Robin Kelsey has given us a 400-page book, Photography and the Art of Chance, in 2015 with about 65 b&w reproductions. He is a Professor of Photography at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA. Unfortunately, it was published at home by The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. I say unfortunately because the book is quite wordy and would have more impact with fewer pages. It needed a good editor. I quickly resorted to reading parts of each paragraph to get through the book. A huge amount of research went into its creation. His notes take up 60 pages right before the Index. In the acknowledgements, he had to use, crucial, a highly overworked word in the arts and sciences, as is critical.
The topic, however, is first-rate and opens up a new avenue when dealing with photographs. How we accept chance in our culture over the decades, its place and understanding, all influence how we look at and take still photographs. With 9 chapters, plus an introduction and conclusion, the writing is clear and enlightening. It shows us another aspect to consider when looking at a still photograph on a wall at home or in a museum.
My difficulty with still photography is its encompassing richness of detail. The top practitioners collected by major art museums, Wall, Gursky, Sherman, etc all provide still photographs rich is detail, even if the images are staged, altered in Photoshop, or with a compelling snapshot look. Like my computer’s screen, the details are rich right into the 4 corners, as we now expect in almost all still photographs. Kelsey, “Photography records whatever is before the camera, giving the stray and trivial the same treatment as the main and essential, as if everything were equivalent.”
In the early days of the medium, there was much debate on the artistic merits, if any, in a still photograph. Its artistic value had to be fought for and explained. In 1857, Lady Elizabeth Eastlake used machine several times in a review. She also disliked still photography for the way it failed to accurately depict highlights and shadowy areas. Some considered it like a preparatory drawing used by a painter. Even in the mid 1800s, shortly after its invention, partially staged and altered still photographs occurred. Some photographers today rise and whine about photographs altered in Photoshop. There is and never has been only one way of taking, making, or creating a still or anti-still photograph. Walking around a city in 1868 with the hope of finding a scene to photograph with all the elements in picture-perfect place, as a painter might arrange people and objects on canvas, was dependent on a layer of chance as much as walking and looking. Still lifes were mostly arranged, whether photographed, painted, or drawn. Society and individuals within society try to remove chance as much as possible in their daily lives. The advent of the industrial age in the early 1900s left little to chance. Machines and buildings had to be built to precise plans in order to work properly. The visual arts, including still photography, were less strict; some artists used chance and accidents to their advantage, as I do today.
Chapter 4, The Fog of Beauty, delves into the soft-focus manipulated work of Pictorialists, and their attempt to mimic the look of an etching, drawing, or painting, such as indistinct skies and places of a JMW Turner oil. Clouds, haze, steam, mist, fog, and falling snow all provided a soft indistinctness this group of still photographers used to their advantage. However, the subjects in their shows quickly became clichés, limited to certain homey country scenes. Emerson explained the great limitations of photography, “...though the results may and sometimes do give a certain aesthetic pleasure, the medium must always rank the lowest of all arts, lower than any graphic art, for the individuality of the artist is cramped, in short, it can scarcely show itself.”
Joe Rosenthal took a snapshot in 1945, which by chance had a nearly perfect composition. This famous photo, Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima, was widely published. Its snapshot quality is betrayed by the tilted horizon which a more planned or staged still photograph would have eliminated. Rosenthal, “...things happened quite accidentally to give that picture its qualities.” Its making was “largely accidental.”
The chapters which follow provide opinions on still photography. Each photographer tries to have their particular style or ideas accepted. Frederick Sommer versus Edward Weston. Sommer, “To represent the privileged subject in isolation [pepper in a funnel] as Weston did, was a ruse because it fostered misunderstanding. The greatest trick in the world would be to show that things are disconnected.” Weston, “This particular pepper occupied me for several days. It seemed almost impossible to get all of its subtle contours outlined at once—I put it against every conceivable kind of background.... Then in a try-everything-once spirit I put it in a tin funnel and the moment I saw it there I knew my troubles were over.”
At MoMA in New York, its librarian, Beaumont Newhall, became the first director of photography in the early 1940s. As director he had to define photography as a creative process. Having recently met with Ansel Adams and Edward Weston in California, he was swayed to accept their opinion and vision of the medium as art. Newhall gave a 2-part definition of what an artistic still photograph should entail – a form of personal expression, but still showing the inherent qualities of the medium. This last bit is difficult to fathom. What are the inherent qualities of photography? Should a camera be still? No. Should the images show exactly what is in front of a camera when the shutter is opened? No. Are certain subjects off limits to the devouring camera? No. What then are inherent? As soon as you use inherent you are putting limitations on photography. You are trying to control the outcome by photographers.
My definition of a photograph is an image made with a camera and light. Style, purpose and subject matter are equal. A photograph may be still or anti-still, realistic, documentary or pure abstraction. All are created and all styles should be shown in museums and galleries to reveal the full range to the public. Sadly pure abstraction rarely is. Museums only show and collect still photographs that give a sense of abstraction. Newhall got the photography department off to a restricted start, which has remained with its several white directors to this day, including Quentin Bajac, the latest incarnation of Newhall’s philosophy.
The final Chapter 9 deals with the efforts of John Baldessari to give chance a prominent place in his still photographs. He threw 3 red balls into the air and tried to photograph them as close to a straight line as possible. The photograph with the balls in the closest straight line adorns the front cover of Kelsey’s book. It was Baldessari’s best of 36 attempts; one roll of film. Baldessari chance-laiden still photographs, according to Kelsey, cast a shadow on the Equivalents, you know those dark and dingy cloud pictures by Stieglitz, and Yves Klein’s Leap into the Void, in 1960. The leap was obtained by staging and altering two photographs by Harry Shunk and Janos Kender which showed Klein leaping from the 2nd storey of a building, as the pavement waits below to break his body. This leads to Boy Falls From Tree by Jeff Wall in 2010. A video of Jeff Wall talking about how this image came about is on the White Cube site. Wall mentions he took about 370 still photographs and by accident one turned out to his satisfaction. Perhaps Baldessari should have thrown 3 balls into the air 370 times and then chosen the best straight line. In Wall’s 4 minute video he never mentioned Leap Into The Void. He recounted how most of us [boys] have fallen from a tree or other structure when young. I wonder if Jeff Wall ever thought of using a girl instead of the cliche of a boy? That would have made the picture much more dramatic. By the way, with a small shed in the center of Wall’s image, it is quite easy to infer the boy fell from the roof of the shed. Without a tree mentioned in the caption, this doubt would remain.
It seems to me artists and most people try to control events in their lives, but chance is always nearby, ready to provide an occurrence for the reshaping of any life or philosophy. For my anti-still photographs, there is chance blended with the muscular and neural control of my somewhat athletic body. Because I am capable of fairly precise botanical ink drawings, this may produce a positive outcome for some of my lens-based photographs, even though I don’t look through the viewfinder when creating my pure abstractions. I highly recommend this book, Photography and the Art of Chance, by Robin Kelsey to anyone interested in the broader historical aspects of relationships within and around photography. TJR
Tom Reaume’s new 93-page photo ebook, Photography Traditions, is free at trart.ca