Du Semaine (Picks of the Week)

Approximate Reading Time: 1 minute

My choices for January 6, 2017

I hope to make this a regular post each week. Please let me know what you think, and what else you’d like to see.

Photography Site du Semaine

Willcocq_photo_detail

Patrick Willocq, Congo Photos

Patrick Willocq, Congo-raised, French Photographer of Africa

Painter’s Site du Semaine

Baker_painting_detail

David Graeme Baker painting (detail), “February”

Website of David Graeme Baker, a native-born South African, raised in Pennsylvania, and now living in rural Maine.

Novel du Semaine

extinction_book_cover

Detail of Book Cover

Extinction, by Thomas Bernhard. The last novel of Ausrtrian author, Thomas Bernhard, considered among the greats of fiction writing in the late 20th century.

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Street Photography 2016

Approximate Reading Time: 1 minute

I have a new photo book. It’s a record of the street photography portfolio I assembled for review by LensCulture, the online photography magazine. It does not include all photos submitted, but includes photos in black & white considered for submission. The submissions were selected from 20 years of shooting in this genre.

I invite you to preview it. It’s available for sale. I purposely set the price to an even dollar amount—the profit to me is less than 25 cents.

Enjoy.

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Digging Around Where I Come From

Approximate Reading Time: 11 minutes
Zalman Dinin is, I believe, the man on the right. The other men are not identified.

Zalman Dinin is, I believe, the man on the right. The other men are not identified.


I’m not gardening in the backyard of my old condo in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Been there. Done that. Howard has left the venue.

I don’t know how you spend your time when not temporizing on Facebook. There’s work, of course. And all the things we do to stay alive. Then there’s everything else. I spend a certain amount of my time on an ongoing basis looking into my roots. I mean in the Kinta Kunte sense; my own little channel of Alex Haley, but of a different skin color and a different continent.

My forebears were from Russia. In my father’s case, more specifically what is now called Ukraine—current hotbed of nationalism 21st century style opposed by Russian recidivists, mainly ethnic Russians living in Ukraine, thinking maybe they should never have left. In fact, my father’s people (and my father and his family) lived in that part of Ukraine often, in our day, violently in dispute, a region still very much riven.

I have no idea where my father, who died in 1999, would fall out on the question. I was raised to understand that he thought of himself and all of his relatives as Russians—though Ukraine has existed, that is, inhabited, for over 30 thousand years. But in modern political history, Ukraine has rarely been independent, free of the Russian yoke.

It was part of Russia when my father was born, 110 years ago. Inevitably the Jews who lived in the Pale of Settlement that was constituted in part of parts of Ukraine would think of themselves as Russian.

I grew up on stories from my father about his childhood, about which he had vivid memories, and the ultimate turmoil that transfigured his life and that of his small family: his parents, his brother—my uncle, and his mother’s brother, my Great Uncle Sol. It was Sol (or Zalman) who instigated the move out of Russia to better parts. They settled briefly in Argentina, waiting almost three years to be able to enter the United States under the quota of immigrants allowed from that country. Among the stories my father told was the adventure of escaping by train, past Russian and then Polish guards at the borders—all of it planned and engineered by my Great Uncle, who, my father had also told me was a troublemaker from way back.

I remember my father’s stories, fragmentary as they were, with some continuing immediacy, as he repeated them over and over, and I never tired of hearing them. To punctuate the stories were albums of photos, mainly of his immediate family: those I’ve already mentioned, as well as five (or was it six?) brothers, of whom Zalman was but one. The others were, like their father, my great grandfather in addition to his brother, my great grand uncle, enterpreneurs and business owners. One by one, they were cut down, early in their lives, by Cossacks, by bandits, by the “white army” of the czar, harassed by all of them, and from all sides, with no respite from the mayhem at the hands of the revolutionaries, including the “red army.” It was to escape the conditions, none of them “good for the Jews” that resulted from the upheaval of the Revolution, the overthrow of the czar, and so forth.

Prior to any thought of escape, my Uncle Sol had done his part by aiding the partisan efforts of his more daring and rebellious friends. Sol was protected by the status of his father, a close friend of town officials, including the mayor, from whose offices Sol would steal official blank forms to be forged into documents that allowed free passage from one part of Russia to another, necessary credentials for those bent on fomenting change.

What I am left with, though, is my patchwork of memories of the stories my father told so many times. I regularly would encourage him to write down what he recalled, and especially the exploits of my older relatives. He was only a youth when he left Russia (at the age of thirteen) and my Uncle Alex, his brother, even younger. There would not have been that many stories concerning their behavior and actions, though my father’s memory was comprehensive and incisive enough to form a virtual novella about what life in general was like for a young boy at the turn of the century in Czarist Russia in provincial Russian towns, each with its complement of a Jewish community.

There is something else of a record of that era and my family’s private history, appropriate to the present age of a disconnected if wholly continuous flow of visual imagery, especially with the eruption of personal photographic records, designed to have a half-life almost as brief as particles in a collider, and numbering into staggering orders of magnitude: billions of images every week dissolving into the ether. Ironically, the visual record that I now possess consists not of countless pictures, but more than enough, a surfeit, of photographic prints for the most part. Many of the faces when I uncovered the first cache of photos were immediately recognizable, at least insofar as my father had identified individuals unknown to me (all but my Uncle Sol and my grandfather, Josef Dinin, were dead and gone by the time I was born, and they didn’t last long enough to be recorded in my still undeveloped cortex)—almost all of them existed seemingly mainly to put faces to the cavalcade of names he would rattle off.

After my father’s death, I retrieved boxes of material that turned out to be poorly stored further records. There were some documents, like my Uncle Sol’s papers from Argentina, his passport, the naturalization certificate in the U.S. of my grandfather. But mainly there were more photos, cascades of photos in some instances as pasteboard boxes long neglected disintegrated under my fingers. I removed everything I could gingerly and procured the lot into archival storage containers, designed specifically for photographic materials, or anything on paper really and particularly susceptible to the acids used in most paper and board fabrication.

Now I continue to be faced with figuring out what to do with this trove. Most of the photographs were captured by commercial photographers with studios in the cities and towns of Ukraine, or taken by itinerant traveling photographers, more of the quality of snapshots, but still encased in their presentation covers, of a thin, opaque, and usually black pasteboard. The commercial studio portraits are mounted on thick cardboard, usually with ornate borders and title text, often of a generic nature, suggesting that the photographer bought stock mounting board, with embossed decorations and non-specific renditions of their business, like “Cabinet – Portrait” (French seemed to be a prominent lingua franca indeed, for the commercial and educated classes of Russia, like a bourgeois transfiguration of the habits of the court and of diplomatic circles).

In one trove I found two of literally hundreds of images, two that I thought I recognized readily enough.

If I am correct, and I can’t be sure because the fellow I am fairly certain is the refractory young man known as Zalman, the daredevil and stalwart friend of revolutionaries, is much younger in this portrait (perhaps this is from the office blank stealing phase of his nascent career as a troublemaker) than other positively identified portraits I have. He is the one, the particularly handsome one, sans spectacles, unlike his companions, on the right staring dead on into the camera. These three intense dudes, it seems to me, are clearly close, enough so to be entirely casual in their pose—a departure from the typically stiff and formal portraiture in so many other of the prints I have. I have no idea who the other two are, and I am fairly certain there is no one left alive who I might possibly have a chance of meeting with even the most tenuous of connections with the obscure history of the Dinin family in Ukraine, so as to be able to inform me of, at the very least, their names. I love this photo for all the portents in it, and the stories that demand being told, even out of whole cloth, so alive and direct and frank and commanding are the gazes of these young stalwarts.

Ilya aka Alex Dinin and his mother, Ida. He was my uncle.

Ilya aka Alex Dinin and his mother, Ida. He was my uncle.

The other photo is really quite small, smaller even than the prototypical snapshot size of 2×3 inches that was the popular format for photographs processed and returned by the drugstores where one brought their rolls of film for processing by labs off-site, when my parents were young and in love, in the 1930s, and of the sort, the snaps and other photos, that is, that comprise another whole portfolio of vexation for me, pondering the challenge of identifying who, and what, and where, and why these images were captured in the first place. But this photo, of a stern-faced woman and a somewhat, but not much, milder looking boy, clearly with a deep and abiding relation to the woman by blood is significantly older than that.

At first, having recognized the woman as a much younger incarnation of my grandmother than in more recent photos I had seen, my father’s mother, Ida, who never knew me, before she died of causes unknown to me, when she was barely in her 60s—at first I took the young fellow as my father, and, indeed, when I scanned the photo, I named the file using his and her name. However, on re-examination and a closer look at that characteristic curled lip, somewhere between sullen and a sneer only one-quarter formed, and after comparing the shape of his left ear and the shape of the same appendage in a much later portrait, taken by me, a teen-aged me, in fact, of my Uncle Alex (his name in Russia, at the time of the portrait of him and his mother, would have been Ilya) persuaded me of my mistake. The portrait, given his apparent stage of development and the indeterminacy of his age, except within a range of three or four years, had to have been taken around the time of the family’s escape from Russia in 1918, when he would have been eight or nine years old. The photo, an oval shape, obviously, was cut out somewhat clumsily from a larger photo and pasted to a nondesript piece of board, with no marks or printing on it of any kind—another attestation to the haste and changed circumstances that surrounded its taking and mounting and preservation. But again, there is no one to tell me any more than what my memory serves and my eyes and imagination manage to tell me.

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Teju Cole and the Burri Photo

Approximate Reading Time: 9 minutes

the following is an exchange that originally took place on Facebook on my “timeline” purely as the result of my posting a link (which appears first) to an opinion piece by teju cole, nytimes photography critic, novelist, new yorker magazine writer and columnist, and self-styled photographer. this ended up as a dialog, the latest of many that have occurred over the years, with me and my very good friend paul naecker, an architect and consultant currently based in los angeles. i thought it, the dialog, spontaneous and admittedly off-the-cuff ended up with a kind of validity and some might even find it of value. in all events, as it turned out, paul and i independently concluded it deserved better than facebook.

The shot by René Burri [in this New York Times piece] is the inevitable iconic image. I’ve long since admired it (even used it in a seminar I taught on architectural photography five years ago). It is, indeed, a memorable and evocative, if not a haunting, image. But I can’t for the life of me understand why anyone would be motivated to replicate in any way a photo taken by another photographer. I never have. I never will.

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/23/magazine/shadows-in-sao-paulo.html?smid=fb-share&_r=0


[Paul Naecker]: H thanks for sharing this. Tejo [sic] Cole’s past work strikes one as fairly rigorous (but not w/o controversy.) This seems more a journey of discovery than imitation.


Seems more a journey of ginning up something to write about for pay. I can’t argue with that.

Clearly he wasn’t pretending to replicate Burri’s vision. Nevertheless, I wish he hadn’t even printed the one lousy shot he got (with color film, the wrong lens, on an overcast day…).

What would be even more interesting is what is evinced when comparing this with another iconic shot, speaking to the ethos of the modernist sensibility and the impact on the urban milieu in the 20th century. Shot almost exactly 50 years earlier in New York, the precursor to the international city São Paolo became:

Wall Street, Paul Strand, 1914

Wall Street, Paul Strand, 1914

 


[Paul Naecker]: The shoulders of giants eh? I prefer to follow Cole’s limited but still intriguing premise. Don’t know much about him as a photographer. But since he self-identifies as one I guess your critique is fair game.

Boulevard du Temple, Paris, Louis Daguerre, 1838

Boulevard du Temple, Paris, Louis Daguerre, 1838

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


I still believe that Barthes was closer to it, as you would no doubt suppose I would, than this premise of the “oneiric possibilities” of street photography, which is validated by that most inarticulate of men, Garry Winogrand, with his pseudo mystical claptrap about “transformation.” Garry should mainly have kept his mouth shut.

Barthes said the photograph is “a message without a code.” Not the same thing. And what Cole wants to take for dream imagery—the context for which exists, as it does for all of us, only in his own consciousness—really has more to do I suppose with contemplating the notion of the substance of a shadow. Stand still long enough and your image is recorded. Keep moving and you disappear. But this is explained by science, not metaphysics. Barthes said what a photograph tells us about its subject, no more no less, is that it existed. Period.


[Paul Naecker] : Period?
I think Cole’s position is less epistemological and more polemical. His insights aren’t really about the capacity of photography to record but rather
much more about some inference or field of memory. More writer than photographer kind of stuff. I like his lied now that I read some of his stuff. Surprised you are so negative about his world view. Apparently the guy is a Times photography critic?Interesting given his anti-colonialist writings. Most of these ‘street’ photographers don’t have much of a political space in their work right?


I was sure you (or someone, but then, who? I really kid myself sometimes…) would take me to task for seeking a differentiation in Cole’s characterization and Barthes’s famous definition. I mean, what is a dream, after all, but “a message without a code?” But then a photograph is not a dream, it merely seems at times to work the same way.

Cole is, in fact, I think, at least in his critical inquiries and analyses in The New Yorker, largely on an epistemological hunt. There are times, however, when I think that not all such inquiries, especially if they are declarations in and of themselves of a particular position against received wisdom, are polemical. I found myself agreeing with his words after the Charlie Hebdo assassinations. They were, if anything, anti-polemic.

As for his being a photographer, I haven’t seen much of his work. I thought in this day and age it’s safe for everyone to say he or she is a photographer. It’s inescapable. However, as more than one person (usually it’s a photographer who does it for a living, however meagerly; or possibly for the mere love of finding expression in the medium) has pointed out, because someone can honestly be called a photographer doesn’t necessarily grant that their work is any good. It’s a safe bet they’re not, but in this country at least, it’s almost as easy to get a gun, whose ownership should be licensed, as it is to get a camera. Plato didn’t want to exclude poets from his utopia because they were lousy poets, but because they lie. Merit has its rewards, but it shouldn’t be the foundation of a license. So, Cole is a photographer. Good on him.

But I wasn’t, in the original instance, responding to his picture taking capabilities, but to the impulse, however constrained, to track down the provenance (quite literally) of a famous photograph. We both responded to it, the photo, in what I am sure is an ultimately indistinguishable way. I called it an icon. Doubtless that’s how he views it. Yet (and not to make my favored bugaboo, invidious comparisons)I would never go on the search he did—maybe I’m just envious of his world-beating travel opportunities, which he seems to take mainly for the chance to write contextually about the venue for other purposes.

Cole, as a critic of photography, was particularly good about Saul Leiter, another unsung genius. I love Saul Leiter. And I think so does Cole. I suspect you, Paul, would also. So no argument there either.

No, yet again, I think you are reading heat in my words where, at best, there is merely an attempt at cold fusion—a safe sustainable source of critical energy, harming no one, and maybe providing some light. Of course it could be said that’s all Cole was trying to do. But I still think I’m free to question, that is, to be dubious, of his exertions, at least in their manifestation in this NYTimes article. Now, all I have to do is wait for Steve [Lipsey], the champion of all things Winogrand, to chime in about how he (the Wino-man) and Barthes also agree, for what, indeed, is a photograph that is successfully transformational—I think he meant transformative, but then I’m never quiet about how inarticulate the big lug couldn’t help but be; also, of course, I’m talking about the viewer fo the photo, and I’m simply not sure, though I can guess, that Garry meant the subject—he always speaks of taking photos for the mere purpose of seeing how something looks having been photographed, until in fact he had transformed himself into a picture taking machine—is a photograph that contains a message without a code. To that I can only say, and then I have to shut up, because this could be a book, that I can only speak for myself and my relationship to my own photographic process. And this will have to be taken on faith, because no one can dispute it, and that is, before even putting a camera to my eye, in most instances (and all photos are instances, in at least two senses), I do put it to my eye because I have “seen” a photograph and I want to attempt to capture it. If I were a painter, I am sure it wouldn’t be any different. Cole talks about his pleasure at discovering that Leiter was also a painter, and quite familiar with his contemporaries who were painters (of the same generation: Rothko, etc.). Cartier-Bresson famously started out as a man who simply made drawings (and returned to doing so, when he “retired” from picture-taking) who said that a camera was simply a much more efficient way of doing the same thing.

Perhaps it’s like capturing magic in a bottle, many many times. But once caught, it’s done (that’s all I meant by “period,” not that that’s the end to what can be said—obviously). And in Cole’s case, if he wanted to beat down São Paolo finding the vantage Burri had when capturing his bit of magic, more power to him. I’m not interested.

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Famous for a Moment

Approximate Reading Time: 34 minutes
Pressed Flowers from Summer 2009

Pressed Flowers from Summer 2009

“What seems paradoxical about everything that is justly called beautiful is the fact that it appears” —Walter Benjamin

“Make no mistake: this is not about more intellectual sophistication… What I am looking for… is an introduction to living, a guide to life (ethical project): I want to live according to nuance. Now there is a teacher of nuance, literature; try to live according to the nuances that literature teaches me.”—Roland Barthes, The Neutral

I’ve been shooting photos for a great many years. Let’s just say, decades. Those who know my work, not as many as I’d like, though more than I’m actually aware of, recognize a certain style. As for subjects, when not shooting landscapes or what the French call nature morte, I prefer maybe most of all to shoot portraits, even of people I don’t know.

It’s not exactly street photography, though a great deal of it is shot in the street. Friends who are aficionados of that genre, that is, street photography, tend to say my shots have a distant quality, do not connect with the subject. Maybe it’s all that landscape photography, or shooting still, that is, unmoving objects, a lot of them formerly alive, like flowers or fruit. One friend, who perhaps knows more about me personally, has said several times it’s quite evident I am unwilling to get too close to the subject. It’s not an entirely prescient remark as I had admitted long since that I am not crazy about doing it. When he says it, or I think about it, it always makes me think of the great photographer from the first half of the 20th century, Robert Capa, who is mainly renowned for his shots taken on battlefields, from the Spanish Civil War to the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, and is also often quoted as saying “if your pictures aren’t good enough you’re not close enough.” Maybe, but he died because he stepped on a mine during combat in what was then called French Indochina. For my taste, that’s a little too close. However, I’ve strayed from the issue of the specific quality of my “street” images. It may be a matter of distance, and I think it is. However other people than my friend usually are referring to physical proximity, as if intimacy is esthetically explosive and distance is dull. I am talking about a different dimension.

Fact is, I’m not very interested in getting up close and personal—what else do you call sticking a camera and lens in someone’s face?—to someone I don’t know. I have my share of portraits in my portfolio, taken at appropriate distances, of dear friends and loved ones, but a certain kind of portrait, revelatory and intimate, requires knowing the subject, or at least having a chance to allow one’s empathy and intuition to work up a sense of who they are. Distance in inches or meters is not a gauge of one’s ability to do so. I also have a number of what I think are quite successful portraits, to the extent that the designation applies as it has throughout the history of art: as studies of individual human character. In these there is some element or concatenation of elements, a cast of the eye, or an expression involving some or all of the myriad muscles of the face, including the deeper ones, a certain regard, that seem to betray something evident if inchoate about the subject. It may not, in fact, be an insight to the specific and doubtless unique individual portrayed. However, it may be, very well, expressive of some aspect, a quality, of what I’ll call human nature, or the human spirit (at the risk of being jumped on by my friends for certain wholly other reasons) in a more universal or generalized way. The image speaks to us, somehow, regardless of the situational circumstances by which it was captured.

Two women I don't know from two holes in the wall

Two women I don’t know from two holes in the wall

When people have a problem with an image of mine involving a human subject, and usually one with whom I don’t have even a nodding acquaintance, I think there’s something else going on than what the physical evidence of the photograph as record or datum seems to indicate. I think those friends of mine are expecting something that I will never successfully deliver every time. I am not trying to capture what most of the successful and renowned street photographers are trying to catch.

Surely this is true of Diane Arbus, and in much of his work, especially the later work, of Garry Winogrand. They and others were trying, I think, to catch people expressing unaware their anguish or desperation or other extreme emotional states—or possibly some untoward quality of which the subject is either mercifully oblivious, or so beset they cannot help themselves. If I see it, and have a chance to capture it, I will. I either succeed, or not, or I simply don’t get the opportunity.

"Life is not easy." —S. Freud

Sigmund Freud: “Life is not easy”

I’m far more interested in far more ordinary matters, saying this not to try to diminish the significance of anguish and desperation. God knows there’s plenty of these in the world. If anguish and despair are not ordinary, they are surely legion; Freud said, universal, and the hallmark of the human condition. But there are enough photos of anguish and despair, of people in extremis. Especially in the news, where it’s stock in trade, too often photos are a record of death, or the threat of it or of its impact, or where it occurred, or might and on a probabilistic basis, if it’s anywhere more than a handful of people have settled, it will. You can’t get a job as a photojournalist unless you have served your time taking photos of people in some kind of war zone—foreign or domestic. And your subjects are being shot at, hunted down, chased, plundered, dispossessed. What have you. It is a nasty and brutish place, the world, or it can be.

But these are the kinds of photographs that go into many exhibitions, many books. And those that do not conform to this particular formulation are, as a theme and variation, usually of people who are famous, or trying to be famous. Often, they show the subject’s face wreathed in that most utterly anti-evocative of conditions, the toothy smile engaging only superficial muscles, the eyes usually devoid of genuine feeling. Many famous people in photographs that attain to publication are merely famous for being famous. We all know them. The faces that launch a thousand magazine covers at the supermarket check-out counters. The faces that appear on so-called reality television.

But let me stop at that word. Not television, but the other. As the now late, great Robin Williams said early in his brilliant career, “Reality, what a concept!” I think he meant something else than what we see and have seen these several decades on the boob tube. I think he meant, more or less, what a largely forgotten nineteenth century novelist said. The writer also was editor of “The Atlantic Monthly,” still going strong, still trying to grab its share of the attention that heightened awareness brings to subjects accorded the status of icon, or meme, or merely worthy of their fifteen minutes (now shaved, cost-effectively, to 15 seconds) of fame.

Mark Twain, 1909. By Photographer: A.F. Bradley in his studio. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Mark Twain, 1909. By Photographer: A.F. Bradley in his studio. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

William Dean Howells was that man. He was, as well, a friend to Mark Twain who had his fair share of fame and of having his photograph taken, largely because he was Mark Twain, not to mention being a great subject visually, regardless of his stature—but mainly because he was recognizable; alas for his portraitists, they are forgotten, or their names anyway, and just as well, because in many cases except for the fame of the subject, there’s not too much interest in the photo. What Howells said was, “Ah! poor Real Life, which I love, can I make others share the delight I find in thy foolish and insipid face?”

In other words, Howells, long before Robert Redford won his first Academy Award for directing, found his subjects—and he wrote a great many novels—among essentially “ordinary people.” In all of this, of course, resides the subtlest kind of irony. For my part, in my much smaller way, I have always had greatest interest, if not all of it, in the quotidian, in seemingly ordinary lives. What others call dull or plain, or cynics might say is banal, I find rich in possibility. When I lived in the North End of Boston, some years ago, near that other tourist Mecca, Quincy Market at Faneuil Hall, I would stand mid-day, engrossed, as crowds swarmed around me, a sea of bodies, watching people’s faces. Do it only once and there is only one thing to conclude. There is no ordinary. There is a common thread in humanity. It is the discernment that is not so ordinary. The extraordinary qualities inherent in a person’s everyday face reside in its being a map of their lives, including of course those extreme existential conditions no one human can avoid.

What I’ve learned, or persuaded myself, is that because of, not despite, their qualities of the ordinary, the mundane, and the everyday, the quotidian and the people who are its inhabitants can be transcended, and, caught at just the right moment, and what is photography really (and famously) but the art of the moment—that is, in the taxonomy of those arts measured by the dimension of time? I’ve long since become inured to the observation about some of my work, “I don’t see why you took this picture; there’s nothing happening. How is this different from a snapshot?”

What is different is that element I (and others) call nuance, which has been the objective in a way of all my endeavors, studies, efforts, and exertions, the entire course of my life. I’ve sought it, I find in retrospect, even as a child, when I could not know or conceive of a quality, never mind the concept of it, that I am calling nuance. It is hard to define, except in context, and there are an infinite number of contexts, as the clock ticks, and eyes wander, and the head changes angle. It is in the infinite variety of man (in that archaic undifferentiated sense of human, not of the gender-sequestrated member of the race), spoken of poetically by my perpetual betters. It is in the “pied beauty” of nature. Nuance is of consequence, however small.

Much art consists in, first, the isolation, and then the rendition with the requisite skills of mastery of materials, of the nuances to be found in nature, that is in poor real life. But nuance, I’ll remind one and all, is to be found in the peculiar and likely unduplicated isolation of the subject as well as its juxtaposition, intentional or accidental, in the setting, that is, the “environment” in which the subject is discovered, perhaps, in some manner that escapes the need for any probity even of the most exacting sort, that makes forensic analysis superfluous, because it is revelatory of some deeper, if of utterly “ordinary,” truth, which begins to challenge in a multitude of ways, as I am trying to suggest here, the very meaning of ordinary.

To make myself clear, let’s take a look at the works of art that have nourished us for the last 150 years or so, give or take. Prior to that time, much art had what I’ll call a hieratic function. Artists were akin to priests, who performed the sacrament of creating art. The choice of subjects was constrained. Go far enough back in time and the constraints were very narrowly defined. Subjects were confined to religious and regal personages and, in the case of deceased personages, saints or entities of even more holy otherness. However, with the wholesale deposition of monarchs, and the evacuation of places of worship of practitioners of the faith, artists were free to seek and depict more worldly matter, that is, of this world.

I put it to you that almost randomly you may choose from among your favorite Western artists, let us say, more strictly for a moment, painters (I am not, after all, trying to make this a treatise on the comprehensive history of art, and for convenience sake, not to mention restricting my remarks, limited by the extent to which I am well informed, which is, in the end, not very well at all, I will also speak only of the culture to which I think of myself as a contributor), and you will be hard put to find subjects that are not, in some fashion, of the quotidian with which the painter was familiar. The subjects, say of the continuum of artists in France, are ordinary subjects to their time, starting in the middle of the nineteenth century and proceeding through the first decades of the following one, recently ended, that is, until other modes and styles than the representational (or, as its called, figurative) came to a superior position of ascendancy. Harvesters of flax, and the postman. Fields of flowers, and women sitting at tea. Workers sanding floorboards, and housewives hanging the wash. The artist’s humble bedroom, or her sister reading the newspaper.

I might even argue that it was the emergence of photography as a medium of artistic expression, never mind the far more numerous specimens (however artful or artless) taken by laymen on a daily basis, with a frequency that multiplies to this day—literally billions of images are uploaded daily to the Internet—that facilitated the migration of painterly exertions into other styles, genres and modes than the purely representational. What has been lost, I am afraid—for any number of associated reasons, that is, they have a lot to do with Western civilization having allowed certain modalities to migrate to computer-based technologies for implementation—is nuance.

The chief benefit of computers being to expedite a process, almost any process that can be converted to digital representation of its operative factors or constituent parts, the rapidity with which we can create (if I may use that word, loathe as I am to do so) and produce whatever it is we feel compelled to exchange with one another: be they images, packets of verbal content (notice how careful I am being with the language…), or even bundles of numbers arranged in a grid, or the ubiquitous and everlasting whatever… grows ever greater. That is, we can do things faster and faster, producing more and more of whatever it is we produce, that the artifacts of production, the images, the verbal packets, grow ever more compact and brief in time as well as their very virtual existence, even as they as grow more numerous. How to contend with this flow? Necessarily, as the number of words and images has multiplied, the substance, that is, the value, or, to use a word long since deracinated, the meaning any one image or packet carries as payload diminishes. Among the first victims, long since, indeed was nuance. More recently, one of the children of nuance, irony, has also, I will tell you quietly and discretely here (in case the disastrous news has not reached you as you pore over your text messages and Facebook news feed), has died. Rest in peace.

Given the amount and duration of the attention that anyone receives for their efforts, it is a marvel that books and recordings still get produced, that is, by anyone other than the actual fabricator. Whatever the outcome of the current struggle between Amazon and Hachette over pricing hegemony, it is clear that the future belongs to the distributors and purveyors of what is now a commodity, except in the rarest of instances—what used to be objects of art and letters are now stock keeping units. Given the numbers, billions of people writing and capturing images with cameras and drawing apps—and that’s just in the so-called developing world—I feel safe speaking in what amount to such apocalyptic terms. The only wrath I face is the indignation of romantics, there’s no other way to designate them, who have not as yet succumbed to assuming the only defense for preserving one’s sanity in the long term, and that is pure cynicism.

We cannot speak of art, not in a world where the likes of Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons command millions of whatever currency you choose for the output of their factories, suborned by equally rich, if not richer, agents and impresarios, auctioneers and curators, who form the bishoprics of art, defining it and preserving its sacramental value, facilitating its enshrinement. We cannot speak of literature, not in a world where the preponderance of books, printed in bulk for national distribution, are brought to market by an educational-industrial complex, which churns out product the preponderance of which in markets measured in millions of people will sell in the hundreds of copies, or at best the thousands (50,000 is a staggering “best-seller”) with the gratitude of the practitioners anointed with a pedigree, regaled in a cap and gown, and handed parchment with the only suitable credentials for gaining entry to the publishing world, the holy certification of the MFA. Not that this is a money-making encounter for all but a happy few (that is, the Hirsts and Koonses of the literary world, the Dan Browns and the Danielle Steeles), though an MFA is a ticket not only through the manifold doors of a Hachette or Bertelsmann to the first sanctioned treads on the stairway to modest fame, but it is the visa to the land of higher education where the possessor may teach others, acolytes who dream of taking communion with the rest of the anointed ones. We won’t talk about the fact that a teaching job that our anointed scribes, many admittedly with talent that would stand in any age, most with, well, enough graduate credits for the degree that got them to where they are, is barely sufficient to make what is called, without a hint of irony whatsoever, a living.

It is a parody of a process that used to be called paying one’s dues, affordable, with no expense of spirit in a waste of shame, because the stakes were not of fame, which calls, indeed, for a kind of lust—a sterile kind, and certainly not of money in astronomical quantities, but of proving one’s mettle in the mastery of nuance. Not lust in action, but skill, on a foundation of talent. I’ve looked through the CVs of some of the blue chip names in American fiction-writing of a generation or two ago, the women still active, the men, but one, all dead, and the one who’s alive is, he says, “retired:” Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, John Updike, William Styron, Ralph Ellison, Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates, Anne Tyler, Ann Beattie, Margaret Drabble. Not an MFA among them. A writer friend has justly pointed out to me that likely that was because the degree didn’t exist “in them days.” And I respond, rightly so. They didn’t need it is the point. You don’t need a license to know how to drive.

The same may be said of an equal roster of shining lights, if not stars altogether, in the realm of photography (the nominal subject of what has become a tirade), of an even longer generational hierarchy, though the names are still invoked as the progenitors and models of this newest of the plastic arts, even as they are practiced to this day: Paul Strand, Eduard Steichen, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Lisette Model, Berenice Abbott, Tina Modotti, Dorothea Lange, Imogen Cunningham, Helen Levitt and I’ve already mentioned Diane Arbus.

I shouldn’t mention my own name even in moderate proximity to these greats, heroes and heroines of mine, all of them. Indeed their work is the school to which I went to learn what I hope I humbly and tentatively call my craft. Not only will you not find my name in their company, but unless you actually know me, you couldn’t associate my name with a specific image, so unknown are these artifacts. And yet, and yet… As virtually any figure in any canon of work deemed art, most who labor to produce also harbor the hope of becoming known and understood, if not appreciated. The ways in which the world at large, through history, has acknowledged exceptional efforts have varied. Inevitably, the humblest practitioners have at least enjoyed the commissions of close friends and the circles of individuals surrounding them (rapidly dissipating in inverse proportion to the level of recognition of the artisan). Go far enough back, and the identity of the human being who produced work that embodies those qualities of timelessness and enduring beauty, of the kinds and levels of nuance (if I may be permitted to re-introduce the term at this late point) that separate art from mere craft, of the reach of art to the grace beyond mere technical flawlessness. Indeed, art is often permitted imperfections (the Navajo, for entirely other, ulterior, reasons, having more to do with theology and their sense of the place of man in the universe, deliberately introduced errors, however imperceptible, into their artifacts) that we do not tolerate in mere manufactured objects of desire.

However, it was of recognition that I was speaking, recognition of the quality of the work, and ultimately, of course, recognition of the producer of the work. There are formulae, as I’ve pointed out vitriolically, to attaining a kind of fame, neither entirely reliable in any sense, least of all in the assessment of the actual attainment of capturing the elusive quality of “art,” in the sense of enduring, or (dare I say) aspiring to aspects of eternal, connection with some incomprehensible component of the human spirit. That is, speaking of art, to speak of matters that are largely inchoate, and after tens of thousands of years of being pondered, not only little understood, but, if truth be dared to say, still utterly incomprehensible.

For my part, I cannot explain my stubborn anonymity and lack of a more generalized attention (except of course from loved ones and friends, in many ways most important, and for which I never falter in my gratitude). I cannot explain it whether I assign the cause to the tortuous workings of fate in the context of the particular, and idiosyncratic, choices made in the course of my life, or explain it all as merely due to an insufficiently aggressive or sustained effort to gain attention from the right people in the right circles. I speak only of the “fame”, or, more importantly, the recognition of the stature of my own work, which I have no doubt myself has merit, and not at all of the pecuniary rewards which seem to have become the chief gauge of the magnitude of the greatness of the art in question.

I cannot assign my not so unusual lack of status to the kinds of accidents that befall each of us, if we are to call ourselves human—in short, we all suffer from Miniver Cheevy Syndrome—because there really is no such thing as being born too late or too early. Status, recognition, and the quality of art, transcend such random chronological accidents as the birth of this one or that at this time or that, rather than some other.

How to achieve it at this late point in my career, never mind the actuarial realities of my life? Going back to school is out of the question. Indeed, in a perverse distortion of the hackneyed cliché, I not only do, but I have taught. I am simply not prepared to sit again at a desk facing the blackboard.

I can—and indeed, in a very tentative way, I have done so—buy my way to some attention. But this requires not only money, but a kind of dedication, and it is far easier, I say with mixed emotions, to procure the former than to sustain the latter, until the gears of recognition from the establishment mesh. However I have come up with what I think is a far more innovative, if no less arduous, stratagem. I have decided that the fault, my dear readers, is not in myself, but in the lack of stars in the viewing screen of my camera. So slowly, carefully, and with some reliance on chance—yes, sheer luck—I have been even more mindful of discovering subjects that are not only brimming with nuance, but full of the presence of the elusive sister to Dame Fortune: fame.

Happily, and I will very soon end this treatise with this first bit of evidence, I came upon one such subject, quietly and most modestly sitting in the afternoon sun at a café in the sunny capital city of the great little state of Vermont (and why I should not have expected to stumble on such an august personage in a venue of what is likely the state of the greatest level of self-imposed humility—though well short of squeamish Uriah Heep proportions—is only a measure of the poverty of my own poor attainments in the discipline of mindfulness). It was an entirely lucky accident, as it was only because of my sudden and rare, for a mid-afternoon, desire for a cup of coffee that I stopped at the café. I had taken little notice of the man sitting unassumingly at one of a number of tables on the terrace, otherwise unoccupied. I went in, ordered my mug of whatever exotic potion from African beans was being featured, and repaired outside myself, again uncharacteristically as I am not ordinarily a fan of exposing myself to full sunlight in nearly idle repose.

Having taken note, I guess unconsciously, of which vantage provided for the most likely composition should a photograph somehow emerge from what was the otherwise unremarkable and pedestrian milieu, I sat at a table facing the façade, with a full view of the likeliest subject. It was while scrutinizing the scene, lining up the shot, so to speak, calculating the best focal length of the zoom lens, that I realized just exactly who my subject, of whom absolutely no one else took any note whatsoever, was. Without ready access to Wikipedia I could not be sure, but even approximate chronological vectors are sufficient. So at first, I was sure I was letting my imagination fly away with me, to very distant shores (Vienna is, as it turns out, just a tad more than four thousand miles from Montpelier). If it was who I thought it was, he’d have to be some 150 years old (to be more precise, as I discovered in some tiny bit of research subsequent to our meeting, he would be 158; we did engage in conversation, as you will learn, but it was not within the bounds, especially given the exertion required merely to contain the gross expression of my astonishment, of etiquette to ask my subject his age… and as it turned out, he did not volunteer the information).

As you may have gathered from the foregoing narrative, it’s not my practice too often, if at all, to engage my subjects in any way. Therefore it was extremely tentatively, once I assured myself I had captured the image as it had first presented itself to me in the way I wished to frame it, that I approached his table, and said, just loud enough, I figured, for him to hear, “Doktor Freud?” He immediately, if very slowly and gracefully, put his mug of coffee, which I noticed was nearly light beige presumably from a significant quantity of lightener in it, along with the magazine he had been perusing, on the mesh tabletop. He turned to me, and looking directly at me with a magnificently sympathetic gaze, and said “Ja?”

Considering that even as I can view, from time to time, my decrepitude waiting patiently for me on the horizon, I figured I was at worst barely more than a third his age, I had approached the great man with somewhat the awe of a child for a truly venerable personage. I asked him with a slight tremor in my voice how this could be (there was a faint flicker in my mind, though for some reason so weak as clearly ready to extinguish itself at any moment, that crazy as the moment might be, I was, in fact, dealing with a person not entirely in touch with his own reality; consider the irony of that, if this proved to be fantasy more than actual fact—I refrain from using the word truth, at least this early in the encounter). He told me, in almost so many words that, “like our old friend, Mark Twain said [speak of the devil], the reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated” and he chuckled, showing a brilliant set of dentures. I figured cosmetic surgery had made significant advances since the radical and dangerous treatment Herr Doktor Freud had had to endure for his oral cancer.

He noticed me looking at his mouth and touched my hand, and told me not to worry, that he was, almost miraculously, healed and not in any great discomfort. He said he did have to watch what he ate, but that his diet was accountable more for the sake of preserving his longevity than any further problems he might have with that particular disease. In fact, as it turned out, well, as several things turned out, he was now living in Vermont and had been since just before, as he put it, “the war broke out in Europe” largely for his health. He said he thought it was well-known that the life in that state, not to mention the typical diet of Vermonters, especially if they were strict locavores, was so salubrious as to be life-sustaining well beyond the normal span of years we are afforded.

Indeed, and as is well-evidenced in my photograph, he was not particularly frail or orthopedically challenged, shall I say, though his stature seemed quite diminished from what I expected. As if reading my mind, he told me that, in fact, he was pretty much the height and weight he had always been, and he assumed that many people were surprised on first meeting him, as in the old days, at his diminutive stature. He attributed this misconception to his appearance in photographs and the added bulk of the usually very layered attire he invariably wore.

He said that since his “retirement” (this is the word he used, with a flicking gesture of his hand, beautifully manicured I might note, as if to say, “goodbye to all that”) he had become immediately very comfortable with the very much more informal garb of the typical Vermonter. He does wear a lot of flannel and wool in the winter, because of the cold, but this is only consistent with local custom.

He kept eyeing his magazine, and I realized I had somehow, in addition to distracting him, possibly was on the verge of becoming an annoyance. I looked at him, and down at my camera, which has a wrist loop, that I had unconsciously laid on the tabletop when I sat down. He quietly asked if I might want to take his photograph, but I demurred. I don’t know why, but I also did not openly admit to having already taken the photo I wanted. Something about the very slight wry smile that crossed his features very quickly and disappeared told me that he already knew. I stood up and he moved as if to raise himself from his seat as well, but I gestured to him to stay put, and excused myself for having bothered him. No bother at all, according to him, but I quickly retreated and when I looked back he had already settled himself as I had first discovered him and was deeply engrossed in the magazine. I had been dying to get a closer look at what he was reading, but he kept the magazine under his arm on the table through the entirety of our conversation. It was a news magazine of some sort, but which I cannot say.

Later, once I returned home and processed the image, assuring myself it was, in fact, as good as I had hoped when I checked it on the tiny viewing screen of the camera, I realized with a start that I had taken no particular note of his reference to Twain, and so I did some research on-line, as is my wont in any event, and found this reference, to a letter that Freud had written to his famous colleague Wilhelm Fleiss, who had noted Freud’s absence from the lecture of another physician, personal doctor to Otto von Bismarck. What Freud wrote was: “Schweninger’s performance, there at the talking circus, was a real disgrace! I did not attend, of course; instead I treated myself to listening to our old friend Mark Twain in person, which was a sheer delight.” In his account of Twain and relationship to psychology, a Dr. Zehr, who is the source of this quotation, notes that there is no evidence Twain and Freud actually met, but that their paths must have crossed many times during an extended stay in Vienna of Twain and his entire family. I have my own thoughts.

However, more pertinent to my thesis (and the aforementioned stratagem) one thought, not an original one for sure, was that it was no coincidence, though it always seemed that connections one can discover in innumerable places when researching the lives of renowned persons are full of nuance, that well-regarded cultural figures very often knew (or know) one another, in some way. I realized that this was the key, absent enrollment in, and subsequent successful completion of, a graduate degree program in the fine arts, to my attainment to the kind of stature and recognition I will now willingly admit to wishing for myself, for the sake of my work being better known.

Therefore, I have dedicated myself to being that much more attentive to the presence of those subjects whose image is an instant entree to that kind of notice and its rewards. I hasten to add that I have no intention of joining the ranks of paparazzi, whose exertions in this regard I would not even deign to call a genre of the art of photography. And of course I have no intention of staking out people’s homes and well-traveled paths, because this is uncivilized.

Rather, let this be the notification that you should pay stricter attention to my posts, as you will see more and more of the kinds of subjects that are of interest for themselves. Consider that however artfully I may render this new category of portraits that the rendition itself is a bonus. And of course, there will be no lack of nuance.

Freud has a mug of joe, reads a magazine at local café in Montpelier.

Freud has a mug of joe, reads a magazine at local hip café in Montpelier, Vermont.

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Belief and its willing suspension

Approximate Reading Time: 7 minutes

[Somewhat freely adapted from a contribution of mine of February 24, 2001 on a listserv that was called the PhotoArt forum. Among the illustrious participants was my friend, Jack Fulton, whom I was introduced to on this forum, and who, purely irrelevantly and coincidentally, had the unknowing ignominious distinction of informing me of the dire events the following late summer. On a trip to San Francisco, in part to meet Jack in the flesh, he called our hotel room at the Sir Francis Drake in Union Square, at about 8am PST, to ask if I had the television on. The precise date was September 11. I refer to previous comments of Jack’s on the listserv below. He was not the only illustrious participant, as you shall see.]

The talk was of the preparedness of the participant, the observer, or viewer of an act, or its product, of art—it was specifically photographic art and cinematic art about which the matter arose, but the comments could apply more universally I think.

The original conception of such preparedness, “suspension of disbelief,” is from S.T. Coleridge of course, and importantly, is qualified by the term “willing.” Which is to say, the easiest interpretation one may put on this is that Samuel Taylor meant that the suspension of disbelief, occasioned by viewing an image clearly not reality as ordinary humans and philosophers—those who have not shed their skin as ordinary humans, as they are wont to do when they are being Philosophers—understand reality to be, is a voluntary act, passively so, if not one of active engagement of the state and disposition of one’s mind. In the simplest sense, perhaps the one most charitably applied to that laughable euphemism of the Bush Wars on Iraq and Afghanistan: “the coalition of the willing,” is that at least the suspender of disbelief is not doing so grudgingly.

This, of course, presents a problem, whether speaking of belief or its absence. In that having belief is hardly an act of will, even the will to be passively and perhaps generously submissive to any such act, and as Coleridge was speaking of drama (and hence, pace the prevailing sentiments of our colleague Damian Peter Sutton1, closer perhaps to the apprehension of cinema than of photography per se), the problem is manifold.

Drama is of course not reality, as cinema and photographs are not. (We all do know that, don’t we? Photographs—or to use Damian’s careful gloss, images—are not reality. Not, at least, Berkeley’s booming buzzing reality). What are we then suspending when trying to grapple with the “facts” of images captured in plastic form as the artifacts of some technological process and presumably intended (even if by indirection, not to mention the possibility of unconscious intent) to elicit the need on the part of the viewer to grapple in the first place?

To cope with the quidditas, the “whatness,” of an image—whether in its content (whatever the hell that is) or in its taxonomical elements which might be categorized as aesthetic (composition, palette, tonalities, textures, etc. ad nauseam)—we must perforce use some other piece of the human cerebral function than belief, though problematically (as I said) emotional engagement would somehow require some condition of mind/spirit, that is, if not belief itself, closely akin to it.

This is all heavily philosophical, if not religious, and thereby a little scary. This latter quality may explain in part, once we filter out the blue-nosed reactions of the self-righteous and sanctimonious when confronted with art that is, on the face of it, sacrilegious, why art is so problematic when it pretends to be more than merely decorative or picturesque (in which case of course it is not art at all, but merely dressing).

I suppose if one follows this thought far enough, it leads to the inevitable and ominously self-satisfying conclusion that art had better be disturbing (disturbing to the human spirit–in the sense of rousing one from complacency–at the very least) if it wants to have any claim to being art. This leads to the incomprehension of practitioners who believe that merely to be disturbing (through provocation or interruption) is to produce art. Hence a lot of disturbing, if grotesquely picturesque decorative, work that is condemned as [fill in your favorite sanctimonious adjective] art, when it hardly deserves the unqualified designation at all.

I would suggest to Jack Fulton2, that the movie “Reindeer Games,” from an inattentive viewing by me of the trailer and from your capsule review, in fact better serves one’s understanding of the Coleridgean premise than the other film, “The Bear,” which merely sounds silly, and hence an easy challenge to the task of willfully engaging the imagination. Nothing is harder than an act of the imagination forcing an equally arduous (if not a greater) act of imagination on the part of the viewer in order to give the act (the work of “art”) any credence whatsoever. This, by the way, for me eliminates the question of triviality or any measure of unimportance, as a criterion for determining the significance of a work of art as art. Art doesn’t admit of highness or lowness in terms of subject (whatever the hell that is) or treatment.

1. Dr. Damian Sutton, who presently is Reader in Photography at Middlesex University in the UK.

2. Jack is, and was, at the time, Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Photography at San Francisco Art Institute. He had written, back in 2001:

I rented two films last night to view over the weekend in
our rainy weekend. One is ‘The Bear’ and the other is “Reindeer Games’. The
latter was so dumbly constructed and acted one needed to suspend one’s mind
to sit through it and we didn’t. The Bear, on the other hand, was hard to
believe because the primary actors were real bears.
So, reality, schmeality, no matter what, photography from the still, movie
and digital cameras are all appearances such as a reflection in a pond or
mirror. It/they is/are faithful to what we perceive w/our visual sense as to
be “real” and I don’t think there are ifs ands or buts about it.
The ‘manipulation’ comes in from how the ‘taker’ interpreted this spectacle.

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