While there is perhaps a province in which the photograph can tell us nothing more than what we see with our own eyes, there is another in which it proves to us how little our eyes permit us to see. ~Dorothea Lange
We live in a world suffused with images. TV bombards us with thousands of often gorgeous, lush, evocative images (Think of Mad Men and of similar ilk.) We walk outside only to feel cloistered by velvety ads that promise more than they can obviously bestow, while blurring the lines between advertisement and art. Somehow, this proliferation of images, of captured moments, this infusion of beauty to the service of some agenda, whether political or financial, must affect us in some manner.
Hundreds of years ago, before the advent of photography, people, mostly aristocrats, relied upon painters to "capture" moments, in portraits or landscape. Photography, especially with the equalizing power of capitalism, offered this unique potential to the masses. Many, including the intelligentsia of previous eras, believed that photography ushered in an age of unprecedented objectivity. Photos, they presumed, could not lie in the same manner of paintings. Whereas painting relied on the talent of a human being, based on their quirks, their personalities, their eccentricities, subjectivity clearly colored their brushstrokes. People celebrated this fact of difference and development. But with photographs, because of their technological reliance, we came to think of them as untainted by our subjective viewpoints, whether that of the viewer or the photographer. They simply stood in for the transience of vision as eternal eyes, a photocopy machine.
But the lessons of history, with the help of Susan Sontag and her seminal On Photography, exploded this simplistic assumption. Not only do photographs lie , but they lie insiduously, in the worst way possible: because they hold the appearance of truth. In our age, Facebook, of course, as with its effect on many aspects of life, often exacerbates the situation. With unprecedented access to the pictures of other peoples’ lives, we come to realize how lame, mundane, and simply boring photography can be. Of my 500 “friends” on the book of Faces, I know perhaps two who use this unique medium to showcase their talent.
Facebook pictures deceive me every time. I cannot help getting sucked in. I see an album of people on the beach and they are happy, supernaturally so. They all jump in the air, as held by strings, suspended, smiling, as if at the end of a jubilant movie and they are, reaching towards the heaven, floating on their boundless love for their friends. They splash at each other, and then chase one another through the sand, leaving behind fleeting footprints, which they capture with digital memory. Pictures capture what we cannot hold: the illusion of continuous contentment, of true happiness. A slice we cut out of time, and then dip in formaldehyde to preserve that second of un-self conscious joy.
Yet, after looking at too many random albums, they turn tedious and monotonous. (If you’ve ever seen one Birthright album, you’ve seen every Birthright album...) Like a universal grammar we all have inculcated proper photography etiquette. The range of acceptable stances and poses, faces, and hand positions we can choose from. Without speaking, we have all accepted some quiet contract to band together in a semicircle, mostly based on height, while smiling incommensurately to the experience at hand. Some new collective unconscious of what constitutes enjoyment and fun.
And yet, as new studies show, looking at other peoples’ pictures will often engender sadness because they only show happiness, whether fake or not. We rarely show the pictures of crying, of us depressed, sad, anxious, or simply cranky, though perhaps if our identity moves ever further into the realm of the digital, we should show these pictures. Technology, then, because of mediums like Facebook and the high caliber of photographic technology, both for good and bad has allowed all to act as mediocre to quality photographers. But despite the complexities of photography, despite our world in which inundated images inure us to the unique beauty of photography, what we refer to as those with perceptive eyes still shine clearly through the mass of instagram. They teach us that true photographic art creates a clear divide between art and advertisements in that Art attempts provide us with transformative experiences, insight into the world and ourselves, while advertisements simply desire to manipulate us to some end, that mostly involves money.
Great photography, in a way that often feels magical, takes what we see but somehow, through limiting it to a finite moment in time, transforms that image into art, into something that transcends the mere physical details of this particular arrangement of atoms. In some ways, it makes no sense that a photograph can evoke such feelings when actually seeing that same sight does little to the person, but therein lies the poetic beauty and unique capability of this feisty craft. In slowing down time it can show us that which we simply miss in our desensitized daily life. I felt this acutely last night at a gallery showing of a budding young talent, Jackson Krule , as he displayed photographs from his travels around Europe.
With little background in the technology, technique, or artistry of photography, I can only attest to my personal impressions of this impressive collection of 30 photographs. Krule’s style, mostly candid shots of people in their elements, evokes an impressive range of human emotion. Some, like the paintings of Edward Hopper, bring forth a sense of shared loneliness, a bewilderment at the solitude of life. While others, like a black and white picture of urbanites enjoying a break at an sidewalk park, most of them hiding behind sunglasses, highlight the beauty of mundane life we so easily and nonchalantly glance over. If art allows us to see differently, to learn how to use our eyes anew, then Krule’s photography highlights the hidden beauty of a vendor hawking photos in a square, the quaint and quiet lovely loneliness of a person leaning against a tree, lost in her reading. Besides the beauty hiding in plain sight, Krule manages to insinuate in each of his photographs a slight sense of loss, of nostalgia, for what, I cannot exactly tell. His picture of a child, enraptured in his sale of cameras, wearing tattered, beat up, worn out, possibly hand me down jeans as he lovingly caresses a camera, brought forth tears that I could barely explain. And yet Krule also displays an acute eye for the humorously absurd in life. One picture portrays European hipster carrying a magazine stuck in the back of his pants, with the advertisement of a bikini clad woman showing upside down. It’s a moment of pure Absurdist ecstasy.
Photographs work through associative powers. Most art partakes in this elementary function of our minds, but some art form rely less on association and more on exposition. Literature, though no stranger to the art of ambiguity, leans more heavily on the methods of description, whereas photography works in the realm deep association, possibly archetypal. They force out these associative thoughts, if we allow them too, and in the choice of confronting the meandering path of our minds we grow larger, not only internally, but in our empathic potential. We experience the initial visceral, deeply emotional reaction, but in contrast to other mediums, photographs lead us to ask what the image leaves out. Why do these soldiers march with riot gear? Do I truly know their innermost thoughts, how would I react in a similar situation, do I immediately associate this block of bulk with dangerous authority or with an admirable attempt to keep the peace. Art will never simply serve as Ethic’s or Philosophy’s handmaidens, but to not realize art’s unique moral power limits the range of some of humankind’s greatest achievements.
In a less political manner, they make the strange normal, but more often, the normal strange. They allow us to realize the permeability of perception, the alternatives possible if we choose to pay closer attention to what that bright orange awning on a pushcart looks like from above, in movement, in this sunlight. Yet, despite his ability to encapsulate small human movies into images one also marvels at Krule’s precious range of emotional vision and maturity. One delights in Krule’s ability to succeed at such a young age. The gnarled hands of a lifelong migrant worker, adorned with uncut dirty fingernails clasping an identity card written in a oddly elegant handwriting. The heavy weight of a sliced open pig, an odor impossible to imagine emanating from the carcass, with the rain jacket of the workers curiously matching the skin tone of their commodity. The real anger and fear emanating off the bullet proof vests of a square of riot police. All of these speak to a vision of the inherent chaos and frustration hiding beneath the veneer of societ, a sentiment we generally try to avoid in everyday life.
Perhaps, though, we need discussion on photography more than ever. In a world of almost complete and total documentation and video coverage, where every minor event receives press, video, photography, and a write up, In our lives which we live moment by moment, email to email, text message to message, gchat to gchat, facebook post to facebook post etc, photography such as this forces us to slow down, to look, but to really look, at the human complexity, the sheer beauty and sadness that pervades any moment of life. The best photographers, the best artists in general, inspire in us less of a feeling of awe and respect for their talent and more of a feeling of awe at the enormity of life. They challenge us to think differently, both about ourselves and the world around us, and for the 45 minutes I spent entranced by the range of photos on display, I felt larger than myself, caught up in this haphazard world of beautiful sadness.
But please, don’t trust me. See for yourself. http://krule.tumblr.com/
Also, here’s a gorgeous explication on the power of photography from lyrical journalist James Agee - http://www.masters-of-photography.com/L/levitt/levitt_articles2.html
Thanks for reading,