The Flip Side of the Soul
“The right photographic image can knowingly work at the level of allusion, switching back and forth between hard fact, metaphor, symbolism, and formal poetry.” - Gerry Badger
If the power of the photographic medium lies in its relationship with reality, or rather, actuality, nowhere is that power quite so apparent as in the portrait. The photograph continues to astonish us chiefly by virtue of its faculty as a realist medium, by virtue of the simple statement “this is how something, or someone, appeared then.” A painted portrait by say, Rembrandt, is an extremely complex artifact, part icon, part representation, part symbol, part antique. Even in reproduction, we can hardly look at a Rembrandt as a mere image, without also considering it as a banknote of boundless denomination.
The photograph is quite a different kettle of fish. Unless it is a so-called vintage print, which is a somewhat spurious attempt by the art market to lend the photograph the aura and the cachet of the painting/antique, the photograph largely blows extra-pictorial issues of market provenance away. A photograph by definition is a reproduction rather than an original, a reproduction that carries and confronts us directly with an actual chemical trace of a human being in a particular place at a particular time. If we pause to think about that for a moment, we must admit that this is awesome, but it is an awesomeness of a totally different order to the painterly wonders of a Rembrandt.
Our engagement with the photographic portrait, unlike that of the painted portrait, is not that of the connoisseur but that of the voyeur. We gaze not at the painter’s work but at the photographer’s subject. Sometimes the subject gazes back, giving as good as they get. Our gaze as viewers is essentially one-sided, with all the assumptions of privilege and power that entails, given to us by the momentary, act of clicking a shutter, with or without the subject’s consent. The photographer, therefore, bears a degree of responsibility. He or she really is in the business of stealing souls, or, if we put a positive spin upon it, of conferring the gift of immortality. For why do we almost obsessively take so many portraits of ourselves and our loved ones, if not to confirm our existence and immortalize ourselves by arresting time for an eerie instant, vainly erecting this flimsy bulwark against time and decrepitude?
In the long run, when face-to-face with a subject, when putting us face-to-face with them, the photographer makes choices in accordance with his or her sensibility, his morality and compassion or lack of it. Every portrait photographer sets down only surface aspect, that in the hands of the wrong sensibility might merely reveal opportunism and brutish misanthropy. In the hands of the right sensibility it can reveal much more, a life, a fellow human being, a mensch, and what photographer Charles Harbutt has described as “the flip side of the soul.” Every photographer confers the gift, welcome or unwelcome, of some kind of seditious immortality upon a sitter. Whether that gift is conferred carelessly and without charm, making it hardly worth a row of beans, or with grace, style, and moral rectitude, making it worth at least the fabled thousand words, is quite another matter.
The Pleasures of Good Photographs
The Quality of Technique
“Emphasis on technique is justified only so far as it will simplify and clarify the statement of the photographer’s concept. “ -Ansel Adams
The first time I used a large-format 4x5 view camera, I fell in love with its beauty, its complex process, and its paraphernalia. The whole experience, from viewing the upside-down image on the glass to seeing the transparencies, was a visual feast. My next step in this adventure was to make a huge Iris print. When I saw the image on the monitor, scanned by an expert who could hold the subtlest highlight and shadow, I got another rush from the mega-dose of detail. It was not until I saw a printed proof that I stopped and really looked at the whole picture. I was shocked to find that it was, after all that work, a dud.
My initial reaction was to blame the failure on my obsession with technique. After some consideration and a cool-down period, I settled into a more balanced view: the quest for technical quality has its pros and cons. It can propel and restrain the quality of the work.
A wonderful aspect of my large-format exploration was the conversation it instigated. People love to discuss what they know. I compared notes with friends about printers and scanners, exchanging files so we could test the differences. I treasured these discussions. In addition to the encouragement they gave, each exchange contributed to my ability to make technically viable work. But at the same time, I lament the fact that the discussions were primarily about technique. When we looked at an image, it was always with a loupe or a histogram. We never discussed the concept, meaning, or relevance of the work.
The pursuit of technical quality is like a club, and it can be both democratic and elitist in its membership policies. Exhibiting knowledge is a generous act, but it is also a way to prove, by using a tangible system of measurement, how good you are. Sometimes the strict allegiance to technical quality is a way to keep the club small and exclusive. The irony is that the people inside the gates are typically the ones who lose. A rejection of a "low quality" technique may also be a lost opportunity. If measurement becomes the focus of the quest, it can inhibit one's ability to wander into uncharted territory.
The conflict between proven quality and unknown opportunities is nothing new. Alfred Stieglitz wrote about it in 1897 in the American Annual of Photography. In his article, "The Hand Camera - Its Present Importance," Stieglitz discussed the popular modern camera that many serious photographers - "champions of the tripod" - considered a toy. According to Stieglitz, Kodak's slogan, "You press the button, we do the rest," fueled the professional belief that the hand camera and bad work were synonymous. Stieglitz, however, saw the value in this "toy." Because of its "ease in mechanical working," the camera became second nature to use, "so the eyes and mind can be fully occupied with the subject." Stieglitz discussed the reaction of his colleagues when he showed them the negative for his picture Fifth Avenue - Winter. They advised him to "throw away such rot*: 'Why, it isn't even sharp and he wants to use it for an enlargement!'" Stieglitz declared that his negatives "are all made with the express purpose of enlargement, and it is but rarely that I use more than part of the original shot." He went on to state that this camera had opened up a new area of work for photographers. Stieglitz emphasized skills that were not technical, but instead, grounded in looking. He described patience, studying lines and lighting, and finding the moment at which everything is in balance and "satisfies your eye."
Professionals and amateurs alike, in any of the arts, sometimes wander off their intended paths and get tangled in the thicket of technique, whether it's the pursuit of or rejection of technical quality. When the work is in balance, technique is neither the hero nor the enemy.
*As a side note, "the rot" titled Fifth Avenue - Winter sold for $314,599 at auction in 2007.
Art Without Compromise