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Saturday, 19 July 2014


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Thankyou, thankyou, thankyou Mike ... for helping me to understand that I'm not that stupid after all!

This reminds me of an exhibition I once visited where some of the captions were printed bigger than the accompanying photographs.

I find that a lot of contemporary photographs need their captions (and often a whole lot more words) to convey what the photographer was trying to say. I think that is because they are trying to make the meanings too specific. Photographs deal in feelings are work best conveying broad ideas. Unlike language, visual imagery lacks a commonly accepted vocabulary for nailing down specifics and, in my experience, leaves too much room for individual interpretation to be that specific.

A post that shows how sometimes the phrase "A picture is worth a thousand words" just doesn't cut it. Often, we need the context provided by words to fully understand what we are seeing in the photograph.

SHEEESH, the nerve of you calling an intellectual, whose job it is to use flowery language in describing visceral images (oops! sorry for such fancy words), on the carpet for succeeding at doing exactly what she set out to do: sound impressively intellectual. Without these very smart people who use excessive wordage to tell us all how we should perceive an image, where would most of us be? We'd have to rely on our senses and perceptions to glean meaning from works of art. Heaven forbid!

When's the last time you were in Ireland Mikey? When's the last time you were out of Dairyland for that matter, and for how long? Lost faith in the allegorical? Captions and titles not enough any more? The elite intellectuals occupying too much of your waking dreams? Thank god for that; spur you to book that flight. You know, there's wifi in the outer planets. Greatest respect.

Aaaaack!! I love art museums. I love galleries. But, I just cannot stomach the convoluted explanations given by art critics/curators. It actually hurts to read them. Then again I would hire one to write my profile on a internet dating site. If they can make a stick on a wall sound earth shaking then surely they could make me out to be the next evolutionary step.

Such an insightful comment, thanks
While I was studying Art and philosophy at southampton College in the 1960's we would regularly have 'local' artists pop in for discussions. People like Willem de Kooning, Larry rivers, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichenstein, and many others It was a great pleasure to listen to them first hand, and somtimes talk with them as well.
Years later, when my daughter was an Art History major at Princeton with a certificte in photography she had as advisors people like JimDow , Frank Gohlke, Emmet Gowin. I met and talked with them as well.
In my experience, NONE of them talked like the fellow you quoted.
All were much more real and accessible. Most would help answer questions in great detail.
No Art Speak
Just real speak.
It just occurred to me after years of reading your writing in print and on the web that Those are the people of whom remind me.
People with deep knowledge, and no need of pretense.
Thank You, and 'keep callin' em out'

Hi Mike,

I like your post a lot because it restored my confidence in pressing the shutter.

A fine art photographer once told me there's little value in nice pictures itself. It doesn't matter how good the composition is or how special the "mood" (a word he hates) is, if a picture has no concept or the concept is unclear, then it is meaningless. But what's wrong with nice pictures? Many famous pictures have great concepts behind, but they are so boring to look at. If photography is a form of visual art, then shouldn't the emphasis be placed on the picture first?

Who knows the idea behind Mozart's "Jupiter" symphony? Who knows the idea behind Bach's solo partitas and sonatas for violin? They may or may not have great ideas behind, but that won't bother us from appreciating them. Shouldn't photography be the same?

Siu Hay

And just maybe an image can invoke a thousand words...who says that the anti- mantra isn't equally valid?


Also, the text gives the impression that the pictures (which I also like) were made from inside the buildings, when it's quite clear that they are shot from the outside looking in, with the surrounding outdoors behind the camera reflected in the windows.

"In these turgid, pompous phrases, we come to understand the banalities of the pseudo-intellectual, the shifting substance of verbiage that's too pretentious to be taken seriously."
I'd stay and write more but I believe I'm about to disappear up my own fundament!

Part of this is the normal friction between what we as makers see in works and what art historians and their upstart cousins, reviewers and critics (and sometimes they are the same)do as they contextualize work. When I was young I found "their" process grating and woefully lacking in its understanding of what I thought was marvelous and beautiful about works of art, as a maker.

Now, after decades of making and curating, I get it. And it's easy to understand the difference in approach through a thought problem(thank you, physicists!) like this: imagine, as a modern person, that you are looking at an amazing painting from the 17th century or before, especially an historical, religious, allegorical, or mythological painting----and you didn't know any of the history, religion, mythology, or allegorical symbolism. Your experience is radically diminished. I hear people say all the time of abstract/non-representational art:"I don't get it/understand it". I say to them, "Actually, you understand that better than something like Rubens' Medici cycle, or Titian's amazing Marsyas and Apollo"

Contextualizing is a(the) crucial part of the reviewer/critic/historian's job. If these images were shot by the artist in Ireland after the crash, then that really is part of the artist's program, intentionally or not, and even if the images themselves also transcend that moment---which all good art should do. But it is valid and necessary for that context to be pointed out by the writer---along with all sorts of other contexts, because cultural artifacts don't exist in a vacuum.

The problems arise when certain fashionable agendas assert themselves inordinately through the writing (or worse, imo, through the art....). It's up to us as informed viewers and readers to sort this, and place things into our own proper perspectives.

I'm not sure where the responsibility lies - acadamia, the art world, etc - but many people who are interested in making art seem to get early exposure to the idea that in order for something to be art, the visual component of their work must follow from some kind of lofty, often elliptical theoretical concept. It's not enough to simply produce work; the work must be Important and Justified, rooted in unique theory or statement.

I guess there's nothing wrong with this, but sometimes you just wanna cut the b.s. and see if something looks good to your eyeballs.

Artist statement: the kind of crap you have to pull out of thin air to satisfy jurors, gallerists, and critics. Oh yes, but when the artist statement actually has anything to do with the pictures, like you demand Mike, then it can't be art. Then it is photo journalism. Thank you art world.

While written "artspeak" can certainly be a challenge to understand, I find it even more of a challenge when an artist uses it in conversation and I have to decode it in real time. This process isn't helped when a gallery serves alcohol at an opening, but it does go a long way to making exposure to it more tolerable...


Here is the Artists Statement:

Fallout is a series of photographs that considers the modern Irish landscape; a landscape where empty buildings stand like ruins, reminders of another time or place in history. Appearing like portals to a different world, they quietly haunt the periphery of towns and cities, anonymous, the same, in a limbo of dream and reality…

Perhaps you should start a contest to find the best example of great photos and confusing statements about them?

If you do, I'll nominate this one: https://www.lensculture.com/articles/awoiska-van-der-molen-being-gone

Personally, I don't think Mr. Savage's series is very effective when viewed against its conceptual framework. There are so many ways to convey unfulfilled ambitions using unoccupied commercial spaces. Unfinished walls, construction tools laying in hallways, carpet not completely layed, manufacturer stickers on windows, primary tenant signs wired but uncounted, etc... But Savage has somehow managed to find one strategy that utterly defeats such a story: he looks OUT the windows. OUT THE WINDOWS. Really. Usually into the wild blue yonder. He might just as we'll be telling a story of a kids dreams of becoming a pilot. Or a glazer.

Sorry, no, the images are neither very engaging nor do they fulfill his objective. F for flunk.

Rather than look for bad artist statements and bad critical writing about art and photography -- that's just shooting fish in a barrel -- why don't we seek out good writing and and good artist statements?

Mike cited Winogrand's writing (and quotations from his spoken statements). I couldn't agree more, and the older I get, the more common sense his words make.

I'd love to hear other clear, sensible writing about photos. To kick things off I suggest you all go read some random quotes from a friend of mine, Tom Roma -- probably badly quoted and completely out of context -- by a student in a Columbia photography class, in this 2011 blog: http://shitmyphotoprofsays.tumblr.com

"Legacy? Anyone who thinks about their legacy is an asshole."

Okay, it's not an artist's statement, but the blog does capture how outrageous and concise and to the heart of things Roma can be, and also how Roma does not suffer fools gladly. There's a guy who could write an artist's statement when the time came.

The thoughtful, restrained insight of a John Szarkowski does not often appear on the scene.

The "modern ruins" aspect deserves some consideration, too. Unlike the USA, over there it's old enough that there are a fair number of famous, preserved, ruins (often pre-gunpowder fortifications, like castles) that are part of the visual landscape.

By the way, there are at least a couple of talks and Q&A with Garry Winogrand that have been uploaded to YouTube. Here are a couple that I can recommend:

Speaking at Rice University: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wP6lP3UaP24

MIT Q&A (audio only): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vUuwdPkLsT0

When it comes to images I don't trust words at all. It seems to me that they are two different worlds, at least words about images at hand. and that words can only limit ones visual experience.

I am perplexed by visual image makers who read captions, descriptions, or statements of work first, then look at the image. It can only limit their experience. Look first, then read, and then look again if necessary.

Fact remains, the shots show a world with the life sucked out of it. Know a few too many Irish pals who've fled these ruins for Canada and the USA. They get it--faux profundity of the text notwithstanding.

Artist statement - decoded: www.youtube.com/watch?v=3v8DbLWAXvU

Very disappointed to see this sort of cheap, populist anti-intellectual post on TOP.

And to take issue with the specifics of your post: I'd say there are many elements that evoke the depressing suburban landscape of Ireland (or similar areas in Britain) - the council house estates, the lowering skies, the power lines stretched across hedge and tree-lined fields, even the archetypal ’white van’ (UK readers will recognize this specific icon) silhouetted against the boom-and-bust, hi-tech developments of the lamed Celtic ’Tiger’.

Reading the description on Lensculture helped to give the already hauntingly beautiful images extra layers of meaning and resonance.

I agree with mani.

I think most people agree that it helps when the context of images is presented, be it in captions or an “artist’s statement.” This is particularly true if the photographs are highly lyrical or allegorical. Obviously the photographs need to stand on their own, but when that context is given the feelings and understanding they evoke can be deeper.

The only problem I have is that so many artist’s statements (or curator’s and critic’s statements) are so highfalutin and overblown as to be ridiculous. (I can understand the reaction against those.) But that’s not the case here. Anyone in Ireland will immediately “feel” what the photographer is getting at, as the economic situation and all its chaos and folly is vividly clear to them. So for the Irish, that small tip of context really opens up these images. But for those outside of Ireland, it might take a few more words set the scene.

And bear in mind that the text on the LensCulture site isn't an artist's statement (so hated by some of the commenters); it's an editor's synopsis. We don't know what kind of statement the artist might have made because all we're seeing are a selection of his photographs mediated through an online magazine.

I, for one, do feel the resonance of those ambiguities when I look at the photographs. There is a weird sense of abandonment and lost optimism when we know what the artist's intention is. I’m downright envious of their narrative clarity once that context is set.

Visiting sites of the Battle of Imphal and Kohima earlier this year and taking pictures of hills and paddy fields seventy years after the battles were fought they would just be pretty landscapes if not for the captions.

So glad to read your comments on Gary Winnogrand. He was one of the very few photographers whose talks are worth listening to. I've listened to and read everything I can by him—he was remarkably patient when being interviewed by Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel, I thought.

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