Unreal Nature

January 3, 2018


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:39 am

… to any mind committed to the paradoxical illusions of the photographic image, the least discernible modification (from a conventionalized norm) of contrast and tonality must be violently charged with significance, for it implies a changed view of the universe, and a suitably adjusted theory of knowledge.

This is from the essay ‘Meditations Around Paul Strand‘ by Hollis Frampton (1972) found in Reading Into Photography: Selected Essays, 1959-1980 edited by Thomas F. Barrow, Shelley Armitage and William E. Tydeman (1982):

… In the hands of a gifted and able printer (and Strand is supremely both) a single negative may be made to yield prints of the most extraordinary variety. I would compare the process to that of deciphering the figured basses in baroque keyboard works: given a sufficiently wide rhetorical field to work in, there must finally obtain the possibility of shifting a whole work from one to another mutually contradictory emotional locus by the variation of a single element.

I seem to be speaking, of course, of what has been derogated as nuance; and there is a strain in the temper of modern art that has, quite rightly I think, found suspect any tendency to locate the qualities of art works outside the direct conceptual responsiblity of the artist, in “performance” or “interpretive” values. But for Strand (himself the craftsman-performer of his stock of negatives) such concerns amount, as we shall see, to very much of his art.

Nuance is a superficial matter. But photographs are, in the precise sense, perfectly superficial: they have as yet no insides, it would seem, either in themselves or inside us, for we are accustomed to deny them, in their exfoliation of illusion, the very richness of implication that for the accultured intellect is the only way at all we have left us to understand (for instance) paintings.

To put it quite simply, a painting which may be, after all, “nothing but some paint splashed on canvas,” is comprehended within an enormity which includes not only all the paintings that have ever been made, but also all that has ever been attributed to the painterly act, seen as abundant metaphor for one sort of relationship between the making intelligence and its sensed exterior reality. The “art of painting” seems larger than any of its subgestures (“paintings”), protecting, justifying, and itself protected and justified as a grand gesture within the human category “making.”

Contrariwise, photography seems to begin and end with its every photograph. The image and its pretext (the “portrait” and the “face”) are ontologically manacled together. Every discrete phenomenon has its corresponding photograph, every photograph its peculiar “subject”; and after little more than a century, the whole visible cosmos seems about to transform itself into a gigantic whirling rebus within which all things cast off scores of approximate apparitions, which turn again to devour and, finally, replace them.

We are so accustomed to the dialectics of twentieth-century painting and sculpture that we are led to suppose this condition is a sorrow from which photographers hope for surcease. But this simply is not true, on balance; and most certainly not in Strand’s case. Rather, a stratagem by no means peculiar to Strand, but detectable in the work and published remarks of photographers in every generation since Stieglitz has consisted in insisting (with considerable passion) upon the primacy of photography’s illusions and, simultaneously, upon the autonomy of the photographic artifact itself.

The larger aesthetic thrust of photography has concentrated not upon annihilating this contradiction but instead upon containing it.

… in photography the paradox lies at the very core of the art, refusing to be purged.

For Paul Strand, both theses interlace and are succinctly bracketed in a single notion: craft. For it is by craft that illusion reaches its most intense conviction, and by craft also that the photograph is disintricated from the visible made things, through regard for the inherent qualities of photographic materials and processes. Craft is, moreover, a complex gesture, which begins with a formal conception and precipitates in the print.

… To the sensibility oriented towards painting, quite extreme parametric variations on a single photographic image must seem no more than pointlessly variant “treatments” of an icon. But to any mind committed to the paradoxical illusions of the photographic image, the least discernible modification (from a conventionalized norm) of contrast and tonality must be violently charged with significance, for it implies a changed view of the universe, and a suitably adjusted theory of knowledge.

In cleaving thus to sensory données, the photographer suggests a drastically altered view of the artist’s role. The received postures of Spirit Medium and Maker nearly disappear. On the deliberative level, the artist becomes a researcher, a gatherer of facts, like Confucius’s ancients, who, desiring Wisdom, “sought first to extend their knowledge of particularities to the uttermost.” And on the axiomatic level, where the real work is now to be done, the artist is an epistemologist.

… Thus the importance for Strand of what he calls “craftsmanship,” and thus also the importance of the print. In reprinting nearly every photograph for the present exhibition [a 1972 retrospective organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art], Strand is conforming the investigations of a lifetime to his current (presumably mature and perfected) view of the world. So that this retrospective view of his work is not for us, the “visitors,” alone, it is not even primarily ours, for we have never seen the prints he made in 1916 from the negatives of that year. Nevertheless, he holds them in his own mind; this retrospective is for Strand himself.

[I posted from this same essay, found elsewhere (in a collection of Frampton’s writings), back in 2013. It’s always interesting to me to find that what I took from it then is completely different from what I take from it this time around. (I had forgotten the previous post until after I had typed up this one.)]

My most recent previous post from this (current) book is found here.




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