Wednesday, December 19, 2018

The Dialects of Photography, Part II

On the one hand we have what we might call "organic" instances of some art. Let us imagine, perhaps, the traditional dances of a people. These arose in some kind of isolation and were refined and developed over long periods of time. They are at the same time a distinctive and interesting marker of the people, a product of that culture, and a thing those people own, a possession. We tend to value these things, because of their deep connection to a specific culture, a specific people. We value what we might refer to as these tribes and we value their artifacts.

Sometimes these organically arising arts are fantastically difficult for an outsider to master, other times they are quite easy. We seem to value them the same either way, I think.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have something else, let us call it constructed instances of some art. One imagines, say, landscape photography of a particularly purist stripe: No evidence of the hand of man, black and white only. This is also a cultural artifact, but not of a people or tribe that arose out of anything except the art in question. While there is certainly a group of people that do this, which identifies itself collectively, they have joined together specifically because of the art they share. They are not family, they do not share a religion. The art they share is not an artifact of their other, deeper, connections, it is their connection. At any rate, the initial point of connection, they may have later learned that they share the same politics or love of beer.

These things we don't particularly value. There is no larger cultural heritage which it marks, to which it hews. It's just a style, really.

And then, at least occasionally, we have a sort of hybrid object: a constructed art, designed and built to be a marker for a people. We have certainly seen, for instance, "African American" painting, which may or may not derive some ideas from something or other. While successful in museums, its not clear to me that it's made any kind of mark in the real world. I suppose I might recognize Basquiat? Is the rest of it just imitation?

There are, I think, a few "organic" bits and pieces in here, or at any rate I am willing in my state of relative ignorance to believe it.

Somewhere in here we have "urban" stylings, derived from spray-paint graffiti art, which is arguably something of an organic thing.

But what I really want to talk about is "female gaze" photography, which as nearly as I can tell is in the first place purely a construct, and in the second place being pitched as purely organic.

What I see is a bunch of tics, derived from nothing except, possibly, Cindy Sherman's oeuvre. The selfies in costumes and sets intended to evoke some vague indicators of feminine stereotyping, and the 1000 yard stare of women in.. thought? difficulty? pain?

Modern criticism of this sort of work would like to see it as an organically occurring, inherently female, style. It is intended, as I see it, to be placed beside Japanese sword making, inherently Japanese (female), deeply rooted in Japanese-ness (the feminine), and essentially impossible for the anyone outside of Japan (men) to master (these are all ideas about Japanese sword making which are "well understood" and completely false, by the way.)

But it's not. It's a construct. It did not exist 20 years ago, except as Cindy Sherman, and it's a relatively straightforward collection of tics and style notes. It is being sold as organic I believe because of the value we imbue these things with. If it were a mere construct it would not have much value, it would just be like the b&w landscape guys. No, it has to be sold as organic, even though it's not.

With the rise of identity based politics in the academy, I assume we're going to see more and more of these things getting rolled out. Can constructed genres of gay, asian, non-neurotypical photography be far behind? Are they already here?

As noted in my previous essay, there is essentially no way for an organic branch of photography to arise. The mechanisms, and sheer amount of time, necessary to create these things simply are not present. It follows then that any branch of photography, in particular as identity-group branded branch, is a construct, and that the only way it remains distinctive and unique to the identity-group will, in the end, be due simply to vigorous social pressure.

Organically arising art styles/forms are easy enough to borrow, the constructed kind are in general trivial to steal. Having been built once, the instructions for building a copy of it are pretty obvious, it can be constructed again. More importantly, the pieces of it can re-tasked, re-used, re-cycled into something new.

And they should be!


  1. While I would not disagree with you regarding the constructed nature of these “feminine gaze” and similar other-gaze subjective art, I would suggest taking one step back to find the organic impetus for it. For so long there has been just the one “gaze” and it was western, white and male. I think we are still just in the early days of a profound restructuring at a base level and I think that that change is truly organic and not at all constructed (insert sound of graybeards screaming “nooooooooooooo!”). So yes we are left with art that is purposefully saying something that is not directed at someone like me (see previously-referenced graybeards), but that doesn’t mean there isn’t an organic impulse afoot.

    1. I certainly believe that something of value can be constructed, it is not only "organic" art that has worth. I am not convinced that current efforts are succeeding.

      In general, in fact, I approve of the effort! I support women in photography, thoroughly.

      In this *particular* case, though, I think the effort is trying to borrow "value" by pretending to be something it is not, by deliberately blurring lines between organic and constructed things in order to borrow unearned value.

      My take is that these things are perfectly capable of earning their own value, and that this is the route they should take.

  2. But isn’t it often true that we all draw on past forms of expression on the path to creating something original later? Maybe that will happen here, who knows.

    1. It could be!

      The art of sword making in Japan is steeped in the history and culture of Japan, it is deeply rooted in Japan and it's Japan-ness. The curve of the katana arose (may have arisen?) because they could not precisely control their tempering process. They were trying to straight, but couldn't quite get there. So, they shrugged and said "let it curve" and the style of swordsmanship followed, using the curve, and now katanas have to be curved -- the fencing methods rely on it!

      While something similar might arise in identity-based branches of photography, I claim (I think) that it has not and that it (I think) will have difficulty arising in future due to extensive cross-fertilization.

      In effect, the tempering problem would never arise, because they would just go back to China and get the details, and learn to the swords come out straight which was what they wanted anyways. The isolation that led to the curve that was reinforced by the adoption of curve-friendly fighting styles is simply not present.

      While "girl gaze" photography might indeed eventually wind up developing the equivalent of the curved katana, it will be through other means, other paths.

      I'm not convinced, to be honest, that it makes any difference, I am just trying to sort through these things myself by writing out arguments one way or the other.

  3. I totally get the sorting-it-out part and I don’t read anything you said otherwise. Those innocent days before could all “know” everything and see everything are gone for good. Creativity more than ever requires a conscious effort to depart from known styles. Photographers often shoot styles they see. Some choose to leave imitation behind and see something new. I never had an Ansel Adams or Bresson period, but I sure as hell had an Eggleston.

  4. "Creativity more than ever requires a conscious effort to depart from known styles."

    The credo of Modernism (yeah, it's already been done).

  5. No this is something different. This is less about intentionally poking a stick in the eyes of traditionalists while you go about making what you want and more about recognizing that we are all so saturated with information that many do not see that they are the frogs in the pot of hot water on the stove.

    1. And you wannabe the antelope leaping over the moon, I suppose.

    2. I am uncertain where you're going here, but I will remark that insulting/attacking other commenters is basically the only thing forbidden in my rules for comments. I don't mind people harshing my mellow, but I won't have people using my blog as a platform to attack one another.

    3. Let me rephrase: the notion of originality is overrated, and the 'hero' artist of Modernism, 'breakthrough' etc. etc. are myths perpetuated by the market. Creativity is in actual fact based on, and (at best) a synthesis of "known styles".

    4. Depending on precisely what you consider to be "synthesis of known styles" I think that's either an astute remark, or outright wrong ;)

  6. But it’s sooooooo much more fun to be pithy and dismissive without having to make any actual point.

    1. I will note that your comment also flirts with the boundaries of the acceptable!

      Now everyone has had maybe a slight feint at everyone else, let us please try to return to attacking either nobody, or just me!

  7. Fair enough. That petty stuff gets boring real fast anyway.