The Unreasonable Apple
Presentation at first MoMA Photography Forum, February 2010
This month I read a review in a leading US Art Magazine of a Jeff Wall survey book, praising how he had distinguished himself from previous art photography by:
“Carefully constructing his pictures as provocative often open ended vignettes, instead of just snapping his surroundings”
Anyone who cares about photography‘s unique and astonishing qualities as a medium should be insulted by such remarks, especially here in 2010, in this country, in this city, which has embraced photography like no other.
Now this is maybe just an unthinking review, but what it does illustrate is how there remains a sizeable part of the art world that simply does not get photography. They get artists who use photography to illustrate their ideas, installations, performances and concepts, who ‘deploy’ the medium as one of a range of artistic strategies to complete their work. But photography for and of itself -photographs taken from the world as it is– are misunderstood as a collection of random observations and lucky moments, or muddled up with photojournalism, or tarred with a semi-derogatory ‘documentary’ tag.
This is tremendously sad, for if we look back, the simple truth is that the majority of the great photographic works of art in the 20th century operate in precisely this territory: from Walker Evans to Robert Frank, Diane Arbus to Garry Winogrand, from Stephen Shore traveling across America in Uncommon Places; Robert Adams navigating the freshly minted suburbs of Denver in The New West, or William Eggleston spiraling towards Jimmy Carter’s hometown in Election Eve, nobody would seriously propose that these sincere photographic artists were merely “snapping their surroundings”.
So what is the issue? The broader art world has no problems with the work of Jeff Wall, or Cindy Sherman or Thomas Demand partly because the creative process in the work is clear and plain to see, and it can be easily articulated what the artist did: Thomas Demand constructs his elaborate sculptural creations over many weeks before photographing them; Cindy Sherman develops, acts and performs in her self-portraits. In each case the handiwork of the artist is readily apparent: something was synthesized, staged, constructed or performed. The dealer can explain this to the client, the curator to the public, the art writer to their readers, etc. The problem is that whilst you can discuss what Jeff Wall did in an elaborately staged street tableaux, how do you explain what Garry Winogrand did on a real New York street when he ‘just’ took the picture? Or for that matter what Stephen Shore created with his deadpan image of a crossroads in El Paso? Anyone with an ounce of sensitivity knows they did something there, and something utterly remarkable at that, but… what? How do we articulate this uniquely photographic creative act, and express what it amounts to in terms such that the art world, highly attuned to synthetic creation -the making of something by the artist- can appreciate serious photography that engages with the world as it is?
Now, please do not get me wrong, I admire the work of Cindy Sherman and Jeff Wall and Thomas Demand – I have zero problems with it, and it is emphatically not an either/or situation. Nor should you misunderstand me in the other direction: I am not arguing for some return to photographic fundamentalism of Magnum style Leica reportage 35mm black & white work or whatever – far from it, for we are clearly in a ‘Post Documentary’ photographic world now. Both of these disclaimers not withstanding, I have to say that the position of ‘straight’ photography in the art world reminds me of the parable of an isolated community who grew up eating potatoes all their life, and when presented with an apple, though it unreasonable and useless, because it didn’t taste like a potato.
Am I ‘Tilting at Windmills’ here? Perhaps so, but as with the great Don – Cervantes that is – it is to make a point, earnestly, yet with good humor. The point is certainly not the art world versus the photography world, because it is not apples orpotatoes, anymore than it is sculpture or painting. The point is that we need the smart, erudite and eloquent people in the art world, the clever curators and writers, those who do get it, to take the time to speak seriously about the nature of such photography, and articulate something of its dazzlingly unique qualities, to help the greater art world, and the public itself understand the nature of the creative act when you dance with life itself – when you form the meaningless world into photographs, then form those photographs into a meaningful world.
Thankfully, as the glass clears, it has become apparent just what an incredible achievement Robert Frank or Garry Winogrand or Diane Arbus or Robert Adams accomplished back in the 50’s, 60’s or 70’s, and for that we must be grateful. For the great exhibitions at the Met, the Whitney, the Guggenheim, and of course MoMA itself; for the books, the catalogues, the enlightened essays: I thank you. But… what of those who work today with equal commitment and sincerity, using straight photography in the cacophonous present? I will not name names here, but for these serious photographers the fog of time still obfuscates their efforts, and the blindness j’accuse some of the art world of suffering from, narrows their options. It means their work will almost never be considered for major exhibitions like Documenta, or placed alongside other artists in a Biennale, or found for sale in high level contemporary galleries and art fairs. This does not just deprive the public of the work, and the work of its place, it denies these artists the self-confidence that enables them to grow, to feel appreciation and affirmation, not to mention some modest financial reward allowing them to continue to work. It is also, most importantly, seeing the world of visual art in narrow terms. It is seeing the apple as unreasonable.
So, what is it we are discussing here – how do we describe the nature of this photographic creativity? My modest skills are insufficient for such things, but let me make an opening offer: perhaps we can agree that through force of vision these artists strive to pierce the opaque threshold of the now, to express something of the thus and so of life at the point they recognised it. They struggle through photography to define these moments and bring them forward in time to us, to the here and now, so that with the clarity of hindsight, we may glimpse something of what it was they perceived. Perhaps here we have stumbled upon a partial, but nonetheless astonishing description of the creative act at the heart of serious photography: nothing less than the measuring and folding of the cloth of time itself.
Photography is Easy, Photography is Difficult
It’s so easy it’s ridiculous. It’s so easy that I can’t even begin – I just don’t know where to start. After all, it’s just looking at things. We all do that. It’s simply a way of recording what you see – point the camera at it, and press a button. How hard is that? And what’s more, in this digital age, its free – doesn’t even cost you the price of film. It’s so simple and basic, it’s laughable.
It’s so difficult because it’s everywhere, every place, all the time, even right now. It’s the view of this pen in my hand as I write this, it’s an image of you reading now. Drift your consciousness up and out of this text and see: it’s right there, across the room – there… and there. Then it’s gone. You didn’t photograph it, because you didn’t think it was worth it. And now it’s too late, that moment has evaporated. But another one has arrived, instantly. Now. Because life is flowing through and around us, rushing onwards and outwards, in every direction.
But if it’s everywhere and all the time, and so easy to make, then what’s of value? which pictures matter? Is it the hard won photograph, knowing, controlled, previsualised? Yes. Or are those contrived, dry and belabored? Sometimes. Is it the offhand snapshot made on a whim. For sure. Or is that just a lucky observation, some random moment caught by chance? Maybe. Is it an intuitive expression of liquid intelligence? Exactly. Or the distillation of years of looking seeing thinking photography. Definitely.
“Life’s single lesson: that there is more accident to it than a man can admit to in a lifetime, and stay sane”
– Thomas Pynchon, V
Ok, so how do I make sense of that never ending flow, the fog that covers life here and now. How do I see through that, how do I cross that boundary? Do I walk down the street and make pictures of strangers, do I make a drama-tableaux with my friends, do I only photograph my beloved, my family, myself? Or maybe I should just photograph the land, the rocks and trees – they don’t move or complain or push back. The old houses? The new houses? Do I go to a war zone on the other side of the world, or just to the corner store, or not leave my room at all?
Yes and yes and yes. That’s the choice you are spoiled for, just don’t let it stop you. Be aware of it, but don’t get stuck – relax, it’s everything and everywhere. You will find it, and it will find you, just start, somehow, anyhow, but: start.
Okay, but shouldn’t I have a clear coherent theme, surely I have to know what I’m doing first? That would be nice, but I doubt Robert Frank knew what it all meant when he started, or for that matter Cindy Sherman or Robert Mapplethorpe or Atget or… so you shouldn’t expect it. The more preplanned it is the less room for surprise, for the world to talk back, for the idea to find itself, allowing ambivalence and ambiguity to seep in, and sometimes those are more important than certainty and clarity. The work often says more than the artist intended.
But my photography doesn’t always fit into neat, coherent series, so maybe I need to roll freeform around this world, unfettered, able to photograph whatever and whenever: the sky, my feet, the coffee in my cup, the flowers I just noticed, my friends and lovers, and, because it’s all my life, surely it will make sense? Perhaps. Sometimes that works, sometimes it’s indulgent, but really it’s your choice, because you are also free to not make ‘sense’.
“so finally even this story is absurd, which is an important part of the point, if any, since that it should have none whatsoever seems part of the point too”
– Malcolm Lowry, Ghostkeeper.
Ok, so I need time to think about this. To allow myself that freedom for a short time. A couple of years. Maybe I won’t find my answer, but I will be around others who understand this question, who have reached a similar point. Maybe I’ll start on the wrong road, or for the wrong reasons – because I liked cameras, because I thought photography was an easy option, but if I’m forced to try, then perhaps I’ll stumble on some little thing, that makes a piece of sense to me, or simply just feels right. If I concentrate on that, then maybe it grows, and in its modest ineffable way, begins to matter. Like photographing Arab-Americans in the USA as human beings with lives and hopes, families and feelings, straight, gay, young, old, with all the humanity that Hollywood never grants them. Or the black community of New Haven, doing inexplicable joyous, ridiculous theatrical-charades that explode my preconceptions into a thousand pieces. Or funny-disturbing-sad echoes of a snapshot of my old boyfriend. Or the anonymous suburban landscape of upstate in a way that defies the spectacular images we’re addicted to. Or… how we women use our bodies to display who we believe we should be, Or…
“A Novel? No, I don’t have the endurance any more. To write a novel, you have to be like Atlas, holding up the whole world on your shoulders, and supporting it there for months and years, while its affairs work themselves out…”
– J. M. Coetzee, Diary of a Bad Year.
And hopefully I will carry on, and develop it, because it is worthwhile. Carry on because it matters when other things don’t seem to matter so much: the money job, the editorial assignment, the fashion shoot. Then one day it will be complete enough to believe it is finished. Made. Existing. Done. And in its own way: a contribution, and all that effort and frustration and time and money will fall away. It was worth it, because it is something real, that didn’t exist before you made it exist: a sentient work of art and power and sensitivity, that speaks of this world and your fellow human beings place within it. Isn’t that beautiful?
Yale MFA Photography Graduation, February 2009.