Saturday, March 16, 2013

What Is Meant By Reading Photographs

In 1951, Aperture Magazine was conceived. Publication began in 1952. The 1930's had been dominated by photography as social documentation, the 40's and even into the 50's by the photojournalist. Since the demise of the Pictorialists photography had been recognized and relied on for its verisimilitude, it's ability to convey a sense of reality. There were still art photographers but they were much less recognized, much less addressed. Aperture was the first art photography magazine since Stieglitz’s Photo Works ceased publication in 1917.

There were a number of noteworthy photographers involved in the birth of Aperture but one man was the driving force, Minor White. For a very long time Minor was a one-man-band and the magazine was his mouthpiece for the first several years. In 1957, Minor devoted the entire issue to a single subject, Reading Photographs. The introduction, What Is Meant By Reading Photographs, is not long but too long to share here but I would like to share a few of his thoughts. 

“In a very limited way, any time a person looks at a photograph long enough to identify the subject he is reading that picture. Or, to put it another way, any photograph that communicates does so because a person is reading it. This kind of reading can be an intellectual effort, an intuitive one or any mixture of both. In any case the effort is not likely to be a verbal one.”

[Addendum: I am putting words here into White's mouth. My understanding may or may not be accurate so read with caution. When White says "to identify the subject" I believe he is talking about the meaning, story, moral, statement of the photograph, not the subject matter. Our tendency is to stop with identifying the subject matter and I don’t believe that qualifies as “reading” a photograph and find it difficult to believe that is what White meant. I have been on a crusade for some time to distinguish the two meanings of the word "subject" when applied to photographs. One being, as stated above, the meaning the other actually meaning the subject matter, the objects depicted in the photograph. To often using words with dual or multiple meanings can confuse the clarity of a statement and I personally believe that may be the case here.]
“Such a broad use of ‘reading’ is too wide for the purposes to which the word is to be put at this time. So a narrower definition is required. First to make a ‘reading’ verbalization will be considered necessary. To make a ‘reading’ one will be expected to make talk or written words about one’s experience of a photograph.” 

“This means that one must translate a visual experience from the realm of visual thinking into that of verbal expression. And as might be expected slips are bound to occur during the translation… But predictable failure has never stopped anyone who wanted to translate a poem or read a photograph.” 

“Beyond personal preference there are two good reasons why the reading of photographs is undertaken. First, as a object lesson to thousands that more goes on in photographs than most of us guess. That, in addition to the information given, how a photographer handles both his subject and his materials are clues to his personality on one hand and to his inner message on the other. Second, to explore, sound out, measure however inefficiently, not good or bad, but what a picture says.” 

“If we leave the term ‘reading’ defined no more sharply than above, too much room is left for floundering around in the unessentials of a photograph. “So then, to ‘read’ means further to experience a photograph without evaluating it. Or state in another way, verbalization is based on a personal understanding and a private love of the picture that does not include its evaluation. The point here is a suppression of evaluation. Just as one does not stop to determine the degree of goodness or badness of a picnic one is enjoying, ‘reading’ is to be done without criticism. Obviously criticism and evaluation cannot be ultimately avoided, but is is to be prosponed with every effort at our command.” 

Minor goes on to discuss the critic’s place in reading photographs and ends with: 

“A shortened definition of the term ‘reading’ may be useful. Hence, to ‘read’ a photograph is to communicate, to the best of one’s ability to another person verbally or with written words what one has experienced visually in a photograph or group of them.” 

“A word that will serve to label one’s own discourse with pictures in his own private, non-verbal level is ‘experience.”  

Yes, I am aware that photography is much changed since 1957. Maybe I have lived well out of my time and Minor’s but I cannot see how photography can be approached any other way. It is still a method of communicating. To communicate requires knowledge of the method of communication, the language. The way to learn a language is to use it.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Aaron Siskind

In Gloucester, Massachusetts, in the summer of 1944, Aaron Siskind experienced what can only be described as a change of vision. He had been producing still lifes—“a discarded glove, two fish heads and other commonplace objects which I found kicking around on the wharves.” He recalls. But now he looked at these items in a completely new way. “For the first time in my life,” he said, “subject matter as such had ceased to be of primary importance.”

 It was a total about-face for Siskind. Since the 1930s he had been photographing such documentary themes as Harlem tenements and Bowery bums. Subject matter had been the whole point. Now the subject was all but unrecognizable. His close-ups of stone walls and peeling posters, like canvases by a nonrepresentational painter. The picture itself not the scene it shows has become Siskind’s vehicle for conveying impact and emotion.

Indeed, Siskind’s new-found vision is the inevitable step after the “equivalents” of Alfred Stieglitz and the “sequences” of Minor White, in which forms found in nature rendered precisely and directly with the camera, are offered as expressions of the photographer’s own state of mind. “I’m not interested in nature,” Siskind contends, “I’m interested in my own nature.”  --Life Library of Photography, The Great Photographers, p.222

Upon discovery, I immediately liked Siskind’s abstract images. I consider my abstracts to be similar that they come from the same source however they are quite different. However, where Siskind has had the most influence on my thinking is in his series The Terrors of Levitation which I first saw at the Dallas Museum of Art back in the 1960s. I did not understand them. Didn’t particularly like them but I bought the show catalogue. It took me years to warm to Siskind’s photographs of young men suspended in midair. Now I see them as an extension of his interest in abstract, but I also see them as a ballet of the human form divorced from gravity. I don’t know that I enjoy them from the same perspective as Siskind but I have found where they fit into my photography and enhance my vision. This is a long story and maybe someday I will tell it. The primary reason for including this brief bio here is the last sentence of the last paragraph, “I’m not interested in nature; I’m interested in my own nature.” In my opinion, that is a very important statement on photography.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Avedon, Callahan

"I hate cameras. They interfere, they’re always in the way. I wish: if I could just work with my eyes alone. To get a satisfactory print, one that contains all that you intended, is very often more difficult and dangerous than the sitting itself. When I’m photographing, I immediately know when I’ve got the image I really want. But to get the image out of the camera and into the open, is another matter." -- Richard Avedon

"My portraits are more about me than they are about the people I photograph." -- Richard Avedon
"Sometimes I think all my pictures are just pictures of me. My concern is . . . the human predicament; only what I consider the human predicament may simply be my own." -- Richard Avedon

"Photography is an adventure just as life is an adventure. If man wishes to express himself photographically, he must understand, surely to a certain extent, his relationship to life. I am interested in relating the problems that affect me to some set of values that I am trying to discover and establish as being my life. I want to discover and establish them through photography. This is strictly my affair and does not explain these pictures by any means. Anyone else not having the desire to take them would realize that I must have felt this was purely personal. This reason, whether it be good or bad, is the only reason I can give for these photographs. The photographs that excite me are photographs that say something in a new manner; not for the sake of being different, but ones that are different because the individual is different and the individual expresses himself. I realize that we all do express ourselves, but those who express that which is always being done are those whose thinking is almost in every way in accord with everyone else. Expression on this basis has become dull to those who wish to think for themselves. I wish more people felt that photography was an adventure the same as life itself and felt that their individual feelings were worth expressing. To me, that makes photography more exciting." -- Harry Callhan - 1946. Creative Camera, August, 1968, page 270-271