Unreal Nature

August 16, 2017

The Arrested Eye

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:42 am

… He goes beyond Talbot’s concern with the capacity of the picturesque to arrest the sensitive eye, asking instead what the arrested eye actually sees.

This is from Photography and the Art of Chance by Robin Kelsey (2015):

… To counter the mechanical aspects of the medium, this new generation [in the 1890s] developed a code of tactics that historians today call pictorialism.

… In the name of resisting crassness and inauthenticity, the purveyors of pictorialism invented and idealized a disappearing past that opposed not only certain forms of commerce but also substantive modern freedoms, particularly for women.

But to dismiss pictorialism as nothing but reactionary or complicit nonsense would be a mistake. The movement generated reams of tiresome tenderness but also moments of illuminating struggle and progressive commitment. To say that retreat into misty sentiment was futile is not to say that industry and commerce did not have their horrors, or that pictorialism and its anti-modern sentiments had nothing worthwhile to say about them.

… The cultivated individual able to appreciate a modulated attention to art, [Peter Henry Emerson] posits, will also bring such a modulation to his perceptions of the world. To illustrate this claim, Emerson asks the reader to imagine an encounter in the field, wherein “we row by on the lake, and are struck by the picture” of a beautiful village girl on a landing stage, with a path behind it leading to a cottage backed by poplars. “If we are cool enough to analyze the picture,” he continues, “what is it we see directly and sharply? The girl’s beautiful head and nothing else.” “Thus,” he concludes, “it is always in nature, and thus it should be in a picture.”

… the eye focuses on the main elements of a scene and relegates the secondary elements to a blurred periphery. Current optical science tells us that the area of sharp focus in human vision is indeed extremely limited, far more so than people generally realize. Rather than challenge academic doctrine in favor of the study of nature, as Constable had done, Emerson uses modern optics to reconcile a traditional pictorial principle with aesthetic experience in the world. He goes beyond Talbot’s concern with the capacity of the picturesque to arrest the sensitive eye, asking instead what the arrested eye actually sees.

… Because most photographers sought uniform sharpness in their pictures, Emerson had first to disabuse his readers of this ideal. In his discussion of the village girl on the landing, he describes how a pervasive sharpness would contravene our experience of beauty in nature:

Let us, however, still keep to our scene, and imagine now that the whole shifts, as does scenery on a stage; gradually the girl’s dress and the bark and leaves of the willow grow sharp, the cottage moves up and is quite sharp, so that the girl’s form looks cut out upon it, the poplars in the distance are sharp, and the water closes up and the ripple on its surface and the lilies are all sharp. And where is the picture? Gone! The girl is there, but she is a mere patch in all the sharp detail. Our eyes keep roving from the bark to the willow leaves and on from the cottage thatch to the ripple on the water, there is no rest, all the picture has been jammed into one plane, and all the interest equally divided.

Emerson adds the caveat that even the principal subject should not be left in perfectly sharp focus. Echoing Leonardo, he writes: “Nothing in nature has a hard outline.” “Experience has shown,” he adds, “that it is always necessary to throw the principal object slightly (often only just perceptibly) out of focus, to obtain a natural appearance.

Peter Henry Emerson, A Stiff Pull, 1888

… There are signs that Emerson came to feel very quickly after the first edition of his book appeared that he had become too much like the pontificating photographic amateurs he despised. In his “epitaph” for naturalistic photography, he credited the doctrine with many good acts, including the furtherance of “monochrome photography to the utmost of its limited art boundaries,” but also suggested that it “encouraged many amateurs to babble and make the words ‘art,’ ‘truth,’ and ‘nature,’ stink in the nostrils of serious artists.” In becoming a booster of naturalistic photography, Emerson had, to his chagrin, abetted the airy pretensions of a swelling class or rule-quoting enthusiasts.

Emerson had good reason to flee a close association with the “babble” of the amateurs. At the time, the trend now known as pictorialism was becoming a monotonous set of conventions, and photography competitions and journals brimmed with photographs of moody landscapes, rustic maidens engaged in simple domestic chores, and wistful scenes of old-world charm.

My most recent previous post from Kelsey’s book is here.




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