Sunday, October 17, 2010


Been a while since I last made a post here, due to heading home to the UK last weekend.  However, the fact that I would be spending around 12 hours either waiting in airports, flying or sitting on buses meant that I had plenty of time to read a couple of books that have been on my list for some time.

The first book was purchased when I started the AoP course a year ago and then sat on my shelf glaring at me, having been put back there after reading a couple of paragraphs and thinking, "what have I got my self into".  In fact on a second attempt I found Susan Sontag's "On Photography" to be very readable (although I still have no idea what Plato's Cave is!).  Her style is easy going and well paced, although it does need a degree of concentration to work through.  As with all books of this nature a single read is not enough and this volume needs more careful study, however, I do find myself gradually building a more critical understanding of the values and motivations of photographers.

On Photography

A few take aways from reading the book, at least those that stuck with me, are:

  1. The debate about the truth of a photograph and the degree to which a photograph reveals the subject or the photographers vision of that subject
  2. That photography creates beauty.  Her view is that photographs are rarely deliberately ugly, even if the subject is the artist will frame and manage the composition in such a way to derive beauty from the object.  The Becher's study of industrial objects is a great example of this.
  3. Photographs have become a substitute for experience, even when people visit places of great interest there view is frequently through a viewfinder or LCD screen.  Once the photo is taken they move on not taking the time to truly appreciate the scene for what it is.
  4. The observation that photography liberated rather than threatened painted art by removing the need for painted art to be used as a recording medium.  Photography could provide the mundane portraits and dull landscapes freeing artists.  However, if I was a jobbing artist making a living from commissioned portraits I would have seen this very differently, or gone out and invested in a camera.
  5. Photography concerns itself with people on the edges of society, deemed to be interesting: the poor, the very rich, the odd or the disadvantaged - her commentary on Diane Arbus studied this in detail.  I think perhaps it is not simply an obsession of photographers, but also of the viewer in what we find interesting and ultimately remember as the great images.
The other book thrown into my bag, was John Berger's "Ways of Seeing".  This was a far shorter book, but more difficult to understand, particularly the purely visual essays, I guess my visual vocabulary is still very weak.
Ways of Seeing (Penguin Modern Classics)

This volume had less to say about photography, being primarily concerned with traditional oil painting and how we experience it, however, photography was still a major thread within the text.  Again, here are my most immediate thoughts on what I read
  1. The observation that almost all "great" paintings are actually statements of wealth, look at me, look at my wife and children, look at my possessions, look at my home and land!  Paintings were commissioned objects, paid for by the wealthy to record their status permanently for themselves and family to admire and for other to envy.
  2. This contrasted with the fact that almost all artists who espoused such work lived and died in poverty and that such paintings are far fewer in number.  
  3. He points out that photography has completely transformed how we experience great art, by detaching the image from its context within a building and reducing the artists personal style and presence.   Before photographs, to see a painting you had to travel to it and observe it in situ, now anyone can purchase a book or pull up a web browser.
  4. He also draws a strong parallel in one essay between classical paintings and the structure and form of photographs used as advertising images.  Whilst the content is very similar, and the goal shares a common thread, wealth and envy, there is a key distinction.  Paintings convey existing wealth with the intent that the viewer should envy the subject.  Advertising images, on the other hand, say that you the viewer can be envied, but only if you purchase the product advertised.  Although this used the images of the 70's when the essay was first published, this is still very true, although I think modern advertising depends less upon classical forms.
Two quite different books, but both complementary and thought provoking.  I have just added "Camera Lucida" by Roland Barthes to my book shelf, next on my list, although I suspect this will be more challenging to read and understand!  I have also recently added many photo books by artists that interest me, I plan to start reviewing and recording my thoughts on these over the coming weeks.

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