Thursday, November 20, 2008

Directorial Photography

I want to ponder for a moment a type of photography I almost never engage in: the staged, or directed, photograph.

Out of decades of making photographs, and thousands of images made, I can number less than a dozen efforts on my part at making this kind of photography. (I exempt from this photographs of my land art sculptures, because these are photos of sculptures, not staged set-pieces. Documents and new pieces of art in their own right: the sculptures were not made just to be photographed.) I prefer to work with discovery and exploration. I work almost entirely with found settings, found scenes, and if I direct a model to move within a setting, it is mostly to accentuate a posture or position the model has already found for themselves. It is more collaborative, I feel, than purely directorial.

Directorial photography is nonetheless a style of photography I greatly enjoy, in the hands of its masterful artisans, but one I have never felt moved to undertake seriously in my own work. I prefer to work spontaneously, in the moment, on location, and almost never stage models or events to accomplish a pre-visualized image. Certainly I validate that staged photography is a valid approach, just as is the photography of being-in-the-moment, which I practice much more often. (I also exempt still-life photography from this discussion, as creating an interesting arrangement of found objects to light and photograph, or draw and paint, is not the same thing as arranging a narrative tableau involving live models on a set or location.)

Some of the photographers who practice directed photography are Duane Michals (certainly one of my favorite photographers), Arthur Tress (whose photographs brought on this essay), Cindy Sherman, Bernard Faucon, Leslie Krims, Ralph Eugene Meatyard (another personal favorite, for different reasons than Michals), Richard Kirstel, Lucas Samaras, Clarence John Laughlin, Eikoh Hosoe, and others. I view George Platt Lynes and his circle in this light, too, although some do not.

Let's look at what directed photography actually is, as a practice and a means. Here's an excerpt from A.D. Coleman's Introduction to Arthur Tress' book The Theater of the Mind (1976):

All photographs are fictions, to a far greater extent than we are yet able or willing to acknowledge. Yet most of them still pretend to a high degree of verisimilitude and transparency, to the impersonal neutrality of windows on the world.

It is in the directorial mode of photography more than any other that the fictional nature of the photographic image is not only recognized and explored but openly declared as an active premise, a hermeneutical stance. This mode might most simply be defined as the deliberate staging of events for the express purpose of making photographs thereof—as distinguished from addressing oneself through the camera to an ongoing, uncontrolled external "reality."

Though you wouldn't know it from studying any of the available histories of the medium, the directorial mode of photography has a long, diverse, and honorable tradition. Yet for reasons which appear to have more to do with photo-historical politics than with scholarship and logic, certain uses (and users) of the directorial mode have been accepted as legitimate while others have been rejected out of hand. The basis for these usually arbitrary judgments generally boils down to the conservative taste patterns of the medium's heretofore dominant historians.

Thus it has been considered aesthetically permissible for the late Paul Strand to "cast" his book on an Italian village, Un Paese, by having the townspeople lined up and selecting from them those he considered most picturesque—but unacceptable for Edward Curtis to persuade American Indians to reenact rituals and events out of their past; valid for Edward Weston to arrange vegetables and nudes in static, pre-conceived configurations in his studio—but not for William Mortensen to use his studio as the setting for those mini-dramas which were the basis of his stylized, Symbolist allegories.

I'm sure some photojournalists would argue with Coleman about the fictional nature of photography: their purpose is to report, to present what happened, as nearly as possible, and to capture the moment. But there is still artfulness involved—and artfulness is artifice—after all, the photographer still chooses where and when to make the photo. There is no absolute objective eye watching all; it remains an artful choice, as to what to cover, and what not to. Editing is part of photojournalism, just as it past of reporting. Leaving out the details that are irrelevant to the story, or otherwise unimportant, is accepted without much thought as being just part of the process. So I think Coleman makes some valid points here, that are hard to just dismiss.

Also, as the post-modernist self-aware ironic consciousness has filtered more and more into the arts since Coleman wrote these comments, authorial mastery and transparency has become more suspect in general. There is almost always a question, now, as to whether the photograph can be trusted to be real, or not. Far too many photographic critics nowadays question everything, even family vacation snapshots, to decode them for hidden meanings, often as a criticism of the social status quo. (A priori political or ideological motivations, in other words, that color the critical results.)

Artifice is the root of artificial, and artifice is the craft of making art. Artists are artisans.

One of Coleman's best points is about the problematic distinctions that some historians have made between styles of photography, promoting one style as more valid than another. (It's hard not to see this as a swipe at Beaumont and Nancy Newhall, still the most influential and respected historians of the early American photographic movements and persons.) The point that styles of photography that are presumed to be purely representational nonetheless contain artifice is precisely the point that Edward Weston and Ansel Adams made numerous times, with their various comments that the finished print is not intended to reproduce nature, but rather the photographer's emotional response to what he or she sees. This point was repeated numerous times in their writings, as one of the reasons that photography must be considered to be an art, not just a technical craft. This is also why many people still feel black and white photography to be more inherently artistic than color photography: because it is more artificial. More fictional.

Coleman fails, though, in apparently criticizing Weston in opposition to other photographers, because Coleman misinterprets Weston's creative process. Weston didn't really stage events. While he did arrange vegetables on a table, when he was out photographing with models, he wrote in the Daybooks that his procedure was to let the models move as they wished, and asked them to freeze when he saw a composition or posture he liked. This points out the difference between discovery and pre-arranged tableau. Coleman is misunderstanding what Weston meant when he used terms such as pre-visualization: Weston was not planning the photograph before he ever took it, he was seeing in his mind's eye what the finished print would look like, as he snapped the camera's shutter.

Arthur Tress' series photography work involves the thought-out, frequently pre-arranged tableau; even locations were scouted in preparation, for some of his series. The photo-historic objection against Mortensen had more to do with his painterly use of the photographic medium (as did F. Holland Day and Edward Steichen) to illustrate subjects the same way they were treated in salon painting: this style of soft-focus illustrative photography was exactly what Group f-64, including Weston and Adams, were rebelling against.

The objections against directorial photography, historic and modern, often carry a moral flavor, rather than a purely aesthetic one. A lot of the criticism does come from disciples of the Group f-64 "photography is fine art" school; but it also comes from photojournalists, some of whom are purists about not manipulating the image, even to the point of including technical flaws such as blur and bad exposure.

Of course none of this escapes Coleman's first point about the very artificiality of the medium itself: it's all fiction, even if it strives not to be. Is there any such thing, really, as non-fiction, in any of the arts? If you take this viewpoint to its limits, non-fiction can't exist because all arts, including reportage, are engaged in by humans, who filter information through their own perceptions. There can be no objectivity, ever, in this viewpoint.

This has been taken up in the post-modern critical climate to negate any possibility of critical objectivity: everything is relative, everything is subject to personal taste, everything is subjective, and everything is affected by the local cultural context in which it was produced. This is valid in terms of reclaiming local origins for all art-making and cultural creativity—local as opposed to imperial, and thus a way of re-empowering the formerly or still oppressed—but there is a tendency in this critical trope to discard any notion of the human urge towards universality: to also find those ways in which we are alike, rather than different. Commonalities abound, even between peoples who have language or culture in common: we all live, we all die, we all have emotions to one degree or another, and many of those emotions are sparked by the same stimuli in life—love, sex, envy, hurt, wounds, joy, ecstasy, spiritual experience, what have you. We share some things simply because we are the same species.

The unfortunate result of the post-modern subjective relativistic stance is that we are not supposed to agree that we might agree on some things. We are not supposed to be able to see ourselves in the Other, because we are all too different, too alien to one another. This is obviously absurd. There are those of us who revel in our mutual diversity without ever losing sight of our shared commonalities. Two mothers who have both lost sons, on opposite sides of a war, can come together in their mutual loss and begin the peace process.

Coleman's second paragraph above is the best working definition of directorial photography that I have found. It is fitting that it's to be found in a book of Arthur Tress' photographs. Tress is a master of this style.

My favorite book of Tress' is The Dream Collector, in which the photographer helps the children whose portraits he is taking reenact their dreams and nightmares, using settings, props, and acting to replicate their dreams, visions, and fantasies. The resulting photographs are both humorous and disturbing, beautiful and terrifying, sublime and outrageous. The dream-logic that arises from the archetypes of the deepest parts of the mind has, since the Surrealists and before, been fodder for shock, surprise, awe, and funny juxtapositions in art, for a long time.

Some of the dreams that Tress helps the children reenact are disturbing for adults to see, and Tress has taken heat for this. Adults all too often sentimentalize children, having forgotten or repressed their own childhoods, and want kids to be passively innocent dolls, with no dark sides, no terrors, and no nightmares. We censor scary stories that kids love: but kids know better than adults that it's all pretend, delicious instead of abusive. Tress retains a certain amount of his own childlike wonder in all his photography, which is perhaps why these photos work so well. Clearly they are collaborative. The directorial element in The Dream Collector is perhaps more that of a produce than a director: someone who facilitates the work, rather than dictating it. Tress is, after all, recreating the dreams that the children told him about, who then reenact their dreams for the photograph.

Tress' Theater of the Mind contains a classic photograph that I have never been able to forget. It's one of those iconic images that goes so deep, it seems amazing that no-one thought of it before. This photograph is titled "Bride and Groom." The setting is a bombed-out church nave. A man stands in the wreckage, posed. On his right side, he wears a formal black groom's suit, including tophat and tails, and his hand is raised as though swearing an oath. But on his left side, he is wearing a bride's white dress, and holding out the skirt with his left hand. In one person is united the male and female, bride and groom.

This is nothing if not the sacred wedding, the marriage of opposites in one person, that C.G. Jung wrote about in his late books such as Psychology and Alchemy. The union of opposites. The merging of genders. I do not know if Tress had all of this in mind beforehand, but it is all there in the photo.

The setting appears to the ruins of civilization. There is something symbolic about that: after the fall of everything, then the man the woman shall be one. This is echoed in the Gospel of Thomas, a Gnostic gospel found among the papyruses discovered last century at Nag Hammadi:

Jesus said to them, "When you make the two into one, and when you make the inner like the outer and the outer like the inner, and the upper like the lower, and when you make male and female into a single one, so that the male will not be male nor the female be female, when you make eyes in place of an eye, a hand in place of a hand, a foot in place of a foot, an image in place of an image, then you will enter [the kingdom of heaven].

All this from one staged photograph.

That shows the power of how a photo can become something iconic, memorable, and archetypal. It is more than just an illustration of an idea. It cuts through the rational linear mind directly to the understanding, in the same way that a painting can bypass the intellect and go directly to the heart's meaning.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

Tress was someone I've never heard of and the only photo I recognise of his is the one with the dunce's cap. I like the bride and groom photo and a couple of others. I think the one I liked best if I'd seen it on its own I would have sworn it was by Diane Arbus. Here's the link:

Personally I have no problems with people setting up photos like this. It's just one other thing you can do with a camera. I've just never had people willing to playact for me. It's usually hard enough in my experience to take straight snaps of them where they're not covering their faces or simply not cooperating.

11:07 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

That's another image from "Dream Collector."

I agree with you about the rest. I have no problem with it, I even enjoy it, it's just not a kind of photography I feel much calling to do. Who knows, though. Things can always change.

11:45 PM  

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