Unreal Nature

January 4, 2017

The Very Weight of the Visible World

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:10 am

… It was the expression of one man’s unrestricted search for the Archimedean point of the world — a search that was capable of devouring the searcher.

This is from Heinz Liesbrock’s essay found in Walker Evans: Depth of Field edited by John T. Hill and Heinz Liesbrock (2015):

Evans walks a fine line between internal and external reality. He seeks a way to depict empirical reality that also reflects the artist’s intimate reaction to it. When this is successful, photography, as Evans views it, comes into its own and can open up a transcendent dimension. How does this occur? The otherwise blind, unformed world suddenly answers us, and an underlying order shines through.

[line break added] Via the image, this epiphanic and, by its very nature, transitory moment is given tangible form without, however, destroying its inherently fleeting character. One recognizes in this a search for balance and a classic “will to form.” It is a state of balance between the outer world and the photographer, a fixed point at which he subordinates himself and his personal biases to the visible world and is absorbed into the formal structure of the image.

[line break added] This constitutes a process of clarification within existing circumstances, not the discovery of something fundamentally new, as would be the case in the act of composing. The auteur’s artistic will to form is restricted by the very weight of the visible world. The latter must not be adulterated by personal elements. This is because, one could say, that which is sensually perceptible is already beautiful in itself, and it requires no subjective molding, which could easily lapse into arbitrariness.

Evans sought to avoid any obvious presence as author in his photographs. The artist as a person with biographically influenced likes and dislikes remained invisible: an expression of opinion, let alone a moralizing air, was repulsive to him. This was Flaubert’s maxim, which Evans applied with such advantage to himself: things take on a richer appearance and have a deeper effect when they are left untouched, as it were, in their own reality.

Walker Evans, self portrait

… A form-giving decision by the photographer vis-à-vis the visible world brings to a jolting halt the stream of seemingly common phenomena that would otherwise pour over us unfiltered. In the image they are transposed to a new order, one that liberates them from long-established patterns of perception. The seemingly familiar suddenly appears odd to us. It is made transparent, revealing an underlying framework that provides the primary foundation for singular entities and embeds them in a larger context of meaning. The image generates a unique visual energy and, with it, a cognitive vibrancy — the transcendence of which Evans spoke.

Today, more than ever, the perception of photography confuses the subject of the image with its aesthetic. Its so-called content is equated with the artistic statement. Although Evans’s images are also borne by an interest in social contexts, we nevertheless discover in them with exceptional concision that which remains when all exposition and all narrative description of the world are said and done: it is the image in its own language, the essence that transforms the photographic print into art.

In light of this complex image concept, it is not surprising that Evans seems somewhat Janus-faced in his comments, published interviews, and written words. He effortlessly pendulated between supposed contradictions, never really committing himself and carefully avoiding any clear-cut statement that would constitute an undue restriction on himself. Any such statement could not adequately express the complexity of the field of experience in which he was interested.

[line break added] The same ambiguous character is also found in his photographs. They oscillate between a historical statement describing clearly defined facts, and the concept of an autonomous image that manifests itself as a simple sensory presence and is not wrapped up in an unequivocal reference or context that can be grasped via discourse. An aesthetic overhang always remains that cannot simply be attributed to the image content.

… Above all, an insatiable appetite for life radiates from Evans’s photographs. His receptivity to the unmediated sensual experience of the world was urgent and deep, and it raises his images above the level of mere documents. It was the expression of one man’s unrestricted search for the Archimedean point of the world — a search that was capable of devouring the searcher. “The thing itself is such a secret and so unapproachable.” [Evans, 1974]




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