The Intentional Observer
March 23, 2023
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 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.
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 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.
’Scapism and Photography’s Big Lie
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