Philosophy of Photography

A Centennial Homage to Duchamps’s “Fountaine”

Urinal at Palmares Shopping Center, Mendoza, Argentina, 2017
Urinal at Palmares Shopping Center, Mendoza, Argentina, 2017

 

One hundred years ago, a urinal (and, later, a Stieglitz photograph of that same urinal) caused quite a…uh…well…”splash” on the New York art scene.

Here is a wiki commons image of that iconic piece of white porcelain signed, in jest, by one “R. Mutt”:

Marcel Duchamp's "Fountaine". Photo by Alfred Stieglitz, 1917
Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountaine”. Photo by Alfred Stieglitz, 1917

 

Duchamp’s “Fountain” was rejected by the Society of Independent Artists (SIA) for their 1917 open exhibition even though the artist had paid the required entry fee. Surprise, surprise, surprise!

What was Marcel Duchamp really up to with this stunt? Well, apparently, it was both a practical joke and a challenge to conventional notions about the nature of art. It certainly prompted a lot of discourse–and burst blood vessels–among the highfalutin museum and gallery elite of the time. (With noses in the air and eyes averted, the SIA board euphemistically referred to the porcelain piss pail as a “bathroom appliance” in order to keep the scandal to a minimum.)

For more background on this incident, see Martin Gayford’s 2008 article in The Telegraph, Duchamp’s Fountain: The practical joke that launched an artistic revolution.

These days, even if you made photographs of actual human turds floating about in toilets I doubt you would raise many eyebrows–at least in New York (in Iowa, maybe).

After all, it would be pretty hard to outdo Immersion (Piss Christ) by Andres Serrano, no? (Dang, and that was 30 years ago now! Just looked it up.)

Photographer Spotlight: Roger Ballen

OK, prepare to be shocked–and very, very impressed.

Ballen’s work is definitely cutting edge and will stretch your idea about what can be done in photography to–perhaps–your breaking point. At a minimum, maybe it will make you stop and think about how many of us so-called artistic photographers (read: “me”) tend to work within self-imposed limits of what is really possible.

We do this…why?

Maybe because we are worried about what others might think…or we worry about ruffling the stiff and furry feathers of societal norms…or maybe we worry about truly facing off with what might be dwelling deep inside us.

At any rate, I chose Roger Ballen for today’s Photographer Spotlight to get us all to think of where we might possibly go with our own personal photography if we eliminated what are largely arbitrary and self-imposed limits.

To start off, here is a short video (2:45) that sheds some light on his world and artistic view, and it also serves as a brief philosophy lesson in that it might also make you think about how you personally make “art”…

You May Be A Photographer, But Are You An Artist?

 

So, who is this Roger Ballen?

He was born in New York City in 1950 and now lives in Johannesburg, South Africa.

From the previous video, you can see why his work has often been labeled very psychological, very dark…although he himself would say he is just bringing out the “shadow side” of humanity. Although, he started as sort of a documentary photographer, his work has morphed into composed, collaborative images that force the viewer to wonder where reality ends and fantasy begins…where the documentary ends and the staged performance begins…

To illustrate further, check out this next video directed by Ballen and featuring the rap group Die Antwoord–a 2011 music video with currently at over 86 million hits on YouTube (and you can read the lyrics HERE):

“I Fink You Freeky” – Die Antwoord

 

Here is a list of Ballen’s major works–in case you have actually gotten this far and are interested in seeing the breadth of his talent:

1986 – Dorps: Small Towns of South Africa

1994 – Platteland: Images from Rural South Africa

2000, revised in 2015 – Outland

2004 – Shadow Chamber

2008 – Boarding House

2013 – Asylum of the Birds

2013 – I Fink U Freeky 

2015 – The House Project

Trouble with your artist statement?

Cherry Creek Mall, Ceiling. Denver, Colorado, 2016
Cherry Creek Mall, Ceiling. Denver, Colorado, 2016

 

First, aim for the sky–or ceiling–and try this site on for size (and a laugh): Artist Statement Generator 2000

Here is what it came up with for me, once I had filled out the form (and fiddled with a few of the entries to fix some grammar/spelling/flow issues):

Daniel Joder’s Artist Statement

Through my work I attempt to examine the phenomenon of Yogi Bear as a metaphorical interpretation of both Edward Weston and mountaineering.

What began as a personal journey of Bullocksism has translated into images of pizza and big toes that resonate with Maori people to question their own blueness.

My mixed media creations embody an idiosyncratic view of Gandhi, yet the familiar imagery allows for a connection between Elvis, glacial lakes and ice cream cones.

My work is in the private collection of Ted Lange who said ‘Wow!, that’s some real befuddling Art.’

I am a recipient of a grant from Folsom Prison where I served time for stealing mugs and tie clips from the gift shop of The MoMA. I have exhibited in group shows at Jack-in-the-Box and Soho Photo Gallery, though not at the same time. I currently spend my time between my bathroom and Berlin.

 

And here is another fun-funny one: Generate Your Artist Biography

My personal result follows–and this one actually smells faintly legit. The unknowing and unsuspecting might even nod solemnly and sagaciously upon reading it!

Daniel Joder, Artist Statement and Biography

Daniel Joder (b.1958, Truth Or Consequences, New Mexico, United States) is an artist who mainly works with photography. By demonstrating the omnipresent lingering of a ‘corporate world’, Joder investigates the dynamics of landscape, including the manipulation of its effects and the limits of spectacle based on our assumptions of what landscape means to us. Rather than presenting a factual reality, an illusion is fabricated to conjure the realms of our imagination.

His photos don’t reference recognizable form. The results are deconstructed to the extent that meaning is shifted and possible interpretation becomes multifaceted. By exploring the concept of landscape in a nostalgic way, he creates intense personal moments masterfully created by means of rules and omissions, acceptance and refusal, luring the viewer round and round in circles.

His works establish a link between the landscape’s reality and that imagined by its conceiver. These works focus on concrete questions that determine our existence. By applying abstraction, his works reference post-colonial theory as well as the avant-garde or the post-modern and the left-wing democratic movement as a form of resistance against the logic of the capitalist market system.

His works demonstrate how life extends beyond its own subjective limits and often tells a story about the effects of global cultural interaction over the latter half of the twentieth century. It challenges the binaries we continually reconstruct between Self and Other, between our own ‘cannibal’ and ‘civilized’ selves.

Daniel Joder currently lives and works in Boulder, Colorado.

 

Seriously, though, I would suggest you spend 15 bucks on this if you want to put together a real, honest-to-Zeus, artist statement: Writing the Artist Statement, by Ariane Goodwin.

The Mundane

Into the Light. Vistoso Condos, Boulder, Colorado, 2016
Into the Light. Vistoso Condominiums, Boulder, Colorado, 2016

 

From Susan Sontag, in her book, On Photography:

“And since the 1920s, ambitious professionals, those whose work gets into museums, have steadily drifted away from lyrical subjects, conscientiously exploring plain, tawdry, or even vapid material.”

“To photograph is to confer importance.”

 

Is it possible to make a passably thoughtful image out of any subject, no matter how mundane, boring, common-place, or apparently empty?

Maybe. Maybe not.

Portraits that Lie? (An Interesting Video)

The camera can and does lie, of course, almost all the time whether we realize it or not. Nearly always, though, it is aided and abetted significantly by the very emotional and unconsciously-biased humanoid operator behind the viewfinder.

The video I have embedded below explores one angle on this phenomena of how the camera can be made to lie–or at least how it can construct parallel visions of reality depending on how certain preconceived notions mix with the personality of the photographer.

In this three-minute clip, six photographers are called in for a portrait session, the subject for all six being the same balding middle-aged man you see in the link. The twist: Each photog is separately told something different about the subject–the man is an ex-con, he is a millionaire, he just saved someone’s life, he is a recovering alcoholic, a psychic, and so on.

The final six prints–which couldn’t have been more different–reveal how each photographer made the camera “tell a lie” about the subject.

Are they really “lies”? Or simply differing perspectives? Food for thought…

For an ongoing online discussion of this video and the idea of cameras as liars, see THIS POST at photo.net.

 

A Criticism (and Defense) of Steve McCurry

Women, #16. Mendoza, Argentina, 2016
Women, #16 (“Dreams in a Box” from my On Women series). Mendoza, Argentina, 2016

 

You may think you don’t know this renowned photographer, but I am betting you do. Remember that famous National Geographic cover of the Afghan girl with the stunning eyes? Well, that was his image.

McCurry is quite famous for these kinds of portraits, as well as his landscape, travel, and documentary photography, often published in Nat’l Geo, books, and other top magazines.

He is quite admired for his work–but the admiration apparently is not unanimous.

Enter a recent article published in the New York Times Magazine (“A Too Perfect Picture”, March 30, 2016), by noted author, photographer, and critic, Teju Cole. He takes McCurry to task for what might be called formulaic eye candy, possibly even posed or set up, that only serves to perpetuate foreign stereotypes (this last phrase, my summary of Cole’s point). Cole even goes so far as to call McCurry’s pictures “boring”.

Wow!

It certainly caused a stir among the photography intellectuals who debate this stuff, including a strong rebuttal from Allen Murabayashi on the PetaPixel site (“In Defense of Steve McCurry”, April 6, 2016).

Let the fireworks on the photography and art forums begin! Time to get the popcorn popping and pull up the recliner…

Actually, among my photographer friends, we often have similar debates and discussions: Why is it that the cliché sunrises and sunsets get mountains of “Likes” among the Facebook masses while an image (as mine above, for example) we might consider much more profound, layered with meaning, subtle, and so on, gets nothing more than the sound of chirping crickets? Why do most viewers gravitate toward the picture-perfect postcard, shying away from work that is more challenging to understand?

Of course, the debate is endless. It depends on your definition of art…your taste in art…the venue where you are viewing the work…what you see as it’s purpose…what makes you feel good…your level of engagement with art and artistic discourse…and myriad other factors.

Me? Well, like many photographers, I would love to have McCurry’s talent, renown, and income! (Although, naturally, my pictures would look nothing like his.) What he does is beautiful and even spectacular and sublime. On the other hand, I also get the notion that these images can also sometimes be seen as idealized, “too perfect”, cultural postcards. So, I am not yet sure where I come down on this debate–somewhere in the middle, I suppose. It is certainly something to ponder.

Check out the links above to the two opposing articles and see what you think.

Postscript: The controversy escalates…There now seems to be a lot of doubt about how Steve McCurry’s images were created, how much staging was involved, how much Photo-shopping occurred after the shot, and so on. This is seen as an important ethical discussion as many if not most of McCurry’s images were published (many in National Geographic) as documentary or photo-journalistic photographs. Obviously, if he were simply a self-declared photographic artist creating creative images, this would be a non-issue–but photojournalism is a different beast with different rules and expectations.

To read an interesting article that shows you some very specific examples of his photo-manipulation as well as a discussion of the issue, see this link: EDITORIAL: Eyes of the Afghan Girl–A Critical Take on the “Steve McCurry Scandal”, by Kshitij Nagar (June 6, 2016).

Four Artists; Four Visions

The great thing about photography is that anyone can do it!

Now, hold your horses there, Buckwheat!

No, I don’t mean that just anyone can go out and make powerful, mind-blowing, supremely-profound, images on Day One. You could be forgiven for thinking this given how easy it is to press the button on your mobile phone camera or on the latest point-and-shoot and get a well-exposed frame on your memory card…and the general uber-ubiquity of photographic images in today’s visually-saturated world.

No, I meant something a bit different.

To wit: Anyone has the potential to make wonderful images because each of us is a unique individual, with unique and very personal life experiences and, therefore, each of us has a one-of-a-kind way of seeing our surroundings. With a bit (years!?) of practice, and self-exploration (“the unexamined life is not worth living”), this personal vision can translate into photographs that no one else could possibly make–even if they were standing right next to you, with the exact same camera and lens.

This idea of individuality = unique personal vision is not new to those with even a tiny bit of background in art. After all, no one confuses a Dalí with a Goya, or a Picasso with a van Gogh…or even a Mozart with a Charles Ives. And the same applies to photography as art–you certainly won’t confuse an Ansel Adams with a Cindy Sherman.

As an example, take a recent outing I had into the foothills above Boulder with three other photographers: Kate Zari Roberts, Dana Bove, and María Rosa Fusté. The four of us carried different machines…Dana with a Canon full-frame DSLR and a macro lens, María with a Sony point-and-shoot, Kate, with her iPhone 6 Plus and various filters and apps, and me with my full frame Nikon DSLR and a telephoto lens.

But, we each carried something far more important–completely different life experiences as men and women in this strange and marvelous world. We all grew up differently, lived in different places, suffered different traumas and embraced different joys, and thus learned to see reality in different ways.

Here, then, is some of what we each saw on that short stroll in the woods:

First, Kate Zari Roberts. She does some incredible things with that iPhone Plus, and her personal style comes across quite clearly…

Daisy. Kate Zari-Roberts, 2015
Daisy. Kate Zari Roberts, 2015

 

Flowers. Kate Zari-Roberts, 2015
Flowers. Kate Zari Roberts, 2015

 

Then, María Rosa Fusté. Nature photography is not really her thing and she was more interested in the social aspect of our walk than the photography, as she herself will readily admit, but you can see an example of what caught her eye here….

Blat (Wheat). María Rosa Fusté, 2015
Blat (Wheat). María Rosa Fusté, 2015

 

Then, Dana Bove. He always does great flower work in color. Today, he also experimented with a monochrome version…

Bells in Color. Dana Bove, 2015
Bells in Color. Dana Bove, 2015

 

Bells in Black and White. Dana Bove, 2015
Bells in Black and White. Dana Bove, 2015

 

Finally, me and my B&W obsession…

Deadhead. Daniel Joder, 2015
Deadhead. Daniel Joder, 2015

 

The Swamp.  Daniel Joder, 2015
The Swamp. Daniel Joder, 2015

 

So, all four of us walked the same path together that day, but we each experienced our surroundings very differently. And your photographs would have been just as different as well!