Posts Tagged ‘Japanese Photography’

Materials against language

Sunday, November 22nd, 2009

At the laundromat today, I was reading _Japanese Photobooks of the 1960’s and 70’s_, and I came across this delightful passage from the manifesto of _Provoke_, an influential publication of the time.

>The image by itself is not a thought. It cannot possess a wholeness like that of a concept. Neither is it an interchangeable code like a language. Yet its irreversible materiality—the reality that is cut out by the camera—constitutes the opposite side of language, and for this reason at times it stimulates the world of language and concepts. When this happens, language transcends its fixed and conceptualized self, transforming into a new language, and therefore a new thought.

>At this singular moment—now—**language loses its material basis**—in short its reality—and drifts in space, we photographers must go on grasping with our own eyes those fragments of reality that cannot possibly be captured with existing language, actively putting forth **materials against language and against thought**. Despite some reservations, this is why we have given Provoke the subtitle “provocative materials for thought.”

I found this notion quite striking. I’m sure it appeals to me in no small part because I find it so hard to combine photography and written language. Writing about photography is incredibly difficult for me. Writing around photography is easy. We do this all the time by taking up peripheral topics like equipment, technique, biography, and social commentary. All of which is very useful if your interest is in being able to make small talk while looking at a photograph, but not necessarily so useful if you want to actually say something about the photograph.

Another popular approach is, of course, to fall back on artspeak, which I don’t do a lot of mainly because I don’t really know artspeak. I’m sure if I was fluent in artspeak, I would make regular recourse to it. Of course, it’s really mostly still talking around photography, but on the plane of abstract concepts rather than the plane of physical facts and realities. These concepts give us handles by which to manipulate the photograph and make it give up its secrets. Or, rather, they appear to do so.

Often, the manipulation of those concepts doesn’t really take us any farther than the recording and recitation of the technical data related to the photograph’s creation. One is fooled in very much the same way as one is fooled when one thinks, “If I use the same camera as he did, and the same settings, and stand in the same place, I will make the same photograph.”

Of course, there are also photographs which can be truly and exhaustively understood with recourse to mere ideas, just as there are photographs which can be truly and exhaustively understood with recourse to mere technical details. But both types are essentially worthless, except insofar as they can be sold for money.

All of which is just to say, I am used to thinking of language as inadequate for describing and understanding photography. But that _Provoke_ manifesto–I’m not sure that I had ever thought of the photographic image as being or becoming the _enemy_ of language. It is immensely appealing in the way that anything which explains away an incapacity is appealing. And it is, in a peculiar way, rather optimistic, presuming the authors were serious about the prospect of a new language and a new thought emerging.

However, I think I rather approach which I had relied upon previously, and that is Simone Weil’s way of interpreting our speechlessness in the face of art:

> Beauty captivates the flesh in order to obtain permission to pass right to the soul.

But I have always been susceptible to mysticism…

Provoke Era

Thursday, October 29th, 2009

I just got back from SFMOMA’s Provoke Era exhibition. It’s my second trip, and I feel like I ought to make some note of my thoughts on it, although my total lack of background when it comes to Japanese photography has made me somewhat reluctant to do so. I don’t even know enough to clearly identify what the scope of my ignorance is, in this area, or how it (and/or prejudice) might be leading me astray in terms of how and what I see…

So, what I’m going to do is simply post a few thoughts that crossed my mind while I was looking at these photographs. Obviously you should be slow to draw conclusions about Japanese photography, or even the work of the specific photographers in question, even if I appear to be doing so.

Hopefully at some point I’ll be less ignorant. I did recently buy a copy of Japanese Photobooks of the 1960’s and 70’s, so that might help a bit, if and when I ever get a chance to open the thing.

Please forgive any misspellings and my total disregard of any diacritic marks — my notes are, as usual, illegible.

While viewing Hosoe

I can’t help wondering if some of the characteristic techniques of this period of Japanese photography are influenced (or at least enabled) by the rise of the small-format SLR camera. Previously, man-portable cameras tended to be press cameras, rangefinders, etc., which are generally not optimal to use from strange angles or for close-focus work. The sort of (apparently) extemporaneous, awkward camera positions, and the very particular deformations of the perspective, focus, etc. are all things that would be substantially more difficult to control with non-SLR cameras.

Contrast perspective here with the (mostly earlier) Western photographers I’ve been looking at a lot lately — Bresson, Atget, Weston, Frank, even Winogrand — in those cases, the perspective is that of a person standing in the space. A pedestrian perspective — not in any derogatory sense, as such, but in the sense that it is the perspective of a person who might happen to be walking by. They seem natural. Here, the play with unnatural perspective is used to dislocate the viewer, and to create a studiously unnatural viewpoint. It is practically a vice, although an excessively “natural” perspective can be a vice as well, I suppose.

While viewing Tomatsu

The are-bure-boke (rough, blurred, out of focus) aesthetic implies a willingness to discard information. Huge areas of a given print may contain no information whatsoever, or very limited information — a rough tonal gradient, say — these images come close to being purely graphic.

This is also in stark contrast to what I’ve been mostly looking at lately, where compositions and (with some exceptions) film, paper, and chemistry are being used with great care and skill to capture the most detail possible, and as much in the way of relationships (“relatedness”?) between elements in the frame as possible.
This discarding of information displaces us…

While viewing Tomatsu and Kawada

There seems to be a pull toward iconography when it comes to Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the war.

If it were me trying to represent these things, I would probably go the same way, simply because icons and symbols are more…manageable. Less frightening. Of course, I have no idea whether that has any bearing on what these folks were doing.

While viewing Moriyama

It seems like the areas of the photograph (dominated by large, irregular patches of pure white or black containing no detail, amid which a person or object may be sandwiched), come together with an almost-audible report, a clap or a clack. Noise. I’m not normally prone to synesthesia, even the merely metaphorical kind…

While viewing Nakahira

Lost detail — defocus, blocked shadows, muddy contrasts, motion blur — these things frustrate the eye, but do they maybe also trick us to project imagined detail (or meaning) where there is none?

Is this why the Moriyama photograph made me see (to borrow from DeCarava) a sound? Or is it merely the vaguely cinematic quality of these choices that makes me think I should be hearing something as I watch?

While viewing Watanabe and Tsuchida

These guys seem to want to be perceived as snapshooters. I find this annoying. Is it also a kind of discarding of information? Not that detail is not faithfully recorded across the frame, but the utterly banal composition or lack of composition deprives the detail of significance.

These do not make a sound. I am probably missing something…

Other thoughts

I don’t know what to say about Fukase’s Ravens,, except that it’s totally heartbreaking.

Also, while I’m not sure this was part of the “Provoke” exhibition, they’ve got an absolutely stunning photograph by Toshio Shibata. You can see a crappy scan here. A really, really fantastic print…

Of course, I would have enjoyed it and the entire museum-going experience a lot more if one of the staff hadn’t forced me to stop making notes with my pen and instead use an f-stopping golf pencil…of all the cockamamy policies…it’s not like I’m pressing my notebook against the photographs to write; I’m several feet away. And on the off-chance that I got it into my mind to go crazy and attack one of these prints, it’s not like issuing me a golf pencil is going to prevent me from doing harm. Honestly, is this what my membership dollars are going to pay for? Because if so, I’d rather they put them toward something else, like the mildewy smell in the vicinity of the staircase on the second floor.

Also, trivial quibble: Why is it that the nomenclature is “silver gelatin print” vs. “platinum print,” vs. “albumen print,” vs. “chromogenic print,” vs. “dye transfer print”? Why not “silver albumen print,” for example. Also, would it kill them to call a polaroid a polaroid? Perhaps there’s a legal issue…