Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The Thing Itself

A comment on the previous post got me thinking. The Bechers (a husband and wife team) did a thing in which they shot buildings more or less dead-on, presenting them more or less artlessly. The point was, as I understand it, that they felt these buildings were interesting in and of themselves. They presented grids of pictures, inviting viewers to compare various buildings, to I suppose note similarities and differences. It sounds kind of awesome.

Historically, their work is considered a precursor of New Topographics, and I do see the connection. Both approaches are interested in so-called typologies, but the New Topographics people are more opinionated. So, some shared ideas, some not so shared, as it should be.

Nothing I shot for the previous little essay really resembles anything the Bechers did, because everything I shot was imbued with some sort of opinion or idea. The first one, the one I dismiss, is crammed full of formalism, and the rest are crammed with opinion. At least, to the best of my ability. I was actively trying to put things in to the pictures which the Bechers explicitly tried to leave out.

This does point out, though, the distinction between the thing you're taking a picture of, and the picture itself. Current thinking among amateurs is very much that the job of the photographer is to make the thing itself look interesting. Possibly the most common critique offered on the internet is some variation of the sneering "you need to study composition" (usually offered by someone who has not), and this is really saying that the thing being photographed is insufficiently interesting. The photographer must make it interesting by using techniques. Composition, post processing, whatever.

At some roughly opposite point on the compass rose from the Bechers, we find Ansel Adams, who was the master of making things look interesting by applying technique. Flatten the contrast on many of his pictures and watch in astonishment as the whole thing collapses. It is perhaps not an accident that in these degenerate times we find that technique is considered the proper path to making pictures interesting. But it is not.

Just to pluck another genre from the air, we have the Birds In Flight people, who do amazing stuff. (and, notably, nobody ever seems to sneer at them for stupidly centering the bird in the frame like some sort of snapshot. It's not a snapshot if you used a huge lens, I guess.) The conceit though is that birds are not themselves that interesting, unless you catch them in the midst of some hard-to-capture behavior. A bird sitting on a branch sucks, evidently. But consider that idea. A living creature of any sort of some kind of freakish miracle. Bone and sinew, blood pumping, feathers a-fluff, it is the wildest sort of improbability just sitting there.

The thing itself is some sort of modernist (?) theory about the essence of stuff, I think, but I'm not talking about that here. I'm leaning more on Szarkowski's idea from the opening section of The Photographer's Eye, the idea of a photograph that is a simple, direct, artless representation of the thing in front of the lens. The Bechers are a notable example of this approach, but see also Walker Evans and so on.

In reality, I think that a balance is usefully struck between the thing itself and the photographer's ideas.

If you're going to have "soul" in your photographers, if there is going to be some kind of emotional connection, ultimately the emotional viewer is going to be reacting to the thing photographed in almost every case. Photographers do not, in general, have the painter's luxury of hoping that the viewer will feel based purely on the use of color, the geometry, that sort of thing. The photograph is altogether too rooted in reality. Confront the viewer with a Mondrian, and one might be rewarded with an emotional response. Confront the viewer with the photographic equivalent, and you're more likely to get puzzlement.

Not to say that the photographic abstract is all bullshit, it's not. Still, people read photographic abstracts as photographs. One reads these things speculatively, with a strong undercurrent of "what is it, really?" and "I think it might be.." One reacts as much to ones fancy of what the picture might be of as to anything else.

And so the photographer's job is to help the viewer along to some sort of reaction to the thing in front of the lens. Sometimes no help at all is required, really. A photo of one guy shooting another guy in the head requires no artifice whatsoever to produce a reaction. A photo of a mother bathing her crippled daughter might not require photographic gimmickry, but to make it really compelling you can make it look like a Pietà painted by, perhaps, Goya. Hit those tropes hard enough, you might change the goddamned world.

If you're just me hacking around with pictures of buildings in Bellingham, well, you do your best. My belief is that you need to begin with a genuine feeling toward the thing in the frame, and then you can try to say something around that, and maybe, just maybe, it'll read more or less the way you want. Faking your emotional response is a bad first step.

And anyways, why would you fake it? Surely there are more things that you feel something about than you will ever photograph. So try to make something of those.


  1. I to noticed the comment on the last post concerning the Bechers.
    I wasn't totally sure if the writer was tongue in cheek or actually serious.

    I also had a look through my copy Walker Evans' American Photographs' which contains a few images which would not look out of place in a Becher collection (given some artistic license there).

    Surely the thing in and of itself does have some import, and therefore those who present it (the import) ought not to be dismissed out of hand. Perhaps the commenter was tongue in cheek.
    If not, was the point of your previous post missed by this person?

    If there is some emotional connection with images that are four square, head on literal depictions (as far as any optical/mechanical device can make a literal depiction), then is that not as valid as any other interpretation.

    Indeed, in some cases one could perhaps argue that there may be more validity in it, to say nothing of potential historic value - as in Agtet's old Paris photography. Although of a documentary style, it was collected under the name "TheArt of Old Paris' and still stands as both Art and historical document.

    1. I don't presume to interpret ericke, although perhaps he'll weigh in himself!

      I found it useful, though, since my remarks could have been read as "the interpretation is all, the subject is irrelevant" (although I don't think that's what I meant - I think my meaning wasn't that detailed or refined, to be honest) - and the Bechers offer a solid refutation of that viewpoint.

      Hence this post, about balance!

      I think emotional connection has to begin with the subject, there isn't really anything else to hang it on, in a photo!

    2. My comment was intended to be ironic. Mainly I was having a gentle dig at AM, but I have to say I also hold no candle for the Bechers, whose work I find dull, and, given their fame, unfathomable. I say this as someone who enjoys industrial architecture of a certain age. In the 70s I went round photographing abandoned rural railway stations for submission to an industrial archaeology data base, so I see the attraction, but not the art. But then I don't get a buzz from the Düsseldorf School as a whole.

      My take is that Andrew is right to emphasise the importance of emotion in the making and viewing of photographs, but I really don’t know what qualifies as emotion in this context. I think one might as well call it ‘involvement’. I used the word ‘frisson’ in an earlier comment, as this involuntary response to a stimulus is at least physical. What I feel more sure of is that emotion and form(alism) are not alternatives, They really don’t have much to do with each other at all.

  2. I agree. Neither was I trying to interpret ericke.
    Indeed I would like to know if it was tongue in cheek.
    To be honest when I read your previous post, the Bechers came to mind also, so perhaps ericke and I are on a similar thought train.

  3. One genre where the "thing itself" is the main interest and which is very popular on photo sites are portraits of young female models. In that genre, dynamic range, composition, color or heavy post-processing are not really necessary...

    I am just citing that photographic sub-genre, because I am a bit surprised that you did not mention it considering how popular it is. Apart from that, I agree with your post, of course.

  4. If you don't already know it, you might be interested in Bill Jay's "The Thing Itself":

    1. Thank you! I may or may not have read it in the past, but I certainly don't recall it! It does resonate, however, and I think everyone should read it.