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  • Seeing The Scene

    Why do we bother to refer to certain photographs as "still" pictures when the individual picture is by definition a stationary object? I. For me and my contemporaries as young persons, television, more than any other single thing, framed the way photography entered our regular lives. What we understood, without need for explanation, was that a camera saw things and that something "remembered" what it saw long enough to show it to us at a different time. We didn't need to know how it did the remembering or the showing; it was reliable. In effect, the images themselves streamed by as the skin of flowing narratives, our expectations originally constrained by the way we already understood the use of time and speed from radio, but we very quickly adjusted to how tv time compared to real-life time. Otherwise, the two most important phenomena in the life of our viewing were known as "Repeats" (we got to see the same show again) and "Pause" (we got to freeze the flow of images in its tracks). Magazines, showing pictures, were still plentiful, but they mainly belonged to the previous generation -- and except for the construct of "essays" the function of photography in them was mainly illustration. And in photo illustration, what was mainly dominant was advertising, the strategic promotion of imagined narratives. For the most part, tv also used pictures to illustrate imagined narratives, only more explicitly, while making the same experience gotten with films suddenly available and personal at far less travel and cost. But along with advertising, the formative force on how we learned to see "still" photographs, and the most important force both then and for 10 years more into our adulthood, was comic books. II. Comic books made it entirely explicit that images were created from scratch, formatted, sequenced, and most of all individually functional. No frame in a good comic was gratuitous; it specifically included or excluded things that needed to serve a single purpose at the point where the frame was used. It taught us what jobs "still" pictures -- and therefore still photographs -- could have, and how they do their jobs. About those jobs: the aesthetic of the "still" photograph has two faces. Like a single frame in a comic strip, the still image either implies conditions or it distills them. With implication, it points outward to the conditions that give it meaning. It may be transitory, pointing both at where it came from and where it is going. What that means is that the image is depending on a context to guide how it gets interpreted. With distillation, it defines a condition in a way that has meaning. It orchestrates or models its visible subject; it decides what ingredients or parts are in the formula that equals what we think the subject must be. In that way, it doesn't point outward to something not in the picture, rather, it points inside itself to that something. But what are these "conditions"? Broadly speaking, they are either ideas about experiences or they are experiences of ideas. A given image can present either, or both, of those conditions. And, it doesn't matter whether the conditions are imaginary or actual. Finally, while there are those two different faces of the aesthetic, they can appear concurrently as the character of a single given image. III. And what about our assumptions, as predisposed by how we think an image was produced? Was it successfully built (grown) or was it successfully found (caught)? This difference is neither fully factual nor fully artificial. For example, invention is very much about discovering something by building it. And documentation is very much about "capturing" elements that make what is seen distinctive (that is, identified as something specific). A still photograph can easily be the result of an unplanned "dialogue" between invention and documentation. Simply put, the two modes contribute together to the outcome, as technique. Like guiding a car at high speed through a tight curve in the road, the trick requires multiple different influences simultaneously: the steering, the gearing, the brakes and the accelerator. Success is a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. IV. When we say "still" picture, the value in saying it is that it represents appreciation -- our appreciation of how that static image contains and performs the harmonizing of multiple influences that create a reference to ideas and experiences, imagined or actual, whether inside or outside of the scene. The ability of the image to give us the conscious sense of witnessing its own performance is frankly fundamental to its status as successful work.

  • Meet the Street

    The popular allure of street photography rarely wanes, regardless of time or place. Much of its power to influence audiences rides on the ability to take it for granted that it will show us something we either want to see or need to see, without our having to be there. But it is equally powerful as a means of getting us to see where we are, in a different way. This is inescapably the most dominant factor of street photography’s success: offered without a script, it is a natural and viable alternative to television. But even as major museum exhibits and art publications mark its global and historical success, it is notoriously difficult to understand what we are to expect when something is called Street Photography instead of Landscape, Documentary, Social Archaeology, or some other label (yes, including photo Journalism). As a result, while any street photographer has some cachet as an explorer, witness or sharpshooter, one photographer can become preferred or exalted over another based mainly on the influence of the audience. Audiences are, however, diverse at any one time, and they can change over time, so what today has highest public priority may not remain so, elsewhere or later. I. Another key factor at work in street photography's endurance is the notion that one photographer has a more "important" style than another. Style is offered as the explanation for why something about the street becomes graspable. Style makes the photographer the visualizer's equivalent of the composer, and the composition is the interpretation of the visible. Note: any and all viewers, of course, are finally the actual interpreters. Since style is so often used to justify giving special recognition to the photographer, it is all the more confusing to discover that not much more than consistent repetition reveals what style probably really is. Additionally, under pressure of popularity, style risks becoming its own subject. And increasingly, the wide variety of “styles” on display within the boundaries of a major show or portfolio of “street photography” challenges the idea that street photography is itself anything more than an opportunity to characterize things seen at certain locations, for interpretation. Well, good. The significance of style is precisely that it is an argument, or an example, for a way to express things so that something special about them can be understood. For photographers, different styles are like what different instruments are to musicians. In the hands of a good musician, a guitar brings out different things about a given song than does a piano or a sax playing that song. A certain style can surprise, refute, prove, or have other effects that broaden or deepen viewers' experiences or ideas. II. A third significant factor is the photographer’s own perspective. Any given perspective is generated from a point-of-view, and we intuitively look at street photography expecting an answer to the question, “so, what is your point?”… Answering that question, the photographer’s selectivity and editorialism directly become specific value-generators. Meanwhile, viewers may form preferences around what the photographer particularly exposes to us. We can become habitual about wanting to see certain kinds of things only in certain ways. In other words, even if all streets are somehow interesting, some are simply more important than others to show — and further, it is more important to show the street in some style than in others. The question here is, who gets to decide what is most important? Well, even if that answer is marked as “subjectivity” it is still clearly a valid functional discriminator of different collections of photographs. We simply have to identify what makes something “important” at the time we are considering it. For example, if the subject is literally disappearing, then souvenirs, evidence, and nostalgia all rise in importance to audiences that found the subject desirable and would miss it when it is gone. The photographer can choose to anticipate this audience and satisfy it, or try to create the audience through the influence of the pictures. III. The interplay of the semi-heroic role of the artist, the audience’s influence, the visibility of style, and the photographer’s mindset maps out the sociological context of the displayed work — a context that can suppress or propel the recognition and appreciation of the photographer. But photographers do not define street photography. It is popular in the art world to say things like "so-and-so's work re-defines whatever" but that bit of rhetoric presumes that there was an agreed way to distinguish "whatever" in the first place. The sheer variety of what is called "street" photography immediately refutes that particular rhetoric, but there is both a common sense distinction that works and there is legitimate excitement in the discovery of visual innovations that aim for what people want from street photography. All flavors of Street Photography contrast mainly with studio or interior images. The essential ingredient is that the photographer is expected to be using the camera outdoors on a street, with the street clearly included in the “depiction” even if only by implication. Streets are essentially connectors, pathways. And central to all street photography is the fact that streets are created by people. But with still pictures, the default poetic device of street photography is to turn the path into a destination, and to have the image be “about” the destination. That notion of subject matter usually covers (a.) the street itself as a local scene, (b.) the life at (in, on) the street, or (c.) some mix of the two. IV. Under the Street Photography banner, variety is not a chaotic condition. We can actually account for why pictures look like what they look like, and what the look is attempting to do. At any time, a photographer, known or unknown, can take up the camera and produce something that we can readily position within the scope of the table below: The rhetoric of the image projects its potential meanings in several typical ways. Each way in the following four is a range of relative affects: POV is 1st-person, 2nd-person or 3rd-person Depicted elements are conventional or exotic Familiarity is intuitive or analytic Appearances imply or resist narrative Because those affects can be blended with each other, the image can engage its viewer with nostalgia, fiction, humor, revelation, explanation, proof, or numerous other impacts. Those results fuel demand that circumstantially translates into the attention that elevates some work and some photographers above others. The final understanding from all of the above is that the label "street photography" itself is not a predictor of the content of any single past or future unique picture. Rather, “Street Photography” refers to images that are generated from a preoccupation with the presence and influence of the street.

  • Communicating Art

    What's in the ellipsis between "art" and "com" in artdotdotdotcom? This article, and this journal, are built on the answer to that question. Art and artifice continually compare and contrast with communications and commerce. Compare art and communications: art is a way of communicating. A priest, a cultural anthropologist, and a political leader all know this. We know it too. So when is it that we decide to call a communication "art"? For the most part, the more a communication emphasizes the way it was made, the more likely we are to call it art. Conversely, calling it art is a way to request looking at the way it was made. Compare artifice and commerce. Clearly, here, the subject matter is Products. Not just production, but Products. When is something not a product? It isn't a product when it isn't already ready to use without the need for the intended user to make it. But where does the product come from? It comes from artifice, the way it was produced as generally distinguished from natural growth. When is art not a product? When is creation not artifice? When is art not artifice? When is communication not a product? These kinds of questions typically come up mainly when people think there is a difference between what they want and what they get, or what they expected and what they are offered. But as we analyze the probable answers of the comparisons and contrasts of meanings, we find out that there is only one fundamental that applies across all cases -- the matter of intent. And what intent invariably does is propose context. Looking At Photographs I have a photograph of a building that can be interpreted in a half dozen different ways. It might be an realtor's ad; a crime scene shot; a historical certification; a designer's model; a personal memento; an architect's note; or more. What we know about this image is that "what it is" is determined by any combination of the presenter and the viewer, not the maker -- except -- that the maker psychologically assumes the role of presenter and/or viewer when the maker says what the image is about. "Art" is a status -- the status given when the intent of the item's production represents a certain purpose of the viewer -- that purpose being to gain meaning from the expression of the way something is made. If we put that idea into similar words, we say that meaning is gained from the presentation of the mode of production. Finally, the experience of gaining that meaning is what we have always called appreciation. What happens as we take the image and move it from the police station to the museum to the highway billboard to the library to the sidewalk to the personal diary is that we try to adopt it for our purpose -- somehow between a celebration (easy) to a disruptive revelation (hard). What we require of "artists" is that they design it for our adoption, knowing that sometimes this will also mean we are surprised to discover what we want and, in that way, who we are. That means the artist What The Critic Saw

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