Monday, February 02, 2004

Pretty Pictures

While I would be loathe, not to mention sadly outgunned in taking on AC Douglas on a question of "what is art"?, I would be willing to put in my 2 pfennigs in on a question of technique. In today's archived post (read it here), he discusses at some length whether color, landscape photographs can be art. He writes, and I quote at some length,
First, and easiest to tell and understand, is that, unless something abstract is intended, by the very fact of the photographs being color photographs of nature subjects, they're incapable of nuanced manipulation, and the color image rendered is just about guaranteed to be hyper-real in both saturation and hue, and therefore just about guaranteed irredeemably vulgar. Color photographs of nature subjects almost always are (I say almost to allow for the unlikely possibility that somewhere, by someone, there exists a color photograph of a nature subject that's not irredeemably vulgar).

Further, the color rendered in the image under any given natural lighting conditions is determined entirely by the manufacturer's "build" of the emulsion and its subsequent absolutely rigid processing, and the results are therefore exactly the same for all users, only extremely limited post-processing alteration of the color image being permitted with negative stock, and none at all with positive. (One can, of course, go to a third-generation print from an internegative made from the positive, in which case the extremely limited post-processing alterations possible using original negative stock would obtain, but with all the deterioration of image quality that third-generation implies).

Also, and perhaps more importantly, brightness ranges in nature are the most extreme of any location, and color stock, both negative and positive, but especially positive, can handle only a very limited portion of that range (as compared with black-and-white stock), brightnesses at the top of the actual scale going very quickly and abruptly to detail-less and texture-less off-color whites in the image, and at the bottom, to detail-less and texture-less blacks.

And so the image color and capturable brightness range are, ultimately, rigidly determined by the manufacturer of the film (and of the paper as well in the case of color prints), the putative artist being entirely at the mercy of the emulsions he uses, and therefore having to accept whatever color image those emulsions and their rigid processing produce, unless he chooses to go a manifestly abstract route, in which case the nature photograph becomes not a nature photograph at all, but something quite different.

Less easy to understand for many is the fact that a color photograph, unless manifestly intended as an abstraction, pretends to reality; that is, it pretends to render with fidelity things in the natural world as seen normally by the eyes of Homo sapiens, and it's due that very fact that the messing about with the color image is so severely limited. Go beyond that narrow limit and the color rendering is perceived instantly as in some way "wrong" or, worse, inept.

This problem, as well as the others noted above, is not a problem when working with black-and-white materials, negative and print, as a black-and-white print is instantly perceived as an abstraction from the get-go, and therefore the range and degree of manipulation of the image for expressive purpose -- both in- and out-of-camera, and at just about every stage of production -- is, at bottom, and within widely separated boundaries, limited only by the expressive gift and technical skill of the photographer.

The upshot of all this is that any color photograph of a nature subject, except in the rarest of instances (I'm again covering my ass here; I've never actually encountered such an instance), is just about guaranteed to have about it a sense of sameness with other such color photographs, and have about it as well a sense of the mechanically constrained, both of which are art-destroying at the most fundamental level.

I am certainly not going to offer up one of my own works on the alter of deconstruction, and I share much of his view that black and white photography lends itself better to the abstraction required to create art. And by limiting the discussion to landscapes, perhaps he makes his argument by not allowing for more specific compositions that can create some puzzle in the viewers eye.

However, I would argue that even with landscapes, the photographer has several artistic tools at his hand. While color positives do have very little latitude in processing and the photographer has limited control over the actual color reproduction, by the very choice of a specific emulsion, the photographer can exert a level of control. Saturation levels and color behavior are very specific from brand to brand and from film type to film type. Secondly control of lighting is in the hands of the artist. So much of landscape photography is about capturing a moment in time, a specific point in time when the light is just right. Further, the use of filters can create a level of abstraction that can make a landscape something other than a gaudy reproduction of a scene, better suited to Sunset Magazine than MoMa. And finally the landscape photographer creates his composition by picking his point of view and his choice of lens.

These factors can combine to create images that pass the "jabberwocky" test. I would perhaps suggest the work of William Eggleston and some of the other artists of the new topography school, a number of whom worked in color as well as black and white. These are not pretty pictures of Yosemite or Scotland, but images of our suburban landscape. I guess it is what the meaning of landscape is. And if you insist on categorizing landscape as scenery, I might offer up the work of Cole Weston (youngest son of Edward).

[Update: Mr. Douglas replies.]

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