Tuesday, February 23, 2010

New! Improved! Postmodernism!

     Hey Kids! Wanna be a "Postmodernist" Photographer? It's easy! Just take an extreme close-up color photo of a Barbie head, and blow it up to mural size! (I said it was easy, I didn't say it was gonna be cheap.) Next, repeat for Barbie heads of all different ethnicities. Now you've created a body of work that makes a profound commentary on race and diversity in our society. Mix in a couple of Ken doll heads, and you've added a thesis on gender issues. Add a G.I. Joe and you've made a statement on the nature of war.
Can you spot the real Postmodernist photo?

     Joking aside, what is "Postmodern Photography", and how did it get here? I remember articles in the 1980's posing the question before anyone knew the answer. Postmodernism was an art movement which was named before any artists actually created work. Then came the rush to fill the void. Someone please correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't know of another art movement that so flagrantly placed the cart before the horse. Traditionally, hasn't it been the artists, the practitioners and not the theorists, who have led the way? Historicaly, labels were only later invented in order to categorize, even pigeon-hole artists' work, even if the epithets were initially meant to be perjorative (think Impressionism).
     In a recent Time magazine article "The Problem with Postmodernism", photographer Tod Papageorge stated, "Sure, things have to change, but photography-as-illustration, even sublime illustration, seems to me an uninteresting direction for the medium to be tracking now, particularly at such a difficult time in the general American culture." He continues, "There's a failure to understand how much richer in surprise and creative possibility the world is for photographers in comparison to their imagination.... Now ideas are paramount, and the computer and Photoshop are seen as the engines to stage and digitally coax those ideas into a physical form—typically a very large form. This process is synthetic, and the results, for me, are often emotionally synthetic too."
       When looking at some contemporary photography, I am reminded of Robert M. Pirsig's observation in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintainance: "'What's new?' is an interesting and broadening eternal question, but one which, if pursued exclusively, results only in an endless parade of trivia and fashion, the silt of tomorrow. I would like, instead, to be concerned with the question 'What is best?', a question which cuts deeply rather than broadly, a question whose answers tend to move the silt downstream". The race to acheive "what's new" perfectly describes the pitfall of much of Postmodernism, written about here even before the term was coined in reference to photography.
     At a recent visit to the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, I read the following quote on a wall plaque,"The traditional concept of art meant special knowledge reflecting high acheivement with a focus on technique involving mental agility, and not so much beauty for its own sake." That, I thought, is a goal worth investigating and moving toward in photography. Like the punk rock movement, which eschewed the bloated and overinflated mainstream rock of the 1970's, and the revolutionary bebop style in jazz, a neo-traditionalism could provide revitalization in photography, evolving but remaining true to its roots, a return back to basics with stripped-down directness and the freedom of improvisation.  What's new is that our collective experience has been altered, filtered through the past with raised social and political awareness. What's best is that these are the types of pictures that cut more deeply.
For more of Tod Papageorge's comments, here's the link:
"The Problem with Postmodernism", from Time magazine

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Shooting Film in a Digital World

     I still shoot, and teach, silver-based photography. A question often posed by my students is, "why do we still do this this way?" (although at the same time they lament the possible loss of our wet darkroom). Well, film and digital really are two different animals. I use the analogy of my microwave oven: convenient, fast, providing instantaneous results. But when I got my microwave,  I didn't throw away my traditional oven. I still use that for what has become known as "slow food", the art of preparing food of quality and taste.  I do use digital photography as a tool when it's called for,  just as I prefer my microwave when I want to heat up a frozen dinner.
     Likewise, when it comes to my art work I choose film, particularly black and white. Part of the reason is that I've been using these materials for nearly 32 years, and there is a consideration of continuity in my work. Film cameras, especially rangefinders, are quick, quiet and direct and don't distract from the picture taking process. They're a pleasure to operate. They also don't become obsolescent in next to no time. I've found digital cameras to be unnecessarily complicated (the new Leica M9 has potential to overcome past design deficits, albeit at a substantial price). And like the warmth and smell of a freshly baked loaf of bread, there is something inherently gratifying in the luster of a silver print that cannot be replicated in ink.
     Then there is that meditative time spent in the darkroom. It gives one time to think, to reflect on the work and on life, and to spend time in my personal equivalent of Superman's Fortress of Solitude. Gone are the myriad distractions and frustrations that come with working on a computer (in fact it's one of the few things I do these days that doesn't require a computer at all).
     Throughout the history of photography, technological changes have influenced the aesthetic (see John Szarkowski's incisive book Photography Until Now).  About a century ago, Eugene Atget used what was then outmoded photographic technology to create some of the medium's most enduring images. As Phil Perkis has observed on the elements of photography, "The shift to digital tools will not eliminate these aspects any more than the shift from film to video has changed the basic concepts of montage and narrative in motion pictures...I feel strongly that the underlying principles of making something that we think of as transcendent remain basically the same...I hope I'll still be able to get film and printing paper." Me too; I'd really miss the timeless hours spent engrossed under the glow of those orange lights.
     Here are two funny and enlightening posts that I enjoyed which continue this debate in greater detail:

Self-Portrait in Darkroom, 1987  ©Robert Forlini