Photgraphy is Simple
an open brief….of any subject … My immediate thought was related to psychologist Barry Schwartz and his essay and related lecture on having too much choice: “So paralysis is a consequence of having too many choices. The second effect is that, even if we manage to overcome the paralysis and make a choice, we end up less satisfied with the result of the choice than we would be if we had fewer options to choose from.” (Schwartz, 2005).
If art is the expression of transmitting an emotion, and the intrinsic emotion of the producer formed by a contextual stimulus, one cannot avoid context. Berret distinguishes no more than three types of contexts of an image: “Internal context includes the picture, its title if it has one, date, and maker. External context refers to the picture’s presentational environment. Finally, the original context refers to te picture’s causal environment; namely, that which was physically and psychologically present to the maker at the time the picture was taken.” (Barrett, 1986), or again and definitely clearer: “Good stories and good imagery make the world go round, it’s what connects us.” (Groskopf, 2019).
The work of George Miles’ Kings Landing (Miles, 2017) a much smaller book (in physical size) than expected, by the way, is a lovely example and inspiration for how to work with context. A tale of a cursed Island named Lokram, told by the use of tourist sign-text and almost observational images. Nevertheless, this small book makes an impression. The exiting and mysterious stories of Kings, Knights and Monestries, its history, it’s prohibited over-nights stay on the island, they all contribute to the transmitted emotion. The context almost feels to make more emotional impact than the images by itself, at least they enhance them drastically.
In a search for context, I found intriguing abandoned and dying out train stations along one of the oldest Spanish railroads, the one connecting Madrid-Zaragoza-Alicante, exploited by named company MZA Railroad, mainly financed by the Rothschild family. On May 26th, 1858 the Spanish Queen Isabel II officially inaugurated the Railroad using her own “royal” wagon in an 18 hour trip from Madrid to Alicante and providing the (her?) central capital Madrid its own “harbour” to the world. The railway was build in a time of conflict and civil wars (the three Carlos-wars of Spain) Following civil conflicts with the sad climax the Guerra Civil Española, where General Francisco Franco took control and nationalized the company and its tracks. It meant the end of many dreams.
I decided to end the course and final assignment opposite to the first one. With the absence of people, but in line with the French-Spanish photographer Jean Laurent, who was contracted 150 years earlier to photograph the railroad project on behalf of the Spanish Royal house in 1858. A work that was published under the name: Camino de Hierro de Madrid a Alicante. Vistas principales de la línea.(Wolff, n.d.) where only sparsely a person enters a frame.
The Railroad and its construction, however, is not the most intriguing part. Poor provincial villages and small towns were halfheartedly “connected” with this important railway. New industrial technologies combined with blind ambition and utter impracticalities caused by non-cooperative landowners, stations were planned miles outside the desperately needing inhabited areas, out of reach and useless to the local population. Communities that depended strongly on the production transport intensive goods like stone, pottery, wine and marble could profit massively from the new railroad track. How differently did history go. Now, over 150 years later, most stations are just silent witnesses of lost hopes. Were once Queen Isabel II of Spain waved from her private Royal coach to the exuberant people standing on the freshly paved platforms, indicating a new promised future for the region, now modern high-speed trains rush on without a single hesitation to stop. Factories and local companies simply ceased to operate, they dried out. The bar across the street is literally amputated from its life-line by modern traffic, tarmac ends provocative, platform signs used as shooting target, graffiti displays now another mood. The lost station-buildings still breathing their last breathe of romantic hope, how long will they persevere.
EPILOGUE; PHYLOSOPHICAL REFLECTIONS
In their book On being a photographer : a practical guide; the authors try to emphasize the importance of subject above technicalities. The simplicity of the actual registration and it’s two initially simple variables “timing and position” contrasting the complexity on the subject matter: It comes down to the choice of subject. (Hurn and Jay, 2009).
And that is perhaps true. “Let us make the point clear: when the subject takes precedence, you not only start the journey towards a personal style but also you discover the sheer joy of visually responding to the world. It solves a lot of doubts, clears away all confusion. “(Hurn and Jay, 2009)
It seems a rather personal interpretation and experience on complexity versus simplicity. Sure, in the documentary world the subject choice is evident and defines broadly the effectiveness of the image. Still, timing can be of the utmost essence and the main contributor to the emotional efficacy in other forms of photography like sports and nature. See the choice of “The Guardian” on best sports photography 2019 they are all about timing, the individual subject seems less relevant. The same can be said on position and place.
In preparation for this assignment, I’ve watched the movie “A Private War”(A Private War, 2018), a story of an American war-journalist Marie Colvin and a British photographer Paul Conroy. As a team, they operated almost entirely on the variables place and time. Sure, the genre was “war journalism/photography”, but the individual subject seemed less relevant than place and time, it also showed place and time can kill.
On numerous occasions, Hurn and Jay resonated Leo Tolstoy’s work ‘What is Art?’ (Tolstoy, Delano and Maude, 1899). Where Hurn and Jay enter their essence: “The reason is that photography is only a tool, a vehicle, for expressing or transmitting a passion in something else.”(Hurn and Jay, 2009) they make a direct reference to Tolstoi, a century earlier: “Art is a human activity, consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings, and also experience them.”(Tolstoy, Delano and Maude, 1899).
Where Hurn and Jay typically are thinking in one-way, ego-centric operation: “The destination of photography is to reveal what something or somebody looked like, under a particular set of conditions, at a particular moment in time, and to transmit the result to others.” (Hurn and Jay, 2009) Tolstoi falsifies such thoughts explicitly. Correctly he adds the receiver into the process: “… because a man may express his emotions by means of lines, colours, sounds, or words, and yet may not act on others by such expression; and then the manifestation of his emotions is not art.(Tolstoy, Delano and Maude, 1899).
What I missed was the variable purpose. Sure, in their introduction, Hurn and Jay bombastically try to link to the general meaning of humanity: “the purpose of life is to become actually what we are potentially. We believe photography offers an ideal vehicle towards this destination.” (Hurn and Jay, 2009) but purpose is essential in transmitting emotion. Meaningless images can hardly attach emotionally, not at the receiver and not at the transmitter. “It (subject matter) is the difference between a thought and feeling, an intellectual idea and an emotional attachment”.(Hurn and Jay, 2009) but so is purpose. Correctly they mention the work of Sebastião Salgado. Still, I cannot avoid thinking that Salgado was (is) driven by purpose and only derived from that came specific subjects, timing and place. In his massive work “Genesis” Salgado’s passion and purpose are so beautifully clear: “…a protest against how we are abusing our planet.” (Salgado and Lélia Wanick Salgado, 2013)
Pulling away from the rather useless observation of the single fact that pressing a button is simple. According to street photographer Eric Kim, playing chess is simple too: “Chess is simple, playing chess can be learned in 5 minutes, becoming a grandmaster of chess, can take a lifetime.” (Kim, 2020). Indeed, Hurn and Jay conclude that despite the variables are simple to state, a successful combination of all elements is not that simple to achieve: “But that is the driving, obsessional force behind photography, the fact that although the elements are simple to state they are extremely difﬁcult to integrate. Aiming for your goal is worthwhile as long as you realize it is a constant effort, rarely to be achieved.”(Hurn and Jay, 2009)
My thoughts touched the question of what is art and in relation to that; is photography art? I stopped that route after reading Photographs and Context by Terry Barret, correctly perhaps concluding the work of Robert Doisneau now hangs among other ‘artists’ at the MoMA. At the same time, Doisneau never produced it intending to be art. Barret furthermore quotes Martha Rosler: “More and more clearly, the subject of all high art has become the self, subjectivity, and what this has meant for photography is that all photographic practice being hustled into galleries must be reseen in terms of its revelatory character not in relation to its iconographic subject but in its relation to its ‘real’ subject, the producer.” (Barrett, 1986).
After listening to the interview with Ane Hjort Guttu, again Leo Tolstoi came to mind. Although despite his valuable definitions of art, he seems to slide into the negative when it comes to photography: “The essence of this method consists in supplying details accompanying the thing described or depicted. …… In painting, this method assimilates painting to photography, and destroys the difference between them.” (Tolstoy, Delano and Maude, 1899)
As if somehow the exact representation of the observation (photography) is not art: “The second method of imparting a semblance of art is that which I have called imitating” (Tolstoy, Delano and Maude, 1899).
Is photography therefor simple? According to Tolstoi: “good universal art or even of the art of a whole people, is yet more difficult…”, he continues on art for the upper-class is more complicated, not because it is better but because it is intentional for the upper-class specifically. By that fact, it can not originate spontaneously: “… Art cannot be produced at will but has to generate spontaneously in the artist’s inner self. And therefore, to satisfy the demands of people of the upper classes, artists have had to devise methods of producing imitations of art. And such methods have been devised.” On the other hand, Tolstoi’s extensive work Anna Karenina (which I never managed to fully read by the way) does not seem to be written specifically for ‘everybody’. At most, he wrote it against or at least critically towards his social upper class (Tolstoy, Maude and Maude, 2010).
Tolstoi struggles with a separation of Art in Art for the upper class or elite, the art that divides and art for everybody the art that unites, religious even. Ane Hjort Guttu describes an equal distinction and aversion: “Public Art is always expressing the opinion of Power”(Quaintance and Guttu, 2016).
Furthermore, Tolstoi’s religion plays a significant role in his opinion and theories, combined with his aversion against the elite and (atheist) power, even though he was born Count Tolstoi in the high Russian society.
At a special opening event on an exhibition on the “Jewellery” of the Russian Royalty (Tsars and Tsarinas) in the Hermitage in Amsterdam (a Dependance of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg) I was a witness of the indeed impudent decadence or the Russian elite during the 19th century (Hermitage Amsterdam, 2019). I can imagine that any socially involved and moralistic person like Tolstoi would averse at some point.
The social and political period in which he wrote What is Art?, combined with his phase in life, is reflected in his writing. One of his well-known definitions of art seems a logical consequence:
“Art is a human activity, consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings, and also experience them.”(Tolstoy, Delano and Maude, 1899)
To add gradation in his statement on good and bad art, he adds an important criteria: “The stronger the infection (with emotion), the better is the art” and from all available (artistical) expressions, one needs to make a selection: “So that by art, in the limited sense of the word, we do not mean all human activity transmitting feelings, but only that part which we for some reason select from it and to which we attach special importance”.(Tolstoy, Delano and Maude, 1899)
Here we can see a glimpse of the complexity in art or, let’s keep it inclusive, the complexity in photography.
Michele Groskopf makes it much more straightforward, but very close to Tolstoi: “Good stories and good imagery make the world go round; it’s what connects us.” (Groskopf, 2019).
Just when the dust settles in my head, a thought from Katheleen Desmond blurs in a covering conclusion: “To some thinkers, expression of emotion seems too simple a phenomenon to account for the subtleties and sophistication of art. To others, expression of emotion seems far too complex, too obscure, and unfamiliar to provide a satisfactory explanation of art. The difficulty of understanding expression explains why expressive theorists do not agree even among themselves about the nature of artistic expression.” (Desmond, 2011).
So yes, photography is simple. Photography can be just pressing a button, the production of art is simple, art is simple; hence art is merely a form of human expression and method of transmitting emotions, like words in a language transmit thoughts (Tolstoy, Delano and Maude, 1899). But to create effective art, to transmit emotion, so it is received with emotion, the difficulty increases exponentially, to create it purposely, consistently in the most effective manner with the ultimate values of all available variables can take a lifetime to achieve indeed.
To go one step further. If good art is effective art in ways of transmitting emotion and emotion is initiated by visual stimuli, there are now modern techniques available (patented) to measure the effectiveness of visual stimuli on this emotional response (Patton, n.d.). This could implicate that good art, or better, its efficacy can clinically and objectively be determined, theoretically(?). A computer model to measure good photography, how lovely romantic.
Then again, the joy and apparent simplicity from Michele Groskopf is so contagious: “But I loved the simplicity of being able to shoot without a crew. I loved being able to just pick up the camera and go. Fun fact: I actually failed my first photography class. Who does that? (Groskopf, 2019).
Talent makes things a lot simpler apparently.