Grain destined for export stacked on Madras beaches (February 1877) I've started writing a series of posts on photography on World...
Thursday, 29 January 2015
Faces, Father Ted and Krass Clement
picture by Larry Sultan
I chose a couple of favourite books for Paper Journal yesterday. One was Pictures from Home, the Larry Sultan epic that combines text and images to tell a complex story. It's a book that has fantastic photographs but uses the text to tell a far greater tale than images alone would convey. This is part of what I wrote.
The text comes via Sultan, his mother and his father so there are three voices; they’re not the same voice. They argue and quibble and dispute over who and what this family is. Words are had about fidelity, career, photography and love, all against a background of images that are repeatedly brought into question. Where do these pictures come from, why do we make them, what does it mean – this family, this photography, this love?
The other was Krass Clement's Drum. This doesn't have words but it does have fantastic pictures. The face tells the story, the face of one man. This is from the post.
picture by Krass Clement
This man sits alone, his eyes cast into the middle distance; to the floor, the ceiling, to anywhere they won’t be met. His back turns this way and that, always away and he stares rheumy-eyed into places where his gaze won’t be found. It’s the most cinematic of books and it has a leading man who is a study of loneliness. It’s heartbreaking.
So two books where Sultan and Clement are telling stories where people, the face and different forms of narrative structure power the viewer through their books. They are both single-minded in what they do and whenever anyone looks at the pictures in these books, they cannot take their eyes off them.
They are superb pictures. And Sultan and Clement knew it when they made them. They were/are the real deal. They know what works and they don't pfaff about with meaningless fluff. Their pictures get straight to the heart of things.
That's not always the case with photobooks. You can hear somebody tell stories about the people and places in their photographs and then show their pictures and there's nothing there. Somehow the story (which is so central to the talking about the photographs) gets lost in the showing. As though somehow including some text or other context will detract from the power of the pictures... "I let my pictures do the talking" must be one of the most heartbreaking sentences every heard. Not because this isn't possible, but because most of the time it should be "I let my pictures do the mumbling." I'm a bit of a mumbler so I know exactly where I'm coming from with this one.
But sometimes the power's not in the pictures. It's in the story that's the thing, the text and the captions and the overall yarn. That might not be the case with Krass Clement but it is with Larry Sultan, Sultan has his amazing large format photographs in pictures from home but it's the words of his mother and father, it's the mix of images and the welding of them into a geographical, social and family history that makes it so great.
Anyway, by sheer coincidence, just as the Paper Journal piece came out, this popped up via Petapixel. It was a story about an Eyetracking device that shows what people look at in pictures.
The general idea is that professional photographers take better pictures than amateurs. These are some of the findings.
— People look first at faces. (This echoes other eyetracking studies I have directed for The Poynter Institute for Media Studies.) And they are interested in the relationships between people in the frame, often looking back and forth, between faces and interactions.
— The importance of “storytelling” to photography was mentioned by nearly every subject in the exit interviews.
“A photo needs to tell me a story, versus just capturing a scene,” said a 44-year-old female participant.
“If (a photo) draws you in, it’s connected to a story and it makes you want to learn more, that’s important,” said a 41-year-old male participant.
So it's basic stuff and the key idea here is that if you hire a proper photographer, more people will look at your magazine, your brochure, your website, the photographs will hook viewers into the story, the product, the sale. So the aim is very much at selling photojournalism and commercial photography.
I know that when we talk about high-end photography, about prints, exhibitions and books, we're supposed to pretend that somehow our aesthetic capabilities rise way above this level.
But I wonder. The Larry Sultan and Krass Clement books hit all those spots; the people, the faces, the stories. And they hit them square on without flinching.
Drum works so well because of the face of that lonely man (is he lonely? I don't know, he might not be in real life, but he is in the pages of Drum). Clement is picking a face on which there is a life written, a face that is going to pierce through our cynical eyes. It's a rare skill that ability both to read faces and read how they are going to touch the viewer because these faces are not random, they are not just any old faces, they are faces that have been cast, that are one in a hundred or one in a thousand. There aren't that many of them. And reading these faces, finding these faces, is a skill that the real greats of art and photography have. It's the reason why we remember an Arbus or an Avedon or a Sander or a Klein.
That ability to read faces and understand how they work might be a bit more sophisticated than what the Eyetracking Device records, but it is still something quite hard-wired and basic. I wonder if sometimes we try to look away from the absolutely bleeding obvious and try to complicate things through wilful indirection and vagueness.
Or pretension. Because yesterday Federica Chiocchetti's fine interview with Sean O'Hagan was up on the brand spanking new 1000 Words website, where he repeated Nan Goldin's great quote.
“Fucking postmodern and gender theory. I mean, who gives a shit? People made all that crap up to get jobs in universities.” I think it kills the work for people who are not from that academic background. That kind of writing is exclusive by its nature. It often makes things less clear.
I know that it's brutal and that we should embrace all ideas and even give Judith Butler a go or two before losing the will to live, but at the same time, yes exactly. We shouldn't shut anything out, but things that 'makes things less clear', or things that have an excellent and complex point to make but take 500 words and the densest of prose to make to make that point. In the visual arts. Which is full of visual people. Isn't it sometimes designed just to intimidate and scare. And doesn't it still intimidate and scare.
And valuing all that theory above more interesting, entertaining and accessible ideas that attach to art, TV, film and literature - the powerhouses of creativity, education and information exchange, which is where we want to be? Is that the hierarchy we should have? In a visual art where people go into the visual for a reason.
I'm not saying that we should value the complete series of Father Ted above the works of Merleau-Ponty and Lacan, but... oh no, wait a minute. I am saying that. Oh dear, there's no way out. Better end it here.