Friday, May 20, 2016

Emotional Honesty

I don't want this to become the Death and Dying blog, but there is a connection here to Art and photography.

To clear the air, or something, let me make clear that I didn't know Michael Reichmann, he impacted my life and photography in literally no way. I have no horse in this race. While I have commented unfavorably about the business he started, please note that the business remains. I will, likely, comment on it again. I have personal opinions based on personal experiences, which I decline to share, because I have no horse here. My remarks flow from the outpouring of sentimentality that appeared yesterday in virtually every media source on photography I follow. I read quite a bit of this content as this is, you may have noticed, an interest of mine.

My parents have both died. Here are some observations.

When my mother died, 30 years ago or so, there was an astonishing outpouring. She had been a very popular professor. Many people said many things, many beautiful wonderful things. Her children stood there and listened, thinking, "Wow, how nice that they loved her so, she sounds so nice. Who the fuck are they talking about?" Later, in small family gatherings, we acknowledged her flaws, her difficult relationships with her children, and so on.

When my father died it was, thank God, a much smaller affair. Still, we said nice things. I said nice things. My dad had a pretty good relationship with his kids, in contrast to mom. I wrote down a lot of things I'd learned from dad, selected ten, shot a bunch of pictures, and made a book. Sentimentality, fairly pure. Later, my maternal aunt said "I am grateful that the man who loved words and could not communicate is at peace" and that was a tremendous relief to me.

The point here is that when someone is being memorialized in the traditional fashion, with a glurge of Best Memories and whatnot, many of the listeners will be biting their tongues and thinking, "That is very nice, I am so happy that they feel that way, but .." and they will find themselves constrained, social convention demanding that they keep the negative inside. When everyone else is spouting these beautiful stories, those of us with the right to speak find ourselves nevertheless constrained, muzzled by social convention, to say nothing and keep smiling.

How, exactly, does it honor the dead, or serve the living, when those who knew the deceased best are biting their tongues and thinking "this is a bunch of beautiful, touching, bullshit" at the memorial?

And just in case you think this is unique to Molitor, because he's a sociopath, let me note that guys like Faulkner wrote about this sort of thing, so it's not just me. Maybe Faulkner was a sociopath too, I dunno. But us sociopaths are people too.

In the same way, Art that refuses to acknowledge the negative, Art that elides all but one dimension of the emotional gamut, is thin, incomplete. This is, in rough terms, why modern art has rejected so much of what came before. Traditionally, Art exalted beauty, dealt only with the sublime. The purpose of Art, it was held, was to Uplift. In the last 100 years, we've come to think that perhaps Art should instead speak Truth.

Go read this piece from Maciej Cegłowski. He recently went on a trip to Antarctica, and owes us several more pieces, so, stay tuned. Compare with any number of photographs of ice and penguins from any number of workshop attendees.

Neither viewpoint is complete, and of course it's a pretty big continent that can contain much. Still, there's no denying that Maciej's commentary reveals to us a side of the place that was surely visible to the workshoppers, but is usually left out of the picture. We're left biting our tongues and thinking "this is a bunch of beautiful bullshit" aren't we?

Another example, that paragon of uplifting painting, Bierstadt, could make a beautiful and uplifting painting of war. How effed up is that?

Photography suffers even more than painting from this sort of sentimentality, being as I repeat endlessly, essentially rooted in some kind of truth. We expect a certain kind of honestly from our photographs. The most sentimental and emotionally thin of the Pictorialists are justly reviled. It is no accident that Moonrise over Hernandez is a strong contender for Adams' "best picture", as it shows us a much more complete vision of the American West than do his perfect odes to the sublime. Truth, completeness, emotional integrity, these things matter.

Sentimental glurge is, inevitably, infused with falseness, and serves nobody well.

ETA If you feel the need to berate me for befouling the memory of a great man, or whatever, on this post as well, please don't bother. Go write something nasty about me on your own blog. I'll be moderating such comments pretty aggressively. This also means that you may assume that a cast of thousands is shrieking their fury at me, and that I am cruelly censoring them. Take THAT, 1st Amendment.


  1. I'm with you.
    Like you, I have no particular skin in this game and came to LuLa late, leaving very soon after.
    It didn't float my boat/canoe/hammock.
    I have my opinions about the site and the people thereon, but keep them to myself!
    I, too, have lost my parents and the other close member of our family.
    I, too, listened to the outpourings of bullshit that some thought were OBLIGATORY at this time.
    Waste of time and space.
    When the dust settles, will we remember Michael?
    Five years from now?
    Compared with H C-B,Adams,the Weston clan,Lartigue, Robert Glenn Ketchum, our own Mike Chisholm,to name but a small slack handful, MR is a non-starter.
    That's my Looney's worth.
    Have been AWOL for a while, as the Evil Empire nearly burned itself to the ground; it didn't and I'm back in the fray.
    Catching up with your postings, as I'm far behind.
    Please tell me what ETA means?
    TMFA (Too Many F---ing Acronyms!!).

    1. Edited To Add. I only learned it recently myself! It's very useful, though.

  2. Thanks for the Antarctica link. Very refreshing.