This is coming out a bit more rambling than usual, sorry about that. Efforts to tighten it up are failing.
Over the last year or two I've really been digging around in a couple of apparently unrelated topic areas. The first is "Natural Navigation" and the second is Buddhism (probably more accurately described as some aspects of certain flavors of). I've tried to relate these to photography in various ways, and here's another shot at it.
Consider the photographs of Crewdson, Duane Michals (thanks Nick!), or Cindy Sherman's "Untitled Film Still" series. These are all pretty explicitly about storytelling, the pictures are designed, explicitly, to look as if they're part of a larger story which may or may not exist. Consider also the great photojournalistic photo essays. These explicitly belong to a larger story which actually does exist. I could put poor hard working Sally Mann back in harness to drag the same point along. The point being, a great deal of very important work gathers its strength from the implied context, just outside the frame.
Natural Navigation, the old approach to, philosophy of, pathfinding, works in much the same way, and in stark contrast to modern methods of navigation. Not only is the ancient pathfinder present in the moment, observing closely, intimately connected with the environment, he or she is making deductions and drawing conclusions based on the current context, what is already known or guessed. Clues are pieced together constantly, supporting and contradicting one another, to create a constantly updated mental picture of where the next destination is and how to get there.
A path is, often, a strip of flattened earth flanked by higher vegetation. A path running west-to-east in the northern hemisphere therefore has the sun on the right, usually, which implies that the right side of the path is shadowed by vegetation more than the left. Puddles might last later into the day on the right, therefore. A clue as to the orientation of the path may therefore be derived by observing the moisture on the path. Not a reliable clue, but added to what is already known, added to a 100, a 1000 other tiny cues, home or a friend might be found.
The essential product of the labor, where am I, how do I get where I am going is intimately connected to what is right here, nearby, and thence outwards to the larger world.
Buddhism, at least some aspects of some sorts, seems to have a similarly idea of holistic connection to the here and now. One is present here and now, but with an awareness like ripples from a cast stone spreading outwards from here and now to, ultimately, everywhere. It's sort of psychological, emotional, or spiritual pathfinding, in a way.
In the same way, again, some of the best photographs are intimately tied up with the here and now, but connected to, related to, the larger context from which they are taken. They contain, or imply, a larger story which is still here and now, which is itself related, connected, outward and outward.
The strength of a great portrait is, I think it can be argued, largely about the way it implies the larger narrative. It feels as if we know the subject, in a sense. We are willing perhaps to extrapolate a little about that person, to imagine their story or at any rate the general emotional, physical, psychological shapes in that story. He looks like he worked hard all his life or she looks interesting or I wonder if he was a dancer might not be detailed stories, but they give us that connection, real or imagined, to things outside the frame.
The hallmark of a poor portrait is that it does not do any of these things. That looks like a high school senior who is interchangeable with all the other high school seniors who have ever stood on the train tracks holding a guitar. It does not matter if you have all five lights in the right spot to best flatter her somewhat unfortunately round face, the portrait is awful.
In the same way many nudes (just to circle back again to the little drum I have been beating of late) are all too often divorced from the world, isolated photographs of nothing, with no connection to anything. I spent a little time this weekend which Weston's Book of Nudes and, Nancy Newhall's fawning essay notwithstanding, I found them kind of boring. Yes yes, sculptural this and that. Perhaps he was the first to give us sharply focused nudes, but he doesn't seem to be to have been the best by any means. Newhall seems to be arguing that he's doing something radical and new, but she's woefully unable to explain what on earth it is except by what it is not (which seems to be Pictorialism, and I agree, but she and Weston both seem to be convinced that the pictures are not abstracts and most of them are). Perhaps the pictures that are actually new are the somewhat unappealing ones of a nude woman sprawled awkwardly on the dunes, her back to the camera?
These last were probably something quite new, we see her moles, she's awkwardly posed, she's not quite classically beautiful perhaps? But still she is a nude on a sand dune, with no convincing connection outside the frame at all. Each is an isolated and inexplicable picture that evokes no particular story, even if we allow the most abstract or formless emotional reaction the designated story. Weston's nudes seem, in the end, to be the same as his peppers, his shells, and much else, an exploration of form and texture, vaguely tinged with the erotic. While that may have played well back in the day, it's just not good enough any more.
Yes, yes, taken in the historical context Weston is a giant, and fully deserves his reputation. The point is that, that was then and this is now. As is so often the case, the gigantic and seminal work of then, if given to us today, would seem a bit silly, trite.
And so we see it with a great deal of modern photography. A gorgeous landscape is just yet another gorgeous landscape. It you don't recognize the mountain, or the outcropping, or the waterfall, well, it could have been shot anywhere any time. It has no connection to anything, it's isolated. A bird in flight is, all too often, just another bird.
We can also see this in failed photo essays. An artist might be trying to show us a series of windows on a larger story and simply fail, we (or I) can't quite fit the pictures together, we (or I) can't feel an underlying story. I might believe in it, intellectually. I might even know for sure it's a real story, because I read the news. But sometimes the pictures can't evoke it for me. The example that comes immediately to mind here is Zachary Roberts, in the NYT Lens Blog, or on the Luminous Endowment site. This is a very real, interesting, tragic story. As I have previously remarked, Zachary's efforts to make something of it with photographs don't strike me as particularly successful (yet?).
Finally one imagines that a set of pictures could evoke a story perfectly well. A completely uninteresting story. Or at any rate a story that fails to interest this viewer, or that.
ETA: Here's a nearly perfect example of that last, an Anti-Passive Smoking campaign. Yes, yes, children are at risk from second-hand smoke. Also, we should probably avoid pushing them over cliffs, or holding them underwater for long periods of time. This is heavy-handed and twenty years too late. Apparently it won an award, for reasons I cannot comprehend.
Anyways. I am increasingly finding, in short, that pictures that don't hint broadly at things not in the picture, don't make me very happy.