Thursday, November 10, 2016

Eric Kellerman: Andrew’s new veil

Please enjoy this guest post from reader and commenter Eric Kellerman, some of whose work I recently reviewed. While there is much I could respond to in his essay, I think that by doing so specifically I would detract from the overall impact. If I reply to one point, but leave another alone, I fear leading us astray into side thoughts and potentially minor details. Therefore, much as I love a good discussion, I think I will leave the specifics here un-addressed by me. Eric's essay stands all by itself, anyways, without any help from me. I am honored to publish it, and I am delighted to get a little insight into Eric's working methods, his "process" if you will, which while quite foreign to me nonetheless makes a lot of sense.

I hope to write quite a lot in oblique response to Eric's piece here, as his ideas filter through my own. I shan't, I think, specifically cite this essay for reasons noted above, but you should most certainly assume that if I say something clever which appears to come from Eric's thoughts, that indeed I have borrowed it lock, stock, and barrel.

This is a viewpoint quite different from my own in important ways, and I welcome it.

Thanks, Eric!

Andrew Molitor’s kind review (21 Oct) of the nude photographs on my website provided real food for thought. Two things stood out: a. My website needs re-thinking (at the moment it’s a chest of drawers rather than a gallery), and b. Andrew’s current emphasis on ‘story’ or ‘theme’ in nude photos may serve to distract us from their aesthetic qualities. Here I’ll focus on the latter point.

Andrew is currently undertaking a very interesting and useful exploration of the notions of ‘story’, ‘meaningfulness’ and ‘theme’ in photography (most recently on 9 Nov). Although he’s still wrestling with these terms, there are examples in his blog entries to aid interpretation. Am I right in thinking that ‘story’ (or ‘meaningfulness’) is experienced by the viewer irrespective of the photographer’s intentions, while ‘theme’ is intentional and explicit, often made so by title or text? If so, that would mean that story and theme need not overlap. In any case, for Andrew, photos fail if they don’t evince a story/aren’t meaningful, or do not convincingly illuminate the theme.

If my understanding of Andrew’s thinking is reasonably accurate, then I worry a bit about the definition of ‘story’. Individual responses to photographs depend so much on such constantly shifting variables as mood, prior personal experience, viewing time, cultural relevance, topic familiarity, and even manner of presentation, and viewing conditions. A single large photo on a wall, properly lit, may well engage the viewer very differently than the same image on a website or in a book. A second viewing of the same photo on the same wall may evoke a different story, or none at all.

In his commentary on my collection of photos called ‘The Averted Gaze’, Andrew notes there is “a lot of room for meaning; one can read (the series) any number of ways”. This statement says something about what Andrew means by ‘story’, but he’s also responding to the title (‘theme’), which, in a fit of whimsy, I gave to a rather unstructured bunch of photos I liked. I am glad that Andrew engages with these photos and can see a potential ambiguity in the title (whose gaze?), but I would be even more happy if I could communicate through the photos what it was that engaged *me* at the time the photo was taken. In other words, my ‘story’ and my ‘meaningfulness’. If I can’t get that across to the viewer, my photo fails (as it surely often will).

I don’t want to talk of ‘intent’ here [1], because I don’t want to intellectualise what I like to think of as an instinctive creative process. What I enjoy about taking photos is the search for those moments when everything (light, shadow, form, texture) comes together compositionally and emotionally before the shutter is clicked. When it does come together, I may feel a brief frisson (thrill, shiver) of excitement. If I’m lucky, the resultant photo will recall the frisson, and I would deem the photo successful if the viewer can sense it too. A helpful analogy might be with music, where we as listeners experiencing frissons during certain (types of) passages in a composition, even on repeated hearings. I assume that they are also experienced during the act of composition and by the musicians themselves.

In my case, such frisson-causing photographic events are not frequent, and certainly never come about through the application of some mingtheinian pre-visualisation; on the contrary, they are largely unfathomable. Which is why I dislike detailed planning and don’t care to record the technical details of a shot so as to be able to recreate it at some other time. Let each new photo be a new discovery, I trumpet. Never go back! I am sometimes asked why I need to have nude bodies in my photos at all, if it’s only about formal things falling into the right places in the composition. The answer is that I think (young female) bodies are beautiful, their owners are fun to talk to, and they participate in a collaborative effort the goal of which is the pursuit of beauty.

It seems to me that ‘beauty’ also constitutes a theme in its own right, though one that Andrew hasn’t paid much attention to. He would seem to prefer ‘intellectual meat’ on his nudes. In his review of another section of my website, ‘The Box’, a series of nude photos of athletic young women, Andrew wonders if the series would have more of this property if the photos could function, say, as an essay about depression or relationships or growth.

Yes, perhaps these themes and others could be addressed by a series of Box photographs or Averted Gaze photos, though to what purpose? I just don’t see my work ever serving as a handmaiden to some ‘worthy’ goal - the photos are what they are. I am after something more visceral, less intellectual.

Andrew’s call for nude photography to transcend its nudity seems to me an attempt at diversion. We’ve seen in the past how the display of nude art could be made acceptable to the public if it was veiled in either displaced time (classical antiquity, for instance [2]) or place (e.g ‘exoticism’ [3]). Now Andrew seeks to wrap a new type of veil of respectability round the nude by asking for it to serve a higher purpose. He doesn’t really want the photos to be about nudity at all. ‘Is it even really possible to do a photo essay of real meaning that involves nudes, or is the viewer just going to be all distracted by the nakedness anyways?’, he writes, only slightly tongue in cheek, I guess.

But then he is a self-professed American Prude (11 Oct)!

[1] Though see Jörg Colberg’s latest piece at I also think his remarks there about about our friends the Bechers and Robert Frank’s The Americans are, er, baffling.

[2] Leni Riefenstahl, and ‘Nelly’ amongst photographers; Alma-Tadema’s painting ‘A Favourite Custom’ illustrates this, as do Bouguereau’s ‘Abduction of Psyche’ and many others of his paintings.

[3] Von Gloeden’s Sicilian youths, African tribespeople, topless Japanese ‘geisha’


  1. "Frisson of excitement" - this says it very well. The force from within ourselves which drives us to take a picture. I often feel the same when something great unfolds in front of the camera. The excitement to "get the picture" and the wild joy if it succeeded. This is what makes photography so addictive to me. I actually enjoy to become carried away, just let it happen.

    Best, Thomas

  2. Dear Erick,
    Your post is a joy to read and looking at the photos, there's even more joy to behold!
    Form and shape within the Box is superbly represented.
    They're naked young ladies?
    Good choice of subject matter; the human form is very malleable.
    I like the rest of your portfolio,too, as shown on your website, for its use of light and shade and form.
    Do these photographs need to tell a story?
    I don't think so.
    Are they capable os 'standing alone'?
    Very much so.
    When the book of The Box is published, I will be very happy to add it to my collection, as it gives me a goal to aim for, in terms of execution, representation of form and space, light and shade.
    I am very glad that you continue to make work of such a high standard.
    Thomas Rink, for me, hits the nail on the head with "Frisson of excitement", the delight one has in sharing the work of a quality photographer as opposed to a computer designer and maker of images.
    I had the same thrill creep up my spine when seeing paintings by Vermeer for the first time, when listening to the opening chords of Widor's Toccata from the 5th Organ Symphony, indescribable but nevertheless, very real.
    The more we analyze such feelings, the more mundane they become.
    Just let the hairs on the back of your neck (real or imagined!) do the talking!

    1. Thanks for your comments, David. The Box book is sold out, but a new edition is in preparation. The publisher is Galerie Vevais, in Germany (