Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Would/Could II

My touchstone in the Would/Could remarks I made earlier is really Sally Mann's Battlefield series. If someone handed you a small print of one of these things, without context, you would probably dismiss it out of hand. It looks for all the world like someone's first attempt at collodion, a test shot of their back yard. Why on earth would someone shoot this? you might reasonably ask. It is only in an appropriate context that these pictures can be rather more like being hit with a hammer.

The point is that Mrs. Mann chose to shoot those pictures, those apparently bland landscapes. She chose to play games with the process to bring in serendipitous possibility. Her could is strong, there is much of photography that she is capable of. Her would is stronger, she chooses to take photographs that are difficult and complex, that work together with other photographs.

This essential quality is something I continuously struggle to understand in some fashion or another, specifically because it is exactly this that I aspire to.

In order to understand what works, we examine it, and compare with what doesn't work. To that latter end, let us re-introduce Mr. John Penner[*], who will serve as well as a million others as an archetype of that which I do not aspire to.

You can see John's pictures here: John's Photography where you will find a lot of stiffly posed and Correctly Lit photographs of people.

I do not pretend to know John's mind, particularly, but examining his pictures one can practically see the flowchart. Let us imagine a little. Fat people get posed this way or that, skinny people in other ways. John makes choices, but only per the flow chart, where it grants options. John's ability with lights is fine, his could is adequate to his needs. In my sense, he has no would whatsoever. His choices are almost entirely technical. A man is posed this way or that way, because he is a man. A woman is lit this way or that, based on what John has read, or otherwise learned, about how women ought to be lit.

What is lacking is any emotional connection or response. This is standard storefront portraiture, which one can find infesting almost any city in the USA or Canada. The shop is invariably decorated with large ornately framed photographs of grimacing teenagers propped up in ill-fitting suits in front of an ugly mottled green background. You know precisely what you'll get. An awkward experience, blessedly quick, resulting in one or more "clear" photographs that look like you, if you had been flayed and then coated in a sort of flesh colored liquid plastic.

John and his ilk give no appearance of any kind of vision, any notion of what they are particularly trying to portray about their victims. They give no appearance of any capacity for imagining such an idea, or how to go about executing it if they did. Photography is for them, as it is for so many people, merely a sequence of technical problems, each with their prescribed solutions. Photography is a process of matching solution to problem, and executing.

Videos of Mann working exist, and are interesting. While there are technical problems to solve as she works, she gives no appearance of attending to them whatever. She seems to me to be in a sort of reverie, a nearly ecstatic state. She looks, she exhales, she mutters something like "ahhh, that's it. hold still" and appears to be accessing something we cannot perceive. If there's a person in front of the camera, the appearance is one of Mann, the subject, and some sort of muse, in some mostly silent communion. There is no mucking about with light stands, no test shots. Man cleans a plate abstractedly, perhaps narrating for the person filming her, but paying almost no attention to the rather finicky details of wet plate work.

Mann appears to be interested primarily in reaching some sort of agreement with whatever or whoever is in front of the camera. There's probably a lot of failures. But sometimes, it works.

I had a conversation with my neighbor Alan, an historian and a (professionally) religious man a few weeks ago in which he characterized religious faith as a distinct epistemological category. It isn't merely belief and it isn't knowledge, it is its own thing.

I rather think that it might be useful to think of that thing that art gives us is yet another one of these things. It's not faith, it's not merely belief, and it certainly isn't knowledge. But it is, when it's working, perfectly convincing, deeply felt and understood. It might be beyond articulation, though an articulate person can usually offer some words that surround the thing. I don't have a word for it, and I rather wish I did.

So the would to which I aspire is not a choice based on knowledge, or any of those other epistemological categories, but rather based on this Art thing. The choice to shoot this versus that, is directed perhaps by that muse that Mann is in sympathy with on the better days. A good portraitist is accessing this kind of thing as well, they and the subject have groped there way to something more felt than known, something ineffable, and then there's that "ahh, that's it. hold still." moment.

I'd like a piece of that, please. Just a little one.

[*] John Penner objected by use of one of his pictures, and elected to make an ongoing pest of himself in my email over a period of time based on his complete failure to understand Fair Use doctrine, and so he has earned the privilege of being held up as the example of an archetype until I either forget where his web site is, or no longer require the use of such an example.


  1. Probably the "would" for Mr Penner is to make flawless portraits of his clients. Today, where "everybody is a photographer", I'm glad that shops like Mr Penner's are still around. Whenever I need a serious portrait of myself (for instance, for a job application, for my driving license or id card), these are the places to go.

    Speaking of myself, I with you. I can't imagine to work on a "could" without a prospective "would". I consider skills, techniques and technologies as means, and not as an end in itself; there has to be a future project, an application to incent me to learn a certain skill. For this reason, I admittedly don't know a lot about photographic technique - and would advise everybody who asks me to shoot his/her wedding, to hire the likes of Mr Penner instead.

    Best, Thomas

    1. That is a perfectly reasonable characterization!

  2. Your calling out of Mr. Penner feels a lot like bullying and it's not becoming to you...

    1. Mr. Penner bought and paid for it, to be blunt. Also, bullying would imply that I have some ability to affect Mr. Penner's life in some way, which I do not. Not in the slightest.

      I think it is at worst petulant whining.