|Candace Nirvana On Set - 040311|
"Photography has been, and still, tormented by the ghost of Painting... ... nothing eidetically distinguishes a photograph, however realistic, from a painting. 'Pictorialism' is only a an exaggeration of what the Photograph thinks of itself.What is a parallel type of art to photography? While few still argue that photography is not art, we must look at what are photography's family (parents, siblings or even distant cousins) in the art world. Paintings? Sculpture? Prose? Music? Theater?
Yet it is not (it seems to me) by Painting that Photography touches art, but by Theater. Photography is a kind of primitive theater, a kind of Tableau Vivant, a figuration of the motionless and made-up face beneath which we see the dead." Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes, pps30-31.
It is obvious to compare photography to paintings. The physical properties of a photograph are very similar to paintings. They are both two dimensional representations of something. They both are flat and often in frames. Photos and paintings are both hung and presented on walls. Both can also be appropriated for other purposes.
While these similarities are obvious, we must not solely focus on them. Ansel Adams compared the photographic negative and print to music:
The negative is comparable to the composer's score and the print to its performance. Each performance differs in subtle ways. - Ansel AdamsWith this analogy, I appreciate the dual processes needed to create both music and photographs. In music, I must compose the music and then perform it for others to hear. Depending on my mood, proficiency, the audience, music hall, and other important ingredients, each performance is a unique reproduction of the score.
In photography, I must work on composing all the key elements of the photo and capture it to film or a memory card. In the post processing work, I take that composition and make it perform as per my intention, purpose, and vision of the piece of art I am creating. If you look at Adams' prints he made from the same negatives that he created when he was younger and then again in his later years, you see completely different performances. He emphasized different parts of the photo, darkened areas, added contrast, and changed the mood of each piece. I can relate to that change in performance when I go to the darkroom and make prints from my old negatives. My current life, mood, technique, affect the final print and what I need to get out of it.
Another metaphor regarding changes in performance concerns sexual practices. I doubt many people have the exact same sexual repertoire, appreciations, desires, pleasures, and annoyances at twenty as they will have at forty, sixty, or any other age. The general concept of sex (the composition) is the same, but the performance reflects the time/age/mood/partner of the performer.
|Candace Nirvana and Dali - 040311|
What about the written word as an artistic cousin to photography? Prose? Literature? Journalism? Poetry? Essays? Each of these written outputs can be art. How is photography going to capture a type of art that is only visual in the letters printed on the page? It is our brain that must take the written text and make it "visual". This can be very difficult. How many times have we lamented that the movie was not as good as the book? That is because we were able to visualize the written story in our mind and make it come alive. When you see a movie adaptation, you are seeing another person's vision of the written words.
What about "a picture is worth a thousand words?" My counter argument to that is the picture came first and the thousand words are used to describe it. On top of that, my thousand words may be very different than yours in that description.
In my opinion, text is the clearest communicative form of art. It is easy to get lost in the meaning of a poem, a line by Shakespeare, but overall, language is used as the most direct and efficient method of communicating something.
|The Assassination of Robert Kennedy - photo by Boris Yaro|
Communication is conveyed through photography. The famous image of a busboy holding the fatally wounded Robert Kennedy photographed by Boris Yaro conveys the weight and tragedy of the moment. A newspaper could easily report, "Robert Kennedy was assassinated today." That is as direct as language can be. The difference in the communication between text and photos though lies in the gaps filled in the minds of each reader or viewer. The words are direct and inform you of the facts and then your mind spins where ever it goes. The photo shows the scene of the moment. You see the shock on the busboys face, the death of an American giant, and you feel you are a witness to the tragedy. It doesn't necessarily inform you as much as it makes you a witness. Both methods communicate, but the received messages are so different. The text is obvious and the photo takes "a thousand words."
In Roland Barthes' book, Camera Lucida, he makes the comparison quoted above of photography being closer to art through theater than through painting. It wasn't until I read the following bit did I understand it:
"Photography is a kind of primitive theater, a kind of Tableau Vivant, a figuration of the motionless and made-up face beneath which we see the dead." (emphasis mine)
Whether I watch a play, the news, a movie, or any other form of cinema, theater, or television, I am watching a performance that someone has written, performed, or captured for me to absorb. The news is an edited story or performance. The characters may have no clue they are part of the production, but the director, camera operator, and reporters decided they now are. The same is true for "reality TV", game shows, and other forms of adhoc performance. Fictional television programming, movies, and theater are obviously contrived stories that are being performed, edited, and rehearsed for the viewers consumption.
|Candace Nirvana/Death Valley - 040311|
|Candace Nirvana/Death Valley - 040311|
This is the part of the comparison that relates most with Barthes' statement for me. A painter creates the whole story out of his mind by making brush strokes, mixing colors, textures, and shaping the whole image upon the canvas. She may have combined her memory of a person, an object, and many other elements from her mind and rendered them as she sees fit on the surface, while a photographer had to physically gather all the elements, direct them, place them, and finally capture them. At this point the photographer is more of a theater director for a frozen moment than she is a creator of a two dimensional piece. Even in the post production work of photo editing, the photographer is accentuating or muting elements of what is already there, much like a film editor. The photographer can't just add more content unless she goes and creates it, photographs it, and then edits it in*. A painter can paint over something and change the piece at her pleasure or intent.
So Karl, what of this new realization of photography being closer in artistic familiarity to theater than painting?
I now have a deeper appreciation for my role as director of the image rather than creator of it. I can't pull a tree out of thin air and paint it into a photo and still have it remain a photo*. I have to acquire all the "actors" in the scene, block out the stage placement, determine lighting, color, tonality and then capture the one instant conveying everything that must be communicated.
The role of photographer is even more challenging (for me) when I am photographing a fluid, uncontrolled moment, such as a wedding, street life, or un-staged life moments. I have to wait for all the random bits to come together into complete photo that tells all I need it to. Henri Cartier Bresson was a master of capturing this "definitive moment".
For me, photography is capturing the (as I understand it) world, grand, majestic and huge, or small, subtle and understated, and all areas between in a frozen moment. It captures this theater, whether it is fictional or not. It captures the time-frozen artifact so we can truly live in the moment and figure out what it means to us.
* I am not going to go into photo manipulation that is so involved that it becomes photo illustration through adding whole new elements, replacing them, or deleting them completely from the photo. At that point, the analogy of photography being closer to a painting may make more sense.
NOTE: Thanks to my photography book club for the great discussion on Barthes' Camera Lucida.
Carla continued on with this topic over at What We Saw Today with her views on this post. Enjoy!