The Pictorialists got a lot of grief, and still do, for being sentimental. They compounded their problem by being preachy and mawkish to boot, and if you look closely you might decide that the problem actually isn't the sentimentality, but rather the preachy mawkishness.
I've shared various work by M. Frédérick Carnet here, and I continue to think that he is excellent. Some time, not too long ago, he sent me a link to some more recent work. To my shame, I did not (and still have not) replied to him about it. Basically, I recognized the new work as Distinctly Carnet, but somehow I didn't like it as much as I have liked his previous things. I could not put my finger on why, but I think I have worked it out.
Here is the new work he directed me to: Les faces cachées, and here, for reference, is some of the earlier work from him that I like rather better: The last first day.
Both are distinctly surrealist, there are certain visual tools he is using that are shared between the two, and so on. Neither is particularly warm or hope-filled.
Here is the distinction which I think is critical to me. "The last first day," with its overtones of loss and maybe disaster, implies a warmth and a hope, a sentimentality, which is lost. Or perhaps has moved. One feels the absence. There is a space left on the page of the right shape. On the other hand "Les faces cachées" does not seem to me to contain any particular warmth or hope, nor does it particularly imply these things as absences. These are pictures that strike me as being without sentiment, particularly. There isn't any warmth, nor is there a space left by absent warmth. There is no handle, as it were, for me to access any kind of meaning in them, as there is with "The last first day."
It is this lack of sentiment which, I think, I feel so often in contemporary photography. The work simply feels cold, calculating, cynical. There is some sort of core of nihilisim in it, or perhaps merely of pure commerce. I see female artists removing their clothes, but failing to reveal themselves. They appear to me to be exposing their breasts and genitals in order to provoke a critical reaction from older male critics, and that's about it. I see artists taking willfully emotionless photographs of cities, buildings, fields, roads.
Here we have a bit of hagiography in that bastion of great journalism, the New York Times, about Alec Soth: "A Year of fuck it I can't bear to type it out". The line that lept out to me is this one: He was, as the New York Times critic Hilarie M. Sheets once noted, especially adept at “finding chemistry with strangers,” particularly “loners and dreamers” he met in his travels.
This is a remarkable statement, that could only be made by someone who hasn't actually looked at any of Alec Soth's photographs. His signature is, quite literally, people looking uncomfortable, out of place, off-kilter. Shot, naturally, on a large format film. Soth's work is profoundly unsentimental, profoundly nihilist, and anyone who says he's finding chemistry with strangers is simply an idiot, blind, or both.
I have no particular evidence of it, but it seems probable to me that sentiment is simply out of fashion. I imagine contemporary artists and critics looking at sentimental pictures and dismissing them as "too easy" and turning back to their chilly bullshit.
In a sense, there is something true about this. It is easy to bang out overtly sentimental pictures, and it can be done very lazily. Much of contemporary critique of photojournalism centers around this: the shot of the weeping/starving/injured child in the midst of disaster. It's an easy shot, it's a common shot, it's the shot that wins the prizes (because, while lazy, it is effective.)
What is left out of the analysis is this: while it is indeed easy to bang out sentimental (mawkish) pictures, this does not imply that all sentimental pictures are easy. I point again to Carnet's "The last first day" which is by no means easy, lazy, or simple. It has real depth, and also sentiment. Also, see every single picture Sally Mann has ever taken (the attentive reader probably knew that was coming, no?)
All this sets aside that nihilistic pictures are even easier to make than mawkish ones. One simply points the camera at mud, or at a peevish and uncomfortable model, and presses the button.
When I was working on my Alley project, I had a lot of pictures and ideas sloshing around in my head. There was a lot of technical detail that seemed important, there was a rather large basket of record shots of this and that. There were pictures of people, of cats, of plants, of stones, of water. There were details of things that expressed my personal affection for the space.
Early incarnations of the thing tended toward the factual. I found myself gradually integrating more factual material, drawing cross-sections of the alley construction and eventually downloading the city's specifications for alley construction.
At some point in here I specifically thought: this needs more sentimentality. Which, in hindsight, seems kind of obvious. If you're integrating construction diagrams into your work, it probably need some damned sentiment.
The whole point of this project is that I have certain feelings about this alley on which I live. I have a relationship which is essentially emotional to that space that runs up and down behind my house. The technical details are also interesting, and certainly are a piece of the puzzle, but the basis upon which the project was built is essentially emotional.
And so I made a folder entitled "Love" and I started putting pictures into it. In the end, it is a few of those pictures which appear at the end of the magazine I made. The magazine begins with a lot of historical and technical text and drawings, record shots of details, and so on, and gradually disintegrates into what I fondly imagine to be a poetic, a lyrical, meditation on my alley and how I feel about it. Because that is the point.
At the end of the day, the Artist specifically, and the Photographer generally, is surely seeking to communicate. If the goal is to communicate technical, factual, detail, then the photograph specifically, and Art generally, is perhaps not the right medium (although a technical communication may incorporate photography, or Art).
No, the communication of photography, of Art, has to be essentially emotional. There must be a bedrock of sentiment upon which the thing stands, otherwise there isn't any point. There is nothing to communicate, no shared experience, nothing of note or worth.
The modern nihilism in Art is a failure, which leads nowhere.