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Tag Archives: Eugene Atget

My son is a high school student, participating in the debate team.   I recently volunteered as a judge at a debate tournament, with one of the events being a “dramatic interpretation”, where high school students performed a piece that someone else had written, but that they had memorized and performed.   My first round involved five high school girls, and the readings they gave were shocking:  child abuse, sexual molestation, murder, suicide were all covered, in passionate detail.  Fortunately for me, my wife was in the room, and after the last girl finished, my wife asked them where they had found the pieces, were they in any way autobiographical?  And the girls started to giggle—no—they were not autobiographical—they were selected, perhaps because they were effective emotional stories.    A few weeks later, I judged another event where students read a piece of their own writing, and mixed in with some first crude attempts at fiction were at least two clearly autobiographical pieces, one dealing with the effects of a crippling emotional disorder, the other with the death of several high school friends in car accidents.

Walnut tree, March 23, 2014

Walnut tree, March 23, 2014

Life is not fair.  While a few lucky individuals seem to skate through life unscathed, there is no denying that sickness and death are part of life, and must be confronted.  More troubling is the suffering we bring down on each other, or on ourselves.

What is the connection between suffering and art?  It is very apparent that suffering can and mostly does happen in the ugliest of ways:  the history of the last century is full of concentration camps, ethnic cleansing, genocides, and the news is full of mass shootings.   The rational response to events like these is despair:  why does the world need to be like this?

Of course, suffering is a topic that arises in religion.  The atheists strongest argument against a benevolent supreme being is suffering:  how can a god that loves us permit (or cause) so much suffering?  And perhaps the greatest example of art arising out of suffering is the example of the Christian church—if the hand of god cannot be summoned at will to relive the suffering of the people, perhaps pictures of miracles from the mythical past can convince them that it is their own sins that cause the suffering.   Art has been used by the church to render the old miracles into physical forms through painting and sculpture.

Robert Adams, in his essay “Beauty in Photography” published in a book of the same name discusses the connection between art and suffering, between truth and beauty.   He argues that beauty is based on Form, and that Form is beautiful  “Because it helps us meet our worst fear, the suspicion that life may be chaos and that therefore our suffering is without meaning.”   He also asks the question, “is art a sufficient consolation for life?”  and goes on to point out that art can help, but it alone is not sufficient, that we also need human connections—“an anecdote, a jumping dog, or the brush of a hand.  All these things are disorderly, but no plan for survival stands a chance without them.”

What strikes me about Robert Adams’ essay is how he argues that art has a critical function, to convince us that our suffering is not without meaning, and are lives are not better off simply being ended.  In the end, art must be an affirmation.

Of course, the “art world”, still abuzz from the record price paid for a Francis Bacon triptych, seems to be interested in something else, namely, money and power.  There is no question that Bacon’s paintings reflect anguish of the 20th century, that his popes are images of powerful men in hell, but the question remains, why do collectors value his work so highly?  On the other end of the spectrum, the mass market seems equally committed to the work of Thomas Kinkade, who died recently of a drug and alcohol overdose, who called himself “the painter of light”, painting sentimentalized images of homes and churches bathed in unnatural glows.   Both men may have suffered, neither seem to have arrived at a truth that is affirming—Bacon fails by painting monsters, Kinkade though eye candy.

But there are examples of people who have suffered and transformed that experience into great art.  Shostakovich, the great 20th century Russian composer is one—his music is full of ambiguities and uncertainties.  Timothy O’Sullivan began his career as a photographer on the battlefields of the civil war before heading west to make sublime views of the landscape.  Frida Kalo suffered an unfortunate accident as a young woman, and a difficult marriage, but made compelling paintings.  All of them made great art.

John Szarkowski noted that the pictures that command our attention the longest are the ones that seem to hold some mystery.  Eugene Atget made amazing photographs, but it’s hard to know how much he suffered—he may have been a failed actor, but he made a living as a photographer.  He did have a very productive period at the end of his life, after his wife died, when he was facing his own mortality, but he made many great photographs before then.

Suffering is part of life—to live is to suffer—and life is not fair—but there are things that help, including art.  High school kids dealing with sickness and death are looking in the right place–sometimes, looking at a painting or listening to a piece of music or encountering a poem can convince us that we are not alone in our suffering, and allow us to experience moments of grace—where the suffering remains real, but finds a balance with beauty.

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When I went to China, now just over two years ago, one of the things I experienced for the first time was the Chinese political speech.  These speeches were shouted from written scripts, one word at a time, as loudly as possible.  During the conference (which I and nine other American photographers participated in), many of the speeches were simultaneously translated into English for us foreigners.   I don’t remember much of what was said—I’m not sure if this is because the speeches seemed so trite when translated into English, or if the translation into English stripped all speech of subtlety, but either way, sitting through the speeches was moderately annoying, though the tea they served was very good, and the speeches ended soon enough.

Houston, 2008

Houston, 2008

I think all of the English speakers were somewhat concerned about how what we had to say might be translated into Chinese—one of my first moments after meeting my host at the airport was being asked if I would like any snakes—I politely refused—I’m not especially fond of snakes, and being offered them in plural form after 30 hours in airplanes and airports is not what I expected–but the offer was repeated until finally I understood that what was being offered was, in fact, snacks…

And one of my favorite moments in the conference was when one of my fellow conference attendees made a comment in his talk in which he stated that “the landscape is my mistress”, which another, more experienced international traveler, noted was probably translated as “I fuck the earth”.

Whatever.   I’ve had enough conversations with Chinese friends to appreciate the difficulties in translation.  What we say and think in English may or may not translate into Chinese or the Chinese mind…

But one thing I do remember from the speeches—the Chinese repeatedly referred to “great Chinese photographic theoreticians”.   In America, I’ve never heard of any photographic theoreticians, let alone a great one. We have ph0tographers, we have curators, we have gallery directors, we have photo editors, we have photographic critics–but none of these positions correspond with “photographic theoretician”.   It apparently is a title that offers neither salary nor tenure, at least outside of China.  I always assumed that photography was an empirical enterprise, defined by observation rather than by theory.

But, of course, just because there is no official title does not mean that we are lacking in photographic theoreticians.  In the short lecture I was expected to give, I referred to Robert Adams as a “great American photographic theoretician”, a title that I’m sure he would object to with vigor, but one I hoped would translate into whatever status was given to the Chinese photographic authorities.    I can think of no better discussion about the meaning of photographs and their importance to our lives than his wonderful essays.

Houston, 2008

Houston, 2008

I once studied Physics (let me be clear—I am not a Physicist—I once referred to myself and several other students as “Physicists” in front of one of my professors—he corrected me to point out that we were, in fact, not Physicists—I asked him what made someone “a Physicist”—he stated that it was when one had actually “done some Physics”—I asked him how one knew that they had “done some Physics”—he told me that someone would tell me when I had “done some Physics”—something that I can state with certainty has never happened—so I am not “a Physicist”—but I once was student of the discipline)—where theoreticians were many and experimentalists were few (due at least in part to the huge cost of experiments in high energy particle physics)…

But I know there are photographers that are working with photographic theories that I don’t understand.  Robert Adams, Lee Friedlander, William Eggleston, Walker Evans, Timothy O’Sullivan, and, of course, Eugene Atget have all made photographs using formulas beyond my comprehension.  But I do sometimes try to replicate their results…