Blake Andrews: Let me start by saying I don't dislike composited work. I actually like a lot of it including yours. But I think it is a very different approach than one-shot photography, and this difference shouldn't be glossed over. That's what I meant in the original post when I said the work was "great so long as you understand that their methods are closer to Uelsmann than Cartier-Bresson." So let me return to that statement and ask you:
1) Do you agree with the Uelsmann vs. Cartier-Bresson analogy?
2) Do you think it matters? That is, if you just look at a final image, does it matter how it was arrived at? Or have we reached a point where that's relatively unimportant?
Pelle Cass: Are my methods closer to Uelsmann's than to Cartier-Bresson's? No, I don't think so. I don't actually change a pixel, and everything you see in my pictures occurs unaltered and in its real position, albeit at different times. Further, my pictures are truer to experience, in a way, than a conventional still photograph because they are more like the way we see. First, a conventional photo records only a tiny fraction of a second. My pictures give you many moments over time and represent them like your memory does.
I also think your Uelsmann anology fails because he is basically a surrealist, and relies on the juxtaposition of dissimilar images to create a kind of vibration or dissonance that disturbs or delights the viewer. Whether his pictures correspond to real things is pretty moot.
BA: Maybe Uelsmann was the wrong example. I used him because he is a very recognizable name. But to bring the analogy closer to street photography what about someone like Dale Yudelman who is basically using computer collaging to create believable scenes? Do you have any ethical qualm with this approach?
PC: No, I don't have any ethical qualms about this work. In fact, it would have to actually harm someone for me to have any ethical qualms. More troubling is work that exploits people, but I guess I don't think it's unethical for the most part. And even if it is unethical (I'm thinking of Laurel Nakadate's videos in which she exploits horny old men, for example), I don't think that's a reason to not do it. But back to Yudelman. I don't like the pictures much because the paradoxes and weirdnesses are all the same and rather simple and obvious and cute. If they were created on the street and not on the desktop, I don't think they would be any better. Do you?
BA: Well I found them interesting at first, before I realized they were collages. That realization changed my perception of them. They instantly became less compelling, but if he'd found the same images in real life on some street I think they'd be worth a look. For me that sort of crystalizes the issue. The knowledge of how these images were made changes my appreciation of them. For you, you're saying it doesn't?
PC: No, it doesn't. But I didn't like them to begin with. Another example is Gursky. I loved his show at MOMA several years ago. When I learned that there was a lot of cloning, etc, I was taken aback. Then I realized it didn't make any difference. Interestingly, his later work seems artificial and airless while the older work seems to have the feel of realism, even though they are fabrications. So, what I like is the feel of realism. I want to show what the world looks like (and I want to show how my brain sorts what I see). It's also worth noting that the photo of the woman kneeling that you use as an example on your blog owes as much to Surrealism as to realism.
BA: I think that is one of street photography's strengths. The ability to show the surreal side of reality that is otherwise invisible is a rare skill.
PC: In fact, much street photography seeks the strange, dissonant, disturbing, weird and odd. It's just that the "manipulation," to use the photo term, happens before the picture is taken and doesn't involve physically changing the photograph. Truly, as you mentioned in your post, all photographs are manipulated. Even though we learned this in school, it's true!
BA: Yes, all photographs are manipulated but the examples above, before vs. after the picture, seem qualitatively different. No?
PC: Uelsmann, Yudelman, and Rudik, the boxing photo guy, all directly altered their photographs. I do this too, as well as Vasquez, Funch, and Szemzo. But I think it's an arbitrary point at which to complain that the truth has been compromised, except, as we are getting to below, in the case of journalism. I absolutely agree that there should be strict standards for news pictures, but this seems like an entirely different debate that overlaps a little with some street photography and not at all with what I do.
BA: I find that last passage particularly interesting. So you do agree that news pictures should have some sort of "truth" standard? Once you accept this, it seems to prepare the way for a similar standard in street photography. Yes, street photography is not reportage but I think it has strong roots in the documentary tradition as opposed to more conceptual photography like Wall, Demand, Gursky, etc.. I am fine with those people compositing whatever they want to because they are following a separate path, but street photography seems much more closely related to news photography in that traditionally it has had a direct tie with reality. And in fact your photography seems tied to realism. Otherwise, why not inject a foreign character into one of your scenes. So on some level can we agree it does matter?
PC: I set up rules for the way I work, and I don't see why you shouldn't, too. But why insist other street photographers abide by rules? If Yudelman's work worked, I'd like it!
BA: What is the basis for your rules? I think you must see some value in keeping photography's tie to truth. As you say above "my pictures are truer to experience, in a way, than a conventional still photograph because they are more like the way we see." If any manipulation is fine, the tie to truth becomes relatively unimportant, so why restrict yourself? Isn't the motivation to keep some tie to truth?
PC: Aha. Now you are starting to catch me. Mostly, I think it's poetic truth I'm after. But I make my no alterations rule so that I can make the argument that my work is true to experience. The same reason you say you don't change anything. In my case, I know that I am making a contradictory claim and possibly one that purist photo people might take exception to. I am kind of sticking to the purist's rule but undermining it at the same time. Also, please note that while I may have a rule for this series, I don't for my other series and certainly don't have any rules that I expect others to go by.
Part of the impetus for me to do Selected People was to do street photography, but to screw it up, do it the wrong way. Or as Andy Warhol used to say, exactly the wrong way. Also, I feel just as much in the Wall, Demand, Gursky school as in the Evans, Frank, Friedlander school. More, really. It's silly after all these years, but in school in the 70s, I felt forced to do street photography and do it pure. And I was very bad at it. I'm still slightly rebelling against that.
BA: I sense that in your visual style and in your original blog post. Hopefully I'm not rehashing those years of cramming ideas down your throat, just questioning.
PC: Not at all! This is fun! It helps me know what I think.
The other example you used, of the bandaged fist, is also an interesting test of truth. The photographer got in trouble for removing some information, but not for totally changing the mood and meaning of the original photo, transforming an ordinary, calm moment of preparation, set in a homely field, into a powerfully glowering close-up of a black-and-white fist. The image went from a snapshot to an expressionist image of pain—whether or not the foot was removed. The truth in the finished picture had little to do with the original scene and everything to do with the imagination of the photographer.
...Taken from this original
BA: Good point. Again, I probably should've picked a better example.
PC: So, on to the second part of your original question. Do I think manipulation v straight matters? No, not a bit. But things like truth, fidelity, and realism do matter and are photography's strength.
BA: I don't follow you here. Manipulation vs straight doesn't matter but in the next sentence, truth, fidelity, and realism do matter?
PC: I think that's what I mean. But I think I'm talking about truth in the way you might say Shakespeare tells the truth about the human condition, even though it's made up and written in verse. But as far as the one-to-one correspondence of facts that we insist on in news-gathering--you've got me!
BA: But, to play Devil's advocate, why should photojournalism have tighter standards? It seems arbitrary to single out that branch of photography. Why not allow pre or post picture manipulation in photojournalism?
PC: Journalism and the disseminating of facts is crucial to our democracy and our freedom. My insistence on truth here has nothing to do with art but is the same as expecting a reporter not to make up dialogue or to dramatize a story with lies. If I were a magazine editor, I'd be very strict! If I ran a museum, I'd let anything happen!
BA: Well maybe that is where some of the trouble lies. Photography has always straddled the "But is it art?" question and tried to have it both ways. Many of the best photos ever made weren't done out of artistic motives, including many street photographs and photojournalism. E.g., Eddie Adams was as pure a photojournalist as anyone and he's collectible now. Carleton Watkins didn't consider himself an artist, nor Atget. Even Weston preferred the label photographer over artist. And many of these supposedly non-art photographs wind up eventually in museums, and so are considered art. And I think they are art. So I don't think the division is very clean between, say, magazine/functional photography and art/museum photography.
PC: I think it's true that there's no longer a distinction between photojournalism and art, something I thoroughly approve of--again, on the grounds that if it works, it's good. However, the fact that these great non-art photographers did or didn't "manipulate" is moot. Their work is in museums and sought after because it's good and it's important. I don't think museums or collectors care much about the photographers's ethics or compunctions.
BA: You mention reporting, and I think writing faces some of the same problems. Obviously some forms require strict division between fiction and nonfiction. You can't fake a memoir or a news account. But that doesn't mean those forms can't be written artfully, or even wind up in a museum someday.
PC: I would never make the argument that "low" art of any kind is not art or does not deserve the attention of museums, collectors and the public. I am completely for it.
BA: To turn the argument around, if you're going to isolate photojournalism as some pure truthful form, some of those same rules might stretch into other related branches of "non-art" photography like street photography. I guess the question is, is street photography "art" or is it something else? I don't think it's art in the same way Gursky is art, but not sure where that leaves it.
PC: I think the best street photography (Frank, Friedlander) is some of the best, most influential art ever made by anyone. I think it's exactly the same kind of art as Gursky! I think photography's claim to high art has been won for a while. I think photography, including street photography, was the dominant form in contemporary art in the late 90s and early 2000s.
BA: What if Frank and Friedlander had made those same images using Photoshop? Would you have the same appreciation for them?
PC: Again, if it worked, I would like it. But, to partially concede your point, The Americans, for example, would have been an entirely different project, and it might not have worked. But what if we found out that Frank had airbrushed some distractions out of his pictures, for example? (He did do some radical cropping--does that bother you?) I still wouldn't care. I believe I've seen examples of Walker Evans removing distractions from his prints. These "transgressions" mean nothing to me. So, what would strike me as wrong (aside from the news example we discussed)? I would be pretty annoyed if I discovered that DiCorcia's Heads were all posed studio set-ups that he did while on assignment for the fashion magazine W. I'd be upset if I heard that Jeff Wall's pictures were unposed snapshots of his family. What if it turned out that Marcel Duchamp had carved the urinal out of a block of marble? I'd be upset at first, I'm sure. But it would also be kind of amazing. I'm afraid there is no hoax that is too big to be appreciated by the contemporary art biz.
Flights of fancy aside, I was a bit disappointed in Frank after reading (some of) the new book about The Americans. It was a book that has always meant a lot to me (one of the things that I actually liked that was crammed down my throat in art school!). I was struck, in reading the book, by how much Frank planned The Americans as a critique. It's the planning that kind of bothered me. He knew beforehand that race relations were screwed up in this country, and went out to look for the evidence. He thought workers were alienated, and visiting diners was part of his plan. He sometimes used clumsy juxtapositions in his layouts, rich and poor, for example, in a way I find forced and unpoetic. Almost propaganda.
It could be that I'm a limited person, and I'm only interested in the poetic side of things. What is sustaining to me in Frank's work is not his critique of 50s America (which I don't think I even got when I was introduced to his book in 1974), although I actually admire it even as I pick on it. It's the sadness that gets me. Now I presume that, while there were many sad people in the fifties, sadness isn't unique to a particular time or place. What Frank was really photographing was his own sadness. I'm not sure what possible difference his methods could make to me. Even the suspicion I have that he was kind of cynical in his methods (planning shots for cheap effect being, for me, the equivalent of photoshopping) doesn't reduce my affection for his best work. It does, however, gnaw at what I think of him personally, maybe. I may have had an overly romantic view of his purity and spontaneity. So, some questions of ethics can hurt my appreciation of someone's work, just not photoshopping etc. If I said I never changed anything in my work (which I do say), and then you found that I moved some mailboxes or power lines, would you dislike my work? You'd think I was ethically sloppy and a bit of liar. But I'm an artist, not a politician! So why care very much?
I hope I'm not being argumentative! I'm just trying to say what I think as clearly as I can. I think it's admirable that you like the work of Funch et al., including my work, when we take such liberties! Your original post was really a revelation to me, because I hadn't thought of myself as part of any large group of photographers. It really helped put my own work into context!
BA: That's interesting because from my point of view there seems to be a broader movement here. You must've at least been aware of these other photographers using similar methods? What's been your reaction to their work? Do you see it as radically different than yours?
PC: The three photographers you talked about (in the original blog post) do seem to be similar. I might be a little different in insisting on a feel of realism. Funch seems expressionist and Vasquez, too, maybe. I tend to like photography better when it embraces realism, and less when it falls back on surrealism.
BA: It needn't be either/or. The best street photographs accomplish both.
PC: I completely agree with this. It seems to me that street photography is doing very well for itself. Eggleston could be this moment's dominant photographer. I think it will always remain strong, despite all my arguing, precisely because, for all its distortions, photography has the potential to render facts like nothing else. I think it's great when people decide to adhere religiously to facts (or indexicality, which I think might be the academic's word). It can yield new insights and exciting work. The Bechers certainly radically expanded what photography could do--brought it into the realm of conceptual art--but remained close to the facts indeed. My only real argument here is that for art, facts don't matter. Ethics almost don't matter. The only thing that matters is that the pictures work. I acknowledge that this can be a complicated thing, say, for example, you love Yudelman's pictures when you thought they were true, but dislike them when you realize they are tricks. In other words, when you start to understand his work, you like it less. To my way of thinking, this has has to do with you evaluating and understanding his work, not judging his ethics.
But I think for you, not physically changing the photograph is somehow essential to your idea of street photography.
BA: Street photography is a pretty broad category but you're right that the kind I enjoy best is generally unmanipulated. That said, I think your style of manipulation is particularly interesting because, as you point out, it isn't actually altering the "truth" of the photo, no more than a long exposure alters truth. Where it becomes more problematic for me is when pure fabrications appear to be truthful.
PC: It doesn't matter to me, but I'm also not especially tied to the category "street photography" and don't care if work I like is in it or not. You seem to care about preserving a tradition, which makes a lot of sense.
BA: That statement goes back to my original question of whether your work is closer to Uelsmann (composited images) or Cartier-Bresson (straight street). You said above you felt closer to Cartier-Bresson and, presumably, street photography in general. But now you don't want any tie to that category?
PC: As I was saying about my art school days, my work is slightly thumbing its nose at the idea of purism. The other side of it, for me, is that it's very important, if I'm to say that I'm an ambitious artist, to have my work tie into the history of my medium. I would like to, in my foolish immodesty, be a link in the chain that goes from Evans's subway pictures to Callahan's faces in the shadow of the El in Chicago to P.L. DiCorcia's Heads in NYC. Each iteration of the idea of a passive camera looking at people in the city does something new, reveals something new about city life or mediated images or time, all within the confines (but straining the limits) of street photography.
This is kind of the old Modernist debate, in which photography is supposed to do what it does best rather than imitate painting. But I said "tend to like." There are photographers like Rud van Empel and Lorretta Lux whose work I like. Indeed, their work tends to seem odd or surreal. But in such a new way that I like them. (Artist's I like less, like Uelsmann and Maggie Taylor, seem derivative of painting.) Lux and van Empel seem to be pushing photography and painting and art itself in new directions, as more influential artists like Jeff Wall and Thomas Demand certainly have done. Technically, I think PhotoShop is the most important change in photography since the introduction of color, and probably it's the more important of the two.
BA: How do your composite portraits fit into this discussion? Do you attempt to have them appear real or reveal something real about the person, or are do they escape that burden? I hate to say it but to me they appear slightly surreal.
PC: The portraits very much fit into this scheme. What interests me about them, in this context, is that I take dozens of pictures, documenting every mole, eyelash, and flake of skin from a distance of an inch or two. Yet, when I put them all together, what I get is a totally false map of a face, that says almost nothing about the sitter as a person. This is the reverse of regular portraiture, which expects all the details of physiognomy to tally up to character. As I said about my other work, I often try to approach standard problems or subjects and do them in the wrong way. This kind of approach is ingrained in my personality. I'm a bit of a passive-aggressive troublemaker, as my wife would be glad to corroborate. I think surrealism might be an apt term, but, like in Selected People, I try to keep the pictures just this side of believable. And also like surrealism, I am trying not just for distortion or strangeness. I'm trying for a heightened feeling. I am also formally fascinated by the almost lizard-like texture of skin seen close up enough, something you can't really see on the web, but I hope will be evident in very large prints (I have yet to make a finished print. I think that some of them may retain all the original detail and sharpness at sizes that might reach 80 x 120 inches). I think the best large photographs are mostly about the miniature, the tiny little things that occupy only a square inch in the finished print.
I'm a little worried that I can't answer your main question, which I take to be, At what point in photography does straying from the facts kill the deal? Or, Is truth important in art? The first I can answer, Never. The second? I don't really have the philosophy training to even think about it.