Random Sights and Diversions

Photography Media Reviews Commentary


T.S. Eliot

T.S. Eliot, who died this weekend in 1965, was one of the 20th Century’s most important poets. Eliot won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948. Among his major works are The Wasteland, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, Ash Wednesday, and (my favorite) Four Quartets. Eliot has been a favorite of mine since college days (don’t ask; too long ago).

Flavorwire (a great website to follow on all aspects of culture) published this week “20 T.S. Eliot Quotes for Better Living and Creative Inspiration.”  Here are to selected examples that I especially like.

“We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

And a statement about plays but that seems quite applicable to photography as I understand it.

“A play should give you something to think about. When I see a play and understand it the first time, then I know it can’t be much good.”



Not How? Why?

We tend to focus too much on the “how?” questions of photography – What gear do I use, what lens was that, how did I post-process this image? – and not enough on the “why?” – Why did this image move me? what was I envisioning or wanting to say? why did I compose frame as I did? I confess I’m far too guilty of the gear-fetish that afflicts many of us. But this is a very good article that appeared today in Medium: “The Mechanical Fetish,” by Raphael Shevelev.

I continue to be dismayed at how many photography publications request, and print, details of photographers’ equipment. Yet, I don’t see literary magazines demanding and revealing the kind of pens, pencils, typewriters, paper, computers, printers, word processing programs used by their authors.

What is this fetish with mechanics all about?

think it is largely fueled by asking the delusional, wrong question: “How did you do this (so I can replicate your steps and show off my creativity?)” The right question might be “Why did you do this?” and other variations of inquiry about observation, interpretation, philosophy, mentation.

Medium, Sept 26, 2014.  Raphael Shevelev’s Website.

In the course of Raphael’s article, he references another Medium pice by the photographer Jann Alexander, “How to Talk to a Photographer Like She’s an Artist.” In that enjoyable article, Jann Alexander touches on some of the questions photographers get asked that completely miss the essence of photography as art today. For instance: “Are those the real colors?”  (“They’re the colors I saw.”) “Did you Photoshop that picture?” (Of course; photoshop (or Lightroom and Aperture) are today’s tools of the photographic artist. Once upon a time, we used film and chemicals. Today we use technologically advanced tools.)

Many people who look at photography, according to Alexander, fail to appreciate the essence of the photographer’s art.

As an artist first, whose paintbrush is a camera, my prints are my vision of what I see, and how I choose to show that to the world.

I certainly agree with that, but I think all too often we photographers tend to undermine ourselves by focusing on gear, cameras, hardware, software, the “how” of making images, rather than the “why” questions and our photographic vision.

These are both thoughtful and enjoyable articles. Check them out.


Photographs Belong in Art Galleries

Visitors study pictures on show at the Photographers’ Gallery, London. Photograph: Alamy. The Guardian, Nov 13, 2014.

I have wanted to write something about the question of photography-as-art for a while. A recent article in The Guardian (“Flat, Soulless, and Stupid: Why Photographs Don’t Work in Art Galleries.” Jonathan Jones, The Guardian, 13 Nov 2014) now prompts me to do so.

In The Guardian, Jonathan Jones says he wishes we would not put photographs (apparently, any photographs) in art galleries. Well. I couldn’t disagree more.

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Defamiliarization (Ostranenie) in Photography

Ansel Adams said something to the effect that the power of photography stemmed from its ability not merely to reflect reality but to alter our perception of reality.

Berries. Digital Manipulation. Copyright Joanne Mason 2014.

Berries. Copyright Joanne Mason 2014.

One of my aims in photography is to reveal, through subtle (or not-so-subtle) post-capture editing, hidden or obscured elements of an image – textures, patterns, shapes, impressions – that we may “see” when viewing the scene with the naked eye but which our eyes and conscious brain do not necessarily register. In order to “see” we reveal that which is “unseen.” The intention is not to add anything to the image but to reveal new ways of viewing a natural scene.

The recent series of images – featuring extensive digital manipulation – has taken this practice much further. These are photographs of mostly natural scenes, and as such they are generic views of things we are usually very familiar with – woods, trees, flowers, outdoor scenes. Using techniques such as multiple exposures, HDR, solarization, (digital) polaroid transfer, color and tone enhancement, and other tools, the images were altered from what the camera produced to create an almost altogether new image. In a kind of impressionistic way, these images retain the original scene in a recognizable way, but alter the scene digitally to suggest different patterns and colors, different emotions or feelings, fresh reactions and impressions, and perhaps, as Adams suggests, altering our perception of the underlying reality.

Deep Woods Tree. Copyright Joanne Mason 2014.

Deep Woods Tree. Copyright Joanne Mason 2014.

Earlier I quoted the photographer Ernst Haas: “I am not interested in shooting new things; I am interested to see things new.” This idea, that photography enables us to see things with a fresh eye, to discern new realities in an image, to see something familiar in a completely new way, is one of the central ideas that gives photography its power. This philosophy is deeply embedded in the history and theory of photography and art, and in fact is one of the foremost ideas of 20th Century art.

The concept of defamiliarization was introduced in 1917 by the Russian literary theorist Viktor Shklovsky. Defamiliarization is the technique of forcing the audience to see common things in an unfamiliar or strange way, in order to enhance perception of the familiar. Defamiliarization (ostranenie in Russian) was defined by Shklovsky in the essay “Art as Technique.” (See link below.)

The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar’, to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged. Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object; the object is not important.

Viktor Schklovsky in 1930

Viktor Schklovsky in 1930

Shklovsky was a founder of the Russian Formalist school of literary criticism. Though Formalism initially ran headlong into the Bolshevick Revolution which was diametetrically opposed to its precepts. But in time (Shklovsky died in 1984), Shklovsky’s ideas became highly influential among literary and art theorists of the 20th Century.

There is a fabulous article (quite by coincidence) in the current issue of Tricycle Magazine, “The Unfamiliar Familiar,” by Henry Shukman, from which I would like to quote at some length.

Thus art exists to restore to us our actual experience, unmediated by the veil of what we think we know. Defamiliarization is not a method for making a poem more interesting, nor is it a mere writerly tip on technique; it’s central to the function and place of art in our lives. Sure enough, a good poem’s effect endures beyond the actual reading. When we deeply engage with good literature, good art, it changes our habitual view of things. The world itself seems different, clearer, closer.

Shklovsky was writing at a time when Modernist art, the new art of the early 20th century—inaccessible, hard to understand, intended to upset conventional expectations—needed defending. … But the point Shklovsky was making is much older. Perhaps it was ever thus: even Aristotle said that poetic language should appear “strange and wonderful.” Any work of art, old or new, has the power to be fresh. As Pasternak said of Pushkin and Chekhov, their work has “ripened of itself, like apples picked green from the trees, and has increasingly matured in sense and sweetness.” We may feel the same about Shakespeare, Dante, Ovid, Sappho, to name a random few: that ever-newness is integral to their longevity.

Light in the Forest. Copyright Joanne Mason 2014.

Light in the Forest. Copyright Joanne Mason 2014.

Defamiliarization is exactly the phenomenon I am looking to generate by creating photographic images such as in the recent series.

Tricycle is published by the Tricycle Foundation, which is “dedicated to making Buddhist teachings and practices broadly available.” Thus, Tricycle’s commentary on defamiliarization seeks to address more than art criticism. Again, from Shukman’s article:

Perhaps, in fact, what Shklovsky was pointing to is something more encompassing even than art, something basic to the search for spiritual meaning in life. … The world is dynamic and changing; therein lies its freshness. But our ideas about it tend to grow static and calcified, even our ideas about the most important things: who we are, how things are, why the world is the way it is. Especially these, perhaps. Our accustomed way of seeing is just one way, yet as it hardens through habit, it tends to become our only way. To see the world anew is of a piece with wisdom.

This, too, suggests the power of photography as art. Photography can generate the most existential conversations about who and what we are, what is important, and most of all what does the world around us mean. That is the power of art.

(Tricycle is a great magazine, available in print and online: Highly recommended. The paragraphs I have quoted here comprise but a small part of Shukman’s article; there is a lot more that makes the article very much worth reading.)

The photographer Raymond Chou has written about defamiliarization in photography.

This is a practice which we ought to find attractive as photographers. A lot of us have put this into practice one way or another. For example, think about black and white photography for a second. Depending on what you’re shooting and trying to achieve, color sometimes serves as a distraction, yet color is what we all see on a regular basis. Done correctly, capturing an image in b/w will allow us to see it in a completely different and strange new way. Macro, abstract, just about any form of photography really can be used to achieve this, it’s just a matter of paying closer attention to the details around you and noticing the beauty that’s already there. Your subjects don’t always need to be grand or exotic to be interesting, because defamiliarization isn’t meant for the novel.

In “The New Vision of Photography,” part of the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History published online by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Met’s photography department observes that the emergence of “a host of unconventional forms and techniques” in photography in the 1920s and 1930s corresponded to the Russian Formalist school and the idea of defamiliarization.

[Russia witnessed] the enthusiastic participation of artists like El Lissitzky (1890–1941) and Aleksandr Rodchenko (1891–1956), who saw in photography the most efficient way to express the dynamic reshaping of their country. In their photographs, they used a repertoire of defamiliarizing devices—extreme up and down angles (1987.1100.5), tilted horizons, fragmentary close-ups, abstracted forms—as part of an attempt to break old habits of perception and visual representation.

Secret Garden. Copyright Joanne Mason 2014.

Secret Garden. Copyright Joanne Mason 2014.

I think Shklovsky’s notion of defamiliarization applied to photography is also a powerful argument for photography as art.

There are more images to share in this series. And I hope to continue this discussion.   (Shklovsky’s essay introducing defamiliarization [or ostranenie translates as “estrangement”] is included in the English translation of Shklovsky’s Theory of Prose, which is available from Amazon.)

Next: Abstract Impressionist Photography


Alfred Stieglitz and The Photo Secession

The images I’ve been producing lately, featuring an antiqued tinted look achieved entirely through post-capture processing – remind one of the Photo Secessionists. Indeed, I’m striving somewhat intentionally at least partly in that direction.

Camera Work

Camera Work

The Photo Secession, a movement during the early years of the 20th Century, takes its name from a photography exhibition that was organized and led by Alfred Stieglitz. [NY Met Museum: Alfred Stieglitz and American Photography, and Alfred Stieglitz and His Circle. Also see  Edward Steichen and the Photo Secession Years]. Stieglitz selected the photographers whose work would appear in the show. The Photo Secession show drew a tremendous amount of critical and popular attention at the time. Subsequently, in his work and in the pages of the magazine he founded, Camera Work, Stieglitz became the clear leader and most noted of the “photo secessionists.”

Alfred Steiglitz - Spring Showers.

Alfred Stieglitz – Spring Showers.

The photo secessionists reacted against the highly formal and posed photography being produced in Europe during the late 19th Century. Photography then was not only formal and stilted but highly representational and documentary. Rarely was photography viewed as art. Stieglitz and the photosecessionists, however, argued for more pictorial works and said that a photographic work should be perceived and appreciated primarily as an expressionistic work of art by the photographer.

Alfred Steiglitz - Venetian Canal.

Alfred Stieglitz – Venetian Canal.

The work favored by the photosecessionists was usually characterized by more natural scenes and soft focus. Steiglitz suggested photographs should be more like paintings. Photographers carried out extensive post-capture processing in the darkroom to achieve highly manipulated images with the desired tone and texture. For the photo secessionists, the subject of an image was less important than the photographer’s processing and manipulation. It was most important that the photographic image realize the photographer’s personal vision, thus turning what had previously been an almost entirely documentary medium into an art form.

Georgia O'Keeffe - Alfred Steiglitz.

Georgia O’Keeffe – Alfred Stieglitz. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Amazon: Stieglitz and the Photo Secession.

Edward Steichen - The Pond: Moonrise.

Edward Steichen – The Pond: Moonrise. Metropolitan Museum of Art.


Is the Camera Obsolete?

Matthew Brandt, Grays Lake, ID 7, 2013. © Matthew Brandt, courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery, New York.

Matthew Brandt, Grays Lake, ID 7, 2013. © Matthew Brandt, courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery, New York.

Of course, the camera is not obsolete. But the role of the camera in photography, along with the nature of photography itself, is changing. I missed this article in the Times last January, The Next Big Picture: With Cameras Optional, New Directions in Photography (New York Times, January 23, 2014. Registration may be required.)

The Times article reviewed a new show (unfortunately, now closed) at the International Center of Photography in New York City, What is a Photograph?

Organized by ICP Curator Carol Squiers, What Is a Photograph? explores the intense creative experimentation in photography that has occurred since the 1970s. Conceptual art introduced photography into contemporary art making, using the medium in ways that challenged it artistically, intellectually, and technically and broadened the notion of what a photograph could be in art.

Mariah Robertson, 154 [detail], 2010. © Mariah Robertson, courtesy American Contemporary, New York.

Mariah Robertson, 154 [detail], 2010. © Mariah Robertson, courtesy American Contemporary, New York.

I missed the show, as well, but having just come across the Times review, I think it addresses a fundamental question in art photography today. It is a question that has been on my mind. To quote from the Times:

The shift of focus from fact to fiction, and all the gradations in between, is perhaps the largest issue in the current soul-searching underway in photography circles. Questions swirl: Can the “captured” image (taken on the street — think of the documentary work of Henri Cartier-Bresson) maintain equal footing with the “constructed” image (made in the studio or on the computer, often with ideological intention)? (*)

The line between traditional photography and digital image-making is becoming blurred (or, if you accept the premise of the images in the ICP show, more or less demolished.)

Travess Smalley, Capture Physical Presence #15, 2011. © Travess Smalley, courtesy Higher Pictures, New York.

Travess Smalley, Capture Physical Presence #15, 2011. © Travess Smalley, courtesy Higher Pictures, New York.(* There is an excellent essay about Travess Smalley’s work, Capture Physical Presence, here.)

(These images from the ICP show.)

My work, at least recently, is much closer to the traditional end of the spectrum than most of the constructed digital images in the ICP show. But I still wonder about the role of digital manipulation and what it says about the aims of photography. My images are extensively manipulated post-capture more and more.  I don’t hesitate to go well beyond raw conversion, tweaking exposure, or correcting color.  I am interested in bringing out textures, shadows, relationships between light and dark and color, that lead the viewer to see the scene in a new way, often seeing what is unseen with the naked eye. At present, I still feel bound to the original scene as a foundation, still approaching post-capture manipulation essentially as a matter of enhancement, even if extreme at times. But I wonder if it has to stay that way in order to be called “photography.”

The dichotomy between the captured image and the constructed image, mentioned above, is actually a very wide continuum with a lot of overlap. One way to look at this is to reason that if an image starts with capture by a camera, then it’s a photograph, and the end result of the creative process is still a photograph, no matter what or how much post-capture processing or engineering is carried out.  That’s my view. Not all photographers agree. But if the end result is not still a photograph, what is it? That is, a work of photographic art can be both captured and constructed. Again, that’s my view.

But how do we classify works such as those illustrated here and at the ICP show site? These are, in fact, more than mere digital constructions. For example, Travess Smalley’s works are assembled as collages, scanned, converted to jpegs, printed. There is a physical presence just as with a traditional photographic print. I have always believed that what the camera produces is just one of the raw ingredients of creating a photographic image. If the elements are produced by means other than with a camera, can it still be photography?

I think it is good for photography, for art, and for photographers that contemporary photography is an art form using “the medium in ways that challenge[d] it artistically, intellectually, and technically and broaden[ed] the notion of what a photograph could be in art.”

Red Dahlia II.  Copyright Joanne Mason 2012.

Red Dahlia II. Copyright Joanne Mason 2012.

Red Dahlia II. Shot in 2012. Extensively manipulated in Photoshop, along with Lightroom and Nik Viveza, involving a lot of color manipulation. This isn’t exactly as the eye would see a dahlia, and we can’t exactly say it’s just enhancement either. But the created image – which is designed to explore the sense of wild abandon of the flower – nevertheless embraces elements that may register on the viewer unconsciously and that contribute to the whole image.

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