Sunday, January 19, 2020

Art History and Photography II

This is a followup to this little essay here.

As a commenter noted, there were efforts to escape the trap of pseudo-painting that Photography found itself in at the beginning of the 20th century. Mainly the Europeans did a bunch of stuff with abstraction, multiple exposures, forced perspective, mirrors, light painting, long exposures, collage, and on and on. They were doing more than simply trying to ditch perspective, but whatever they were doing, they sought to break the barriers imposed by the camera.

It all seems to have fizzled out around WWII. Some of that crowd continued to make work into the 1970s or so, but the movement as a whole thing didn't really go anywhere that I can see.

To be fair, there does continue to be some of the same techniques deployed even today, but the aim seems to be kind of random, or non-existent. People use these methods and more because they results look cool, and that seems to be about it. There's just a "cool!" reaction followed by "what if I do the same thing, but twice as hard?" and then after a few days, or weeks, or months, the photographer moves on and buys a drone.

In the USA in that same period everyone was too concerned with replacing excessively painterly Pictorialism with slightly less painterly Straight Photography and missed the whole show in the process. We are now in a world, globally, where we have what are essentially neo-Modernists arguing with neo-Pictorialists over just how much Photoshop is acceptable. Which, honestly, is pretty much to completely miss the point. Over in the corner we have some MFAs doing God Alone knows what, but it's a mess.

I like me some Hannah Hoch as much as the next guy, but none of the "tricks" of the early 20th century really float my boat. There's a bunch of in-camera stuff you can do, there's a bunch of post-process stuff you can do, and it all strikes me as betraying the essentials of photography.

What I want is to escape the box while remaining in the box.

As I see it, the essential characteristic of a photograph is that it witnesses truly: this is what it actually looked like, in this instant, from this viewpoint.

Man Ray, Hannah Hoch, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and a bunch of others tended to discard one or more of these important traits of the photograph in pursuit of what we might as a kind of shorthand think of as showing us not what it looks like, but rather what is is. Now, I'm all in favor of showing what something is but not necessarily at the expense of ditching what it looks like.

To show what a thing, or event, or person, is, is to traverse time and space. Space-time exists, things and events occur in it. It is a rare subject indeed that can be fully revealed in a direct and naive way from one view in one instant. One needs to show or to imply a continuum of points of view, and a continuum of time. This seems to be in direct contradiction to the photograph, which specifically and in its very nature, does the opposite.

The obvious solution, my pat answer to pretty much everything, is the sequence of photographs. Multiple points of view, multiple points in time, surely we're done here?

Less obviously, though, I think the single frame has the power to imply time, to imply multiple points of view, especially when helped along by a little text.

I have no magic recipe for doing it, but I believe it can be done, and that doing so is worthwhile.


  1. I think David Hockney certainly deserves a mentioning here!

    1. You know, it's possible that I am totally wrong about "it all fizzled out around WWII" part and that I'm simply looking in the wrong places. Or, worse, forgetting stuff faster than I come across it!

    2. Wow, his polaroid collages are really awesome.