Wednesday, January 13, 2016


I've been going on and on lately about authenticity, or something like that. Here's some more thoughts. Buried in here someplace is one of those awful arguments that philosophers are prone to, which boil down to "these two things are the same color, therefore they are the same" which is terrible. These arguments are just stupid when applied to the real world.

However, we're talking here about human feelings, human reactions, and these kinds of arguments do hold some sway here. I'll try to point out the sticky bit when it comes along, so you can judge for yourself.

Painters do a certain thing. They observe, something. The world, an object, some lily pads perhaps. Or a girl, or a mountain. Then they paint a picture, which may be straight out of their own imagination based on their experiences with seeing things, or drawn more directly from the world. It hardly matters. The picture is explicitly a product of the artist. It may be based on something real, but ultimately it comes from the painter. The painter is making with us a bargain: If you will allow me this divergence from what is literal, what is indexical, what is real, then I will in turn pay you back with my labor, my choice of color, my brushwork, my selections of what to place where in the frame, and so on, all of those things which a painter does.

A photograph, as I am fond of repeating, is not this. It is indexical, it is drawn literally from the world. The bargain the artist makes here is somewhat different, and tends to look more like: This was real, it was there, I recorded it. If you will allow me the relative ease of making this picture, there is no brushwork and so on, then I will pay you back with something that is, at least at its base, real.

Then there's a bunch of stuff in between. Photo collages, digital painting, and so on. These are not two camps, bitterly divided, they are two ends of a spectrum.

Consider this, though.

If the photographer wishes to show you not particularly what is real, but rather what is inside himself, but then declines to do any brushwork, to provide any painterly labor, then is that not something of a cheat?

Consider this example.

On flickr you could easily find a few thousand building facades which are utterly generic. There's some sort of pleasing interplay of geometry in them all, which is why they got posted and why they have 758 Favorites and 12,287 Awards. They are, however, generic, they are ultimately representations of what the photographer wants the picture to be. They have left the actual thing itself behind. They are, in a sense, paintings made without any actual painting.

On flickr you can probably also find a thousand photographs of essentially the same sort, which happen to be shots of Aqua in Chicago. As of this writing, this is a very distinctive building. You can take exactly the same sort of boring "abstract facade" photo of Aqua, and wind up with something that is distinctly Aqua. The thing itself is strong enough graphically that it is not abandoned, the photograph remains photographic. In spite, usually, of the photographer's efforts to obliterate the thing itself.

Here is another example. Majeed Badizadegan is a mildly flickr-famous guy who shoots, basically, these pictures:

One of these was taken on the Oregon coast, the other in Hawaii.

It is not that Majeed has mined this idea out, and should therefore knock it off (although that too is arguably true), it is that by shooting these two different things in the same way he reveals that he's not interested in the thing itself. He's interested in making this picture, over and over, wherever he goes. He could probably make this picture in Salt Lake City, somehow, and if he was there he'd certainly try. Majeed has eliminated the subject and replaced it with an abstraction. He has drained the life out of the thing he pointed the camera at.

You could argue that these are authentic, that this is indeed what it looks like to Majeed, and that this is his genuine reaction. I find this wildly unlikely, and if true, it's very sad. He takes this picture on every seashore, no matter how far flung. Either he has a tragically limited emotional palette, or I am right. Either way, his pictures have a tragically limited emotional palette and therefore by my lights are not very good.

Of course, it's working well for him. He's getting great positive feedback on every copy of his one picture. If positive feedback on flickr is valuable to you, then by your standards he's successful. By mine, he is not.

At this point there's room for a whole essay on how much of this essay depends on the time and the viewer, versus how much of it lies with the artist.

This is not to say that abstraction is a bad thing. You can shoot an abstract sort of a thing, let's say some isolation of shadows on pavement, which is nonetheless the thing itself. When you look at it you don't know where, or whether it was hot or cold, but you do know that those shadows were there on that pavement and nowhere else.

So here is the sticky bit of the argument.

Because the camera is inherently about recording the literalness in front of it, I am going to claim that photographs ought to embrace that literalness. The thing itself should be present. If your aim is to obliterate the thing itself and present only your vision of how a picture ought to look, then you are merely a lazy painter, and not doing photography at all.

For extra credit, note that this is roughly the argument against pictorialism, an argument that I have vehemently protested in the past. I'm going to claim that the argument was a little bit different, and that to the extent it was the same it was often unfairly applied. But more importantly, I am going to quote Emerson (the other one):

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds [...]


  1. Um. Most, if not all, of what you say is true, but the "truth to materials" argument is only a dogma if you choose to make it so. Post-modernism is very much about not making it so, mainly in reaction to Modernism's exhaustion of it -- Greenberg's insistence on a painting's essential and therefore desirable "flatness", etc.

    I think one is also entitled to be skeptical of any argument about the aesthetic value of photography (as opposed to its utilitarian value) that mainly rests on the idea of representing "the thing itself".

    OTOH tacky is tacky, and those images make me want to take a shower. As I've said in previous comments, I trust my reactions more than any intellectual construct I or the artist / photographer might put on the work. "Don't trust the teller, trust the tale". But "yuk v. yum" is always going to be a matter of taste, in the end. There is simply no argument that could make those images any better in my eyes, even the "get out of jail free" irony card. Horrible!


    1. I *told* you up front that it was a bogus "well, they're both heavy, so they must both be made by the hand of the same God" argument up front! But then I justified it with Clever Rhetoric!

      It may interest you to know that I don't actually think about *any* of this BS when I'm actually taking pictures. I'm pretty sure that thinking about it in my off time makes the pictures better though.

      So, I am also trusting my instincts. I like to think I am making them awesome by pretending to be Susan Sontag as hard as possible (except for the part where she's dead).

  2. Ain't you been chompin down on Mister Hurn a little too heavily :-)
    Weren't you advocating, not two weeks ago, going out into the world and discovering what you want to photograph, thinking how you'd like to light it and returning as and when that phenomenon might make an appearance? Yes this stuff's all nice and gooey but you never know, Oul Majeed might shoot Araki styli for his own personal pleasure that none of us will ever see. Boy could well be a black and white demon tripping along in the footsteps of Bresson. At the weekend he could be Marjory.

    1. Probably!

      But it's not just Hurn who says this sort of thing. Robinson, Emerson, (notably not Sieglitz that I have noticed), Adams, Hurn, the list goes on.

      Many people who've thought hard about it (not all of them, though) seem to think there's something important about the thing itself.

      I'm just trying to drag the same idea into the contemporary context to explain why flickr sucks. Not sure how it's going, but that's more or less the program!

  3. For me the thing that makes a photograph unique is that it was an actual physical event, light caused an actual change to a sensor, dye, or silver. The thing that causes a photograph to resonate over time is that it is a very specific event. The more the actual photograph, through manipulation, the less the photograph will resonate. There is a continuum between the actual instant of a photograph and a manipulated image, what is sacrificed in the manipulation is the resonance over time with memory.

    As always I enjoy your posts. I grew up around Bellingham and graduated from Western in 1967. I spent a day wandering around there with my daughter sharing memories. Here are a few photographs from our exploration.

    1. I kind of have the same feeling, a sort of metaphysical idea that the more you muck with it the less there is left. It's manifestly not true, because sometimes you fool with it a little and suddenly (for instance) The Thing Itself is vastly more visible and present.

      Of course, say it out loud, and all the photoshop heros will start yelling like you're trying to break their toys ;)

    2. This is an example of the power of photography as a document of history and the human condition. The more a photograph is manipulated the more removed it becomes from documentary power.

  4. Ok, I'll bite. A charcoal drawing is arguably less work than an oil painting - is it cheating on the side of the artist, then - ? Marcel Duchamp's "Fountain" required even less work (aside from lugging the thing into the museum) and is totally and absolutely "real", yet it is nowadays considered as art. The connection to the craft is not important in this respect. To create a work of art is to look behind the facade of things (be it a bunch of waterlilies, a urinal, it doesn't matter), to transcend them by getting a grasp on their "suchness" (or whatever) and finally to take them out of context to make the insights found obvious to the viewer. Photography is just another artistic medium in this respect, yet an interesting one because of its immediateness and its perceived authenticity. The subjectivity of the photographer comes into play when he decides what part of the reality to include into the frame (=to take out of context). Without this, photography couldn't produce art.

    Now, the photographs you used to illustrate your blog post are even a proof in point: They are hardly original because they merely represent landscape archetypes and no interpretation of the landscape on the side of the photographer. Therefore, they don't provoke insights on the side of the viewer aside from being merely pretty - because of this, they're boring. They *could* become art, however, if the photographer would be able to photograph e.g. a spillway of a sewage plant in Salt Lake City (to use your example) which looks the same at sunset. By contrasting this photograph to the attached ones, the photographer could create a counterpoint which could provoke e.g. a thought process about landscape cliches in the beholder. This is what I tried to express in the first paragraph.

    Hmm, after reading your post the third time I come too think that our points actually aren't so different (If I become too annoying just tell me to stop - I'm fine with that).

    1. Heck if I know!

      I know I am *not* intending to say "working harder makes it better" although that may be what the words actually mean -- in which case, crud!

      What I mean is actually kind of murky even to me. But I'm pretty sure I mean *something* and I'm thinking hard about it.

    2. That's why I keep reading your blog. I came across by your LuLa signature several years ago (even before your hiatus).

      "I know I am *not* intending to say "working harder makes it better" although that may be what the words actually mean -- in which case, crud!" Yeah, I was a bit surprised to read something like this here. Could we agree that almost all other visual art media have a higher inherent degree of abstraction than photography, and that a photographer should make the best of it?

    3. Sure, that sounds reasonable.

      Perhaps other arts inherently have more distance between subject and the art, whereas photography has inherently less. And that photographers should be, let us hedge a little, aware and respectful of that.

  5. The essence of pictorialism is the idea that a photograph can be intrinsically improved or made to become art by doing something to it after the fact.

    1. That is certainly the modern conception of it ;) Pictorialism, unfortunately, has some to be identified with scratched up gum prints, which is to ignore quite a lot of history. The word is fraught. See, just as a for instance,

      I'd cite someone else more authoritative, except I haven't found anyone with my weird obsession with pictorialism.

  6. As best I remember, I first encountered the term "the thing itself" in Edward Weston's Daybooks.

  7. A useful contribution to the argument is made by John Camp, in his guest post on TOP in 2011:

    A couple of excerpts:

    "Painters do make some strong documents—Goya's "Disasters of War," for example, or even Durer's "Great Piece of Turf." But documentation is the forte of the camera."

    "...if you want to go looking for a true, lasting art in photography, you should look at things that can only be captured in an instant: an action, an event, a happening."

    1. I am a big fan of TOP. And the piece you reference is a pretty good one, but...yes, there is a but. I include a list of "moments" that John Camp gives as the stuff of "lasting art in photography"

      The killing of the Spanish Republican infantryman by Robert Capa;
      Capa’s D-Day beach photos;
      The U.S. Marine flag-raising on Iwo Jima’s Mt. Suribachi;
      The atomic bomb exploding over Hiroshima;
      The sailor kissing the woman in Times Square;
      The assassination of John Kennedy;
      The shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald;
      The young Vietnamese girl running from the napalm attack;
      The gunshot execution of the Viet Cong;
      Robert Kennedy dying on the floor in the California hotel kitchen.
      The explosion of the Challenger
      The fall of the World Trade Center towers

      Almost every single item on that last I would happily do without and the world would be better off---"true, lasting art in photography" be damned...

    2. Agreed, the world would be better off. But if one argues that the best art consists of new kinds of images that provoke a jolt in the gut (whether because of astonishing beauty or shocking ugliness), then the photos on the list count as art, just as do Goya's "Disasters of War".