Susan Sontag's On Photoghaphy starts out in Plato's Cave, with"humankind's lingering unregenerately, still reveling, its age old habit, of mere images of the truth."It is hard to imagine a more ambitious social, pyschological, sexual, or political analysis of photographic history and practices from 1839 to the present. An encyclopedia of pithy observations, snapshots , if you will. Sontag's reference to Plato highlights her profound interest in the nature of reality revealed in the history and practices of photography and its relationships to the other visual arts, and other culture's political orders.
While Plato's Cave may be a place of revelry for some, it is also a place of darkness, confusion, and suffering for almost all other humankind. If you ever get tired of "revelry", turn your gaze completely around from the moving shadows on the wall of the cave in front of you, and in your mind's eye, take a good look at the chains of beliefs and pet rants that bind you to the wall at your back... No shadow!
Speaking of caves, the photo here is a self portrait "taken" about 1974. This is a bathroom mirror in a 2nd floor apt. on 19th st., between Market and Chestnut in downtown Phila..The street entrance to my Apt. was also the entrance to a porn bookstore off to the side, which was why the rent was so cheap. My interests at the time were poetry, painting, sculpture, one girl friend at a time, and developing a rudimentary zen practice based on my sense of poetry and available readings at the time: Zen and The Art of Archery, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, and The Three Pillars of Zen, etc.
Back to my selfie. Its amazing how much a photo can help anchor memories...On my finger is a ring my brother gave me, which I was to loose at the Johnson Atelier about 5 years later. The camera is a Pentax Spotmatic with a F1.8, 55 mm lens that I worked all summer for at Pessano's Pharmacy, in 1968, in Ocean City, New Jersey.
Interestingly enough, I just learned there is a contemplation practice developed by Ken Mcleod, where one contemplates one's life every 8 years or so. It is advised to rest in an open awareness meditation(Tilopa) before and after the contemplation session Say 10 minutes meditation, 5 minutes contemplation, 5 minutes meditation. This is to help the practitioner to stabilize what comes up. It is also really helpful to be working with a thearapist and /or be a member of a meditation group, or Sangha if you are interested in working on your "stuff". I plan to work with photos as well as just meditation. Keep you posted.
The slr camera, with its pentaprism, seemed to me a wish fulfilling jewel. I bought the camera in time to take photos of my brother's wedding. After that, I carried the camera around where ever I went, taking pictures of everything that caught my eye.
Back to Sontag. Her writing creates an incredibly rich context for discussions about photography, photographers, photos, reality, history, and art. Despite her great knowledge, she is hardly the definitive word on any number of the subjects she talks about. The heightened emotional content of her comments on Diane Arbus, for example, implies Sontag's own "shadow" or unconscious material(thank you Robert Bly) projected into her observations. While this is not a crime, neither is it a clear view of a great photographer.
My Brother Dave
My brother Dave, around 1968, with his trusty Voightlander Bessamatic. I took this portrait with my Pentax Spotmatic, 55mm f1.8 lens. Growing up, My brother and I were greatly influenced by our father, who was an medical doctor. Not only was he interested in the great classics of literature, optics, coin collecting, and oil painting, he was also a polaroid land camera nut, taking instant photos of his many children, mostly rolling their eyes. He also had a tape recorder the size of a suitcase that he recorded his brothers and everybody else he could get to sing songs into. Mairzy Doats was one of his favorites. My mother's favorite was Shrimp Boats. I played my part by singing Rarf Rarf whenever he paused while singing "How Much Is That Doggie In The Window?"
So my brother David, who was 3 years older than me, followed in my father's footsteps. He and my brother, as doctors, had their own special medical language they would converse in. While i have a strong science backround, I was not that close with either of them. Fortunately photography, writing, and art gave my father, my brother, and I mutual interests which helped us stay closer than we might have been over the years.
South Street, (2008), 44" X 33" ink jet print. "Taken" with a canon G-9, F-stop and shutter speed unrecorded. POR
Here is my homage to Joseph Cornell's boxes, Jeff Walls posed photos, and Marcel Duchamp's Readymades, all in one photo. I happened to walk past this apparently ready made stage setting of what seemed a closed box filled with curios which included the set designer obligingly seated, taking notes, in the middle of her own creation. For sure there is an element of luck in this photo with great depth of field. I've read that Cartier- Bresson would set up his Leica with as much f-stop as available light would allow, and set the focus to middle distance to take whatever came up instantly. Even with more modern, automated cameras, if you haven't read the manual and set the camera up appropriate to ambient conditions, you can end up playing with all those funny buttons as the moment passes you by.
Like many photographers, I have been "Walking Around"(as Pablo Neruda might write) taking photos of whatever caught my eye. Although some sights might inevitably catch my eye, I have no real interest in invading anyone's privacy. For this particular photograph, while it seems quiet and private, it is a shop open to the public, and I was taking the photo from the street. Also, while "photography for artistic purposes does not need a signed release.", as Mr. Newton has written, its good to have them.
Respect for who is photographed is important because of the toxic atmosphere created by paparazzi and governments hiding in bushes or chasing people about to either harass, embarrass or destroy them with photographs, or rewriting captions on existing photographs to insinuate their own demented versions of reality.
Sontag writes in On Photography:" Photography inevitably entails a certain patronizing of reality. From being "out there," the world comes to be "inside" photographs. Our heads are becoming like those magic boxes that Joseph Cornell filled with incongruous small objects whose provenance was a France he never once visited."
All the more incongruous, perhaps.
I am not sure what Sontag is saying here. Certainly, photography is always "doing business with" or "giving the business" to reality. Photography and reality are inextricably related. The "doing business with" set are the photographers and artists who are in awe of reality. They are constantly on the lookout for "What it is", "As It Is". Few of these artists are inclined to be patronizing. The latter are all those who have somehow come to the conclusion that reality is boring or doesn't tell their side of the story, and needs to be "spruced up". This latter group also includes the skillful workers in Stalin's disappeared persons department of photo retouching, whose very lives probably depended on how well they did their jobs. Talk about "Reality"!
The Industrialization of Desire
My dear friend Jaime Ball courageously stretched herself out, (rather uncomfortably)across the tines of my forklift. This is one high contrast version of this series of photos. The idea for this photo came from a photo by Helmut Newton showing an anxious, naked model grasping a fork lift tine with her hands and dangling somewhat precariously, feet off the ground. I must say I was totally impressed by the reality content of the image.. And so I wanted to see what a nude female figure stretched out over the tines of a forklift would look like.
Well, here is what a nude female figure stretched out over a forklift's tines looks like. For me this image is less powerful than the figure study, which makes me feel somewhat uneasy. It sums up concentration camps and the cold, relentless, barbaric exploitation of women. Of course, one could say that this image is itself a part of that exploitation.
Of the four reactions to both versions of this image, two responses were that this was a "Pieta", the third response was of admiration, and the last of disgust.
I like the pieta responses to this image as the most helpful. I have always wondered, as a Christian, why the most erotic images of Christian art centered around the tortured or dead body of a male nude?
The answer seems to be that there is a big difference between covert eroticism, and overt eroticism. What is this difference? Covert eroticism is eroticism hidden in plain sight, hidden by means of being a contextual part of a religious story line, whereas overt eroticism is plain old balls to the wall sex without the salad dressing, or, as in the case of Tom Jones, with the salad dressing...a scrumptious feast worthy of a adventurous rogue and a willing woman. God bless them.
Our Lady of the Forklift
The title pretty much says what needs to be said. I can't claim credit for this photos inspiration; thank you Jaime Ball and Helmut Newton. Nor for the title. Two artist friends were visiting and I happened to show them a pronto plate of this image and one of burst out softly..."Our Lady of The Forklift". Thank you. Thank you.
Helmut Nerwton wrote in his wonderful autobiography: "You never can tell how people will react to a photograph." Well, Helmut is right. Of course, if you don't show your work, nobody can react, nor respond.
Portrait of Jaime
Jaime's physical presence overwhelms the reductive context of the butcher block here. Her look is direct, without being confrontational..
Portrait of Swain
Here is an oil Portrait of my mentor, Eustus Swain. Swain was the full time night man, and I was the part time night man at the Broad Locust Street garage...I don't remember exactly how it happened that Swain agreed to sit for his portrait, but on my off nights I would come in a little after 12pm, set up my canvas in the office, and Swain would sit for me for an hour or so. We always had a lot to talk about.
I recall three reactions to Swain's portrait: Brave Boy, or Al (Swain's buddy), the street sweeper who would show up around 2 to 4 in the morning, , said more than a few times that if the police wanted to catch Swain, "all they had to do was look at my portrait of him and they would know what he looked like". " The police would get him for sure". I slowly began to grasp the social reality of Swain's life, in which the police were always a presence, and always a threat, all of the time.
An academy trained painter showed me a portrait he had done of a black friend of his. I don't recall if my portrait of Swain inspired him to paint his friend. His portrait was quite good, and more experienced in a "painterly" way than my portrait. Wonderful! What I like about my portrait of Swain is that it was the beginning of an conversation with a person and a culture I had felt drawn to, but was never able to visit.
The third response, or reaction, was from a lady who immediately assumed that the portrait of Swain was done from a photograph. This surprised me, and I asked her about it. The sense of "closeness' bothered her. I was too close physically to Swain to have actually been there, in her view. Therefore, I must have painted his portrait from a photograph. And I can understand her uneasiness at the "closeness". Indeed, closeness or distance (engagement), is a subject that always comes up in photography and painting, between subjects and objects, between friends, lovers, and strangers...just how close, or distant, just how real, are you?
One of the keys to this painting is the fact that Swain is wearing a beret. Swain was able, and willing to meet me more than half way.