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Ten Years After

December 11, 2009

I’ve gotten blogged down the past couple of weeks and simply have not been posting. I don’t know if it is heartening or depressing that I have 100 readers a day regardless of posting or not.

Roof Dog, High Pamirs, Tajikistan, 2009, by Frank Ward

This coming week is the last of the semester and I have been thinking about my students. I feel like I’m some kind of watchdog, or quasi-militant, manning the gates of “art” and searching all comers for the right credentials. I’m actually more like the bouncer at the door to a “downtown” club. I’m scanning the crowd to decide who might fit the desired profile. From my fantasy rooftop overlook, I rarely see the fire inside that I look for in potential artists. My digital class has my most dedicated members. Many don’t work particularly hard, some always have Facebook opened on their desktop, and most don’t even listen to me. That said, they are producing some good pictures. I think maybe two of them actually look at this blog. That’s better than zero, which is an estimate of how many from my other classes check out this blog. So, before I say goodbye to students for the next six weeks and start reconsidering my own concerns, I want to tell students one more time that the key to their own art making is in front of their faces, even in front of their cameras. Our personal creative power rests in our awareness of the gifts of the moment. Check out Herman Nicholson’s simple portraits of one person.

From "Stand Guard Over the Solitude of the Other" by Herman Nicholson

The end of 2009 marks the close of the first decade of the 21st century. Ten years ago Post-modernism had run its course and I wondered where documentary, or what Robert Aller calls “expository” photography, was going. This kind of photography is about the art of seeing the world as it is. For me, that “is” doesn’t have to be a meticulous record of something in the world. It simply must do what every photograph basically, inherently does. A photograph points a finger at the world. A problematic issue arises when, like the zen koan about mistaking the finger pointing at the moon for the moon, people assume the photographer’s intention is to replicate the world. The artist may want to apply his own impressions to the world. He may want to move some furniture, like Walker Evans did in his pristine Let Us Now Praise Famous Men pictures. If the picture is the finger, the artist pointing the finger can be fabricating, directing, collaging, HDRing or snapshooting. (S)He just has to succeed with graceful intention to indicate something about our world that interests an audience. Ross Mantle’s improvisations on a demonstration are a good example of a new freedom in editorial photography.

From the G20 Conference of September 2009 by Ross Mantle

One point that troubles my students is when they don’t feel that their pictures and my (the audience) appreciation coincide. Their prosaic pictures of kittens/ cars/ kids/ cows do not resonate. Sometimes this is a question of where to stand. I want to ban zoom lenses from students because zooms alienate new photographers from their relationship to the world. Their proximity to their subject becomes a twist of the wrist rather than a true point of view. Mike Sinclair’s kid portrait below seems made from just about the right spot. The angle of the curbing adds grace to the composition considering the tentative touch the boy’s shoe has to the curb.

From Where Are You... by Mike Sinclair

This brings me to the title of this post. Ten Years After was a rock group that I saw at the Boston Tea Party circa 1967. I thought they were great. In retrospect, they weren’t. I was wrong and I am often wrong. Maybe my student’s pictures will improve with time. Maybe their pictures will be more powerful in another millennium, if kittens/ cars/kids/cows become extinct.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Vivian permalink
    December 12, 2009 8:19 am

    Very insightful, Frank. Thanks. The idea of the photo of the finger pointing to the moon reminds me of Margaret Mead’s musings about how the presence of the observer modifies the subject being observed. There are also vague rattlings in my brain about trying to examine the nature of light, somehow both a wave and a particle, or the impossibility of simultaneously knowing both location and speed of electrons. Obviously my mind is a swirling blob, and how does one capture that blobish nature with clarity?

  2. December 12, 2009 11:48 am

    It seems you and I are always on the same page in our wishes, desires and expectations, although disappointing at times, on the subject of students’ working “religiously” on making photographs that express their point of view about how they live their lives. Or, what their experiences could be…evidenced in the work they could make visible to us. It might be an illusion of our own expectations. Does that make sense? In other words, we want so much for them to be involved in the world that they are a part of through the amplification of what the camera sees or might present to them. We believe, like it used to be years ago, that they will become excited. Who wouldn’t when seeing something come up in the developer for the first time?

    The problem might be that you and I are from a generation of photographers that understood the desire and a need to expose the details of a given complexity of visual issues making itself available to us at a given immediate moment. It was poetry and still is to us. We live, now, in a time on the fringe or the outside edge of the circle of the “romantic” era where that poetic visual philosophy that revealed so much beauty to us is being exchanged for something else. It is the “information” world as Andy Warhol once said and slowly we are emerging out of the “romantic era.”

    Louie Armstrong, the jazz musician we all know and love (or at least our generation knows and loves) grew up listening to Grand Opera, playing church music in funeral bands, ragtime in whore houses, and later, listening to Stravinksky while he worked out the harmonies of The Hot Five…and based an adventure of feelings including rage and defiance on it….

    The problem with todays’ student’s might be in their lack of understanding of what the word “passion” means. What does it mean to be passionate about one’s art? How does that passion, observation and concentration serve them to make their work meaningful to them or anyone wishing to view it? Maybe we need to give an assignment on the understanding of what the word passion means…or means to them. The world of Art is Vast. Artists, like Armstrong, Robert Frank or Steichen and Stieglitz who survive in the artworld are huge, some huge as giants, yet the students by comparison, are so limited in their understanding of the world. They are still trying to figure out what the world is about and where will they fit into it or how will they survive in it.

    This brings me to the possibility of an exchange from “passion” about the subjects they are asked to photograph or expected to photograph and the “infectation of the contagion of “art.” The argument about motivation about what to photograph may be exchanged for the hope of making as less passionate art for the sake of financial survival in todays generations of photographers. In some ways, photography unfortunately, has be come so commercially self-conscious that we are even concerned how much so-and-so can sell his prints for, with values, therefore, that are no longer matters of quality, of inward excellence, but are largely related to the starting-prices in the market, it is surely time to bring into question, to re-examine, the real and inherent values, the true quality of a good photograph. Students need to learn how these things may be recognised. And how, if at all, any of these factors ought to concern future photography students and therefore how photography is taught. We can’t leave it up to the connoiseurs, to specialists, to critics or even to dealers as to what is good photography. These people will get their reward in any event. Right? We need an informed public that is aware of what a good photograph is and cares. So, self-discipline is an essential part of making a good photograph couple with a passion for the medium.

    Frank, I remember reading many years ago when it was highly recommended to do so, reading Zen in the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance or Zen in the Art of Archery (which I still have to this day). You recall reading it because even without my knowing for sure whether you actually did read on or both of them or not, I believe you did. It was an expectation of our generation of photographers to do so. Henri Cartier-Bresson was indebted to it.

    ” ‘I’m afraid I don’t understand anything more at all,’ I answered, ‘even the simplest things have got in a muddle. Is it “I” who draws the bow, or is it the bow which draws me into the state of highest tension? Do “I” hit the goal, or does the goal hit me? Is “It” spiritual when seen by the eyes of the body and corporeal when seen by the eyes of the spirit – or both or neither? Bow, arrow, goal and ego, all melt into one another, so that I can no longer separate them. And even the need to separate has gone. For as soon as I take the bow and shoot, everything becomes so clear and straightforward and so simple….’

    ‘Now at last’, the Master broke in, ‘the bowstring has cut right through you.’ “

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