Susan Sontag on Photography

As a fine art photographer, I constantly find myself coming up against several important theoretical voices that have contributed to our field. Susan Sonntag’s essays “On Photography” is an important piece in that body of work.

Susan Sontag’s thoughts on photography were prescient when she wrote that “today, everything exists to end in a photograph.” It’s not quite how she meant it, but it seems people in the days of social media are incapable of living the moment… thousands of phones come out at every concert and sporting event. It is a permeable border to citizen’s journalism. People are somehow trying to preserve a moment rather than experiencing it. They’ll take a picture of the celebrity although pro-shooters will capture that moment much better and have it uploaded to the internet before the rest of us get home. I have always recommended to young photographers that if they shoot anything at such events, focus on the people around them… That will be a much more interesting and creative historic document. Or, as she put it in a rather snarky way: “Time eventually positions most photographs, even the most amateurish, at the level of art.”

Much of what Susan Sontag wrote struck me as very condescending. “Needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted. Industrial societies turn their citizens into image-junkies; it is the most irresistible form of mental pollution.” I prefer Robert Frank’s take on it, when he said in 2008 that “there are too many images…Too many cameras now. We’re all being watched. It gets sillier and sillier. As if all action is meaningful. Nothing is really all that special. It’s just life. If all moments are recorded, then nothing is beautiful and maybe photography isn’t an art anymore. Maybe it never was.”

Of course, Sontag still thought of the photographer as a documentarian, not someone who stages image… which of course is ironic because she later became the life-partner of Annie Leibovitz, one of the great creators of staged and constructed images. Sontag wrote that “the painter constructs, the photographer discloses.” That’s nonsense when you back off the assertion that photography is defined by a caught moment. There is more to photography than a well-trained eye that perfectly captures the moment serendipitously stumbled upon. “Photographs are a way of imprisoning reality…One can’t possess reality, one can possess images–one can’t possess the present but one can possess the past. The photographer is an armed version of the solitary walker reconnoitering, stalking, cruising the urban inferno, the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes. Adept of the joys of watching, connoisseur of empathy, the flâneur finds the world ‘picturesque.”

Well, that isn’t true.

Some of us create our images, rather than prowl around hoping to find one… although this is the point where many parse the difference between a photographer and an artist. Photography as an art form is about creating a narrative, rather than capturing one. Sontag writes that “all photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.” This sounds almost native-aborigine. The artist does not destroy, rather he brings stories to life. Especially when the goal is to engage in the retelling of myths, the images come from gifted ears and eyes that hear and see the song and dances of life. To freeze them is not to kill them, but rather to keep them alive.

Banned Facebook Image

This image just got removed by Facebook. I had it as my Cover image. A lot of my Friends – and their Friends – liked the image enough to make the super-minimal effort. It had over 220 Likes and was shared by fifteen people. But at some point someone somewhere got offended and reported the image. The person probably just tagged the image as Offensive, and a community officer at Facebook took it down. I recently read an articles that described the process at Facebook. They get hundreds of thousands of reports per day, and have a large Community Standards team. The members of this team are encouraged to spend no more than one second (!) per images, make a decision, and move on. Usually they remove the image and block the user. In this case I was not blocked from using the service, though I’ve previously had some of my fine art images removed, and was sentenced to several multi-day blocks… which usually makes me quite productive 😉

EDIT:  18 hours later I was blocked. I got a second notice, I was linking inappropriate material. So someone tagged the link to this article, and my blog was registered as spam/inappropriate, and I am on a seven day lock down. Oh well.   /edit

I don’t blame Facebook. It’s not their job to parse the difference between unlucky snapshot, porn, or fine art. They want a nudity-free environment. So they just remove it. Why should they not make their own life easier? This article gives a small but different glimpse of the shit they have to deal with every day. Facebook has decided to leave its social media service clear of nudity to avoid a slippery slope. Remember how bad things got on MySpace? The internet is full of porn. It’s not hard to find. Some of it’s terrible, some of it boring and uninspired, and a little is actually quite good. Pretty much all men watch porn, and there are a lot of women at this point who watch porn as well. And honestly, few things are hotter than receiving a small animated .gif or video snippet linked from Porn4Ladies or WhatIWantToDoToYou from your lover during office hours.

But of course, Facebook’s approach is socially driven. it is impossible to ignore the larger issue, the completely stilted and unhealthy relationship society puts on sexuality. And let’s be honest: more than ever, American Puritanical roots are affecting all of us. Facebook is a company founded, incubated and IPO’d in the United States, and that society – especially through its near-omnipresent media industry – has propagated its values and culture across the globe.

My work is driven by the Feminine, and I am constantly pushing against the patriarchal systems that have led to the Judeo-Christian religion as we experience them now. And make no mistake: Christianity and Islam are simply version 2.0 and 3.0 of the original monotheistic system that began by scouring the Female from itself.

This image… the sleeping Goddess… we need to awaken her.

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Every Artist is both a Poet and a Craftsman

There are two men inside the artist, the poet and the craftsman. One is born a poet. One becomes a craftsman.

— Émile Zola from a letter to Paul Cézanne

Art is rarely the result of true genius, rather it is a combination of hard work and skills learned and practiced by regular people and, in my case, I practiced my skills in spite of self-doubt so profound it can masquerade as vanity.

– Sally Mann

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Shot a long time ago near the Sylter Watt, as I acquired my skills to become a craftsman.

The Feminine Magic

Some insight into my current thought process… It’s not clear, so I am trying to parse it out here, and will hopefully elicit some dialog.

I have been reading a lot of Joseph Campbell, and find myself softening ever so slightly on the total disdain I have for religion. To some degree I have always given a lot of people a pass. I understand that Ritual gives people a chance to participate. It also perpetuates a culture, which isn’t always a bad thing. The self-righteous Yoga-Vegans fill their own lives with rituals, which lose their meaning for those who inherit or assume these rituals, but didn’t create them. This is how “organized” religions are ultimately born. Take the laws of Halal or Kasher – they sanctify an action. They remind a person that they make a choice, and that raises them above animals. But it also separates them. At its highest form, that is no different than the smugness felt by the modern shopper leaving a Bio-Organic supermarket. But a choice has to be conscious; the minute you follow rules and rituals blindly they become meaningless, and only benefit the system, not the person.

Religion is filled with stories of heroes, prophets, apostles, and saints. In many ways, people need myths and heroes to describe the magic they invariably feel in their life. But more importantly, myths illustrate the moments of our lives that move us through our changes.

The saints, the apostles, the prophets, the kings… the stories should serve as metaphors. They aren’t literal, but they are true – True in the sense that they reflect back to us feelings that we might encounter as well.

Those feelings – the love, the fear, the anger, the lust – that is where the Divine lies, that is where we become Gods. It is as much in the virtues as in the sins. And the great stories tell those moments, and challenge us to see ourselves in those stories.

So how does that come up in my work?

I’ve photographed women and nudes for a long time. I have had a fascination with the Feminine for years. But I am not interested in just taking pictures of hot naked chicks. I find that absolutely mind-numbingly boring, and the pages of large Taschen books, not to mention the internet, are full of quasi-artistic images which purport to celebrate goddesses and muses. They don’t. They’re just erotica. If I create an image like that, there must be a reason, a place it comes from.

I have been reading the stories of St Agatha, or St Catherine, or St Barbara, or any of the other female saints who were martyred for not submitting to a man in the way he wanted. The story is always the same… A man wants something from the woman, but she refuses. In his anger, he decides to hurt and destroy her. This two thousand year old story is no different than the man spraying acid in the face of a girl in Afghanistan for not marrying him. In the beatific saint stories the woman was always saving herself for Christ, of course. But that is just religion repurposing human tragedy to suit its own narrative.

These stories were tools for establishing the patriarchy in the early monotheistic days. Humanity began losing its magic then, as a very male form of society began taking hold. A religious/societal rule-set created for governance, for expansion, for reinforcement and confinement. It sought to replace the irrational, the inexplicable, the magical, much of what was feminine in nature. We lost our Goddesses then… Astarte, Ishtar, and all the others… relegated to martyred or motherly roles, or entirely re-envisioned as the embodiment of evil and the arbiter of original sin. But magic persisted will into the Renaissance and beyond. Anna Göldin was decapitated for witchcraft near Zurich in 1782, an era when brighter minds were already deep into the Age of Reason. Enlightenment, with its rigor around debate, and study, and evidence, did not defeat religion. If anything, it is the second version of a patriarchal system. It remains a male way of looking at the world, and if anything, has taken us even further from the Feminine. I scoff at religion as mindless superstition, but it occurs to me now that Reason and Enlightenment – though less superstitious and more egalitarian – does nothing to return us there.

I’ll grant that every little bit helps. Maybe those pictures of wannabe soft-core porn and beautiful erotica help restore some femininity into a massively male world, however coincidentally and circumstantially. And maybe life freed from patriarchal religion allows us to sneak the Feminine back into our interactions, into our perceptions, into our lives.

All this makes me want to tell myths, not tear away at the stories of others. It makes me want to bring the Feminine further into my work. Yet my resentment for religion, my disdain for its current popular form remains. The Gods did not make us in their image… we made them in ours. And it is time to make Gods and Goddesses that fit our time. Heroes that illustrate our stories. Saints that give our sacrifices a contemporary context.

I can’t stop right now, and I feel a little out of control. I want to consume information at a pace that is unrealistic, like over-eating knowledge. I’m gorging on books and wikis and video lectures, and I can’t seem to find a way to stir all of it into my images. My “Sacred and Profane” project seems to be changing into something entirely more complex than I set out to accomplish initially, and I am quickly accepting that the overall series may show these thoughts, but I can’t expect every single image to cover every aspect.

…and I need to stop gorging. Because when I get this way, I don’t only over-consume knowledge, i over-eat, too. One part of me says “Fuck It, it doesn’t matter if you’re a little heavier, you’re a Man not a boy…” but then my internal photographer and aesthete walks past a mirror… and is mortified. So keep the Amazon boxes coming, but chill on the Turkish food deliveries. And keep an eye open for Saints and Goddesses.

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One of my many attempts at Goddess… Here the Venus of Willendorf. For more information please visit my website and see the Forest Project.

Art will remain

Archaeologists have not yet discovered any stage of human existence without art. Even in the half-light before the dawn of humanity we received this gift from Hands we did not manage to discern. Nor have we managed to ask: Why was this gift given to us and what are we to do with it? And all those prophets who are predicting that art is disintegrating, that it has used up all its forms, that it is dying, are mistaken. We are the ones who shall die. And art will remain. The question is whether before we perish we shall understand all its aspects and all its ends.

Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn, Beauty Will Save the World