A number of years ago, the art photographer John Gossage had an interesting insight: that there existed not a single body of work in all of art photography taken with a super-telephoto lens. There and Gone, consisting of photographs of Mexico taken from California, was his attempt to rise to the challenge of that insufficiency. I won't call it a failure, as that would be disrespectful to John, but I didn't think it was one of his more successful books. In any case it doesn't seem to have breached the lofty redoubts of the medium's most widely-known accomplishments. (Yet, I should add.)
I have a very good visual memory, generally, and I carry in my head a surprising catalog of photographs and other images. Give me a subject and half a day, and a variety of pictures I've seen will surface in the old brain. I expected that to happen with potatoes, after yesterday.
But you know, I don't think I've ever seen a good picture of a potato. I thought by now one would have come to mind; but nothing has floated to the top. I can think of many other famous pictures of vegetables and fruits. There are dozens of pears. Pear photographs by Paul Strand, Joseph Sudek, and Olivia Parker come to mind. And one by an anonymous 19th century wet plate photographer, that I think I saw at Kathleen Ewing's gallery near Dupont Circle decades ago. Paul Caponigro has a good picture of a pair of pears. (Funny, I've never thought of Paul as a produce photographer before.) But potatoes? I do have a vague mental picture of a basket full of potatoes, laying on its side, I think, with a few spilling out, black and white, old...a German photographer possibly? Too hazy to place. I'll have to mull on that. Otherwise, I get nuthin'.
Like a significant body of artwork taken with a super-telephoto, is a good potato picture a thing that just doesn't exist?
Original contents copyright 2016 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Chester Williams: "The only 'good' image I have seen of a potato is one where McDonalds advertises their French Fries. Apart from that...I am with you on this one."
Richard Wasserman: "How about Charles Jones? Scroll down part way on the page and there is his attempt at potato imagery. Maybe not quite as strong as his beans or cucumbers, but a fine honest photo. I don't know if the book of his work is still available, but it's worth searching out. It's a wonderful story and very strong photography that came this close to being lost."
Andrew Vartabedian: "Trevor Paglen's work using telescopes against their purpose in order to photograph secret bases and the like comes to mind in this project."
Wayne: "What qualifies as 'super-telephoto?'"
Mike replies: In conventional terms, anything from about 400mm on up, in 35mm terms.
John Sparks: "Andreas Feininger did a series of photographs of New York with a 40" lens on 4x5 for LIFE magazine in the 1950s. That seems like a super telephoto to me (although it's only about a 300mm-e). The book I have Andreas Feininger Photographer even describes them as being made with a super telephoto camera. I also think they qualify as art photography. Can't help with the potatoes."
Euan Forrester: "There's an interesting interview with John Gossage here. I thought this quote was interesting: 'I could go on the beach and do the standard photojournalist pantomime where you spend a couple of days blending in, getting to know the people, but it’s a lie, an illusion. Given this I decided to stay at a distance and photograph people who didn’t know that they were being photographed. All of the pictures taken of Mexico are done from America, about a quarter mile down the beach. I could just stand there and shoot all day, anything that went on, taking another culture on its own terms.'"
Michael: "There are loads of top notch art photography captured exclusively with super tele lenses. It's called astrophotography, very little happens under 800mm. Sara Wager is a recent favourite who really focuses on the aesthetics. I think she works mostly at 1700mm now."
Mike replies: Wow, now she's a find. Astrophotography as art...and what a fascinating story!
Michael: "Yes, it's a photo stuck in my mind, a wagon loaded with bags of potatoes (I think) with one fallen off and spilled on the ground. Grabbed me totally. Definitely German. Not August Sander for sure, but otherwise? Over to your readers."
Mike replies: It's bugging me that I can't remember.
David A. Goldfarb: "I think Andrzej Maciejewski has done kind of an interesting and whimsical potato series. Here's the description and here are the images. I've also liked his still lifes, which look very traditional until you notice that he's left all the supermarket labeling in place. Super-teles? More of a sports thing, I'd say."
PaulC: "You're probably thinking of Schillerslage (Hannover) by Heinrich Riebesehl."
Mike replies: I think that's the one Michael was thinking of, but I think the one stuck in my head was a contest image from a Photo Techniques contest in the '90s, and I think it was Russian, not German. No chance of finding that again. This is a good find, though—thanks.
Yoram Nevo: "Van Gogh had some good potatoes pictures...."
Mike replies: True dat.
Bryan Willman: "There are lots of great photos taken with super telephotos, but they are called Bird, Nature, or Sports photos. There are absolutely great collections of great photos in these categories. But they're too busy being great photos about a real subject to be called 'fine art.'"
Mike replies: Well, they're not called that because they're not that. They're reportorial and documentary photographs—sports photography is about the event or the players or the occasion, first and last, almost always. I wouldn't think it's impossible to do a fine art project strictly of sports using long lenses, but I'm not aware of any. It would be difficult to get the access for that purpose, for one thing.
hugh crawford: "Trevor Paglen and John Schabel’s photographs are two examples of bodies of art photography work that are taken with super-telephoto lenses. In both cases the super-telephoto lens is intrinsic to both the aesthetic and the meaning of the work, in fact calling the lens a super-telephoto is something of an understatement in both cases.
"Somewhere buried in my personal academic detritus is a paper I wrote on the difference between photographs that are about seeing as opposed to photographs that are about looking. A gross generalization is that wide angle photographs tend to be about seeing and telephoto photographs tend to be about looking, with a lot of exceptions in both cases of course.
"Since cameras are really good at capturing spatial compositions and perspective and artists in the European tradition tend to be interested in that sort of thing it's not surprising that most western art photography tends not to employ super-telephoto lenses and their lack of perspective.
"Traditional Asian art on the other hand tends to seem very telephoto like due to compositions that do not use perspective. I know I've seen some Japanese photographers' work that falls into this category but I'm just not coming up with any names right now. As a matter of fact the first time I saw John Schabel’s photographs I thought they must be Japanese."
David Bostedo: "Well super telephotos to my knowledge are mostly used for sports and wildlife. Are there any sports or wildlife books you'd consider to fit the criteria? Coincidentally, one wildlife book I have that might qualify, art-wise, is On This Earth by Nick Brandt. But it's partly applauded because many of the shots were taken with a much shorter lens than would be normal for that subject matter."
Bob Rosen: "I've had a beautiful platinum print hanging in my home for years. Of all things, it's a sweet potatoe by Cy DeCosse of Minneapolis. Cy is now 85 and still producing gorgeous platinum prints of flowers, vegetables, and other common items. All photographed against canvas back drops that he paints to suit the image. Here's a link to his sweet-potato-eyes."
tex andrews: "John Gossage was teaching at University of Maryland when I was there for grad school back in the late '80s. My best friend there at the time (still a close friend) enjoyed him very much, the very little bit we saw of him. Looking back, I wish I'd known then how important photographic imaging would become to my overall artistic practice. I think at that time he had just done his Berlin series, and I thought it was stunning. I've sought out darks and blacks in photography ever since. You can imagine therefore how I feel about the current mania for HDR...."
Mike replies: That was an amazing body of work. There was a huge, oversize book, did you ever see that?
James Weekes: "I have never wanted to take a picture of a potato, but now I want to go all Edward Weston on one. Then eat it."