Saturday, March 28, 2009

Photography as Transcendence

A philosophically minded friend of mine dropped by the Lorton Photography Workhouse while I was performing my "gallery sitting" chores this Saturday. After exchanging some pleasantries, and mutual musings - as is our custom - on the nature of life, art, and meaning, his attention soon focused on a series of masterful nude portraits by a fellow member of the coop I belong to (E. E. McCollum).

My friend was particularly impressed by how "utterly and completely absorbing" Eric's portraits are; but he was not - as he immediately explained - referrring only to the model's obvious beauty. My astute friend - who also happens to be a gifted artist - was using one of Eric's portraits to make a deeper point about what distinguishes the "best" photography from that which is merely "good." My friend opined that the best photograph - or, more generally, the best artwork of any kind - is the one that induces in the viewer the broadest possible inner experience. That is, that what the viewer experiences, transcends in some way - and in the very best art, transcends in multiple ways - the dimensions that the artist is physically constrained to using in order to express his artwork.

Superficially, of course, this is always true, even of "not terribly good" photographs. All (conventional) photographs are by their nature two dimensional, yet evoke - with varying degrees of success - a "three dimensional" experience (mostly because we "expect" to see the "world as revealed by a photograph" as we see the world with our eyes). But what my friend was thinking about was a deeper level of experiential transcendence. When he looked at one of Eric's nude portraits - which is, as are all of Eric's photographs, beautifully lit, elegantly composed, and expertly printed with a wonderful palette of tones (see Eric's on-line gallery for samples of his work) - my friend's immediate reality was temporarily replaced by one in which only my friend and Eric's model existed, and in which the model was very real. From my friend's point of view, while he was looking at the portrait, the model was as palpably real to him as any physically real person can be.

His experience of her far transcended the ink and paper on which her two dimensional form is physically expressed, and assumed multiple dimensions including touch, taste, smell, even (hints of imagined) emotion. To be sure, all of these "transcendent" dimensions are supplied by the viewer, and will be different from viewer to viewer. It is more correct to say that they are all induced in the viewer by the photograph. But that is the whole point. The photograph - as a physical cipher designed to convey a certain experience of reality - is so well executed, that the viewer experiences the full range of emotion while interacting with it. The shades of grey ink that depict a part of the model's neck, for example, are transformed in the viewer's mind into real skin, with its own unique aroma, its distinct tactile feel and texture, and so on. As tempting as it might be to think that this is true of all photographs, the truth is that it is not so. Indeed, had Eric's portrait been taken instead by a less seasoned photographer with no eye for light, let us say, but of the same model in exactly the same pose in exactly the same surroundings and background, the perceptive viewer would in all likelihood still "experience" a beautiful model in a beautiful pose, but nothing more. No extra, or transcendent, dimensions would reveal themselves; and certainly not as readily, and not all for indiscriminate viewers. Eric's fine-art "touch" reveals profoundly more. In a sense, Eric's portrait provides the raw "aesthetic" material that the interested viewer transforms into a transcendent, personally meaningful experiential reality.

So the idea on the table, as proposed by my artist friend after viewing Eric's portrait is this: that art is at its finest when the artist somehow manages to induce in the viewer dimensions of inner experience that transcend those that define the artwork itself. Just as "fine-art" music (say, by Beethoven) may be distinguished from "musak" by the fact that listening to it makes you feel alive (whereas "musak" merely makes you think that you want your elevator ride to end soon). The finest photography makes you forget you are looking at a photograph. Itand makes you experience it as if it were real; as if you were a part of it.

Put another way, and assuming our traditional store of five senses (though we may have as many as eleven, and possibly more if we include "extra"-sensory ones), the finest art is a process whereby a single sensory dimension - and at most a few - is used to evoke in the viewer the experiential equivalent of all five. The very best art makes the viewer forget she is even looking at any art at all, the artwork having evoked an experience of transcendence itself (in which the viewer "sees" herself in the art, and cosmos in self). But that's another blog entry... ;-)

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

On the Art of Discovering Photos on a Drab Day

"I find that if I sit down a minute and relax, a solution always presents itself…." - Professor Henry Jones (from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade)

So there I was, sitting in my car, in the rain, after traveling an hour or so from my home in northern Virginia to a park (I've never been to before) not far from Leesburg: Red Rock Wilderness Park. My wife found the park for me on the web, and read that it has some nice views of the Potomac. I had a few hours to myself - my wife knows well my "Oooh, nice diffused light out there today!" look - and so decided to do a photo-reconnaissance run. And it started out great: no rain, nice cloud cover, nippy but not cold. But soon I found my Sunday fortunes waning. I got lost - twice - started hearing funny sounds from the engine and had the "check engine" light come on (which turned out to be a minor but expensive service for which I also had to lose a few hours from my "day job" in the coming days), and it started raining, hard. There was really nothing to do once I got there but wait; though, because of the time I lost getting lost, I did not have all that much time to waste. Oh, and my iPhone started running out of juice so YouTube entertainment was going fast as well. Dire situation all right! Of course, I expected my Russian blood to kick into high gear and make for an afternoon's worth of angst and brooding ;-) What a mess! But wait...I did manage to snap one simple photo with my iPhone to send my wife to show her my predicament. You see a piece of it at the top of this entry: just a simple snapshot out of my windshield. Looking toward Edwards Ferry road, it shows the parking lot and a part of the grainery and stable ruins that are still standing in the park. Predictably, just as I sent the email with the photo, my iPhone died. So I kept staring out my window, feeling sorry for myself, cursing the weather, cursing the battery in my iPhone, daydreaming a bit, but also becoming increasingly mesmerized by a particular section of wall, outlined in yellow below:
  I saw it as not - as it is in reality - an exposed section of an old wall of a Civil-war-era stable, but rather a fortified section of a phantasmagoric prison cell (a metaphoric echo of my inner Russian angst?). I imagined all kinds of Borgesian tales behind the incarceration of "prisoners" held here throughout the decades (... centuries, millenia, ... just when was it built?). Alchemists imprisoned by Illuminati minions devoted to keeping a lid on secrets best not revealed? Uber-geniuses - long since forgotten in the mists of time - who stumbled upon eternal and shocking truths, and were unceremoniously dumped into locked cells to live out the rest of their lives in abandoned sarcophagi? Perhaps these ruins were even once called home by the "Old One", who quietly inserted himself into our realm to taste life of the flesh; yearning - like many of Kazantzakis' heroes - to just revel in the struggle between earth and spirit. What became of the "Old One" I wonder; and is he - still? - struggling, even after the walls of his prison have crashed down around him so long ago? Or was something even more mysterious once living within these walls - something for which to this day there are still no words, no languages, that adequately describe "it" except in the vaguest, most imprecise terms - something that the prison was never meant to contain at all, but was rather built to prevent everything on the outside of its walls from ever getting in? What happened when the walls came down? Have the strange symbols been deliberately etched onto the textured walls by the creature (or creatures) that escaped? Are they ciphers of clues to what awaits us all? Clues to how we might find a way out of an invisible prison that still surrounds us? That contains our cosmos? That is our cosmos? Such were my (admittedly, slightly bizarre) musings as I watched the stable wall ruin out my window, wondering if the rain was ever going to stop and whether my car was well enough to get me back home when it did. Finally, there was a small break in the clouds, and the rain slowed to a drizzle. I got out my camera, steadied it on the trunk of my car, and took a single shot. I knew how the final image would look even before I pressed the shutter; it would hint - but only hint - of the surreal Borgesian world (just on the cusp between the real and unreal) my mind's eye was lucky enough to briefly glimpse on this otherwise drab "uninteresting" day in the park.

It is a photo of what was in the Red Rock Wilderness Park that day; it is also a photo of what else was in the park that day. Discovering photos such as this is why I love fine-art photography.

Monday, March 23, 2009

The Gentle Madness Known as Abstract Photography

The "abstract" image to the left is what is "left" of a framed print called "Fractal Dignity" that was part of a one-man show in Coral Gables I had in Dec 2007. I had it (along with other prints remaining from the exhibit) sent from storage this past week to my mom's home in Sea Cliff, NY (Long Island), so she could hang it in my dad's old art studio on the second floor. Unfortunately, the shipment arrived in deplorable condition. Most of the glass is completely fractured, with many of the prints scratched beyond repair. Other frames that appear unaffected at first glance, contain broken shards and smaller pieces of glass trapped between an otherwise solid piece of glass and the matte underneath, hinting at frayed and broken edges of glass along the inner walls of the surrounding metal frame. The frames themselves have also been badly scratched, as though the package delivery service used them for an impromtu baseball game (or two, or three).
Needless to say, my mom and I were shocked when we opened the first of four (similarly configured boxes) when my son and I arrived for a short weekend trip for him to see his "Baba." The outer condition of the boxes betrayed a bit of what we soon found inside - the boxes were smashed, dented and had major tears and rips along the edges - but we were not prepared for the extent or severity of damage. It took about two hours to fully document and inventory the damage, picture by picture; with the bottom line being that fully none of the 24 frames are in "sellable" condition, and will have to be reframed. Moreover, at least half of the prints will have to be redone as well. As for me, I quickly went through the Kubler-Rossian stages of grief over a "death of a loved one" (the "loved ones" being my prints): denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance (did I mention anger?!? ;-). I knew I finally had my emotions under (some semblance of) control when - though still miffed; good grief, I'm still miffed, as a write this a few days after the fact! - I found myself picking up my camera not to document the damage, but to actually start composing what appeared to me a rather nice little "abstract" (as you see documented at the top of this entry). Photographers - especially those whose "eye" is attracted to abstract forms - are strange creatures indeed. My 10yo son stared incredulously, dropped jawed, as his dad - who moments before was apoplectic with primal rage directed at the universe in general and the UPS delivery service in particular - suddenly quieted down, got "that look" in his eye, starting circling one of the open boxes with all of its exposed shards of glass and mangled metal, and started clicking away as if nothing at all was the matter. A lesson about how accidents can serve as catalysts for transforming representational art into abstraction? Perhaps; or it may just be another everyday example of the gentle madness known as abstract photography :-)
Postscript. Though the outcome of my claim is at this time unknown, the shipment was insured. Hopefully, that should defray at least some of the cost (though not the time) of reprinting and reframing these images.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Traversing an N-Dimensional Aesthetic Space

I've been musing lately about a problem that has stubbornly resisted my attempts at solving it for quite some time; indeed, I sometimes wonder if I've made any headway at all in all the years I've spent reflecting on it. Perhaps I should pay heed to the title of my own blog - namely tao - and plumb a bit of tao's timeless wisdom. To wit, maybe I ought to treat my problem not as a "thing" that needs solving, but as a transient stepping-stone on a timeless path toward gradual self-enlightenment.

"What is beauty?" I [S Nachmanovitch] asked him that night. He [Gregory Bateson] said, "Seeing the pattern which connects." (quoted from Old Men Ought to be Explorers, by S. Nachmanovitch)

My "problem" is to find the "optimal feature space" in which to describe the aesthetic sensibilities of particular artists; that is, essentially, to find an objective language (or, least as objective a language as possible) to describe the subjective propensities of, and differences between, individual painters, musicians, or photographers. We all "know" the difference between, say, Mozart's music and that of Beethoven; or the difference between a painting by Matisse and another by Picasso. Sometimes the differences, as in these "obvious" cases, are striking. In other cases, the differences may not be so clear cut: if one was, a priori, unfamilar with the works of Minor White and Brett Weston, for example, some of their respective abstracts may appear - superficially at least - as aesthetically indistinguishable.

Somehow, perhaps in the way that Malcolm Gladwell calls "thin slicing" in his book Blink, we all make quick, largely unconscious, assessments about makes one work different from, or similar to, another. We can sometimes analyze - after the fact - why we made the decision of similarity or difference that we made. But (as Gladwell also points out in his book), we are not always able to articulate the precise feature-space decomposition we used to make our rapid-fire decision (because our subconscious thought-process does not always percolate up to the conscious level); nor can we really be sure that whatever feature-space decomposition we are able to articulate is an accurate reflection of what our unconscious information processing. Of course, often our thin-slicing attempts are also simply wrong.

The larger question, even if only as a thought experiment, remains. Let's start small, and not yet all-encompassing - a bit later I will generalize the question from photography to all forms of creative expression - and confine our analysis to photography alone, as an exemplar of a broader class of "art" and its associated larger class of aesthetic possibilities. We ask: what is the optimal set of "features" (to be defined shortly) of "photographs" such that - in the N-dimensional abstract aesthetic space defined by these features as (roughly) orthogonal axes - two conditions are simultaneously satisfied: (1) the differences among photographs is maximized (with respect to sets of photographs produced by individual photographers), and (2) the differences between photographs produced by the same photographer (i.e., between any two images within a given photographer's own oeuvre) are minimized? In a sense, I want to perform a "simple" exercise of mathematical pattern recognition, but without any (or little) initial sense of what space I'm performing it in, or even what I'm setting out to "recognize."

What do I mean by features? Well, any reasonably well-defined "parameter" that can be used to describe a photograph (which may, implicitly, involve both its physical attributes, as a print, and nonphysical attributes, such as subject matter or other contextual primitives). Of course, many different features exist (indeed, the set of possibilities is enormous); but not all features are as important in describing a work as others. More precisely, different sets of features will be better, or worse, at simultaneously identifying the works that are produced by a given photographer and distinguishing among bodies of works produced by different photographers.

Thought Experiment #1. Schematically, we can imagine a 3-dimensional space (in general, the dimension D can be very large) consisting of the features f1, f2 and f3. As a thought experiment, imagine we have the collected works of three of photographers (A, B, and C; that we "code" using the colors red, blue, and green). We classify each photograph, of each photographer, according to where in the feature space in lives. It does not matter whether the "points" in this space are cleanly defined or not; the only thing that matters for this thought experiment is the fact that every work by each of the three photographers is classified according to the values of the three features we have used to define this particular "aesthetic space" F = {f1, f2, f3}. As a concrete example, the three features might be: f1=average hue, f2=degree of local constrast, and f3=number of triangular shapes. And, indeed, as we might expect of such a loose (random almost) set of parameters, we would not be surprised to learn (if we actually went to the trouble of performing this experiment) that these features do little to distinguish among our three photographers. Our plot of their respective oeuvres might look something like this...

But now, suppose we are a bit more clever than this. Suppose, after carefully studying the works of these three photographers, we discover a new set of features - {f1', f2', and f3'} - such that, in this new aesthetic space, F', the same body of work now appears considerably more tightly clustered:

Here we see - by direct visual inspection - an "obvious" distinction among the photographers A, B, and C. Moreover, we see that work produced by a given artist is itself clustered around a relatively small volume of the full aesthetic space. "A" is obviously confined to one region, separate from (in this case) the volume of space occupied by "B," and both are distinct from the volume occupied by "C."

My point here is not that a feature space within which such a decomposition is possible exists - it may, or may not, for a given set of artists; but only that it suggests an interesting and deep question about what such a set of features - that simulataneously minimizes the differences among a given photographer's works and maximizes the distinction among the works of different photographers - might actually look like! I suspect it may not be like anything we would intuitively expect; if our intuition is anything like what we learn in the standard art and graphics design books. I doubt very much whether the "core features" would include such standard-issue measures as "contrast" and "tone" (though they may very well these). I wonder, too, at just how far separated the artist's "oeuvre clusters" can be made to be, while the spread of each artist's own cluster of works is simultaneously minimized.

One can play other thought games too, of course, For example, having defined some aesthetic space, and having plotted a given artist's current oeuvre - say, what the artist has produced during the last five years of work - we can trace how the artist evolves, using the first plot as a reference. Does the work remain more or less in the same "cloud" of points, so that the artist does not stray too far from his (possible innate?) aesthetic? Or does the cloud slowly dissipate, and reform in another region of the same aesthetic space? Or does the cloud diffuse outward to fill most, or all, of the "old" aesthetic space, thus suggesting that a new feature space - some F'' - exists, and in which the same artist's evolving oeuvre again assumes a cloud-like form?

Thought Experiment #2. Here is an even deeper question; and, truth be told, the real object of my rambling quest. Suppose we have managed to find a special "core aesthetic" space that does precisely what our thought experiment imagines. That is, imagine we have an aesthetic space defined by a special set features (whose relevance, for the moment, is confined solely to photography) that both maximizes the difference between different photographers, and - simultaneously - minimizes the differences between individual photographs of a given photographer. Suppose, further, that we carve out of that space a special set of photographs (and, by association, a special set of photographers) which maximize - for lack of an objectively better-defined word - photographic beauty. Now, imagine we do exactly the same thing (i.e., play the thought experiment as described above) for all of the different kinds of creative endeavors that exist: music, sculpture, literature, mathematics, physics, ... The analog of (generic) "beauty" in art or photography might be - in the case of mathematics, for example - "truth" (as in the truth of theorems); in physics, "beauty" may be aligned with "physical laws" (the "truths" of nature), and so on. What is the underlying meta-pattern that connects the patterns?

Here is my question (and I'll stop at this point): might there be a "universal aesthetic meta-map" that transforms the set of features of one aesthetic space (that describes art, say) to another set of features that describe a different aesthetic space (mathematics, say) but which leaves the measure of "beauty" that is appropriate for each kind of space invariant?
"We do not want merely to see beauty...we want something else which can hardly be put into words; to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it." - C. S. Lewis
"Beautiful" art or music, "physical laws" in physics, and "theorems" in math may be - in a truly fundamental sense - indistinguishable, but only if the analog of "beauty" is correctly defined , and interpreted, in each respective space. Indeed, I suspect that if only we were clever enough creatures to be able to simultaneously apprehend and reflect upon vast multidimensional features spaces, it would only be a matter of "shifting our perceptual / aesthetic axes" (so to speak) for us to be able to transform our endeavors from one creative space into another. Imagine being able to "prove a mathematical theorem" by working on the problem as though it were an art project (and the object of which - in the art space - is to produce a "beautiful work of art"). But whatever space we happen to find ourselves in at a given moment, the object of our quest (and the ultimate arbiter of our creative progress) remains indefagitably the same: truth.

Postscript #1. The way I presented my thought experiment, a (God like) external agent is needed to view the universe of artists and their work to construct (and plot the creative progress in) a D-dimensional aesthetic space. In fact, one can argue that each artist (indeed, each living being) is doing precisely that, ceaselessly, tirelessly, throughout its existence. We are all seeking to be as distinct as possible from all other living beings, even as - at the same time - we desire to be be as integrated into our local cultural / creative fabric as well. It is this insoluble yin-yang tension that drives all self-motivated dynamics; and perhaps all creativity. This fundamental idea of the universe consisting of simultaneous and seemingly antithetical tendencies of integration and distinction (or assertiveness), at all levels of a multidimensional hierarchy, was introduced by author / philosopher Arthur Koestler in a book called Janus. He called all such creatures that strive to do this holons.

Postscript #2. The idea that there is a core universality that underlies all forms of art - all life - is certainly not born in this humble blog entry. In fact, much of my thinking on the subject derives from, and has been shaped by, a magnificent four volume work called Nature of Order by architect / visionary Christopher Alexander (about whom I've written before on my blog).

Postscript #3. A similar idea to the one presented above as thought experiment #1 (but in the context of cosmology) - and developed more completely on a semi-rigorous mathematical level - was proposed a few years ago by physicists Julian Barbour and Lee Smolin. They called it extremal variety. Barbour has published another article on this subject in the Harvard Review of Philosophy.