Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The Noble Snapshot

I like snapshots, I think they're a valuable artifact and just plain fun to look at. I think you can probably do really great things with snapshots.

What I don't like is the trend to pretend that they're something they're not, the Noble Snapshot. You needn't look far to find pompously promoted Art Books full of these things. I talked about one not too long ago.

What I mean by "snapshot" here is the photograph that pays little to no attention to the formal details. Foreground and background happily run together. The thing might be a bit tilted for no particular reason. One chap is mid-blink. Whatever. The content is probably interesting only to the people in the picture, except at second-order, at a little remove. I might love it for its simple charm, for its obvious importance to the girl in the picture, for the beautifully incomprehensible personal moment it so clumsily portrays.

Most snapshots I probably won't like much, because there's nothing much there. But still, you know, someone went to the trouble for some reason. Like a child's painting, even blurriest ham-fisted photo of the fridge has something going for it.

What these things are not, though, is Noble.

When you stick them in a heavy book, with a fatuous essay, you're trying to make them into something they are not. The result looks like a mule at a Lippizaner Stallions show. Mules are great, they even have their own beauty if you squint a little. But they're not the Royal Lippizaners, and they would simply look stupid. You do nobody any favors by putting the mule into the show.

Here is a case in point. Colberg has recently reviewed a book by a friend of his. A woman who, in the early 1980s, used a view camera to capture the quotidian moments around her in a snapshot aesthetic. Here's the blurb from the publisher:

When Mary Frey began photographing family, friends and strangers in her immediate environment in 1979, she was in a state of transition. Studies finished, first teaching assignment, pregnant - responsibilities, duties, worries - and the need to look for meaning in everyday life. After a childhood in the sense of an imminent nuclear catastrophe, in an America where lifestyle magazines and television give directions how the BRAVE NEW WORLD should look and function.

Mary Frey has made strange pictures. Technically perfect, between snapshot and enactment, intimacy and distance. Charged banalities with children, adolescents and adults, middle class, USA, 35 years ago. No reportage, a psychogram. Stockphotos that no magazine would have printed, no agency would have used for a campaign. Weird.

And let me also quote from her statement about what I think is the same project (her web site is broken, so I cannot be certain, but the timeline and the subject matter are right):

This project grew out of my fascination with the snapshot as a vessel for and shaper of memory and my abiding interest in the straight photograph as a seemingly truthful and precise record of an event. The work began with a systematic documentation of daily routines (cooking, eating, dressing, etc.). I sought out particularly banal situations and posed my subjects to appear as if they were truly engaged in their activities. The pictures, which have a quasi-documentary look about them, resemble a kind of tableau-vivant. The tools I chose to use--a large format camera, black and white film and diffuse flashbulb lighting--further enhance the stylized look of these images. At once, this body of work attempts to question the nature of photographic truth while using the iconography of middle class customs to comment on societal values and systems.

These remarks make explicit that this is a photography project about photography, it's Art about Art which I have noted is inherently tedious and uninteresting.

And now, finally, let us look at one of these things:

Frey's description makes it clear that this is a fake snapshot. A staged thing, intended to look like a snapshot, intended to capture a quotidian moment. Looking at it confirms this more or less instantly. It is simultaneously mannered in a few details, and also willfully ugly, willfully clumsy.

It's a good sample of a quotidian moment. As a father of daughters I can hardly think of a more typical scene. This is one of those scenes that is simply available, and can usefully be photographed for a project of quotidian family moments.

In fact, look at this:

This is exactly the same sort of thing. It is a staged snapshot, a recreation of a commonly occurring event in Sally Mann's family. In fact, one can imagine that Sally saw the license plate, and spent days or weeks marching her little girls out to stand next to it over and over until she got what she wanted. But, it is still presented under the aegis of a "kind of like a snapshot, a normal moment in a normal life."

The two pictures were shot within a few years of one another, there is no question of whether one copies the other -- of course no such thing is true. This is a common, available, scene.

What is true, however, is that the team putting together Mary Frey's book could not possibly have been unaware of Sally Mann's book, and it's thoroughly unlikely that they did not know "Gorjus." The fact that they selected this picture from Frey's archives and not another suggests a deliberate quote.

But they are wildly different photographs. Mann's is anything but a snapshot, it is a highly structured photograph of a (staged) ordinary moment. Frey's is equally staged, the subject matter is identical, but the aesthetic is completely different, it is willfully ugly. Now, Mary Frey is not being disingenuous or incompetent here, this is precisely what she has set out to do. My point boils down to, in the end, that I don't like it. I do, however, have reasons for not liking it.

Let's see what Sally Mann has to say about the pictures among which we find "Gorjus":

When the good pictures come, we hope they tell truths, but truths "told slant," just as Emily Dickinson commanded. We are spinning a story of what it is to grow up. It is a complicated story and sometimes we try to take on the grand themes: anger, love, death, sensuality, and beauty. But we tell it without fear and without shame.

So we have Frey, with her willfully ugly pictures. The blurbs, the artist's statement, all talk about the process, the weirdness of the pictures, the snapshotiness, the playing with the very idea of photograph or whatever. And then we have Mann with her extremely beautiful picture of the same subject, and she talks not about how great her process is, but about the ideas and themes that are embodied in the pictures.

We cannot escape it. The text wrapped around the ugly pictures, the willfully shoddy ones, is trying to make them sound important. The text wrapped around the beautiful pictures barely mentions the pictures themselves.

The Lippizaner Stallions don't need some huckster shouting about their grace, their beauty, their power. It's the broke-down mules and the crippled ponies that need someone to shout their praises to the masses, at least if they're being sold as graceful stallions. Mary Frey's book, despite the clumsily coy marketing, is not the second coming of Immediate Family. It is at best a completely different book and, realistically, it's probably not very good. No doubt the team behind it would bridle at the suggestion that it's being sold in relation to Mann's work, but only an idiot would deny the connections, the quotations, and so on.

This is not a trend I enjoy. I dislike being sold broken-down mules as Lippizaners, and I can jolly well tell the difference. I may be a rube, but I am not an idiot.

I like pigs just fine. Pigs are wonderful, and a staged snapshot, or even a book of them, might be lovely. But please, don't put lipstick all over the pig.

It makes you look stupid, and it annoys the pig.

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