Thursday, November 18, 2010

Photography as Narrative

“The Photographer's Eye” by John Szarkowski
“Four Photographers” by Clement Greenburg
“Once Upon a Time” from “The Photograph as Contemporary Art” by Charlotte Cotton

      In “The Photographer's Eye,” Szarkowski begins by stating how the invention of photography created a new way of creating pictures – photographs are taken, as opposed to paintings being constructed and “made.” Therefore, there needed to be a way to create something meaningful with this new mechanical process, but it was difficult to find a way to do that with people who loved the “old forms” of art. Meaning was more likely to be created by people who started to do photography but had no training in it. Photography caused thousands of people to learn it and create a massive amount of images. (In 1853 supposedly 3 million daguerreotypes had been made.) Some had been created with a knowledge of photography, some by accident. Then, by the later 19th century, even more people – snapshooters – joined the giant mass of professionals and amateurs, especially with the invention of dry plates and and with photography becoming so much easier. So then, even more photographs were made, some deemed totally meaningless with no thought given to the principles of art and what makes an image successful. Some of this work evolved and did become important, though.

      Despite the problem of too much “crap photography” being made (for lack of better words), photography did do something painting could not, and that is record many many things, big and small. It could even allow “the poor man” to know what his ancestors looked like. Szarkowski said it best: “painting was difficult, expensive, and precious, and it recorded what was known to be important. Photography was easy, cheap, and ubiquitous, and it recorded anything: shop windows and sod houses and family pets and steam engines and unimportant people.” And basically, people could learn photography in two ways: trial and error, and looking at other photographs. Szarkowski then discusses five issues or problems that were unavoidable:

1. the thing itself – the photographer had to realize he was dealing with a real thing and had to accept it, and also realize that his photographs were a totally different thing from the thing itself, no matter how much the photograph resembled the subject.

2. the detail – outside of a studio, a photographer had no choice but to record things as he found them, not as a story but as “scattered clues.” and they could not be pulled into a narrative. Photographs could then be read as symbols instead of stories. Here is where Szarkowski lays down his main point – that photography can never be a narrative and tell a story even though it was used as a means to do so and “relieve” painters. He says “the heroic documentation of the American Civil War by the Brady Group, and the incomparably larger photographic record of the second World War, have this in common: neither explained, without extensive captioning, what was happening.”

3. The frame – the act of choosing a subject and eliminating other things is determined by the picture edge. This was a problem especially with the use of large plates because photos were seldom enlarged, so it was most economical to fill the entire frame as usefully as possible.

4. time – time is always present in a photo, especially with slow films and slow lenses. Moving subjects created “doubles” and blur, and made photos that were usually considered failures and ignored, yet so many of these photos were made. Faster moving subjects could be captures with the invention of better, faster photographic materials. Capturing these fast moments became very fascinating (like the “decisive moment” coined by Cartier-Bresson – yet the decisive moment not being a dramatic moment but a visual one and is not a story, but a picture).

5. vantage point – Szarkowski says photography taught us to see from the unexpected vantage point. A photographer weighs his options of every angle he could shoot from, and chooses one. And after all this time, photography still has away of making us “challenge and reject our schematized notions of reality.”

      Greenberg immediately makes his point at the beginning of “Four Photographers” and says that photography is literary before it is pictorial. It is first and foremost “historical, anecdotal, reportorial, observational.” The difference between the real-life meaning of things and their artistic meaning is especially narrow. This is why there is so much documentary photography made, and its descriptive, informative nature seems to be a threat to the artistic side, according to Greenberg. This is because, in order to be art, a photograph has to tell a story.

      Greenberg seems to then say that Eugene Atget performs all the functions of photography with his work – both the documenting and the pictorial. Atget did not intend to capture “beautiful views” but to “capture the identity of his subject.” Greenburg says Atget was pictorial as well as illustrative, but it came from “his feeling for the illustrated subject, and his "pictorialism" was largely, and properly, unconscious.

Greenburg then mentions Edward Steichen and how Steichen's painterly photographs made him famous but “have not worn well as art,” especially not as well as other photographers of that time who were working in the same style but had an inspiration Steichen was missing.

He gets even more bold when he says that anything purely formal or abstract is threatening to art in photography, and is manifested in the worst way with the “odd shot”: “the long exposure of moving objects, the reversed negative, the close-up or magnified view that brings out the curious, abstractly curious, configurations any sort of object will reveal when seen in microscopic detail.” he says these kinds of photographs are informative but are not art and is only considered are by people “whose experience of pictorial art in general is defective.” (As bold as this is and is only one person's opinion, I have to say that I agree. Anyways....) Greenburg then says that Andreas Feininger's work is a prime example of this and what is not art, except for when he photographs statues of the female nude.

      Greenburg goes on to say that Cartier-Bresson is one of the best photographers to date, and that his work shows a “frozen-ness” that looks posed. However, he has only produced some work that is “successful enough to be permanent,” but he does not set a good example because his pictures in this “Four Photographers” book are not varied enough.

     So, Szarkowski basically comes to his conclusion that a single photograph cannot tell a story because they can never really EXPLAIN what is going on except when accompanied with text. And this partially is because of all the amateur photography that has happened since the beginning of its invention and how so many people seldom tried to create meaning in their work – it was just a recording of everything an anything. Greenburg does think photos can tell stories, but fail at being pictures (or art, really) because photography is really too descriptive and informative to be pictorial. So Szarkowski does not think “narrative photos” are descriptive and informative, therefore NOT really narrative, but Greenburg thinks they ARE descriptive and informative, thus, tell a story, but perhaps a story cannot be art. I actually disagree with both in some ways. I believe a single photo can IMPLY a story and the fact that you cannot figure it out for sure actually adds the enjoyment to viewing photographs for me. I also disagree that photographs fail as pictures because obviously it's what I do. And I do not believe that painting is the only thing that can be pictorial. Just because a photograph is a representation of a real thing and is informative of that real thing does not mean it fails at being art.

      The narrative is also dealt with in the work of the photographers shown in the “Once Upon a Time” chapter in Cotton's book. Some photographs play off of myths/fairytales/fables/etc. and others show some kind of story simply by the way things are photographed. Though some works are part of a series, the narrative is mostly supposed to be shown in one photo. The staged tableau is a huge part of the narrative, and other important aspects are lighting, time of day, and setup. [ (here we go again) Jeff Wall is one of the main practitioners of this.]

      Division of space and time also contributes to the narrative in a single image (like Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler as well as Sam Taylor-Wood who I mentioned in another blog). So does referencing literature and paintings from the past. 

"The Way Home" by Tom Hunter

"Untitled" from 1998 by Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler 
from "Diary of a Victorian Dandy" by Yinka Shonibare
     Another way of making a narrative is being ambiguous of place and time, making things more open-ended and dream-like.. and even using subjects turned away from us as a way of doing all of that and creating anxiety. The use of “youthful protagonists” and digital manipulation is also used. 

from "Five People Thinking the Same Thing" by Frances Kearney

"Shelter" by Liza May Post

"Helen Backstage, Merlin Theater" by Wendy Mcmurdo
      An artist who seems to use many of the characteristics listed here so far is Gregory Crewdson, who I did my presentation on in class, so I won't go into too much detail.

      Another approach to narrative photography is photographing spaces and things without a human presence that can tell a story as well. In this kind of work, we as viewers look for signs of things that could have meaning. 

"Lumber" by Anne Hardy

"Police Station, Insurance Building, Gas Station" by Miles Coolidge

..and, not mentioned in this book, but I felt like Sa Schloff's (one of Columbia's photo teachers, who is awesome, by the way) School Pictures series and this one in particular of a librarian at Lane Tech high school (my high school by the way.. WHAT WHAT! I mean, um, yeah). This image in particular is ambiguous of place and time and I think goes well as a narrative.
     So basically Cotton does not even argue about whether or not a photograph can be narrative, but just showcases a bunch of work that does tell a story, or is at least intended to tell a story. And I would have to agree that a story can be gathered from the work in this chapter.

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