Thursday, September 16, 2010

On Portraiture Versus Landscape

“Heads—or more to the point, faces—are especially unsettling. At the University of California, San Francisco, in whose medical school anatomy lab I would soon spend an afternoon, the head and hands are often left wrapped until their dissection comes up on the syllabus. ‘So it’s not so intense,’ one student would later tell me. ‘Because that’s what you see of a person.’”
--Mary Roach, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers
It is not a well-known fact that Ansel Adams was an accomplished portraitist. As with his landscapes, Adams was a meticulous and confrontational, staging his camera with a perspective that commanded attention. He was especially interested in the wartime Manzanar “internment” camp in California, where alongside Dorothea Lange he photographed Japanese-American internees in the 1940s. This series of portraits was eventually published as a photo essay under the name Born Free and Equal: The Story of Loyal Japanese-Americans, and it has been all but forgotten since then. Even most of Adams’ most ardent fans would be surprised to know that Adams was the first photographer ever to be commissioned to make an official portrait of an American president (Jimmy Carter).
In analyzing and comparing Adams’ landscape and portrait work, it is easy to discern his artist’s empathy and attraction towards the former, as opposed to his clinical and almost text-book analytical approach to the latter. People—it seems—were not nearly as compelling to him as the textures, values of light, shapes and geometry of pure nature. His portraits, although technically “successful,” lack the vitality of his landscapes; the people are oddly cropped, either shown far too up close, or rendered too far away to be interesting. It is, therefore, a lucky coincidence for us, that he found his true calling in the breathless vistas of the American landscape.
Other photographers have had a harder time distancing themselves from the romance of portraiture. Even distinguished photographers at the level of Adams, such as Edward Steichen and Alfred Stieglitz, failed to resist its siren call. Others, such as Richard Avedon, used its potential to reach stardom. Avedon’s photographs, devoid of any landscape detail, are hauntingly direct. His portraits are an assault of eyes and hands; stark stares beckon us from the flat medium of the photograph, hands curl, clasp, claw and dance in an ancient language. Avedon’s work mesmerizes, even if he himself was a prisoner of portraiture’s mystery. His work remained largely unchanged in approach throughout his career and has since his death has seen a marked decline in artistic value. An inflexible artist, his “approach” became his crutch, and his inability to suffer the tribulations of genre exploration hurt his fine-art legacy.
It is part of human nature to interact, to engage, to socialize. Photographic portraits create an unnatural barrier of engagement: there is an intimacy between viewer and subject, where the viewer devices a personality, a set of feelings and thoughts, and method of communication between themselves and the photograph. It is not about the work of art, per se, but rather about the hidden reality of the model. The eyes and hands tell a story coded by the photographer.
There are photographers who are brilliant in creating intimate storylines, of coaxing a relationship between the viewer and the photograph, and there are those who are more abstract in their approach. There are merits, after all, to the argument that landscape is in fact a form of portraiture, except lacking the anthropomorphic qualities that require emotional engagement from the viewer: namely, faces and hands. The portfolios of certain photographers even give us clues as to their personal feelings on people: Edward Weston made a career of depersonalizing women, to the extent of incorporating the human female form in his landscapes. To his credit, however, his abstraction in regards to portraiture was not limited to the opposite gender; some of his most clever work involves the truncated nude body of his son, sans the identifying features of hands and face.
Truncation of the human form has been around for thousands of years; art students today truncate nude models in a variety of art-forms to practice on the elemental ideals of beauty and aesthetic. Without the hands and faces, these forms lack identity and can be examined without emotion. Transmitting emotion through portraiture is a long and involved process, if it is to be executed successfully. As artists, we must primarily be interested in our subject matter (unlike Adams); second, we must be highly concerned by the ensuing connection between the portrait and the viewer, and understand its language in its entirety (and not lean on the artifice of celebrities as our models to create false intimacy, or on the simple mystery of direct contact, a la Avedon); and lastly, we should find ourselves open to explore other genre, and understand the simple human need to form a bond. Even in landscape we can find humanity if we search for it.
“Landscape photography,” once said Ansel Adams, “is the supreme test of the photographer—and often the supreme disappointment.” Without the language of eyes and hands, the landscape artist is reliant on form and interpretation, and it is here that the true genius arises. Not necessarily on basis of success, but of attempt to rise above adversity, and to continue the experiment until the artist is satisfied. It is the supreme form of artistic intimacy, where the coded message is not between the photograph and the audience, but rather between the photographer and his subject.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

In Response to Place - A Few Thoughts

“Want my opinion, just as an amateur? I think photography’s a much artier art than most people believe. It’s logical to think that, if you’ve got an eye for composition—plus a few technical skills you can learn in any photography class—one pretty place should photograph as well as any other, especially if you’re just into landscapes. Harlow, Maine or Sarasota, Florida, just make sure you’ve got the right filter, then point and shoot. Only it’s not like that. Place matters in photography just like it does in painting or writing stories or poetry. [Sic] Because an artist, even an amateur one like me, puts his soul into the things he creates. For some people—ones with the vagabond spirit, I imagine—the soul is portable. But for me, it never seemed to travel even as far as Bar Harbor. The snaps I’ve taken along the Androscoggin, though…those speak to me. And they do to others, too.”
“N.” by Stephen King
In 2001, critic Andy Grundberg (currently head of the art department at the Corcoran College of Art and Design, in Washington, DC) was tapped by the Nature Conservancy to curate a selection of photographs for an exhibition entitled “In Response to Place.” Twelve photographers were carefully culled and assigned the task of documenting what the Nature Conservancy called “the Last Great Places.” With this loosely unifying theme, the artists were then each free to build their own context, to select and engage with the location of their choice: the who, what, when, where, and why—but especially the why.
The selected dozen were scattered across a grand variety of genre. There is a general consensus amongst photography critics that any photograph of a celebrity is a “successful” photograph, because of rooted familiarity with the subject matter. If so, then would a collection of work by celebrity photographers also result in success? Let us consider the twelve, in no particular order of recognition: Mary Ellen Mark, William Wegman, William Christenberry, Sally Mann, Fazal Sheikh, Lee Friedlander, Lynn Davis, Terry Evans, Karen Halverson, Annie Liebovitz, Richard Misrach, and Hope Sandrow. You may have to Google one or two of the names, but you should at least need to use the fingers on both hands to count the photographers you do recognize.
The criticism—positive and negative—was immediate. (For a close look at the work, in compendium, visit Arguably the “landscapists” of the bunch had a resounding advantage: Misrach’s photographs, by inherent nature, most closely identified with the task (and as such it was one of his images of Nevada that was used to promote the show and was portrayed on the cover of the addendum book publication); Christenberry was on home turf, documenting the rich Alabama landscape he had already been capturing for thirty years. The dexterity of some of others was clearly what astounded, what confirmed their superiority of skill: Sally Mann’s color work (color!) of Mayan ruins in the Mexican landscape (landscape!); Annie Leibovitz returning to her White Oak Dance Project roots with her unstaged, ungaffered, unlit and unaccomodated black and whites.
It is no personal surprise to see that the weight of critical negativity on the collection is shouldered by the work of Mary Ellen Mark and William Wegman, both photographers whose “celebrity” has consistently made me suspicious. Mark, perhaps overwhelmed by working outside of her portrait genre, refuses to apply herself to the task and does no merit to her locations of choice: Alaska and the Virginian Coast. Wegman, insistent on continuing with an exceedingly exhausted gimmickry, makes almost a mockery of Race Point, Lubec, Maine, by throwing out the focus of the landscape behind the crisply-in-focus arching back of one his exasperatingly iconic Weimaraners.
I have never been coy about photographers of whose work I am suspect. To this day the mention of Cindy Sherman still raises my hackles. This collection, in point, serves guidance in introspection, in asking myself what I find “suspect” in the work of certain photographers.
I was first drawn to the collection by the name, “In Response to Place.” The title has a resounding introspective quality to it; it asks for an answer to an unarticulated question. This is photography at its core: to create questions to established answers. For example: Field in Nebraska. But is it a field in winter, or summer? What is it’s mood, is it angry or is it serene? Where is this field, on a mountain, or in a valley? And that is the job of the photographer, to provide the context to a theme. A “photographer” that fails to provide the context fails, in my eyes, to be successful. Mary Ellen Mark may be a celebrated portraitist, but she is no more a master of gimmickry than William Wegman, who without his dogs is no more of a photographer than a circus master. Her inability to reflect on context (the who, the what, the when, the where, and of course, the why) to the simple theme of location, of “last great places,” is her insurmountable crucible.
I spent a good amount of my afternoon last Friday involved in the pursuit of “landscape” to photograph. Wearing highly inappropriate footwear and without questioning my lack of insect repellant (or human repellant—Mace), I ventured shallowly into Rock Creek Park, just south of where I live in Washington, DC. After spending about half an hour on a winding trail on a steep downhill slope (while two thoughts circulated unendingly in my mind: isn’t this where they found Chandra Levy? and What comes down… must come… up?) I reached Rock Creek itself. It is indeed full of rocks, slimy and brown algae-covered rocks. After I had already abandoned my tripod halfway down the trail, I likewise abandoned my Rainbows at the side of the creek, rolled up my sweat-soaked jeans and waded into the creek to a center island of sand, rock, detritus, broken glass, and a veritable jackpot of junk and trash. My target? A stranded toy boat washed ashore and abandoned, slowly bleaching under a constant sun. I photographed it silently from an assortment of angles, and without much thought moved further downstream to another spit of island in the creek, where I began to pan the landscape for a panorama I thought I might use in my current developing series. I found myself having a compulsive Mark/Wegman desire to manipulate my scene: immediately to my left, and in the left anchor of my panorama, sat a fat black tire, a Firestone of unknown vintage. I could have turned ninety degrees and panned the opposite side of the creek. But position of the sun notwithstanding (or the fact that I could see Beach Road and evening traffic through the trees), I reflected instead on my response (use a metaphoric portrait or a dog to mask my inability to deal with context?). Instead of finding myself annoyed, I found myself to be pleasantly surprised. I actually smiled there, with brown gunk to my knees in the middle of the creek, mosquitoes droning in my ears. I finished the series of shots, and knew it would not make it into my series. You might see this photograph later, but it was nothing more than a gimmick. I found my “landscape” further up the trail, at the roots of an old oak tree, far away from the creek I had first thought might appear more “picturesque” (picturesque: also known as “celebrity,” equals instant success). I reminded myself again about context, and about the answers that have no questions—yet. They have no why. And that is what we search.