Unreal Nature

September 23, 2015

What You Might Believe

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:38 am

In the picture, you have the object. But you have in the object, or superimposed on it, a thing I would call the image, which contains my idea. And these things are present at one and the same time and there is a business going on, a conflict, a tension. ā€” Aaron Siskind (1963)

This (with the exception of the above quote) is from the essay ‘Aaron Siskind: A Demanding New Photographic Order by Gilles Mora found in Aaron Siskind: Another Photographic Reality (2014):

… A kind of third way between illusory, distanced documentary verism and a vainly mannered hankering for art, Siskind’s intense, difficult expressionism helped guide American photography toward an experiment-inflected visual mastery with a unique, specific language, increasingly receptive to other art forms, of which he was one of the founding fathers.

SiskindGloucester1944
Gloucester, 1944

Siskind … was aiming at something other than the approximate expression of moods through photography. It is now a commonplace that Stieglitz’s nebulous, intentionally abstract series [his Equivalents] made metaphor — a concept taken from linguistics — a more or less happy stylistic device within American photographic modernity. With its help, the photographer — Edward Weston, for example, or Minor White — could try to infuse the inherent objectivity of his medium with an extra dash of soul, a guarantee of subjectivity that would seem highly unlikely to any believer in the expressive muteness of the photographic recording process. In photography, metaphor — proceeding by free association, often highly formalized, concentrated in a single image rather than a series, and resorting to a symbolist vocabulary that borrows as readily from painting, music, or poetry — had been the key to all sorts of more or less successful visual solutions.

[line break added to make this easier to read online] Walker Evans was the first to abjure this pseudo-poetic language, with its exaggeratedly artistic and inevitably limited effects. In its place he offered a documentary style just as capable, if not more so, of successfully investing areas that hitherto only literature had seemed able to address: meditation on time, history, the breakdown of capacity for resistance of the individual faced with collective anonymity, the status of the object — the vernacular object in particular — in the modern social environment, the archiving of such objects, etc. These were the exigencies that linked Siskind to Evans, who, apart from Frederick Sommer and Harry Callahan, was the only photographic influence Siskind ever acknowledged. But while Evans denied all artistic pretensions, Siskind made his claim frankly and openly.

Siskind_NewYork1951
New York, 1951

… “I think a picture is a kind of result of a conjunction of circumstances of which you are one. A picture is basically not a statement of what you believe but rather a kind of indication of what you might believe, or what you might be believing, or what you didn’t know you believed.”

We have lost the habit of this kind of credo: it belongs to a modernist past which, nonetheless, for two decades engaged American photography in a venture of revelation of the self and the world, taking it down trails as different as those blazed by Siskind, [Harry] Callahan, Minor White, Emmet Gowin, Robert Frank, and Diane Arbus.

Siskiind_NewYorkW1_1947
New York, W1, 1947

Siskind begins by freeing things from their weight of space and time and, thus allowing them to transcend their material condition, sets them communicating among themselves inside a new system of references, a parallel world of interacting signs within the contained flat space of the print. He calls this “conversation,” that is to say, dialogue between fields of tension …

-Julie

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