Thursday, February 24, 2011

Saint Augustine of Arizona

I recently posted about Hurn and Jay's book On Being a Photographer. I found the book interesting enough that I decided to read on of Bill Jay's other books (one of more than 20!) called Negative/Positive. Some of the text is identical to On Being A Photographer (nobody writes 20 books without some repetition). I am only 27 pages in, and I will resist doing a long post, but I just wanted to bring up Jay's very Augustinian (in my opinion) polemic about the "Naturalistic" vs. the "Humanistic" photographer. In 1979, when Jay wrote the book, I can imagine that he must have felt like a lone voice crying in the desert (literally, since he was a professor in Arizona for 25 years). The impression I get is that Jay thought photography was going to hell in a handbasket—and fast. Moral values were rejected in favor of the superficial, the banal. The "New Topographics" exhibit in 1975 featured photographers who may as well have been horsemen of the Apocalypse in Jay's mind—or so it seems, for they represent the triumph of naturalism.

So what does he mean by "naturalism" ? If you're acquainted with the term from studying literature or art, you will just have to put that knowledge aside because he does not use the term in a way that reflects that movement. Instead, he sums up the naturalist with a quote from Garry Winogrand: "I photograph to find out what something will look like when photographed."

The "humanist" photographer is the antithesis of the naturalist. "The photographer is no longer recording what is, but what could or should be." Jay uses words like "magic" and "ritual." He speaks of icons of Christ and their function as "a visual aid towards, not an end product of, truth or meaning."

This made me immediately think of Saint Augustine's concept of enjoyment vs. use (a side effect of taking several graduate courses from Eugene Vance). I don't have On Christian Doctrine handy to quote an exact passage, but the basic idea is the "enjoyment" is something suitable only for that which is holy. For Augustine, the only thing we should really "enjoy"—or love for its own sake—is God. Everything else should be used. Yeah, that's right. You should use your friends, not enjoy them. What he means is that your relationship to the world should propel you toward something higher. It's OK to look at a flower, for example, as long as you see it as a sign of God's creation. He doesn't mean that we use people the way a sociopath does; he just doesn't want people to love people or things for their own sake.

So, back to photography. If you're a "naturalist" and you just want to photograph things to see what they look like in photos, then that's just not good enough for Jay. Photography favors naturalism and most photographers are naturalists according to Jay. The medium of photography doesn't place value judgments on what it depicts. A piece of trash is as worthy to the "objective" eye of the camera as anything else. But the "humanist" photographer dares to discern and describe according to a system of values. "Humanism in photography has been a candle in a cathedral, and the slightest draft can extinguish it," writes Jay.

Hmm, I'm not sure what I think of this polemical stance. On the one hand, I LOVE the photography of Lewis Baltz, Stephen Shore and most all of those "New Topographics" photographers. On the other, I think that looking at value systems and having an opinion (even a slightly curmudgeonly one) contributes more to society than complete detachment.

If I were to try to confront my confusion after only a few minutes of thought, I think I would conclude that the real enemy is not "naturalism" but thoughtlessness. A "humanist" photographer might promote ill-conceived "values" that are just as superficial as the foil Jay has created in the "naturalist." Similarly, someone who looks at a Robert Adams photo of a piece of trash at the side of the road and then decides that they can just snap a photo of trash and have that photo be equally valid is simply not getting it. However superficial the "naturalists" might seem from the "humanist" perspective, the smart ones are seriously engaged in the world—just maybe not in the way Saint Augustine would have liked.

I guess one person's trash is another's treasure.


Unknown said...

Fascinating perspective.
I am glad I popped over just so I could learn a new word today: polemical.

You are a great teacher. Thank you for sharing. Have a happy weekend Marc!

Jesse Hurlbut said...

Great post, Marc. I always struggle between the pull of capturing in photos something I want to preserve--beauty, a moment, a face--and the impulse to create something new through some kind of interpretive photographic act. I lean toward the former, but I wish I could find the way to the latter more often.


Michelle said...

So, the how would he feel about photoshop. What if you are digitally adjusting lighting or focus to help the viewer SEE what you want them to see...say - the person looking at the piece of trash. Where does that fall?