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Documentation is an Illusion

In earlier posts I have discussed the burden of expectations that photography operates under because of its role as "documentation". Then my argument was that although the vast majority of photographs operate as documents, e.g. in newspapers, that there are many other roles for photographs, e.g. as an expression of creative imagination, and that there is no reason to believe that the rules for documentation applied to all photographs.

Now I think that the argument needs to go beyond this. I think the word document/documentary is suspect at its core, and is so much at risk for misuse or misunderstanding that it needs to be abandoned completely.

There are no "documents", no true records of "how it really was". Every photograph is a personal intervention, first by selection of space (framing), then by selection of time (release shutter). These choices, if made by people, have a message, a reaction that is expected from the viewer.

I grant that the intent may be to inform rather than to incite. I would prefer to use the word "report" when this is the aim rather than "document". If my aim is to inform you then I should follow methods and standards fit for that purpose. If my aim is to share a fantasy with you then there are no bounds.

I see on the New York Times web page an invitation to "Help us Document the decade". This is perverse. Why not just "Help us Remember the decade". Using the word "document" invites us to participate in an attempt at objectivity that is unnecessary and doomed.

Why not just acknowledge that this effort, worthy as it most likely is, is going to be a subjective personal effort of intersections between people and what happened mediated by a camera.

Because they will appear in a newspaper, it would be perfectly reasonable to request, or stipulate, and make a further request that the style of the photographs be "realistic" as in no further creative intervention beyond the "taking" of the photograph.

I think this would be better statement of what is the undertaking here, and a pretty worthy one at that.


Cranberry Harvest

For more than a month I was able to follow the cranberry harvest in Bourne, Falmouth and Wareham. For the most part I was following the harvest team of Handy Cranberry Trust.

There was the dry harvest in Cataumet and the wet harvest in Cataumet, Falmouth and North Falmouth.

The wet harvest is probably familiar. The bogs are flooded, the berries dislodged and a sea of red surfaces. The harvesters move deliberately and gracefully through the water. Are they walking ON water? No but they are walking IN water, and there is a total and special grace to their movements.

Part of that grace comes from the riot of red they move in. The red of the floating berries is so intense that one becomes addicted. More red, more red. But the work is going in the opposite direction. Slowly the red vanishes, sucked up the tubes and spilled into the truck. The blue pools remain, but they too will disappear when the bogs are drained.

How does one move through this watery terrain? The threshing machines plod, but they appear to float. The illusion would be rudely undone should they stumble on a drainage ditch, so a Moses marks the way with his staff, showing the way through the red sea with his staff, and guiding the submarine threshers to safety.

There is a less romantic but equally interesting dry harvest. But here there is no watery solution to the problem of to get the berries without crushing them. The only solution is to tread carefully and from the outside in.

There is one other cool move for getting the berries from lowland to highland, and that is to airlift them.


The Art of Photography: Principles and Observations

On Starting another course at the Falmouth Artists Guild I thought it might be useful to set down some principles and observations.

1. This is about photography as an art form.

2. Art is a shared fantasy.

3. Realism is only one of the aesthetics available to the photographer.

4. The first rule of composition is "find great light". All other rules of composition are there to be broken; I don't think this one can be.

5. It's not that important what kind of camera you have, but it is important to know what it is doing.

6. Pixels are precious; know the count !


Photography as an Art Form

Last week I talked at Highfield Hall about Photography as an Art Form.  I may be able to write more but there are a number of simple propositions that are the core of what I want to say.

1.  Photorealism is as much an aesthetic in photography as it is in painting.

2. Although photography is a useful tool if one's objective is documentation, there is no reason that a photograph has to be a document.

3.  If you are in an art gallery, you should be expecting a work of creative imagination, not a document.

4.  The f64 group made a big mistake for photography by defining themselves by technique rather than by aesthetic objective.  Since then photography has been trapped by expectations of fstops and megapixels.

5.  An acquired image is a plastic form, not a fixed form.

6.  My relation with the forest is more important than the fine detail of its trees, leaves, and twigs.

7.  Art is a shared fantasy.

8.  The usage "artists and photographers" needs to be retired; so does the classification in bookstores, "art" in one section "photography" in another.

Parallel Universes: Photography Show at Falmouth Art Center has many dimensions

(this review submitted to Falmouth Enterprise and Cape Cod Times June 8, 2009)

It is a privilege to review the Photography Show at the Falmouth Arts Center.  There is a lot going on here with this first juried show in the wonderful new home of the Falmouth Artists Guild and there is much to see in this extraordinary new building, culmination of so many efforts over the last few years.

In the show there is a set of prize-winning photographs exhibiting some great photographic technique.  A full list of this work is below.  Congratulations to the winners.

What I found as I looked at all the show's images, assembled by juror Marion Roth, was that there was a set of pictures that drew me in, that got me excited and made me think....or dream.....or feel.  I want to write a few words about these, because this is what art is all about, a sharing of feelings and fantasies and notions through a medium.  That medium might be oil on board, dots of ink on paper, or marble on a pedestal.  Not much by themselves but improbably alive and transmissive after a human hand, and heart and mind have worked on them.

First is Jean Adelman's "Sunday Squall", a view from the shore of a looming storm.  Everything in this small work makes us feel the impending threat -- a darkly silhouetted house, brilliant eelgrass in the foreground set against the steel gray depths of the looming cloud, and under it, tiny and threatened, the wake of a boat making for the safety of the shore with all haste.  Beachgoers sit calmly in their chairs seemingly oblivious to the threat, although one curious pair seems to be aware of its approach.

Deborah Casso's "Lone Lily Pad" stopped me in my tracks.  After you get done asking yourself..."now how did she do that?", you continue to marvel at the two realms of fluidity, the ghostly tuber ascending in a sinuous curve from the depths and the forthright platform floating on liquid you know is there but cannot see....definite, crisp and precarious.  Is this risk? Or reassurance?  For me, this is the riveting work of the show.

Howard Dunn in "Avila, Spain" gives us a classic set of three Spanish ladies chatting in a village that seems far, far away.  Douglas Greetham and David Kelly give us bright spring flowers in "A Celebration" and "Breezy Day".  You can feel that Spring is bursting outside the building.

Barbara Groom's "Power" plays with shapes and gives us a bright and clear visual pun constructed of a cross and crosspieces.  Darlene Heard's "Crystal Sea" reminds us that there are other places besides the Cape to escape on a boat in beautiful water.  Andrew Howard's "New Silver Beach, Winter" is both chilling and breathtaking. 

Joel Leavitt makes a moody fogbound scene on Nantucket and Lillian Holmes shows "Maurie" a simple but poignant family portrait.

 Ruth Leech makes us feel the emptiness of a deserted house and Alicia Petitti's moody mysterious moonrise over a cotton candy sea in "Lucy Vincent Beacon" intrigues and makes one feel safe on land.

Finally Milt Williamson's "Help with the Flag" is a classic flag picture which excels in the depth of its colors, the play of light and the fluidity of its composition.  You feel that the group of children that is folding up the flag is one with it.

I have one suggestion for my fellow photographers, which is to say more about the materials, the medium, we are using.  The labels for the show make for a monotonous repetition of "photograph" as the medium.  Only one label says anything more.  I urge everyone to take the trouble to list more specifics, such as "C-print", "Silver gelatin print", "Archival inkjet print",  "ink on paper", "ink on canvas".  A show of paintings would have more specifics on the label such as "oil on canvas", "acrylic" and so forth.  I think this is particularly called for these days, as there has been an explosion in the last ten years of materials with which photographers can present their work.  "Oil on Canvas" made a revolution in Leonardo's time, and digital print techniques are making a revolution in ours.  Let's say more about what's going on.

Prize-Winners:  Juror's Choice: Kathleen Hall, "Reflections of Motif #1"; Best Color: Doreen Sykes, "Tree at Ruins"; Best Black and White: Mark Chester, "Chauffers"; Best Creative Study: Jeannine Lavoie, "Reflections"; Best Special Technique: Robert Manz, "I Cipressini"; Honorable Mentions: Ben Allsup, "Nutcracker"; James Lynch, "Canal Sinking"; Joan Pearlman: "Double Focus #3".

Robert Manz is a fine art photographer working in natural light.  He is a member of the Falmouth Artists Guild.  His work can be seen at Jan Collins Selman Fine Art in Falmouth, at the Cataumet Arts Center, and at his studio in Pocasset.