This is a response to Neal Rantoul’s piece, “A Disturbing Trend“, and while it might contain a rebuttal of this point or that, it is not intended as a rebuttal as such. This should be a conversation!
Neal’s unhappiness seems to stem from two separate sources. The first is that photographic Artists tend to be supplying what strikes him as an excess of text to go with their pictures, and the second is that their pictures are often not any good. Of course, there are surely dunderheads wandering about thoughtlessly snapping a few random frames, and then covering for their laziness by grinding out a few paragraphs of equally lazy incomprehensible buzzword-laden Artist’s Statement.
Surely, though, there are hard working students, not a bit lazy, who are completing bodies of work that are superficially similar to the lazybones projects? Art has moved in that direction, for several reasons, some good, some bad.
Let’s think about text. While we cannot go back and time to 1938 to visit the MOMA and see the Walker Evans exhibit, we can look at the 75th Anniversary edition of Evans’ American Photographs to get a sense of how that might have looked. Indeed, we find remarkably terse captions, and nothing else.
FACES, PENNSYLVANIA TOWN, 1936.
LUNCH WAGON DETAIL, NEW YORK, 1931.
ALABAMA COTTON TENANT FARMER WIFE, 1936.
But consider this: while these are indeed very terse, each one carries quite a lot of freight, at any rate for Americans. Each provides a tiny bit of context which our knowledge of our country’s geography and history can unpack into quite a lot of information. Consider the non-American, someone who is perhaps a bit hazy on what an Alabama might be (perhaps someone like that is reading this right now). Trying to reach that audience, Walker might have done well to include an essay on Cotton Tenancy (and indeed, his colleague James Agee did just that, in a nearly unreadable book called Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.)
But Evans’ audience was Americans, and Americans know about Alabama, and Lunch Wagons, and so on. They might have even know about Cotton Tenancy. And so, the little titles were enough to unlock the picture.
In these modern times when not all Artists seek to comment on universals, perhaps more text is necessary. If I wish to comment on, let us say, the experience of one gender or another within our culture, I can count on roughly 50% of my audience “getting it” right off, but the other half lacks a lot of the necessary context — at least if I am doing it right. The entire point of the project might be to reveal things which that other half does not understand. The point might be to explain what the equivalent of an Alabama Cotton Tenant Farmer might be to someone who has never heard of such a thing.
This is not to suggest that things are really just about the same as they were in 1938, when American Photographs was first published, they certainly are not. I only mean to imply that the evolution from then to now isn’t as mysterious as it appears at first glance.
Further, in these modern times with the flood of pictures, filters, effects, it’s less obvious what work is serious. In the old days, you could tell. If it was sharp and printed on fiber-based paper, you were dealing with someone who wanted to be taken seriously. These “tells” are simply no longer present. I can take a random snap and print it out huge for a few bucks, and the most serious artist in the world might prefer to work in 1000 x 1000 pixel photos on the web.
I think in many cases we need the text, the explanation, just to let us know that the artist is engaged.
Onward to the second source of Neal’s unhappiness.
To be honest, I am having trouble sorting this out. On the one hand, Neal talks about technical details quite a lot, which suggests the uncharitable interpretation that he’s just a cranky guy who hates anything that doesn’t look like it came out of the f/64 school of photography. His Curriculum Vitae makes it clear that this is literally impossible. He was an Art Professor of one sort or another for decades and decades. I get the gist, which is that he feels the work is not good in some sense. But what sense? What would that even mean?
I am therefore simply going to set his remarks aside and say a few words about the relevance of technical proficiency in photography, and hope that something relevant and/or applicable appears.
The only thing that matters, when one is shooting a body of work, is whether the pictures support the project. If the work demands out of focus frames that are nearly black, well, there it is. Underexpose, and “mis-focus”. To shoot “correctly” would, in fact, be wrong. It follows that if the work does not demand anything beyond what the camera does in some Auto mode or another, then you can go ahead and use that mode. Photography is about seeing, not fiddling with dials, after all.
The pictures in this article are a case in point. This project was a whimsical thing I did a few years ago, in which I imagined the little neighborhood in which I lived as a sort of Gothic nightmare. These pictures were taken south of the Mason-Dixon line, in Virginia. In the American South, there is always a Faulknerian undercurrent you can borrow, the theme is always there. The only thing that matters in any of these pictures is the subject and point of view, and the treatment in post. Blown highlights are irrelevant, blocked up shadows are irrelevant. Focus would be nice but, frankly, doesn’t much matter either as long as you can see the objects.
The project was done by seeing and imagining, and then applying a few basic tropes.
You may or may not be surprised to learn that I shot the entire thing with my phone. Also, I edited the photos on my phone. With the editor that is simply bundled with the standard photo-gallery app on the phone. Crop square, convert to black and white (using the excellent b&w conversion tool), adjust to taste with the curves control and slap a big nasty vignette on there. Shoot 50 or 100 of these things and pick out a dozen that work well together.
This was, in part, an exercise to see what the phone could do. Quite a bit, it turns out.
At no point did I concern myself with ISO, shutter speed, aperture (which is fixed anyway), or any other technical details. I did use the method of metering on one thing to set the exposure, re-frame, and shoot. That’s as technical as I got.
Whether you consider my work here as an example, or as a counter-example, I cannot control. I can say that the mission statement for the project, as it were, demanded almost no technical photography. See it, shoot it, fiddle with sliders to taste and to create a coherent look.
Would the project read without the text, without some sort of context? I rather fear that in this modern world it would not. The default assumption would likely be that these are random snaps run through some awful Instagram filter. When I tell you about the Gothic conceit, and name drop Faulkner, though, maybe it makes more sense. Maybe you even like it. For a local, the title Gothic Ghent would likely be enough. For someone unfamiliar even with the idea of the Gothic aesthetic, I’d probably need to spend a few paragraphs. For the readers here, who fall perhaps somewhere in the middle, perhaps these few lines will suffice.
I printed them out 4″ x 4″, and placed them into little-bound folios. Three copies. One for me, one for a friend, and one left behind as a free book in a local coffee shop. Fin.