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Archive for the ‘Aesthetics’ Category

Nan Goldin’s beauty

Wednesday, March 19th, 2008

I think Nan Goldin presents an interesting case when looking at the beauty of subjects in photographs. Here, in a self portrait after she was abused she looks anything but beautiful.

goldin_self

I’m not sure how to describe this photograph any further either. She looks beaten because she was, and I find acts like that heinous. That said, the photograph is so direct in dealing with her situation that a sense of life and personality comes out of the photograph. I find these senses that bring such unfiltered emotion into photographs beautiful. It may not be physically beautiful, but as Goldin photographs her life she puts her heart into it and that effort and energy is remarkable.

goldin_kiss

In Goldin’s photograph above of a couple making out, she has captured a moment that may not necessarily look beautiful in an aesthetic sense, but if we were to put ourselves into that situation that undoubtedly involves feelings of love and excitement, beauty would have to enter into our thoughts as well. Would you not think that the other person is beautiful if you were the one making out with them? I hope you would.

So, while the photograph may not in itself posses aesthetics typically associated with photographic beauty, it does have an enormous amount of beauty in it. This seems to be, in a way, Goldin’s method. To photograph extremely passionate moments in her life directly and emotionally to the extent that the beauty of the moment transcends the aesthetics.

I think Nan Goldin’s aesthetic choices are perfect for getting across the varying emotions of her life.

Goldin also photographs the heinous events in her life, and those too are photographed in such an unflinching manner that the beauty of a life’s story begins to appear.

Beautiful Spring Break

Monday, March 17th, 2008

In an effort to honor the annual college break that many of my friends still have, I decided to take my own spring break for the past two weeks. That may be why you have seen very little blogging.

Another reason is that many of these still-in-school friends decided that Maine is a popular spring break destination. I’m not sure how Maine became as popular as Florida among my friends, but I was happy to have the visitors. The conversations that ensued with them will be the stimulus for my blogging over the next few weeks. If there is anything that I miss about being in school it may be the photo/art conversations that can be had at a moments notice.

The first post I would like to make is in honor of last week’s visitor Rick Williamson (he has no website). We discussed at length the expectation of beauty in photography.

Before I get to anything about beauty, here is an anything-but-beautiful (and I think hilarious) photograph of Rick on the cover of RIT’s on campus magazine Reporter. The photo is taken by Tom Schirmacher.

Rick_reporter

Okay, on to the beautiful stuff…

Rick and I were noticing that nearly every portrait of someone under 40 makes them look beautiful. Perhaps this is simply the beauty of youth, but I don’t think so.

As a young male who looks at an awful lot of photographs, I often notice that I see images of beautiful women before I notice portraits of unattractive women.  I began trying to look for unattractive women in art photography today, and I discovered that it is incredibly difficult to find any of it.  I believe that the same problem exists for finding portraits of unattractive men as well.

I began to discuss the consequences of seeing an overwhelming majority of only attractive people in photographs with Rick.  We came to the general conclusion that we are conditioned to want to see beauty before ugliness. It is as if it is natural to turn our cameras towards beautiful people. Maybe as photographers as a whole we are not as subjective as we would like to be when it come to photographing people.

It is interesting to mention that if we take people out of the frame altogether photographers seem to have no difficulties to point their cameras to some injustice; some “ugly” event or thing. When I mention injustice I am thinking of Edward Burtynsky’s photographs of nickel tailings and quarries and the harmed landscape in general. I am not thinking about war or combat photography at all in any part of this discussion on beauty. I am really looking at art photography specifically.

Below is one of Burtynsky’s photographs of nickel tailings titled Nickel Tailing No. 31.

burtynsky

To get back to the beauty in portraits and specifically in the subjects in the portraits. I think of Rineke Dijkstra’s portraits and many of the subjects are awkward and young, but because of the seem exposed to the lens and their youthfulness there is also an attractiveness about them. They are not sexy, but they are attractive standing there in the swimsuits looking at us at a young age. To me this is also similar to Hellen Van Meene’s portraits. Her subjects are young and awkward as well, but they too command attention in the frame with both presence and emotional frailty.

I am curious to better understand why we photograph the people we do. There are many people who only photograph those with whom they are close. There are others who only photograph strangers. What is the criteria for them to make a portrait of their subject? A photographer may not say beauty initially, but I am beginning to believe that for the most part beauty enters into the equation somewhere. It may be an unconscious thought, but I believe that most photographers are drawn to photograph people that are beautiful in some way, even if it is not instantly recognizable.

The other aspect of this that fascinates me a lot is when I see a portrait and my gut reaction is that I don’t like it, and I begin to elaborate why and inevitably the subject’s poor appearance comes up. I found myself saying in a conversation with Rick that I thought the photographer should have looked for different light to make their subject look more attractive. I guess this means it might just be me who thinks that people are always beautiful in successful portraits today because I may be overlooking images because the person does not appear beautiful.

This leads me to one more point, are the best art portraits in photography today made of average looking people that have been photographed in such a unique clever way that they appear more beautiful than they would walking down the street? Is it just that photographers, when looking through the camera, are trying to make things beautiful to the extent that the photograph comes out looking more aesthetically pleasing than the person is normally?

I remember in my photo classes being taught how to do studio portrait lighting, and learning what makes people look better and worse. Because of this education do I just want to make all photographs fit into this mold of what good portraits look like? This all goes back to how we have been conditioned to look at photographs.

Since photographing beauty might come from simply having a camera in front of our eyes and looking at people in such a way that makes them more attractive.  Looking through a camera instead of just our plain eyeballs is a totally different experience, one that can remove you from the actual event of seeing.

That happens to be a perfect segway into this video of an excerpt from This American Life animated by Chris Ware, recently seen at MakingRoom.

“People act different if they are behind a camera, even if the camera isn’t real.”
“Yeah, you’re overtaken, you do things that you ordinarily wouldn’t.”

I’m pretty sure that all of this dealing with looking through cameras and beauty is related.

p.s. a recent This American Lifeepisode about testosterone is really interesting, I recommend listening to it at thislife.org.

p.p.s. Happy Birthday Sean, and Rock Chalk Jayhawk!
(Last year for spring break we saw this, and it was beautiful).

Aesthetics Part II: Portraits

Monday, February 11th, 2008

I purposely left portraits out of my previous post on aesthetics because by putting a person in the frame it automatically changes the way we look at it. In most cases, our eye goes directly to a person in the frame, or some human element, before we see anything else. This either makes common portrait aesthetics more simple than non-portraits, or more difficult.

Instances where the aesthetics of a portrait become simplified occur in many of Richard Avedon’s photographs. In his portraits, it is as if the person is the image and the actual photographic skills appear less important. Avedon’s true skill seems to be in his relationship with his subjects. The viewer becomes so drawn to Avedon’s subjects that the careful framing and tonality are noticed less. If one takes a closer look at most of Avedon’s famous portraits, they will find that in many instances the use of negative space is really quite unique and impressive. In the instances that it is not, it is usually because the subject is so completely captivating that possibly sacrificing the moment of the portrait to aestheticize the image is out of the question. In other words, the viewer is completely caught up in looking at the person that we can easily ignore average aesthetics.

Here is one famous portrait from Avedon’s series titled In The American West, notice the wonderful use of shape and negative space.

Avedon

Rineke Dijkstra is another photographer that seems to concentrate more on the subject than aesthetics at first glance. Again, like Avedon and others, she focuses on interesting subjects, but she most certainly does not ignore aesthetics. In this photograph of a bullfighter Dijkstra utilizes a beautifully subtle color palate, and negative space to bring attention to the bullfighter. Also, the red tie and his cuts help the viewer’s eye to move throughout the frame.

dijkstra_bullfighter

While Dijkstra also photographs adolescents in a more straightforward full-length pose, the aesthetics in those images are also carefully considered. The lighting and the gray sky isolate the subject against the backdrop. The frame works perfectly to bring attention to every detail of their gesture. Dijkstra lets us believe that her subjects have personality and feeling, every one of her subjects has a presence in the frame that is undeniable. Part of this presence is due to the aesthetics.

Avedon and Dijkstra allow the subject to be themselves in front of the camera. They isolate their subjects, to focus in on the their characteristics. Both Avedon and Dijkstra seem to have an uncanny ability to bring a vulnerable fascinating element out of the people they photograph. The viewer gets the sense that each person they look at is not acting. Part of the reason it is easy to look endlessly at a photograph by Avedon or Dijkstra is that they set up the photograph to allow you to continue looking at the subject. This is an important, often overlooked skill.

If one is to photograph in this manner, they must realize that the use of negative space, the light, and the subject make an incredible amount of difference in how the images look. In portraits by Avedon and Dijkstra, these items are often subtle, and thus sometimes overlooked. Another reason for why a young photograph may fail trying to photograph in the manner of Avedon or Dijkstra is that the subject’s personality and presence is not enhanced by the photographer. Instead it looks like a mannequin was photographed, something that could be more interesting if it was a mannequin instead of a person looking dull. People just standing there, in fort of the camera, is not worth extended in-depth attention.

Hellen van Meene makes portraits of adolescent girls that are more visually dynamic than Avedon and Dijkstra.

van_meene

Van Meene uses both awkward poses and composition to evoke a sense of awkwardness in adolescents. This is a very different tactic than what Dijkstra does in her photographs of adolescents. Dijkstra accentuates the subject’s own awkwardness through isolating them in the frame, van Meene does this by putting the subjects in odd poses and using somewhat unique framing devices. In other words, van Meene coaxes the awkwardness out of the subjects through her direction.

David Hilliard is a photographer who extends the frame with multiple photographs. By doing so he creates more than simple portraits, he creates complex scenarios about himself and his subjects, and their subsequent relationships.

Ruminate_2005_Hilliard

Due to his technique, Hilliard creates an incredible amount of depth and visual movement. He tweaks the plane of focus to lead the viewer’s eye through the photographs. The other advantage Hilliard clearly gains, is the ability to stretch time. A photograph can only capture one moment, but since Hilliard makes multiple photographs to create one object, he has the subject shift poses throughout the images. This creates a scenario within the single artwork, through multiple photographs.

In portraiture, there seems to be two way of making portraits. One is to focus on the subject, make them important and visually allow interesting aspects of them to come through in the photograph. The other method, is to leave an amount of mystery in the person being portrayed. Make the subject apart of a scene that describes and informs the viewer about the photographer and subject and this all begins to tell a story.

In the work of van Meene, Hilliard, and Philip-Lorcia diCorcia, they bring out interesting emotions through what appears to be more set up situations. In many ways, the photographers are creating stories through their subjects. Typically in these kind of portraits there is a substantial amount of depth that helps to create drama. The important aspect of these portraits is that the surrounding area is nearly as important as the subject. The surroundings, the aesthetics, and the subject all play roles in informing the viewer about the photographer and the subject.

philip_lorca_dicorcia

Obviously, not every portrait will fit into the above two categories. For instance, one photographer that appears to fall in-between these categories is Alec Soth. His portraits are structured in a fairly simplistic way, but they also tell a story as he connects his images (both portraits and non-portraits) through subtle free association.

Misty_Soth

While I am suggesting that there are two different approaches to portraiture, both methods have a slight bit of overlap as Soth clearly shows. Avedon and Dijkstra have the beginning elements of story telling in their subjects. Their messages are in groups of people. This might be because as humans, we want to both look at other people and we want a story about them. I find myself using both thought processes quite easily. I look and think about the individuals photographed, and how the photographer’s own personality might come across in such images. I also enjoy thinking about the stories that surround a differently structured photograph.

I would say the challenge for contemporary photographers trying to get their own portraits recognized, would be to try to avoid focusing on just one kind of portrait too much. If you photograph people to look at them and see what the subject is doing, great; but try to see a story develop in at least an abstract way. If you photograph in a pseudo narrative way, then do not forget to pay attention to the subject as well. Both elements are important to portraits. We want to look at people, but was also want to know about them. The greatest portraits seem to allow both to happen.

Vector Portraits

Tuesday, February 5th, 2008

I have been attempting to write Part II of my post on aesthetics to talk specifically about portraits since I avoided doing so in the first post seen here.

While trying to think of the proper angle to speak about the aesthetics of portraits I was reminded of one of my favorite photographic series called Vector Portraits by Andrew Bush when I saw this post on Conscientious. As Jörg points out, there are other “well-known precedents” to Peter Snyder’s portraits. I believe that Andrew Bush should be considered one of those precedents, but I am not sure how well known he really is. I enjoy Andrew Bush’s series of people driving because there is a great sense of movement while maintaining a terrific sense of humor. Despite the fact that it may seem repetitive to look at several photographs of people driving, these photographs maintain variety within the constraint.  This variety is amplified once the captions are read along with the photographs. The captions ultimately make the portraits “Vector Portraits”, adding a speed and direction to the image. Indeed, the series is quite dynamic with it’s variety.

Woman Meandering… By Andrew Bush
Woman Meandering Through Various Parts of Pacific Palisades, CA, in the Early Part of 1993 While Singing

Man Heading Towards Tunnel… by Andrew Bush
Man Heading towards Tunnel at 73mph on a Sunday somewhere in Southern California on an Afternoon in March, 1992

Upon looking for more about Andrew Bush’s Vector Portraits I discovered that he is having a book titled Andrew Bush Drive published of the series in the spring here. The book cover is below with the caption for the photograph.

Andrew Bush Drive (Cover)
Woman Driving South at 41 MPH Down 26th St near the Riviera Country Club at 1:30 PM on a Tuesday in February of 1997

From the Yale University Press Website about Andrew Bush Drive:

The culture of cars is an inseparable part of American life. Whether used for functional purposes or recreation, automobiles are expressions of our personality. They also represent the American ideals of freedom, mobility, and independence, providing a unique personal space that is at once private and public.

Andrew Bush (b. 1956) examines this tension between private and public in his remarkable series of photographs of individuals driving cars in and around Los Angeles—a city famous for its car culture. By attaching a camera to the passenger side window, Bush made these pictures while driving alongside his subjects—often traveling at 60 mph. Taking notes on the speed and direction he was going, Bush created extended captions for the images and called the series Vector Portraits.  

I first learned about Bush at a lecture by Jeff Rosenheim who is the Curator at the Department of Photographs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. To hear Jeff describe the way Bush goes about making the Vector Portraits is remarkable, I am sorry that I cannot do it justice. Simply try to imagine a car accelerating and decelerating often to try to compose a photograph out the passenger window on the freeway all lit by a bare-bulb strobe. No, he never caused an accident.

My only reaction to such an amazing situation can be summed up in one word; brilliant. The whole process, concept, and final images are all equally impressive. I am excited to see what the book looks like.

The Problem with Aesthetics

Friday, January 25th, 2008

I believe that one of art’s purposes is to challenge our very notion of aesthetics.

The following is what I typically think when I look at photography.  I consider the aesthetics, maybe too much, but I consider them and constantly question them.  Almost everyone, myself included, reuses known successful aesthetics in their work.  It seems that photography today is less innovative visually and more conceptually innovative than it has ever been.  There is nobody that needs to prove that color photography is artistic, or that a point and shoot camera is.  All of these types of arguments have been made.  I wonder where we are going to push the aesthetics of photography.

It is no secret that some other more popular blogs than this one show work that is confined to a specific aesthetic or two.  In other words, a great deal of the work posted on other blogs looks quite similar to the post they made last week.  As a young photographer and co-founder of Pause, to Begin, I am much more interested in seeing aesthetics pushed to a unique level, or viewing something that challenges the way I see, than I am interested in seeing the same types of things over and over again.  Perhaps, you can consider this post part 1 of commonly found aesthetics: the landscape, cityscape, anything not portraiture.

There is an awful lot of large format color photography in the contemporary art world, and I see some trends that can look more like bad habits.  Now, to make myself perfectly clear, this post is not directed at anyone nor is it intended to suggest that I do not enjoy some of the large format color photography out there.  I both enjoy a healthy amount of such photography and the purpose of this is to inspire at least one person to try and push themselves to do new things.Here are some examples of work by photographers that I believe have helped to create the influx of large format color photography today.  The examples are of well known, older work because I think they help to explain why people may try to replicate their style.

Stephen Shore:
The Falls

Joel Sternfeld:
McLean, Virginia

Mitch Epstein:
The City

Let us examine the photographs.

All of three these images are successful in part because they have wonderful depth, and they are extremely structured photographs.  The other important element in each of these images is the use of color and the palate.

In Shore’s photograph, the amount of rusty oranges and reds with bits of green throughout the frame keep the photograph active in a still frame.  Each of the colors exist in all three planes in the photograph.  The depth is enhanced because of the color that is so perfectly coincidental.  Even the light, which is fairly typical, plays an important role; it creates a shadow that seems to bring attention to the open car door.

In Sternfeld’s image, which was taken in my hometown of McLean, VA, has more of an intellectual depth created by the subject matter.  Once the fireman is spotted picking pumpkins a great deal of irony becomes the focus of the photograph and your eye goes back and forth between the fire and the fireman.  That said, the rotting orange pumpkins in the foreground, the pumpkin stand, and the fire in the background allow for a visual flow to make the photograph complete.  The photographic depth is quite similar to the actual depth at the pumpkin stand.

Finally, Epstein’s photograph is of essentially a flat field, yet with the use of the reflection in the window and the oranges against the blue, he creates five planes for your eye to go though starting with the oranges, the blue curtain, the car, skyline, and the sky.  Some of these elements actually sit on the same plane but because of the color, shape, and light these elements separate and sit individually.  Here the photographic depth is much greater than the actual depth.

Again, the color of the three photographs helps to make the images as powerful as they are.  One of the main culprits of boring color photography that seems to be everywhere these days is that fact that the color has nothing to do with the image.  In other words it is ignored.  In the cases that color is not ignored there are sometimes other problems.  Some are, the lack of form, the over use of space as a compositional tool, and the lack of depth.

According to Jay Maisel, a former student of Josef Albers, Albers said that color and form compete against each other.  This means that to make a photograph in color as opposed to black and white one must compose differently because you cannot use form and color simultaneously, they will counteract.  Edward Weston discovered form in black and white.  If you only photograph color, however, you might get something like Pete Turner.  He became famous for  doing just that, but thankfully some of his photographs still have depth while maintaining the sense of color.  I particularly enjoy this image of his from Times Square.

Times Square

Perhaps Alber’s various “Homage to the Square” paintings are the perfect example of how to deal with the problem of form versus color.  Do you focus on the squares or colors more?  In most cases, I believe your eyes must choose one to see first.

Using space to compose seems like an easy way to get around the problem of form versus color because adding relatively empty space to the frame automatically minimizes the visual effect of the subject and it’s form.  More space often means more color and less form (Turner did this many photographs).  This stagey tends to quiet the photograph, unless the color itself is so powerful that it is loud (Turner, again).

If you are making an already quite photograph and you quiet even more by adding space it is probably going to reach a point where it becomes boring.  Joel Meyerowitz’s Cape Light photographs are quiet and use a lot of space to excentuate wonderful color.  His career long method of “pulling back” from his color street photography to ultimately Cape Light and Bay/Sky did quiet his photographs, but it did not make them boring.  It makes you notice something else.  So the tactic can work, but one must be aware of what it does.

Bay Sky

Perhaps everyone should ask themselves as Tod Papageroge asks his students, “Why Color?”With all of the above in my head as I look at color photography, I wonder if I can ever look past the aesthetics and just focus on the concept, the thought, what the image is about.  The answer is yes, but the concept looks much better if the aesthetics are pristine as well.  Perhaps photography is lacking a certain number of brilliant visual thinkers to go along with the sophisticated image making you read about.  I hear about and read of wonderful ideas in photography every day online, but how often do you see a wonderful new photograph online that is as awesome as the idea?  I feel like this does not happen nearly enough.

Sally Mann, Edward Hopper, and museums

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2008

I was reminded of the Sally Mann documentary What Remains recently when I was discussing museums and galleries with fellow Pause, to Begin blogger Susan.  We had both just seen the Edward Hopper exhibit at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.  As you might expect, it was a crowded show, but it was well put together containing not only the greatest hits, but also a majority of his successful earlier work.

Hopper, Lighthouse

Hopper, Nighthawks

Discussing the exhibit afterwards, I realized that since this collection of nearly every important painting Hopper made in his life was in an established museum it was bound to tell many of the holiday gallery goers that Hopper is a definitive, masterful painter of the 20th Century. That sentence may sound overly obvious, but my point is as soon as a work of art is displayed in a museum, opposed to a gallery, it has been decided by at least one person (the curator) that such artwork is of a quality that it is to be shown in an arena that is geared towards the masses, not simply the art community. Museums are also more of an educational space than a gallery. Museums inform us about things ranging from art to insects to dinosaurs. Galleries mostly show us popular art that can sell, and if the artwork in a gallery is not know to be popular then it still most likely looks contemporary. In other words nothing overly new and strange.

Hopper’s most famous paintings look an awful lot like photography created within the last several years. From color palates to composition and themes, visually a Gregory Crewdson photograph looks a lot like a Hopper painting. Clearly, Hopper has served as an influence to photographers beyond just Crewdson, but he is perhaps the most famous example. I think it is safe to say the Crewdson was educated in part by looking at Hopper’s paintings.

Somehow all of this reminded me of Sally Mann and one sentence that she said in the film. As she reflected on the whole process of the What Remains opening being canceled at the last minuet by Pace/McGill Gallery and instead opening at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., Mann said something about how in a way it worked out better because the show was now more accessible to her friends, and the Corcoran was showing the work because of it’s artistic merit not it’s salability. Mann also went on to speculate that Pace/McGill canceled her show because they thought that they could not sell her work.

Sally Mann was at a point in her career where she no longer needed a Chelsea Gallery opening to solidify her place in the contemporary photography art world, after all she is still represented by the Gagosian Gallery.

All of this brought to mind some of what I consider to be the most influential photography to young photographers today. The likes of Stephen Shore and William Eggleston come to mind, and they both had early prominent exhibitions at the Met and MoMA respectively. Their photographs are now iconic, just as Mann’s photographs are. To be shown in a gallery is wonderful, especially since there are some amazing galleries that only show the very best work, but to be exhibited in a museum is a testament to the artist’s place in their generation as one of the most important artists of the era.