Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Slicers and Gestalters

Hat tip to ToP for the links and some thoughtful discussion. Steve McCurry has a relatively new book, India and one critic thinks it's rather too limited in scope, and compares McCurry unfavorably to another photographer, Raghubir Singh.

I don't pretend to have any particular knowledge of either photographer. Of course I've seen any number of McCurry's pictures, but this is the first time I've heard of Singh.

Still, I think there's an interesting tangential view here.

Let's think about National Geographic. As a kid, this magazine had me persuaded that living in an undersea habitat at 600 feet was both awesome and the future. This is, of course, insane. It's pitch black and ridiculously cold at 600 feet. The environment 600 feet down in the ocean makes intergalactic space look like Baja California as far as humans are concerned. National Geo's business was to give you 2000 words and a dozen photos and make you believe that you really knew something about the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert. National Geo gave us narrow slices of the world, neatly packaged, digestible to the Western mind. Foreign, exciting, interesting, but nothing too threatening. This is the essence of what I am calling Slicing. By its very nature slicing is untruthful, simply because it explicitly elides almost everything. It wraps the material up, putting down artificial boundaries. Done well, it feels complete, you don't notice the edges around the material.

In a way, all journalism does this, to one degree or another. The newspaper only has so many column inches for your article, and you've got to wrap it up, make it coherent.

A separate issue here is whether a Slice in this sense is true even within itself. If the National Geo article about habitats at 600 feet had shown that world as a sunlit paradise, that would be one thing. If it merely de-emphasizes the inky darkness in favor of the well lit chamber filled with happy divers, then the darkness is excluded from the story, but there's no actual lie. The Slice is true, but (in the nature of Slices) incomplete. That artificial edge was placed carefully, to exclude the terror and impracticality, but no outright untruth was inserted.

I suspect that McCurry's book is in the first place Slicing at its best. I suspect also that it flirts with internal untruth, in the sense that even within its narrowly defined area there is very little of anything recognizable as an authentic India to be found. McCurry favors bright colors, quiet scenes, austere composition. India, as I understand it, has the first one some of the time and the other two almost never. While McCurry's pictures are surely real, authentic, and taken in India, they define India no more than Ansel Adams' landscapes define the USA.

On the other end of the spectrum we have Gestalt, and to be blunt, this is what we expect from an entire book of pictures named after a country. It's what we expect from India, I cannot imagine it's what is actually in India, and this may be the root of the critic's problem. Frank's book is the best example I can think of, of this Gestalt notion of mine. The Americans is of course still an incomplete picture of the USA, but it's vastly closer to a definition of the country than anything Ansel Adams did. Of course, those two were going for completely different things. Adams had, I suspect, no interest whatsoever in capturing a coherent picture of the entire country. He was explicitly a Slicer, Frank was explicitly a Gestalter.

My guess is that Singh was also a Gestalter, striving to make broad work.

Not only does a Gestalter strive for breadth, but they're less fussy about the edges. They allow that their work isn't complete, it ends, but in a ragged edge that indicates "and so on, there's more which I haven't gotten to yet," at least ideally. Not only is the work more complete, more ultimately truthful, it admits its own incompleteness in turn, it admits that in the end the only complete picture is every picture ever taken.

I expect that I am stretching here, to "find" this in (say) Frank's work. I don't think you can possibly miss it in Winogrand. Perhaps it is likewise obvious in Singh's body of work.

I am, explicitly, a Gestalter.


  1. Good blog, well thought out, as was your comment to Allen Murabayashi.
    I've always looked at this subject as a kind of 'Establishment' versus 'Unestablished' viewpoint, where the prevailing culture imposed its' own sensibilities on the reporting of the time, be it word or photograph or painting.
    My grandparents lived in India in the 30s and I have their snapshots (B&W)of their life at the time.
    It shows the comfortable Westerner's viewpoint, but is a record of their lives and no less valuable for that. It is far removed from the photography of Mr. Singh, but has some parallels with Steve McCurry.
    It simply reinforces what I know of my grandparents and their beliefs, politics, view of the world.
    Nothing more, nothing less.
    I never liked National Geographic,despite once taking a year's subscription to the magazine, as it represented for me the US Establishment view of the rest of the world; the reference to David Shields in the Allen Murabayashi reply reminded me of David Douglas Duncan's view of the Vietnam War (Establishment) versus that of Philip Jones Griffiths, with Larry Burrows and the rest in between.
    Both are valid in their own way and we should not lose sight of the fact that there are both Slicers and Gestalters, to use your definitions, for without the one how can we compare the alternative viewpoint of the other, if we are to improve our minds and truly learn of the world around us?
    You have been in thought-provoking mood of late; please may it continue.