Photography and Art

Thursday, October 23, 2008

LensCulture and Contemporary Photography

I don't know about you, but I admit to being a little bit lost when it comes to contemporary photography. I've read widely on the subject and I try to see as much of it as possible, but I'm pretty much incapable of telling the good stuff from the bad and frankly don't get some of it.

To use a musical analogy, landscape photography is a little like classical music. The landscape was manufactured a long time ago, just as most of the classical repertoire was written a long time ago. Musicians and photographers are adding their own interpretation to well-known works. I was thinking of this as I photographed Mono Lake last week along with a bunch of other photographers. The parking lot was full before sunrise and people kept getting in the way of each others' shots. However, it is still fun to see the way other artists interpret Mono Lake and I'm sure, given changing lighting and cloud conditions, there is still something unique to say on the subject.

I'm currently singing in two musical groups: The Toronto Classical Singers and The Ensemble Tryptych. The former is a large oratorio choir that specializes in traditional masses and features a large orchestra during performances and the latter is a chamber choir that has a more varied repertoire. By chance, both groups are performing Handel's Messiah this year, so it has been very interesting comparing the approaches of the two conductors. Jurgen Petrenko of the TCS has to cope with a large chorus of over 100 voices, so he stresses simplicity and musical singing. Lenard Whiting on the other hand is working with TET's smaller, nimbler size and can go for a much more detached musical treatment that won't get muddied by the size of the ensemble.

Two groups, two conductors, two unique interpretions of one master work. Similarly, we have had generations of landscape photographers interpret the same scenery in different ways. The constancy of the subject matter allows the viewer to focus on the interpretation and to get a sense of the message being conveyed by the way the artist has arranged the subject and the light.

Not so with contemporary photography. Just as modern music throws out the structures of classical music and all notions of timing, scales and melodies, contemporary photography seems to dispense with the structures of classical landscape photography and substitue a free-for-all.

I've been looking at an online contemporary photography magazine called LensCulture recently and there are lots of examples of interesting work. Some of the work I get. For example, there's a gallery by Hanne van der Woude entitled Natural Red Hair that I find quite compelling. The portraits of redheads are quite lovely and, being married to a redhead, I find them very attractive. The settings are very interesting landscapes as well and the lighting is wonderful.

I also really like a gallery by Jim Vecchi called Markings: Art Underfoot in San Francisco's Sunset District. This is a beautifully composed gallery of images of brightly painted sidewalk pavement arranged in unusual shapes. The images turn sidewalk art into a superior art form.

On the other hand, I just don't understand the attraction of Ebbe Stub Wittrup's Out from Under. Here's a gallery of mediocre landscapes where the images have been de-saturated, given a colour cast and in some cases blurred. To what purpose? Here's what the accompanying blurb says: "In his most recent work, the landscapes are hardly recognizable monochromatic surfaces. But still, Ebbe Stub Wittrup obviously knows exactly how to bring this mental abstraction to life. " The only mental abstraction that matters to me is the one in the head of the viewer and my eye only saw pale, ghostly imitations of landscape as if the photographer had used really old film in a camera that over-exposed each image. There was no "bringing to life" for me.

Similarly, the portfolio of Alexei Vassiliev entitled Here and gone: 21st century anonymous portraits leaves me wondering what all the fuss is about. Here's an entire gallery of blurry portraits of people. I guess this is supposed to convey a feeling of anonymity and de-personalization, but all I see is a photographer who can't seem to find the right focal point or shutter speed.

Of course, there are lots of landscape photographers that I don't like either, so finding contemporary art that doesn't speak to me should come as no surprise. It's only that I feel on firmer ground in the world of classical landscape photography. Contemporary photography kicks all the props out from underneath and I feel uncomfortable passing judgment in case I'm missing something deep and meaningful. Perhaps I'm lacking the context required to interpret these works and enjoy them.

Nevertheless, I recommend LensCulture and hope that you visit it often and join me in developing my appreciation for contemporary photography and developing my taste buds.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for your thoughtful commentary. Part of what is so interesting to me about contemporary photography is the diversity of approaches, so I especially appreciate your analogy of musicians and wildly divergent interpretations of a similar score.

    Did you know that Ansel Adams was trained as a classical pianist? He was known to say something like this: "In photography, a negative is like the score of a composition, and the print is the performance." In his case, a single exposure onto a piece of film could be interpreted in many rich and wonderful ways.

    This is something useful to remember, especially when we shoot a lot of digital photographs but rarely continue the (often difficult) process of converting those bits and bytes into a masterpiece on a photographic print.