Program Night: The Visual Thinking Series: Who’s Talking?

I attended my camera club, The North Shore Photographic Society’s program night last night. Presenters were Russel and Wendy Kwan. Unfortunately I forgot to take a notebook with me to make notes, but luckily Russel provided some take home notes of his presentation, albeit an abbreviated version so I’ll do my best to summarise his presentation from that.

The topic was on media transparency. What I really appreciate about Russel and Wendy is that they approach their topics as well as their judging from an art photography perspective. They are familiar with studium and punctum, so as a result their reviews are less from a technical point of view and the feedback more meaningful.

Russ’s presentation started off with a quote from Clement Greenberg’s essay The Camera’s Glass Eye: Review of an Exhibition of Edward Weston.

Photography is the most transparent of the art mediums devised or discovered by man. It is probably for this reason that it proves so difficult to make the photograph transcend its almost inevitable function as document and act as work of art as well. But we do have evidence that the two functions are compatible.

Clement Greenberg

I managed to find a copy of the essay online and was interested to read Greenberg’s statement that ‘art is a matter of conception and intuition, not of physical finish’. I rather like that statement! Greenberg states of Edward Weston’s photos that were on exhibit that  they were ‘merciless, crystalline clarity of detail and texture combined with the anonymous or inanimate nature of the object photographed, produces a hard, mechanical effect that seems contrived and without spontaneity’. In other words Weston’s photos were too technically perfect, had the same treatment applied to each and thus rendering them rather cold and impersonal. Greenberg goes on to state that a photographer should become more reliant on his subject and strive to express the subject’s identity or personality and his own feelings more directly. I’m thinking that this is where our voice comes into play. Greenberg directs his readers to the work of Walker Evans stating ‘Evans is an artist above all because of his original grasp of the anecdote’, even though Evans’ photos do not have the splendid finish that Weston’s have.

So back to the lecture:

As an image becomes more transparent, the audience becomes less aware of the image’s medium and maker. As an image becomes less transparent, the audience becomes more aware of the artifact itself and that someone made it.

Russ advised that photographers begin to think in terms of a schema around which to construct their photographs. Listening to his explanation of this, I realised that this is the way OCA urges us to work too.

Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte (1884-86) by Georges Seurat
  • Transparency is like a sliding scale. It can be dialed up or down during the shoot or at post-processing.
  • Transparency may work differently when the image is viewed up close or from across an exhibition hall – refer to paintings done in the pointillism style – up close one sees varying size dots, but the effect is very different when one stands further back. See also Sally Mann’s Body Farm photos.
  • The snapshot is very transparent, the highly stylized photos not so much. Photographers generally settle for a middle ground between these two poles.
  • Having a well defined schema for a project is essential for coherence.
  • The constraints imposed on your work by the schema will influence the transparency of the photos.
  • The more constraints there are, the more distinctive the work will be.
  • Schema – a break down
    • Subject matter – what are you photographing? What is in/what is out?
    • Technique – how are you going to approach the subject matter? What gear? What lighting? What point of views? What post-processing?
    • Flavour – What do you want your audience to see/feel/learn when looking at your work? Do your choices of subject matter and technique work with the flavour you want to impart?

Russ had three criteria by which one should evaluate one’s photographs: truth, personal mark, message. According to him if one ranks truth important, but personal mark not necessary then the subjects in the photo are doing the talking. This is more in line with photojournalism – the photographer becomes invisible.

If one ranks truth not important, but personal mark important then transparency is not necessarily an ingredient needed. The photograher needs to do the talking here. Examples cited were Andreas Gursky’s work and  Sally Mann’s photographs of her children.

If truth and personal mark are both important then transparency is needed. Different techniques will be necessary to tell the anecdotes – see Erwin Elliott’s dog images.

If message is important then one will be looking of ways to photograph without regard for subjects, truth or one’s own personal stamp. This singular method of working is quite rare because one does need a combination of truth or personal mark at the very least to go with message in order for the photograph to work.

Russ then gave the group some homework and this is where I really had to chuckle – it all sounded so familiar:

  • come up with a message or emotional state you want to communicate – be very specific
  • write down your goals and be precise when describing your visual statement

Needless to say the audience was rather gobsmacked by all this information. To be told that they should throw the rules of composition out the window and concentrate on the transparency of the image instead really silenced them to such an extent that no a single question was asked. It will take a while for them to lose the ‘camera club mentality’ of doing images. I live in hope though 🙂 !!

Reference List

Greenberg, Clement (1946) The Camera’s Glass Eye: Review of an Exhibition of Edward Weston In The Collected Essays and Criticism, Arrogant Purpose (Vol 2) 1945 – 1949 edited by John O’Brian. Available at: http://docslide.us/documents/clement-greenberg-1946-the-cameras-glass-eye.html [Accessed 30 May, 2017]

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3 thoughts on “Program Night: The Visual Thinking Series: Who’s Talking?”

  1. It must be the sun, but I can’t quite comprehend what he means here by ‘transparency’. Is he meaning image as window rather than mirror?

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    1. No – not the sun :-). By transparency he means when you look at a photo – what you see first – the content or the materiality of it. He first showed a photograph of an apple tree – and asked the audience what they saw first – most replied the apple tree. Then he showed another photo which was a little more obscure (can’t remember which one it was) and with that one the audience was more aware that it was a photograph they were looking at. It comes across a little differently when showed on a big screen I think. He did mention that with Georges Seurat’s painting, which he had seen in person, what really came across was the shimmer of a hot summer’s day. This is only really visible when you look at the actual work due to the size of it and the distance you have to put between it. And this doesn’t come across in a book. Also bear in mind he was explaining a totally new way of working/thinking about photos (basically how we do it here at OCA) to a group who are so hung up on the technicality of their images. He was trying to get the point across that all those beautiful sunset photos and hovering eagles they bring to club nights are not what art is about :-).

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