Art & Inspiration

Isn't There Enough Darkness in the World Already? by Neal Auch

Flowers of Evil: print now  available for purchase .

Flowers of Evil: print now available for purchase.

Isn’t there enough darkness in the world already?

This is a question that has come up from time to time since the inception of this project. It is almost always asked rather pointedly -- a chastisement for what's perceived as a preoccupation with luridness -- and it is usually best ignored. (I’m almost always happy to discuss my work with folks who are genuinely interested, but it seems to me this particular sentiment results more from a knee-jerk reaction to being shocked than it does from a good faith engagement with the meaning of the work.)

Certainly the idea behind this question is fairly superficial and probably doesn’t merit deep dive into philosophy — need we really defend the idea that art can be provocative? Nevertheless, I do think that there’s an implicit assumption behind the titular question/critique that is interesting.

Still Life with Peeled Lemon: print now  available for purchase .

Still Life with Peeled Lemon: print now available for purchase.

The question “isn’t there enough darkness” seems to presuppose that the best antidote to the miseries of the world is the saccharine: feel good comedy, pictures of flowers, uplifting stories, etc. The question “isn’t there enough darkness“ seems to presuppose that the dissemination of dark art somehow adds to the misery of the world, rather than detracts from it. The question “isn’t there enough darkness” seems to presuppose that an interest in the macabre somehow makes the world a darker place, rather than inuring the viewer against the inescapable ugliness of the world.

I think this idea misses the mark. I think the idea that escape from darkness is a solution for societal ill is deeply, deeply naive. And, finally, I think that this kind of sentiment profoundly misunderstands the distinction between art and entertainment.

Rather than focus on the macabre or the grotesque, let’s take the experience of sadness as a representative case study for the function of dark art. There is a world of difference between the sadness provoked by watching the nightly news, and experiencing sadness as beauty in the prose of Beckett (or other great writers).

The difference between these two experiences is anxiety.

The Facebook feed and 24 hour cable news cycle that inundate our lives are carefully honed to maximize anxiety, while the philosophy of memento mori art that informs my work is intended to accomplish quite the opposite.

Still Life with Apples and Pig Hearts: print now  available for purchase .

Still Life with Apples and Pig Hearts: print now available for purchase.

There's an idea in psychology called "Terror Management Theory" that seeks to explain certain kinds of defensive human thinking as resulting from awareness and fear of death. There are loads of peer reviewed studies that claim to connect such existential dread with prejudice, tribalism, and attraction to a certain kind of "charismatic" political figure. (I would hardly be the first person to suggest a role for this effect in the last US election...) For my part, I tend to think of macabre art as a counter measure. In dark times I would argue that we need more dark art, not less.

And, hey, speaking of the world needing more dark art, it just so happens that I sell dark art! Check out my online store! (Hot damn, I daresay that I nailed that transition from philosophy to advertising with all the grace of Alex Jones going from talking about how Obama made the frogs gay to hawking homeopathic boner pills…)

The Idea is Everything: Thoughts on Justine Varga's Maternal Line by Neal Auch

Justine Varga and judge Dr Shaune Lakin standing by her award winning piece Maternal Line.

Justine Varga and judge Dr Shaune Lakin standing by her award winning piece Maternal Line.

The 2017 Olive Cotton Award -- which I gather is some kind of prestigious photo contest in Australia -- was recently awarded to artist Justine Varga for her wonderful work Maternal Line.  (Go here for an article on petapixel.)  In her artist statement Varga explains the piece as follows:

One day, not so long ago, I came upon my maternal grandmother hunched over a table, vigorously testing a series of pens by scribbling with each of them in turn on a piece of paper. Captivated by this busy repetition of gestures, so reminiscent of her character, I asked her to continue her task, but on a piece of 4 x 5 inch negative film. Having left these traces of her hand on this light-sensitive surface, she also, at my request, rubbed some of her saliva on the film, doubling her bodily inscription there. I then processed the film and printed it at large scale. A collaboration across generations, with her born in Hungary and me in Australia, the resulting image looks abstract but couldn’t be more realist; no perspectival artifice mediates her portrayal of herself or our genetic link, with both now manifested in the form of a photograph.

I wanted to talk about this work, and the ensuing controversy, because it speaks to a point I have made somewhat tangentially several times before on this blog: the idea is everything.  Varga's beautifully written artist statement is what elevates Maternal Line from a bunch of scribbles to a thought-provoking and moving piece of art.  It's the idea that makes this a portrait, which is something the judge understood and wisely rewarded.  (It's worth mentioning that the contest came with a $20,000 prize.  So congrats on the prize and the lovely work Justine!)   I have said it before but I'll repeat myself here: regular people who view photography want to see images that speak to them, that are about something, that strike an emotional chord.  The viewer doesn't care about the technical stuff at all, insofar as that stuff doesn't interfere with the meaning of the image.  That stuff only matters to gear-obsessed pro photography nerds.  This truth seems well understood by artists working in other mediums (film, painting, sculpture, music, etc) but somehow the point is utterly lost on a large and vocal segment of the photography community.

In a turn as predictable as it is depressing, certain "pro photog" denizens of the interwebs have taken great exception to Varga's award and have been sending hate mail, both to her and to the judge who selected the piece (Dr Shaune Lakin).  It seems that, in some eyes at least, Varga's work has committed the cardinal sin of photography: this photograph was produce without even using a camera!  However are we to then proceed to critique her choice of lighting modifier!?  However are we to have long protracted debates in the comment section weighing the pros and cons of digital vs analogue!?  Dear god won't somebody please talk about ISO noise, preferably with charts and graphs!?

Of course, complaining that Maternal Line isn't really a photograph completely misses the point.  The piece is about questioning the meaning of what constitutes a photograph.  The fact that folks are arguing in comment sections about whether or not this is technically a portrait speaks to how successful Maternal Line is as an art piece; fuelling this kind of self-reflection and intellectual debate is certainly no cause for criticism.  Note also that the fact that Varga has chosen her grandmother as a subject is telling, since the piece is about not only her own genetic blood line, but also about the artistic lineage and the history of photography that has led up to this work.

At the heart of this "controversy" is the tedious debate about whether photography is an art or a craft.  I've always been baffled by the animus certain "pro photog" types have toward the idea that we're artists.  These same narrow minded folks tend to take great exception to art, like Varga's work, that seeks to push the boundaries of the medium.  It seems to me that this is precisely the kind of exercise artists like us should be engaged in.  Do painters have this kind of argument?  After all, painting is also a technically demanding task that requires a considerable amount of skill and craft, but I'm unaware of any painters who scoff at the idea of making paintings that are about something, or that speak to the human condition.  Perhaps design would be a better analogy, since there is an explicitly practical aim in mind when one creates an iPod or a wine glass or a sports car?  But, rather often, those kinds of utilitarian objects have a certain beauty in their form that is hardly accidental.  Indeed, I know several designers and none of them seems perturbed by recognizing the artistic component of what they do.  

It seems to me completely trivial and without question that photography is art.  Of course it's art, anything can be art.  Art is about intentions and ideas and creativity, it's not about the medium and it's not about the technical stuff.  Getting angry in internet forums and sending hate mail to talented and successful artists won't change that fact.



Anders Petersen and Coping with Harsh Light by Neal Auch

In my last blog post I used Diane Arbus as a jumping off point for illustrating the importance of subject matter in photography.  I might just as well have used the Anders Petersen; he shares Arbus' eye for compelling subject matter in portraiture.  But rather than re-tread ground that I've already covered, I'd like to use Petersen as a case study in clever ways to deal with hard light.

Anders Petersen is perhaps best known for his work Cafe Lehmitz, a series of candid portraits of the denizens of a dive bar in Hamburg's Reeperbahn.   In that work, and throughout much of his career, Petersen works with available light; no doubt carrying around cumbersome speedlight rigs would spoil the raw emotion and spontaneity that make his shots so compelling.  

I want to use the images above to ground a semi-technical discussion on how Petersen often uses unflattering available light to great effect.  First off the obvious: he's shooting in black & white.  It's hardly a new observation that harsh light usually looks better in monochrome and, moreover, one has a lot more latitude with dodging and burning in post-processing.  

The second interesting feature of these images is that Petersen lets the highlights blow out.  He's presumably exposing for the shadows, which are still dark but have a richness of detail and texture.  (In the first image above compare the skin detail on the left side of the woman's face with the right.)  I think this missing information provides a sense of mystery to the images, but it's interesting that Petersen wants to leave the mystery in the brightest parts of the image, not in the darkness, which is rich with detail and on full display.  Perhaps Petersen intends a visual metaphor here?  Too pretentious?

Finally, the last interesting thing I wanted to note about these images is the way Petersen uses the harsh light as a design element.  In the first image note how the single line of line of light (presumably from blinds that are slightly ajar) slices the woman's figure in two.  In the second image note how the slivers of light (presumably from venetian blinds) creates an interesting pattern on the subject's face.  Of course this option isn't always available, but when possible it can be used to great effect, as Petersen has shown us here.  Great stuff.

Diane Arbus' Untitled and the Importance of Subject Matter by Neal Auch

The internet is full of listicles with titles like "10 tips for becoming a better photographer" or "5 tips to make your photographs more compelling", usually focusing the discussion on technical stuff like depth of field, hard vs soft light, the rule of thirds, the importance of having a clean background, etc.  This is all great stuff and I have nothing against articles of this type, but here I wanted to emphasize something that's often omitted (or perhaps left implicit) in these discussions: subject matter.  The most important part of making a compelling image is putting something interesting in front of the camera.  I sometimes think about this in terms of a (decidedly non-vegan) culinary analogy: the subject matter is like the steak, post-processing is like the seasoning, composition/lighting/F-stop/etc are like the cooking process.  If you have a garbage cut of meat then it may well be possible to make a tasty meal, as long as the chef is brilliant and the seasonings are incredible.  However, as a general rule, your dinner is going to end up a lot better if you started with a good steak.  It's the same with photography.  While a great artist can perhaps make interesting imagery out of some completely banal quotidian subject matter, most viewers would probably rather look at a poorly executed shot of something they've never seen before.  Given the choice between a brilliantly composed, well lighted, gorgeously retouched image of a fire hydrant, and a cell phone snapshot of a 6 legged tiger, I'm probably going to ponder over the latter for quite a while longer.

This is certainly not a profound point that I'm making, but I'm often surprised at how often articles about how to create more compelling photographs seem to omit the fact that the most important part of the process has nothing to do with the camera or editing or lighting.  This is the reason that great fashion photographers hire professional models, rather than just shooting their friends and family.  This is the reason that great landscape photographers hike out to amazing vistas, rather than just shooting at the park down the street from their house.  It's no different for fine art photography.

Diane Arbus was a brilliant photographer and her book Untitled makes for a fantastic case study in the importance of subject matter.  This was Arbus' final project: a series of intimate candid portraits taken at residences for the mentally handicapped between 1969 and 1971.  There's a legitimate discussion one could have about whether this work is exploitative, how/if consent was obtained for these shots, and the ethics of photographing the most vulnerable members of society in order to make an art book.  But here I'm going to side-step that discussion and treat the images on their own merits.  (For what it's worth I personally find Arbus' Untitled to be tender and humane and raw, not exploitative, but I am aware that not all viewers will come away with this impression.)

Here are a few images from the book to ground the discussion:

I think there can be little question that these shots are compelling.  And yet, it's easy to nit-pick and find technical "faults" here.  All these images are shot in harsh midday sun, the backgrounds are often messy and distracting, the horizon lines are often crooked, in some cases the subjects are dead centre in the frame, feet and shoulders are cropped out, ...  But I would guess that 99% of viewers don't notice or (like me) don't care about these things because every one of those images is absolutely affecting.  This wasn't a camera setting, and it wasn't something Arbus did in the darkroom, and it's not a trick of composition.  Those portraits are fascinating because Arbus put something fascinating in front of the camera before she fired the shutter.