Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Self-Critique II

Reflexivity in self-regard presents difficulties. Is regarding oneself critically an exercise in myopic delusion? Can anyone be truly objective about the products of one's own imagination? One's own craft? 

Like many people who pursue photography seriously, I began in admiration and idolatry, moved on to imitation, and eventually found myself in the uncharted territory of original exploration. Imitation will take you only so far in any artistic medium. Eventually, you have to ask yourself whether what you're doing has any purpose beyond reprocessing others' work. 

In deciding to pursue landscape photography seriously, there were several aspects to consider. There's the investment in equipment, the opportunity to explore remote locations, access to a suitable work-space, and the purpose toward which all that expenditure and time spent leads. Harry Callahan remarked once that the one thing he knew for certain, what kept him going, was the certainty that the one thing he wanted, at the start of each day, was to photograph. It was a reliable compulsion. And that's pretty much what I felt when I began; I knew I wanted to make pictures. And as I became more familiar with it, the more I liked it. 

There are many kinds of photography, many approaches to subject matter. I admire many of these different kinds of work, though not all. There are things that photography can do well, while some others seem to work directly against the advantage of image-making. Deliberately making blurry images, for instance, seems to me a distortion of the meaning of photography. It's many times harder to make a precise depiction of a real scene, than it is to do with a camera. This would suggest that whatever potential lies in the direction of that precision is closer to the soul of photography. 


One of the first things you notice about serious landscape photography is the tendency to portray "big scenes"--and I was typical in my initial fascination with the heroic images that the great landscape photographers--Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Eliot Porter, Michael Kenna, and dozens of others--had made. But I also have a strong reductivist tendency in my nature. I like the closely seen detail, presented with intense concentration. And I also love "abstraction" as a genre, the interest in surfaces or spaces that are not about what they are, but what they may mean as pure form, or texture, or metaphorical suggestiveness. 

Ultimately, the best landscape photography isn't about the celebration of place, but about the transcendence of place (and name). Beyond referentiality, there's a purer appreciation of any scene than the simply referential can summon. Most photographs are recognizable images, but it's how they are seen, arranged, portrayed, that makes interesting work. Any tourist can perch on the edge of the Grand Canyon, or at the margin of the Pacific Ocean, and snap away, probably in color. The sense of inspiration people feel before awesome natural scenes is rarely interpreted by their cameras, because they don't understand how to translate the feeling into a compelling composition. All sunsets are equally a subset of "sunset" but all are different, and it's that difference, made into photographs, that makes all the difference

If all landscape photographers are aspiring towards the same goal, in what sense may they actually define themselves, to set themselves apart? Many of the images in my book are of subjects that all landscape photographers pursue: Dunes, mountains, waves, trees, flowers, canyons, cars, buildings. So it can't just be that the choice of subject matter determines the quality of your work. Obviously, no one can "own" a place simply by having successfully photographed it, though the way one great image has been made, or done, may close the door permanently on all future versions of that scene. Anyone trying to re-do Adams's Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite, will merely end up in slavish imitation. But no one would suggest that Yosemite Valley has "been done" once and for all. There are always more images, more points of vantage, more variations of light, atmosphere and condition to be explored and exploited. 

Ideally, I always wanted to do several kinds of photographs, but you have to follow your nose to the places that inspire you. Landscape photography sometimes may seem like a pantheon of shrines, familiar spots on the planet nearly everyone is drawn to. As you approach them, you do so with respect, and awe. They are magical places, which may yield up their beauty or mystery to your lens, or not. Sometimes it's all about luck. There's an old saying in photography, that photographers don't "take" photographs; photographs "take them."  Paul Caponigro has said that the process by which a photographer makes an image is an entirely mysterious one, in which a number of elements of opportunity and chance converge. This "moment" may be fleeting, or voiceless, or may seem invisible to the untrained eye. One is, in this sense, "given" to complete certain image, chosen by fate or some higher power to be allowed to perform it. It's like a gift. 


I'm not ordinarily a mystical guy. Not religious. Not interested in superstition. But I think there really is something to the notion that one is given to have certain images. It's a combination of desire, accident, timing, unconscious intuition, and perhaps divine intervention (though I'd not be willing to emphasize the divine part). I remember trying to set up this image taken at Death Valley Dunes. The heavy wood tripod I was using kept sinking deeper and deeper into the sand, changing the composition each time I looked through the ground glass to focus. Every so often the wind would blow little bits of sand off the crest of the wave. Standing as still as I could, with the shutter in my hand, using the dark-slide to shield the lens from the sun's rays. And I had no idea whether the negative would develop in the manner I had planned. All these ponderable issues can build up and overwhelm the most inspired visions!


I've talked around the issue of value, but I realize that the point of criticism isn't merely descriptive. Great critics teach you more than they cut you down to size. That was true of Edmund Wilson, or Hugh Kenner. But there are few serious critics of art photography, and few of those spend much effort in attacking what they don't like. 

In the final post, I'll try to estimate the value of what I have published in this book, without being either too easy, or too hard on myself. 

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