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Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Outside the frame

This is coming out a bit more rambling than usual, sorry about that. Efforts to tighten it up are failing.

Over the last year or two I've really been digging around in a couple of apparently unrelated topic areas. The first is "Natural Navigation" and the second is Buddhism (probably more accurately described as some aspects of certain flavors of). I've tried to relate these to photography in various ways, and here's another shot at it.

Consider the photographs of Crewdson, Duane Michals (thanks Nick!), or Cindy Sherman's "Untitled Film Still" series. These are all pretty explicitly about storytelling, the pictures are designed, explicitly, to look as if they're part of a larger story which may or may not exist. Consider also the great photojournalistic photo essays. These explicitly belong to a larger story which actually does exist. I could put poor hard working Sally Mann back in harness to drag the same point along. The point being, a great deal of very important work gathers its strength from the implied context, just outside the frame.

Natural Navigation, the old approach to, philosophy of, pathfinding, works in much the same way, and in stark contrast to modern methods of navigation. Not only is the ancient pathfinder present in the moment, observing closely, intimately connected with the environment, he or she is making deductions and drawing conclusions based on the current context, what is already known or guessed. Clues are pieced together constantly, supporting and contradicting one another, to create a constantly updated mental picture of where the next destination is and how to get there.

A path is, often, a strip of flattened earth flanked by higher vegetation. A path running west-to-east in the northern hemisphere therefore has the sun on the right, usually, which implies that the right side of the path is shadowed by vegetation more than the left. Puddles might last later into the day on the right, therefore. A clue as to the orientation of the path may therefore be derived by observing the moisture on the path. Not a reliable clue, but added to what is already known, added to a 100, a 1000 other tiny cues, home or a friend might be found.

The essential product of the labor, where am I, how do I get where I am going is intimately connected to what is right here, nearby, and thence outwards to the larger world.

Buddhism, at least some aspects of some sorts, seems to have a similarly idea of holistic connection to the here and now. One is present here and now, but with an awareness like ripples from a cast stone spreading outwards from here and now to, ultimately, everywhere. It's sort of psychological, emotional, or spiritual pathfinding, in a way.

In the same way, again, some of the best photographs are intimately tied up with the here and now, but connected to, related to, the larger context from which they are taken. They contain, or imply, a larger story which is still here and now, which is itself related, connected, outward and outward.

The strength of a great portrait is, I think it can be argued, largely about the way it implies the larger narrative. It feels as if we know the subject, in a sense. We are willing perhaps to extrapolate a little about that person, to imagine their story or at any rate the general emotional, physical, psychological shapes in that story. He looks like he worked hard all his life or she looks interesting or I wonder if he was a dancer might not be detailed stories, but they give us that connection, real or imagined, to things outside the frame.

The hallmark of a poor portrait is that it does not do any of these things. That looks like a high school senior who is interchangeable with all the other high school seniors who have ever stood on the train tracks holding a guitar. It does not matter if you have all five lights in the right spot to best flatter her somewhat unfortunately round face, the portrait is awful.

In the same way many nudes (just to circle back again to the little drum I have been beating of late) are all too often divorced from the world, isolated photographs of nothing, with no connection to anything. I spent a little time this weekend which Weston's Book of Nudes and, Nancy Newhall's fawning essay notwithstanding, I found them kind of boring. Yes yes, sculptural this and that. Perhaps he was the first to give us sharply focused nudes, but he doesn't seem to be to have been the best by any means. Newhall seems to be arguing that he's doing something radical and new, but she's woefully unable to explain what on earth it is except by what it is not (which seems to be Pictorialism, and I agree, but she and Weston both seem to be convinced that the pictures are not abstracts and most of them are). Perhaps the pictures that are actually new are the somewhat unappealing ones of a nude woman sprawled awkwardly on the dunes, her back to the camera?

These last were probably something quite new, we see her moles, she's awkwardly posed, she's not quite classically beautiful perhaps? But still she is a nude on a sand dune, with no convincing connection outside the frame at all. Each is an isolated and inexplicable picture that evokes no particular story, even if we allow the most abstract or formless emotional reaction the designated story. Weston's nudes seem, in the end, to be the same as his peppers, his shells, and much else, an exploration of form and texture, vaguely tinged with the erotic. While that may have played well back in the day, it's just not good enough any more.

Yes, yes, taken in the historical context Weston is a giant, and fully deserves his reputation. The point is that, that was then and this is now. As is so often the case, the gigantic and seminal work of then, if given to us today, would seem a bit silly, trite.

And so we see it with a great deal of modern photography. A gorgeous landscape is just yet another gorgeous landscape. It you don't recognize the mountain, or the outcropping, or the waterfall, well, it could have been shot anywhere any time. It has no connection to anything, it's isolated. A bird in flight is, all too often, just another bird.

We can also see this in failed photo essays. An artist might be trying to show us a series of windows on a larger story and simply fail, we (or I) can't quite fit the pictures together, we (or I) can't feel an underlying story. I might believe in it, intellectually. I might even know for sure it's a real story, because I read the news. But sometimes the pictures can't evoke it for me. The example that comes immediately to mind here is Zachary Roberts, in the NYT Lens Blog, or on the Luminous Endowment site. This is a very real, interesting, tragic story. As I have previously remarked, Zachary's efforts to make something of it with photographs don't strike me as particularly successful (yet?).

Finally one imagines that a set of pictures could evoke a story perfectly well. A completely uninteresting story. Or at any rate a story that fails to interest this viewer, or that.

ETA: Here's a nearly perfect example of that last, an Anti-Passive Smoking campaign. Yes, yes, children are at risk from second-hand smoke. Also, we should probably avoid pushing them over cliffs, or holding them underwater for long periods of time. This is heavy-handed and twenty years too late. Apparently it won an award, for reasons I cannot comprehend.

Anyways. I am increasingly finding, in short, that pictures that don't hint broadly at things not in the picture, don't make me very happy.


  1. Did you get para 5 the wrong way round? Northern hemisphere sun is usually in the southern part of the sky (apart from early morning/late evening in summer), so would be on your left when walking east to west...

    Maybe I focused on the detailed point because I found much of the rest very hard to understand. But this in relation to portraits:

    "He looks like he worked hard all his life"

    Yes, that is the sort of thought that comes from seeing a great portrait.

    1. I did indeed get it the wrong way 'round, hopefully it will be fixed by the time you read this ;)

      To be honest, I'm not sure how much there is *to* understand in this post. I'm wrestling with some things, and it's not 100% clear to me that there's any sense to it. It feels to me like there's something there, though.

  2. The trouble with portraits is that apart from their general irrelevance, they tell us nothing about the subject that we can’t already see for ourselves or we can’t easily guess from clues. And if they do have us wondering, it isn’t going to be very profound wondering.

    All things being equal, pics of celebrities are more interesting than pics of ordinary folk because they come with a ready-made biography. Theat photo of Yoko and John proclaims Love more loudly than a pic of Haruko and Brian does because Yoko and John had the habit of telling us about it, and we’ve never actually heard of Haruko/Brian. Mind you, if you had attended Haruko and Brian’s wedding, you might have a different view. So: Fame and infamy matter. Many of the great portraits are of famous people. Similarly with nudes. A nude of a film star encourages more prurient interest than a nude of a nobody.

    And as for ‘reading’ portraits, what does it matter if one thinks 'She looks interesting'? It’s about as revealing as 'She’s very pretty'. Why does a portrait suggest that the subject 'looks like he’s worked hard all his life'? Is it because the signs are already there for us to read? Dirty fingernails? A lined face? The tools of his trade? A photo of Hitler in alpine garb: 'He looks like a half-wit'. Maybe he does, because we know he wasn’t. It doesn’t even take much to invent a story about the bored adolescent staring back at the camera. And the story will be trivial. That is why portraits of ordinary people are so damn difficult to make interesting unless they come ready-packaged with meaning for a particular audience.

    Weston’s photos of Charis in sunlight in a doorway or in the sand are not my favourites nudes either, but I can analyse them for what they are. And what they are are shapes and light and shadow in all manner of glorious fleshly human constructions. They are their own justification. Connections to the outside world are not excluded ('I wish it was as warm here at home as it is obviously was in California back then'. 'The photo is the outcome of a deep and mutual love'), but they are neither necessary nor sufficient conditions for rendering a photo ‘good’ or’bad’.

    1. A great portrait tells us nothing, really, but it makes us believe we've been told, and that is enough. Crewdson's pictures don't tell us true stories, and indeed they don't tell us a damn thing. But they evoke something, they make us believe in some story, in something, which we probably know is fiction.

      Does a novel tell us any more, really?

  3. I'm a bit uncomfortable with the notion of a "story". A "story" sounds so - rational. Let's say that a successful picture (or body of work) elicits some sort of emotional, sometimes subliminal response in the viewer. This response is fed from what the viewer "knows" - his past experiences and memories, I don't know a better word - perhaps his "mind"? I believe the same act of "emotional recognition" takes place when a photographer takes a picture - in fact it would be the reason to take the picture in the first place. This is why I always cringe when I read stuff like "Try to see every subject and element as an arrangement of shapes, colors and luminance – nothing more, nothing less.". It's a dead-on recipe for boring pictures.

    Best, Thomas

    1. My use of the word 'story' is probably very idiosyncratic. I mean an extremely broad idea, far wider than a mere narrative, and not necessarily verbal at all. Just... something, something more.

      I think we agree. And I wish there was a good word for what we really want to say.

    2. My use of the word 'story' is probably very idiosyncratic. I mean an extremely broad idea, far wider than a mere narrative, and not necessarily verbal at all. Just... something, something more.

      I think we agree. And I wish there was a good word for what we really want to say.

  4. so I've just gotten back from Waikiki and organized my photos, tossing about 2/3 of them instantly, and acknowledging my suspicion that I needed to have done another two trips up and down the strip with the camera - I DID have the right ideas, I DID correctly identify (and at least start on shooting) alot of the image-types I wanted to get, but the shots I actually took weren't always right or I needed a few more to properly represent that portion of the kaleidoscope of visual impressions that is Waikiki. (e.g. I had difficulty photographing the homeless out of ambiguities-of-respect, and all the lovely shysters were pretty aggressive about enforcing NOT being photographed at all. Which made for some exciting moments.)

    so I've looked at them all, and selected a set that seems to be a story, or "the story"… and now suddenly this morning I'm twitching a bit - I'm personally so entranced by the frame, many-layered Waikiki, its opulence of brilliant light and colour and form and varied humanity and its myriad associated entertainments and occupations… will this family of images actually communicate "the story" to a few/some/most/all viewers, or are they coded summaries that will only make sense to me?
    guess that's a Q to be asked upon presentation of the portfolio... Is this a story to you? what IS this?
    we'll see!

  5. Excellent post. I actually think I get a kind of drift on what you’re thinking about. And I’m going to have to disagree with the earlier comment about portraits being irrelevant. I think they can be very relevant and very revealing in precisely the cases where we don’t have a built-in backstory. I actually find celebrity portraits less interesting for precisely that reason, i.e., I can’t look at them and forget what I know (or think I know) about the subject. Add to that the fact that many, if not most celebrity portraits aren’t really about the subject, they’re about the visual concept, i.e., they’re really about the photographer or designer. They’re not an attempt to dig into the soul of the subject, they’re an attempt to present a cool-looking or even thought-provoking idea, which oftentimes has nothing to do with the person at the center. Which is not to say that any number of iconic celebrity photographs aren’t great or don’t qualify under some definition of “art”, they’re just not “portraits” of the subject.

    Pure portraits which do attempt to “dig into the soul” are really, really hard to make, and often fail. But they’re out there, and very relevant. As a less-than-perfect but illustrative example, compare Richard Avedon’s celebrity portraits with his “American West” portraits. Some of the (perhaps more well-known) “American West” portraits are concept-driven, but many aren’t, and those in particular put me to mind of something out of the frame, but real. And the “realness” makes it relevant. It’s really them, caught in an unguarded moment, revealing something almost hynotic in some of those faces and postures.

    Keep up the thoughtful work,


  6. Nudes being divorced from the outside world....
    John Berger explained the why in the 70s, in Ways of Seing, episode 2. I insert a link, hope you will see it