The stages of photo-making

 

I  usually am working on many photography projects at once, all at different stages of progress. My categories have a vaguely Hollywood sound to them: some projects are just fragments of ideas, often jotted down on a crowded white board. Others are in “development” where I’m experimenting, researching, kicking ideas around in a more focused manner. Later they are in pre-production which is everything prior to having a “negative,” be it film or digital. In the digital world, especially if it involves stitching or other significant processing, this can be a great deal of work.

It also involves the editing of images, or at least as much of the editing you can do before you are actually printing the images (“production”) and seeing the final prints.

I’m at the end of that preproduction, editing stage now with my current project. I started this recent phase with hundreds of prints–all of which I’d already chosen as candidates–so there were layers of editing before this as well. But these were the final run of candidates. Now my job was to shrink this down to some manageable proportion. At first this is somewhat easy. Now that you see the three hundred or so images you see some that are similar, too similar. Some don’t hold your interest as you thought they would. Some just don’t look right. Cut, cut, cut.

The problem is that as cut it gets harder to make the next cut. The ones that remain are increasingly ones that you have strong feelings about. They are special to you. A few you need to cut because you note problems or see overlap. A few you cut because you recognize that they don’t really make the grade no matter how you feel about them. You squeeze and squeeze until you can squeeze no more. And there are still too many. More needs to be cut.

At some point in this process I usually print all of the candidate images in low contrast versions and put them on a wall or stack them somewhere where I can flip through them again and again. I want to see them, to live with them. Even a week or two will surprise you. As you walk by several times a day, glancing over the images, certain ones will continue to grab you, certain ones will continue to offer up interest upon examination. Others will grow weak, will grow stale upon repeated viewings.

I’ve been keeping this project in a portable stack of 8x10s the past two weeks. I’ve spread them out here so you can see them. I’ve already noted several images that I probably will cut but I’m giving them more time. Things come and go.

A wild, unpruned tree

When reading an author on an important topic and that author tends to agree with me on important issues, I tend to think that that author is a genius. Paul Johnson, the author of Art: A New History is such a genius.

I don’t make a habit of reading art history survey in books big enough to need their own wagon to cart about but I came across this one at a used book store and thought, “Why not?” The last such survey I had read was the standard Janson’s way back when I was in my early twenties. I know this because since I didn’t go to art school the Janson book was not a textbook to me, it was a birthday gift. From my mother. Her handwritten inscription wishing me a happy 21st is still there, inside the front cover.

 

Janson is a slog. He covers everything it seems, from the obscure to the well-known. Everybody gets their little paragraph, everything has its own movement and category. Academics love to categorize and define and this book has probably adorned more art school desks than any other. But no one reads Janson for pleasure. Fewer still read it cover to cover (although, I confess, as a foolish young man, I did just that).

So imagine, as a budding photographer, you have made your way past late Byzantine painting, you’ve studied the polish of the work of Luca Della Robbia, you’ve tried to imagine the world of Le Nain, all the while looking forward to the emergence of photography. Finally, in the last, tacked on chapter you are there. Janson mentions Robert Frank, he mentions W. Eugene Smith. He covers all the required ground. And then you reach the end, the very last page in the nearly eight hundred page book–where Janson, or at least his son, metaphorically kicks you in the teeth.

The last section is on David Hockney, the English painter then living in California who had begun to make photo colleges a few years before. The two paragraph section begins:

The most recent demonstration of photography’s power to extend our vision has come, fittingly enough, from an artist.

From an artist. I remember, way back in 1986, reading this. I read it twice. Then, involuntarily I scowled “F___ you, Janson” aloud.

Not a good way to end a tedious and often unrewarding journey.

So you can see why I might be reluctant to embark on another of these epic reads. But I’m glad I did, though I’m only halfway through.

Johnson’s Art, A New History is a pleasure to read. His joy and fascination with art comes through clearly. He eschews the categorization and definitions that are grafted onto art history and just tells the story. Like Janson, Johnson’s book is a weighty one, with almost the same page count. But though they cover the same ground the books could not be more different.

I can make the point no more simply and no more clearly than to touch on an equivalent passage from each, so that their style and approach are in direct comparison.

Here’s Janson’s opening lines on Dürer:

 ALBRECHT DÜRER: For Dürer (1471-1528) the Renaissance held a richer meaning. Attracted to Italian art while still a young journeyman, he visited Venice in 1494/5 and returned to his native Nuremberg with a new conception of the world and the artist’s place in it. The unbridles fantasy of Grünewald’s  art was to him “a wild, unpruned tree” (he used this phrase for painters who worked by rules-of-thumb, without theoretical foundations) which needed the discipline of the objective, rational standards of the Renaissance. Taking the Italian view that the fine arts belonged among the liberal arts, he also adopted the ideal of the artist as a gentleman and humanistic scholar. By steadily cultivating his intellectual interests he came to encompass in his lifetime a vast variety of techniques and subjects. And since he was the greatest printmaker of the time, he had a wide influence on sixteenth-century art through his woodcuts anbd engravings, which circulated everywhere in Europe.

Johnson, by contrast, does away with any encyclopedic entries. He introduces Dürer with great fanfare and true feeling and then has him head off to Italy–and asks “Why?” Johnson then frames the exciting developments happening there, in northern Italy, which are covered in the next several chapters before returning to Dürer, as he returns to Germany.

Janson is making a list. Johnson is telling a story.

If you’ve read Janson’s History of Art, give yourself the pleasure of reading Johnson’s Art: A New History. If you haven’t yet waded through an art history tome–and if you are a photographer you might really want to consider doing so–then maybe Johnson is the one to try.

(Note: I just checked the Amazon prices. Wow! And double wow! The first wow is the price of the Janson–ready for this: $134.89–and that is discounted. The second wow is the price of the Johnson: it is listed as  bargain book for only  $15.98. You decide….)

Dürer was a photographer

If Albrecht Dürer were alive today he would be a photographer. I’m sure of it. I’ve been a fan of Durer’s work for many years and have always felt he was a kindred spirit, shaking off the pomposity of the Church, reveling in his status as an artist, as a thinking person.

So I was thrilled to discover a work by Dürer that I was unfamiliar with. It came today in Harvard Magazine. (Graduates of that esteemed institution of learning get a free subscription to the journal, unbidden, apparently for life.* Some students, I have heard it said, misspend their time in Cambridge and view the monthly arrival of their copy as a sort of consolation prize.)

There it is on page forty-two, in full-page splendor. It is a woodcut, a map of the heavens showing the constellations and many small numerical notations, apparently indicating the locations of stars. It is the first printed star map.

 

Along with it are pictures of etchings from around 1600 showing the goings on of a print workshop, a portable, cylindrical sundial for travelers, Dürer’s famous Rhinoceros, where he boasted it was drawn from life (that is, drawn based upon actual observations rather than imagination), and a startling engraving of what appears to be a sperm whale washed ashore in the Netherlands–I was surprised later on to learn that sperm whales still exist in the Mediterranean.

All of this is part of a new exhibit at the Sackler Museum (not the Sackler that is part of the Smithsonian–the Sackler that is part of Harvard University). Entitled Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge in early Modern Europe, the show seeks to show the connections between science and art–an attention to anatomical detail, illustrations of scientific instruments and their uses, a pride in the depiction of and use of cutting edge technology such as the printing press. Science and art were stumbling ahead together.

If gives one a jolt to think of how much has been lost, how far art has drifted. Today, five hundred years after Dürer cut his star map, the pecking order is oh so different. A physicist thinks he’s the best. A chemist eyes the physicist with envy. An economist dreams of being a hard scientist. A sociologist pretends to use the methods of economics, hoping for respect. And an artist apes the movements of the sociologist or, worse, the political scientist. Five hundred years is a long, long time.

What also struck me, looking at the pages of the article and at its excellent illustrations, was that I was, in spirit, looking at the beginnings of photography. For it was here that artists began to take seriously the idea of scientifically accurate depictions of nature. It was here that the drive toward realism took deep root as artists strove to increase their ability to offer a depiction of the world that mirrored that world. Two and a half centuries later photography offered a chance to make a great technological leap toward achieving that aim.

See for yourself. The article and all of the illustrations (plus many more) are online at Harvard Magazine’s web site.**

 

(P.S. I ordered the show’s catalog, Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge in Early Modern Europe (Harvard Art Museum)
–said to be of exceptional quality even though it is in softcover only. Through the magic of Amazon it will be here in less than twenty-four hours. I’ll report back when I have a look at it.)

*This is one of the mechanisms through which the hidden powers-that-be, with whom your humble narrator is complicit, organize themselves and secretly rule the world. Just thought you’d like to know.

**Sorry–you don’t get the secret password to the Illuminati’s Twitter feed in the online version.

Does Robert Hughes care about photography?

From time to time I would like to share books that I am reading, want to read, or which have arrived and am about to begin reading. It is that last case I’d like to start with–a first impression of one that came today.

Having spent some time in Rome this summer I was pleased to see that Robert Hughes has written a book on Rome, its history, its art, and his personal experiences in the city.

But now that I see the book, now that I hold it in my hand, I have mixed feelings. While I look forward to reading the text itself the photographs which are inserted in the book are a letdown. Low quality, poorly color corrected and dull. Saint Theresa at Santa Maria della Vittoria is made from a peach-pink colored marble? Not when I was there.

The biggest surprise is the image of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. It is so monochrome in its browns that at first I thought it was a toned black and white image. But, no. It appears to be merely an image from before the restoration of the ceiling. Does the publication of this older image of the ceiling indicate that Hughes disapproves of the restoration? A quick check of the text shows just the opposite–he strongly favors the cleaned version of Michelangelo’s work.

So is this just sloppiness on the part of the publisher (the publisher is Knopf, the image source is Art Resource, NY)? Or do the quality of the photographs not matter?

 

Rome: A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History, by Robert Hughes, at Amazon.com.