Wednesday, January 16, 2019

The Crisis Point

I am reading some essays from John Berger. The very first one in this book of selected essays which I have is about Drawing.

Berger characterizes drawing, in the sense of the artist sketching for themselves, as a process of discovery. The artist, in the act of drawing, explores and learns which the subject is, what it actually looks like, in detail. This little space there, the alignment of this line or plane with that. The relationship of this bit to the other bit.

This, of course, makes perfect sense, but it's not something I had quite thought of in quite that way.

But then, Berger says, there is in every drawing a moment of crisis. There is a point in the process at which the act of drawing becomes more about the drawing than about the subject. The subject begins to serve more as a reference to confirm what the artist already wants to put into the drawing. The drawing takes on a life of its own and, in a meaningful sense, the process of discovery ceases.

Photography is nothing like drawing. In the act of photographing, one may be almost entirely unaware of the subject. More usually, you have some grasp of the larger forms, the bigger and more obvious graphical qualities, perhaps some emotional or human handle on the thing, a few other details. At best a sort of narrow and probably kind of trivial gloss on the whole thing.

However, when you come to the computer, or the enlarger, and begin to work on the damned thing, if this is something you do, then something a bit like drawing happens. You notice little bits of pieces, small details, larger forms you missed, and so on. In the decisions about what to bring out, and how, and what to suppress, and how, you examine the photograph minutely. You discover it and you discover what was photographed.

As with the process of drawing, there can come a crisis point. There comes a point, if you're deep into the thing, where the work you are doing ceases to be about what was in front of the camera, and begins to be about the photograph itself. This might come almost immediately, if you're some compositing hero for whom photographs are merely raw material, or a collage artist, or whatever. It might come very late if you're a Serious Street Tog showing the gritty side of life on the street. It might never come.

But when that moment arrives, it behooves you to notice it. It's not so much that you ought not proceed past that point, it is that once you do proceed you are in a different territory.


  1. Since a photograph is an artifact, a piece of printed paper, isn't the "crisis" a normal and necessary thing? I mean, in order to convert the photographed scene into a convincing photograph, isn't there some sort of abstraction required? Ansel Adams used the term "previsualization": the photographer experiences the scene, but at the same time tries to anticipate how it may look like when printed. This approach may be debatable, but you probably know the thought "interesting scene, but no picture here" from your own photographic practice, too.

    Best, Thomas

  2. My guess is that the classic editing process (proof sheet, selections, some dodging and burning of selections and maybe cropping as you make prints. That whole process is closer to drawing. It's harder to see it digitally, but it's still sort of there. When they change from images to photographs.

  3. Read HOLD STILL, by Sally Mann. Then you can get back to us. She has it nailed in so many ways and is eloquent in expressing reality and creativity in her world.

    1. Good idea.

  4. Why do you want to apply Berger's essay on drawing to photography when he has a essay "Understanding a Photograph" ?

    1. Well, why not? By the same logic I shouldn't apply anything Berger said at all, because Susan Sontag has this whole book "On Photography"

    2. Sigh. Well by that reasoning we should forget both and rely on Sally Mann's book "Hold Still". Actually, not a bad idea.

      You're trying to graft onto photography aspects of drawing. It's like photographers trying to make prints that look like paintings.

      I think you would find Berger's thoughts on photography right up your alley. he asks questions about whether photography is art, well high art, and composition.

      Sigh. Let's take that to next step. We should forget both and just use Sally Mann's book "Hold
      Still". Actually not a bad idea.

      The essay by Berger is on drawing. you trying to graft thoughts about drawing onto photography is reminiscent of photographers trying to make there prints look like paintings.

      His essay on photography is interesting. Should be right up your alley. He asks whether photography is art, well high art, and discusses composition.

    3. I have no ability to edit comments so I did not fix yours, sorry. Feel free to repost it if you like.

      Honestly, if you think I am attempting to make some direct and literal connection between drawing and photography then I am afraid you have radically mis-read my remarks above.

      Many things have parallels and analogies to other things, and a good portion of my blog is observing those things. That something else is also a parallel, or a different parallel, is not the point.

      It would be nice if you would at least sign your remarks, I have no idea how many Anonymous's I have in play here, and whether it's one bloke endlessly making vague passive-aggressive comments and thereby making himself something of a pest, or if it is a pack of unrelated ones, each individually a perfectly pleasant chap, or what.

    4. Also, I find the repeated references to "Hold Still" fascinating, because while it is a superb book with much of interest in it, it is remarkably light on photographic process. She relates a few anecdotes, but she is simply not that much interested in the kinds of intricate disassembly of photographic processes and photography that I indulge in (or Sontag, or Barthes, or Berger, or any of those people, all of whom I consider myself, naturally, superior to).

    5. re:
      ‘one bloke endlessly making vague passive-aggressive comments and thereby making himself something of a pest”

      That job it already taken on this blog.