Octave of Prayer, pp. 32-33, 64-65. Photos by Richard Levy, Alan Dutton, Tony Soluri, Myron Collins, Barbara Morgan, Pierre Cordier.
"Photography has come closer to being a religion than anything most of us have ever had." — Ralph Hattersley, p. 91. (The last words in the book.)
One of the more tantalizing bits of Aperture Anthology: The Minor White Years is an excerpt from Octave of Prayer, an exhibition connecting photography with the practice of prayer and meditation, which White organized and which was published as an issue of Aperture and as a standalone book. The Anthology only published a portion of the photos, at reduced size — and I was sufficiently intrigued/frustrated to order a used copy of Octave, which arrived a few days ago.
It’s not quite what I was expecting. The sequence moves in a rhythm between the abstract and straight, the metaphorical and the literal, the reverent and the totally satirical, the universally appealing and the hermetic. My first impression of this medley was that it was inconsistent, but that’s not right. Octave of Prayer is not an inconsistent collection of many works, but a unitary work in which no constituent portion is representative of the whole.
As for that whole, I have a hard time saying whether I think it succeeds or falls short. It certainly holds together on its own terms, which is one measure of success. But I’m not sure its terms are the best.
Part of the problem is with the text — of which there is quite a lot. It combines (a) a hash of New Age syncreticism dressed up as the systematic articulation of religious experience with (b) some interesting and relatively plausible observations on the ways in which photographers’ relationship to their medium sometimes takes on religious and meditative qualities, and (c) a pretty good elaboration of Minor White’s use of the concept of photograph as “equivalent,” which treats the photograph as a catalyst for the viewer’s experience (as opposed to focusing on the photograph as a representation of a subject or as a statement by the photographer).
If these three concerns were presented in an independent way — well, this would probably be one of the better essays to be saddled to a set of photographs. It’s easy to read around one weak area.
But the text is all a muddle, and it’s quite difficult to isolate the useful insights from the triumphant navelgazing. White takes as true any and all things that feel true to him, and then he tries to articulate a system based on them — which inevitably results in an arbitrary structure with neither a solid relationship to its intellectual and historical contexts, nor an iconoclastic break from them.
It also feels like something of a missed opportunity in terms of accessibility. The selections for the book represent a very broad taste, and White makes a point of Octave’s non-intellectual selection criterion of “radiance to the heart.” It is a diverse work that is striving in some respects to be a universal one — and yet neither the text nor the sequence makes much in the way of concessions to a reader who might not already be equipped to traffic in White’s artistic and religious obscurities. The result is a sequence that is wonderfully inclusive toward images, but really rather exclusive toward people.
There is an undeniable sincerity to what White is doing. However structurally unsound, and however opaque, it’s clearly born out of real experience and good intent. And the association of the practice of photography with the practice of contemplation is something that I think does warrant exploring. I would love to see it taken up again, in the same spirit as White, but with a more accessible and grounded approach, and perhaps more attention given to the quality of actual peoples’ experience and less to categorizing and generalizing kinds of experience.
Something I must bear in mind is that the kind of arbitrary cherrypicking of ideas and beliefs that White is engaging in doesn’t necessarily happen for no reason or because the picker lacks intellectual rigor.
And in the case of Minor White, a man defined by the strength of his religious impulse and his artistic vision, but for whom neither institutional art nor institutional religion were quite ready — the one because he was somewhat ahead of the game, the other because of his sexuality — there was really no choice but to make things up as he went along. Which he often pulled off to great effect; I just don’t think Octave of Prayer quite gets there.
But I have to remember that making one’s public thinking more transparent, more specific, more explicit, more legible, and more personal always comes with risks and costs, and those are not equal for everybody or constant through time. And obscurantism can sometimes be as much a symptom of the process by which one picks battles as much as it is a sign of elitism or myopia.
We don’t normally post bare quotations here without comment, but this seems super relevant, to one of our recent posts, a nice post that @vossbrink just put up, and several recent posts that we link to as well as others floating in the ether.
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 mauch larger world. Parker says this:
The problem of the aritst, 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 reqlinquish 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.
Minor White, “Could the Critic in Photography Be Passé”, 1967, republished in Aperture Anthology: The Minor White Years, pp. 355-356.
I’m slowly but surely mowing my way through the anthology, and I should have a post up on it — well, I won’t say soon, so as not to jinx it, but sooner or later. But this is just too good not to put up in the meantime.
Note particularly the accelerating pace of publication/dissemination of information, the decline of “great” photographs, and the emphasis on process over product.
"Iizaka Town, Fukushima, 2006," by Toshio Shibata. Via Eye Curious.
I take a lot of photographs and show very few. If there is too much reality, too much identifiable sense of time and place, I don’t show these images. I have taken around 4,000 plates with my 8 x 10 camera and of those I show about one percent. I try to eliminate the reality, time and any sense of specific place. Of course this is extremely difficult with photography. Within a frame there are so many elements that are present and you cannot choose those that you want to keep and those that you want to eliminate. The only elements that you can control are contrast and tonality, light essentially. With painting all the ‘unnecessary’ parts in a scene can be eliminated. With photography, you just have to accept what is there. That is where the difficulty of photography lies. Photography is not something that you can make. It cannot be forced. You have to accept the subject.
The discussion of Shibata’s influences (including Adams, Meyerowitz, and Warhol) is enlightening; the Group f/64 connection in particular surprised me, although in retrospect, it probably should not have. It’s just that the western photography (such as the New Topographics) which seems closest in content and style to Shibata’s work is associated with a rejection of Group f/64, etc., in favor of photographers more associated with the documentary, like Walker Evans.
Shibata was coming from the other direction, moving away from the “social protest” documentary photographers of postwar Japan and toward the landscape styles associated with the American West, and but he arrived in a similar place in photographing the “man-altered landscape.” (Of course, it would be very incomplete to say that Shibata is just doing New Topographics style photography in a Japanese context; there are significant differences in his approach, most obviously in the degree of abstraction.)
But my favorite part of the interview is this sentence:
Photography is not something that you can make. It cannot be forced. You have to accept the subject.
I think this is particularly relevant given the recent back-and-forth in the blogosphere on the Paul Graham essay. One aspect of that discussion is the tension between “straight” photography and photography in which the subject is manufactured or performed by the photographer.
When Shibata says, “photography is something you cannot make,” he is obviously talking about “straight” photography, and he is highlighting what I think is the most important aspect of straight photography — that it involves a confrontation and, ultimately, reconciliation between the photographer and the world; it is basically anti-solipsistic, even when it is engaged in abstraction or when it is infused with the emotions or inner demons of the photographer. This is what Minor White called, “the camera’s strongest point—the magic of its tether to visual reality.”