A critique of HCP's lecture series on the origins of imagery by Paul Hester, a participant.
The Spring lecture series of the Houston Center for Photography asked nineteen photographers, painters, printmakers, psychiatrists and curators to consider the question: Where do images come from?
The series (conceived by Barbara Ginsburg and organized by Janet Caldwell) directed its question toward images of high art, forgetting all the images that affect us at a much greater frequency. Television, billboards and magazines were off-limits. The choice of psychiatrists, painters and gallery-exhibited photographers as speakers indicated a belief in the self as the primary source of images. Social conditions or historical perspectives that might be provided by historians, sociologists or anthropologists were out of the question. Instead, this emphasis on the self was a confirmation of our existing work habits. It asserted the subjective, personalized aspects of image-making; it perpetuated the myth of an as self-expression.
The artist functions in our society without a clearly defined position as in older, traditional cultures. His options appear to be either those of the superstar entertainer or the alienated rebel, with most of his income being produced by teaching. Images can function alternately as decoration, inspiration, commodity, investment and information. Each function defines the tradition from which an image maker receives ideas, with creative cross-dressing being an accepted form of innovation. The dominant concern appears to be production of one-of-a-kind objects to certify individual status.
Individuals might assume that in meeting the needs of the self, only the most direct, innovative, and provocative images will appear. But the needs for identity, attention and uniqueness are balanced by needs for acceptance, security and comfort. In posing our question to the self, we ignored concerns about audience, and its monetary equivalent, the marketplace.
If we start out wanting our images to be art, and discuss our sources in terms of other art images, then the goal of photography becomes equated with the museum. Think of the Farm Security Administration photographs. They began as documents, to be used in publicizing certain accomplishments of the New Deal; now they hang in museums of fine art. The source was a need to generate support for those government programs. The value of the images is greater than their source.
Historians of photography have produced several books recently that describe the practical pressures of 19th and 20th century photographers. The discovery that Eugene Atget and Carlton Watkins, among many others, struggled with commissions and commercial ventures comes as a surprise, accustomed as we are to artistic photographers untainted by business. But writers on photography who hide Walker Evans’ work for Fortunemagazine and Ansel Adams’ Polaroid assignments contribute to our confusion about the reality of money and the myth of a photographer’s life. If we are going to understand where images come from, we have to consider the influence of these operating myths.
(The growing number of photographic historians arc providing new research into the lives of photographers that tell us a great deal about the sources of images. See the May 1983 issue of Afterimage,"Making Connections with the Camera: Photography and Social Mobility in the Career of Jacob Riis", by Sally Stein, for an excellent analysis of the social and personal factors in photography.)
But rather than discuss these issues of context for the reception of images as being a determinant factor, all discussion in the HCP lectures returned to the self. Our vocabulary indicated a strong preference for the self as the important source. As an upper middle-class leisure activity, image-making is burdened with personal ambitions of self-discovery (or self-entertainment). The series became a collective effort at introspection. Why do I make images? What do they mean? And the more pressing question: Are they worth making? The sharing of these ideas involved a ceremonial reaffirmation of the validity of images. These individuals, having gained attention for their work, gave testimonials for their way of image-making. It was never important to come up with the source of images; what was important was our belief in them. We asked the question to participate in a community.
Did our original question subconsciously refer to the image of the artist rather than the image made by the artist? Are we more interested in the life of the artist than in the images? Was the purpose to make these artists more accessible to us, so that we could identify with them more easily?
In the absence of a more carefully detailed analysis of image-making, the myth of gifted individuals in the throes of ecstasy celebrates the irrational within a severely rational, logical culture. The myth concentrates vision on innate talent, rather than the process of growth involved in a give-and-take with experience.
We want the hero-artist to redeem the activity of image-making, increasing its importance in society. As image-makers ourselves, we want to know that these heroes have feet of clay, that the ways and means for making images are both historically conditioned andpersonally motivated: that we can do it, too. (Highly recommended along these lines of changing attitudes toward artists and the subsequent aesthetic fall-out is found in Legend, Myth, and Magic in the Image of the Artist,by Ernst Kris and Otto Kurz.
Two primary sources of imagery escaped mention: the subject and the camera. As image-makers we have chosen each for specific reasons. The fidelity of image to reality indicates a belief in appearances (in things as they are), unless we have chosen to undermine this relationship by distortion, indicating an impatience with reality, use of the camera in both instances is a statement of our modernity. Otherwise we would paint or draw.
What are we to make of our choice of subject? Efforts to elevate photography to the status of art have always suppressed the significance of subject because modern painting had no readily identifiable subject. A photograph's ability to convince an audience of what was there and what it looked like is exactly the quality that the myth of artistic expression has tried to overcome.
In a photograph we can't avoid the subject; seeing is believing. The authority of a photograph is this special relation with the subject; it is the source of the photographic image.
The opening session, moderated by George Krause, made a valiant effort to address the question of primary sources. After an hour and a half, the lack of consensus about the appropriate vocabulary with which to discuss the issue was apparent. The tone of the mailed announcement promised theoretical analysis on the level of the subconscious, but even the presence of Dr. Glenn C. Cambor was insufficient to lure the artists into revealing the hidden drives behind their personal imagery.
George Krause and Derek Bosier were able to remember specific events connected to certain appearances in their work, and Gael Slack was particularly helpful in understanding the relation of her pictures to the details of life. But the frustration of the audience was evident in the numbers that gradually slipped away: we were all impatient with the slowness of their discoveries.
Photographers at the second session were ambitious in their delineation of family trees, tracing influences from Atget, Frederick and Walker Evans, Vermeer and Pirenesi. What was most significant in these discussions by Casey Williams and Peter Brown was not the reference to form and light through which they chose to interpret their ancestors, but the claims of legitimacy for photographic images based on their similarities to paintings. Williams complimented one of his photographic forefathers by claiming that the photograph was "as good as a lot of modern paintings."
Artist Karin Broker dismissed all influences; she doesn’t look at other peoples' art anymore, and isn't interested in what other artists are doing right now. Her artistic quotes are from the masters she has already memorized. These quotations of style appear on the corners of her chairs and other three-dimensional drawings of which she showed several slides. Her most refreshing contribution was her willingness to describe the autobiographical connections. "I am bored of drawing what I see; I want to be a little more personal, to go into my head, to draw what I felt - to remember what it was like."
The third group wanted to present a coherent statement on the individuals stance toward technology and reality. Sally Gall minimized the importance of the Diana camera, stressing her desire for travel and the possibilities of transcendence and timelessness. Eduardo Robles uses the camera as a tool in copying drawings, collages and snapshots that accompany his literary performances. Paul Hester's fascination with panoramas is dependent upon the technology of the Cirkut camera to describe a particular point of space and history. The clarity of the comparison was diffused somewhat by the addition of recent nudes which he talked about on a more personal level of fear and desire.
Charles Shorre is an extremely dedicated and prolific artist whose example has been very important for those aware of his processes. His presentation on the fourth evening was an example of his working methods; he showed lots of slides and moved very quickly. He pointed to the similarities in his images made over a long period — the way a certain shape in a painting from 1952 might be echoed in a photograph from 1978, which he might have responded to in a drawing done two years later. His belief that images come directly out of working is evident in the freedom with which he combines painting, drawing and photography.
The question of sources had its most direct comparison on the fifth evening with the appearance of Gay Block, Manual (Ed Hill and Suzanne Bloom) and Chris Plowman. Block is most clearly interested in what is in front of the camera, "what I see and want to understand. I like to be with people,” she said, "and have an overwhelming desire to share the experience." She was very specific in her associations with her pictures, identifying with certain people in the portraits.
Manual believes that our ideas of what we should take pictures of come from the culture. Their sources are what they think about images; the work functions in a critical rather than passive role. The photograph is not seen as a transparent window onto the world, but as "a window of the artist's consciousness." Their sources are intellectual, cultural, and art historical. In a way their primary source is Plato, believing that art is a poor imitation of nature, preferring ideas over handwork.