Friday, May 1, 2015


One can, of course, talk about whether a photo depicts a true thing or not, as in journalism. I'm not terribly interested in that.

What I am interested in, at the moment, is whether a photograph or a body of them "reads" as "true". Is there some ineffable quality of truth-to-the-subject inherent in this body of work, or not?

This is, essentially, what P.H. Emerson disliked about H.P. Robinson's work. It's a subtle thing, and possibly a deeply personal thing. I find, though, that when I look over a collection of Robinson, it reads as stagey, not quite real. This is probably related to the fact that it is stagey and not quite real. Emerson, on the other hand, feels quite truthful.

Comparing any one Emerson to a a similarly themed Robinson, I don't see much difference. They're really quite similar. It's only in looking at the work en masse that this squishy feeling of truth/untruth steals over me.

I similarly feel this notion of truth in Paul Strand, and much of the Magnum corpus.

It is this sense of truth that separates, in my mind, a good portrait from a bad one. Most portraits are stagey awkward self-conscious crap. Good ones reflect a certain sense of honesty, of truth.

In this sense, I think I can firmly connect H.P. Robinson to the Pictorialists. In this sense, we have parallel tracks, with Robinson leading directly into the Pictorialists, and Emerson leading to Paul Strand, with the two big threads eventually colliding in Camera Work. The Pictorialists fade away, albeit temporarily.

(more on this later, by the way, I now have two editions of Newhall's History of Photography, the 4th and the 5th, and the differences between them on this subject are startling)

In contemporary photography I find almost nothing that reads true. The availability of cheap and flexible studio lighting, the ease of digital manipulation, and the basic disinterest most self-styled photographers have in these questions, mean that everything is stagey and unreal. We, the viewer, know it and can feel it in the results.

Landscape colors are a little too bright. Portraits are a little too forced and lit with too many lights. Urban photography is mostly forced exercises in abstraction, or equally forced exercises in finding the right craggy homeless face, and then processing it to a sort of corrugated bronze finish.

Contemporary standards dictate, arguably, that no photograph is finished until it's been ruined.

I don't seem to be able to shoot anything particularly truthful, for the record.

I think it's extremely hard. Adam Marelli can do it.

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