Manifest Oh

I’ve been working on an artist’s statement of sorts for the About page of Visual Soma. I must confess I’ve always considered artist’s statements to be a little self-indulgent, not to mention superfluous: if the art can’t speak for itself, what good is it? It seems especially presumptuous for a rank amateur like myself to consider writing one. On the other hand, I can rarely pass up a good opportunity to propagandize. This starts out promising enough, but soon turns, Dr. Jekyll-like, into a manifesto.

The vast majority of my photos have been taken within a mile of where I live. For me as a poet and an editor, photography is a spiritual practice, a training in how to see, how to frame and edit, how to find the poetry in ordinary things. I’m especially interested in the challenge of making photos in which the roles of figure and ground are reversible, or even nonexistent. Philosophically, I feel we must get beyond a perception of nature as mere scenery. Gorgeous wall calendars from Sierra Club and the like offend me at a very basic level; nature porn does nothing for the cause of conservation. Indeed, to the extent that it helps sell SUVs and houses in subdivisions, it actually makes things worse. We must get people to appreciate their own back forty, or the vacant lot down the street — only then do we have a chance of convincing them that every part of this planet is a work of art in which we participate and are continually remade.

I can hear the protests already: “Easy for you to say — you live on top of a mountain!” Well, yeah. But I love photos of human landscapes, too, and if I lived in town I’d probably specialize in them. The thing is, I don’t think it’s quite as easy taking compelling photos in the woods or fields as it is in a city, where the colors are so much brighter on average, where the symmetries are obvious, and everything is built to a human scale. Let’s face it, urban environments are pretty damn stimulating! In less human-shaped visual milieux, one needs to constantly shift one’s perspective and scale to avoid monotony.

One obvious and increasingly popular solution is macro photography. Some months back I was struck by a blog post from the professional photographer Mike Moats, in which he answered the question, “Why Macro?”

When I started in nature photography, I like most new photographers wanted to shoot landscapes. I went out east to the White Mountains, and to Acadia, went west to Yosemite and came home with some really nice images, but when I was home between trips I wasn’t able to shoot as much as I wanted due to the lack of great landscapes like I saw on my trips. I started to look at macro photography as a way to spend more time shooting near my home. I was shocked at the amount of images I came home with on my very first trip into the woods. I’ve spent many years of my life exploring past the end of the pavement but have never really taken a good look at the interesting life all around me. When I started to study my surroundings for subjects they were everywhere. I have some great parks with diverse environments within twenty minutes of my home but I also found many subjects within my own yard.

In another post, though, he admits that the easy subjects can literally dry up at certain times of the year, leading to photographic slumps.

Most of the vernal ponds (where I shoot my floating leaf images) are starting to dry up due to the lack of rain so this leaves me shooting the wooded areas. When I’m out looking for images I’m always scaning for subjects that have contrast. Contrast in color makes for some great images and also sells very well for me. The problem at this time of year is that the woods has very little color contrast, everything is GREEN!

One of these days, I will get a macro lens attachment for my camera. But I think the not-quite-macro level is interesting too. We can generally tell what we’re looking at right away — as opposed to, say, some of the extreme close-ups of weed-creatures from photographers such as the amazing Doctor Swan — but the scale is just different enough to give us pause. We’ve seen moss or mushrooms like that before — when we were three. It seems just barely possible that we might still, decades later, recapture that kind of seeing without preconceptions, through eyes undulled by weariness, heartache and boredom, and provoke that primal Oh.

16 Replies to “Manifest Oh”

  1. There’s a lot here that resonates for me. Makes me sad there seems to be something wrong with my camera — the LCD screen looks like a fractal, so something’s clearly broken in there this week…

    (But that’s not really germane. What I meant to say was: yes. To a lot of what you’ve written here.)

  2. Yes, from me too, to much of this. You made me think of my latest acquisition from the works of my hero John Berger. Like many of his books, it (poetry in this case) is illustrated with his own photos. Black and white. At first glance, they’re nature shots, but on closer inspection many include a human figure: a flash of long hair, part of a naked body, human shapes blending and playing with the shapes of the landscape. I loved them. I must scan and blog a couple.

  3. Rachel – I’m sorry to hear about your camera. I know if my LCD display stopped working, I’d be sunk – who uses the viewfinder?! One of many ways in which those of us who have never struggled with a film camera have been terribly spoiled, and barely deserve the title photographer, really.

    Jean – Oh, please do! I’d love to see what you’re talking about.

    Glad some of this resonates. As you can probably tell from the post, I do feel a bit conflicted about having to write down these kinds of statements or manifestoes. I’m text-centric enough as it is; part of the attraction of photography for me is that it offers a respite.

  4. Dave, so much resonates with me too! Artist statements are the bane of my existence, and I tend to blame my own lack of skill with verbalizing, which I don’t think is your problem. I like what you wrote!

    I used to use an SLR film camera for I love to manipulate the focus by eye through the viewfinder. Until we got our digital SLR, I really did not enjoy digital photography. I also want a macro lens but like you, have found the closest setting fairly good too. And I have been taking far more photographs around my yard and locally than I ever used to for we don’t travel as much as I like. Having a blog to post them to has been quite an incentive for me, as has the inspiration I get from others. Then there are the photos that I take to use in my artwork…

    I’d like to see those photos too, Jean!

  5. Thanks for the comment, Marja-Leena. Of course, since I only know you through your words, it seems strange to hear you say you have difficulty with them! But if so, it’s all the more of a credit to you that you’re as generous with them in your blog and in other people’s comment threads as you are.

    My new camera has a manual focus, of course, but I find myself unable to use it with any accuracy, even using the viewfinder – my eyesight just isn’t good enough. Autofocus is a godsend. Even still, I’ve ended up having to discard many otherwise good photos because they weren’t sharp enough, and I’ve been driven to learn a bit more photoshoppery in an effort to find ways to make up for some fuzziness.

    I agree with you about the salutary effects of blogging. As you may remember, posting to this blog was initially my only incentive to take photos, after my cousin Matt sent me his used digicam for that purpose.

  6. Well, I’m glad to hear someone else finds artist statements to be self-indulgent. Or maybe it’s just that I don’t get what they are trying to say with their art, and their statements don’t help. (Yeah, its true… some artists DO need to explain their art… and once explained, you can appreciate it more… but darn it, explain it in words I understand!)

  7. Yeah. Of course as Marja-Leena’s comment suggests, the artists in many cases are pressured into making statements by the people who put on exhibitions. It’s strange to me because poets must continually struggle against the perception, fostered largely by English teachers, that poems are puzzles to be solved. No, we say: a poem is an attempt to find the single best way of communicating a given insight! I should think it’s the same way with any other work of art.

    That said, it can be interesting to learn where an author or artist is coming from – ideally in non-academic language.

  8. Much to think about here, Dave. Personally, I’m uneasy about artists “explaining” their art, partly because of the reason you offer (“if the art can’t speak for itself, what good is it?”), but also because an artwork represents more than just the artist’s conscious intentions — most (all?) art is not just a deliberate attempt to express what the artist feels, but arises also from motivations and understanding of which the artist might not even be aware. If so, the attempt to articulate what the art is “about” will almost certainly fail to credit what the artist doesn’t recognise but which appears, nevertheless, in the art. An artist’s statement directs viewers (more generally, those who engage with the work) along a particular path. This can be helpful, but it can also be subversive, making it difficult, perhaps impossible, for viewers to explore, and perhaps identify what the artist couldn’t.

    The risk with artists’ statements is that any characteristic of the artwork that’s not identified in the statement might be dismissed as accidental, and, therefore, the artist will be denied credit for those characteristics. Just because the artist wasn’t conscious of those characteristics doesn’t mean he or she isn’t responsible for them. On the other hand, perhaps that suggests a possible reason why artists do write statements: for fear of being held responsible for something in the work for which they don’t wish to be credited?

    Good statements complement the art; poor statements compete with it; the worst subvert it.

    I’d like to say more, particularly about your intriguing statement that you believe compelling photos more difficult to achieve in woods and fields than in cities ( I find “landscapes” particularly difficult), and the notion of nature porn (are you aware of Daniel Dancer’s views on what he termed “eco-porn”, or Niall Benvie’s writing on the topic?). But I’ve ranted for long enough. Thanks for a thought-provoking post, Dave.

  9. art is not just a deliberate attempt to express what the artist feels, but arises also from motivations and understanding of which the artist might not even be aware.

    An excellent and valuable point.

    are you aware of Daniel Dancer’s views on what he termed “eco-pornâ€?, or Niall Benvie’s writing on the topic?

    I think a professor friend of mine sent me a brief article from one or the other after I held forth on the subject a year or so back. But the concept is obvious.

    Hey, rant all you want. I love comments like that!

  10. Eco-porn. This is a wildly accusing term. It hits me broadside, making me self conscious of treating my whole existence, not to mention nature, like some kind of blow-up doll. Your example would seem to suggest that things could be otherwise, as in the Kenneth Boulding quote at your dad’s site, but my reigning truth is that the wholesale destruction of nature matters little to me in comparison with my blind need for immediate, and very local, comfort. I admire eco-warriors, but my psyche is way too fragile for that role. Any vision I might gain of a fixed course towards improving my actions vanishes in the daily storm of anxiety, a coup by the id.

    Once again, your eco-ethical rigor takes me by surprise.

  11. treating my whole existence, not to mention nature, like some kind of blow-up doll

    Don’t we all?

    my reigning truth is that the wholesale destruction of nature matters little to me in comparison with my blind need for immediate, and very local, comfort

    Your candor is refreshing, Bill.

  12. Lots of good stuff, there and in comments.

    Artists’ statements must be frustrating and limiting to have to write; you write anyway and have a way with big ideas as well as small ones, but it must always feel like you haven’t said enough, or that the words are often treacherous, shifting, not quite right. Wasn’t there that story about Eliot being asked, at a social event perhaps, what a particular poem meant, and he recited it in its entirety and said: ‘ That’s what it meant.’ A small part of me would have wanted to slap him for that, but of course it’s obvious. And as Pete pointed out, artists often entertain angels unawares, can create things they aren’t necessarily fully aware of but others can find, can sometimes seem to be remarkably obtuse, not very clever, even unpleasant people, but inspiration and gift isn’t fussy like that.

    I think I do still have a weakness for what you call the nature porn, though I find I look at it much more critically now. I’ve been looking at and reading about Charlie Waite’s landscapes, I do admire the light chasing perfectionism it takes to make them, especially as he only uses film, not digital, and he doesn’t entirely rely on the beauty of his subject matter – that seems rather like using only beautiful people as models. Yet somehow they make me feel a bit depressed, shake my faith in the beauty of the ordinary and commonplace I was finding.

    I often wish for a closer urban environment for variety, but, as with wishing for more dramatic and beautiful landscape around me, I have to see this boredom as a challenge to break through it and see something else I hadn’t seen before. We’ve a very pretty small town nearby, which I love to look at, but every good shot just looks like a postcard, and people are always wandering round photographing it. I don’t find it very inspiring.

    Your idea of making ‘ the roles of figure and ground … reversible, or even nonexistent’, is an interesting one, and gives me something to think about.

    I know what Bill says is true, and it’s a despair at the core of my being, so largely I prefer to ignore it, which is self-evident, as not to do so is to make myself uncomfortable.

    I use the viewfinder.

  13. Artist statements are a fascinating form. I, myself, have spent hours alone making things, objects to someday serve as links between me and others, others and others. But for now, as I make them that is all futuristic and fantastical. Alone so much, I naturally have conversations in my head. I love to interview myself about my practice and what it is that I think I am doing. Not about the message or the ultimate meaning of objects, but just what the heck I think I am doing spending all this time alone making things.
    It’s also a sort of sports hero sort of thing. Like practicing one’s backhand against the garage door while playing tapes in one’s head of one’s interactions with the press after a win at Wimbledon. In a way artist’s statements are victory speeches, and anyone who is being shown and gets to make an artist’s statement has, in some small way, won. That may be why I fetishize them. In a way they are the prize, the reward. After all those years of silent labor I finally get to speak! To people! The work, it does its own thing. The artist’s statement is for me alone.
    It’s fun to hear artists spill out these pronouncements formed in months of solitary practice. It’s lovely when they are almost entirely inscrutable, loaded with intent but impossible to parse. In that spirit I paste this one, from the first artist I thought to Google. There are probably lots of great artist’s statements out. An artist confident in his work has no need to make sense in an artist’s statement. This one is loaded with inscrutable truths, my favorite of which is in the opening lines: In life you can do two things. In art you can do one thing — just think of how long and how impatiently the artist must have been waiting to release this gem of an insight into the world.

    150 words on my work: In life you can do two things. In art you can do one thing. There are no decisions to make in art except one–that is the possibility of art, while the actuality (of it) is life-like. And that is why anything connected with art appears paradoxical, although that is not the goal of art. Art is discipline and discipline is drawing. Drawing will change before art will. Discipline is always the same. And we will never know what art is–except as the goal, which is already defined through necessity although not understood, is essentially abstract in nature or naturally abstracted, which is to say life- like, without hope. Because color is the most abstract evidence of/in art and because we are beginning to grasp certain specific abstracted experiences (which appear as forms in art) my work looks the way it does.
    —Richard Tuttle

  14. Lucy – Thanks for the comment.

    remarkably obtuse, not very clever, even unpleasant people

    You can say that again!

    using only beautiful people as models

    Precisely. But seeing more deeply may produce a very different idea of what’s beautiful than a shallow, porn-like view. (Porn-like because the lust is wrapped up with a desire for mastery: I think this is sort of what feminist film critics mean by the male gaze.)

    every good shot just looks like a postcard, and people are always wandering round photographing it

    Imagine if one had never seen a picture of a sunset before, the photos one could take!

    Bill – I think it’s safe to say you’ve done a lot more thinking about artists’ statements than I have. Good stuff! I like your point about the necessary inscrutability of them, and that’s a fun example. Thanks.

  15. One of the most direct statements of an artist about his work was from Willem DeKooning. When asked to explain his Abstract Expressionist images he said that he was most fascinated by the quick glimpses of things as he moved about the city and when back in the studio he found he would slip back into those fleeting images. He said “If you want to describe my work, call me a slipping glimpser.”

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