Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Criticism: Two Portfolios

I'm going to send you off to look at two different portfolios, one of which I think works and one which I think doesn't. Then, I'll discuss!

The first is here. Jeffrey is a fellow I kind of "know", we've exchanged a lot of email, collaborated on one or two little projects. I admire his work greatly, and I like him personally. In addition, he's said things to me about this work. All of this is going to color and shape my commentary to a degree. There's no helping that.

Please concentrate on the black&white suburban nighttime photographs, as these are the ones I am talking about. Jeffrey honored me once in the past by sending me a selected set of these specific photographs, and so to me that is his "important work" although of course it's just the material I saw first.

The second portfolio is over here. Irritatingly, I don't seem to be able to link directly to the portfolio, so find the two pictures with the white square in the middle, and the identifying text "Alternatives Landscapes" and "Alternatives Landscapes II" because, again, this is the work I am interested in comparing to Jeffrey's. I don't know Benoit from Adam, and have not exchanged a word with him, ever.

I like to compare things like this. The one that "works" shows me why the other one doesn't, and vice versa.

First, similarities. Each is a set of basically dark pictures with a prominent strong light, a man-made light, which casts shadows, illuminates, and generates a strongly visual element. Superficially, they look quite similar, in fact. Neither body of work seems to present a strong position. We're not seeing starving orphans here, or open-pit mines, or a purely sublime view of a mountain. The subjects cluster in the general area of banal, in fact. Some very much banal, others of mild interest, but nothing leaps out and grabs us by the throat. That, by itself, is in no way a negative as far as I am concerned.

Looking closer, we see that Jeffrey is showing us similar subjects over and over. The light sources move around and change character (sometimes it's a lit doorway, sometimes an exterior light, and so on). The actual houses change, but the general type does not. It's not quite a typology in the strictest sense, it's a little too variable and Jeffrey favors a more dynamic angle of view than a straight-on foursquare presentation. But, elements of typology are present. It seems to me that Jeffrey's pictures definitely take no particular position, there is no obvious statement of politics, ecology, sociology, or anything of that sort here. The only overt, deliberate, statement of which I am sure is that the photographer thought there was something interesting here.

Looking at just one of these pictures, by itself, I suspect you'd be left cold and simply wander off. They're not traditionally "pretty", although they are graphically appealing. Being presented with a bunch of them, we're asked, implicitly, to reconsider, to try to grasp what the photographer saw here. Clearly this is no accidental snap, this guy's been putting in some serious work here, what the heck does he see?

We can compare and contrast the pictures. What's the same, what's different. What are all these houses, anyways?

In short, there are typology-like aspects here, and quite strong ones. We're invited, whether the artist likes it or not, to draw our own conclusions. There's plenty of grist for the mill here. The general region in which the photos were taken is clear, and that opens a great basket of political and ecological concerns. While the photographer may offer no personal opinion on, let us (for example) say the ecological impact of modern cities in the desert, these pictures certainly open the door to us, the viewer, to consider these things.

There is in these pictures adequate variety to give us a broader scene onto which we can project our own ideas. At the same time, there is enough commonality to firmly bind the pictures together into a coherent whole. We're forced, more or less, to consider them as a group, a collective, which we then ask "what are you trying to tell me?" And then, looking inside ourselves, perhaps we find some answers.

Onwards to Benoit's Landscapes.

Visually similar to Jeffrey's pictures, and sharing some of that ordinariness in the subject matter, but quite different.

On the one hand, the central glowing square strongly ties the pictures together. They are clearly a coherent set, a collective that belongs together, that, like Jeffrey's pictures, demands to be considered as a whole. There is less graphical appeal here, the pictures are bluntly foresquare, dead-on. This is made necessary by the light Benoit is placing centered in the frame, his key graphical element. He needs to be dead-on to the light, and the light illuminates the scene, and thus even the few pictures which strive to use a more dynamic angle of view do not really succeed. The light's position and illumination pattern dominate.

The scenes into which the square light is set are all over the place. Trees, hills, concrete buildings with artfully tumbled things on the lawn. A trio of nudes exposing their genitals to the light? There is nothing connecting these pictures together except the single graphical element.

Again, any single one of these pictures you'd likely dismiss. You might get a little jolt of "cool!" when you saw it, but that would be about it. The fact that this photographer has made a bunch of them, has invested a great deal of time and effort here, draws us in and asks us to reconsider, asks us to look more deeply and to think more deeply. It's nothing like a typology, though, because the only common theme is literally the same object, repeated. We're being asked, essentially, to examine wildly disparate scenes each containing the same object.

What are we to make of these? I see the square and visualize it as a portal (I have read a tremendous amount of Science Fiction in my life). Benoit imagines it as a man-made element that assists and reveals the natural. But then, why the photos with the man-made buildings, and indeed the human figures? Why does this square portal change size from one picture to another? In any interpretation, though, the glowing square is a mysterious and singular object, inexplicably hanging a few feet above the ground in this location, and in that location, and so on.

I see no coherence here at all, really. I see a singular object appearing more or less at random around the earth, for no particular rhyme or reason. If this is an essay on capricious fate, the rule of the random, then perhaps it begins to make sense, but it doesn't go far enough to make that point clear. And in that case, why so many similar pictures of the square in a bunch of trees? The mysterious glowing object invites question, but seems to leave no real room for answers. These pictures might as well be abstracts. If we want answers, if we want meaning, we are left to construct it entirely ourselves. There are referents in these pictures, but they provide no handles to grasp, no signposts to guide us.

Benoit's pictures are all, at least, shot at night. But is that merely to make his gimmick work, or is nighttime somehow important to the theme?

In terms of trame what I feel here isn't a portfolio that is necessarily closed into itself, but rather that has such diffuse and varied connections to an exterior as to lead nowhere in particular. While the pictures are evocative, what they evoke, their trame, is so vague and indistinct as to add up to nothing much.

In contrast, the referents in Jeffrey's pictures give us firm guidance on geographic location, as well as environment and socioeconomic status. If those are insufficient signposts to guide some thinking, some speculation, some story-making, I can't imagine what is. His choice of nighttime is clearly deliberate, rather than a necessity driven by a gimmick. It's another interesting case study of trame I think. While there are many different things that might be evoked here, each possible path seems to be intellectually fruitful, dense, and at least mildly interesting. While I might view his pictures as one thing, and you quite another, each of us could reasonably find some meat here, something to think about.

I suspect that both Jeffrey and Benoit took their pictures because they though the results would look good, or cool, or interesting. Jeffrey managed, perhaps by design, perhaps by instinct, to produce something in which I can find some depth. Benoit did not.


  1. I saw in Benoit's Work female genitals and I shit you not. (One man's interpreted portal is another man's interpreted twat). On this metaphorical level I find Benoits work thus stronger, but subjectively I like it less.

  2. Further to the above, it occurs to me that Benoit's work is the polar opposite of a white cube gallery, i.a a white installation using the landscape as a gallery.

  3. Just some things that come into my mind randomly:
    Why are some of Jeffrey's pictures in colour? When I scroll down, more and more pictures appear after some loading time? This portfolio needs to concentrate on fewer pictures in my opinion. Also I can't help but I have to compare Jeffrey's pictures to Todd Hido's nighttime photographs. In contrast to Hido's a lot of Jeffrey's pictures show houses with dark windows, which for me me is a signal of "everybody sleeping" - there's no story here, or is there? Also every place is so tidy and clean, almost like a movie set - again no story, no questions. Maybe it's because I grew up somewhere else...?
    And Benoit's pictures - first thing I thought was that this portfolio screams "look at me, this is ART"... but I do like the light in some of the pictures, and especially those in the woods work for me quite well. But I don't really get the concept that's behind them...
    That's it for now, maybe I'll check again later.

  4. @ Mark A.

    I use my photo-blog as a scratch-pad of sorts, where I post recent photos for contemplation and comment. Although Andrew refers to it as a portfolio, it's obviously not -- with nearly 1,700 photos, how could it be? -- which is why color photos and photos from some of my other projects do appear there on occasion as well.

    FYI, the set of prints Andrew saw was much more focused than my "portfolio" generally and I suspect his comments above were largely shaped by those. (I guess I really should setup a proper website for my photography, as it now seems clear this internet thing isn't going to be just another fad...)

    As for Todd Hido, I think his work is great (IMO), but I had been working on this project for nearly two years before I ever heard of him or saw any of his photos. To the extent that my work on this project has been influenced by that of any other photographers, then it would have to be Gilbert Fastenaekens at the top of the list...

    And before I forget, thanks for looking at my photos! More eyeballs are moar betterer! 8^)

    1. Any chance we could see the portfolio?

    2. Hmm...

      Let me ponder for a bit and come up with an interim solution ... perhaps a .pdf file that I can email upon request?

  5. Hey, no one said there was going to be homework! And I loathe French hippies.


  6. Jeffrey portfolio immediately suggested to me the concept of futiliy or impermanence - the very subject of an house, that is usually sold to the buyer as a "finishing point" in their life, or a measure of his personal success, has always struck me as one of the more superficial things one can tought as a "legacy": look at what happens in the case of an hurricane or an earthquake... In contrast, Benoit work suggest me nothing.

  7. Benoit reminds me of Andy Goldsworthy's ephemeral work with leaves and flower petals - eldritch encounters with landscapes that make your hair stand on end? Benoit's white slab is more space aliens, and Goldsworthy's leaves are more sidhe rituals, and both kinda make me wanna flee, just a bit...
    (but the inverted white-cube gallery, whoooo, awesome!)

    The night photo set has preoccupied me for quite some time - initially I thought perhaps they were like the Wind in the Willows village scene where the two travellers visually eavesdrop on all the lit domestic interiors (Danish "hygge" going on in spades) as they pass through the village, but the night photo set is not hygge at all, and it's not, in fact, at all attentive to the interiors either, although illumination is almost always a key component. I think it's a celebration of great planes and knots of fabulous visual textures (quite different in focus than Hido's series which I would call… more illuminated windows, maybe?), and also there HAS to be a triumphant sub-text of "no, I did not get arrested taking these photos, no, not even once." Heh.

    1. Perhaps I shouldn't admit this, but the main reason there aren't more illuminated windows in my photos is because I'm typically photographing between 11:00 pm and 4:00 am, and very few people are awake then to have the lights on.

      No, I haven't been arrested while taking any of these photos*, but I have had several encounters with the police over the years, including one when they responded to a call from somebody about "a man with a bazooka" they had just driven past.

      (That particular incident had four police cars searching the neighborhood for me, but ended with a laugh when it turned that the "bazooka" was actually my tripod, slung over my shoulder while fully extended. I don't know how the caller jumped to the conclusion they did, but I suppose it can be difficult to tell the difference when it's dark outside? )

      And for the record, I am very much aware that what I'm doing with this project is troubling to many people (or would be, if they weren't asleep at the time and thus completely unaware of it.) So I am scrupulous about not trespassing on private property, tempting though it may be at times. With one exception, every photo I've posted at my photo blog was taken legally from public property!

      * Full disclosure: It's a long story, but I was arrested several years ago while taking photos when I unintentionally trespassed onto BNSF Railroad property and then resisted leaving because I didn't believe the unarmed man wearing blue jeans and a T-shirt telling me to do so was, in fact, the railroad cop he claimed to be or that I was, in fact, trespassing. It turned out that I was wrong on both counts ... oops! Fortunately, I wasn't charged with anything and was released with just a stern lecture after I sat in a holding cell for three hours.

  8. I had different reactions to the two portfolios. My reaction to Benoit's is that it's unified only by a gimmick; the gimmick can create interesting stand-alone pictures, but otherwise there's nothing particular that ties them together for me. Any unifying intention I could imagine felt like it would be an 'Art high concept' thing.

    Jeffrey's portfolio (of the b&w nighttime shots) felt unified by some sort of general theme and setting. It felt like a series of photos that were all orbiting around an idea, approaching it from various different angles. It also made me feel I could imagine interesting things it was saying (whether or not they were what Jeffrey intended).

    In short: Benoit's photos made me go 'that's sort of pretty' while Jeffrey's made me go 'that's interesting'.

    1. "It also made me feel I could imagine interesting things it was saying" is exactly what I intended!

      As Andrew correctly noted, my intention with these photos is not to persuade viewers to accept my point of view, but to encourage them to reflect upon and contemplate their own.

      In short, I aim to set the stage with my photos, then step back and leave it to the viewers to take it from there and come up with their own narrative(s) based upon what they see and how they respond to that.

      Whenever I've talked with viewers of my photos at the few exhibitions I've had to date, it has fascinated me to no end to discover just how widely divergent those individual narratives can sometimes be. 8^)