Tim Carpenter sent me a long, comprehensive and excellent article which explains in detail the theoretical and practical motivations that underlie his vision of photography and his last project: a most serene republic.
Among other things, Tim Carpenter discusses in particular the idea of “Beauty” and “apparent ease of execution” derived from Robert Adams’s essays. A few weeks ago Maury Gortemiller sent me another long article, No Anthem/Speed Queens, that is also largely inspired by the same ideas by Robert Adams. I think it is particularly interesting to read the two articles side by side, notice how starting from very similar assumptions two different authors write two quite different articles, but especially how they end up with two very different photography style and body of work.
Following text and photos by Tim Carpenter.
A still, small voice: thoughts on making photographs
In a piece called “A great amnesia,” the novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson writes:
I have often wondered in what way forgotten history abides, and what the consequences are of its being forgotten or brought to mind again. I have always felt that people somehow immortalize themselves in a landscape, that the mere fact of a specific human presence in a place leaves it changed. Walt Whitman was right about everything, never more so than when he celebrated the epic and melancholy beauty created in a place by all the transient multitudes and generations that pass through it. Anonymity is beautiful, and so are names. Universalism is beautiful, and so are particulars. [emphasis mine]
Robinson’s works – “Home,” “Gilead,” and particularly “Housekeeping” – have all explored the marks that people leave on the landscape and the ways in which environment affects character. My personal interest is in making portrait and landscape photographs that communicate this relationship between person and place. In that endeavor, I hope above all to express the universal through the particular.
In considering what it means for a photograph (or any work of art, for that matter) to express something universal, I have been deeply influenced by the texts of Robert Adams and Gerry Badger, as well as the thoughts of Heinz Liesbrock, Robert Lyons, Stephen Shore, and John Szarkowski. In this essay, I draw upon their writings in order to approximate an idea of photographic transcendence through the closely related concepts of “beauty” and “quietness” and what they mean for photographic truth and presence. I will then try to explain the practical implication – “economy” – of these ideas for the working approach to my project “a most serene republic.”
In the seminal essay “Beauty in Photography,”1 photographer Robert Adams asserts that “beauty” is another word for the coherence and structure underlying life and the beauty that concerns the artist is one of this structure or “Form.” I am forever moved by Adams’s poignant supposition that Form is beautiful because “it helps us meet our worst fear, the suspicion that life may be chaos and that therefore our suffering is without meaning” and further that:
the Form toward which art points is of an incontrovertible brilliance, but it is also far too intense to examine directly. We are compelled to understand Form by its fragmentary reflection in the daily objects around us; art will never fully define light… [so it must be judged] by whether it reveals to us important Form that we ourselves have experienced but to which we have not paid adequate attention. Successful art rediscovers Beauty for us.
That sort of language may verge on the esoteric, but Adams is firmly grounded in the real. In my favorite line in the essay, he says, “With a camera, one has to love individual cases.” In meaningful photographs, then, the beauty of the universal is made manifest by the beauty of the particular. Adams continues: “The abstractions of art are constructed of specifics, concrete examples that are believable as individual facts, or strongly seem so.” From the real world, “art takes liberties to reveal Form.” Indeed, the very act of photographic composition is the “careful sorting out in favor of order.”
In “The Nature of Photographs,”2 photographer Stephen Shore echoes these sentiments. “A photographer standing before houses and streets and people and trees and artifacts of a culture imposes an order on the scene – simplifies the jumble by giving it structure.” And, famously: “In bringing order to this situation, a photographer solves a picture, more than composes one.” [emphasis mine]
In the influential “The Photographer’s Eye,”3 the great curator John Szarkowski (also a fine practitioner in his own right) writes beautifully on the iterative historical process that shaped the thoughts about form shared by Adams and Shore. “From his photographs, he [the photographer] learned that the appearance of the world was richer and less simple than his mind would have guessed. He discovered that his pictures could reveal not only the clarity but the obscurity of things, and that these mysterious and evasive images could also, in their own terms, seem ordered and meaningful.”
This can all get fairly complicated fairly quickly, but I do believe that these writers bring real pragmatism to defining for photographers a notion as slippery and abstruse as beauty.4 I will return to Adams, Shore, and Szarkowski for commentary on photographic truth and the role of the photographer, but now I turn to Gerry Badger for thoughts on how a photographer concerned with order and form – with meaning – might approach his or her work.
The quiet photograph
Badger might well get an approving nod from Adams when he asserts that “the concreteness of photography, its awkward specificity, must surely be its glory” and that “to come close to an understanding of photography’s singular qualities” one must understand the ideology of the quiet photographer.
In “The Art that Hides Itself – Notes on Photography’s Quiet Genius,”5 Badger (not himself a photographer, to my knowledge) writes lucidly in explanation of and persuasively in favor of this ideology. Quiet photography, he says in explanation, is “partly a question of style, more a question of voice” and that “the voice is not of a hectoring kind… the artistic persona from first to last is modest, self-effacing.”6 And to be clear: “The quiet photographer does not lack a voice, nor emotional engagement, but deliberately relegates it and allows it to emerge through the subject, rather than imposing it from the outside and thereby potentially confusing the issue.”
Badger, more passionately animated than Adams in his consideration of the engagement of subject by the photographer, makes a compelling case for the quiet photograph.
The essence of the quiet approach is that the world, the subject, is respected as much as possible… there is emotion enough in the subject to make the point… the quiet photographer respects and trusts the subject – and for that matter, himself… The primary involvement of the quiet photographer – transcending the merely formal – is with reality, and simple, unfettered reality can be uncomfortable.
Respect, emotion, trust, discomfort. If these aren’t good reasons for making this sort of photograph, I don’t know what would be. But how are they manifested in photographs? I believe that it is by virtue of the photographer’s authorial presence.
Truth and presence
At the beginning of his “Towards a Personal Vision” workshop in April 2008, the photographer Robert Lyons said, “There’s the truth, and then there’s your truth.” Not too much later, he asserted that “In a strong picture, the photographer is invisible.” These two statements have driven my thinking ever since. So I’d like to now focus on the relation of truth to the beautiful and the quiet, and to the presence of the photographer in a photograph – ideas which I’m indebted to Lyons for bringing together.
Much has been written about the “problem” of truth in photography. John Szarkowski summed it up nicely: “Our faith in the truth of a photograph rests on our belief that the lens is impartial, and will draw the subject as it is, neither nobler nor meaner. This faith may be naïve and illusory (for though the lens draws the subject, the photographer defines it), but it persists.”7
That faith is indeed illusory (as it was even in the pre-Photoshop era), but I don’t think it matters that much. I’m with Robert Adams when he writes, “The job of the photographer… is not to catalogue indisputable fact but to try be coherent about intuition and hope. This is not to say that he is unconcerned with the truth.”8 To me, Lyons’s “your truth” is the same as Adams’s “coherence about intuition and hope.” In another essay, “Truth and Landscape,”9 Adams explains that the work of a photographer involves many choices before the shutter is released, and he asserts that:
Behind these decisions stands the photographer’s individual framework of recollections and meditations about the way he perceived that place or places like it before. Without such a background there would be no knowing whether the scene on the ground glass was characteristic of the geography and of his experience of it and intuition about it – in short, whether it was true. [emphasis mine]
This quotation is useful not only because it gets at the practical (in the sense of the real practice of photography – i.e., releasing the shutter) nature of photographic truth, but also because it supports the notion of the photographer’s presence as perhaps inextricably entwined with truth, and thus speaks to the requirement of persuasiveness in a meaningful photograph. Back to Adams: “Making photographs has to be, then, a personal matter; when it is not, the results are not persuasive. Only the artist’s presence in the work can convince us that its affirmation resulted from and has been tested by human experience.”
Gerry Badger considers the topic of authorial presence with the analogy of mirrors and windows. In the former, the artist is making a statement about art through the world. In the latter, the artist makes statements about the world through art. Can you guess which approach is “quiet”? Badger helpfully cites Bernd and Hilla Becher, Andreas Gursky, and pretty much the whole Düsseldorf school as exemplary of the mirror style. Further, he contrasts the objectivity of the conceptual photographer (the Bechers, Gursky) which is “active, a stylistic conceit” with that of the quiet photographer (not only Adams and Shore, but also Lee Friedlander, Nicholas Nixon, and Judith Joy Ross; and on back to Walker Evans and Eugène Atget), which is “passive, an ethical imperative.”
The curator Heinz Liesbrock addresses presence while echoing ideas of the real world and structural coherence: “The genuine artist draws his criteria from what is visible itself, submitting himself to it in his own will to achieve form – a will that is, after all, an essential precondition for any work, and he then allows this will to appear as a message that comes from nature itself.”10 Writing specifically about Stephen Shore, Liesbrock continues:
What he is attempting to achieve is a balance between the external world and the photographic author, or, to put it more precisely, an absolute point at which the photographer, with his personal tendencies and preferences, withdraws behind the visible world, and dissolves himself into the formal structure of the images – which also means, precisely, that he makes himself present in it.
Which brings us to those “tendencies and preferences.” Shore writes that “When photographers take pictures, they hold mental models in their minds; models that are the result of the proddings of insight, conditioning, and comprehension of the world.” The ever-pragmatic Szarkowski cuts to the chase: “the central problem is a simple one: what shall he [the photographer] include, what shall he reject? To quote out of context is the essence of the photographer’s craft.”
David Foster Wallace wasn’t speaking of photography when he delivered the 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College, but I think he had the same concepts in mind when he said that true freedom “means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.”11
Conscious and aware. Badger is on the same wavelength when he says that the quiet voice is “a matter of deliberate choice, guided by sensibility and temperament” and thus “a simple straightforward act of recording is anything but.” Shore memorably states that making a photograph is “a complex, ongoing, spontaneous interaction of observation, understanding, imagination, and intention.” [emphasis mine]
So how does the photographer (i.e., myself) who is interested in truth and a quiet presence actually go about making photographs? Robert Adams lays out three measurements for successful photographic work. The third, my concern in this essay, is “apparent ease of execution… an artwork should not appear to have been hard work. I emphasize ‘appear’ because certainly no artwork is easy to make.”12
Adams goes on to say that great work is “marked by an economy of means, an apparently everyday sort of relationship with subject matter” and that “only pictures that look as if they had been easily made can convincingly suggest that Beauty is commonplace.” Szarkowski puts a slightly different spin on it: “The photographer’s vision convinces us to the degree that the photographer hides his hand.”
Badger is there to back them up: the quiet photograph “does not draw undue attention to process, nor to the process of apprehending the resultant image by the viewer.” The primary goal of the quiet photographer, he says, is “‘thereness’ – a sense of the subject’s reality, a heightened sense of its physicality. That we are looking at the world directly, without mediation. Or rather, something other than a mere photographer is mediating.” He calls for an “illusion of transparency, but not a dumb or mute transparency.” And recall from an earlier citation Badger’s assertion that the imposition of a loud authorial voice actually confuses the issue.
Three barriers to a quiet thereness in photography are enumerated by Badger. But because they’re primarily negative prohibitions, I’m going to leave them to the reader’s further scholarship. It’s much more interesting for me to discuss the positive – the “conscious and aware” – methods I have settled on over the years in order to make the pictures that seem most “right” to me.
My project: a most serene republic
I think that photographic methodology can be divided (although maybe not entirely neatly) into two sets of issues: technical and intellectual. The technical basics: I use a neutrally balanced slide film stock (Kodak Ektachrome 100) in a medium-format rangefinder camera (a Mamiya 7ii) with a fixed, normal lens (80mm in medium format). My goal is to produce photographs that 1) have a true color palette (“true” color is of course in the eye of the beholder; I’m frequently asked if I desaturate my images); 2) are as distortion-free as possible (thus the normal lens); and 3) are very sharp and detailed throughout the desired depth of field (which is quite deep in the landscapes and considerably shallower in the portraits). This equipment allows me – I hope – to keep from drawing undue attention to process. I do feel that it’s about as neutral13 an approach as one can take, without perhaps going to large format.14
Discussing the intellectual issues is more difficult. But there are two concrete examples of how the work in “a most serene republic” differs from my older 35mm work that might be relevant. The first is related to the camera, and here’s where the line between technical and intellectual issues gets fuzzy. The Mamiya is a rangefinder with a small and unpredictable spot meter. Manual focusing and metering take a while (not to mention often using a tripod). But that extra time was a revelation; I found that the slowness of operation (as compared to a 35mm with a fast autofocus lens) demanded that I take longer to consider the composition, to “solve the picture.” It took a lot of trial and error, but I found that my photographs gradually improved with respect to meaningful structure.15
The 4 to 5 aspect ratio of the viewfinder also shook up my thinking. While I still center the subject in many of my photographs, I also explored landscape images that make use of the entire picture plane – photographs that Lyons likes to call “democratic.”16 I find that these attempts to uncover Form in seemingly chaotic subject matter are the most difficult to pull off – and the most rewarding when successful.
The other example involves time; in my case, ample free time to simply make photographs. In 2008, I made two three-week trips with my father around the United States and Canada – just to photograph. I found that shooting for many days in a row helped me to realize and shed some of my worst image-making habits. The first few rolls did in fact yield unremarkable results and I see now that only when I got bored with old working methods did new ways of seeing and composing become imperative.
The results of the first trip were promising. Robert Lyons helped me to critically assess and edit the work, and to develop the “story” that I wished to tell with the photographs. A set of twelve images were included in the inaugural Portfolio Show of the Center for Fine Art Photography and other recognition followed. (The one that made me happiest: a mention from a juried contest for “emerging photographers over 35.”) With this feedback, I was able to be more focused on the second trip, and to explore a unifying voice for my landscape and portrait work.
This is all still very much a work in progress. I’ve come to understand that this will be a lifelong pursuit with no set conclusion or expected answers. Once more from Robert Adams:
The Form [that beauty in art] affirms is not neatly finished, at least to our eyes. It does not lead directly to a theology or a system of ethics (though it reminds me of the wisdom of humility and generosity). William Carlos Williams said that poets write for a single reason – to give witness to splendor. It is a useful word, especially for a photographer, because it implies light – light of overwhelming intensity.
I don’t think any of this is easy. Being conscious and aware and intentional all the time is probably beyond human capabilities. Splendor might be unattainable (and perhaps it should be). But the effort is worth it; it has to be. As the essayist and short story author George Saunders writes, “Mostly we’re asleep. But we can wake up.”
- Robert Adams, “Beauty in Photography” from Beauty in Photography (Aperture, 1996). [↩]
- Stephen Shore, The Nature of Photographs (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998). Phaidon has reissued an expanded edition that’s very nice. [↩]
- John Szarkowski, The Photographer’s Eye (The Museum of Modern Art, 1966). There is a crisp, current, in-print edition, but I love the old copies, which seem to be relatively easy to find in used book stores. [↩]
- Early in “Beauty in Photography,” Adams confronts the issue head-on: “Aesthetics is a distrusted discipline in the studio because it seems inevitably to lead away from the works of art produced there. Relatedly, the discipline of aesthetics seems to artists to inhibit creation; many writers and painters have demonstrated that thinking long about what art is or ought to be ruins the power to write or paint.” Yet, he says, ”We all have to risk thinking if our efforts are to have any shape at all.” [↩]
- Gerry Badger, “The Art that Hides Itself – Notes on Photography’s Quiet Genius” from How you look at it edited by Thomas Weski and Heins Leisbrock (Distributed Art Publishers, 2000). This terrific book is out of print, and Badger’s essay is, I’m sad to say, nowhere to be found online. Well worth a trip to the library. [↩]
- The germ of this idea, it seems, has ancient roots; the title of this essay comes from I Kings 19, concerning the voice of god, which is not found in wind, earthquake, or fire, but is simply “a still small voice.” But I’m an atheist, so you probably should go look that one up if you want to quote the whole thing. [↩]
- Long tangential footnote that wouldn’t quite fit in the main body: Gerry Badger approvingly quotes from John Stathatos, who says that photography has a “unique relationship with reality, a relationship which has little to do with ‘truth,’ visual or otherwise, but everything to do with the emotional charge generated by the photograph’s operation as a memory trace.” Badger asserts that “the photographic trace provokes the certainty that something existed, yet it is only a simulacrum of reality and not reality itself.” He then reminds us of Roland Barthes’s provocation that “not only is the Photograph never, in essence, a memory, but it actually blocks memory, quickly becomes a counter-memory.” I think Barthes is probably right, and yet I feel that photographs of the kind discussed in this essay are still the best defense against the “great amnesia” feared by Marilynne Robinson. [↩]
- Allow me here to mourn (appropriately, I think, in a footnote) the irreplaceable David Foster Wallace, who made the same point: “Really good fiction [would] find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it.” [↩]
- Robert Adams, “Truth and Landscape” from Beauty in Photography (Aperture, 1996). [↩]
- Heinz Leisbrock, “That you o’erstep not the modesty of nature: Stephen Shore’s Concept of the Image” in Stephen Shore: Photographs 1973-1993. This one is out of print, too, and I didn’t try to find it online. Anyway, Leisbrock’s assertion reminds me of the standard dichotomy in modern art scholarship – recounted (and mostly rejected) in Kirk Varnedoe’s remarkable Art About Nothing – between the heroic, expressionistic Jackson Pollock/Mark Rothko axis and the hip, ironic Jasper Johns/Robert Rauschenberg axis. Hard to think of Pollock as “quiet,” but indeed his artistic will “appears as a message that comes from nature itself.” Cerebral hipness does anything but. [↩]
- You can find the entirety of this speech online, or in the book This Is Water (Little, Brown, and Company, 2009). It takes perhaps 20 minutes to read. It will change your life. [↩]
- I’m going to punt on the first (freshness) and second (scope, or the diversity of elements reconciled by the work), as they could easily be the subjects of entire essays, and, truth be told, Adams sort of punts on them as well. [↩]
- I’m keenly aware that use of the word “neutral” almost never is. [↩]
- I must note that the idea of using a 67 camera for my project belongs entirely to Robert Lyons. After studying my 35mm work and working with me to define my goals and vision, he thought that a switch to medium format could help me better realize that vision. This is a prime example of how an experienced and thoughtful teacher can help a photographer to improve and advance. [↩]
- This is why it’s unsurprising that two of the most accomplished and interesting young photographers – Richard Renaldi and Alec Soth – use an 8×10 camera, which is slower yet than the 67. [↩]
- The sense of “democratic” here (regarding single images) differs from its perhaps more famous use in relation to the work of William Eggleston, in which an entire project is democratic, meaning that no type of subject matter is any more or less important than any other when considering hundreds of pictures. [↩]