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... ;-)


Anonymous said...

After reading your previous post I was left wondering how you would define "fine art photography". Lo and behold, along comes the answer :)

I decided some time ago that I would not know art, much less fine art, if I tripped over it. Reason being that I often go to art galleries where one can make a fair assumption that the objects therein are of an artistic nature but more often than not I come out totally bemused at my lack of appreciation for what has been deemed art by people far wiser than me.

I have seen art appreciation classes around the place but that seems to me like a rather strange concept. I would think that art, if it is to be successful at conveying some message, would not need tuition to be appreciated. Anyway your definition seems most appropriate.

Without knowing art, whether it be fine or not, I will say that I have no problem knowing what I like. The trigger for my appreciation when looking at a photograph is the revelation of some knowing or seeing that actually goes beyond anything my senses (regular or extra-sensory) could possibly attain. This happens when an image stops the mind from butting in (even if only for a short moment) and allows the (non-physical) sense of being to exist without any mental trappings. And that, as you say, is a transcendence. Where duality is transcended and only being is happening.

E. E. McCollum's work (and much of your own work Andy) achieves this "beingness". At least form where I stand.

As for "another blog story"... I'm looking forward to it :)


Mike Nelson Pedde said...

Really well written. The concept of 'what is art' is so personal as to be beyond definition; it's something that's felt, experienced and not analyzed.

BTW, I love Cedric's comment: "I have seen art appreciation classes around the place but that seems to me like a rather strange concept. I would think that art, if it is to be successful at conveying some message, would not need tuition to be appreciated. Anyway your definition seems most appropriate."


tkh said...

Wouldn't this definition of art at its finest (especially when put in terms of one sensory modality activating the others) tend to favor representational art? Also, certain things like the texture of brushstrokes could easily invoke the sensation of touch in a way that one wouldn't usually connect to artistic merit. Or a picture of a turd might easily invoke smell, etc.

On the other hand, one could take these as surprising conclusions rather than contraindications and take the new definition as prescriptive.

Howard Grill said..., this post has made me think about many different and seemingly unrelated issues.....

1)For one, I have never really 'gotten' much of what might be labeled 'contemporary photography'. Even though I still don't :>) I am intrigued by your comment that "all of these "transcendent" dimensions are supplied by the viewer, and will be different from viewer to viewer". I guess I don't have to feel "unartistic", rather, the appreciation is moderated by what the viewer brings to the table.

2) It really puts into words very well a type of sub-conscious thought I have had about why some landscape or nature photos (which is what I do mostly) really hit home and others don't.

3) I am not really sure how this fits into the discussion but the feeling that occurs to the viewer when there is the transition into a moment when nothing exists but the viewer and the feeling that the image is 'real'......what about when it occurs to the artist. When one is out photographing and becomes so engrossed that everything else in the world fades away and it seems that all that exists is the photographer and the subject at hand......I wonder if that feeling can come out on the other end, as it were, to the viewer. Do images that were made in 'the zone' like that tend to be more successful?

Anonymous said...

Art is the harmony of the tangible and the intangible (yes, still enamored with Bastiat after so many months): That Which Is Sensed, and That Which Is Not Sensed. It's that latter negation/well/void that truly deepens one's experience of fine art (of whatever mode). Base, relief, and context; the dark art magicians.