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The Picture or the Experience

Updated: Mar 24


 What are photographs about . . . ?

 

Are you really interested in the interior of this old empty house? Or is it a reason to use camera movements and minus development?

                                                               Anonymous

 

The thing I hate the most about advertising is that it attracts all the bright, creative and ambitious young people, leaving us mainly with the slow and self-obsessed to become our artists.. Modern art is a disaster area.. . .

 

All artists are willing to suffer for their work. But why are so few prepared to learn to draw?

                                                                                 Banksy

 

I’d been Summoned

 

Putting it very generously, in 1979, the “MFA photo” program at RIT was creatively suspect. I came from a shared, open, intense community of painters, artists, and teachers. At RIT I found myself in the middle of a sullen pack of self-justifying and ill-mannered . . . what? Photographers? Gracious. Almost all of the teachers were astonishingly insignificant. One reminded me of Captain Kangaroo. The school itself, and the physical atmosphere in “Bldg 7” particularly, was about as spiritually nurturing as a Titan missile silo.

 

But there was one teacher who was completely unique, and very special. He’d worked with Minor White during White’s Rochester days. I won’t give his name – he wouldn’t want me to. He had a group of students who believed in him, and followed him. One in particular, Judith, became a very dear friend of mine. Once introduced to this particular coterie, I bristled at their aloof superiority. Judith encouraged me to stay the course. By winter I’d learned better. What I learned is that there are layers and layers of vital richness beneath what most people learn about art, and especially photography;[1] that there is a distinct and vital difference between good and bad work, and that this difference could be learned. Once you’d learned it, if you struggled to make interesting photographs, you’d certainly know what was lacking. Absorbing this was very important. Obviously, I’m not talking about technique here either. Technique is form. What makes great work is content.

 

You can go to RIT and read my thesis. Among other things, it tells the story of my time there. The MFA chair thought it was good because he found someone to read it to him.

 

The Horse Picture

 

My daughter is a horse trainer today. She’s been around horses since she was 8. As a little girl, she’d often spend entire days at her horse barn taking care of horses and riding them. When she was 12, she showed me a picture of a horse looking out the stall window. It went beyond being just a picture of a horse, it was a universal statement, not just about horses; but something far more. She wasn’t even aware of it. To her it was just a record picture of one of the horses. I thought it was the greatest picture of a horse I’d ever seen.

 

Willingly and unwillingly, I’ve been around horses for the last 39 years. I’ve met many professional equine photographers at horse shows, and looked at hundreds of pictures of horses. None of them came close to this picture. Why? Why was this one so special? -- this picture, taken by a 12 year old girl with a point and shoot film camera?

Weegee

 

Arthur Felig was Weegee – a news photographer who did his best work in New York City in the 1930s and early 40s, very often at night. He lived across from the police station in a 1 room flat, and had a police scanner there and in his car. He created the stereotype of the night prowling news photographer: the hard-boiled, slightly-soiled character gnawing on a cheap cigar, clutching the ubiquitous Speed Graphic

 

Weegee grew up very poor in New York City. He needed to live by his wits to survive. By the time he was earning a living through photography, he knew the City very well: flophouses, cathouses, illegal gambling (and other) houses; the dive bars, bookies, pimps, bums, and outcasts. His familiarity with New York was largely responsible for his success. A common story was that Weegee knew where an incident was before the cops knew. Often it was because he had friends who knew before the cops knew.

 

You’ve seen Weegee’s work: killers, transvestites, prostitutes, murder victims, an unconscious half-dressed man in a police stations; dwarfs, drunk women in evening gowns, bawdyhouse singers, and countless pictures of shooting victims lying in pools of blood. Weegee’s pictures reach beyond being mere records, or news photographs.

 

Diane Arbus was a wealthy New Yorker from an aristocratic family. She worked in fashion photography for a time and then morphed into . . . what? Something that Lisette Model thought she should do, I guess . . . She took pictures of “misfits and freaks.” She didn’t work with them, or live with them, or spend time to understand them. She invaded their lives and manipulated them: nudists, children dressed as grownups, people caught looking ugly, people frowning, kids in costumes posed like oddities, strange looking twins, mongoloids, autism sufferers; as well as transvestites, lesbians, and dwarfs; and other pathetic-looking subjects. (I’m not saying these people were intrinsically pathetic, but that Arbus’s goal was to present them as pathetic.)

 

What’s really there in the work of Weegee and Arbus? What if we really look at it, and not parrot what’s been written? – what’s been rather badly written.

 

Weegee’s work is durable, universal, important – most of all, it’s sincere. Sincere is the operative word. Look at the picture of the dwarf drinking a beer on New Years Eve. He barely notices that Weegee is there. It isn’t because it was so dark and Weegee used a flash. It’s because Weegee knew him, the little guy had seen Weegee hundreds of times, as did many of Weegee’s subjects. All these people were a part of Weegee’s world, a world he’d known all his life: his life – his experience. Weegee’s photographs of them are incidental, an afterthought almost. Ultimately, the photographs didn’t make Weegee important or vital, the experience did. He photographed his life.

 

Diane Arbus went out into the world looking for photography. She researched where to find unfortunate souls, or unusual lifestyles; elbowed her way into those environments and photographed. She’s an intruder, an outsider, a shameless voyeur; doing the photographic equivalent of sniggering and taunting. The pictures are without depth, they’re surface level; they exist for fear, horror, shock. Arbus had no life, no experience in those environments. She was there only to get pictures. Her pictures are about photography - nothing else. Nothing genuine or heartfelt exists in them. Arbus killed herself in 1971 and immediately became a legend. But however much she’s lauded and written about, her work remains negligible. She simply projected her own obsessions. And all of it was regrettable.

 

Weegee is important because he was important. His experiences were important, so his work is important. Nothing about Arbus was important, except maybe that her life was a dire warning.

 

Andrew Wyeth

 

Painting has to get back to its original goal, examining the inner lives of human beings.

                                            Pierre Bonnard

 

Photographers should study Andrew Wyeth before the work of any photographers. And primarily to learn his philosophy and working methods.

 

Andrew Wyeth is a very important American painter. The New York City taste-mongers and gallery trend-specialists loved to disparage him. Hollow performers like Pollock and DeKooning, and their ilk (all of whom couldn’t draw) hated him. But the public loves Wyeth. At one 1967 exhibit, the Whitney Museum in NYC has 4,000 visitors per day to see his work. The usual daily total was about 400 people. This never happened with Pollock, Kline, or Rothko, or those other supposed landmark painters.[2] Perhaps even someone with a tin ear can tell when trumpet players blow sour notes, eh?

 

From the 1940’s until the 1970’s, Wyeth painted primarily in 2 specific locations: The Kuerner farm in Chadds Ford, Pa; and the Olsen farm in Cushing, Maine. At Kuerners he painted everything, literally everything: fences, melting snow, livestock, portraits, landscapes from every conceivable angle, countless pictures of the house, tools for animal slaughter, the spring fed trough, dead deer hanging, rifles hanging, blood sausage hanging – everything. At Olsens he did the same. Look at the paintings.

 

Did Wyeth work at these locations for 30 plus years just to paint pictures? Did he invade them or exploit them? Or were these places something else to him? Were they something else than just subjects?

 

The paintings and drawings are arresting, vivid, jarring for a tangible reason. What?

 

 

Photography that’s about Photography

 

I’m afraid Rance, that you will never rise in the force. That head of yours should be for use as well as ornament. . . . There is no use of arguing about it now, I tell you it is so.

                                                      A Study In Scarlet

 

A southwest landscape, now considered a great photograph, is a prime example of a photograph that’s about photography. It certainly has all the standard ingredients and traditional virtues of the large format, “art” photograph: sharp detail throughout, technically noisy contrast, mountains, a black sky – dramatic slanting sunlight. Just about every large format photographer wishes he or she had taken it. The form is exquisite. The content? If we’re being honest, it’s shallow.

 

But let’s take Adams’s photographs of Yosemite[3] as another example. This is where he approaches Wyeth’s thinking. The Yosemite pictures show a love and a veneration that’s completely unique; even the most seemingly obvious of subjects have a vital pulse and an emotional command. Half Dome, Merced River, Winter is the ideal example. That picture really should be a postcard. It should be - in reality - what much of his non-Yosemite work is. It should not have the profound layers of richness that it does in the content. Something else exists in the Yosemite work.

 

All of Adam’s Yosemite photographs have this quality. Yosemite was his great love. Adams pursued some sort of meaning and purpose in Yosemite, and the pictures reveal that. His other work was certainly well intentioned, but it lacks what the Yosemite pictures have. I’d say the distinction is quite definite. The other work is about photography. The Yosemite work is about his life and experience, what was remarkable and unique. And it’s a shame Adams never understood this the way Wyeth did. He could’ve saved massive amounts of time and money.

*

 

The man who has no inner life is a slave of his surroundings,

as the barometer is the obedient servant of the air.

Lisa Alther

 

Fred Picker once unabashedly wrote in a Zone VI newsletter that he took a 4 day trip with 30 8x10 holders and made 2 pictures, viz –

 

Last week I spent four days meandering back roads . . . On the trip I covered probably eight hundred miles, went over several passes, through many small towns, past numerous ancient hill farms, and walked along a dozen rivers. I had a fine time, but I got home with twenty-eight of my thirty 8x10 holders still filled with unexposed film. I got but two pictures (but one’s a mermaid!)[4] 

 

How can you spend that much time driving and looking and come back with only 2 pictures?

 

Because he was looking for pictures. He was looking for subject matter. He was looking for something to use his photography on. The purpose of his photography was photography. Overwhelmingly, his pictures were unimportant because his experience was unimportant.[5] There’s nothing intrinsically important about photography – at all. What’s important is only ever what is inside us.

 

Charles Pratt

 

You must develop a rich inner life to enjoy life altogether.

                                                      Gabrielle Bernstein

 

When you look at Charles Pratt’s work, you feel as though here is someone you could spend days talking to and afterwards you’d feel light as a feather. Would you honestly want to spend an afternoon with Diane Arbus?

 

Pratt viewed life through an affliction-proof prism. When photographed by Pratt, the most oppressive subjects become as playful as a kitten.

 

Pratt’s New York City streets aren’t dirty and peopled by ill-fated souls, they’re bright and alive – a bit of surprise always lurks somewhere. The filthy New Jersey industrial marshlands and Pulaski Skyway become scenes of  . . . what? Majesty? Affirmation? - - and those delightful, quirky elements within - the telephone wires, blinking lights, the car headlights. Pratt’s people smile, they’re delighted by him. His landscapes are never laden with pretense and “the natural scene!” They’re unobtrusive and quiet. A white rock surrounded by tall grasses is just as universal and “otherworldly” as something that Delacroix might have done. Pratt’s is whimsical, open, caring; and powerful.

 

His work is always like a pleasant afternoon. And it’s discreet. Like a Renoir film, you must pay very close attention. Pratt doesn’t crack you over the head with noisy prints: blinding clouds and black skies, unrelenting razor sharp detail, and obvious manipulation. Nothing is mannered or fussy. He enriches you, lifts your spirit, makes you grin.

 

Was it because he went into the world looking for pictures?

 

Conclusion

 

I met many “famous” photographers at RIT. Most of them were woefully unimpressive people. Some of them were so insecure that even asking a question risked provoking an argument. Stepping back and assessing these people, you could see that something was off. I realized that very often what’s written, perpetuated, and revered about these “greats” isn’t accurate. Maybe they’re not so great . . .

 

Truth is truth. Steiglitz and Strand both had considerable “private income” – lots of money. Steiglitz could afford to exert plenty of influence with his privately funded galleries and pamphlets. Have you objectively looked at his pictures apart from his legend?

 

For a lifetime, Paul Strand perpetuated his own mythology. He could afford to. Would you honestly say that his work is interesting if you weren’t supposed to think so? That his experience was important? Edward Steichen? We never heard about him because Beaumont Newhall hated him. But did you ever consider that his work may have been infinitely more interesting than either Steiglitz or Strand? Look at the pictures.

 

Being famous doesn’t mean your work is any good. Having a book published doesn’t mean it’s worth reading either. But if you’re a photographer dead set on being famous; then having plenty of money, and friends who self-finance galleries, or friends who write history-of-photography books helps quite a bit.[6] 

 

I have a photograph that Judith took in the late 1970’s. It’s a 5x7 contact print made on Azo paper from a so-so negative. It’s gray on gray. “Fine print” mannequins would look at it and say, “I’d like to see a little more detail here,” or some similar rubbish.[7]

 

The photograph is of a tree at the edge of a field in summer. All my life I’ve been trying to come close doing something even remotely close to it. A lifetime’s emotions are in that photograph. The picture is layers and layers deep - as magnificent as Grand Illusion. Some people have an inner life so rich that they can almost present their entire inner life in one photograph. If you’re lucky you may see one in your lifetime.

 

(I didn’t mention Atget in this article. I don’t need to, do I?)

 

AG 7/23


[1] The difference is akin to the difference between a movies like Renoir’s Grand Illusion or Rules of the Game, and, say, Citizen Kane. Kane is considered a landmark film; dazzling form,  but content-wise it’s rather shallow. But you might spend a lifetime pondering the Renoir films and still not grasp everything . . .

[2] Some abstract expressionist painters are said to be good. Just not these “giants.”

[3] The personal work, not the commercial work.

[4] By mermaid he means an interesting picture - a “wonderful” picture he used to call it.

[5] There was one vital stage – that early to mid 70’s White Plains period. His enthusiasm crackled; it was the time when he willingly let Caponigro influence him. In that brief window, his emotional center may have emerged, but it didn’t. I know why, but I’d never publish it.

[6] I’m not denigrating anyone’s contribution. There are just layers and layers of richness that we’re never told about, especially in America. We know nothing of the Japanese view of nature either, or their tea ceremony.

[7] If you don’t understand something important, make what you do understand important.

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