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Comments, ‘A Question Of Art’

Posted by acdtest on February 2, 2004

Comments On “A Question Of Art”

Weblogger and professional photographer Rick Coencas of Futurballa has most interesting comments to make on this archived article.

Mr. Coencas’s technical comments are right on the money, as I would expect them to be, and I find nothing in them to which to object. In answer to Mr. Coencas’s gentle demur that I made my case by limiting myself to the photography of natural landscape, I’d note only that the discussion was limited to that specialized venue as the central focus of the article was the color photographs of two natural landscape color photographers (Galen and Barbara Rowell) who photographed almost nothing but.

As to the two color photographers mentioned by Mr. Coencas, I’m somewhat familiar with the work of both, and the one, William Eggleston, can, to my knowledge, by no stretch be counted as a natural landscape photographer; and the other, Cole Weston, did natural landscape in color mostly in clear abstractions, which sort of treatment I explicitly exempted from my remarks as it was outside the subject treated. And the very few truly natural landscapes of Cole Weston with which I’m familiar are just as much kitsch as anything done by the Rowells.

My above remarks notwithstanding, Mr. Coencas’s post is well worth your time reading.

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Adams Remembered

Posted by acdtest on February 10, 2003

Adams Remembered

his month marks the 101st anniversary of the birth of the celebrated American landscape photographer Ansel Adams. The anniversary is one I ought to remember as the transcendent work of this great artist played a not insignificant role in my life; in fact was responsible for one of its turning points.

After spending years training for a career in music, I quit conservatory having convinced myself — rightly, as I then thought (and today still think) despite protestations to the contrary by mentors and teachers — I lacked the native gift required to excel in the field, and as a matter of necessity turned instead to the world of business where, to my utter surprise and mild horror, I became fairly well-off (if not genuinely rich) fairly quickly. After spending some ten years at this, I glimpsed into my future, and was there confronted by the bleak and depressing prospect that the most my life would ever accomplish would be to make more money. Well, money is important only when it’s lacking, and as one of my favorite movie lines goes (this one from Citizen Kane, and as verbatim as I can remember it): “It’s no trick to make a lot of money — if all you want to do is to make a lot of money.”

So, at the ripe age of 30, I left the world of business, and struck out on a new career in the world of the arts — sort of. What I did was take up a career as a photographer of architecture. This seemed for me a natural as architecture was one of my lifelong interests, I already had a secure knowledge of basic photographic technique which knowledge I was certain I could expand easily to become expert, and by my taking on a well-chosen clientele I felt certain I could earn an at least bread-and-butter living by my efforts.

And so it worked out just as I’d envisioned — better than I envisioned — until one day I encountered an original print of this by Adams (click on thumbnail for larger image):

and I was lost. I then and there abandoned photographing architecture forever, and embarked on a course that for years after was determined to follow in Adams’s footsteps.

So what’s with that photograph?, you may ask It’s simply a pretty picture. And indeed it’s nothing more than that — until, that is, one has seen at first hand an original Adams print of that pretty picture, whereupon the pretty picture immediately becomes something infinitely greater; something almost unimaginable for one with no prior experience of an original Adams print. The initial experience is one of aesthetic shock; or better, aesthetic arrest, to use Joyce’s language. One even has some difficulty seeing the print as a photograph so physically different does it appear from an ordinary black-and-white photographic image. The blacks are impossibly deep; the whites, impossibly radiant; the gradation of tones from deepest black to most brilliant white, impossibly rich, subtle, and delicately detailed; and the lambently luminous whole so seemingly three-dimensional one imagines one could reach one’s hand beyond the print’s surface and deep into the image itself.

All that is the product of Adams’s prodigious technical skill, and as well an essential element of the uncopyable core of his singular visual genius. That technical skill can be acquired by most dedicated photographers possessing a good photographic eye, but even when acquired is but groundwork only; a matter of craft the possession of which is expected of any serious photographer working in black-and-white. Adams’s art, however, goes beyond — way beyond — questions of craft in his mature landscape work (his early work is, well, early work, reflecting the perversely in-fashion painterly look of the time, and his non-landscape work unremarkable).

At their best, Adams’s prints of landscape subjects transfigure and transcend their subject matter, and render in the processed image not the subject’s outward appearance, but its mystical center as Adams “previsualized” it when looking at the framed view of the scene on the ground glass of his large-format view camera. (“Previsualization” is Adams’s term for seeing in the mind’s eye the finished processed print of the image seen on the ground glass.) “I look upon the lines and forms of Nature as if they were but the vast expression of ideas within the Cosmic Mind,” said Adams. Indeed, and it was precisely that, not the “lines and forms of Nature” which he captured in his prints, thereby permitting us to experience it as well.

I’ve never met a serious photographer, myself included, who, for the first time ensorcelled by an Adams’s print, did not initially imagine he could exactly match its qualities if he worked assiduously at learning all the necessary techniques. Indeed, Adams himself fostered and encouraged such an idea, and enthusiastically shared his methods and techniques with others, wrote detailed books on the subject that are still earnestly studied classics in the field, and was generous almost to a fault with his time in giving personal help and guidance to other serious photographers. Thousands — again, myself included — have benefited from his teaching, but none — not one — has ever succeeded in producing a finished print of a landscape subject that could be mistaken by an experienced eye for a genuine Adams-visualized and -made print.

There’s a famous story of the great critic and photography historian Beaumont Newhall who one day, while thumbing through a magazine, unexpectedly came across an Adams landscape image the original print of which was known to him. His fresh apprehension of the image made him literally fall back in awe on the couch on which he was sitting, murmuring to himself that Adams must surely be the greatest photographer who ever lived.

The story is not apocryphal, and in his assessment Newhall was not far wrong.

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A Question Of Art

Posted by acdtest on December 15, 2002

A Question Of Art

n a recent discussion concerning the color landscape photographs of Galen and Barbara Rowell, and to the displeasure of all present, I declared the photographs to be “trash art.” I of course realized I was using the term due solely the context of the particular discussion in which I was engaged as ordinarily I would have referred to the rather spectacular landscape images of both these photographers (both of whom died in an airplane crash this past August) as kitsch. Pretty and superficially appealing kitsch to be sure, but kitsch nevertheless; the sort of stuff one might find as original illustrations for pricey wall calendars sold at certain mainstream retail outlets. In other words, not art at all, trash or otherwise, except by using the term carelessly and informally.

But what made me so certain — instantly certain — these images didn’t qualify as genuine art? What criterion or criteria was I using to instantly and subliminally make that judgment? And were real criteria involved at all, or was it simply a matter of my gut-level prejudices at work?

These were questions that occurred to me later that evening, and as it turns out, I’m pleased to relate, real criteria were indeed involved, although it’s easier to know them than it is to tell them.

But let me risk the attempt.

First, and easiest to tell and understand, is that, unless something abstract is intended, by the very fact of the photographs being color photographs of nature subjects, they’re incapable of nuanced manipulation, and the color image rendered is just about guaranteed to be hyper-real in both saturation and hue, and therefore just about guaranteed irredeemably vulgar. Color photographs of nature subjects almost always are (I say almost to allow for the unlikely possibility that somewhere, by someone, there exists a color photograph of a nature subject that’s not irredeemably vulgar).

Further, the color rendered in the image under any given natural lighting conditions is determined entirely by the manufacturer’s “build” of the emulsion and its subsequent absolutely rigid processing, and the results are therefore exactly the same for all users, only extremely limited post-processing alteration of the color image being permitted with negative stock, and none at all with positive. (One can, of course, go to a third-generation print from an internegative made from the positive, in which case the extremely limited post-processing alterations possible using original negative stock would obtain, but with all the deterioration of image quality that third-generation implies).

Also, and perhaps more importantly, brightness ranges in nature are the most extreme of any location, and color stock, both negative and positive, but especially positive, can handle only a very limited portion of that range (as compared with black-and-white stock), brightnesses at the top of the actual scale going very quickly and abruptly to detail-less and texture-less off-color whites in the image, and at the bottom, to detail-less and texture-less blacks.

And so the image color and capturable brightness range are, ultimately, rigidly determined by the manufacturer of the film (and of the paper as well in the case of color prints), the putative artist being entirely at the mercy of the emulsions he uses, and therefore having to accept whatever color image those emulsions and their rigid processing produce, unless he chooses to go a manifestly abstract route, in which case the nature photograph becomes not a nature photograph at all, but something quite different.

Less easy to understand for many is the fact that a color photograph, unless manifestly intended as an abstraction, pretends to reality; that is, it pretends to render with fidelity things in the natural world as seen normally by the eyes of Homo sapiens, and it’s due that very fact that the messing about with the color image is so severely limited. Go beyond that narrow limit and the color rendering is perceived instantly as in some way “wrong” or, worse, inept.

This problem, as well as the others noted above, is not a problem when working with black-and-white materials, negative and print, as a black-and-white print is instantly perceived as an abstraction from the get-go, and therefore the range and degree of manipulation of the image for expressive purpose — both in- and out-of-camera, and at just about every stage of production — is, at bottom, and within widely separated boundaries, limited only by the expressive gift and technical skill of the photographer.

The upshot of all this is that any color photograph of a nature subject, except in the rarest of instances (I’m again covering my ass here; I’ve never actually encountered such an instance), is just about guaranteed to have about it a sense of sameness with other such color photographs, and have about it as well a sense of the mechanically constrained, both of which are art-destroying at the most fundamental level.

And such is the case with all the Rowell photographs I’ve ever seen, on their Website and at first hand.

But there’s even more to it than that in the case of these photographs. Like all non-art, the Rowell images have no secrets, or having them, give them up all at once on very first apprehension. That’s a virtual hallmark of all non-art. No genuine work of art does that — ever. Genuine art, whatever its medium, always possesses secrets, and gives them up slowly, one by one, only to the most searching and probing eye or ear, the greatest works seemingly having an almost bottomless store which are never divulged entirely no matter how long and deep the searching and probing.

Which brings me to my initial rule-of-thumb criterion for judging whether a work is genuine art or not whatever its medium: The Jabberwocky Test. If a work fails that test on first and repeated apprehensions it’s unquestionably and irredeemably non-art, and to the extent it meets the test is it art of greater or lesser degree.

“Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas — only I don’t exactly know what they are!” exclaimed Alice after reading Jabberwocky for the first time. The capacity of a work to provoke that feeling in an informed and experienced receiver is almost a very definition of genuine art, and regardless of its medium, any work absent that quality is most assuredly non-art.

The Jabberwocky Test in no way depends on the tester finding the work under test to be personally appealing. What it does depend on is the depth of the tester’s knowledge of the domain to which the work belongs, and his ability to put aside his personal likes and dislikes, and make his judgment based on the qualities of the work itself.

For instance, I’ve a marked antipathy toward 19th- and 20th-century French music, but that doesn’t in the least prevent me from at once recognizing that the works of, say, Debussy (whose works I particularly loathe) most decidedly pass Jabberwocky muster. My knowledge of music permits me to make that determination with some measure of confidence. Similarly, but on the flip side, I positively adore the Sherlock Holmes stories of Conan Doyle, but my personal love of that classic and enduring canon does not in any way prevent me seeing clearly that as literature it most decidedly fails Jabberwocky as enduring as that canon has been for the past 100 years or so (its endurance beyond its time of novelty due a certain nostalgia peculiar to the last half of the last century in particular which is fast losing its power). Again, my knowledge of literature permits me that judgment with some measure of confidence.

So, neither a matter of being personally captivated by a work, nor of “I know art when I see it,” but rather a matter of sufficient knowledge brought to bear in cool detachment from one’s own personal quirks, prejudices, likes, and dislikes.

Not as difficult as it sounds, strange to tell.

As a first determiner of art and non-art, I’ve found The Jabberwocky Test virtually infallible, and the Rowells’ spectacular landscape photographs fail the test most resoundingly. De mortuis nihil nisi bonum said the ancient sage. But in matters as important as art, truth trumps…everything.

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