Masks, Stress, and Selves

Unequally Yoked recently posted a well-phrased take on a theme relevant to my interests:

In C.S. Lewis’s Of Other Worlds, most of the selections in the book are critical essays, but there a few pieces of fiction included, one of which is a never completed novel that C.S. Lewis meant to write about Menelaus and Helen during and after the Trojan War. In the excerpt below, Menelaus stops fantasizing about torturing Helen if he regains her.

[H]e wouldn’t torture her. He saw that was nonsense. Torture was all very well for getting information; it was no real use for revenge. All people under torture have the same face and make the same noise. You lose the person you hated.

I was struck by this passage, since frequently discussions of torture (fictional and nonfictional) treat it as revelatory. In Firefly‘s “War Stories” Shepherd Book quotes Shan Yu — a fictional warrior whose philosophy informs the actions of that episode’s antagonist.

[Shan Yu] fancied himself quite the warrior poet. Wrote volumes on war, torture, the limits of human endurance. [He wrote] “Live with a man 40 years. Share his house, his meals. Speak on every subject. Then tie him up, and hold him over the volcano’s edge. And on that day, you will finally meet the man.”

The idea that we are most ourselves under stress is prevalent. Hurt someone badly enough, and every decent drapery will be stripped away, and you’ll meet the authentic self they tried to mask. See also “It has been said that civilization is twenty-four hours and two meals away from barbarism” (from Good Omens) and the idea that wine and wrath lower inhibitions and reveal identity. All of this presupposes that anything we do by effort can’t be authentic, when I’d argue that our choice of mask and drapery is the best indication of our character.

When it comes to seeing someone, relating to someone, and in photography, when it comes to making a portrait, it’s more important to see and understand the masks they choose and how they use them than it is to try to separate them from those masks. This is why Dijkstra’s portraits are boring, but Meatyard’s Father Louie is fascinating.

The only rationale for trying to unmask a subject is an attempt at the universal — which generally and predictably results in a maximally banal depiction which, if it reveals anything, reveals the prejudices and assumptions of the artist. It also, I think, tends toward photograph as implicitly violent.

Minor White: “Could the Critic in Photography Be Passé”

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.

"Aerial View: Looking Southeast Over Windy Ridge and Visitors Parking Lot, Four and One-Half Miles Northeast of Mount St. Helens, Washington, 1983" by Frank Gohlke. In Accommodating Nature: The Photographs of Frank Gohlke, p. 85.


  I wanted to be able to use those things which connect to whatever runs deepest in me without giving in to them, to call attention to them without distorting their relationship to the contexts in which they occur…My aim is to make photographs that are at the same time lyrical and intellectual, intensely personal yet rich in information, neither reticent nor effusive.


(From Gohlke’s autobiographical statement in “Camera” 55, no. 5 (1976), reprinted in Thoughts on Landscape)

If you follow me on twitter, you may have noticed that a sizable portion of my photography-related enthusiasm has been directed lately to Frank Gohlke. I recently read Thoughts On Landscape, which collects some of Gohlke’s writings and some interviews, etc., and was enthralled. Gohlke is one of the few photographers who can write well about photography, and he puts his eloquence in service to a way of viewing the world which is full of wonder, penetrating insight, and integrity — qualities which are not usually found in close association.

At the time I read Thoughts on Landscape, I was not very familiar with Gohlke’s photography, and what I had seen (mostly the New Topographics stuff) had not really captured my attention. (Gohlke also mentioned in one of the interviews in Thoughts on Landscape that he wasn’t especially pleased with his photographs in the New Topographics show “as a body of work,” and it definitely seems clear from what I read there that those photographs aren’t strongly representative of Gohlke’s overall career.)

This made reading Thoughts on Landscape a bit strange, as I was gaining what felt like a strong, sympathetic understanding of everything about Gohlke’s photography except for the actual photography. So getting  my copy of Accommodating Nature and seeing the photographs in it gave me an odd feeling, probably akin to meeting a pen pal in person for the first time.

The photographs are diverse, including some of Gohlke’s grain elevators, some of his photographs of Mt. Saint Helens and the aftermath of the tornado that struck his home town, some photographs related to his family, some from the Sudbury River, and various other subjects and projects.

The disaster photographs are (of course) the most immediately attention-grabbing. It’s hard not to be gripped by the often staggering scope of both the destruction and the recovery. But what is most notable is Gohlke’s ability to perceive and to photographically depict the underlying order of the processes of destruction — the way they restructure as much as destroy. He integrates that order and that structure into his photographs such that they become inextricable from his composition, as though he were collaborating with the eruption and the tornado to make his photographs rather than merely documenting them by means of a camera.

Gohlke’s photographs of more homely scenes are as impressive, even when their content is undramatic and pedestrian. They are distinguished by Gohlke’s understanding of the places where he has worked, an understanding that is to some degree communicated to the viewer, and which thoroughly informs Gohlke’s composition and his choice of where to place his camera. In this regard he has some of the aspect of Atget — “vivid, precise, intimate, local,” as Gohlke says of Atget in one of the essays in Thoughts on Landscape.

I could go on like this for quite a while, but I’d probably just get more annoyingly laudatory. To cut things short: Go buy these books. Thoughts on Landscape in particular contains some words which I think every photographer ought to read (not just the landscape crowd, either). Seriously. Do it.

"Aerial View: Looking Southeast Over Windy Ridge and Visitors Parking Lot, Four and One-Half Miles Northeast of Mount St. Helens, Washington, 1983" by Frank Gohlke. In Accommodating Nature: The Photographs of Frank Gohlke, p. 85.

I wanted to be able to use those things which connect to whatever runs deepest in me without giving in to them, to call attention to them without distorting their relationship to the contexts in which they occur…My aim is to make photographs that are at the same time lyrical and intellectual, intensely personal yet rich in information, neither reticent nor effusive.

(From Gohlke’s autobiographical statement in “Camera” 55, no. 5 (1976), reprinted in Thoughts on Landscape)

If you follow me on twitter, you may have noticed that a sizable portion of my photography-related enthusiasm has been directed lately to Frank Gohlke. I recently read Thoughts On Landscape, which collects some of Gohlke’s writings and some interviews, etc., and was enthralled. Gohlke is one of the few photographers who can write well about photography, and he puts his eloquence in service to a way of viewing the world which is full of wonder, penetrating insight, and integrity — qualities which are not usually found in close association.

At the time I read Thoughts on Landscape, I was not very familiar with Gohlke’s photography, and what I had seen (mostly the New Topographics stuff) had not really captured my attention. (Gohlke also mentioned in one of the interviews in Thoughts on Landscape that he wasn’t especially pleased with his photographs in the New Topographics show “as a body of work,” and it definitely seems clear from what I read there that those photographs aren’t strongly representative of Gohlke’s overall career.)

This made reading Thoughts on Landscape a bit strange, as I was gaining what felt like a strong, sympathetic understanding of everything about Gohlke’s photography except for the actual photography. So getting my copy of Accommodating Nature and seeing the photographs in it gave me an odd feeling, probably akin to meeting a pen pal in person for the first time.

The photographs are diverse, including some of Gohlke’s grain elevators, some of his photographs of Mt. Saint Helens and the aftermath of the tornado that struck his home town, some photographs related to his family, some from the Sudbury River, and various other subjects and projects.

The disaster photographs are (of course) the most immediately attention-grabbing. It’s hard not to be gripped by the often staggering scope of both the destruction and the recovery. But what is most notable is Gohlke’s ability to perceive and to photographically depict the underlying order of the processes of destruction — the way they restructure as much as destroy. He integrates that order and that structure into his photographs such that they become inextricable from his composition, as though he were collaborating with the eruption and the tornado to make his photographs rather than merely documenting them by means of a camera.

Gohlke’s photographs of more homely scenes are as impressive, even when their content is undramatic and pedestrian. They are distinguished by Gohlke’s understanding of the places where he has worked, an understanding that is to some degree communicated to the viewer, and which thoroughly informs Gohlke’s composition and his choice of where to place his camera. In this regard he has some of the aspect of Atget — “vivid, precise, intimate, local,” as Gohlke says of Atget in one of the essays in Thoughts on Landscape.

I could go on like this for quite a while, but I’d probably just get more annoyingly laudatory. To cut things short: Go buy these books. Thoughts on Landscape in particular contains some words which I think every photographer ought to read (not just the landscape crowd, either). Seriously. Do it.

"Mobile Homes, Jefferson County, Colorado, 1973," by Robert Adams. Via Art Knowledge News.


  Fundamentally I think we need to rediscover a non-ironic world.


— Robert Adams. In New Topographics, ed. Britt Salvesen, p. 27.

"Mobile Homes, Jefferson County, Colorado, 1973," by Robert Adams. Via Art Knowledge News.

Fundamentally I think we need to rediscover a non-ironic world.

— Robert Adams. In New Topographics, ed. Britt Salvesen, p. 27.

But there is no such thing as a simple document; even a birth certificate embodies cultural values and assumptions, requires interpretation….

Facts seldom speak for themselves; they acquire a voice by being placed in relation to other facts. The sequence of photographs in this book describes what certain places and events look like; it also suggests what they might mean. The meaning arises as much from what happens between photographs as from what happens in them. To be satisfying, the meanings that are created must be coherent, or else understanding is frustrated; but they must also have some of the complexity and contradictoriness of lived experience, or else credibility is strained.

— Frank Gohlke, “Oil,” 1982. In Thoughts on Landscape.

I think this is an extremely elegant response to the same sort of predicament Walker Evans was addressing in a quotation we posted recently.

I particularly like the notion that “complexity and contradictoriness” are essential to “credibility.” I think it’s an important point — part of what makes “straight” photography effective is that it cannot help being at least a little messy — complicated, self-contradictory, uncertain, unexpected, out of control, incomplete.

Not all of these qualities are in every straight photograph, and not every straight photographer is defined principally by these characteristics…but a body of work which is free of these qualities, which is neat and clean and focused entirely on coherent meanings and messages which the photographer-as-artist is putting in front of the viewer, does not generally have a sense of reality about it. Such photography is not necessarily inferior because of that disconnection from reality, but I think it is really a whole different art — or trade, if you prefer Lange’s terminology.

"Truck and Sign, 1930," Walker Evans. Via the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


  Documentary? That’s a very sophisticated and misleading word. And not really clear….The term should be documentary style. An example of a literal document would be a police photograph of a murder scene. You see, a document has a use, whereas art is really useless. Therefore art is never a document, though it certainly can adopt that style.


— Walker Evans, 1971.

I came across that quotation recently in Britt Salvesen’s essay in New Topographics — a great book about which Karl and I will likely be posting for some time to come.

It’s a wonderful quotation, and like most good quotations it is succinct, eloquent, and persuasive, and gives every appearance of revealing or placing in context a truth that we immediately sense we should have known and understood all along.

Of course, that appearance is illusory. Does anyone now — did anyone then? — really think that art is above or unsullied by mere usefulness? Obviously, art has uses in economic terms, in social and political terms, and simply as a tool for starting up or disrupting the thoughts and feelings of people.

Which is not to say that Evans’s distinction is meaningless. But it would be more correct to say that the relationship between a work of art and the uses of that work is more covert and potentially contradictory than the relationship between a document and the uses of that document. Art is not a document without a use, but a document whose uses we have difficulty (or discomfort) in defining and agreeing upon.

"Truck and Sign, 1930," Walker Evans. Via the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Documentary? That’s a very sophisticated and misleading word. And not really clear….The term should be documentary style. An example of a literal document would be a police photograph of a murder scene. You see, a document has a use, whereas art is really useless. Therefore art is never a document, though it certainly can adopt that style.

— Walker Evans, 1971.

I came across that quotation recently in Britt Salvesen’s essay in New Topographics — a great book about which Karl and I will likely be posting for some time to come.

It’s a wonderful quotation, and like most good quotations it is succinct, eloquent, and persuasive, and gives every appearance of revealing or placing in context a truth that we immediately sense we should have known and understood all along.

Of course, that appearance is illusory. Does anyone now — did anyone then? — really think that art is above or unsullied by mere usefulness? Obviously, art has uses in economic terms, in social and political terms, and simply as a tool for starting up or disrupting the thoughts and feelings of people.

Which is not to say that Evans’s distinction is meaningless. But it would be more correct to say that the relationship between a work of art and the uses of that work is more covert and potentially contradictory than the relationship between a document and the uses of that document. Art is not a document without a use, but a document whose uses we have difficulty (or discomfort) in defining and agreeing upon.

You know, I will often say, “I like this image.” And Indrani will say, “Well, what is it that you like about it?” And my answer will be, “Well, I just like it.” That’s an egotistical perspective, and she points out that it really doesn’t matter what you yourself like. It’s important to analyze who you’re trying to reach with the image.

— Markus Klinko, in Pop Photo, via A Photo Editor

When I read this quotation, my initial reaction was, “Yes! That’s very much a problem I’ve been mulling over lately.”

Then I opened up the source link, and my reaction at that point was somewhat similar to the first commenter on the post at A Photo Editor.

Then I thought it about some more, and thought about the fact that, yes, A Photo Editor had decided to post it, and obviously thought it was still worth posting and worth reading.

My conclusion than was that I still rather like the quote (as I like any piece of writing that quickly summarizes a big amorphous problem). Still, it does lose a lot of its interest for me when it becomes clear that the underlying message is not “It’s hard to articulate the nature and limits of aesthetic virtue in photography,” but rather, “Don’t photograph hot chicks for straight dudes, photograph them for women and gay dudes.”

Or, more accurately, the kind of interest it has changes.

It’s your creativity. It’s what sets you apart from every other photographer; it’s the distinguishing value that is added to any great image you create. Without it, you could be replaced by a machine.

Carolyn Potts, via A Photo Editor

I’ve seen a lot of statements like this lately. By which I do not mean there is necessarily a sudden upsurge in this sentiment out in the world; I just mean I am seeing more of it. (One of the places I’ve recently encountered discussion of “creative” photography was a 50’s-era essay by Berenice Abbott.)

I have to say, I do not agree. I think the most important qualities of a photographer are the most important qualities of an observer, and creativity would number fairly low on the list of important qualities of an observer.

Like good writing, good photography is primarily distinguished by clear and concise description. Of course this does not mean mere mechanical reproduction of the subject (although it does entail just that) — each photographer’s perception and judgment are peculiar to him or her and highly personal.

The difference between a good photograph and a bad photograph is not generally that the good photograph is more creative, but that the good photograph is based on a clearer perception and superior insight. The best photographers see more clearly and the best photographs enable us to share in that clear seeing.

Often the worst photographs are the most “creative” — because they bear the heavy-handed mark of the photographer as creator, as sculptor, piling bravura technique onto an uninteresting subject or an uninteresting portrayal of an interesting subject in order to redeem them.

Of course, in saying this, I am revealing a certain bias of my own. The quotation above is from the ASMP — in other words, it is meant largely for advertising photographers — and advertising photography tends to be more unavoidably concept-driven and thus “creative.” This is a type of photography I find comparatively tedious.

So, it is perhaps unfair of me to criticize Potts’s advice; I do, however, think that it should be confined to its proper domain…

Let’s stop here for a second, and let me make a claim: The reason why there have been so many [photo]manipulation scandals is not because there has been so much manipulation, it is because everybody has become so suspicious.