Keeping it real

June 27th, 2008

My best friend of 25 years is an intelligent, articulate, educated, informed guy. He keeps me honest, and real. He is not one to blow smoke up… well, you know. A few years ago I e-mailed him a photo I had taken of some M&M’s (with peanuts) scattered across the top of a closed laptop. He replied that apparently these days you could take any out of focus photo, crop it arbitrarily, turn it upside-down, and call it “art.” Ouch. That hurt for a day or two, and then I learned from it. OK, so I don’t have the midas touch; not everything I touch turns to gold. It’s fine to experiment, but I was heading down a dead end street. Now when I take a photo I remind myself that honest critics may see and comment upon it. I ask myself what my friend would say.

This morning my friend e-mailed me a series of amazing photos someone had forwarded to him. Many used clever perspective. Others included magnificent vistas. One was taken by an astronaut. Some were probably Photoshopped. Of these photos he wrote:

“… this is really some spectacular stuff — what I think of when I think of the potential of photography. And when I think about it, almost all of these are images that are not “mundane”: they are not things (with a few exceptions) as we would ever see in a straight forward way. I think photography must extend our senses. It can’t look at the world the same way as a naked eyeball. My eyes when they open each morning are not capturing art. And photos that can’t go beyond that simple mirroring of reality will never take us anywhere.”

I have said many times that I avoid the majestic and shun “pretty pictures.” As I wrote in my artist statement, “When you get up close to the perceived ordinary, or glance around as you hurry to work, you may be surprised by the subjects hidden in plain sight.” Most of the subjects of my photos are indeed “mundane.”

Ouch, again? Where does that leave me?

In 1927 and 1930, Edward Weston took his famous Shell and Pepper photos, respectively. Their subjects are simple, ordinary objects. Are they art? He didn’t create the nautilus shell, or the bell pepper; They were created by nature/evolution/God/whatever. He didn’t place the nautilus beneath a raging sea or reflect a looming knife in water droplets misting the surface of the bell pepper. He just took still life photos of them. Weston said that for him, art was in the selection, not the creation.

Edward Weston, Shell, 1927

Edward Weston, Shell, 1927

Let us assume that Weston’s photos are art. If I take a photo of a bell pepper, is my photo art? What about a photo of a pomegranate instead? More generally, if I take any photo that explores the texture or patterns of a common, natural object, is my photo art? Or were Weston’s photos art simply (or primarily) because he did it first?

I am reminded of a story of two Buddhist monks. The master asked the first, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” The young monk extended his hand, palm forward, and stated, “Mu.” The master bowed to him. Then the master asked the second young monk the same question. Thinking that he now knew the correct answer, he also extended his hand and gave the same response. The master then beat him with a cane.

I was recently asked if I thought that Serrano’s “Piss Christ” is art. I replied that I thought it was, primarily because it was innovative and provocative. If I immersed an object in urine and photographed it now, that would not necessarily be art (and I should probably be caned).

Again, where does that leave me?

I’m not an aesthete who says, “I create only for myself”; I live in the world, and I want others to see and enjoy my photos. Maybe even buy them. I value my friend’s opinion, and his voice will remain among the chorus of my internal critics as I’m selecting my subjects, perhaps second only to my own. But as Warhol said, while people are deciding whether they like your art, make more art.

I’ve asked a lot of questions, and I don’t really know the answers to any of them. What I do know is that some photos “speak” to me and some photos don’t. I really liked the photos that my friend sent me but, for the most part, they are not the kind of photos that I am wired to take. As I go about my day, take a walk, work at my day job, some objects stand out. Their shape, pattern, color, texture, intrigue me. I select them, and I photograph them. I may not be Weston, but perhaps I’m wired like Weston. That wouldn’t be so bad.

Michael Singman-Aste
Postdiluvian Photo

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2 responses to “Keeping it real”

  1. Alana says:

    Blake said what straight-ahead prose can’t: “To see the world in a grain of sand and a heaven in a wild flower, hold infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour”.
    Ever watch a barely verbal toddler child collecting pebbles or flowers? They murmur softly “This” (actually “Dis!”) or “That” (actually “Dat!). They are holding a small thing. Someone often shows them little things and says “what is this?” or “what is that?”… and the child doesn’t know the word for quartz pebble or gladiolus, the child only knows the thisness or thatness of it. Straight from the eyes to the heart.
    Sometimes great art doesn’t speak to me; I just don’t seem to have the interior vocabulary to grok it, but I find myself entranced by a piece of moss or the turn of someone’s neck and shoulders. Sometimes a mundane thing is full of meaning. Sometimes craft is all-important; sometimes craft is wanting but the meaning, intention or interpretation feels important. A piece that moves you at age 12 or age 60 may not move you at age 30. The lovely, glorious, rare thing is when you create something because it’s just YES, and someone looks at it and says “ooooh. yes.” And a hundred others might have given it a brief glance and turned away.
    I think, above all, visual art is communication about the things we can’t express in words. Something about essence. I’m hitting a wall here… 😀

  2. Michael Singman-Aste says:

    Alana, you went pretty far before “hitting a wall.” Thank you, as always, for your thoughtful perspective.

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