Unreal Nature

August 26, 2015

The Matter of Secrecy

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:53 am

… good photographs are often more richly unfinished than other pictures, are wilder, in the sense that they have in them more elements that are not fully understood and domesticated.

This is from Photography Until Now by John Szarkowski (1989):

… Any picture can of course be hung on a wall, but some pictures are at their best only at close range; if they belong on a wall at all it might be the wall of an intimate corridor, or near one’s elbow at a writing desk. Many photographs, including many of the best photographs, are best when held in the hand, and it must be said that pictures bigger than one person can hold with comfort have been a difficult challenge for photography. Part of the problem has been a technical one, and relates to the photographer’s traditional insistence that there be detail in the shadows.

[line break added to make this easier to read online] The trouble with empty black shadows is that if they become bigger than, say, a thumbnail, they stop representing a dark place and begin representing merely a black shape, thus calling attention to the coated surface of the paper, which, especially in its modern manifestations, is not an intrinsically beautiful material, like bronze or marble or rubbed wood or oil pigment on linen, but instead resembles something made in a factory from petroleum derivatives and soy beans.

… But there is perhaps a deeper reason why photographers have had limited success with wall pictures, a reason that touches the issues of privacy and specificity, and perhaps even the matter of secrecy.

Only a small fraction of the world’s pictures have been designed to be seen on walls, and those are expected to speak in a more or less public and forceful way, expected even to declaim, unlike a picture that is held in the hand, as in Book of Hours, or a magazine, that speaks to one person (or to one person at a time) and thus can speak in a more confidential, and perhaps in a more dilatory, elliptical, or conversational tone, because the message is not being shared with all those others. Diane Arbus said that a photograph of two people in one bed is shocking because a photograph is private, whereas a movie showing two people in bed is not shocking because a movie is public.

A photograph may also be private in the sense that there is no designated public access to its meaning, no catalog of its constituent parts, its iconographic and formal resources. Each viewer, including the photographer who made it, must devise for the new picture a personal and provisional place among the other pictures and facts that the viewer knows. It is of course true that all good pictures contain unfinished meanings; only perfect clichés are perfectly complete.

[line break added] Nevertheless, good photographs are often more richly unfinished than other pictures, are wilder, in the sense that they have in them more elements that are not fully understood and domesticated. James Agee, pretending that the photographer was a fisherman and that the truth was a trout, said it was the photographer’s task to bring the fish to the net without too much subduing it.

… One could interpret the historical data to propose that photography has never had a dependable source of support, material or moral, even for a single generation, and that its greatest triumphs have been managed catch-as-catch-can, or within what seemed rational and stable systems that overnight proved as transient as mayflies. To repeat the litany of bankruptcies and broken hearts with which the history of photography is littered would not be useful.

[line break added] We are free to believe that Carleton Watkins and Mathew Brady and Gustave Le Gray and Charles Marville and Timothy O’Sullivan and Eugène Atget and Edward Weston and all the others would not have exchanged the work they did for a softer bed; in any case it is now too late for them to change their minds, and we have the work.

… To avoid unnecessary misunderstandings, especially their own, most photographers of ambition and high talent would prefer today to serve no instrumental functions — no “useful” goals. They wish simply to make pictures that will — if good enough — confirm their intuition of some part or aspect of quotidian life.

-Julie

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