Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Objective or Subjective?


    Photography, like all other forms of communication, possesses the syntax of language. Like all languages, photography evolves over time, with usage and the constant flux of cultural genetics, a continual process of change, into the ever-new.
    The problem that many armchair students of the medium fail to overcome is the presumption that photography can only be one thing, or a few things, or that it best serves a few well-understood usage models.
    The rigor of the haiku does not preclude the written word from possessing inumerable other behaviors; it is one structure among countless other, equally valid, models for communicating via symbolic language.
    I have thought about this recently, how the photographic medium is so indemic to our culture that we fail to grasp its reach, fail to comprehend fully its potential. Revolutions happen on the fringes, the borders between that which is and that which is not; the interstitial. The frontier is a dangerous place to exist, if one is merely concerned with maintaining some predictable status quo.
    There is an intrinsic danger in attempting to catalog or describe the immediately discernible attributes of a system of knowledge, for one's insight can so easily be counter-balanced by the limits of cognition itself; we don't know all that we should know. Is it premature, therefore, to go about describing the structure of any phenomenon when one doesn't already possess absolute, complete knowledge? The process of revelation is what I am interested in pursuing; an open-ended dialog about things ephemeral or otherwise illusive of discovery.
    We made our usual Saturday night vigil to the Flying Star Cafe. There are two such cafes equi-distant from our home, and we seem to always choose the one less fancy, a bit more down-to-earth and conventional in decor - and also less crowded. Sometimes we eat dinner, while at other times, like this night, we drink espresso and read magazines.
    I happened to choose an art magazine, of the type whose hundred or more pages were filled with art-speak diatribe, accompanied by sincere commercialism disguised as well-crafted gallery illustrations. In the process of perusing this periodical I was again struck by the contrast between the subjective and objective manifestations in contemporary art.
    The image with pure subjective meaning, removed from the physical attributes of any particular medium or process, dwells in the world of the theoretical, endowed with symbolic and philosophic implications. These are the types of images used in both advertising and commercial illustration, propaganda both political and commercial, serving some alterior psychological purpose. They are not like the printed page itself, but rather the meaning of the words imprinted upon the printed page.
    Other visual works function objectively in the realm of the physical, like the icon and the fetish, a hidden purpose buried deep within. Whereas the subjective is concerned with implicit meaning, the objective is firmly entrenched in the realm of the physical, a specific process interacting with material substance over time. Traditional photographic printing processes are like that, their attributes of surface finish, tonal range, chemical coloration and paper weight being at least as important as the symbolic meaning behind the image being presented. They are physical artifacts of an artisanal process, implying evidence of a skilled hand, guided as much by years of hard experience as they are by a mind sharpened upon the grindstone of intellectual academy. Art objects possess value intrinsic to their material substance, as opposed to subjective art, such as the reproducible media of music and cinema, where valuation is based upon subjective content alone.
    This is not to imply that objective art lacks subjective meaning; rather, the pathway to the subjective is through material objectivity. One senses this immediately when confronted with mechanical reproductions of such works, especially if one has had the fortune of being in the presence of the originals.
    I can recall with stark clarity the experience of viewing, up close and personal, the silver gelatin contact prints of Edward Weston, at the Portland Art Museum a decade ago, which imparted to me a depth of meaning, through their attributes of clarity, tone and surface, unobtainable through mere mechanical reproduction in books and periodicals. Weston's contact prints truly glow, evidence of a master craftsman at the peak of his skill, in intimate union with the materials of his process.
    In my perusal of this art publication I noticed interesting principles at work, that many gallery advertisements (disguised as artistic reproductions) presented illustrations of art with typical art-world descriptive tags - the artist's name, the title and size of the work, and the medium being employed - striking me the deepest in their void of meaning outside of the context provided by these very descriptors; a rather ordinary close-up of the back of a person wearing a beige and white workout jacket, snapshot-like, is revealed through its accompanying descriptive tag to be an acrylic painting, informing us of the piece's physical attributes through description rather than direct experience; implying that the illustration is indeed "art" because an acrylic artist had managed to paint an image that resembles a photographic snapshot; media-bending our presumptions about the roles played by both painting and photography. Had this magazine reproduction been derived directly from the medium of photography, rather than painting, it would have been impossible to pass off as an artistically expressive work; somehow, appropriating the more traditional medium of painting into the photographic breathes new life into what would otherwise fail to intersect the world of art entirely.
    Meanwhile, as my magazine perusal gained me recognition of some of the principles at work within the contemporary art milieu, my wife appeared to be as intent on the study of her magazine as I was on mine; I wondered if perhaps there were some impending discovery about to be revealed to her within the pages of her periodical that were as significant to her as mine were to me. Page after page revealed themselves to me as examples of visual data fields that only work when one is provided with the crucial information informing one of the physical media being employed; as if the abstract image itself were completely absent of meaning, lacking any intrinsic value. It is as if these works were mere experiments in mediation, revealing how one medium can be transformed when reproduced through the attributes of another.
    This is not to overlook the practical considerations of the commercial art world; the intended purpose of art publications, and galleries in general, is not solely philosophical, but primarily commercial in nature. They exist to sell art as commodity, while somehow still retaining some higher aesthetic value; treading a fine line between art as religion and art as commerce, serving the dual purposes of veneration and admiration.
    This variety of purpose is revealed in sharp contrast when I set aside the art magazine and instead pick up and examine a news periodical from the same magazine-laden shelf at the Flying Star Cafe: although filled with mechanically reproduced photographic illustrations of similarly brilliant color and detail, they seem to possess value only in their journalistic context as accompaniments to the written words contained within the magazine's articles. The vast majority of photojournalistic images seem to lack the intrinsic aesthetic merit generally associated with the art object; they are offered to us only as windows of experience, illustrations of what the journalist found to be of significance in the story being presented.
    This is not to imply that photography as illustration is of any more or less value than photography as decor; neither illustration or decor offer us any intrinsic value that resonates within our spirits; it is only through the role provided by the artist can these otherwise mundane media be elevated to some higher purpose.
    In this discussion about photography, media and art I would be remiss not to mention that next Sunday, April 25, is Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day, a date set aside by those interested in the medium as an opportunity to celebrate, practice, and display their results of crafting pinhole cameras and using them in the creation of unique imagery. I have worked in this medium for years, decades even, but recently have set it aside, at least temporarily, more out of a commitment of time to other activities than a genuine lack of interest.
    The problem of pinhole photography is that its novelty - forming photographic images directly through the aegis of a micro aperture rather than a lens - can often lead to the confused presumption that it somehow magically produces images that possess intrinsic artistic merit solely through the peculiarities of the process itself, ignoring broader photographic concerns. It is a deceptively simple medium that, as soon as one takes it up, reveals itself to be much harder to do well than one's first results may otherwise indicate. The failure of many pinhole photographs to break through into that most rarified of places, genuine creative originality, is that, like the pseudo-art commercial illustrations found in art magazines, we are often required a description of the process, some tag saying "pinhole", in order to gain an aesthetic appreciation of the image; the subjective remains insufficient unto itself, incomplete without foreknowledge of the objective and its process. Pinhole's great novelty is both physical - working within the medium of photographic emulsions - and intellectual, the singular idea of creating images with such relative clarity through such primitive means resonating within us on some deep, primal level. Yet to break out of the category of "pinhole" into broader aesthetic appreciation this medium must somehow succeed on its subjective content alone, devoid of any identity with its objective process; the viewer shouldn't have to know that the image is "pinhole" for it to be appreciated or understood as art.
    Like any other means of seeking truth, we demand of photography, and art in general, more than just the allure of the mysterious and alchemal process, or the intellectual vibrancy of abstract imagery devoid of the tangibly real. The best photography - the best art - resonates with us physically, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually. It's the whole ball of wax, the full experience, both subjective and objective, that we desire of art. We require to be moved, deep within our body, soul and spirit, in order to gain the full experience of art. Like those Weston prints I viewed up close and personal, I know art when I see it, because to be in it's presence is a whole-person-experience, one that you never forget.
    We finished our espresso, put the magazines back on the rack for others to peruse, and departed for the evening. I was left with a renewed sense of having been in the presence of art, not because of the merits of the magazine I had read but because induced within me (a reawakening perhaps) was that same inner art experience I remember from before. It is like a seed, germenating from within, perhaps lying dormant from years ago, but one that quickly responds when fertilized and watered, this thing called creativity, that both elevates and inspires.

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~Joe

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