Taking and Making
by Tom Wachunas
“A great photograph is a full expression in the deepest sense, and is, thereby, a true expression of what one feels about life in its entirety. And the expression of what one feels should be set forth in terms of simple devotion to the medium – a statement of the utmost clarity and perfection possible under the conditions of creation and production.” - Ansel Adams
EXHIBIT: Masters of American Photography and Massillon’s Masters, at Massillon Museum, 121 Lincoln Way E., downtown Massillon, THROUGH MAY 15, 330.833.4061
Before reading further, I ask that you click on the above link to read Judi Krew’s astute review of a remarkable adjunct exhibit in Massillon Museum’s Studio M, Image to Image: Photographs by Walsh University’s Photojournalism Students, on view through May 29. Krew makes some salient points that are certainly in harmony with my thoughts that follow here.
As records of material reality, think of photographs as fossils. Not too unlike the petrified remains of once living things embedded in stratified earth, they are the remnants of moments (albeit in two dimensions) no longer actually present, but embedded in memory, itself a stratified element of human consciousness.
The exquisite gathering of masterful images currently on view at Massillon Museum, organized by Massillon Museum’s curator, Heather Haden, is comprised of photographs from the Reading Public Museum in Reading, Pennsylvania, and from the Massillon Museum’s own impressive permanent collection. The exhibit reminds me that examining the history of photography – well encapsulated in this exhibit - could in some ways be called Paleontology of the Psyche.
In the mid–to-late 19th century, cameras did much to liberate the art of painting from the conventional standards and practices of pictorial verisimilitude. Yet practically from the beginning, regarding photographs as legitimate works of fine art was, for a substantial number of artists and critics, a prickly proposition. Ironically, there was a time (and to some extent still is today) when photographs thought to be the most artful were those that looked like they really wanted to be paintings. Even more interesting to consider is that today, in some if not many circles, for better or worse, one measure of creative excellence in the world of painting is the degree to which an artist can make a painted surface look like a photograph. Apparently we still cherish our illusions (and ultimately a photograph is indeed illusory) and the talents that realize them.
Speaking of “…some if not many circles,” I’ve known for years that there are those unfortunates who continue to hold that a photograph cannot be a work of fine art. There are many factors contributing to such a myopic perspective, foremost among them being the mistaken distinction that a true artist actively crafts tangible materials to “make” or “create” something while a photographer simply “takes” a picture, which is to say that he or she merely appropriates or replicates something already extant.
And of course, as Judi Krew similarly observed in her review, it doesn’t help the cause for appreciating photography as a discrete art form in this world when ubiquitous point-and-shoot devices have assured the viral and numbing presence of vapid imagery vying for our too-divided attentions. When it comes to photography, it’s an increasingly daunting endeavor to distinguish between the schlocky and the sublime, the inane and the important. Too often we can’t see the trees for the forest.
That’s why exhibits such as this one are so necessary and rejuvenating, provided we take the time to engage willful seeing. In the Ansel Adams quote at the top of this post, the ending reference to “…under the conditions of creation and production” covers a wealth of variables – both technical and aesthetic - in embracing photography as art. Those photographers we can recognize as true artists grapple with the same formal, conceptual, and emotional issues and questions that any visual artist would in making a work in any other medium. Yes, making. Ansel Adams also once rightly observed, “You don’t take a photograph, you make it.”
To clarify the Paleontology analogy, photographs aren’t fossils in the sense of being something lifeless. Fossils speak of and to something beyond their immediate materiality, something of history and life itself. So it is with photographs. Great photographs – and there are many in this exhibit - aren’t merely iterations of something the artist captured or took. They are, rather, eloquent declarations of the artist being taken and perhaps even enraptured by a moment in time. When we look, we too become willing captives.
PHOTOS, from top: Pepper No. 30, by Edward Weston / Migrant Mother, by Dorothea Lange / Balzac (by Rodin) – The Silhouette, 4 A.M., by Edward Steichen / Monolith, The Face of Halfdome, Yosemite National Park, California, by Ansel Adams