Archive for January, 2013

Some passages from Aperture Anthology: The Minor White Years

Saturday, January 12th, 2013

Interview w/Bunnell

PCB: ….[Minor White] gave me many of his photographs as well, including, for instance, his 1947 image of a dead birds with one white wing outspread. That was, incidentally, the very first photograph he ever had me “read.” I remember, he put me in a room that photograph on an easel, and said: “I’ll come back in two hours.” And shut the door. That was it. So there I was, nineteen or twenty years old, and I was supposed to sit still for two hours and just look at this photograph, and then come out and tell him what I saw… (p. 32)

PCB: Walter [Chappell] and Minor [White] met in Portland before the war, then reconnected after the war. Walter was very instrumental in transferring these Gurdjieffian and “Asiatic” ideas into the magazine. (p. 32)

PCB: Laying out a magazine is, by definition, a form of sequencing. (p. 34)

Photo of White editing photos: p. 35

DCS: Obviously this was long before there were computers as tools for layout — how did the sequencing actually take place?

PCB: In Minor’s living room, running all along one wall, was what we might call a chalk tray: a little trough with a lip on it. And he would take 3-by-5 cards with images on them, or other reproductions, and place them on that tray. Then he would sit across from the wall and look. Later on, he used static-electric frames that he could put unmounted photographs in, and hang them on the wall. Sometimes, if I was there, he would say: “Get up and move the third one from the left down to the end, and take the last one and move it to the second place.” So then I would move them, and he would sit there and he’d look at them…. (p. 36)


From the Aspen conference flyer:

Subjects for discussion will include:

The nature of photographic truth.
What good is abstract photography?
Can photographs help achieve social progress?
Qualifications of the photographic critic.
Legal aspects of photography and personal privacy.
Who makes the picture, photographer or subject?
Limitations of the medium.
Technical developments — camera design, optics, chemistry, stereoscopic photography
Perspective and selective use of lenses.
Color printing.

Minor White, “Exploratory Camera”

The basic conditions of this area of discovery are based on three points: 1 / the prints are like words in a vocabulary; 2 / the order of the prints affects the meanings of the statements — like word order in a poem; 3 / the order of “reading” is not only left to right but in all directions at once. Exploration takes the direction of finding the sentences that the prints will form. One sequence of ten or twenty, out of five times that many prints, will give a kindly and respectful twist to a situation, another may make it kiddingly funny or ribald. A set of pictures of people looking at an exhibition can run the whole range of ridicule to sympathy. Within the boundaries of what the group contains, the photographer can isolate by sequencing what he wants to say. (pp. 60-61)

Nancy Newhall, “The Caption”

We are not yet taught to read photographs as we read words. Only a few thousands, among our hundreds of millions, have trained themselves like photographers and editors to read a photograph in its multi-layered significance. (p. 66)

John R. Whiting, in his Photography is a Language (1946), pointed out that, “It is the caption that keeps you moving from one picture to another. It is very often the caption you remember when you think you are telling someone about a picture in a magazine.” (p. 69)

We all remember how photographs from the Farm Security Administration, made to arouse our active sympathy towards a huge tragedy happening among us, were slanted by the Nazis to convince Europeans that all Americans are or would be as destitute as the Okies. (p. 69)

To make “Spanish Village” Smith read long and looked long before opening his cameras. In other words, he worked like an artist and a professional. If the trouble with photo-journalism actually does begin with the photographer, then the solution seems obvious: make the photographer solve it. While photographing, he has within hand’s reach the raw material needed for text and captions. He knows the situation from both inside and outside, because he has to be both in order to photograph. Often he has a vivid, if immature and untrained, sense of words, and the spontaneous phrases embedded in the chaos of his notes express an experience more succinctly than the best deliberations of a writer remote from the event. (p. 72)

Are we people with a profession to measure up to, or are we a set of mechanical eyes unfortunately attached to egos? (p. 73)

David Douglas Duncan omitted even titles from This Is War! and raised a storm of criticism. Those who grumbled at no title for a strand were outraged to find no identification whatsoever in a whole bookful of “journalistic” photographs of the war in Korea. Modern Photography leaped to Duncan’s defense, asking, in effect, “Why don’t you want to read about these pictures, read what the photographer has written about them in the book?” Duncan, whose purpose was to describe what war is, rather than the fluctuations of one campaign, wrote from Tokyo:

Your review is the first, among the magazines, which tries to understand…as you pointed out, it makes no difference whether it is one hill, or another; this bend in the road, or that; one man, or his brother. It is every man who ever carried weapons in actual line combat…the combat of no glory….It is a story and as such one must read it all the way through. It’s strange, you know, but I thought it was so obvious!

Which points out the curious divided state of our literacy at present. Some of us, even professional critics, will not read and neither will we look for ourselves. (pp. 74-75)

Wright Morris, in his first book, The Inhabitants (1946), eliminated titles, wrote verbal equivalents for his photographs and tried to tie them together with a thread of narrative in caption form. The book received the critical acclaim the first book genuinely created in two mediums by one man deserved, but it stands as a valiant rather than a successful attempt to weld the two into one. Time and intensity are s much to be reckoned with in a book as in a film; you cannot remember a thread of narrative when you have a photograph to understand, a condensed paragraph or two to read, and the relation between them to consider before you turn the page to pick up the next wisp of narrative. In his second book, The Homeplace (1948), Morris wrote a consecutive novel wherein the action in the text, which appeared on the left, seemed concerned with the images on the right. The caption form he eliminated completely. (p. 75)

Dorothea Lange, who took most of the photographs used in Land of the Free, has, as social scientist Paul Taylor, her husband and colleague wrote, “an ear as good as her eye.” She listened to the actual words of the people she was photographing and put their speech beside their faces…here the Additive Caption rises to real dramatic stature. A worried young sharecropper looks at you…”The land’s just fit fer to hold the world together.” A gaunt woman, worn with work, smiles wryly as she clasps her head…”If you die, you’re dead — that’s all.”

Dorothea Lange and Daniel Dixon, “Photographing the Familiar”, 1952

For better or for worse, the destiny of the photographer is bound up with the destinies of a machine. In this alliance is presented a very special problem. Ours is a need to know that the machine can be put to creative human effort. If it is not, the machine can destroy us. It is iwthin the power of the photographer to help prohibit this destruction, and help make the machine an agent of more good than of evil. Though not a poet, nor a painter, nor a composer, he is yet an artist, and as an artist undertakes not only risks but responsibility. Ant it is with responsibility that both the photographer and his machine are brought to their ultimate tests. His machine must prove that it can be endowed with the passion and the humanity of the photographer; the photographer must prove that he has the passion and the humanity with which to endow the machine. (p. 83)

The harshest demand of his own art — the demand that he serve it as an artist — [the photographer] seeks to escape along the frontiers of shock. Thus the spectacular is cherished above the meaningful, the frenzied above the quiet, the unique above the potent. The familiar is made strange, the unfamiliar grotesque. The amateur forces his Sundays into a series of unnatural poses; the world is forced by the professional into unnatural shapes. Landscape, season, occasion — these are compelled to a twisted service in which they need not be interpreted, but, like a process, invented. (p. 85)

We need not, for fear of the world’s image, either hide in or ruin technique. (p. 85)

Bad as it is, the World is potentially full of good photographs. But to be good, photographs have to be full of the world. (p. 85)

Whether of a board fence, an eggshell, a mountain peak, or a broken sharecropper, the great photograph first asks, then answers, two questions. “Is that my world? What, if not, has that world to do with mine?” (p. 87)

Nobody likes to look at dull photographs; boredom, in the end, is as outlandish as outrage… (p. 87)

Barbara Morgan, “Kinetic Design in Photography”

Movement of contemporary life cannot be thought of without the machine. Our viewpoint is through a windshield, through reflected images on plate glass, blurred snatches through an elevator door. We watch quilted land patterns slowly shift far below our propeller blur, and the vibrating wing tip. Time is cogged, margins are tightened, spirit is pressured. Pavement is a child’s backyard and the moon is less familiar than a street lamp. If it takes a thief to catch a thief, the camera is the machine to catch the machine age. But now to work. (p. 120)

Some fine photographers feel it to be a sin against good craftsmanship to crop a negative, and pride themselves on composing to the exact negative size. They imply that needing to crop shows indecisive composing. It may be that some souls are in absolute harmony with an arbitrary proportion; 8 x 10, 3 1/4 x 4 1/4, 2 1/4 x 2 1/4, and that they never tire of its modulations within their chosen format. I for one work from the inside out; and let the logical expansion energy of my subject determine final proportion, regardless of the camera I am using. (pp. 120-121)

It is certainly an invasion of privacy to poke a swift camera into private emotions. The first principle is surely to have integrity toward the person, who usually senses this and “gives.” (p. 121)

Nancy Newhall, “Controversy and the Creative Concepts

For Cartier-Bresson, as to most Europeans, there is just one endless and multiform subject: people, and the places and events they create around themselves. For him, they alone have significance; their gestures light up vistas sometimes exquisite, sometimes amusing, and sometimes tragic or appalling. He feels that in his own early works he often paid too much attention to the astounding designs and mysterious appearances created by chance, and he censures others who succumb to such meaningless and egotistical pyrotechnics. The merely pretty horrifies him: “Now, in this moment, this crisis, with the world maybe going to pieces — to photograph a landscape!” He has no doubt of the sincerity or the stature of a Weston or Adams or Strand, but, although he feels closer to Weston, they mystify him; looking at their work: “Magnificent! — But I can’t understand these men. It is a world of stone.” To the explanation that through images of what is as familiar to all men as stone, water, grass, cloud, photographers can make visual poetry and express thought beyond translation into other media: “Do they think that by photographing what is eternal that they make their work eternal?” To photograph a house instead of the man in it seems to Cartier-Bresson inconsistent, and to find meaning in such images seems to him dangerously personal and close to mysticism. The further idea that, in the American West, man appears trivial and civilization a transient litter: “It is, I think, philosophically unsound.” (p. 130)

As [Weston] said, when people remarked that he must have a marvelous lens, “Good photographs, like anything else, are made with one’s brains.” (pp. 135-136)

Minor White, “Criticism”, 1953

I realize that to present complexity to a modern reader is to invite yawns; but I think we have pursued the myth that photography is easy long enough — that status of pictorialism today is ample proof that always taking the easy path is as sterile as Lysol. (p. 142)

This paper is aimed directly at the bottom run of criticism, at the man who takes judging at camera clubs as a high responsibility. (p. 143)

Frequently a description of what is visible to the critic — and invisible to the casual spectator — is all that a spectator needs to lift his own vision of the print. In other cases a more emotionally loaded description is needed to get the spectator to see “what else” is going on in a photograph. (p. 1953)

Wilson Hicks and Henry Holmes Smith, “Photographs and Public”


[The] public is inundated today by a vast flood of images which, as Lewis Mumford says in his Art and Technics…has “undermined old habits of careful evaluation and selection.” There is being waged, he reminds us, a horrific battle of man and machine from which the machine has emerged so far as the victor: witness the images mass-produced by still, movie, and television cameras and mass-repeated by the printing press. I say, “witness the images,” but you dare not do that. For, as Mr. Mumford says, if we tried to respond to all the mechanical stimuli which beset us we should all be nervous wrecks. Mr. Mumford asks whether being surrounded by a superabundance of images makes us more picture-minded, and answers no; we develop an “abysmal apathy” because “what we look at habitually, we overlook.” Moreover, he says, picture users, to get attention, resort to sensationalism — “make sensation seem more important than meaning” — and the shockers so prevalent today cause quieter, and better, pictures to suffer. Still further, the image producers have created a ghost-world, Mr. Mumford says, in which we lead a derivative, secondhand life in addition to our real life. this apparitional world is set and peopled with the artificial and the phoney (note many so-called news pictures). Thus in various ways are the sign and symbol of photography devaluated. (pp. 152-153)

It is the nature of today’s man to approach the photograph in this way and, if it is not already equipped with a caption, to write one, as it were, himself. (p. 154)

You can not be an obscurantist in photography and have any larger audience than the Joycean audience. (p. 155)

The universal idea, when you stop to think about it, must perforce be extremely simple — a child nursing its mother. The Madonna is not universal because the Child is not actually nursing, a fact that is most significant to Christians, but not necessarily to non-Christians. Christians know the Madonna and can supply the title to a painting of her from previous knowledge. But can the Christian supply the title to a painting of Buddha or Hermes or Vishnu or Ra? A tree is universal, so Van Gogh did not really have to call his cypresses “Cypresses.” A Frans Hal portrait needs no title because everybody in India or Holland or Australia knows a roly-poly man with a bulbous nose and a convivial spirit. But would you be satisfied with Manet’s Le Dejeuner sur L’Herbe if those four words did not appear underneath it? Even with them you wonder what the two clothed men and two naked women are doing in the woods together. Are the men artists and the women models? You presume so, but you only presume. (p. 156)


Picture editors, working for a standard visual image that millions may relish in their haste or distraction, have fashioned a language of photography that approaches baby talk. (p. 157)

[NOTE: PP 160-164 include long-term “reading” of a Minor White photo by Smith that is awesome, but which I cannot be bothered to transcribe.]

An ungenerous void is possibly the least hospitable and most typical of 20th century horrors: Limited oblivion! (p. 162)

Wynn Bullock, “Portfolio”

The eternal bickering between photographic cliques depresses me. The documentarian versus the creator of the abstract; the commercial man versus the purist; the camera club sentimentalists versus the F-64 man. Each type of work has its meaning. True, the level of meaning varies from the insignificant to the important in any type; but may we have them all? Please? (p. 167)

On the means or technical level of photography an interchange of ideas is most valuable. For on this level one can relatively easily sift the good from the bad. Here we deal in scientific and verifiable facts. But on the creative level one deals with philosophical ideas, and who can prove an idea by talk? The only proof of worth is the final print itself. (p. 167)

Bunnell’s Note on Family of Man:

The Family of Man was groundbreaking on many fronts: it was certainly the first photographic exhibition of its scope to be featured at MoMA, and its popularity indicated a new embrace of photography in the mind of the public. It was, on the other hand, excoriated by many critics (and photographers) as sentimental pap, pandering to unthinking mass appeal. (Minor White, years later, would refer to the show as schmaltz.)

“Photography is the marvelous, anonymous folk-art of our time…” (Alline Saarinen, 1954)

The Controversial Family of Man

[NOTE: This whole thing is fascinating]

Dorothy Norman:

[Stieglitz] maintained that “if you give people both the perfect and the imperfect together, they will choose the former, but if you give them the imperfect alone, there is a danger that they will be satisfied thereby.” (p. 172)

George Wright:

Nobody likes the show — nobody, that is, except the great big old public. (p. 176)

Barbara Morgan:

How few gestures of contemporary Homo sapiens are “modern.” (p. 183)

Minor White, “Ten Books”

And so far as photographers are artists by temperament, poets by inclination, scientists by habit, and philosophers by intuition, they too will have some contact with mysticism. (p. 203)

All words, all images, all sounds flounder when they are given the burden of communicating, evoking, or releasing matters of the spirit. (p. 203)

Minor White, “Of People and for People”

Note: There’s a lot of fairly junk categorization of amateurs, snapshots, etc. here. Some good stuff, though.

The species gadgeteer does not really take up photography; he takes up cameras. (p. 205)

Any photographer stands a little to one side to watch the rest of us; the poet-philosophers stand a little further to one side; or journey far enough away, that looking back, they can see mankind against a bigger backdrop than man. (p. 210)

The camera makes the poet-photographer find the appropriate symbols in the outside world — or remain imageless and therefore silent. In this respect the camera serves the poet-photographer perhaps as no other tool serves its practitioners; it keeps his eyes on the external world to find those aspects of it that are equivalent to his inner world. (p. 210)

Apparently a profound inner truth can only be appropriately expressed by an equally profound outer truth — a man or a mountain at least. (p. 210)

“conscious drilling, thoughtful pounding.” (p. 210)

Because of the camera the symbols of his inner growth are automatically public symbols as well. (p. 211)

The poet-photographer…looks at this two-dimensional, flat, light-sensitized piece of paper, not for its approximation of the reality of appearances, but for its typical transformations of appearances. (p. 212)

[Note: this is a really good summation of the appeal infrared has for me.]

The link between appearances and the photographs is both tight and loose. the link is like a line that is both broken and solid, dotted and implied all at the same time because I have learned to see like a camera. When I look at anything I see only a photograph: the twigs in the snow are not cold to me, only a picture; the expression on a face does not pass, it remains in my mind as if it were a photograph. Camera transformations are my familiarity. (p. 212)

Minor White, “What is Meant by ‘Reading’ Photographs.”

We know very well that a photograph that we dislike immediately shuts off any further communication; and, on the contrary, any photograph that we like we are willing to live with for a long time. (p. 221)

A critic, poor man, must have ways of experiencing photographs that are instantly bitter gall to him. (p. 222)

Minor White and Walter Chappell, “Some Methods for Experiencing Photographs”

In the sense of “pure reporting” or “direct transference” Ansel Adams reporting the natural scene is as documentary as Lewis Hine who reported the social scene.

Photographers in this class often adhere (tenaciously) to the dogma “content above all.” (p. 228)

Reading a worthwhile photograph in public at first sight even by an expert is a superficial performance, done under stress and justified only in the interest of education. (p. 230)

We do advise gallantry in observing and suggest that the reader demand no clues not present. (p. 232)

When a spark from a photograph expands on your own mind like a flood, the experience is so delightful and so noisy that it drowns out any possibility of hearing the still small voice of the photograph itself. (p. 236)

Lacking specialist training, read the caption, (p. 237)

Minor White, “To Recapture the Innocence of Vision”

The only provable reality of a photograph is its physical existence — a flat piece of paper with some smudges on one side. (p. 242)

Most adults have to regain the ability to experience pictures directly and deeply. Contrary to their convictions that they understand everything, most people have to reestablish the ability to let a photograph speak for itself. And paradoxes abound, one has to earn the innocence of vision — by hard effort, by serious and deliberate search for meanings in photographs. (p. 242)

Nathan Lyons, “To the Spirit of a Time”

In its most meaningful sense abstraction is a procedure, the result of hwich is not abstraction but a new occurrence. (p. 249)

What is today accepted as conservative was yesterday denounced as revolutionary. (Alfred Stieglitz, Exhibition Catalogue, 1903)

Think of the joy of doing something which it would be impossible to classify. (Alfred Langdon Coburn, Photograms of the Year 1916)

The photographic medium is a means of bringing together into a single reality (the photograph or photoprint) an objectified assimilation of man’s preoccupation. (p. 251)

Arthur Siegel, “Photography Is…”

[NOTE: This is maybe my favorite thing in the book.]

Stieglitz dissected Georgia O’Keeffe to discover that sometimes the parts are great than the whole. (p. 260)

Maybe the basic invention of the twentieth century is not the Bomb, but the Editing Principle of Creative Assembly. (p. 260)

Everyman carried a camera to record his emancipation. Dr. Mees prescribed four rolls per person per year to relieve him. But it wasn’t Art, turned out to be an acute case of historical documents. Lincoln Kirstein says they are all Dated and that should make Beaumont Newhall happy. (p. 260)

Anybody can see that if you want to be a successful subversive in America you had better join up with some old New England families. (p. 261)

Political freedom is more immediate than art freedom even if one is the other turned inside out. (p. 262)

Siskind’s graphically rich psychological manifestations blazed a high road between richness of feeling and the insignificant object. Weston matured his isolated object into the related mystical image. Callahan isolated the simple into the elegant. Weegee isolated the naked and the dressed, the dead and the living, a flashbulb Daumier of f/16 at ten feet. (p. 262)

Michael Gregory, “Photographic Style”, 1961

A better definition of photographic style might be something like this: the recorded insight. This is probably no worse, and perhaps a little better, than most of the definitions we have. It nevertheless returns the emphasis where it belongs: out of the camera, way from the object, back into the very eye of the photographer.

But that eye is not an ordinary eye, as should be plain by now. It is not only an artistic eye, lathough it must also be that; it is not only an eye quick to record the moment, although it must be that, too. It is, in a very real sense, a dreaming eye: quick to seize the instant in which the fortuitous dance of forms reveals the essential truth, the ineffable _thusness- of the object. Only in such moments can the photographer be said to have conquered his medium, as the poet conquers language; to have tricked light and shade into telling the truth which is beyond themselves (and the photographer, too). (p. 266)

Various, “The Workshop Idea in Photography” 1961

The subject matter of any workshop depends on the indignations of the leader. (p. 269)

[NOTE: It’s interesting that they emphasize the obscurity/specificity/indie status of the workshop at the time when photography was beginning to make inroads into academia.]

The deep stain on sight of your own thoughts, desires, current problems, especially the trivial problems, distress, elations, etc., in the end add up to nearly total blindness. Not Seeing stands for your ordinary way of getting around the world without falling off curbs or having breakfast without noticing that your spouse has put a dummy in the opposite chair and is really in bed. (p. 277)

If you could stop the shouting of your own thoughts in your ears, you might be able to hear the small voice of a photgoraph, a painting, or a pine cone in the sun. (p. 277)

Ways of learning to concentrate are numerous. In this workshop you would be exposed to a form of it based on tranquility. Tranquilizing pills are not used because they induce a kind of chemical quiet… (p. 277)

Since cameras are universally used some of the persons attracted to photography today are bound to be more or less disturbed. When they wander into workshops they demand without knowing it some degree of therapy. (p. 280)

Nathaniel Lyons

Extreme caution is used with regard to the possible arbitrary nature of the verbalization of visual events. To fix this as an experience a review of a photograph by Edward Weston is read. The group is asked to try to reconstruct the photograph from the reviwer’s comments. (p. 292)

[NOTE: That’s hilarious.]

[NOTE: in the following Henry Holmes Smith portion, there’s an awesome set of questions to be used when looking at photographs. There’s bears directly on my question-list post at 1/125 and my thoughts about REDACTED.]

Minor White, “Varieties of Responses to Photgoraphs”, 1962

[NOTE: This is a really great, terrifying pedagogy for photographers, built around training photographers to more accurately predict how people will react to their photos. However, it’s quite a bit long to transcribe all the good parts, esp. pps 340-342.]

It has been disheartening to discover that many individuals will understand a photograph fully well in a few seconds, then spend the next few seconds, five minutes, or years proving that he did not. (p. 523)

When people talk about pictures they talk about themselves first and the picture next if at all. (p. 326)

How distressing it is to watch a person count the objects in a photograph and fail to observe the relationships. The category would be insignificant except that so many millions of viewers occupy it. (p. 239)

Frederick D. Leach, “Photographers on Photography by Nathan Lyons”, p. 351

[NOTE: It seems like an interesting book; I picked up a used copy. My favorite bit, though, is that it refers to the “user” of the book and not the “reader.” Which seems oh so very internet.]

Emerson the photographer and Emerson the essayist share many things, but they are not precisely the same person; possibilities open to one are closed to the other. Essays are not photographs, although each may inform the careful reader/viewer of the other. (p. 353)

Minor White, “Could the Critic in Photography Be Passe?”, 1967

Our world is in a state of flux and observers in all fields publish their attempts to identify what is going on in society, art, science, philosophy. Two samples of hundreds to the point may be for Aperture.

Harley W. Parker in the 1967 Winter Issue of the Harvard Art Review looks at the art world. The quotation from Dr. Warren T. Hill encompasses a much larger world. Parker says this:

The problem of the artist, indeed of the entire western world, raises the fact that instantaneity of communication has shattered the slow stutter of printed dispersal of information. as a result the mores of the world and therefore the structure of art which illuminates that world has totally changed. Art, as such, is the domain of no individual today…I prefer to use the word creativity rather than art. For today it is becoming increasingly obvious that the process rather than the product is the important factor in terms of man’s psyche.”

This has a familiar ring. The great psyche-oriented religions of the world have left us m any similar analects, “Give all your attention to the making and the product will take care of itself.”

Two manifestations of “process,” one individual and one collective, are included in this issue of Aperture. Jerry N. Uelsmann represents the individual. With one camera and six enlargers he manipulates images with a skill that makes involvement in process yield meaningful products….

With the contemporary shift towards process and relationships and away from standards, photography is obviously affected. It may well be that mong the more mature photographers the “great” photograph as a goal has lost its attractiveness and certainly among the rebellious youngsters the usual standards are tabu. It may well be that what is now more important and meaningful to the photographer is to be out in the sun, to be out in the streets, or to be in the studios and darkrooms making photographs and making images. Making affirms his existence and the product is a chewing gum wrapper. The product must be paramount in the museums. to keep abreast of the swing, museums may have to relinquish their role of the taste setter and standard bearer….

In a period in which process is paramount, the teacher who uses the photographic images as a means of human interchange will be more useful than the critic. (pp. 355-356)

Bunnell’s note on Light7

White had a deeply held belief in the ability of visual sequences to engage and intensify the message of individual photographs; he often presented his own work in sequences intended to amplify the meaning of each image through its relation to the others. “A sequence of photographs,” he once wrote, “functions as a little drama of dreams with a memory.” And elsewhere: “With single images I am basically an observer, passive to waht is before me, no matter how perceptive or how fast my emotions boil. In putting images together I become active, and the excitement is of another order — synthesis overshadows analysis.” (p. 357)

John Szarkowski, “Photography and the Private Collector”, 1970

Nevertheless, we will surely admit that much of what we know about the world is derived from works of art that were preserved in private collections; and it would be gratuitous to carp simply because these collections may have been built on a foundation of mixed motives. Why Lorenzo de Medici (or Dr. Barnes) collected is less important from the point of view of own selfish interests than the fact that they did collect, and did so with intelligence, discrimination, and passion. (p. 364)

Photographic criticism is spare in quantity and generally disappointing in quality. We can hope that the future will see the development of a sizable and responsible group of photography critics, who will respond to the efforts of photographers with intelligence, knowledge, good will, eyes, viscera, and a basic command of at least one language. (p. 365)

Frederick Sommer, “An Extemporaneous Talk”, 1971

[Note: This is all over the place, but the good parts are REALLY good.]

It’s a question of how far you dare to venture from the thing that you think is your thing. It’s a question of taking some chances. Yet let me assure you that nobody ever goes into far country. If you find yourself going to a zoo too often, it’s because you belong in a zoo in the first place; you’re at home there. We never go to strange places. Maybe the fare is expensive, and so, after some kind of expensive travel, we think we’re in exotic country. But, if we are somewhat comfortable there, it’s because we took a chunk of ourselves and found something of ourselves again. There is nothing at all to East shall never meet West. The world is not a world of cleavages at all; the world is a world of bonds. Circulation of the blood is always circumnavigation of the world. (pp. 368-369)

I know now (and I should have known earlier) that we are completely incapable of ever seeing anything. Consequently, we would never photograph anything unless we have become attentive to it because we carry a great chunk of it within ourselves. As we go around, whether we are painters or whether we are concerned with something we are only paying attention to those things which already have busied us, occupied us, or, better still, are so much a part of us that we lean into another situation which is already ourselves. (p. 369)

We find something that we want to photograph. We have photographed something of that already; we may have already lived that kind of feeling and what we are really doing is intensifying that feeling and carrying it further. What then are we doing? We go on an excursion; we are not looking for the new, the different, the exotic. When we talk in those terms we are only propagandizing ourselves. (p. 369)

The image that we make is hopefully some transformation, some extension of an image within us and an image that we find. Images are not about thoughts; images are always about images.

It seems that the world breaks into two facets; one of them is thinking about thinking, the other is images about images. The world of art and the world of science deal with images about images, while the world of metaphysics and the world of religion deal very much with thinking about thinking. (p. 370)

[NOTE: WTF does Sommer mean when he says “position”?]

Art knows that it is much less interested in good intentions than it is interested in evidence. (p. 371)

I am not against metaphysics; I am not against religion; I am not against theology, but in terms of our society, our structure today, these things have become inadequte to deal with our concerns. If you serve images beautifully you are living an aesthetic path of things. Aesthetics is only the Greek word for sense perception. so there is no real mystery; do not be afraid of the word aesthetics. It is what you feel. At this point we could say that science is also interested in feeling. (p. 371)

All of us know that some very small planets move at the extreme limits of larger interrelated sets of orbits. So, if you are very small, you will have to move away from a great influence or be pulled into it and disappear. If something is too influential, it will gobble us up in a lifetime, or it can happen in a flash. We can get gobbled up by ideas that are too big, and ours will disappear within them. (p. 373)

The blessing of the whole thing is that the damned photographic processes aren’t that good, and the seeing isn’t that good, and everything is wrong somewhere. And it’s that discrepancy that, in spite of everything, becomes the work of art. (p. 374)

You have to accept an involved set of circumstances. And this involved set of circumstances is extraordinary and great for the simple reason that you don’t understand it. If you understood it truly, you wouldn’t care to do it; you would know that you were through with it. (p. 374)

Maybe the reason we are interested in art is that it gives us the great sense of the aliveness of change, growth, development, revelation; all these things in half an hour. Maybe the only trouble with our times is that people have been trying to reduce the half-hour to a half-minute. (p. 375)

I’m interested in sensitized surfaces. In an age where sense perception is the thing that is either making us all or killing us all, we are obsessed with it in one way or another. (p. 375)

Art is the condition that you and I bring about. If we are artists and make a few good moves, maybe this is art. But we cannot make aesthetics. Here is the peculiar phenomenon: these deadly machines, which everyone knows have no feeling, can be feelingly taken into our concerns. So I’ve been impressed with the real asset, with the real advantage, and with the real comfort that comes with simply accepting that certain processes work for me. (p. 377)

If we can feel that whatever finally happens was not done at the expense of the thing photographed, we are O.K. But many things, not only in the arts, not only in photography, but in many walks of life, get us rudely tangled with the awareness that one thing has been done at the expense of another. Something was skinned to the bone; something was absconded with. (p. 379)

All of us are collectors. We are not collectors of prints or of drawings, we are really collectors of comfortable, interesting moments. (p. 381)

You could go to the world’s greatest banquet, a feast for gourmets, and have a miserable night if you were going to be a specialist about liking this or not liking that.” (p. 381)

I could take a cow and implant a camera in it and let it amble around in the city or in its own domain (I say a cow because a human being I would not trust). If the camera was programmed to go off at an indeterminate series of moments, the samplings would be fantastic. (p. 382)

Octave of prayer

[NOTE: No text to quote, but damn, I want a copy of this.]

Zen Camera

[NOTE: This is terrible]

John A. Kouwenhoven, “The Snapshot”, 1974

[NOTE: There’s a lot of interest here, but “Snapshot” is defined so contradictorily that it’s essentially acting as a variable.]

As early as 1860 Sir John Herschel, one of the pioneers in photography and the inventor of its name, speculated on the possibility at some future time of being able to take photographs at one tenth of a second, “as it were, by snapshot,” but this was a figure of speech depending for its effect upon the reader’s familiarity with hunters’ lingo. (p. 404)

We do not yet realize, I think, how fundamentally snapshots altered the way people saw one another and the world around them by reshaping our conceptions of what is real and there of what is important. We tend to see only what the pictorial conventions of our time are calculated to show us. From them we learn what is worth looking for and looking at. The extraordinary thing about snapshots is that they teach us to see things not even their makers had noticed or been interested in. (p 405)

Before photography, reality was history, and history was very largely something untrustworthily reported that happened long ago. Thanks, or no thanks, to the snapshot, we live in a historical reality from the moment we are old enough to look at a Polaroid picture taken two minutes ago. (p. 406)

Wednesday, January 9th, 2013

I have posted here many times about critics and what they are – or should be – up to. None of the best critics I’ve read – John Berger, Rebecca Solnit, David Levi Strauss, Dave Hickey – have taken the advice Jones offers – of publishing ‘hatchet jobs.’ Commenting some years ago on what made John Szarkowski so perceptive and influential a critic, Robert Adams wrote:

“Szarkoski’s writing made him envied, but the irony is that his competitors seem to miss some of the most obvious keys to his success. Among these is that he writes only about what he likes. It is a practice that cuts down competition from the start; to be clear about how and why something is difficult, whereas just to turn one’s animosity loose on something weak is both fun and safe (who can accuse you of being sentimental). No wonder the affirmative essays stand out, and, assuming they are about respectable work, last longer. Weak pictures drop away of their own weight, as does discussion of them, but the puzzle of stronger work remains: we are always grateful to the person who can see it better.”

(Notes on) Politics, Theory & Photography: Against Hatchet Jobs

I don’t think crapping all over something that’s bad is intrinsically valuable. However, I think that talking about why and_how_ we dislike things is every bit as valuable as talking about why and how we like things, provided it’s done well. That’s not the same thing as a hatchet job, of course.

One aspect of the art world that can be supremely alienating to outsiders is that it can be totally unclear whether it’s okay to dislike a work, why some people may like it and others may not, and how to articulate dislikes. This is doubly true in online communities where all discussion is at least potentially to everyone’s face, providing a strong disincentive to being honest about dislikes.

Pull it down or burn it up

Sunday, January 6th, 2013

Form is henceforth divorced from matter. In fact, matter as a visible object is of no great use any longer, except as the mould on which form is shaped. Give us a few negatives of a thing worth seeing, taken from different points of view, and that is all we want of it. Pull it down or burn it up, if you please. We must, perhaps, sacrifice some luxury in the loss of color; but form and light and shade are the great things, and even color can be added, and perhaps by and by may be got direct from Nature.

There is only one Colosseum or Pantheon; but how many millions of potential negatives have they shed — representatives of billions of pictures — since they were erected! Matter in large masses must always be fixed and dear; form is cheap and transportable. We have got the fruit of creation now, and need not trouble ourselves with the core. Every conceivable object of Nature and Art will soon scale off its surface for us. Men will hunt all curious, beautiful, grand objects, as they hunt the cattle in South America, for their skins and leave the carcasses as of little worth.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Soundings from the Atlantic,
pp. 161-162