Saturday, December 5, 2015

Great Lakes

The current Brett Weston show at JSMA, Brett Weston in Oregon, is entertaining if not surprising. Close your eyes. Imagine Brett Weston photos in your mind. Or, if you can't think any by Brett, imagine his dad's photos. The scene on the inside of your eyelids is pretty much what they looked like on display at the Schnitzer, tucked into a dark corner on the second level. 

Two noteworthy qualities about Brett Weston: 1. He was a fantastic darkroom printer; technically his prints were from another planet. And, 2. He destroyed nearly all his negatives just before dying. Both qualities spell "control freak". Which ain't such a bad thing. 

As for the actual subject matter in his photographs? Meh, I dunno. Maybe the scenes were revolutionary back in 1960. Back then a magnificent vista or delicately decaying barn wall in monochrome might have something to say. But from a contemporary perspective that thing's been said already. Plenty. It's ironic that the show was billed as Brett Weston in Oregon because Weston's style eliminates vernacular details in favor of modernist generalization. Looking at the photos I could find no sign of Oregon, no familiar landmark or road sign or person. Without seeing the captions they might've been made anywhere in post f/64-land. 

This one —Tide Pool, Devil's Elbow, 1974— was my favorite of the show.

The shadows are off and the perspective confusing. I had to look at it a while before I could decode what was happening. Eventually I realized the photo was hanging upside down on the wall. It was the only one in the show like that, and the trick proved very effective, a brilliant abstraction. But I'm not sure if the JSMA got the memo. Their website shows the photograph right side up.

It's nice enough that way but I think it's better upside down. That's how the Brett Weston archive shows it, and I suppose they would know. Honestly the picture could work either way. Which one is right? Only Brett knows, and dead men don't talk.

Brett Weston and other mid-century luminaries —Siskind, White, Sommer, etc.— were rather notorious for abstracting past the point of easy comprehension. Subject matter was merely putty to play with. The idea was to elevate it into something ethereal, to bypass the lowly common world. White: "One should not only photograph things for what they are but what else they are." It was a mini-Transcendentalist revival. Monochrome helped, as did the occasional 180 degree rotation, negative inversion, or infrared conversion. But the best was when the abstraction relied on minimal interference. A "straight" translation of reality was ideal.

Imogen Cunningham, Roi, 1927

Which is all fine. But there is sometimes a fine line between modernist abstraction and simple trick photography. When I was a kid, Ranger Rick magazine ran a monthly quiz. The reader was presented with extreme close up photographs of familiar things, and the object was to guess proper identities. The photos were generally simple but sometimes tough to decode for my eight-year old eyes. Nowadays the web is full of similar projects, for example

There's an element of that in Brett Weston's photography, although I don't think it's exactly what he had in mind. But like Ranger Rick, Weston's photographs rely on a certain level of visual deception. The viewer often has to sort through what he/she is looking at before proceeding very far. That mental disconnect can sometimes be quite charming, as with Devil's Elbow

Of course Weston and Ranger Rick are only the tip of the iceberg. There's also Highlights Magazine for ChildrenAnd for photographers curious to explore further this book has many excellent examples, including the Imogen Cunningham photo above.

At the higher levels a photo can work like one of those Magic Eye posters popular in the 90s. It's one thing...until it immediately transforms into something else. That moment when the poster first shifts into something recognizable is quite amazing. I still remember my first time. 

This subject is near and dear to my heart because, well, it's my general modus operandi making photographs. I look for Magic Eye scenes in real life. And I love to fuck over the viewer. That's you. Sorry. Please don't take it personally.

Take this picture, for example, which I shot in Eugene last Winter. 

At first glance it looks like a torn sticker on a car bumper. And, to be fair, I have photographed my share of torn stickers on car bumpers, so some confusion is reasonable. But outright blindness? That's where I get antsy. Because this is not a torn sticker. As any geography buff or Michigan resident can tell you it's the most precise sticker imaginable. So it's two things at once. It's the upside down tide pool and the right side up tide pool. 

I threw the photo up on Tumblr to gauge feedback. Zero reaction. I felt like a comic whose joke had bombed. Dead silent crowd. If I'm honest that's the reaction to most of what I throw on Tumblr. Oh well. Maybe I should've tried the upside down version instead.

On second thought, Nah. This way is even more confusing. Unless you live in Florida.

The truth is most viewers no matter their state of residency won't see anything here but a torn sticker. In real life they will walk by this car unwittingly thinking "torn sticker." Even after I isolate the scene, record it and serve it up on a platter to their computer screen in  a clearly captioned post, they still think "torn sticker". "There is nothing as mysterious as a fact clearly described," said Winogrand. Hallelujah! 

Ron Jude recently described his hopes for people viewing his photo projects this way: "Really look at it, and read it like a book. Put it down and come back and look again tomorrow of next week. There are ways to move through clear, descriptive photographs that can reflect and distill the inexplicable resonance of actual experience." Which is to say, vision requires patience.

Hey, every photographer wants viewers to look long and hard. Put it down and come back to it. Who wouldn't appreciate that? But patience requires trust. Before any viewer will spend energy digesting a photo or book or any piece of creative output, he/she must have a sense that time will be rewarded. You're going to spend more time trying to decode an upside down tidepool on the wall if the creator is Brett Weston than if it's, say, Joe-Schmo. Because Joe Schmo doesn't have a track record. He won't always pull through. Hours of staring may not turn Joe Schmo's photo into anything magical. But if you trust that the photographer has a magic eye, you'll spend the time. That trust is key to entering into a relationship with any photo, but especially the obtuse ones. 

So the viewers fall into two camps, the ones who get the message and the ones who see a torn sticker. And the task is to convert them from the latter to the former —to see photographs not only for what they are but for what else they are— before they grow weary of looking, one viewer at a time. 


Hernan Zenteno said...

A side comment about turning views. I remember that Bresson turned 180 degrees the contact sheets to edit. I too found the rolleiflex inverse image in the viewfinder of the TLR a help to compose better. I don´t know what works there but at less for me is real that help to edit without understand the content, judging only in the geometry or form.
About the main topic I remember a quote a friend of mine shared from a book of Manuel Alvarez Bravo. Is token from the Talmud, "If you want to see the invisible, carefully observe the visible".

CJ said...

First thought was "scratched negative that looks like something I can't figure out" since that white popped off the screen. Then after a squint and a long stare I gave up and I went back at it on another day. Still no answer (my other guesses may seem pedestrian but they still didn't pan out). I now chalk it up to my over analyzing due to your photographic mastery with a splash of poor geographical knowledge. My family in Buffalo wouldn't be surprised....

Blake Andrews said...

CJ, do you know anyone in Michigan or Wisconsin? If so, they may be able to help. Ask them too about Destroy All Monsters.

In any case, your feedback is helpful. It's the type of photo which generates radically different reactions depending on the viewer's frame of reference. And I only have one frame of reference to judge. So to hear from others is useful.

Nishad said...

Somehow tumblr doesn't seem to elicit too many comments, more likes and reposts.

Just so you know I did have the reaction you hoped for when viewing the image. The initial "oh that's just a scratched bumper / torn sticker" to the aha moment of realizing what it really was. The actual dust on the bumper further serves to confuse the eye, especially with how it relates to the sticker.

I just came across your work recently - and have really been inspired by your archive. With your images, it certainly pays to keep looking!

Thanks for sharing.

CJ said...

B, your blog post helped clear up my confusion; well done. Didn't want to "give it away" in my comment section.

John said...

Met Brett several times while going to Grad School in Eugene in the early 70's, and studying under Bernie Freemesser. (one of Brett's buddies) Speaking of upside down, one of the favorite stories going around back then, concerned Brett and his Dad out shooting one day. Brett calls his Dad over to his camera for some advice. The elder turns the camera over 90 degrees, and then claims the photo as his own! ;-)