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man & nature # 79 ~ 11:30PM in a world of appearances

I let the dogs out every night at 11:30PMclick to embiggen
I have been re-- reading Robert Adams' Beauty In Photography ~ Essays in Defense of Traditional Values. I have mentioned this book previously and, once again, I will state that this book is an absolute must read (and for a paltry $10 and some change, why not?).

It never ceases to amaze me how good writing always reveals more on second / third / and more readings. In most cases this is especially true if a fair amount of time has passed between readings. Time during which, if the reader has been on a path of curiosity / discovery, more questions and insights are gained into a subject - in this case, photography - that can enhance one's understanding of that which has been read previously.

Of the many enhanced nuggets gleaned from my recent rereading of Adams' book, are a few passages that address one of my favorite topics, that of the medium's intrinsic characteristic of being a cohort of the real. One in particular was his presentation of a quote from Minor White:

... the spring-tight line between reality and photograph has been stretched relentlessly but it has not been broken. These abstractions of nature - his pictures - have not left the world of appearances; for to do so is to break the camera's strongest point - its authenticity.

Adams goes on from that point of reference - the world of appearances - to state that the problem of art in flight from the world of appearances is found in the contrived / strained use of allegory:

... airy stuff where characters walk stiffly around wearing signs, instead of slouching ambiguously past like our neighbors, and only afterward coming to represent more than just themselves. It is the strength of art over allegory that it is more like life; in art as in life, abstractions and truths of the spirit reach us only as they are embodied in believable specifics, in recognizable particulars, what William Carlos Williams identified succinctly as "things".

"Authenticity", "believable specifics", "recognizable particulars" - is there any other visual art medium that is better suited than the medium of photography for noting and representing those "things"? IMO, the answer is a simple. "no".

That is why I so tirelessly champion the notion of the medium of photography as a cohort of "the real". It is why I view with a fair amount of distain the artistically lazy Velviafication (a term I use to cover a host of picturing making distortions of the real) of the natural world. It is why I have come to appreciate those pictures which quietly and with high degree of authenticity let me see what others see in way that allows me to "see" it too.

It is also why I have come to believe that, unique in the world of the arts, the medium of photography has an ability to illustrate and illuminate "the real" (the world of appearances) like no other medium can. It is also why, in the perilous / challenging times in which we live, I believe it is vitally important to define and embrace "the real" and not to flee from it. Again, Robert Adams:

It can be argued that in this I am simply rejecting the Romantic vision and that it is unprofitable to dispute matters of belief. This is probably true but it seems necessary to try to contest the point because the abstractions come to a closed landscape where, lost in our private dreams, we can no longer communicate. Sooner or later we have to ask of all pictures what kind of life they promote, and some of these views suggest to me a frightening alienation from the world of appearances.

Adams, as have quite a few others, seems to be suggesting that photographers have a responsibility, in fact, a moral imperative to picture "the real". To avoid making pictures that flee from the world of appearances. And I most heartily agree.

In fact, I would go so far as to state that the current mess we find ourselves in results from a massive societal flight from "the real". And, IMO, without a doubt, the Velviafication of the pictured natural world has helped ease and grease the way of that flight from the world of appearances and into a world of fantasy that just might destroy us all.

Do you feel any sense of responsibility regarding your picture making?

Reader Comments (6)

I guess for some this is like preaching to the choir, however, it has never hurt my ears to hear it again, and again. RAdams writings I recommend and refer to time after time. I feel an increasing responsibility for my images as I grow older, and profoundly proud that I have tried to make them as authentic as possible.

December 8, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterFrank Armstrong

> Do you feel any sense of responsibility regarding your picture making?

I don't feel any sense of responsibility regarding my picture making (at least not in the way you are refering to). I didn't realize I had to.

December 8, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAnil Rao

I am going to disagree, or at least frame the idea in a slightly different manner.

I believe the responsibility of photography is to conduct itself with honesty rather than a direct connection with the real, in the manner you put it. Let me explain.

I think there is illustration and illumination as much in the abstract as in the real, as long as we are clear what we are doing: the honesty. Trying to dress-up or pass off staged or faked images as real lacks honesty. The message is destroyed by the method: once the illusion of realis broken all is lost. this is why I don't care for "Velviafication" - it is trying to pass off an over saturated, fairytale view of nature as being real. This is dishonesty in a subtle, yet insidious form.

In slightly different form, but in the same notion, a comparison of contemporary photographers: Jeff Wall and your own Cinemascapist. I don't care for Wall's work; he is IMO trying to pass off a notion of real, obfuscating the staged nature of his scenes. In contrast, I see the Cinemascapes as clearly staged scenes, which are set to get at deeper story. The honesty of the presentation means I can get past the method.

Of course, providing a direct connection with the real is the straightest form, and completely honest but not, I think, the only way to combining illustration and illumination.

December 9, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMartin Doonan

I feel a responsibility to be true to myself when I'm taking pictures. I know when I'm taking pictures that are not authentic for me and when I'm taking ones that really fit into my way of seeing things or what excites me.

I think that 'tingle' comes from that too - when you hit a vein of truth to something you hold dear, rather than images that look good/ pretty/ like what you think someone else will think a picture should look like and praise you for.

So my responsibility isn't to some higher external truth, but certainly to my own truth. Last night I stumbled upon some of that - shooting something I've shot every year for the last 7 years. I went by to take a few shots last night and suddenly started looking at it a different way than I have before, things clicked, the pictures on the back of the camera were exciting me. I shot for another 2 hours on the same subject. I felt the same way when the pictures came up on the computer screen early this morning, too, as I edited a few.

I recently read 'Creative Authenticity' by Ian Roberts, which seems to collect a lot of ideas I've heard in other places in one well written place.


December 9, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterGordon McGregor

I don't understand. Please elaborate.

December 9, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterBill Gotz

I certainly feel responsible for my pictures, and will stand behind them as I would any other of my actions in the world. I don't claim they represent any truth, even my own. They might, though.

A brief video of Adams talking about this very subject is at art:21. Related links there as well.

December 9, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSteve Durbin

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