Saturday, July 29, 2023

Looking more deeply ~ Four

Taking my time and looking more deeply at photographs (see part 1, part 2, and parts 3.[1, 2, 3]) I've come to re-realize, re-appreciate the value of study, observation, and experience.

When it comes to study I used to live in a culture where people would often say things like study is for school children.  Only nerds do that.  Besides, it's boring.  Observation is for astronomers and bird watchers.  Experience is what we get from watching Disney movies where we learn important life lessons and are left with a feel good positive uplifting ending after an hour and a half.

Certainly not all of US culture is like that.  Some of the best philosophers, scientists, and thinkers come from there.  Though you'd never know it from what passes as public conversation.  You seldom hear anything accurate or correct about these kinds of people if you hear anything about them at all.

I experience this when I compare the content of media content in the US to, say, something like LCI here in France.  Even if you don't understand French a person can hear the tone of the presentation and know it's not stressed and pressed and out of breath in its delivery.  It's calm, centered, and well-reasoned.  It's not a passionate plea for attention.  It's a sharing of knowledge and information. For me LCI is like returning to the days of Walter Cronkite in the US.

Photography can be like that in the US, too.  Looking at social media feeds what do we see?  Billions and billions of selfies.  It seems like it's feeding a never ending insatiable narcissistic need.  I find the vast majority of images to be badly composed, badly lit, badly processed and completely banal.

Have none of the contributors to the World of Narcissism ever studied (!!!) how to make a good portrait?  Have they never looked at art history to observe the eye level of the viewer in relation to the subject and what it "means"?  Do people not understand the human psyche and how we interpret these kinds of things?  

If you want to make a person look good, intelligent, beautiful or strong, you place the point of view lower than the subjects eye level.  Sure, this is classic art, but it's classic for a reason. If your point of view is higher than the subjects eye level the subject will feel subservient, weak, vicitimized, and incapable.  Standing over someone implies very different things than looking up to someone.  Our reactions are built into us.

To understand this and to apply a decent solution might require education, study, observation, and experience.  Perhaps this is why so much of what passes for photography these days feels to me to be so damned insipid and banal.  People refuse to help themselves to freely, widely available knowledge.

It was something of a surprise, then, when I stumbled across a video about a NY-based street photographer.  His name is Reuben Radding.  Listening to him helped me realize there are some rather deep thinkers on the subject of photography in the US.  The first 10 minutes or so of the above linked video was like the heavens had parted and a seriously strong light had cast through.  It's inspiring to me to see what this guy does and how he's reacted to various cultural and societal challenges of photographic interpretation and experience.

There are similar voices of knowledge and understanding in all aspects of image making.  There are people like Reuben Radding in the fields of portraiture, still life, landscape, nude, and sports photography.  Depending on ones temperament and thirst for understanding, these photographers can be well worth seeking out and listening to.

I've found it helps me understand what I do photographically and why.

la Serres aux Papillons ~ la Queue-lez-Yvelines

Thursday, July 27, 2023

Looking more deeply ~ Three.Three

The history of the reclining nude in art is long and often honored.  Or, depending on the time and place, dishonored and denigrated as pornography.


Rome - 2022


In previous posts I followed a little of history and shared details surrounding one famous work.  

With this post I would like to look at the reclining nude as a subject in photography in four distinctly different styles.  I'll begin with the Pictorlialists.

In the early days of the 20th century USA censorship boards managed what the public could see and read.  This had an important impact on how the reclining nude was treated in photography.  It came down to this - if an image of a nude was clear and sharp, it would be censored.  If an image looked like "art", if it was shot with a soft focus lens, then the chances were that such a photograph would remain uncensored.

Clarence White and his friends and colleagues photographed reclining nudes.  The images made using a soft focus lens were shown publicly.  Sharp images were privately held until surprisingly recently.

Those photographers who made sharp images often disfigured or scratched away the face.  A prime example being the surviving works of E.J.Bellocq.  Many of his negatives have removed the models faces.  They are clearly scratched.  His images were censored.

So it's unsurprising to me that even now, images of the reclining nude are difficult for critics and viewers in the US.

Sally Mann's "Venus after school" is particularly problematic for the gatekeepers of morals in the public space.  In her autobiography "Hold Still" Mme Mann writes of her relief to learn the FBI wasn't going to treat her the way they had Jock Sturgess and raid her home to remove any and all "offending" materials.

For a couple decades there was a photographer who had quite an impact on nude photography around the world.  He was very famous, sold lots of books, made a few movies, and photographed ad campaigns for some of the biggest luxury goods houses on the Continent. David Hamilton is said to have been inspired by the works of Lucas Cranach the Elder, which indicates his approach and style were based in part on well established art forms.


Rome - 2022

Each time I visit the Galleria Borghese in Rome I climb the stairs and head to a room that's far away from just about everything.  It's there that one particular Cranach is found.  Displayed next to it are paintings in a similar style by other artists.  But it's the Cranach that holds my attention.  Every single time.  It's called "Venus and Cupid with a honeycomb."

It's now impossible for me not to see the parallels between the Cranach paintings and M. Hamilton's photographs.  Art informing photography.  And yet, that's not at all what the photographer is presently remembered for.

David Hamilton's choice of subject acted like a lightening rod for bad things to happen.  In 2005 in the UK a man was arrested for having a collection of images that included those made by the famous photographer.   In 2016 the photographer was accused of inappropriate behavior by four of his previous models.  He was shortly after found dead in his apartment in the 15eme Arrondissement in Paris.

The drama continued after M.Hamilton's death.  Olivier Mathieu wrote on his blog, in Defense of David Hamilton (a site that has recently been taken down) that it might have been a case of murder, not suicide.  Conversations about the merits of Hamilton's work as art have stopped, to be supplanted by many public figures taking a strong moralist stance against the dead photographer.

While David Hamilton's works from the 1970's and 1980's played a strong role in the conversation of "is it art or is it pornography", there was seldom any question about which side Playboy centerfolds came down on.

And yet, if we look at these images from the perspective of history, craft, lighting, and composition, I'm not so sure some of these works shouldn't be considered full blooded honest to gawd geez this is beautiful art.   

Ken Marcus, one of many now famous Playboy photographers, spoke about what it took to light, compose a scene, and expose a piece of film.  He talked about the importance of 1/3rd an f-stop and getting everything exactly correct.  Here is just one definitely NSFW image that illustrates how, as a photographer, Ken got everything, every detail, every nuance "correct."

Which brings me to something I hadn't fully considered before.  That is that I find myself living during a time of self-censorship.  I've said it before and I'll say it again; the subject of the reclining nude, while being a well-found, well-respected art form for at least 3 thousand years, it is something I could never bring myself to explore photographically.

I grew up in a time with the censorship boards were being shut down, but their influence remained strong.  I grew up in a time when a photo-lab would call the police if they found nude images on a roll of film you brought in to have developed.   I grew up in a time when American culture was calling into question any and all restrictions, limits, barriers, only to live to see the social pendulum swing in recent decades to the far right with the re-installation of restrictions, re-setting of hard limits, and the rebuilding of social and cultural barriers to artistic expression and appreciation.

Meanwhile, here in Europe things haven't (yet?) gone so hard right.  I have the opportunity to see, appreciate, and research some of the best expressions of any art form the world has ever seen.  One of the things that strikes me most these days is that history and time have a way of leeching away details that might be important at the time a work is created.

I'll give a couple examples of what I mean by that.

When we look at a work by Caravaggio, do we know, and if we do, do we care that he was a pimp and murderer?  Writing this exactly the way I just did exposes the moral, ethical, and cultural conditioning that I find myself subjected to.

Do we know and care that Fransisco Goya heard voices and was mentally ill?  Was his craziness a "good" thing or a "bad" thing?  Or is there "something" about his art that makes us feel as if he were actually and after all a great artist?

Much more recently, do we know or do we care that Salvador Dali supported the Spanish Fascist Franco?  Well, actually, I do.  It's partly due to the fact that Spanish Fascism still lays just below the cultural and political surfaces of Spain.  It's impossible to ignore, actually.  When Catalunya has the power to make kings (figuratively speaking) I have the opportunity to remember the role Franco played in murdering tens of thousands of people in and around Barcelona.  The wounds have not healed.

Similarly, do we know or do we care about how poorly Picasso treated the women in his life?  Or do we stress his "goodness" in remembering the role he played in saving the fabulous Prado art collection from certain destruction by advancing Franco Fascist and German Nazi forces in 1939?  Perhaps these two examples are too recent for time to have leeched away the disturbing sub-text of two large artistic bodies of work?

One last example and then I'll call an end to my ramblings on the topic.  This underscores how the ethics and morals of a time set the tone for how art is viewed, discussed, and appreciated.  Renoir's canonical work is receiving a lot of criticism for his nudes.  I don't understand it.  Why Renoir?  Why now?  Am I too dense to understand?  What's going on here?  And if people have "serious" problems with Renoir, why aren't they taking to task the works of Luis Ricardo Falero?

All this gives me some idea of what might happen to currently controversial photographic works.  I am certain that society and culture will do what society and culture has often done.  It will sift through the social-cultural dramas of the present time and get to the essence of what will by then be (perhaps dramatically) different socially and culturally views.  

I hope that someone, sometime, somewhere will see it good to rise the photographic reclining nude above the demeaning word of "pornography" to more fully appreciate excellence and stunningly beautiful images as an artistic expression that paintings already can be.

Monday, July 24, 2023

Looking more deeply ~ Three.Two

In the previous post I said... to illustrate the vastness of the treasure trove of art that I contend set the foundation for the reclining nude in photography, here is an extremely short list of works.

Mesopotamia 1800bc works depicting the human body

Ancient Greece 750-300BC works depicting the human body

Giorgione 1510 "Dresden Venus", Titian's teacher

Titian 1538 "Venus of Urbino" (aka Reclining Venus)

Bouchet 1743 "Pan et Syrinx"

Canova 1805 "Venus Cictrix"

Manet 1865 "Olympia"

Cabanel 1863 "Birth of Venus"

Modigliani 1917 "Reclining Nude"

There are more than a few interesting historical notes about this art.  I am choosing just one work to talk about, and that is "Olympia" by Eduard Manet.


Manet's Olympia


Here's an easy one to begin my comments and observations.

I've read that "Olympia" is bold because this was the first painting in the history of reclining nude art where the primary subject is looking directly at the viewer.  

Um.  No.

For "boldness" of gaze, how do we evaluate Titian's earlier work?  Am I blind or is Titians model not looking directly as us, the viewers?


Titian's Venus of Urbino


Another story I've read about Manet's famous painting is that no one would buy it.  The first sale of one of his paintings was celebrated as a good beginning.  Except it wasn't. He sold rather few paintings during his lifetime.

Manet came from a wealthy family and did what he wanted.  He painted.  Economically his art was pretty much a failure.  His mother gave him a enough money he could rent and outfit a large place in Paris.  After she tired of waiting for Manet's career to develop so he could support himself she cut him off and had him move himself and his family in with her.

"Olympia" never sold and the Manet estate gave the painting to the France.  This is why it hangs in the musée d'Orsay and is not squirreled away in some private collection somewhere for no one to see.  There was something not quite right about it.  But yet it's now famous.  Why?

The painting was, in fact, shown at the 1865 Paris Salon.  The curators of the Salon hung it way up high so as to make it very difficult to see.  Though, from the sounds of things, this didn't prevent people from bringing binoculars to have a better look at things (as was common practice at the time for just about any controversial work).

This is where the myth of the poor oppressed "Impressionist" painters comes in.

When needing a special wine for a special occasion people often visit a specialist who purports to be able to help them untangle the mysterious web of tastes, choices, regions, and the broadcasting and impressing others with the subtle refinement tof "your" choice of beverage.  Seldom to people know for themselves which wines go "best" with whichever dish.  It takes time and desire to learn to reach the point of being able to comfortably select the "right" wine for the occasion.

Something similar happens in art.  We are _told_ what is famous.  The tellers are the supposed specialists and "know things" that we often don't.

With this in mind, it was easy for me to get caught up in the "myth" of Impressionists being outcasts from Parisian art circles. For the way the story is commonly told, it is difficult not to feel sorry for them.  

I think this is what the art specialists intend that I feel.  Oh those Bad Boy Academician snooty-patooty École des Beaux Arts Paris Salon curators kept the brilliant as of yet unsupported and definitely under-appreciated "Impressionnistes" from receiving their just accolades.  Or some such rot.  Many modern critiques tend to crow that the "Impressionnistes" won in the end.  

Yet... after looking not particularly deeply at the topic, I see where there was much more at play than what this rather simple-minded history retelling might suggest.

To begin with "Olympia" is that it's actually a very flat painting.  The skin treatment isn't anything near what I'd expected to see.  When I first looked at it in person I couldn't come to grips with its fame.  Why was this work promoted so strongly?  The skin tones and rendition are not all that appealing to me.

Could it be that by the standards of the day that the works of Manet, Renoir, Monet, and many others were simply not good?  Or do we not understand the influences that Manet and others were under?

Art critics tend to wax poetic when attempting to explain that Manet was influenced by Diego Velázquez or perhaps  Jusepe de Ribera.  Well, I've seen a fair amount of work by these two famous painters and Manet's "Olympia" might look something like what is described, but I remain unconvinced.

Perhaps more direct to the point was the influence of Japanese wood cut art.  Manet had studied then newly available wood cuts and adopted the style for his "Olympia."  If you have a close look, there is a subtle but obvious black outline around the primary subject.  This comes from his studies of Japanese woodcuts.  Further, the flatness of the subject's skin mirrors wood cut tone flatness, too.  

When viewed as a French adaptation of a Japanese wood cut, "Olympia" begins to reveal herself in unexpected ways.  I can see where subsequent artists, too, adopted the Japanese woodcut approach.  The list of these artists is long, that's just how strongly the Japanese art form impacted 19th century European art.  And yet, even knowing this, the Manet work falls far short of my expectations.

Am I such an art snob that no one can meet my expectations?  Am I such a dolt as to not appreciate what the specialists have worked so hard to teach me?

Up to the following point I felt that Renoir's skin tone renderings were the best of the best.  Manet's "Olympia" wasn't all that bad.  Japanese wood cut art was a "good thing."  

My appreciation and understanding of art changed in an instant when we visited a large, beautiful exhibition of Vigee le Brun's art at the Grand Palais some years back.  

Seeing le Brun's work showed how wrong I was, and seeing her art set me on a more informed and hopefully more enlightened path.  Suddenly the "Impressionnistes" failed to impress.

"Olympia" is currently hung on a wall all by herself at the Orsay.  She's the star of the show in the room.  She used to be upstairs near the east clock, but she's since been moved downstairs to the first level just off the main path that passes between sculptures.  The works around her are muted and she really stands out against everything else in the area.  People flock to see her and often stand for many minutes considering her.

I find it a curious fact that on the other side of the sculpture main aisle are a series of cramped, nearly private chapel-like rooms.  The entry to one is labeled "l'Academy."  Therein are found a small collection of paintings by William-Adolphe Bourguereau and Alexandre Cabanel.  Several paintings are hung side by side.  They are poorly lit.  There is little space to stand back and take in what is presented.  The whole experience, for me, is rather like trying to see something in a storage-room, it's that cramped.  This clearly is not art meant to be stars in the show.

Very interestingly, M.Bourguereau was a primary "gate-keeper" curator of the Paris Salon and in the current telling of "Impressionniste" history.  He was the one who, history tells us, tormented them the most.  Perhaps this is why his works are given so little space and encourage so little attention.

I try to visit the little room whenever we go to the Orsay (which is surprisingly often).  I try to find the time and space to take in the works on display.  I think they are absolutely glorious.  The two that grab my attention more than the others are the two "Venus" paintings.  One by Cabanel and the other by Bougurereau.

The little jpgs just linked fail to express the beauty and subtly of the skin renditions.  The poses and compositions are classic.  There is a balance in these paintings that is almost boring.  Seen in person, they are not boring at all.

Considering Bougurereau's other works showed me why he didn't understand the "Impressionistes."  How could he?  His own work is beyond reproach.  Any yet, history has forgotten him and many others for the work they did.  History has cast Bougurereau in an unkind light.

Photography is no different.  Certain people are lionized while others are forgotten.  I'll finally have a closer look at this in the next blog post.

Monday, July 17, 2023

Looking more deeply ~ Three.One

In two recent blog posts I've commented at length on my reactions to two photographs made by Jacques-Henri Lartigue.  I did this as an exercise in deepening my looking at and appreciation of photographs.  I've been catching myself skimming through images on the internet and not really taking any time to look at them.

Living where I do I get to see a lot of art.  Paris (!), Nice, Lyon, Lisbon, Madrid, Barcelona, Milan, Florence (!!), and perhaps the greatest of them all, Rome (!!!).  After awhile I feel I can begin to make sense of art, history, and my field of particular interest, photography.

One artistic theme in particular is seen everywhere.  It's the nude, or more specifically the reclining nude.  Often a subject of controversy in the US I was at first taken a little aback by the ubiquity of this artistic expression.  


Antonio Canova's Pauline Bonaparte as Venus Victrix


While painting are more or less accepted, photographs of the reclining nude have generated more than a fair amount of controversy in America.  I'm thinking of Sally Mann's 1992 "Venus after school", Jock Sturges and his many images taken in France, David Hamilton and his work from the south of France, to the three or four decades worth of centerfold photography in Playboy magazine.

I remember in my lifetime when photo-processing folks could and would turn a photographer into the police if they found images of nudes on the film brought to a lab to be processed.  It is a potential subject I still steer clear of in my own work due to that early imprinting of fear, police, and moral judgment.

If feels to me that instead of thinking of works as art, the thought of a reclining nude in painting, sculpture, or photography is considered at best boarder line pornography.  Yet, if the Catholic Church herself in Europe can condone such imagery, what's wrong with the US that the nude has been for so long a taboo subject of artistic expression?  


Accedemia ~ Florence, Italy 2018


To see the point I'm trying to make, walk into any church or museum in Rome where Gian Lorenzo Bernini's works are on display, particularly the three works found in the Galleria Borghese, and tell me what you think of the intersection of art, culture, and religion.

It made me smile to learn that recently the mayor of Florence had invited a former school principal to see David.  The principal had gotten into trouble with parents over the teaching of art history.  The subject was David by Michelangelo and from the press it seems the famous statue was unfit for certain human eyes without first passing it by their conservative snowflake parents.


Accedemia ~ Florence, Italy 2018


Such is the contrast between (some) American moral judgments and the artistic values of Europe.

To illustrate the vastness of the European treasure trove of art that I contend set the foundation for the reclining nude in photography, here is a terribly short list of works. 

Mesopotamia 1800bc works depicting the human body

Ancient Greece 750-300BC works depicting the human body

Giorgione 1510 "Dresden Venus", Titian's teacher

Titian 1538 "Venus of Urbino" (aka Reclining Venus)

Bouchet 1743 "Pan et Syrinx"

Canova 1805 "Venus Cictrix"

Manet 1865 "Olympia"

Cabanel 1863 "Birth of Venus"

Modigliani 1917 "Reclining Nude

Titian's Venus of Urbino


With the exception of Girgione's painting, I've seen much of the art on this list.  It's been quite an education.  I feel like my US-side education was seriously lacking.  The histories behind these works can be as fascinating as the art itself.  

In the next post I'll have a look at just one of the works, it's history, context, and current place in culture.  This I hope could be a decent lead-in to considering the reclining nude in photography.  There's a point I'd like to make and it will require me slogging through a bit more background before I get there.

Thursday, July 06, 2023

Looking more deeply ~ Two

In a previous post I talked about a famous image that Jacques-Henri Lartigue first took in 1913, and then started promoting in 1954.  

In the same Reporters Sans Frontier journal #66 as the bolide is a photo of Florette's hand.

The history of this photo is much less dramatic than the racecar.  Yet I read something interesting about how people react to the image that I would like to explore just a little in this post.

Considering the photograph itself, the gesture of hands of the "Lady Christian" model are mimicked by Florette.  There are obvious similarities in style, preparation, and beauty of the finger nails.  They are perfect. 

What I find interesting is how two people reacted to M.Lartigue's photograph.

In one case a woman said she hated it because it was a symbol of everything she would never have.  She came from a family of modest means and it was evident to her that the richer classes of people were, to her way of thinking, frivolously pampered.

A younger woman had a different response.  To her the photograph of Florette's hand represented an ideal and hope that she too could afford something as simple and beautiful as pretty finger nails.

In the US we don't often consider economic class status as being a defining element of art or photography response nor evaluation.  In Europe it most definitely can be _the_ defining element.  

In America we might feel that Jacques-Henri Lartigue was a great photographer and that we, too, might, if we work hard enough, emulate his style and success.  In Europe the democratization of various aspects of life and living is many times non-existant.  To some Europeans, M.Lartigue was born into the life he led.

I'll give an example of automobiles.  

I grew up thinking that if I worked hard enough that I might be able to afford an Italian supercar of some kind or other.  In Paris, the only people seen driving the streets in these kinds of toys are rich boys from the middle east who appear to be trying to impress strangers.  On my side it was for the enjoyment and appreciation of the design, engineering, and manufacturing.  On the middle eastern side it is more about being seen in a status symbol.

Not, certainly, that people in America don't try to impress strangers by showing off.  They often do.  I'm simply trying to point out that the barriers to acquisition are different in Europe and mean different things than they do to Americans.

This is what I believe Florette's hands can do for viewers.  It can expose our social, economic, and ideological differences.  Such is the power of a photograph if we look more closely at ourselves while viewing an image.