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Monday, 24 October 2011


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I had never really thought about it, but once a reporter for the local newspaper said my photos were whimsical. My favorite movie is Amélie.

Seems to me that you've got two very different things going on there. When you write about your piano music ideal, then you're going after grit and texture. That makes me think of Robert Frank in photography. But naturalistic representation in the tradition of Caravaggio ... well suddenly I'm thinking of the perfection of Ansel Adams.

I remember that column, it was important to me too. Paraphrasing heavily here, he went back to the root of the word "glamour," which was more like "primal attractive force," which he believed that works of art could be endowed with. That thing in a picture which makes us look. It was illustrated with a photo of a decaying elephant that had been killed by poachers for its ivory, certainly the opposite of a glamorous scene in the fashion, movie-star sense of the word, but a powerful picture that was hard to stop staring at. (I miss the old Am Photog, that was a good magazine.)

Do you have anything other than a hunch and your own preferences about the correlation between tastes in different art forms? I'm certainly an exception to the generalisation you propose. I quite like realism in photography, science fiction and fantasy books, surrealist and impressionist paintings, no particular pattern in movies and while I generally prefer music that can be seen in live performances, that doesn't exclude use of synthesisers or even hip hop with pre-recorded loops. I'd be curious to hear if other people's tastes are similarly divergent or not.

I thought about commenting on your "Photography vs. Image-Making" post, but didn't, because the ensuing commentary seemed to me to be a rehashing of the old "What is art?" argument, on which I've burned myself out. In this current post, however, you touch on something I've thought about, but haven't nailed down as thoroughly as you apparently have.

I also like naturalism/realism. In fact, I think that with a few exceptions, it's the only interesting photography. The problem is that when most people drift too far away from realism in photography, as with "zipper girl" in yesterday's post, the result is almost always inane. I mean, really, what can you think about that image, other than "Photoshop?" Inanity is the downfall of all fantasy/non-objective art. If you think "So what?" or "The guy really knows Photoshop," the work has failed.

However, you do have to accept (IMHO) that naturalism/realism can be quite broad. When you look at straight photographs of the people Van Gogh painted, you realize that he was a naturalist in a very solid sense. What you see in a Van Gogh portrait isn't exactly what you'd see in the person, but *you recognize the person* and you may see more of his personality in the painting than you do in the photograph. The same with his landscapes: when you travel through the countryside Van Gogh painted, you realize that he represented it quite well: it's not at all made up.

Similarly, when you see photos like "Running White Deer" by Paul Caponigro, or look at the filter-created black skies in some Ansel Adams' photos, they remain "naturalistic" because the deviation from reality is quite small -- and in fact, may better represent what you remember about a scene than a perfectly untouched photograph would: the movement of the deer, the contrast between the rock and the sky.

The downfall in naturalism/realism is in craft, both in photography and painting. I see exquisitely drawn or painted portraits in the style called "classical realism" and my reaction is almost always, "So what?" There's no idea in it: the classical realists' *idea* is the craft itself. They spend days and weeks laboriously producing what a photograph could produce in 1/250 of a second. It's like Ctein says: I really don't care how hard he worked or how much he suffered to produce an image. I'm interested in the image. Craft in itself has some small interest, but not a sustaining one.

In photography, you too often see naturalistic/realistic landscapes about which you may say, "Boy, that's really sharp, look at all those little tiny leaves." When asked, "What does that mean to you," the only answer is, "The Leica S2 has really good lenses." The *idea* behind far too many naturalistic/realistic landscapes is *sharpness,* or craft. I've said it here before, and I'l probably say it again, I don't know of any great photo in which sharpness is the critical component.

Similarly, you can do almost anything to a photograph, in Photoshop, and I suspect that in at least 99.999999% of the time, the result, no matter how slick, will be less interesting that the original.

It's not technique that makes art -- it's serious ideas. I think I can safely say that a zipper is *never* a serious idea.

What are you saying Mike? That the way art was constructed effects the way you view the endproduct? Or if art is "realistic" you can admire this or that and when it is not, you can't. In a Dutch TV-music-show the other night some guy in the audience described himself as:

The eclectic dude......(de eclectische gast in Dutch).

Now that is me. I like the Düsseldorfer Fotoschule but that does not mean I can't admire and enjoy the techniques of the photoshop brigade. I mean even in that school people like Ruff and Gursky use computers to their haerts content. And sometimes that creates a new vision on reality, sort of like a magnifying glass. And sometimes things are not real at all, but you would never tell, or you would tell but since you are taken on a merry go round ride into a new dimension of reality, would you care.

Think about Ed Rusha's 26 Gas Stations. Are those mearly 26 Gas Stations? Hell no. They are Ed Rusha's personal sublimized view on 26 Gas Stations (maybe even more since some might not have made the cut). Now you can view them and think, that is realism, but is it? Or mr. Mitch Epstein's American Power (saw 2 of that series in the flesh in Düsseldorf as part of the Prix Pictet Exhibition), is that a true depiction of a power plant? Or is that his personal view of a power plant? As realistic art may seam, it never ever is realistic, since the artist has seen something, has used his or hers intuition (describes as knowledge combined with feeling in a masterclass organised by Thomas Struth) to extract the essence out of that something and from that create a personal vision on reality.

So the somewhat reduced attitude in seperating reality from fiction in art, no Mike it does not always hold. I see what you mean, but art is not that easily categorized (not now and in fact not ever).

Greetings, Ed

Is 'Naturalism' impaired the moment one makes a conscious decision to create art, I wonder? Is it the first casualty of striving to be noticed?

In my personal work I may set contrived situations but, once set, they are depicted with veracity. My goal is a natural rendition of a contrivance perhaps.

In my commercial work there is no room for naturalism, in where an illusion of veracity is the order of the day; in my architectural work there is a surreal veil cast over the whole where nothing is left to indicate real life happening in a space, no lamp requires a wall socket and no open balcony door requires an insect screen. Similarly, when I shoot Harley-Davidsons in the studio, even the heat bloom on the exhausts where they depart the manifold are restored to pristine unless the bike really is an old working road bike.

It seems to me that in the commercial arena (and to no lesser extent in the 'art' arena) the natural fate of naturalism is to be relegated to the bin. Thank goodness it wasn't so for Frederick H Evans and Atget.


Well that'll get me pondering for a while ! I've read a handful of other essays that at times have helped me clarify what I like or want to see, but I'm not there yet. The thing is, I really like fantasy literature & movies; some sci fi, too (most of which is just future fantasy), but those fantastical photo creations do nothing for me. They'd be fine book cover illustrations ...

I like to find a touch of whimsy in photos, and I like photos that can let the imagination think about fantastical things; that suggest possibilities. I like photos that suggest timelessness without going retro and simulating old photographs. But I like a naturalistic aesthetic in imagery; I don't care how much post processing was done and whether a photo shows me what was really there at that moment so long as it shows me something that realistically could have been there. I prefer the cinematic style of Lord of the Rings to that of '300'.

So I agree with you that there are threads that we can use to help us figure out what we like to shoot and how we like to shoot it, but I don't think it's as straightforward as favored genres or aesthetics.

Wow! I'm in the middle of a correspondence concerning exactly this matter and with your column, you have just turned on the little light bulb over my head...

I wonder if might not also be called 'documentary style', which was the term used by Walker Evans. ('Deadpan' is another, maybe not so useful, term, but it might apply, I think, to the 'New Topographics' exhibition.)

You lead me to think of Robert Adams here, who managed to get into his photos the light, the mountains/plains, and the houses. Since I lived in his photos, so to speak, I can say: it was just like that. These photos are natural. So then (following your line) the natural, the everyday, the just-like-it-is, has a powerful draw. And that may be because that sense of naturalism (why not 'realism'?) is very hard to achieve. It's not only that there are so many ways to go wrong and miss 'what's natural'; it's also that any given 'natural' that we might experience is wreathed with so many imaginings, hopes, regrets, misreadings, and romanticizings that we seldom actually experience it at all...until someone points it out to us. I give you Robert Adams!


Mike, what an exciting read! So from the heart: What moves me. And so well written; a pleasure to read.

Similarly, for me: My guiding mode is This is what I experienced.

Sounds like you might really like the book "Let The Great World Spin," Collum McCann. I'd put it squarely in what you describe as the "naturalistic" vein. Perhaps one of the best books I've read (reading - I'm only half way through) in years.


Is Kurt Vonnegut fiction? If so I have severely misled myself and others......
Music wise I'm with you an exciting live performance always takes the prize nothing better than when there is risk involved, a chance is taken and the expectation exceeded. Always worth a few misses on the way. I remember seeing Stanley Jordan performing in bck of a landscaping store a dozen years ago. He was recording everything as strange as it was with this small audience under a canopy. I mentioned it and he said he records because he never knows when magic will happen! And he is certainly a magician.."

One of the lessons digital has taught me is that beauty is in the flaws and not in the achieving of perfection.

Very thought provoking column, Mike.

If you like A Moveable Feast (as do I), you might enjoy the novel, The Paris Wife, by Paula McClain. While fiction, it's in the 'voice' of Hadley, and rings true.

The time I most enjoyed reading A Moveable Feast was on a solo train trip from Brussels to Paris. The very real context of approaching Paris lent a special quality to the writing, even though it wasn't my first time through the book.

I recently read the restored edition of A Moveable Feast (2009), right after reading the McClain novel. The timely juxtaposition of characters was rewarding.

Mike, what an enlightening post, you have achieved your goal, at least for me. I had never really thought about the question, "what is it that drives me"? Now I have the answer and like your yourself it is naturalism. And yes I do agree, the Kings Speech, superb!

Going further though I feel perhaps our approach to Art perhaps reflects our whole approach to life, certainly now after my breakfast TOP read and examination of my life situation it seems to.

I spent 4 years designing and building an open baffle battery driven audio system to do one thing.....reproduce music as naturally as possible.

I spent 3 years developing an imaging system to do one thing.....reproduce photographs as close as possible to what my eyes see.

I spent years working in a garden so it ended up looking as natural as possible when grown.

I chose a life partner who is natural in all senses of the word, she is a natural beauty with no pretence of glamour etc and the thought of her having some sort of surgery to remove those joyous laugh lines would fill me with horror.

Food, books, movies, holiday choices, tv shows......

In fact in every aspect of my life now that I think about, it it is naturalism that chimes through and this is especially true for music and photography.I can' t believe that I have never really quantified this before, surely it has a significance for how I might approach so many things in business, personal life and artistic pursuits.

Oh and that painting " The Gross Clinic", love it, what agreat story it tells.
Cheers and thanks.

After some thought, the biggest guiding mode I can identify for myself is atavism, primitivism, or plainness. I don't like things polished. I'm attracted to low-fi recordings, black-and-white photographs made with minimal equipment, and the Dogme 95 films. As a medium, I like drawing, usually more than painting or photography. If the heart of an artwork is strong, I feel it gains nothing from polished edges. I also like the idiosyncrasies of the artist's hand to be clearly apparent in the finished work, and definitely do not like art that tends towards the generic or the ideal.

So, do you like the Dusseldorf School's philosophy of objective realism or are you really a sentimentalist? ;)

People who can only 'be' one thing or another frighten me.

I liked Winter's Bone. I liked Fargo. I like Caravaggio as much as Picasso. I like Koudelka and Doisneau. As much as i like sci-fi and fantasy. I like The Incredibles as much as The King's Speech. I enjoy journalistic photography as much as fashion. Van Halen as much as opera as much as new wave, trance as much as Kate Bush as much as Ella Fitzgerald.

I also "respond to depressive cues, a certain forlorn sadness, loneliness." I also respond to kittens, roller coasters, the beach, and chocolate.

[Not sure why Fargo was contrasted with Winter's Bone. "Gothic moment" or not. One was, essentially, a comedy. I'm sure the directors didn't intend for the reactions to be similar. Kinda like comparing the executions in Schindler's List with Love and Death.]

So. I don't see that i have a "guiding mode." Or a set of "essential tastes." There isn't commonality across the field. I like what i consider "quality," even if that quality extends beyond what might typically be considered highbrow or tasteful. I can laugh at the same LOLCat every time i see it, for instance.

I would hope people i encounter are similarly 'open,' but more and more, via sentiments i see expressed online, i'm overestimating things. That makes me sad.

Brings up an interesting question to play with.
Who might be the photographic equivalents (for lack of a better word)of these American authors?

Charles Dickens
Jane Austen
John Steinbeck
Harper Lee
James M. Cain
Willa Cather
Richard Brautigan
Sylvia Plath

Interesting commentary, Mike. I like art--whether it's music, film, literature, photograpy, etc. that transforms or elevates the ordinary to something extraordinary.

Being a filmmaker, I define realism as images with controlled and artificial light in them. Naturalism cannot use artificial light or look like it has - to the photographer or cinematographer, though you could cheat a bit with controlled lighting due to the limitations imposed by photography & cinematography. Magicians are not fooled by magic, only audiences are. Similarly, I believe the distinction between Realism and Naturalism can only be made by professionals who use such a distinction to define their approach. To the audience, a photograph or an image is never the real thing.

Take Dog Day Afternoon by Sidney Lumet as an example. Sidney, in his book, mentions he wanted a naturalistic look for this movie, and they used the practical fluorescent fixtures on set (enhanced and filtered) to attain that look. However, due to limitations in cinematography, the same movie had artificial sources of light for its night scenes. Only the professionals know this, or care. To the audience, it's one movie.

For dark/night scenes, I cite Barry Lyndon by Stanley Kubrick as a supreme example. Using a natural light source like a candle differentiates it from other techniques (Dog Day Afternoon night scenes). In fact, Barry Lyndon is probably the ultimate example of naturalism in film art. The key word being art. Anybody can run around with a camera.

Even though there are grey areas, under all practical conditions it shouldn't be a problem for the photographer or cinematographer to make this distinction. It's a choice that is dictated by the tools and the desired outcome. I wonder what the fuss is all about.

I couldn't agree more enthusiastically with your theory. Based on a client's or student's taste in photography, I can predict with very good results his taste in film and literature and have often found a link between sf fans and certain styles of image.

You're careful to avoid claiming that it's impossible to appreciate and enjoy something from a genre or of a style that usually leaves you cold. I laughed out loud yesterday with delight when I learned that the great Tarkovsky enjoyed The Terminator (despite the wooden acting) because he appreciated the vision of the future that it presented.


That may well be the perfect word or expression to describe what I love in art and in particular photography. Mike your article and the fourth paragraph in John Camp's reply have put into words what I could never explain.

Naturalistic, that is something to aspire to.

Thank You
Dan Berry

I'd say the hankering for naturalism whether in photography, movie or music is a desire for a realistic grounding -- two feet still on terra firma as we are swept away by a vision that is presented to us. But it's too restrictive to concentrate only on that which appears natural. Which usually is selected for and filtered, anyway.

What is more important, to me at least, is whether you find emotional resonance in a piece of work. It took a long time for me to be convinced -- in fact, I thought it inane when I first came upon the idea -- but now I really do believe that art has the potential for a higher truth compared to documentary or news.

Why? Because when done right, it speaks to the timeless and universal truth of the human condition, whereas the documentary is often limited by its specificity and the rambling messiness of life.

It ain't the appearance that matters; it's whether there is truth beneath the surface appearance of things.

Bob Keefers suggestion, despite its whimsical appropriation of some of the authors, is interesting. Because for me photography is a close cousin of literature. And regarding the photography vs image making discussion, maybe the divide occurs when photography starts to resemble painting instead. Still a broad overlap of course.

"Jules Verne as well as the Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies and phantasmagorical Photoshopped creations"

Dear Mike,
with all respect, I cannot think of three more different things inappropriately matched together.

In fact, the phantasmagorical style of fantasy works like those photoshopped images and of the great majority of fantasy books/movies is the reason why I discovered "The Lord of the rings" books quite late and only thanks to Peter Jackson's movies (that won my prejudices previously built by other works in the fantasy field).

In this case appearance can deceive easily and your three examples belong to totally different genres.

I would rather call "The Lord of the Rings" (both the literary and the cinematographic work) an epic saga, even if it's much more (for example, it has important features of the Bildungsroman, the education novel), but certainly not simply "fantasy" as defined by all the mediocre and superficial imitations; "fantasy" is in one case the tool, in the others the meaningless aim (as I struggle to find any message in most of fantasy creations).

Hi Filippo,
Sorry if I had that wrong. I never actually saw any of the Lord of the Rings movies.


Real life does come with a Leonard Cohen soundtrack, buy the live album, play it while you live your day.

In this context have a look at Erwin Olaf latest work:

accompanying pdf about this work:

"The gradual emergence of naturalism in painting over the centuries is one of the great threads in art history."

Told so well in Gombrich's The Story of Art.

Great post, Mike. As usual, food for thought(and then some). Personally, I like art that lets me "see" the artist behind the work (even when they're trying their best to remain hidden). Now that you mention it, I find the effect to be particularly powerful when it happens in "naturalistic" contexts (though I can't really explain why).
Anyway, as the saying goes, "I may not know about art..."

Right, that's definitely not it! But a very interesting parallel...duplicating "naturalism" in 17th-century painting is definitely not "naturalism" in modern photography!


Terrific British film called Secrets and Lies. One of the characters is a studio photographer, with some nice scenes of him at work.

Okay Mike, just for you - some of the best recent and real films that have come my way in the southern hemisphere:
Take Shelter - a mid-western man's terror at encroaching madness, maybe the best American film I've seen this year.
Norwegian Wood - wrenching Japanese story of love and grief, based on Murakami. Not quite naturalism but stunningly beautiful.
Of Gods and Men - French monks in a Nth African monastery, waiting to be attacked by fundamentalists - true story, very moving. All of these are serious, truthful and tough. Not sure what has hit Lake Wobegon or wherever that place is you live.
For a realistic laugh - try Made In Dagenham, with Bob Hoskins, little Brit comedy about a strike at the Ford plant in late 60's.
And I know you'd like Senna, the doco on the late Ayrton. Much more than a film about formula one, although it's that too, and a pretty good demolition of it. And for naturalism and science fiction sort of rolled together, you can't miss Never Let Me Go. Even you might find this kind of sci fi engaging.
All reviewed under my name on The Sydney Morning Herald website, if you want to read more (smh.com.au).
Happy trails...

I agree with Cameron that my likes are too varied to be easily pigeonholed;
Montserrat Caballé to Eminem, 12 Angry Men to Alien, Bellini to Moore, etc.

Main dislikes; anything pandering to the lowest common denominator.

Mary of Cleophas in the upper right of the Deposition seems to be worried that she left the iron on at home.

Those guys look like a bunch of hipsters.

Maybe "naturalism" is synonymous with "timelessness." I consider your reference to Owen Edwards' attraction to glamour and can not help but think that I too am, in some instances, attracted to glamour; not so much to the individual models/events/places portrayed/described/referred, but to the timelessness and naturalism of glamour.

Consider great memoirs,are they great because of the details of historical events they describe?, or, because they greatly illustrate the timeless components of humanity?

I'd rather not think about why I like (or dislike) something.

Surely all these discussions come back to the same thing - the breadth and variety of human preference dictated by brain physiology, upbringing and education.

I don't mind what anyone likes, but I have an open mind and eclectic tastes and am grateful that I live at this stage of human evolution where I have so much to entertain and excite me.

I don't like junk food, soap operas, chick flicks or victorian classic novels. I would rather eat raw jellyfish than read Thomas Hardy but would be as happily lost in Faulker as Iain Banks. I have a fair collection of Bach and Radiohead, I love classical and modern art, historic buildings and contemprary architecture, I own Blade Runner and Three Colours and have watched both 12 times.

But I quite understand that people like soaps, CGI and anything else. I don't find it threatening at all because it does not take anything away from me. Thousands of movies were made last year and only a fraction were sci-fi games inspired blockbusters. However there were thousands of low budget art movies many of which are fascinating. Out of millions of photographs only a tiny percentage were turned into illustrations but many many more are awe inspiring. Check on Amazon. Watch them at home. Be proactive!

Damn, if everything I didn't like was banned how could I possibly feel superior any more?

I guess it should be pointed out that 'naturalism' and 'realism are just as much about romanticization as any other mode of representation, in as much as it is the product of conscious and selective choices made by the artist.

That was a great post, Mike, very thought provoking. I'm like your friend, who is attracted to a type of content rather than the style. The content I'm attracted to, though, is hope. When I looked through Robert Adams' New West that you recommended years ago it was completely cold and dead to me, since it seemed to me to be entirely about loss. Robert Frank's, The American's bought at the same time and on the same recommendation was a bit better.

And yet in film, one of my three favourite movies is Breaker Morant, a masterfully constructed, intensely realistic (but semi-fictional) story of the British betrayal of three Australian soldiers. Despite having a very brutal view of war and politics, the courage and solidarity of the three Aussies is full of hope and optimism.

So it's definitely the content and not the genre that gets me.

Personally I can't really point my finger to genres that I like most, it seems I've been blessed with a eclectic taste.

In fantasy-oriented art I think authors can be easily tempted to overexplore formalism leaving behind other aspects of a work (or to compensate the lack of deeper meaning). This can led to superficial and juvenile creations like David Cameron's movie "Avatar" (I find funny how a movie that had so much thought on it's tridimensionality visuals have such a bidimensional story), and naturally this spectacularity-filled formality have more visibility on the market.

I tend to regard fantasy as allegory to reality and my favorite example of this is John Gardner's book "Grendel" (the classic story of Beowulf seen from the monster perspective) as a fantasy work that can speak about the reality of human nature as few can.

There also some rare works that can walk the line between fantasy and naturalism/realism. I've just watched the movie "Never let me go" (which I liked but will not be a reference, has an excellent cinematography though) that fits in this category - it's set on a alternative reality but displayed in such a palpable way that can almost be labeled as naturalist. Another example of this (but explored in other aspects) is Lars Von Trier's film "Dogville" (this one IMHO a true masterpiece).

In reading this article, I can't help but get a sense that this is both a personal perception of the world and as well as an subtle apology (in the sense of the defense of a position) for the analog world.

But to me, this article also seems to indicate that having broad open tastes would act as a bulwark against the ever increasing and dehumanizing hyper-focused digital specialist world that we've been stumbling into in the last 25+ years.

I say stumble since humanity hasn't had a clear strategy to handle both the personal and planet wide ramifications of the digital world in the long term - especially it's enormous instantaneous implications.

Personally, I really like not fitting in 100% all the time in the eyes of our "leaders". In fact, when Duke Ellington would present his greatest praise on someone, he would say that they are beyond any categories. I like individuality because it's so refreshingly analog when juxtaposed against a monolithic Vogon-like digital world.

But then again, could this article be an artistic manifesto of an analog generation decrying the impact of the “resistance is futile” digital millennial generation ?

What can I say but... me too! Thanks!

I get the impression from some people that they think you can't make art in certain ways -- with Photoshop, with zippers, or whatever! I hope that's a misunderstanding on my part. I understand the urge to move from saying some fad you hate has never produced a work you like (inarguable personal opinion, I can't object, I can only perhaps disagree) to saying that it inherently cannot produce work of value (which would seem to be a much much stronger claim that can never really be proven). Certainly at some times, due to cultural history, it's much much harder to make art in some areas than in others (art always is part of an ongoing conversation, and sometimes the recent history of that conversation makes some things terribly hard).

Since it will no doubt amuse some people, I might as well say that one of the reasons I prefer science fiction to fantasy generally is that I tend to prefer naturalism.

Poor, misunderstood Mike,

But Erwin's picture's are in itself computer contructions as well, composed of many parts (if he shoots today like he shot when he made pictures for the voyer of the New New New De Lamar theater in Amsterdam). And no your right that is not what you intended to say. But great PDF Willem. Thanx.

Greetings, Ed

Robert E - glad you mentioned Gombrich. I like his "There is no such thing as art, only artists" also in The Story of Art. Can we apply this to photography? In other words you need to define what is a photographer, not photography

You remind me of a discovery I made back in my junior high art class. I was good with a pencil, and my drawings tended to be somewhat rough, though detailed, with a varied line, while many drawings from other students had their textures smoothed out using that rubbing process. It was the same in the couple college drawing classes I took, and I notice it in my photography today, a reluctance to over-simplify.

Mike - a question. Was your juxtaposition of the Caravaggio and the Eakins intended to demonstrate some kind of evolution in representational art? If so, then I might suggest that if you took two different paintings, say Giorgione's mysterious "La Tempesta", http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Tempest_(Giorgione) and say for example Millais' "Christ in the house of his Parents" http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christ_in_the_House_of_His_Parents (or any others) then things might look different?

Well, I'm sorry I didn't see this yesterday. I'm checking this blog every day now, but.....posting now probably ensures this won't get read by anyone, which begs the question "why write it then?" Nevertheless, I'm sort of compelled to respond to this thoughtful post that nevertheless smacks me in the face with a virtual gauntlet.

Don't take this the wrong way, because I'm not here to blow my own horn. But I've got experience across an unusual variety of media as a maker, teacher, and curator of exhibitions, and so let me tell everyone something definitively: All art is contrived. The process of painting a "realist" or "naturalistic" is, in fact, rather more contrived than doing what so-called "non-representational" artists do, at least in terms of the process involved. The effect on the viewer is another story for another time. Most of what has been written about "realism", "naturalism", or any other "ism", has been written by non-artists. Therefore those writings are only part of the story, and have much more to do with the viewers supposed response than to do with the artists' process. Spengler's comments aren't as valid for artists. When you really talk to artists, you'll find that they appreciate things across media, cultures, and centuries often without any discernible rhyme or reason. That's because the artists' process of work and assimilation of others' work has at its core a fundamental and huge aspect of irrationality. This is why the greatest art remains deeply mysterious, and even the worst retains some kernel of that.

"Photographers", imo, make a fundamental mistake of being distracted to a fault by photography's seeming verisimilitude. They literally lose the forest for the trees. At root, a photograph is as contrived as any other bit of visual art, and the distinctions between modes, methods, and styles, while useful for taxonomic considerations, should not be allowed to mask the tremendous underlying similarities.

Featured Comment by James: "After some thought, the biggest guiding mode I can identify for myself is atavism, primitivism, or plainness. I don't like things polished. I'm attracted to low-fi recordings, black-and-white photographs made with minimal equipment, and the Dogme 95 films. As a medium, I like drawing, usually more than painting or photography. If the heart of an artwork is strong, I feel it gains nothing from polished edges. I also like the idiosyncrasies of the artist's hand to be clearly apparent in the finished work, and definitely do not like art that tends towards the generic or the ideal."

I thought this comment was fascinating. I was prepared to post a comment arguing that the "taste crosses media boundaries" logic doesn't really apply to me because my paintings and photographs are totally different (mostly abstract and expressionist in the case of the former and mostly naturalistic and straightforward B&W in the case of the latter). But James' comment made me realize that my taste is very similar to his, and the rawness, primitiveness, lack of polish, etc. is the common thread that runs through the work. So I would just like to send out a hearty thank you to James.


On Naturalism in the movies and your request for recommendations: if you don't know them, those of Mike Leigh, the British director. They stand alone.


Hi Mike,
Re. "the blue creatures", this might make you smile;

best wishes phil

The overall story can be nonsensical if the jolts are frequent enough.

That's the definition of Hollywood blockbuster, not of the majority of films. Hollywood is kinda special case and we've already discussed them, haven't we? Still: Hollywood thinks that special effects and jolts can replace stories and characters. That, and the fact that they stifle innovation and creativity, is the reason why so many of their films now suck.

I was thinking about what I like and I came to the opinion that I'm a one-man bell curve.

What I like most in literature is a kind of "naturalist" fantasy, something that started getting wide recognition in the Eighties with the urban fantasy movement and now is an element of many books. Mostly characterised by the intrusion of fantastic into the real world. Often dark and bleak. But then, I'm far from averse to pure science fiction, mysteries, historicals, biographies, history non-fiction, occasional chick lit book, mainstream...

Music, again mostly, stuff with grungy guitars. OTOH, since I usually choose individual songs and not albums, there's tons of stuff I like in different genres. What I most often don't like is techno, rap, R&B in the modern sense, pure pop and such. And I really don't like jazz. Too intelectual for me.

In films, I mostly turned to animation. And thanks to Hayao Miyazaki, mostly to Japanese animation. There's some excellent stuff out there. BTW, if there are still those who haven't seen it, Ghost in the Shell the series is, overall, probably the best science fiction series to date. Particularly the so called 2nd Gig.

Finally, my taste in photography is really all over the place. Animals, landscapes, people, architecture, things I haven't seen before...

Mike, take a look at Four Lions.

"Mike replies: Just a selfish aside, but if you could recommend some other movies that "return to real lives and high drama," I'd be grateful...."

I'm not much of a movie maven but your article immediately brought to mind a wonderful Czech film I saw nearly a half-century ago, "The Shop on Main Street," directed by Ján Kadár.

Responding to Wayne above:

Rather, I think "naturalism" is synonymous with what I would call
a "timefullness". For me it is the specificity of the event, the people,
the details of the place.

And yet I do like formal structure. I like it best when I discover
formal elements while still making what seems to be the thing as
it was at that instant. So that you see both ways at the same time.

The best photographs are very much of the moment. Like good poems, the
structure is formal, the effect visceral. When poems or photographs
wander after universals, they become tenuous and tedious.

(I feel I need to say, to preempt misapprehension, that structure
doesn't mean it rhymes or stomps some measured pace. Think jazz.)


I second Patrick Snoot's suggestion of movies from Mike Leigh. His 2010 film "Another Year" was surely the most realistic creative film one could hope to find. My partner and I found it compelling and insightful; we found much to discuss. This review captures the key threads:

Somebody above mentioned Kubrik. I think part of the appeal with the science fiction masterpiece "2001: A Space Odyssey" is that the sets looked so real (at least in 1968) and the business of space flight was presented as if it were normal. Another naturalistic science fiction film that I enjoy is "Contact", which showcases the process of scientific research and discovery, together with the subsequent intrusion of politics and commerce in a most believable manner.

Lastly, I'll recommend Terrence Malik's "The Tree of Life" as a naturalistic visionary masterpiece. Small details to broad vistas with incredibly realistic portrayals. I watched it four times at the cinema, once per week from its opening (a first for me) and would have liked to have seen it, no, experience it, a few more times on the big screen before it went. I found it mesmerizingly beautiful, haunting, and evocative. The DVD has just come out. Many people didn't comprehend it, but...well, I'll stop effusing now!

Richard: I like it! "There's no such thing as Photography, only photographers." Not sure what that means in an age when a macaque can operate a camera, though.

tex andrews: Yes, I suppose in one sense "naturalism" and "realism" in paintings amount to trompe l'oeil, and that Jackson Pollock's drips are far more "natural" in that sense than Carvaggio's masterful illusions. But Mike isn't mistaken--he likes the masterful illusion: scrupulous faithfulness to the verities of the natural and human conditions as we know it, the medium transparent rather than playing a character or enabling fantasy "realism". I think he should have chosen another word, like "vérité" perhaps.

I really enjoyed Winters Bone, it's a fine film that deserved the praise that it received. As you enjoyed that film, I'm sure you'd enjoy an Australian film called Animal Kingdom, a film that has a lot of the same qualities as Winters Bone.


Another Australian film is Samson & Delilah. It's real, it's bleak it's beautiful.


Three for three now with yet another Australian film, The Proposition.


I think you'll enjoy all three films

I liked Lord of the rings, It's a tale about friendship, courage & self sacrifice. All things that I can believe in

I would compare Photography that I care about with documentary film making. I'm looking
to have my eyes opened or be reminded of life's value. With the films above I was looking for entertainment
first and foremost and though film can give you much more than that, ultimately you want to be entertained.
They fulfill a need, but one that's different from photography or documentary film making.

At least for me

Some more American films this time, which thankfully had no outlandish gun play or invading monsters:

Station Agent
The Visitor
Lone Star

The new version of Brighton Rock isn't bad. I like the cinematography (though this is as much a subject of manipulation as any still image, whilst we're elsewhere on the subject) and the syncronicity with the classic Quadrophenia is a cool touch.

It seems to me that many are drawn to surreal usage of the saturation and vibrance controls in Photoshop. To the point that it hurts my eyes. The anti-naturalism cadre. (ANC?) I wonder if someday they'll find a cure. I too am drawn to a more natural rendition of life in art. The world is full of naturally bright and beautiful color - if that's what attracts you, please don't push the sliders too far. Thanks, that is all. ;)

tex andrews: 1) I did read it.

2) I've noticed particularly with musicians I've known that their tastes are broader than those of their audience, in general. So a confirming data point there.

3) Yes, all art is certainly contrived; it's a human creation, after all. That doesn't render the discussion moot, though; in fact, it's what makes the discussion important. Precisely because art is contrived, naturalism is a choice; not something you can get for free somewhere.

So glad to see Winter's Bone at the heart of your post. I saw that film a few months ago and it has really stayed with me...nothing I have seen since has measured up to it. Matter of fact I saw the Coen Brother's True Grit in the same week...and Winter's Bone made the other film, good performances and all, just evaporate for me.

I think the overuse of cgi will wane. If you compare the film "Moon" to any cgi thick space flick of recent years, like Attack of the Clones, one of the striking things is how beautiful Moon looks in comparison. So naturalism even applies to models. They are still real things being photographed rather than imagined things being rendered on a computer, and it shows. Maybe cgi will get that much better that we won't be able to tell the difference, but I am not sure how easy that will be. There is just too many subtleties of light. Or maybe not? Anyway, Moon also had a story and decent actors and....even with it's obvious homages, a light more originality than most films these days.

One of the other things I find refreshing in film is naturalism in soundtracks. I loved The Wire's reliance on source music (what is called a diagetic score), only using music that the characters actually hear.

Robert e: But that's the point - a photographer is not necessarily defined as someone that can operate a camera ......

Too late here to impact the discussion, but I just came from seeing a new Polish film, The Mill and the Cross. Not much plot to it, it is about the world inside the Pieter Bruegel painting On The Way To Calvary. It stars Rutger Hauer, Michael York, and Charlotte Rampling, though none of them really impact the story or action, as there's not much of either! This sounds like I'm disrespecting the movie, but actually the opposite is the case. Bruegel discusses the composition and elements a few times to his patron, and explains why the painting is as it is (actually how it will be, the action, such as it is, concerns the creative process of composing the tableau). It is quite inventive how the characters move about a painted scene, and there is appropriate detail all through the frame.

Having said all this, if you are one who requires character and plot in a movie, you will most likely not enjoy this. But the painting/photography are exceptional. Though the film is Polish, what little dialog there is is spoken in English. The uneducated viewer (e.g. ME) viewer will learn about the historical allusions in the Bruegel painting.

Now for another movie recommendation for Mike (he did ask, right?) I hjust re-watched John Frankenheimer's Grand Prix. This film has the most amazing race footage ever shot, or that ever will be shot. The film production followed the actual Grand Prix for a full season and had a camera car driven by Dan Gurney IN THE ACTUAL RACES getting footage. Then on the following days, the stars of the film (James Garner, Yves Montand, Antonio Sabato and Brian Bedford) would recreate moments from the weeks' race by driving at 100+ MPH in formula 3 cars dressed to look like the F1 cars. The film was shot on a 65mm process and released in Cinerama and 70mm. This film format is roughly 1/2 the size of Imax (Imax is twice as tall, but not as wide an aspect ratio). And the great thing about the cinemaphotography is that the lenses are spherical, not anamorphic wide screen, so you get beautiful bokeh, and actual depth of field.

Frankenheimer also directed the greatest car chase movie, Ronin. Also shot 'flat' he even discusses in the DVD commentary why he used Super35. To get DoF that could be used as a visual tool throughout the film. Again, the actors were in cars racing around the mountains of Nice and the streets and tunnels of Paris. But this time it was stunt drivers behind the wheel. But as star Jonathan Pryce said, "I've played Shakespeare, and I've played Ibsen. Now I've played terrified" (paraphrased).


I forgot to mention an especial treat about Grand Prix for photographers: The throngs of motorsport enthusiasts working as extras presumably are using their own cameras, and they show that they know how to operate them. I get annoyed whenever I see 'photojournalist' photographers in TV and moviews who obviously don't know how to handle their cameras (or are shooting sports with a '50.


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