One of the things that consistently fascinates me about photography is—to put it very simply, but perhaps not too simply—some pictures work and others don't. And no one strategy is enough to ensure that any particular picture "works." John Camp and I were talking a few weeks ago about the snapshots from the John Foster collection, and how astonishing, bracing, even chastening a gathering of really remarkable snapshots can be. The Foster collection shot at left is a masterpiece of a photograph, albeit an incidental one. Why is that snapshot so wonderful, and a thousand not too much different from it so banal? And what fascinated John: was the kid climbing through the window put there on purpose? If you saw this photograph in a museum, you'd think so. But we'll never know.
Similarly, when I was reading Jim Caspar's Myoung Ho Lee article at FOAM magazine [PDF link], I noticed that he spoke about the difference between a concept and a concept made real:
Conceptual art is often envisioned, at first, in words or quick sketches. Sometimes a preliminary description all by itself is sufficient to give life to an idea; it isn’t necessary to nurture the concept into three-dimensional reality to allow the idea to reach its fullest potential in one’s imagination. The blueprint is enough.
However, when a technically challenging idea is physically constructed on a large scale, the audacity of that performance confers even greater importance on the concept. Confronting the physical reality of a simple-but-preposterous work of art encourages us to consider the idea and its implications with a heightened degree of intellectual and emotional engagement.
And yet, even a brilliantly simple and unique conceptual idea like Myoung Ho Lee's, fascinating thought it has proven to be (the pictures have gotten widespread attention, enough to bring a measure of fame to the previously little-known photography student), is absolutely not enough, by itself, to forecast success. A couple of his pictures, in my opinion, are clearly hits, and a couple are clearly duds. So—clearly (ahem)—the concept can't be what answers the mystery I mean.
Myoung Ho Lee, Tree #2
Photography is a mansion with many rooms, and I'm well aware that tastes vary widely. Some people live and die in genres or categories of photography that I just don't care about at all, although I would guess that my taste is catholic enough (or my attention dilettantish enough) that the opposite can't be entirely true. But I'm not talking about that here. What I mean is how strange and ultimately mysterious it is that you can take twenty shots of more or less the same thing, and one of them (maybe) will "sing," or "work," or have "that certain indefinable something" that makes it a successful photograph, while the others don't—even thought they might show the same subject, combine the same colors, have the same meaning, impart the same information, exhibit the same technical qualities, show the same kind of light or lighting, embody the same concept. As I wrote in an essay many years ago: "A critic might build an interpretation around a good photograph which could easily be imagined to hold true for a similar but worse photograph as well."
I like something else Jim Caspar said in his essay; it gets at something about playfulness, serendipity, enigma. Characterizing viewers' reactions to Myoung Ho Lee's pictures, he mentions that at first they look like billboards—then he puts these words into the hypothetical viewer's mouth: "'This is not a billboard of a tree, it is a real tree!…No, wait, this is a photograph of a real tree that looks like a billboard of a tree.'" Later he quotes Ogden Nash lampooning Joyce Kilmer:
I think that I shall never see
a billboard lovely as a tree.
Perhaps, unless the billboards fall,
I’ll never see a tree at all.
One thing I like about the Lee pictures is that they're not "decontextualized." They're partly decontextualized. They play with that idea—in context, out of context; integrated, isolated; belonging, apart.
Anyway, I'm glad Lee was the one who got his idea. If that idea had been mine, it never would have gotten past the blueprints.
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Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.