11 January, 2009

Lens Grinding

In Skye I snapped away at the ice and frost quite happily, and at my comrades, who themselves snapped, with their crappy iPhones, at tree and face with wanton abandon. Only one of us demurred. Some of us, he snorted, prefer to use our minds. I was not unsympathetic to his response. After all, it was only a few years ago, at sunset, on one of the bridges from Cambridge into Boston, that I had said the same to another friend, only not, I hope, with such preening pomposity. The essential complaint is given loudest voice by one Becca Bland, founder of 'No Photography Day', who seems to have required a few books about Zen Buddhism to reach her conclusion, that photographers are
missing out on so much of the given moment through their obsession, an act of possession—of wanting to own the appearance of the place, as if this was all it had to give and photographs were their way of taking it.
Richard at Castrovalva comments (almost three years ago, mind):
Originally, I felt that photography was a mechanical way of viewing the world, which only served to dim the immediacy of experience. Since then, I've come to see it as a way of slowing experience and regaining observation of intricacy and detail. I'm thinking of how neuroscience has come to describe consciousness as a series of individual moments, which like a flickbook are asembled to create the illusion of a continuous stream; photography or painting return us to the moment that lies underneath the illusion.
As I believe I replied at the time—though since Richard has blanked out the comments, damning dialogue to the memoryhole, it is hard to be certain—this sort of aesthetic would strongly favour a photography of people, of living, or at least of moving subjects. But Richard is the snapper of buildings par excellence: he has even published. Even with a bit of sophistry, it isn't easy to defend the photography of architecture as 'a way of slowing experience', or as a recapturing of moments beneath the maya of continuous phenomena. Nor is it obvious how a good clean shot of, say, the Victoria Tower is 'as contrived a representation of reality as impressionist or cubist painting'. These are the sorts of things, in my own experience, that photographers have to say to defend and justify their own activity as an Art Form.

I find myself reaching for the camera, now, to photograph buildings, like Richard. Only I do not wait for the sun, and have neither a good camera, nor any interest in adding yet another image of the Victoria Tower or other London icons to the world's collection. So I walk the back streets of the city, in that grey with which all its architectures must compete, and take down anything which strikes my fancy; rarely the pretty or the glamorous, but rather that which speaks, and usually the incongruous, in particular—

You will see here, probably, that I have made some attempt at framing the picture for aesthetic effect. The first-floor windows snuggle neatly against the frame, the door is trig in the middle, indicated most obviously by the proximity of its flanking windows to either edge of the image, and the gates in the foreground provide a sense of depth. Moreover, the whole result has been tweaked to lessen the blue, so as to give you a better sense of how I seemed to see, or perhaps wanted to see, the subject in question. A Richard will say, There, your impressionist painting, your picture contrived straight out of reality.

But I think this is to attribute too much to the adjusting hand and eye. I deny that this is art; it is simply artisanry, at best. Something in my soul—is it a Platonism?—wants to safeguard the category of art. I cannot explain the mood, cannot give good reason for it. Still, it is there. I want to reserve art for the Rembrandts and Picassos—and for the bad artists too, the Renoirs and Rothkos—but not for the Richards and Conrads out for a jolly day around town with the old SLR. To efface that distinction, to deny any barrier between tekhnē and empeiría, science and knack, art and craft, is to have become blind to the value inherent in each. A programmer once said to me, quite unguardedly, that he was creative, but not artistic, an admission in which I find a very admirable modesty: and by modesty I mean not the false humility of so many intellectuals, but a true understanding of the nature and the limitations of one's own endeavours. Photography, and especially the photography of the static, like programming, is a creative activity, but not an artistic one: it aspires to be elegant and to give pleasure—but not to genius.


So I bring the above picture to your attention, and of course it is only an example, not so that you can admire my flair for composition, but only because I wanted you to see what I had seen, and wanted you to see it well. The beauty or interest in the image is entirely the work of other men. I aim for a handsome record of experience. But what of this aim? Is it worthwhile?

I try to avoid the false pride of the photographer: to retain my admiration or concern for the subject, not the image; but this is not always easy. I had long wondered why Owen Hatherley, who spends much of his time online writing about architecture, should offer his readers photographs of such poor quality: ill-framed, ill-lit, and unedited. It could not be a lack of talent, though he seems to suggest just that at the end of a post on Paternoster Square. No, I think he has deliberately given us bad pictures to remind us that they are pictures, not artistic end but utilitarian means within an argument. (I once recommended clunky translations for a related purpose.) Perhaps this is a more honourable choice for the purpose of recording an engagement with the world. I have praised the beauty of pylons, impossible to photograph elegantly: experience resisting formulation, sublimity transcending façade.

Moreover, the snapping process contributes to the slow but alarming devolvement of human faculties onto technology: the Thamus Effect. Just as we now let our Wikipedia remember facts for us, so we have long let our photographs remember experiences for us. In making our inner life communicable to others, whether by alphabets or cameras, we lose a little of it. For the pleasure of public admiration one sacrifices the pleasure of walking high and alone. And my memory, indeed, becomes fragmented; more precise in places, but perhaps a little less rich, or less sublime. The hand inside my pocket for the camera has come to be, I confess, too automatic. I press the button, in the immoral hope of obtaining a fine composition, but I do so with misgivings, like the recidivist smoker peeling the plastic from a new pack of fags, or the child with his fingers in a jar of candies, clever enough, but fat nonetheless.

It is only when I find a subject that will speak, not only for itself—for that it will do without the lens—but for me, that I seize it with impunity. When with words I can give a thing life it has not in the wild, domestication is an ennobling act. It is the rarest of chances.

[By the way, lots of photographs better spotted than mine, and much better taken, at my colleague M. W. Nolden's project, Rabbit Meets Hat. Update 17/1/09: James Sligh also comments.]


Peony said...

Still slowly making my way through Dante and all this talk of ice and frozen lakes-- it feels like it's hotter than hell.

Technology again.

Like you, I take pictures only after a second thought. I shoot in old-fashion film (no cell phone camera and no digital) and interestingly too, I remember events and places better when I was there without my camera. Once I purposely left my camera at home on an overseas adventure because I thought, I may never be back and I really want to LOOK. And sure enough the place (Vietnam) is without a doubt the landscape, the people, the smells, the way the light shone-- it stands out more than anywhere vividly in my memory.

But I also love photography. And, it is an art, I say. But I tend to love the artists who take very few shots... maybe like an Ansel Adams. Lately, I really like this photographer Kenro Izu , who shoots in large format platinum. He will go out for a month, the article says, and only take 8shots. I would call that a painting...

Not just art, but really *looking*

But you know I deny any Platonic But you know I deny any Platonic distinction (a la kant) between fine art and craft .... so we aleady dis-agree.

A Work of Art Working.... now that ought to be our next conversation.

Hope all is well.

owen hatherley said...

Both lack of talent and for purposes of illustration, since you mention it - in the Southampton post I had to rely on my own utterly crap pics because there simply are no other photographs of these things that are easily accessed.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Owen: Fair enough. Still, it serves the purpose.

Peony: "our next conversation" -- I look forward to it...

peacay said...

Thanks Conrad, I very much enjoyed this. I'm not sure where I fall on the "what is art really?" scale; or perhaps I see it as a sliding rather than rigid scale. Some photographs can be artistic, some artworks can be workmanlike.

I don't know whether I agree that for something to be 'art' it must aspire to genius. An accidental splodge from the morning-after-hangover-shakes on a canvas might be the tipping point from mediocre into masterpiece. A critic will regale us with praise for such virtuosity but the artist may simply have wanted to dash off another piece for a chance at getting the next drink's money in. That's his aspiration. It only aspires to genius in the mind of the beholder but is not itself an objective means of classification.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Thank you. On the 'accidental splodge', that is true, but it is not mere mechanical virtuosity (nor noble intention) that makes art either. It is not the artist's intention but the work's. And the splodge does not change the work from non-art to art, but simply from bad art to good art.

"It only aspires to genius in the mind of the beholder but is not itself an objective means of classification."

No, certainly not. There is no objective definition of 'art', especially now that Dada etc. have run any superficial criteria into the ground. The arguments of modern philosophers like Arthur Danto tend, in my view, to be circular, taking for granted the extension of their definiendum before analysing its intension.

Greg Afinogenov said...

And what about banal decorative art? Can a wallpaper pattern "be art" in the same way a Rembrandt can? And is there a stable criterion we can use to pick intentionally-artistic wallpaper patterns out from the rest?

Conrad H. Roth said...

"Can a wallpaper pattern "be art"?"


"And is there a stable criterion we can use to pick intentionally-artistic wallpaper patterns out from the rest?"


Anonymous said...

The first thing I noticed about your photograph was that the vertical lines of the building did not appear to converge.

I'm old enough to have learnt how to take pictures with my father's Miniature Speed Graphic ("miniature" because its negative was only 2-1/4" x 3-1/4"). In the days when photographs were commonly made using cameras that had movable lens boards, one never saw converging lines in them. Focussing was done on the ground glass and perspective was corrected using the rise and tilt of the lens.

The advent of fixed-lens cameras for serious photography (the Leica and other high-end 35mm cameras) spelt the end of perspective correction, and converging verticals became commonplace. The whole camera had to be tilted to take in a tall building, leading to this apparent error in perspective. I say 'apparent,' because it appears so to me - a painting or drawing would not show a building in this manner, and older cameras were designed to accommodate the expectations people once had of images. The widespread use of fixed-lens cameras that had no capacity to render perspective according to those expectations, changed the expectations. Converging verticals became aesthetically acceptable. Where is now the Scheimpflug principle? One with Nineveh, Tyre, the snows of yesteryear, and Lucky Strike Green.

It has often seemed to me that the ability to view images on the screen of a digital camera before taking a picture has done something akin to reviving composition on the ground glass, while the ease with which photographs may be altered using Photoshop has at least potentially revived perspective correction by making it much easier to do. Will the expectations people have of photographic images change accordingly?

Conrad H. Roth said...

Thanks. It's just a very small lens, and so the lines aren't exactly straight (more noticeable on the horizontals of the top windows). I was not so well aware of the history of these sorts of things. Viewing pictures on the digital screen is what made me interested in photography, actually; I hated the viewfinder, not to mention development. But how does one do perspective correction on Photoshop?

Anonymous said...

I'd be remiss not to take this opportunity to shill W.J.T. Mitchell's What Do Pictures Want? at this juncture.

John Cowan said...

Of course a wallpaper pattern can be art: for example, if it were by Matisse.

Consider the art of Simon Rodía.

M.W. Nolden said...

I really enjoyed this post & thanks for the link…

Anonymous said...

A lot of people who take photographs seem to talk very freely about what they do as an art, especially after purchasing expensive equipment and/or taking a course. It can sound a bit self-aggrandizing, but it might just be a mix of taking what they do (perhaps too) seriously, and feeling insecure among so many Fine Art Photographers.

Your converging verticals (a good name for a band) can be corrected with Image>Transform>Perspective.