November. Vantage Point.
I took a while to present my stuff today because I was attempting to reprise Szarkowski's final act. Vantage point on the face of it is pretty straight forward, but he also provides some summary material for the whole book including a definition of what a photographic artist is all about. More about all that below and in the extras.
Simon and I overlapped quite a bit with our approach to vantage point, I wished to provide as many samples as possible, believing that we learn visual things best from looking at lots of photographs. Simon provided some carefully chosen images from his own work that gave a more precise set of examples.
Greg changed 'vantage point' to 'perspective' and quoted Szarkowski, “Much has been said about the clarity of photography, but little about its obscurity” as a springboard for his assertion that reality and imagination rely on each other, - they interact. He showed us a set of his own in-process imagery that combined origami with photography - the constructed in the context of reality.
Homework, I believe, asked for two images from the past year that for you best exemplified what you got from the course. But I will provide an update when I can get the exact wording. Or you could present images that relate to vantage point!
John Szarkowski, in his book 'The photographer's Eye' has been placing before us several aspects of the new art of photography that seem to him to set it off from the older visual arts, “ ... an investigation of what photographs look like, and why they look that way.” Today we will be examining the last of these characteristics - that of vantage point. We not only select our subject matter but take our image from a specific angle. We select our viewpoint and then capture, rather than create a synthesis as would be more typical of a painting. Since, throughout the year we have also been looking at portfolios of photographers who break with this definition it is important to remember that Szarkowski is working within the modernist tradition where photography first began. Times change, the avant-garde moves the line forward into new territory but the traditional approaches to photography still have much to offer us all and may be revisited to find yet another starting point when the present vogue begins to loose its sense of purpose. For those of us who work with new ideas it is useful to know, even if we reject them, where it all began and the qualities of the foundation upon which we build new castles in the air.
Photography has often presented, often relied upon, the unusual vantage point, and in the beginning this strangeness disturbed viewers. To this day through the multitudes of photographic images, our ideas about the nature of reality are continually being challenged. We are still both disturbed and excited. We see from another vantage point and receive in the process another point of view.
Photographers from necessity chose from the options available to them, and often this means pictures from the other side of the proscenium showing the actor's backs, pictures from the bird's view, or the worm's, or pictures in which the subject is distorted by extreme foreshortening, or by none, or by an unfamiliar pattern of light, or by a seemingly ambiguity of action or gesture.
Photography today is free to sample ideas from the long history of the visual arts. Indeed, sometimes it seems that the camera, that potentially expressive instrument, is simply used to document a scene created by the artist, or to provide source material for photo-shopped conceptual art. This, in Szarkowski's view, would seem to be a failure to use the instrument well for what it does best and has always done; directly recording the nature of reality - the thing itself. However, the camera has always selected pieces of reality and has always expressed the point of view of the photographer. The present avant- garde of photography is simply an extension of, rather than a departure from, photographic tradition.
Szarkowski tells us that “An artist is a man who seeks new structures in which to order and simplify his sense of the reality of life”. It may seem a long stretch from Adam's and Weston's formal imagery to the highly constructed and 'shopped' images or the simple 'selfies' of the social media of the present day, but they all fit within his definition. Times change and the camera has always held up the mirror to whatever time it has found itself within.
The influence of photography has been profound: we see reality, we describe it to others, with thousands of photographs behind us bending our perceptions. Not just other visual artists, but writers and musicians make their images within this mind set. Even this little essay could be seen as a series of snapshots: I expect my readers to progressively 'see' my point of view.
Szarkowski is working hard to make a special case for photography, but people were making pictures long before photography arrived on the scene and it is highly probable that the photographic image owes as much to earlier forms of thought as present day photography does to the photographic traditions of a hundred and fifty years ago.
But Szarkowski is correct: the camera does have qualities that separate it from other forms of visual art ( In fact through much of its history photography was not considered capable of being art at all). He makes a specialized case for a different way of seeing and making, a particularly America one, even one that chooses certain photographers he brands as characteristic and ignores others. Within those narrow walls however, he has a sharply focused way of seeing what photography is and can be. His ideas have been very influential. He takes a series of slices and unfolds them for us. Finally we arrive at the last slice: vantage point.
What is our vantage point as we click the shutter and how well does it express our point of view?
When I began to seriously think about 'vantage point' I once again made the mistake of thinking that this was simply Szarkowski stating the obvious. Only when I started shooting in preparation for this lecture did I discover how I unconsciously use vantage point. How my images are often very finely honed to satisfy some important aspect of my visual mind; one that does not usually begin with a concept developed with words and then seeks an illustration for it, but is strictly visual thinking seeking formal visual satisfactions. Finding the precise vantage point and pausing with my finger on the shutter release until everything in my viewfinder is correctly arranged, until some special little relationship has perfectly set itself up is, it turns out, the inner key to many of my most personally prized photographs.
My granddaughter accidentally strikes an interestingly dynamic pose atop a driftwood stump in Ruckle Park, but I do not take the photograph until I can line up the distant beacon in the triangle of her knee. The 'negative space' is integrated into the composition. Value added!
The two arbutus trunks bend to form a strong graphic shape. I visualize how this would look in black and white, but before clicking I organize the image by minute adjustments in my vantage point so as to place the distant Beaver Point in precisely the right visual position in the V of the tree. The composition falls into place. Satisfaction!
My son in law and granddaughter are ahead of me, walking far out on Rathtrevor Beach. The stripped down landscape at this low tide, all beach and sky, places their figures in the context of immensity. But before I click the shutter I dodge to the left so that their figures are dead centre to those of two other couples in the distance. From a potentially weak and floppy kind of distant image I have created something of geometrical precision. Sea, beach and the line that divides them, and a three dimensional triangle linking the figure points. I have made a strong and ordered picture from this scene. Yes!
The light is soft, the scene indistinct; the camera has difficulty auto-focusing and so I focus manually on the white seagull. Here is a floating world wrapped in Turner-esque light, so I purposely leave the gull in an off-centre, intermediate place in the composition to emphasis the mood and click away. Later, I sharpen the waves in the foreground. A high key composition, vague, soft, dreamy... a reflection of the moment itself!
In my own mind these picky little visual alignments make art out of 'reality'; make intentional imagery of the kind Szarkowski describes: “An artist is a man who seeks new structures in which to order and simplify his sense of the reality of life.”
( We notice “An artist is a man....” and mentally translate more inclusively and correctly as “Artists are those who...”) :)
This quality of order and structure in art ( and we are studying ART photography remember) works on a variety of levels. At the craft level we may simply apply a conventional rule of composition to whatever image we make - the rule of thirds for example – irrespective of what we may wish to communicate. Perhaps we have nothing else in mind than superimposing a familiar structure on our piece of reality that will supply our and our viewer's mind with a satisfying sense of order. Art, in comparison, seems to be vague and intuitive, shy of formulaic solutions and yet, even as it seeks to poke us in the eye and wake us up, it still needs to find the right structure for the idea it wishes to communicate. That is why it is valued so highly of course, each work is, ideally, an individually perfect solution to communicating a specific idea.
I wrote a little piece on Dragongate to go along with my beach photos:
The other ( rainy) day I walked with a friend down at Indian Point and took a series of photographs which capitalized on her yellow rain-gear. I used a variety of vantage points and was also careful not to include her face so there would be no problems with copyright permissions etc. Also, no facial identity made her more universal, less specifically an individual and easier for us to both identify with and yet see the figure as part of the overall composition.
Here the figure is more dominant but turns away to lead our eyes too into the scene. From this vantage point we look over her shoulder and are invited to see it through her eyes. The figure has a function in the composition.
The figure is small and isolated in a lonely grey seascape. My distant vantage point and wider angle lens emphasizes this and expresses my point of view about our human place within the reality of the world. The distant ferry is an important visual element here because it leads the eye ( and thought) from figure to ferry thus completing the third leg of the triangle composition begun by coastline and branch.
Turns out that vantage point is the angle from which one takes the photo and also the degree of zoom or how close we are. They work together.
Viewed through a screen of branches and the last back-lighted tattered leaves of Fall, the seascape is much more expressive than if it was photographed without this compositional framing devise. Vantage point is a powerful and expressive photographic technique.
Extra 4: Visualization: from vantage point to point of view.
In my photo presentation I showed a number of images, my own and those by more experienced photographers, and was struck by how the ability to pre-visualize was present in the finished images. In particular, the powerful photo of John and Yoko, by Annie Leibovitz, taken earlier on the day he was shot to death, suggests a degree of intuition of all concerned that is weirdly prescient.
My own sketch for a book illustration project, first in pencil and then photographed and placed in Lightroom' for the tonal work, requires the ability to visualize and build a scene from scratch, and yet photographic seeing may have been influential in choosing the angle of view, the perspective and the light. How much more 'real' the cabin seems because it in the guise of a common photographic vantage point using a wide angle lens and yet how different it is from a photograph in execution.
The images from David Blackwood of his childhood memories of Wesleyville on the far east coast of Newfoundland were chosen because the photograph's chief value over time has been as a documentation of the present for its value in the future. Blackwood uses his memory rather than a camera to create images of a vanished way of life. The question could be, as Szarkowski mentions, to what degree has the photographic tradition influenced the engravings presented here? How much have old b&w images influenced the artist’s way of presenting his personal perspective?
When making a photograph I know that I pre-visualize the finished image even as I see the photograph I wish to take, and adjust my shoot to suit: this is where vantage point blends with view point and then becomes a personal point of view or 'take' on the world. I know that this process is not unique to me but is a skill common to most photographers. Can it be learned or is it built into us individually from the beginning?
Extra 4 Rational versus intuitive.
What is art? Questioned, Picasso answers: “ Even if I knew I wouldn't say!”
The artist paints, dances or composes his revelations.... For artistic intuition emanates from the cosmos and embraces the whole world.
Colour creates Light. Studies with Hans Hoffman Tina Dickey
Flat grey sky, a long strip of black islands and something dark and ill defined on the sea's edge behind the crest of a breaking wave. For me this has a power to set my teeth on edge. It is a disturbing image out of all proportion to “dark day, ferry wave”. There are some images that Jung would describe as coming from our remote human past that bring up strong reactions. Perhaps a great white shark, an Orca, or a crocodile surges out to snag us off the shore and our first instinctual reaction is out of proportion to the present reality. We feel it, even though we may not be able to tell the reason why through standard compositional analysis or through ideas about what constitutes a 'good photograph'.
One of the problems involved in teaching the arts is that on the one hand an instructor wishes to present information that people can get their minds around, and on the other to shrug and say that really there are no rules and the whole process is intuitive and mysterious. Szarkowski performs a series of cross sectional scans of photography and step by step presents us with some conclusions that with effort and practice we can incorporate into our own way of seeing. Well and good, and thank you for this John. How is it then that often as not the images that touch us do not seem to follow rules at all? Or that we seem to take our photos intuitively and only later analyze them in terms of composition. In photography the `thing` we capture is all important, as though we the photographers are at the mercy of powerful chance, as though our subject has us by the neck and draws us like an arrow in a bow to the final shutter release. Weird stuff, and irrational, but in the end it is not wholly fancy equipment or practical training that produces the most telling images.
'What, how and why' and Szarkowski's emphasis on 'reality - the thing itself'.
An artist is a man who seeks new structures in which to order and simplify his sense of the reality of life. For the artist photographer, much of his sense of reality ( where his picture starts) and much of his sense of structure or craft ( where his picture is completed) are anonymous gifts from photography itself.
The photographer's Eye. John Szarkowski
When we ask “what is art or who is an artist?” we can get confused by the variety of definitions. Szarkowski was the curator at the Museum of Modern Art so we have to take his definition seriously, even as we recognize that here he is cutting it to fit the new form of art - photography. In an era dominated by abstraction he makes a case for a unique photographic art form oriented towards reality. He presents those qualities that mark photography as different from abstract and non objective painting.
One way of understanding why he puts so much emphasis on reality is to think of our human drive to make images, which has been an important part of our behaviour as far back as we can imagine, as central. In the past and in the present we as individuals and as societies see the world around us and we ask the question “What is this thing we experience as reality?” We explore this by making images, by music, by dance and through language. So, there is the world out there but we are part of it too and our human way of dealing with it is also part of reality.
If we ask what and why this reality is, we touch on religion and in the visual arts of Christian western societies for the past two thousand years this tie has been very strong. If we ask what and how this is, we touch upon another important way of approaching reality – through the magnifying lens of science.
Szarkowski's important way of defining photography, by concentrating on what and leaving the other questions to be imagined by the viewer is well suited to photography and its instrument the camera, which records in detail – the thing itself. His ideal photographers are ones like Weston and Adams who, theoretically at least, favour clear, sharp images of nature in all its forms: reality. And that at least is a narrow, clear cut way of defining photographs and relating them to the larger world of the visual arts.
Now, he is aware that an individual photographer does not work in isolation, that he too is immersed within a society and is influenced by other photographs and photographers. We all start by confronting reality ( the what) but how we see it and how we take its picture is conditioned by every other image we see around us. (Just go to a photo site like photo.net and see how closely all images conform to one another) . Hence his insistence on the Modernist agenda to seek “ new structures”. He tells us that photography works well when it is keyed to reality and that each of us is responsible for finding our own original ways of recording its image: that's the art.
A lot of effort in society goes into arguments about various definitions of art and this is part of a natural process of finding 'new structures' and is a central tenet of Modernist philosophy that has been a standard in photography since it was invented. We are inheritors of this 'progressive' way of thinking and it pervades all aspects of western societies. In science we pursue 'how' and ask it to provide newer and more refined answers. Religions are expected to explain the 'why' of our lives in regularly updated and more modern ways.
Art photography, Szarkowski seem to be insisting, should concentrate on keeping a clear vision of reality ( the what), and photographers need to focus on Seeing first and foremost and using their cameras to clarify, record and communicate 'the thing itself' to society as a whole. This would place the photographer within the role that western artists have occupied since the first cave paintings in Europe thousands of years ago: makers of 'structured' images that reflect the reality of the world*.
*The first point to grasp is the immense fecundity of humans in producing objects of art. I argue here that art predated not only writing but probably structured speech too, that it was closely associated with the ordering instinct which makes society possible, and that it has therefore always been essential to human happiness.
ART. A new history. Paul Johnson
Extra 6: Peering through the doors on perception
The most important duty of all is to look at art long and often, and above all to look at it with our own eyes. Facts are external and need to be learned. But the love of art is a subjective phenomenon, which comes to us through our subjective eye, and no expert should be allowed to mediate. In the end, our own eyes are the key to making art our guide and solace, our delight and comfort, our clarifier and mentor. We should use our own eyes, train them, and trust them.
from Art: A New History. Paul Johnson
We are at the end of a year's study of Photographic art: with Bill we have examined the American modernist writing about photography of Szarkowski and learned to both value and question his point of view; we have learned the practical aspects involved in making art photographs through the eyes and practice of Simon, and finally with Greg we have had our treasured beliefs challenged through works of post- modernist photographers. We have peered through many and varied doors on perception and are now set free to come to our own conclusions and to develop our own perspectives and ideas about our best personal practice.
The above quote talks about viewing art but of course it applies even more urgently to the makes of art, to us with our cameras. May we look so hard that we begin to See and may we see so well that our photographs take on a life of their own.