Untitled (Headlights), 2006
© Angela Strassheim
It seems to me that many questions about photography — like, for example, the one just discussed by Shane — boil down to the complex of authenticity. I find it quite interesting to see how many people still want a photograph to be absolutely authentic. It has to depict something that really happened or that really exists that way. So “street photography” is taken as more authentic (or honest) than, say, staged photography (a variant of this is the “reality TV” craze, which shows “real” people and their “real” problems). I really don’t know how useful such an approach to photography is. If we were to make authenticity our criterion for what is good and bad photography, we would limit our experience of photography as an art form quite severely.
Point well taken. It’s true, our experience of any medium would be limited by narrowing our criteria for “good” work. But, about this authenticity matter: Photography is a special medium for the reason that in it’s early history, before many attempts at analog (and, eventually, digital) image-effects, it was thought that photographs never told lies. They were believed to be, well, authentic — the most accurate representation of how life looks. The problem with this notion of authenticity is that as we are now more fluent in the language of images and, as a result, we are often more skeptical of the believability of photographs. We know that images can lie. Maybe, then, it’s photography’s youth, prior to image-saturaturation, that compels some people to crave something “real” in photographs — something that doesn’t sell them anything except a moment from the real world?
I must (for the sake of discussion) clarify where Papageorge stands in this as the last quote that I extracted may have not allowed him enough text to elaborate. In this quote he professes that now, as I explained above, “a picture’s not the world, but a new thing.” From Alec’s interview with Papageorge:
I have no real argument against so-called set-up photography, at least as a process. The fact that I’ve had many successful students doing it in different ways I think makes my case. I also think that the reason they’ve felt free enough to work in this way at Yale is because I profoundly believe in—and teach—the proposition that photography is inherently a fiction-making process. Don’t speak to me of the document; I don’t really believe in it, particularly now. A picture’s not the world, but a new thing.
That said—too briefly—my argument against the set-up picture is that it leaves the matter of content to the IMAGINATION of the photographer, a faculty that, in my experience, is generally deficient compared to the mad swirling possibilities that our dear common world kicks up at us on a regular basis. That’s all. Remember, T. S. Eliot made the clear, brutal distinction between the art that floods us with the “aura” of experience, and the art that ‘presents’ the experience itself. ANY artist, I feel, must contend seriously with the question of which side of that distinction he or she is going to bet on in their work. Obviously, I’m with Eliot—and Homer—in this, believing that the mind-constructed photograph almost necessarily leads to a form of illustration, the very epitome of aura-art.
Again, I have to stress that I don’t entirely agree with Papageorge but, rather, enjoy his appreciation for the remarkable possibilities of everyday life. Do staged photographs present an aura of an experience any more than unstaged photographs?
Untitled (Liz passing Ray some Boiled Eggs), 1995 (from “Ray’s a Laugh”)
© Richard Billingham
Additionally, I’m reminded that there are photographers who might fall somewhere else on this spectrum of photography, which complicates the question all together. Last night (after the Easy Rider opening) I had a conversation over dinner about this topic with Bill Sullivan, a photographer who makes work that he feels doesn’t rightly fall into either of the polar categories. Bill brought up the 1972 Walker Evans Retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (the first exhibition at MoMA devoted to the work of a single photographer). Jim Dow, a profressor of mine at the Museum School, printed for Evans from 1970-1972 — made most of the prints used in the exhibition and used in the monograph, Walker Evans. Jim studied under Harry Callahan at the Rhode Island School of Design. Here is an excerpt that Bill sent me from Belinda Rathbbone’s 1995 Evans biography:
Dow quickly learned how difficult it was make a successful print from one of Evan’s negatives. Though Evans had never considered himself a technician, over the years he had developed his own refined approach to processing his pictures, which was dificult for anyone else to follow. His negatives were of widely varying contrast and density: each one seemed to require its own chemical formula. When Dow took his first efforts to the Musem. Szarkowski told him he was on the wrong track. The prints had too much contrast it was as if he were making them for the more abstract photography of Harry Callahan, his former teacher at RISD. Evan’s work called for an entirely different chemistry. Dow learned at one point Evans had used a formula called Amidol, a “compensating” developer. He managed to find a paper had approximately the creamy white quality of the kind that Evans had used in the 1930′s, Illustrator special Azo. Over time and with practice. Dow learned to bring out the subtler contrats of a soft grade paper, to “dodge and burn” the negative under the enlarging lamp to achieve the luminosity and softly graded gray scale of Evans best prints with a similarly apparent effortlessness.
Houses and Billboards in Atlanta, Georgia, 1936
© Walker Evans
That bit aside, what Bill was getting at by bringing up the Evans Retrospective was that by deciding on how to present the surface of an image — no matter how “real” the photograph may be — we alter the world to feel a certain way. The “mastery” of printing, the shades of grey known in Evans work, is a whole stylistic world away from the blacks and whites in Robert Frank‘s photographs. Is one more real than the other?
Lastly, I’d like to pull a short comment from the previous discussion. Horton says,
Would anybody be so vehement about the documentary film being exponentially more moving then a fiction film? I doubt it.