Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Sturm und Drang

Frost and fire. Back garden at breakfast time...

In what is practically the only photo-book review of any seriousness that I can recall seeing this year in the Guardian (Landscape and Industry, by Michael Collins, Dewi Lewis 2014, reviewed 27/12/14), Ian Jack quotes the photographer on why he insists on a naturally soft, diffused light in his photographs: that "pale, English light" helps avoid "any impression of sentimentality or drama that would be created by saturated colours or stark shadows."  Later on he quotes Collins on how photography is "the visual art par excellence because it is wholly about looking.  There is no mark-making.  Everything is observed."

This is a very familiar credo.  I think Jem Southam (a photographer for whom I have the highest regard) may have been its original British practitioner, back in the 1980s, and he has had many followers and imitators since.  In its way, it's our native version of the arguments of the New Topographic movement in the States.  Obviously, I respect the impulse to avoid "landscape porn" for whatever reasons, especially when it allows for -- in Collins' words again -- the intrusion of "unsolicited, unimagined and unwelcome" details.  Photography "can show you the things you couldn't make up."  All true.

And yet...  I do wonder about this phobia for sentiment and drama, this dismissal of "mark-making" and simply making things up.  Poor old painters, eh? Such fools!  No wonder so many of them have chucked the brushes for concepts and video installations.  But, after a good run of 30 years as one of several art-photo orthodoxies, I'm afraid I'm now seeing a doctrinaire puritanism at work there, one that is reflexively and rather pointlessly self-limiting and self-deprecating and which can be, dare I say it, rather drab.  I am reminded of a previous Christmas post, A Day Like Any Other Day.  Is it really such a very superior strategy to stand aloof from the playpen where other so-called "artists" are splashing about with paint, making marks with pencils and charcoal, and hanging out some all-too-human emotions where everyone can see them, for contrast and comparison?  What once seemed necessary now seems a bit tired, a bit timid.

For a contrary view, here's Duane Michals:
...the essential point being that photography is an art but by and large as it is practiced by most photographers, will be remembered as a minor art because it lacks the essential ingredient of all major arts which is invention. Photography is essentially an act of recognition by street photographers, not an act of invention. Photographers might respond to an old man’s face, or an Arbus freak, or the way light hits a building—and then they move on. Whereas in all the other art forms, take William Blake, everything that came to that paper never existed before. It’s the idea of alchemy, of making something from nothing. I feel the more a photographer intrudes into the photograph, the more he creates. But people expect less from photography than they do from the other arts. They’re quite happy to simply reproduce someone’s face and they assume that that represents the person and if that person looks attractive, so much the better. It’s the most democratic of all the arts in that anyone can take a photograph or has had their picture taken; so accessible that we don’t demand as much and that’s what makes me angry.

Duane Michals, interviewed in Bomb Magazine, 1987
This is clearly an argument that will never be won, either way, but the pendulum is always swinging, and I sense it swinging towards Duane at the moment.

Now, as it happens, my new toy this Christmas is a wireless Wacom "Pen & Touch" graphical tablet, which is superbly responsive to variations in applied pressure, enabling one to gratify that pesky impulse to make expressive marks and muck about with paint and pencils, but without any concerns about cleaning up, leaving the tops off tubes, or running out of paper.  Crikey, pleasure without compensatory pain...  To what decadence might it all lead?  However, pace my more photo-purist readers, I fear there may be rather more of "making stuff up" around here in future (visually!) than heretofore.

Besides, avoiding a bit of Sturm und Drang at this time of year is close to impossible, and why on earth would you want to?

None-too-quiet sunset at Blackpits Copse

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