Am I Wrong or Wronged? Photography’s Lie of Capture, Part 1

The Intentional Observer
March 23, 2023
Neil Berkowitz

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Ode, Enacted Archival pigment print © 2017 Neil Berkowitz. All Rights Reserved

Each time I respond to an opportunity for funding, exhibition, or an artist residency I am asked to state my primary medium. That makes sense for all sorts of reasons. Then I look at the options that are provided. It is easy for me to eliminate things like dance, music, writing. But I smack my head when I am left only with two: visual arts and photography.

WTF? How are those two exclusive to each other? There is a premise, however shoddy, that supports the distinction: Visual art is a made thing. It grows from the intentions or the expressive actions of the artist. Photography captures. It is made only in the sense of production. Yes, there may be skill used to make that product more visually compelling. But in this view of things, that doesn’t change the essence of the photographic print from document or artifact to something more like art, does it?

The stakes in all this are high. Too high. Each time we accept made things without at least some basic level of consideration of the intention communicated in the making we are ceding a piece of our understanding of our world.

I used to think that I was being unfair to those who ask photographers to choose to identify artistic production as either photography or visual art when I wailed against them. I wasn’t.

Photography has brought this on itself. That isn’t quite true since photography isn’t an entity. But since photography’s inception its practitioners and promoters have welcomed the common perception that it is an imprint of the real. While the idea of imprint suggests a form of making, it transfers the role of the making from the photographer to the thing imprinted. The light coming off the mountain or off the polar bear or off Uncle Mike’s glaring baldspot made the picture—and the imprint—the print—a reliably honest record.

Really?

Shouldn’t the lack of a third dimension, just to mention the obvious, be a dead giveaway? The photograph at the top of today’s post was snapped at a particular moment in a live outdoor performance by The Cabriri, an aerial dance company in Seattle. Even though the focus is a bit off it remains one of my favorites. For me it says so much about how we use and treat our bodies and about the strength and the focus we can bring to our lives. I also love the light, the way it gives the arm and the hands a sense of three dimensional physical presence.

But nothing changes the fact that it is a flat thing, not a human body. It is a made thing. I eliminated the vibrancy of the deep blue silk that the dancer is holding and the lighter blue sky so that they wouldn’t compete for our attention with the shadows on the skin or lose the pink of the toe to more compelling blues. The shadows highlight the muscle tone, the skin, the strength of the dancer—and against the less vibrant tones of the background and the silk the relative values (think of value as contrast) define this human form with greater clarity.

And as to capture there is no way to know whether it is a posed scene or a body in motion other than our perhaps gullible expectations. To my studio photographer’s eye the draining of vibrancy from the sky suggest a studio backdrop, something that pleases me as a nod to the subject as one worthy of our reverence.

There is a twist to this immutable dimensional state of two flat images. There is a distant source of our willingness to ignore the lack of a third dimension and prize the two-dimensional. Consider the creation of cave paintings and what their physical presence could communicate over time. Think of the ways that in more recent cultures two dimensional (and three dimensional as well) objects offered more consistency to the legacy communications that people have created for their descendants than did the oral tradition. But that is for another discussion of made things and how we view them.

I would tell you to take my word for all of this. But I won’t. Instead I will just suggest to you that you take on the responsibility of recognizing that things and ideas are made and of understanding them in that context.

Coming Next:

’Scapism and Photography’s Big Lie

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Bubble Stuff: On Witnessing the Impermanent

The Intentional Observer
Feb 15, 2023
Neil Berkowitz

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Breakfasting with Ghosts in Vienna, two-sided multlayered photographic print © 2022 Neil Berkowitz.

Ok. In my first and only previous column I suggested to you that we consider what it means to live within a world of made things. Now, for reasons that may become clearer as you read, I ask you consider that made things don’t have to meet some minimum lifespan to be valued for what they show us. They can be here and then not here in an instant.

That goes for art too. Think about bubbles. I hope we all had the chance to blow bubbles when we were kids (while I also suspect that some did not—and that it is up to us to see that). We made those bubbles, perhaps collaborating with a parent or competing with a sibling, and the bubbles were beautiful. What awe we felt at we and the elements could make. We watched our creations, seeing both them and the sky differently as they rose or fell. Then they were gone. But we knew that they had been here.

I saw Hannah Höch’s painting, Three Faces, (below) at the Berlinische Galerie, just a block or two away from The Jewish Museum Berlin. Although the painting exists today it isn’t the sort of work that Höch is known for by those who write to tell us what to see. Höch knew at least some of what needed to be actively witnessed at the time of the painting. (Her photo collages in themselves are an opportunity to practice more intentional observation.) I know that her making that image at that time took far greater courage or commitment or acceptance of sacrifice than my viewing of it–but I too was an am a witness. I saw the painting in Berlin during the Jewish high holidays. I had been staying in Mitte, just a few blocks away the Neue Synagogue and in a neighborhood with some Jewish stores.  And around each of those shops, closed throughout the holidays, and around the synagogue, were police with heavy arms.

Berlin at the time that Höch painted Three Faces and at the time of my visit brings us to back to our own countries and our own times. The Seattle Art Museum recently had an exhibition presenting the photography of Carrie Mae Weems and Deywould Bey. On my third and final visit I noticed a series of small, reddish brown marks on the floor, between the seating and the screen, in the installation of video component of Constructing History: A Requiem to Mark the Moment.  It seemed that Weems might have included something that drew a blood connection between the work, the viewer, and the events that Weems was putting in view.

After checking with the a curator at the Grand Rapids Art Museum, which had put together the exhibition, and another at the Seattle Art Museum, whose iteration might have included additional guidance from the artist, I learned that I, not Weems, had added that element. But to me that strengthens my observation and my case for observing deeply. Weems’ art made me connect it to my world and to the space and meanings of the installation. I had asked two women seated on the benches about the blood trail and one said that she had thought the same thing. We each expanded the work and brought into our greater understanding.

What do you blot from your view? Will you stop and witness the everyday rather than just the headlines? Tyre Nichols, Emmett Till, George Floyd, Michael Brown. These are the seen. But like so many other realities, racism and institutionalized hatred, violence, and oppression can be seen by every one of us every day. And yes, I did promise in my introduction last week that The Intentional Observer would not be political. I will keep that promise. But standing up for the humanity of our neighbors isn’t political in any essential way even if it has been passed off as such by partisan politicians and their myth makers.

“Pay attention” may be one of our most important and most neglected lessons.

Resources:

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Take a Look. No, Really, Take a Deep Look!

The Intentional Observer
Post 1: Feb 6, 2023
Neil Berkowitz

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Exhibit Y: Natural History of Puget Sound, multilayer photographic archival pigment print

Everything we see is a made thing. Those pixels. That two foot long receipt for your three items at the drugstore. The items themselves. The drugstore. The corporation that owns the drugstore. That landscape, so sublime, and wild, and exquisitely natural, is a made thing even if it has, miraculously, escaped the direct touch of human hands. When we see it in person we are viewing something that has been shaped by our actions, by our inactions, by the tales we have told around communal fires or turned into song or cave painting or book, by how we surrounded it or cut it off from or fouled what it relies on. And when see it any other way it is a triply made thing, once by forces we shaped and once in its representation.

Ah, number three. If you are agreeing with me then you should also be beginning to consider—or may even have long recognized—that it isn’t just the things around us that are constructions: our vision, too, has been crafted. In non-politicized language we might say that our traditions and our cultures have set up some blinders or filters that shade what we see. Following this a bit further some of us might be willing to suggest that this culture might have some mechanisms that selectively block our view of or redirect our attention from seeing things that might cause too much social upset, that might weaken the culture’s immune system. Some might go further yet: the structures of our societies and of the framework of how we see and think about the world have systems that perpetuate themselves. For the sake of introduction to The Intentional Observer I will perhaps too loosely term that as ideology.

But this site isn’t political. It hopes to be about seeing the world. It wants to encourage and cultivate a personal choice (actually as many personal choices as possible) to practice a more intentional observation of what is around us. And the starting point for that is art. Any art. But visual art is a particularly capable defense against self censorship. If we allow it to art can alert us to what we edit out of our view or ignore, what we leave blurry or obscured or just plain avoid altogether—and to what our cultures’ thought structures camouflage. Better yet, it can not only alert us but can help us form skills that we can apply to anything in our frame of vision.

So The Intentional Observer will be a place to discuss all of this. How can understanding the made nature of things help us to see more deeply and respond with new insight into what we now reveal? Can the making and the viewing of art bring us closer to knowing and improving our daily worlds?

I welcome you in joining me in these dialogs and experiments.

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