion, you meant natural beauty, landscapes, misty
mountains and like that. But it’s all fashion.
Before the late 18th century a high, snow-covered mountain (“a
horrid Alp”) impressed nobody in Europe, unless as an
obstacle to commerce and invasion. Climbing and skiing and
hiking and camping weren’t sports, they were what Europe’s
hillbillies did to survive. A suntan marked you as a member of
the servile class.
It’s all but impossible to separate esthetics from
ethnology. Sometimes I think there are esthetic elements that
cross cultural isobars – the Golden Mean, the Rule of
Thirds, the color wheel. Sometimes I believe the whole business
is entirely relative and that all our esthetic striving is
arrogance and folly.
Cleeo himself protested that some analogs of beauty
cross cultural boundaries. “Smiles, I believe, are another
example of something found to be beautiful that seem to be
Cleeo: the problem’s really one of definitions. True
about the universality of smiles (even in chimps), but I don’t
think of smiles as an aspect of “beauty” –
more a kind of behavior, a signal, like the purring of a cat or
a dog’s wagging tail. I’d be interested to see the
documentary you mention. Certainly some cues are innate: babies
will follow any “face” with two “eyes”
in it, even if it’s very schematic, and the curviness of
feminine fat may well be a universal trigger. Again, though,
those are signals. It would be interesting to pursue the idea
that “beauty” derives from signals like that.
But those are trivia, really. I’m afraid you and I are
poles apart on the far more important question of immanence. I’m
a crusty, unreconstructed reductionist, a materialist of the
worst kind. Spirit, bah! Souls, humbug! Of course I know you
feel differently, and that your conviction inspires and enriches
your work, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’ve
got no patience with folks who think it’s a joke to trick
vegetarians into eating meat, or who insist on enlightening
everybody who doesn’t believe what they happen to believe.
In the final analysis such things make no difference – a
basic tenet of my own Futilitarian philosophy.
Tony S. came back with: “Beautiful, ugly,
interesting, boring – why should we need to agree on what
these terms mean? Where’s the fun in that??”
As Tony says, these points are fun to debate but have little
bearing on what we do with our cameras and computers. He and
Cleeo and I, and probably anybody else reading this, are on one
side of a more fundamental disagreement. Plato’s the first
guy I know who said it explicitly. His point of view (put in the
mouth of Socrates) was that the arts are dangerous because they
mislead us. Fiction is by definition a lie, and music affects us
like a drug, clouding our critical faculties. Rhetoric persuades
us to believe what we shouldn’t. In sum, the arts are
useful in the form of propaganda, but serious folks should avoid
them: they’re frivolous at best.
That idea has had immense influence in the Judeo-Christian
West and in Islamic societies. There’s a strong
puritanical strain that runs through those cultures. At its
extreme it forbids not only figurative art but even the worldly
vanities of decoration or music. We can debate the nature of
beauty or the definition of art till the cows come home, and
even get highly ionized about it, but we should never lose sight
of the fact that art (whatever it is) and beauty (whoever she
is) have enemies who have put the kibosh on the whole business
in many times and places, and may well do so again. United we
stand. Whatever our esthetic quibbles, we’re family.
Finally, I couldn’t resist a peroration.
Steve M. gave me the peg to hang it on by defining art in terms
of “expression,” suggesting that landscape
photography differed from other genres in being “an
expression of the subject” rather than self-expression.
On the understanding that “art” is shorthand and
begs a billion questions (see above), what do we know about it
in an operational sense? Well, it’s a human activity. It
requires an investment of time (and time is money) that could be
spent doing something else – finding food or sex. So why
do people do it? One reason is to make a living, but for me and
most of my readers here that doesn’t apply. What are the
other reasons? To be stroked by admirers, maybe, though again
that doesn’t happen a whole lot to most of us, and nobody
just starting out could count on it. Next reason?
I suspect there are as many next-reasons as there are people
who make art (or even “art”). One that’s
commonly reported is a quest for ataraxy, the relief that comes
when you scratch an itch or take off your shoes after a day on
your feet or drink a cool glass of water after working an hour
in the hot sun. The oyster makes pearls for the same reason,
because a pearl hurts less than a stone in the oyster’s
shoe. Another is the can’t-help-it’s: the artist is
(take your pick) chosen by the gods or screwed up by bad toilet
training or crushed by class oppression or abducted by aliens
who plant a doodlebug in his noggin. Whatever the reason, the
artist can’t help it – he squirts out art, sometimes
at the most embarrassing possible moment.
There are other excuses too, of course; far too many to
rehearse here. But I take it that Steve M. is speaking of the
second one just mentioned. “Expression” is
“squeezing out,” and what he describes is an artist
squeezing something out of himself (subsuming “herself,”
of course). But I have to admit I’ve never quite
understood that process. The phrase “self-expression”
is used all the time, but what does it mean really? What
operation does it describe? The same question applies a
fortiori to “expression of the subject,” which
suggests bringing to light some aspect of the “subject”
(landscape, etc) that’s otherwise not evident. If that’s
what Steve means, I’m not sure it describes this photo of
Cleeo’s, which seems to me almost a reaction against that
motive. A postcard photograph of Yellowstone (or, to be cruel,
an A. Adams photo) does seem meant to bring out some essence of
landscape that we might otherwise never see, but this one’s
muted, un-idealized, un-abstracted, unforced. Instead of
generalizing (so that a given sunset becomes THE sunset or a
given canyon becomes THE canyon) it particularizes its subject.
Instead of expressing (squeezing out) its essence, it shows us
the thing itself with essence still intact. Instead of showing
us THE canyon, Cleeo shows us a canyon – a lowercase,
common-noun, particular piece of geography – in great
detail, guts feathers and all, and says, in effect: Behold.
Without trying to sell anything, without a bonus of frequent
flyer miles. Nobody will ever turn this into a poster and put it
on a sign to parade around at a rally. It’s cool,
low-pressure, and sufficient to itself. In that sense it
All of which is true of nature itself, which has no politics
and no agenda. It simply is.
Maybe the final purpose of art is to tell what the meaning of
Sometimes I post B&W photos colored in
Photoshop. One such brought comments about the suitability of
I’ve always admired false-color images of one kind or
another, where colors are added to electron photomicrographs,
MRI’s, heat images, radar returns, etc. Natural colors
have a certain naive charm, but most of the time nature needs a
My colors are not as harmonious as those of old pals like
Gauguin or Matisse. My style derives from the comics: large
areas of flat color separated by borders breaking the image
along lines of anatomy or landscape.
BJS suggested he’d “like to see more
blues than reds.”
Thinking it over, I guess I just plain like red and its
relatives. (Purple, violet, pink, orange, brown...) Maybe it’s
a humanist kind of thing, because if you look at people, inside
or out, there’s almost nothing blue about them.
EC: “I dig the colour scheme, and I
especially like what it’s done to the mud.”
Mud’s wonderful stuff, but hard to photograph in a way
that shows its worth. I’d like to make it look like a
folded duvet or crushed velvet. Mud makes great building
material when dried and/or baked – easy to work with, and
there’s never a shortage. The next step up from the stone
age should be called the Age of Mud, but I guess that doesn’t
sound so hot as the title of a book. Still, there it is, midway
between the stone age and the bronze age. Mud is good.
CS: “For once, and I almost feel guilty about
it, I am not drawn to this as much as your other work.”
I don’t pretend to hit the bullseye (or even the
target) every time, and don’t know anybody else who batted
a thousand (including Shakespeare and Michaelangelo). Nor should
we worry about it, or we risk taking it too seriously and
getting nothing done. Better to squirt out lots of pictures and
let the world pick and choose.
When you think about it, even the very best photographers
(like Cartier-Bresson or Avedon or Weston) are known for a small
number of super photos, maybe enough for one book or one show.
Most of their work could be a clever imitation done by anybody
reasonably competent. Unfortunately some folks, like Lee
Friedlander, get carried away by that and substitute quantity
for quality. Some balance needed.
Joe, commenting on the same photo, called it “weird
in a good way.” I answered, privately:
...words I’d choose as my epitaph if I dared.
And Grant, known for soul-snatching street
photography, wrote: “its beyond me.”
Not beyond, just moving off in another direction. I’m
tempted to say it’s another case of Voltaire versus
Rousseau, but this owes as much to the Romantics as your street
Both are escapes into esthetics. Your fly-on-the-wall slices
of life are dramatic in the strictly esthetic sense – the
author subtracts himself from the world and lets conjured images
do all the talking. This photo’s purely formal and
intentionally “unreal,” making a safe nest to sit in
for two minutes or so. Like many others who post here, you and I
are art machines, spinning out product that gives life the
illusion of purpose.
Of course we differ in deep ways. My own photos are colored
by irony and nihilism, but if I had the courage of my
convictions I wouldn’t bother making them at all –
that’s the irony of ironies, the second derivative of
Video, Ergo Sum
Seeing is being.
Being is believing.
Video, ergo sum.
J.P. Zorn posted a very fine photo featuring the
human form. Heretofore he’s been known for strictly
geometric compositions. He said it was “for Leslie.”
The first comment, by Rachel B., allowed as how “It is
’leslie-like’ in that morbid sort of way.” I
Morbid, huh? Nonsense, I have the heart of a boy. I keep it
in the refrigerator.
But seriously, folks, JPZ must know this will please me
because it’s evidence that he’s doing what I hoped
he would, using his formal skill to make photos that go beyond
formal, leveraging their imagery with “objective
correlatives.” The result is iconic, emblematic and
Pretend we have two photos hung side by side, both showing
something that has associations known to catch the eye and make
us think and feel – an old lady wrapped in a flag, a
soldier holding a dying baby, whatever. Now suppose that one of
the photos was done by the guy next door and the other by
Cartier-Bresson or Gene Smith. Most people would have no trouble
saying the famous photo’s somehow better than the one by
their worthy neighbor, even if they can’t articulate the
reason. And in fact the reason, in technical terms, isn’t
important; my point is that the better picture not only has
evocative content, it’s also formally satisfying and
therefore especially convincing. That’s why Mapplethorpe’s
naughty pictures made such a scandal, I guess. Their formal
qualities gave them evocative force. They have far more power
So there are two levers at work in the case of a Gene
Smith or Cartier-Bresson or Mapplethorpe: evocative content and
compelling form. Making them work together, with one
potentiating but not dominating the other, is a trick few of us
can do. JPZ hasn’t fully mastered it, but he’s
moving in the direction of mastery. True, few arrive at that
goal. But it costs no more to try than we’re already
spending on photography.
Another comment on a JPZ that’s not overtly
Evocative, more so maybe than any of your earlier posts.
Your eye for composition is at its best when the
composition’s hidden, as this is, under bushels of
chiaroscuro and fantasy. It’s important to have an
underlying structure, even if you take it away after you’ve
built on it.
JPZ posted a photo that simply doesn’t look
good. That is, it looks like a snapshot. The photographer’s
shadow features prominently in the composition.
Anybody here remember the last picture in that portfolio
Richard Avedon did in Berlin when the Wall came down? It’s
a grossly overexposed flash shot of somebody’s head, an
absolutely worthless photograph even by the standards of the
rankest amateur. Yet in context it’s a terrible dare that
Avedon was able to carry off, and the perfect full stop to his
series. Unforgettable, like the event it commemorates. Yet if
you take it out of context and put it online with the legend,
“Hancock calls this an ’unforgettable’
“Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon” is another
example, a painting that nobody really likes and that Picasso
worked over for quite a long time, way back when. It’s
important as a document that marks a turning point in the
history of art, and certainly in its maker’s personal
evolution. (Almost the same thing.)
Without comparing JPZ to Picasso or Richard Avedon (but hey,
you never know), I wonder whether this photo has a similar place
in his own canon, either as punctuation or as an exercise in
Time will tell. And as I know from my own fiddling in
photography, it’s wrong to take these things too
seriously, or let others take them too seriously on your behalf.
Maybe this is a case of Homer, Jr. nodding. But JPZ’s
talent is real, his shit detector’s never failed him
before, and I hope he keeps working to move beyond what he’s
already mastered into something he hasn’t.
Christel D. responded: “Erm yes but –
no offense intended and all that – as so often seen on
this site, the name carries the photo – maybe to a level
where it doesnt belong... If some newbie Joe or Jack had posted
this shot, people would be complaining loudly (that is, if it
got any comments at all) that it was cliché, that the
horizon is too centered, that it has a yellow cast etc. etc. And
forgive me, but thats all I see in it...”
Christel: Just so. It’s the old question of whether we
should or shouldn’t (not in a moral sense but from
strictly practical considerations) evaluate every performance in
isolation, without knowing who dunnit or when or why. Whole
schools of criticism have been built around that notion. Then
again, when I get up every morning I give thanks that I no
longer have to go to school.
Context certainly adds depth to our appreciation, even if
some say it’s deep folly, sentimentality, self-indulgence.
More to the point, maybe, if I know for a fact that a particular
photo or poem or piece of music was done by Jane or John, and
also know that John or Jane has an impeccable track record, and
the case-hardened, antimagnetic, unbreakable shit detector named
by Hemingway as the artist’s basic navigational
instrument, and I can’t make heads or tails of the photo
or poem or piece, or distinguish it from a banal snapshot made
by my idiot son, well... Maybe I’m looking at it from the
wrong viewpoint, or with the wrong expectations, or out of the
wrong gestalt or weltanschauung or zeitgeist
or some other wrong German word. The 20th century didn’t
teach us much about diplomacy or politics, but it did make us
aware that “my kid could do better than that” is on
the same critical plane as “that ain’t art” or
“I know filth when I see it.”
JPZ posted a photo that got no comments except my
Home again, with a good monitor, and yes, it’s a fine
shot. Reminds me of the rule Avedon claims he set down for
himself: “No obvious composition.” (My
itals.) Not that this is a new principle – you find it in
many of the oldest pictures still extant. Sadly, the lack of
obvious composition is hard for most viewers to
distinguish from the absence of composition. Maybe it’s
one of those gestalt things.
And, commenting on an earlier JPZ post:
eye for composition is at its best when the composition’s
hidden, as this is, under bushels of chiaroscuro and fantasy.
It’s important to have an underlying structure,
even if you take it away after you’ve built on it.
Bruce MacNeill makes fine
black-and-white portraits with an 8x10 view camera. On rare
occasions he posts a color photo; recently, for example, one of
a couple in a bowling alley. Suddenly he posted two portraits of
the same subject, one in black and white, one in color.
a shocker, to me at least. Color transforms this. Taken with
your other post today it constitutes an object lesson in what
color can do. Now that most images are in color, B&W
abstracts and schematizes an image. Something photographed in
B&W is plainly not the thing itself – like it has a
watermark reading “This is not real.” Color, and
sharp color in particular, is a different story. That’s
how and why I use it so much myself: it induces apophenia.
Things we know aren’t real can seem so.
photo’s context, however, I much prefer B&W. Color’s
fine for situations (the bowling photo, for instance), but here
it removes the esthetic distance between subject and viewer that
gives your portraits their special substance and monumental
of landscape, posted a very uncharacteristic photo, a macro of a
Talk about horizonless
landscapes! You’re really ringing the changes on genres,
and illustrating a basic (and, for some, sad) fact about art –
there’s common ground that all genres stand on, and no
artist can escape a lack of talent in genre X by fleeing to
genre Y. Competence in different styles depends on some
underlying competence. Naturally one person may work best in one
style and another in something very different, and a third
person may invent an entirely new style. But as big as the
differences may seem (X concentrates on form, Y on content), the
similarities are bigger. Sort of like the similarities between
the DNA of mammal X and mammal Y – 95% identical, maybe,
though X eats Y for breakfast.
JS praises one
of my first digital photos with the words, “I don’t
need a 10D but I want one.”
comment begs deep questions. What do we need, after all,
beyond water, warm air, and essential nutrients? Toys (and art
is a toy) help beguile the time we’re doomed to spend
between cradle and grave. At best they give us the illusion of
purpose. They’re necessaries but not necessities.B
digital capture with a note saying I couldn’t claim much
credit, since digital makes things easier. Juliette slyly asked,
“so a photo has to be hard to make???
Whether or not a photo’s
hard to make doesn’t affect its esthetic value (to me),
but because I have this (possibly sick) meta-interest in the
very deed of photography it does affect my feeling about the
photographic act. After fighting or working hard to get
something done I feel some (doubtless ersatz) pride that’s
absent if I get the thing without effort.
easy about digital that isn’t easy with film? The main
ingredient is negative feedback – negative in the
engineering sense, positive in the sense that it’s an
immense advantage. I mean, OK, here I am with my camera, and I
take my best shot. One second later I see the result, with a
little histogram, yet, telling me whether it’s too dark or
too light, and if any highlights are blown they’re winking
at me like a turn signal. After that, working with film is like
shooting ducks in the dark.
Then there’s the eased
workflow. Take as many shots as you like, one or fifty. Don’t
worry about finishing the roll. Pop out the memory card and put
it in a card reader attached to your computer. Instantly see and
evaluate every shot, complete with a gallimaufry of data telling
you what lens was used at what settings and even what subject
distance, not to mention on what second of which hour of what
day. Like photo #X? If you shoot JPG or TIFF simply load it
directly into Photoshop. If, like me, you insist on RAW images,
click on "convert" and load the result. That’s
All the technical progress of photography has
been aimed at making photography 1) possible, then 2) easy.
Because the easier you make it, the more you can concentrate on
the part that can’t be made easy – creating a
And of course you
get to skip some steps, notably processing and scanning, which
add noise (entropy, degradation) to the image. One trivial but
very worthwhile result of that is: no spotting. It was beginning
to seem like I spent two-thirds of my time cloning out specks in
my photos. More important than eliminating those pesky specks is
the elimination of variables in processing (is the developer a
degree warmer today?) and scanning (which scanner are you using?
with what settings?). Making a photo with film involves too many
degrees of freedom. There’s the choice of film and its
quality (age, batch, ambient temperature, whatever), the
camera’s mechanicals and settings, the storage and
treatment of the film after exposure and before processing, the
many, many variables involved in development, over which you
generally have no control (which is why people make such a fuss
over preferring Lab X to Lab Y), the condition of the negatives
or chromes (scratched or otherwise marred, left in a hot car,
licked by the dog, dropped on floor, covered with fingerprints,
dusty, moldy, cloudy, etc), the many more variables of scanning
(flatbed, film scanner, drum? what shadow density? what
resolution? what color balance? what software? what settings?),
and only then, after all those variables have nibbled you half
to death, do the two paths to your final photo come back
L. commented on the photo of a slaughtered pig, concluding that
“I suspect we are now so removed from
our hunter-gatherer past that such reactions should be
We’re removed only by culture. Kids have no problem with
gory edibles until they’re trained up to Twinkies by role
models who say "Eww" over tabooed food.
taboos vary. As I recall, Captain Cook was torn to pieces by
Hawaiians who handed the parts around for the evening meal. This
nettled Cook’s crew, who demanded return of the body. The
Hawaiians, embarrassed by their mistake, did bring back his
hands, but couldn’t find his heart – turns out two
little girls found it hanging in the kitchen, assumed it was a
dog’s heart, and ate it for supper.
an egregious self-portrait, me nekkid with the slaughtered pig.
And this egregious epigraph:
Snobinarde de fils en pere
prete à faire le con –
complained about my “condescending
attitude ( the excessive use of french ) ...leslie seems to use
french, latin, esperanto, whatever to boost his photos.
basically they boomerang from pretty to morbid and i have given
up trying to find them aesthetically meaningful. there is a
certain shock jock mentality that just doesn’t work for
have remarked that it’s easier to confess in a foreign
language. People with a pathological stutter can put it to sleep
temporarily by speaking with a foreign accent or by singing
their words. It’s a way of tricking the little man inside,
the one who turns out the light when you shut your mouth.
I were condescending I’d explain everything. If I
explained everything I’d be condescending.
begets self-mockery. I did say snobinard.
entirely – my photos aren’t meaningful. As
for shock tactics, since Volta hooked frogs up to a battery it’s
become more and more obvious that animal locomotion, and no
doubt animal spirits and human morality and esthetics and
epistemology are just a series of low-voltage shocks.
the way I see them (a ghastly thought, not a suggestion), most
of my flowers and many landscapes are scarier than photos of raw
meat, which is, after all, good food.
reaction is the only one appropriate to appreciation of
photography or any other visual art: speechlessness.
life had meaning it would be truly intolerable.
I consider myself a nature photographer? Certainly not, though I
do try to photograph flowers in a way that makes folks say,
"They look so natural!"
Dall (see ) posted a photo/text montage about death. Some
commenters suggested it should’ve been more explicit. I
only in cartoons that death is a skeleton in a black robe.
Mostly it looks like the girl next door, or a fast car blowing a
red exhaust note, or your smiling mama bringing a pie to the
table, or that perfect hole-in-one you’ve always dreamed
of. Life is messy and annoying, a wrong number, a lost dollar, a
headache in the middle of the day. Death is elegant, perfect.
Most people look better when they’re dead than they did
the day before.
Christel amazed and
delighted me by using my comment as the clou of another
pastiche, viewable here.
On 4/28 the
photo.net elves kindly chose one of my posts as Photo of the
Week, the second time one of my pix was chosen. I was delighted,
of course, mainly because it gave me a bully pulpit from which
to fling the bullshit. Examples follow.
Elvish Ones, for turning this into a POW. The credit really goes
to the flower, and to the Canon digicams I picked up over the
last few months. My immediate impression was that digital
workflow makes photography easier. The photos don’t
(necessarily) get better, but decent photos are easier to crank
I posted the photos first in Qiang Li’s
where I added some notes about that digital ease-of-use issue.
Here’s what I said. First, anent the less colorful G2
Of course I’m glad folks like these
photos, but I want to emphasize what I’ve said before
about still lifes with digicams: they’re easy. Believe me,
I don’t mean this as a sly easy-for-me-but-hard-for-you
pat on my own back. It really is easy to make perfectly good,
even striking, flower photos like this once you have a Canon G2
The flower I simply bought
at the supermarket. Put it in a vase. Put the vase on a chair in
a room full of windows. Propped a yellow board against the back
of the chair. Screwed a close-up lens onto the G2, put the G2 on
a tripod, and focused in close till the result looked good on
the camera’s LCD display. Took the photo in AV mode at the
smallest aperture (f/8) for DOF. Tried all the three focus
points in case one gave better focus than the others. Tried
setting exposure compensation up a bit, since the first try was
a trifle dark. (Used the histogram display after each shot to
judge overall light/dark cast.) That’s it. I took the
photo at the camera’s highest JPG resolution, so was able
to load it directly into Photoshop, where nothing but a little
USM and Auto Levels was necessary.
You too can do all that. The photo’s pretty, but has
no special merit beyond the colors dyed into the flower, and the
prettiness of the flower itself, and the minuscule cleverness
involved in using a colored background. A nice calendar or
postcard shot at best.
Next day I posted the more colorful version with these tech
To continue my comment from yesterday’s shot, this
is the same flower (or possibly another in the same bunch –
they’re almost identical) done with the D30 rather than
the G2. This wasn’t such an easy shot as the first one,
and did involve more sneakiness on my part. Also it shows off, I
think, an important difference between the P&S G2 and the
Speaking to the last point first, the D30’s sensor
has fewer pixels than the G2’s, but each pixel is much
bigger. Therefore the D30’s capable of subtler and
smoother rendition of color and tones without noise and with
that subtly unctuous look I think of as "digital." As
for the ease of making the shot, this one took more doing, not
in a physical sense but in accumulating and marshaling
experience, the one thing I have in good quantity. (Hey,
sometimes quantity can substitute for quality, as in the case of
a 300-pound wrestler.) Look at yesterday’s shot and you’ll
see that there’s more color in the flower than that simple
close-up can show. The tubular petals have a kind of
translucence, and the fact that they’re hollow suggests
they’d look quite different under diffuse but direct
light. (The first photo uses indirect daylight.) It’s a
given that photographs bring out colors we don’t normally
see, since our eyes (or rather the brain they’re a part
of) adapt and adjust. Blue snow shadows are the classic example.
It seemed to me that the flower needed to be photographed
again under direct light. I set the white point to "tungsten"
and used the overhead light in the bathroom, going to the D30
and a true macro lens (rather than the G2’s close-up
accessory). I picked a composition that shows off the colors as
they run their rainbow gamut from the big outer petals to the
tiny inner ones. As a raw file the image is dull, but I could
tell that the D30 did in fact catch the translucence of the
smaller petals and the shadows that show they’re tubular,
with those charming organ-pipe mouths.
OK, I admit it’s not a stroke of inspiration on the
order of Weston’s pepper or Cartier-Bresson’s
"Brailowsky," but it did take more craft, or at least
craftiness, than yesterday’s G2 photo. The point, I guess,
being that with modern (digital) cameras it’s very easy to
make a photo that’s technically good and esthetically
satisfying, of the postcard or frame-on-the-table variety, but
that there’s still a role for the "art" (or
craft) that gives photos more pizazz.
Apologies for tacking this self-indulgent note onto a POW. I
know that in a deep sense the tackle and gear of any art are
"just" or "merely" or "only" the
means to an end, but what the hell. I’m glad I went
digital and thought I’d say why.
was a funny subtext related to whether or not the photo was
“manipulated.” I’d foolishly checked the
“unmanipulated” box when I posted it. For example,
some folks said it was manipulated because the flower in the
photo had been dyed.
I see no big difference between PS manipulation and manipulation
of the subject or the lighting or whatever, and the animus some
folks feel for "manipulated" images puzzles me. Many
of my photos are heavily Photoshopped; it’s a fact but not
a virtue that this one isn’t.
Let’s face it:
every photograph is a manipulation, nay an abstraction, of
reality. Were the people in Cartier-Bresson’s photos
really that small? Was the landscape shown in that Ansel Adams
print really black and white? Was that pepper so flat that
Edward Weston could render it accurately in two dimensions?
Aaron L. used the expression “rank
As for you or anybody else being
an amateur, that’s cool.
(I often wonder how
"amateur" became an insult. In, say, the 18th century,
science and the arts were mostly pursued by amateurs –
rich folks mainly, who did what they pleased because they
enjoyed doing it, and got very snobbish indeed about anybody "in
trade" who did what he did for pay. Now, on the other hand,
it’s important to be a Pro. You can buy "professional"
bicycles, swim fins, computers, condoms and cameras. Double
sheesh. Let’s hope that red herring rots away as soon as
possible. It stinks.)
Learning that the flower was dyed, Geraldine A. wrote:
“...the awe inspiring wonder at the colours has now
been completely shattered.”
So mote it be. I’m
a photographer, not a florist. A photo is not the thing
photographed, a picture isn’t the thing depicted. However
lifelike, the image is the ding an sich, a thing in
itself, however and by whomever it’s made.
Those who admire a photo because it shows them Something
Beautiful are in fact admiring that Something, which the
photographer most likely had no part in making. There’s
not much satisfaction in being told you’re a wizard
photographer because your picture captures the true beauty of
the Mona Lisa or the Grand Canyon. I know my limits. I can’t
make a photo that looks as good as the Grand Canyon. The only
thing that does it justice is a trip to the Canyon itself.
In pre-photographic days there was some point, maybe, in
flattering Michaelangelo or Rembrandt by saying they had the
skill to copy nature so well they could fool the eye. Now
anybody who can afford a disposable camera has that skill. But
those guys are still famous; apparently their work’s
valuable for some other reason.
I should’ve known better than to check that box, and
the Elves should’ve known better than to put it there.
It’s a trap. I stand by what I said before – all
photos are manipulated one way or another. And especially mine.
I revel in it. Treat these flowers as clever fakes, spun out of
pixels, of no known species, spliced from fiendish genes,
colored by hand by robots using artificial dyes extracted from
oil sucked out of the world’s most scenic and sacred
wilderness. If that makes a difference to you, I lose, as I
usually do when I try to argue religion. Triple sheesh.
Kelly L. writes: "...this
is the photographic equivilent of valium... just very
comfortable... Well done, but not quite deserving of some of the
received praise..." I agree with him utterly. To the
beholder intention doesn’t count – who knows what
motivated the guys at Lascaux, and who cares except
anthropologists or the idly curious? But in my SFP
(strictly-for-pretty) photos I’m doing what any oyster
does, reducing irritation by making a pearl. Somebody wrote a
bio of Vladimir Nabokov called "Escape into Esthetics";
I’m no Nabokov, yet the title pretty well states my case.
Valium’s great stuff when you need it.
excellent photographer, BTW) said anent the natural/artificial
argument that it would be nice if we could "have it all."
Geraldine, I think we can have it all, at least in
some distant epistemological sense, if we consider that
everything is natural. After all, we people are natural
phenomena too, and what we make by artifice is therefore a
Believe me, I’m on your side when it comes to admiring
what folks usually call "nature" (as in Mother Nature)
– it’s endlessly fascinating to me. I marvel at it
like a two-year-old. But for that very reason I don’t want
to make photos that rely on "natural beauty" for their
effect – that’s like an actor getting the audience
to cry by murdering cute animals onstage.
Ironic? Yeah, right.
R. writes: Many of us enjoy an ironic approach, yet it’s
clear that most viewers missed the irony completely on this
shot. Is it their fault...?
Hey, you won’t catch me blaming anybody for liking my
pictures, unless it’s that guy in the back who keeps
finding Darth Vader’s face in the clouds and bushes. By
"overarching" I meant as a general motif or point of
view, not something hidden in every photo like Al Hirschfeld’s
Is it OK to present an image that requires explanation?
For PJ or documentary photos, sure, but otherwise, well, it’s
not to my taste, and if I did it I’d consider it a
>Do we create images that work best when presented with
other images that reinforce the idea? You bet we do. Many of
Cartier-Bresson’s photos wouldn’t get a second
glance if nothing else of his had survived. But as his portfolio
accumulated over the years, it became clear that they deserved
that second glance, which (usually) brought to light subtle
qualities that give even his banal shots a boost.
But wait, is that, well, is it fair? Couldn’t
some wag "discover" a forgotten C-B photo and praise
it to heaven, and get lots of nods and applause, then reveal
that he took it himself, in high school, while winding the film,
by mistake? Yes, some wag could. Me, I try to be skeptical. Much
as I admire some great artists, I suspect that most of what they
did is undistinguished and wouldn’t make the nut if
A work of art or craft that’s enriched by
explanation isn’t the same as one that requires it.
By me, at least, every photo’s on its own and has to stand
on its merits or fall because it has none. My "ironic"
photos are meant to be pretty – otherwise they wouldn’t
Michael McCullough wrote: "This is a good
image,does it warrent a couple of paragraphs, of wonder and
excitement, I personally don’t think so, that said well
Michael: Thanks. You’re onto something there. We
probably shouldn’t try to parse images into words, any
more than we’d try to photograph a poem. "Whereof one
may not speak, thereof must one be silent." Many of us have
a bone to pick with critics, even when we agree with them. But
it’s hard not to talk about something that enthuses (or
disappoints) you, and talk keeps us breathing.
Lying Filth Comes Clean!
Folks wouldn’t let go of the idea that I’d
cheated by using a dyed flower, then claiming the photo was
they’ve found me out. I may as well admit it. I colored
that flower by hand using phosphorescent paint, lit it with
Christmas lights, irradiated it with cobalt-40 till it glowed in
the dark, spliced firefly genes to its DNA, then photographed it
in a microwave oven using side-scanning radar. When my tricks
were detected I tried to weasel out by pretending to think that
"natural" meant "as sold at the supermarket,"
though I knew full well that their apples are waxed with Alar,
their oranges brightened by sulfur dioxide, their beef reddened
hopeless. I’m a mythomaniac. My name isn’t even
Leslie Hancock, it’s Emmet Pismire. My parents died of
fright when I was born and I was raised by aunts who kept me
chained to a water pipe in the basement, a prey to rats and
marasmus. Denied a normal life, I made up a fictional career and
became a master of confabulation. Everything I say is a lie.
Even this sentence is false.
Oh, wait! No!
Look at this! I take it all back! I just discovered a tag that
came with the flowers, signed by Mohammed Saeed Al-Sahaf,
certifying that they’re perfectly natural, undyed and
unbleached forever, grown in a clean room by albinos.
Unfortunately the tag was eaten by my dog, who was immediately
abducted by space aliens. But you can look at the photo now with
innocent eyes and enjoy it as much as you did before you knew it
Sheesh to the
sheesh power! Anybody who has no more than this to worry about
should open a bottle of champagne.
"Back Shooter," a very articulate and
accomplished artist, wrote that he was having "a very
strong, negative reaction to this composition... It is something
a photgrapher who does not really understand classical
composition...would do – I’ll have to look at the
rest of the portfolio to see if that feeling is borne out."
I pursued him with a little too much vigor, maybe, when I
discovered he hadn’t posted any photos of his own.
When I was a kid I worked in a drugstore. One day a customer
asked the owner how much it would cost to fill a certain
prescription. "Twelve dollars."
"What!" says the customer. "I can get it at
Walgreens for nine bucks!"
"So go to Walgreens."
"They’re out of it."
"Well," says the owner, "When I’m out of
it I charge nine dollars too."
Laura N. told Back Shooter off – "If you don’t
have something positive to say, at least be constructive in your
Thanks for the nice note, but no fear – I know how to
handle rejection. Why, just last week my wife and I saw an
architect directing some people who were building a bridge. I
told him he was doing it all wrong, that he didn’t
understand the classical principles involved in hanging a
catenary. He just smiled, patted me on the head, and said to my
wife, "Your child, I presume? Boy or girl?"
At this juncture the elves began deleting and
editing comments, so Back Shooter and I continued our discussion
in email. I won’t publish his words here; what he wrote
was reasoned and intelligent, but private. I’ll just say
that I didn’t have it all my own way. At any rate, here
are my own for-the-record sentiments.
Sorry not to respond in the thread. The elves put me off a
bit by deleting one of my posts there. Anyway, what I would’ve
said, and wish I could say it in public, is that I agree with
you entirely about the "great pic" problem. As I’m
sure you know, it’s not a problem that’s peculiar to
photo.net or to POW. Every forum (including ArtForum) suffers
from this ailment. Maybe folks just want to be on the winning
side, or maybe we’re all used to admiring what’s
handed us in school as an example of something admirable. Plus
(let’s admit it) there’s pleasure in stroking a cat,
and also in stroking people who may purr if you praise them.
Most who post photos to online critique sites are amateurs in
every sense, taking a chance. To you or me, "Great pic"
means no more than "This sux," but to those who aren’t
so sure of themselves there’s a big difference. I don’t
get as highly ionized as you do about routine pats on the back.
Sycophants are another thing entirely. It annoys me as much
as it does you, I think, to see a picture (or anything else)
praised to heaven because it was published over a famous name. I
think I spoke about that in the POW thread somewhere. If I ran
an online gallery, maybe I’d keep all posts anonymous for
a month or something along those lines, hoping against hope that
they’d be judged on their own merit.
If "judged" is the word I want. I deplore ranking
and rating systems.
All that said, I simply don’t agree with your analysis
of my photo’s composition. My intention, and I believe it
works this way for most viewers, is that the bud of curled lines
in the LRH corner visually explodes into diverging lines, like a
sunburst. Your eyes and mine move in opposite directions –
you see the lines converging, I see them diverging. As to
whether or not this follows "classical principles" (an
arch phrase for "common practice"), or whether it’s
commonly done by others ("successfully" or otherwise)
I care not at all. If it works it works, if not not.
Thanks for the thoughtful criticism and for taking so much
time over it. Believe me, I’m not one of the sensitive
beginners I just described. I’m not unsure of myself, and
I don’t believe I’m being persecuted. I do think
your critiques are vitiated by your use of a pseudonym and
failure to keep a portfolio online. (What is a "back
shooter," anyway?) When two architects, cooks or
photographers disagree on a point of craft in a public forum,
the audience may reasonably look to their work for examples. The
proof of the pudding and all that.
Two points that I made earlier (in the reply which the elf
construed as a flame and deleted from the thread) bear on what
you say below. 1) Though I still haven’t seen your work
(only because this PC isn’t up to loading the page –
will check again this evening) I believe it’s true that
you’ve put yourself in the bind of setting presentation
standards so high ("does not merit public display")
you can’t live up to them. 2) It’s true, too, that I
gave myself sempiternal writer’s block and very likely
missed my true vocation for exactly the same reason.
I get the impression you take photography very seriously.
That’s to your credit, but taking it *too* seriously leads
to paralysis and an empty portfolio. I know very well I’m
not a great photographer and have no prospect of becoming one. I
don’t mind at all making public a photo that’s a
joke, or just so-so, or Strictly For Pretty. It’s my (all
too) educated guess that insouciance was the hallmark of many
artists we call "great," and that it was good for
them. Remember what Ben Jonson said about Shakespeare? "I
remember the players have often mentioned it as an honor to
Shakespeare, that in his writing, whatsoever he penned, he never
blotted out a line. My answer hath been, Would he had blotted a
Ben was wrong. He was a wizard writer himself, but how many
people read Ben Jonson and how many read Shakespeare? There’s
real danger in taking yourself too seriously, asking too much.
(It’s a more common affliction now than it was before the
Romantics made such a religion of art, and especially before
20th-century introspection set in, but that’s a story for
To get back to the business of composition: I understand your
point, that it’s more usual (and more usually successful)
to center a sunburst at least a bit to one side of, and
preferably above, a vertex, and I tried that but preferred this
*sui generis* approach, which takes more risk for more reward. I
think it succeeds, but I don’t insist on it. For better or
worse, I disbelieve in the objective criteria you seem to value.
("Misapplication of the term" etc.)
It would be a sad world if everybody liked the same thing for
the same reasons, or at least it would make me sad. I’ve
put in my years as an ant; I’m a grasshopper now. :-)
My own comments in the POW thread were immoderate and aimed
at one of my betes noires, not at you. It’s a problem with
public forums, I suppose. Saw your note to the elves in their
spinoff thread, and posted this note of my own there:
Moderation in all things, and as I said in the POW thread
I don’t object to being moderated by the elves. Refusing
to publish my words on their server isn’t censorship –
censorship is refusing to let me publish my words on my server.
But I do regret the loss of the lively exchange between me and
Back Shooter, who’s very articulate and makes a good case
for his point of view (though I’ll never share it). We
kept it up person-to-person over several long emails, the sort
of heady stuff I’d enjoy reading even if I hadn’t
been a party to it. Seems a shame there isn’t a
meta-thread for POW’s, perhaps a link to a more
freewheeling forum, one that viewers of the photo wouldn’t
be shown as a matter of course but which would be there for
folks who wanted to pursue a particular argument or just get off
a dumb but passionately held opinion.
Continuity is a leurre,
an illusion that evolved with long-term memory as part of a
survival package. It was useful to our hunting and gathering
predecessors. Us it entraps. As Arthur Clarke once pointed out,
you're not the man you were yesterday – literally. Whoever
I am today will die tonight; somebody else wakes up tomorrow
with my memories. A human life is a pink worm or sausage
stretched through time, all one schnitzel but differently
seasoned depending where you slice it. You could tie it in a
bow, I guess, given the right math or a sufficiently clever
Tony S. posted two images side by side to make a
point. One was Turner's "Slave Ship," the other
Newman's Canadian "Voice of Fire," a sort of pennant
with three vertical stripes.
The juxtaposition of those two paintings is instructive, but
let's face it – few painters are Turners, and the painter
of the pennant probably won't, two hundred years down the road,
be as well known as Turner is now. Ex pede Herculam –
you can recognize Hercules by his big feats.
There's also a point to be made about academic influences on
art, I guess, though to make it I have to tell a personal story
that points up my own shortcomings – Mortimer Snerd meets
the Beaux Arts. Donkey's years ago, in the late unlamented 60's,
I was summoned, along with other teachers of freshmen and
sophomores, to a discussion, at the school's art gallery, of a
recently acquired, recently painted work which we were supposed
to use to inculcate in our sponge-brained charges the principles
of Art Appreciation. The painting had the advantage of being
explainable. It was a sort of bullseye target whose rings were
different colors. They weren't the colors of the spectrum (too
easy) but they were related somehow by a rule I now forget
(thirty-five years of brain cells dissolved in alcohol) –
it was the logarithmic ratio of the wavelengths of light
reflected, or the alphabetical order of the names of the
pigments, or something along those lines. Anyway it made Good
The center of the target, the bullseye itself, was an odd
sort of greenish-gray. I could've understood white, I could've
dug jet black, and of course if I'd done the painting it
would've been blood red, but...greenish-gray? Our
expositor had an answer, and again it made sense, but I don't
think you'd guess it in a hundred years, because to come up with
such an inspiration you have to be a board-certified Artist. It
was made by mixing together what was left of all the other
That apercu or epiphany should've provoked a general
sigh of "Ahhhh!" or possibly cries of "Credo!"
But I'm sorry to say the assembled teachers sat there
grim-lipped, as if in a dentist's waiting room, while the guy in
charge, like professors everywhere, rolled his eyes to heaven at
his audience's inability to Get It.
P.D. admired an "abstract" photo. "It
could be used as evidence that would support Joe's claim that
you're more of an 'artist' than a 'photographer'."
Thanks mucho for critique. I almost said "for your
support," since all these photos got pretty much a goose
egg when exposed to the fickle (I first typed "fuckle")
public. Silly distinction between artist and photographer, of
course. When the ever-worshipful Edward Weston was accorded a
one-man show at the Museum of Modern Art in the 30's, quite a
breakthrough for photography at the time, the original title the
museum chose was "Edward Weston: Artist." Weston was
wroth. He insisted, successfully, that they change it to "Edward
And indeed one of the saving graces of photography has been
that Anybody Can Do It. Keeping it demotic has saved it from
being sequestered in a pimple labeled "Fine Art."
Nobody can resist squeezing a pimple, and who can resist making
fun of, and finally coming to despise, officially certified Art?
The whole point of most modern movements, like Impressionism and
Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism and Dada and the Bauhaus,
not to mention comic strips and film and popular song and of
course photography, was to pop that pimple.
Photographed a dog tick.
Clearly the thing a tick craves most is companionship.
Sandy S. suggested I need to shoot fewer still
studies and more people, animals, landscapes.
I don't disagree with what you say in principle, but I've
discovered that when I do photograph people, animals or
landscapes they wind up looking like still lifes – which
is, in a way, what my photos are all about. As you know, I
sometimes think in French, and in a way all my photos come under
the rubric the French use for still life: "dead nature,"
Posted a sunset photo.
Overcome by a sudden access of sentiment I looked desperately
for a puppy. No puppies. So I tried to find a little boy
standing at a wishing well with his eyes rolled up to heaven, a
mother duck followed by six fuzzy babies, two young people
embracing in Grand Central Station, oblivious to the rush hour
swirling around them (shot at low shutter speed so they stand
out in the flowing crowd), the scaly hands of an old man or
preferably old woman holding a pencil and writing ABC in a
child's exercise book, a wartime president alone in his office,
staring at nothing with empty eyes, crushed by the weight of the
world. Since I was standing at the top of a mountain none of
those things came handy and I had to make do with the sunset.
A very plain, sharp, clean hosta leaf.
The hosta really is an absolutely straight photo –
hosta against blue background – except for my having
perfected the leaf by removing every natural blemish in PS,
which (to my fevered mind) moves the image into the ambit of
A "painterly" cat photo.
in this photo, ditto most of my flower photos, I'm trying to
have it both ways: make a photo that's pretty to look at, and
hint somehow that it's too good to be true. That self-mocking
wink is what I have in mind when I use the epithet "ironic
'Course it may be only in my own head that this stuff
Munich Mike admired some picture-postcard vacation
Thanks, Mike, but there's nothing to distinguish them from
about a billion others. Not that it matters, I guess. If a
disaster out of "Star Trek" destroyed the human race
and most of the stuff we've made, leaving just a few
photographs, then and only then would photos like these,
discovered by archaeologists from a distant colony, eager for
evidence of their ancestors' genius, be feted as super-duper. I
suspect that's why we value most of the otherwise cruddy stuff
we turn up in ancient tombs, made to flatter some politician who
died of a surfeit in the Year of the Big Wind.
Photo of a blood smear.
If I were asked to give advice to beginners, I'd say: Don't
waste blood. Every time I stick or cut myself I run for the
camera. Unfortunately, as you've probably noticed yourself
unless your blood's royal, bleeding tends to stop. The trick is
to keep milking the wound.
Posted a shot
Thanks, all. Al's comment is apropos. Art is debrided by time
and usage. No matter how hard I try, I can't see the Mona Lisa
or even Weston's pepper with the astonishment they deserve, and
which they got when they were new. Stravinsky and Tolkien and
(in later imitations of Cranach &c) Picasso were able to
evoke that feeling by remaking old things in a new idiom, but
there are obvious limits to that approach. Argh, best not to
think overmuch on such things. That way lies paralysis of the
Posted a photo of clouds. From a letter to a
Haw. I just posted the photo and one guy sees "the head
of a duck," another "a snake coiled to strike."
While I was making the pictures, in the parking lot at the
office, during lunch hour, a passing colleague, a nice
ex-European lady, also saw a snake, or (she said) possibly a
dragon. For the life of me I can't see any such. My
imagination's been deficient from birth. Very literal,
pedestrian mind. This may be why I have such difficulty
following the fever dreams of politicians. No "vision
Some strictly technical thoughts on current photo
Of course the S50 is a point-and-shoot and has a tiny CCD
sensor; it can't begin to compete with a CMOS DSLR like the 1Ds,
the 10D, or even my antique D30. Yet the more I think about
current DSLR's the less satisfied I am with them, at least with
DSLR's that mimic 35mm SLR's. Two problems stand out:
1) They perpetuate the stupid 2/3 aspect ratio, which has
crippled small-format photography since the beginning. I don't
know why Oscar Barnack chose that ratio, but it was a mistake.
It forces makers to build a lens that covers the long dimension,
which means big lenses, especially zooms, and big compromises in
optical design. Yet few subjects apart from landscapes and
langourous ladies fit well into 2/3, and it's hard to use
vertically. 3/4 is a far better ratio, and that's become the
standard for cheap digicams. That's what I'd prefer.
2) Loss of resolution. Except for the expensive 1Ds (and the
failed Kodak and Contax), DSLR's have sensors of roughly APS
size. Yet you're obliged to use standard lenses with 24 x 36mm
coverage. As a result you're effectively reducing every lens's
definition by 3/5. And of course you also have trouble getting
Some new lenses are being designed for the smaller format,
but it'll take a long time for Canon or Nikon to duplicate their
35mm offerings in miniature. Meanwhile of course there are no
third-party offerings, no second-hand market, etc.
A people photo made at the Museum of Natural
Part of the fun of visiting any museum, but especially the
Museum of Natural History, is the living anthropology exhibit,
i.e. the museum-goers, most of them kids or people with kids. I
don't mean this ironically. It's fascinating to watch the
interactions, or the solitary behavior, of these complex social
animals. Also their big shoes fascinate me. And the happy
rapport the males seem to have with their fat.
Put up some straight nature shots. J.D. took
exception, and mentioned that "Three elements are needed
for a good photograph. Good subject, good light, and good
composition, all of which are open to interpretation."
I have a problem with dogma like, "Three elements are
needed for a good photograph: good subject, good light, good
composition," just as I do with the Buddha's "Eightfold
Path." (Eight elements needed for a good life: right view,
right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood,
right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.) Are you
(or Siddhartha) sure there isn't a fourth element, or a ninth?
Good story, maybe, or good color, or good exposure, or good
focus, or good perspective, or good technique, or good bokeh, or
good message? Or right hobby, or right diet, or right drugs, or
right knowledge, or right sex, or right net worth? And what's
right, or what's good? "Open to interpretation" is a
modern synonym for "meaningless." Consider how many
mutually exclusive meanings have been read into, say, the First
Amendment. "Good light" is like "good English."
Is it good English to say, I dunno, "This was the most
unkindest cut of all"? Is the last chapter of "Ulysses"
The usual answer is, "Nobody can define X, but I know it
when I see it." In the 40's everybody knew what good light
was you could see it in every National Geographic photo and
every publicity picture out of Hollywood. Then came the 50's,
the Robert-Frank generation, with 35mm and "available
light" and nighttime street photography. By 1970 even the
National Geographic wouldn't print
photos. As for good subject matter, try Joel-Peter Witkin or
So I'm with you on specifics (about these photos, which are
pretty pawky stuff) but we part ways when it comes to dogmatic
generalities, in which I devoutly disbelieve.
A thread on photo.net was called "Is There
Digital Bigotry?" And in fact many who posted to the thread
said that digital photography wasn't photography – it was
"graphics" or some such.
Words become guilty or glorious by association. "Tragedy"
comes from classic Greek for "goat song." (Early
dramas replaced rituals that involved tearing a goat to pieces.)
During the Renaissance the word took on the shine of ancient
culture, so folks could object that Shakespeare didn't write
"real tragedies" because the action didn't all happen
in one place on one day, as required by Aristotle. A few years
later the Romantics decided that plays like "King Lear"
were the living embodiment of True Tragedy. Pretty soon
everybody wanted to die tragically, since it was super cool, and
now the media routinely call death a tragedy. Photography, that
mechanical manipulation of chemicals and light, was dismissed
for generations as "not art, just...photography." (A
case can be made that the realistic paintings of the early 19th
century fell out of fashion because they looked too much like
photography, not enough like art.) At some point during the
generation of Edward Weston and Cartier-Bresson it was
discovered that photography is a kind of art after all, or at
least "art photography" is. (Oddly, I have yet to see
anybody advertise an "art painting.") It's a good
sign, I think, that "photographer" has become an
honorific, like "writer" or "sculptor," and
that so many photographers say the mechanical manipulations of
Photoshop don't deserve to be called photography.
In fact every photograph is manipulated. Things don't really
look that way – two dimensional, often black and white,
with people two inches tall inhabiting a world of dots, doomed
to smile forever.
But that's beside the point, which is that the worst sin an
artist – sorry, you know what I mean – the worst sin
an artist armed with new technology can commit is to imitate
what was done with the old technology. What you call the new
stuff doesn't matter; if things work out, whatever you call it
will become a badge of honor.
Submitted the infamous "Mr. Bun" to a
critique forum and raised a ruckus, getting myself (temporarily)
kicked off the site. Comments were, to say the least,
intemperate. I'll paraphrase them and copy my replies.
A lady complained: "Really sick." Told me I
should grow up, had obviously removed the photo to hide my name,
etc. (It was removed when I was kicked off.) "PP" is
the name of the website.
Some folks lead such happy lives that the sight of a dead
animal shocks them. I doubt this photo would get highly ionized
comments from viewers in Africa or Afghanistan. Which is a good
thing, of course. When you're well fed you can argue matters of
If PP's rules listed dead bunnies as a no-no I wouldn't have
posted "Mr. Bun," just as I wouldn't post a photo of a
ham on an Islamic website. In my book one of the worst sins is
impoliteness – for example, telling an old man to grow up.
I thought of removing the photo, but of course after reading
your comment I can't do so. Cheer up: maybe I'll be ostracized
Nothing daunted, she replied that she had seen her share
of "death and decease" and that she was a cancer
survivor who didn't need to be told she was impolite.
Speaking of "death and decease," I'm not quite sure
how your having cancer amounts to a critique of my photo. The
rabbit shown here succumbed to trauma.
You don't consider it impolite to tell a grown man he's
childish, "really sick," tasteless, and a coward who
hides his identity? Your politeness threshold must be high, so
you won't mind being told that too many of my friends didn't
survive cancer for me to be much impressed that you did.
When argument fails, show your scars.
The next is too tasty to paraphrase. "I'm an ALL
ANIMAL LOVER and this really pissed me off. I know the facts of
life and death but this is too much ..."
Not quite sure what an "all animal lover" is, and
would rather not speculate, but I take your point. I loved my
mother and father so much I refused to look at them when they
If you know the facts of life and death, I wish you'd tell me
what they are. I've lived a long time and expect to die pretty
soon, but I still don't know the facts.
Nearly everybody said that I and my photo were
Most of the comments here say the photo lacks taste, but can
that be right? A glass of water is tasteless; a glass of whiskey
D.H. said the photo was not only tasteless but "uncalled
"Uncalled for"? Surely this site invites people to
post their photos. Or if you mean "unnecessary," the
comments I see here suggest a crying need for my kind of irony.
D.H. replied, "Irony? Try Stupidity!"
Tut tut, Donnie. If I'm stupid, what are you?
"Blocked!" was D.H.'s response, which left me
puzzled. Anyway, a Canadian commenter said the photo was "at
the very limit of good taste."
As I suggested in an earlier reply, taste is very important
to me. GOOD taste is a personal matter. I like caviar, but many
of my friends say it tastes awful.
Another didn't like the purple background.
Glad to see a critical comment, the first so far. I once read
an article by a famous critic – can't remember whether it
was Susan Sontag or Clement Greenberg – attacking one of
Picasso's most famous paintings. They didn't like the purple
Finally, M.G. wrote a rather sympathetic and sensible
note: "'Tasteless'? Well, good taste was obviously not part
of your program."
No, good taste isn't in my program. Public taste varies from
place to place and time to time, like fashions in makeup. I've
seldom been in sync with it. I don't worry about my lack of good
taste any more than I worry about not wearing lipstick.
I deny that this photo, or any other photo I've made, has a
message or even a meaning. I simply want people to see things
differently, as if for the first time, and perhaps to think
about something they never thought about, notice something
they've looked at a few million times but never saw. Gertrude
Stein (I invoke famous names not because I'm famous or want to
be famous but because there's not much point in parables about
Harold "Peanut" Krezenski, who runs the newspaper
stand at the town bus stop), asked about the meaning of her line
"A rose is a rose is a rose..." (originally printed in
a circle so it had no beginning and no end), said she believed
she'd made people see a cliché as something more, that
she'd made the rose fresh for the first time since Shakespeare.
(Modesty wasn't her weakness.)
What's wrong with this picture? Is it really disgusting? I
wish every viewer would stare at it until it becomes banal. As a
friend of mine said when I showed it to him and told him lots of
viewers said it spoiled their appetite, "In Afghanistan or
Vietnam they'd probably ask you for the recipe." He got the
Others will find other points in it. Most won't find
anything. Most people are asleep, so soundly asleep no shock can
wake them. They'll die in their sleep, won't even notice that
they're dead. I envy them. Some artists honor the sleepers and
compose only lullabyes. Others, the unkind ones to whose company
I aspire, use irony to trick the audience awake. Such artists
should probably be strangled at birth. Plato thought so.
My dear friend Fiertel, who's also a Canadian
sculptor and photographer, objected to the poster-like colors
and look of a recent photo. Here's my reply, which I didn't
write for public consumption but which makes a kind of public
I wouldn't want you of all people to think that my fondness
for glaring flat colors is just a symptom of twisted color
faculties. When I took up, or rather re-took-up, photography in
'98 (not even six years ago, just fancy that), I did my thing in
the woods mostly. Figured I would retreat from a hostile world
into the more frankly hostile wilderness. But it didn't work out
that way. I got the idea of doing nature photography as though
it was studio fashion photography, partly as a reaction against
the stupid websites that wouldn't publish any photo which showed
"the hand of man." I began to move in a direction I've
long associated with old age, the direction of artifice. (When
he was my age, Yeats wrote about this in "Sailing to
Byzantium," where he says he wants to be no natural thing
but rather like a bird of hammered gold and clockwork that sings
to the lords and ladies of Byzantium.) I want to make it clear
that my photos are not imitations of natural objects but natural
objects in their own right, with their own color and logic. Too
good to be true, natural only in the sense we hear at funerals:
"He looks so natural!"
So however "realistic" my stuff is – and I
try to make it super-real, realer than real, surreal, by keeping
images sharp and well defined – it looks somehow fake-o,
studi-o. This is Intentional. Death is more perfect than life. I
do lots of still lifes in the French spirit – French for
"still life" being, of course, "dead nature"
– nature morte.
Whereas mit der Viertel, even your raunchiest most distorted
images are full of life and the approximations and collisions
and irritability that define life almost. Like your sculpture –
doesn't look quite like a bod, but has earth in the mouth and
dirt under the nails and is in all ways organic and a living
thing. My stuff being purposely cold, sterile, unfeeling,
distant, dramatic. Yours being lyrical, with no obvious
separation of the artist from the art. Mine minus the artist,
who's presumably bored and sanding his nails in the wings. Yours
supercharged with your own blood, sweat and tears. The blood in
mine being merely a decorative element.
From a letter to Pete.
I,OTOH, take pleasure in stories where the problems are
entirely trivial, maybe because it distracts me from the real
problems folks can't do anything about.
Virtually all of P.G. Wodehouse is like that (except for some
early stories), about the shocks and embarrassment suffered by
Bertie in the course of a life spent living in expensive digs
with his gentleman's personal gentleman, or visiting the vast
country estates of his rich friends and relatives, or traveling
to New York for a six-month's stay to get away from his
overbearing aunts. (We never hear anything about his
parents, both presumably long dead.)
Wodehouse said he was writing "musical comedies without
the music," and never pretended otherwise. When the Irish
writer Sean O'Casey called him "English literature's
performing flea," Wodehouse used the phrase "Performing
flea" as the title for his autobiography. And he's still
read and enjoyed today, while O'Casey is a footnote to the Irish
Literary Revival (who dat?).
Some folks likewise get off on the Busby Berkeley stuff,
which obviously had great appeal in the 30's because it gave
folks a ninety-minute vacation to a happier world. A biography
of Vladimir Nabokov was wisely entitled, "Escape into
Of course PhD's have been done, in the thousands, on this
topic. Do artists (or whatever you want to call them) do what
the oyster does, turn irritating grit into pearls? My answer to
that question, allowing myself the guilty pleasure of a
generalization the way I might eat a Belgian chocolate, is Yes.
True, in modern times there's been a huge vogue for
reality-based art, much praised because instead of being
"escapist" (bad) it "raises our consciousness"
(good), especially on social issues (best). Dickens, Zola,
Steinbeck, etc. But I believe the appeal of that stuff is still
based on healing the hurt, though as a counter-irritant rather
than as an emollient. After the first or thousandth time, nobody
needs to be told that being poor or stupid or downtrodden is a
bummer, yet storieand art that depict injustice or unfairness or
poverty or such are always popular. (12/8/03)
From recent letters to Neil.
wish I could work with nude models. I'm sure I could do
interesting stuff. I don't want the kind of models you do; what
I want are elderly and/or fat people, females by preference. For
starters I'd photograph them in cheesecake poses. Unfortunately
I'm pretty sure there are few women over sixty or seventy who'd
be willing to go along with the gag. However, I'm quite serious
about it – it's not just something funny to say. If I were
really as Boho as I like to think I am, I'd have no trouble
talking some people into it. But... As ever, my neuroses get in
the way of accomplishing anything. (2/3/2004)
over my stuff, I think I have a number of good shots from the
last six years, which is how long I've been (back) at it. Odd to
see how few pix I was doing at first. Last year, with digital,
476 photos on my personal website, of which probably quite a few
As for amateur status, I take "amateur"
in the 18th-century sense, in light of its derivation from the
latin "amator" ("lover"), the amateur being
somebody who does something for the love of it rather than for
profit. Of course that argues a certain financial independence.
The big writers and scientists, though not artists and
musicians, of the 18th century were amateurs in this
sense, usually guys who had inherited enough money to be able to
spend their time collecting old manuscripts or fossils or
writing poetry or satires or traveling around discovering new
species. Actually earning money this way would've been
considered being "in trade," a horrible blot on the
old escutcheon. (They all had escutcheons.) (2/4/2004)
I get older (and older and older) I worry less about the
correctness of my opinions. Have been reviewing the big new
coffee-table book of Henri Cartier-Bresson's photos, probably
the biggest collection of them ever printed. And I'm confirmed
in the opinion I expressed to you before, that nearly all of
HCB's work would, if published under another name, excite no
comment and find no market. Certainly a handful of his pix, the
thirty or forty most famous, are super-good, almost superhuman.
But it would be silly to worship everything he did, since by far
most of it is of only passing interest.
Even more sadly,
circa 1975 he hung up his Leica and went back to his first love,
pencil and pen. The book reproduces lots of his drawings. Maybe
I'm just a Philistine, but I don't see any talent in them.
January, Gordon Simpson of the UK weighed in on “Mr Bun,”
suggesting that “no decent person would consider this a
right, I guess. I don't pretend to be a decent or worthy person
-- discovered long ago that I'll never pass for one of the boys.
Then again, when I see what decent, worthy persons did to the
twentieth century, I don't feel too bad.
these comments again, I notice that all the objections come from
the USA and the UK. Wonder why that is? (2/8/2004)
Coggan of Australia came to my defense, sort of. My
taste" is the art of keeping the demons behind a screen, a
silk screen charmingly decorated with paintings of Disney
monsters like Sulley and Mike. For example, in 1946, when even
"prolonged kissing" was banned by film censors,
Hitchcock made a movie ("Notorious") featuring a woman
forced to copulate with a Nazi in furtherance of a political
agenda. Since no sex acts were shown, or even mentioned except
in the most oblique terms, the movie passed the "good
taste" test. On the other hand, a movie showing a legally
married, loving couple actually Doing It would have been, and in
puritanical places still is, in bad taste.
death, the two great levers of evolution, are too strong for
some viewers. They can't bear to look at the real things, but
they'll pay big bucks to watch their shadows dance on the wall.
wondered why Americans protested “Mr Bun,” since
they were so fond of grand-guignol movies and TV, and saw so
much gore in the daily news.
Philip, you're on the other side of the world. Photos from Iraq
and Palestine are carefully picked over by stateside editors:
the blood 'n guts component is elided. What's shown on European
TV, much less by Al-Jazeera, would be considered in the worst
possible taste. If such images were published here, the word
"gratuitous" would certainly bob up on the op-ed page
of the New York Times.
This isn't new. War photos from
Vietnam, Korea and WW2 were generally quite tame. When I was a
boy I was amazed at the snapshots brought home by men who'd
fought in the Pacific -- they were so much more, well, explicit
than the stuff I'd seen in Life Magazine.
about the Victorians is well taken. During the reign of that
dear old queen anti-sodomy laws were passed in England, but they
applied only to men (like Oscar Wilde). It's said nobody had the
courage to tell Victoria that some ladies were guilty of a
congruent sin. (2/9/2004)
J.P. Zorn posted a seemingly banal photo of a suburban
D.M., I relish this kind of landscape. Helps, maybe, to think of
it as an image beamed back by a probe sent here by MASA (Martian
Areologists and Science Animals). It's a landscape full of human
influence, though you don't see the people involved. A
landscaped landscape. The low contrast is matched by
low-intensity graphical appeal, if you see what I mean. Nothing
about it shouts. The music is barely audible. The poetry doesn't
rhyme. Yet we get enough out of it to make us suspect there's
something behind the image.
It's often been pointed out
that a lightly clad woman is more enticing to men than a naked
one. This partakes of the same principle. (2/11/2004)
I think (we shall see) that I have the true clue on B&W
film/developer now. There's lots of mystification and
obfuscation, but to me it seems pretty simple. Different
combinations of film and developer and time and exposure give
you different looks-and-feels. So find a look-and-feel you like
and go for it. And that's what I've done. I'm tired of
Bit of a chore, shooting and developing
and scanning and Photoshopping B&W film. But one makes these
These new photos aren't easy to like. Ugly
in (I hope) the same way lots of North European woodcuts circa
1500 are ugly. Different from my too-gorgeous color fotos of
flowers and beheaded bunnies. More honest in a way. Stare into
an asshole, the asshole stares back.
Remember I'm trying
to do without obvious composition, and in these recent fotos I'm
also doing without color. Tour de force if it works. If not,
B&W 's role has changed. Until the 60's you expected
photos to be sans color unless the photographer made a special
effort. Even TV, if memory serves, was mostly colorless. Then
color arrived in carload lots, cheaper and better, till by the
end of the 70's B&W was unspeakably antique and dead, dead,
dead. It's only in the last few years we've seen a
black-and-white revival. A whole generation grew up in color,
and many of them find B&W refreshing because it's so
schematic, so abstract, so stylized, so...artistic, so...CHIC. I
mean, who but somebody with artsy-fartsy pretensions would take
the trouble to find black and white film and chemicals on the
Internet, nd develop the stuff and scan it and print it, at
every step of the way using equipment designed for color, so you
have to turn off the defaults. (My Epson 2000P printer's
instructions say simply, don't print black and white. I set my
B&W images to RGB mode before printing them.)
universally available color didn't kill B&W after all, any
more than photography killed painting - instead the elder
technique has acquired real panache. (3/2/2004)
Arthur B. responded: “I understand - the more
difficult things are, the more desirable and valuable. It only
Exactly! Exactly! Digital
photography (and video for movies) is being scorned as cheating
– it's too easy to make a pretty picture. Likewise,
photography itself was dismissed as cheating by artists who
slaved for years to learn how to make a likeness, then slaved
over the product itself until it looked as much as possible like
a color photograph, then varnished it. And Old Masters painting
in oils were derided by still Older Masters who refused to do
anything but tempera on hardwood, who were dismissed as amateurs
by the Eldest Masters who applied gold leaf and cow's urine to
So, naturalists observe, a flea
Hath smaller fleas
that on him prey
And they have smaller still to bite 'em
so proceeds, ad infinitum.
Last week I heard an interview on NPR in the course of
which Chuck Close said: “Inspiration is for amateurs.”
I'm a musical snob. When I finally scratched together
enough spare change to buy, at the age of 19, my first LP, I
plunked down the money for Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire.
Nevertheless I enjoyed the early music of Robert Zimmerman (“Bob
Dylan”) when it was sung by Joan Baez. Putting a
chain-smoker's sour tongue into the sweet mouth of a soprano
made a sweet-and-sour sound I couldn't resist. The same
principle works for art in general – I'll spare you a
million examples, but I try to apply it myself, when I can, to
make bitter sweets. (3/27/2004)