Photography - what's that? © Copyright by Tom Erlandsen

„Many of us would like to know how to improve their pictures in a such way that they would communicate with broader public". A well known Scandinavian photographic magazine used this in their commercials. Does this mean that we should adjust our pictures to a broader audience? Is it this broad mass of vague dilettantes that are more interested in their Hasselblads as in what is a picture or what is not ?!

A few words to my own person: I saw my first photographic equipment much too early. Landed end sixties in Stockholm at the Photographic institution from C.Stömholm, (Fotoskolan). I was saved from a brisk bankruptcy from the Royal Norwegian Air force. After a pause from creative work ordinated by the state, a monumental vacuum, after a long time, I found new means of expression, the way abroad, exhibitions and so on..... After  years, slight and slowly return to photographic work, but still with much of a vacuum in my back-head.

The world of photography is silent, not to say dumb, many would find it dead, artificial and unreal. A world that is like a slight resemblance of a distant life. A walk trough a photographic collection is a lonely walk trough bright, sterile, white rooms with endless rows of equal sized black squares. Squares that stare quiet at you, silent screams of a silent revolution that do not come out of their squares, that frame them, strangulate and reject them to come out, to you, as a viewer...... This is a static world, it's lifeless, it does not move, the time in photography is staying still.

It can as well be experienced as infinite and timeless, if you look at pictures from Margaret Cameron or Tuija Lindstrøm (SE) at the same time. You find them equally engaged and actual, in spite of the fact that there are hundred years between them. The human realities come close to you.

Henri Cartier-Bresson: „I have never been interested in the documentary side of photography except for its poetic expression." A remarkable sentence: The documentary photography has a poetic expression! , The expression of life seems to that it could be poetic! „Just photography that spring out of life interest me. The pleasure of seeing, sensation, sensuality, fantasy, everything that moves your heart comes together in the viewfinder. This pleasure will exist for me for all time." This „poetic expression" is slightly unclear, difficult to catch, to get hold on, but we can feel with Bresson and his thinking, better as we can intellectually understand it, and we see it clearly in his pictures. A poet that tells you about his every day that he lives in and he acts within.

Documentary photography is not the bad snapshots with wrong colouring and accidental cutting that the magazine Fotografi presented as the „subjective truth" in their 5-94 number, BUT is it Otto Steiner's subjective form studies, or is it W.Eugene. Smiths Minamata or...what is it ?... It is too much that have been marked as subjective or documentary in the short run of photographic history. Those two terms are principally opposite, a document is expected to carry the truth or at least a part thereof subjectivity in this sense is a personal expression. Subjectivity and truth, can't work together as such. Just try to establish a subjective truth in court! - ? - Sure: photography remains forever a registration of the light beams that are reflected from an object. We can't depart from this fundamental, independent of ideas and technical developments. In the moment that this commonplace, plain, facts cease to exist, we do not have any photography any more, we have turned to something else.

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Edward Weston: The Daybook „....Yes, this will help you - to cover the real theme - and prevent you from telling the truth about the life that your lens is pointing at - if you wish to interpret why not use a medium that is better suited for interpretation or SUBJECTIVE expression - or - leave this to somebody else - Photography has an objective nature - and as such singular -....". We are returning to the old question: With which purpose shall/can you use the camera, without being able to answer this yet, if at all. Before we start to attack Weston, perhaps we should remind us self that those words were written in 1923, in a period of photographic and artistic reorientation, departing from pictorial photography, on the way toward one till then unknown realism. Weston learned us a new way of seeing, for sure. In his time was interpretation and subjectivity equals with bromoil and blur diffusion in a vain attempt to copy the established graphic art, without a search for a genuine photographic- expression or -nature. Weston and his friends turned the view camera down to f:64 in a sharp, revealing, ‚objective' light. This was a natural reaction on the evolution till then, but this was another blind alley in the development of photography, the belief in the „objectivity", an alley that is not completely ended yet.

An important side of documentary photography as well as other forms of photography, is its relation to the reality, this is what Weston is talking about. Many people think that photography can comprise this reality. The idea of realistic photography is based on the conception of the existing as something that is hidden and that the camera as well represents as documents the discovery of the existent. This fatal error has followed the photography since its birth, it has been misunderstood as a representation or manifestation of the real instead of being understood as the real abstraction that it really is. Photography is principally an unproductive thing or action that seems to reproduce the reality, while it only can reproduce parts or sections of the visible reality. - With the development of the digital photography does this small relation to the reality disappear absolutely, and we end up with a total illusion, something that means new and fascinating means of personal expression.

For some does this questions photography as such and they end up in a basic discussion of the place and meaning of photography, which is ridiculous.. .We create pictures, it is the quality and expression of these pictures that is important not how they are created. A real problem exists only for news media and equals that are basing upon a certain authenticity in their pictures, while you can bring Michael Jackson and BB together in bed on the top of the Eiffel tower. For them that understand and accept the autonomies of photography is digital methods' nothing else than a final and total control over the picture, in fact further means of expression.

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Some years ago I stumbled into a Weston exhibition in Venice. In one of the worlds most picturesque towns, they were hanging, picture after picture, all of them I was brought up with, a sort of child bible for photographers, everyone in the same size (he made only contact sheets) on the row, pictures that learned me to really SEE for the first time in life. Weston put for your nose a sharp peperoni or a squash and proved the beauty of a common vegetable, without any other objects than to transmit an aesthetic sensation. He and his contemporaries brought the world a large step further towards the sensation of real seeing, to see the beauty in our commonplace surrounding without having to dip it in a mash of bromoil or other sorts of diffusion.

As Weston exposed the beauty of his water-closet in every small detail, it was a bit more difficult, this strained the visual experience of the twenties and thirties rather strong. - Today it is commonplace to have the thing on the wall with the „artist" making his thing in it.....Many of us know Weston and his significance from earlier experiences, they can see and understand his work in a photo historic content. In spite of that all, I must admit that the ludicrous palazzo was the exhibition hung as well as the city it made larger impressions then as the maestro himself! .....Perhaps it could be in connection with the fact that our generation has lost some of its sensibility against the earlier. But it is much our own error that we always expand and expand our expectations. But for me Venice is something unbelievable, somewhat subconscious. Weston is somewhat understandable, is a part of your photographical understanding of the world, Venice is not, it does not have organized place in your understanding, except if you see it as meeting place and fast-food for mass tourism.

A friend of Weston, Willard van Dyke, made a deep sight over his elder colleague once:

The things he does are very nice, but in his work is FORM the predominant theme, the subject is secondary. He can work for hours on the details of a piece of wood lying in the sun. I do not understand how anyone can work for years in a such manner with practically equal materials. It is as he feels safe under his black cloth, there on the ground glass, he can solve the problem of form, without having to concern about other people, or their problems, that live in the world that surrounds him. But he is a nice person, so I can make not critics on the way he works. I just can't understand it."

A socially oriented photographer opposed to the aesthetic orientation. A known conflict, but here it did not matter, this friendship lasted for the whole life, independent of very different views on basics, perhaps could many of us learn something? . This difference was perhaps even stronger between Tina Modotti and Weston without finding it as clearly as you could expect in the literature. This conflict between form and content is not for the photography alone, but for all forms of art. For these people here this was not only a conflict of ethics or of artistic views, but a deep human difference in belief, politic and moral views.

The picture as a utility article is well known for most of us - it should transmit objective information in a different way that can be achieved by worlds alone. If this is more effective or not can be left out here. The picture should give information about a real place, a real object, a real action or equal. Here is the picture associated with reality and objective values, in a way it does not have. Photography cannot show an objective reality but only a pure subjective one. A picture is often seen as something real, a proof, in common life, this even when modern technology can produce everything where-ever, whenever, only needing a computer and a collection of pictures. Sure, photography has something with reality to do, especially from a historical point of view. It is the ever lasting confrontation with the reality that has formed the evolution of photography. The photographer confronts his surrounding world. He selects a part of this surrounding. He or she takes a stand to this reality by selecting a part of it, and hopefully tries to express something by this action. (By pictures used as utility articles it that principally not expected.) - And so came photography to slide from a presumptive, objective realism to the really existent subjectivity. - It cannot and will newer be anything else. -

To get closer into the nature of photography is it necessary to understand something of its common basics:

- What makes a picture to a picture or even a good picture? -

Is it THAT, which binds the eye on the surface and covers up the hidden nature of the picture's soul, so that it only can be seen as a slight gleam, as a hidden play of light and shadow? Or is it as the Swede Karl Bergengren describes: Important is that the picture must stay in the viewer's mind: That essential content has a simple, singular and clear form as well as a simple, singular and clear expression. The last do not necessary means that the picture is easy to read, but that the expression is clearly defined. The viewer has to make an effort to take up the work presented to him. This is not photography as short lived consumer goods, but a mean of expression equal to every other form of art. - Certainly, a description of „the good picture" is impossible, as the nature of photography in it self is subjective and therefor relative. We can just suggest it in the direction toward the nature of a „good" picture, but nothing is standing still, not even the „good" picture.

Probably should I speak about modern photography, to differentiate towards post-modern photography and its development, but I am always afraid that too much theory would kill the good pictures. Photography is in spite of different thoughts, not a theory but real practice.

An important part of this practice is the photographer: Robert Frank tells us that photography is a lonely travel on the roads of the photographer, it's the only way that a photographer can follow and that without compromise. - Perhaps it's here it always goes wrong: with repeated compromises and an unclear relation to the reality on the behalf of the photographer, as well as the expression of this reality! - Not to speak from the bitter economic reality that follows the one that tries perform photography as personal expression.

In her wonderful book „on Photography" has Susan Sonntag a very cross description of the photographer: An armed variety of the lonely wanderer, that sneak through the inferno of the big city, that stripe through this, a voyeuristic walker that discovers the city as a landscape of libertine extremes. The photographer as well as their consumers - are walking in the footsteps of the waste collector, this figure that Baudelaire preferred as a symbol of the modern poet: Every thing that the great city through away, every thing it loose, every thing, that it disgusts, every thing it over roll...... A subjective and personal characteristic of one form of photography, that many a photographer could bear in mind - ? - Where is the poetics of Cartier-Bresson?.

Do we have to travel around half of the globe photograph catastrophes, hunger, exploitation and pain? - Can't we use the photography in a different way, opposite to the scandal-tourist? Is the photographer a voyeur? The film maker Dziga Wartow took this theme up in the 20s in his film „The man with the camera". Bresson was much a voyeur, perhaps all photographers are, but he was a very positive one!

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It is important to make such reflections as a photographer, as a human and not as a theoretician or a consumer, but as an active photographing human being, through reflection upon your self as a photographer to keep yourself within the frames that are correct for you. With the slight hope that you do not end up as a photographic tourist in scandals and catastrophic, or as a reproducer of nature.

Kurt Bergengren present a different angel of view upon documentary photography: It has to be understood in a way that it is the photographer, much more than his objective, that document his human experience. - This is his experience of the object, not that of the objective, the result is an expression of a pure subjective reality as the photographer sees and experiences it.

Andreas Feininger seems to take the documentary photography as a realistic reprint, he even introduces a slight ambiguous term: artistic controlled reproduction - which I do not quite grasp. - Most photographs seem to be somehow realistic on the surface, it's based in the nature and the technique of photography, - but artistic controlled reproduction? Perhaps would artistic controlled documentation fit better? He defines documentary photography as an unclear combination of utility photography and creative photography. In his view is creative photography not documentary, but subjective indicative, as a work of fantasy , with symbols, feelings, ideas and emotions. This is a trial upon a definition that is much based on a romantic view of painting than a realistic analysis of photography. He does not try to confront the central problem: what is art? Trying to circum. went by using the term creative photography. Probably does he mean art or artistic expression in a traditional understanding, but prefer to make life a bit easier. If you compare Bergengren and Feininger it seems that they are speaking from different things. But in reality they are pretty close to each other. We find different labels on much of the same things. Feiningers subjective photography is nothing else than the documentarism of Bergengren. It more a problem to find what they mean with their different labels.

Utility photography or artistic controlled reproduction? Most people can agree on the fact the normal press photo is utility photography without especially artistic ambitions. Here is the information primary, not any form of personal expression. - W. Eugene Smith and Life Magazine are both dead. - Gary Winogrand has followed the same fate. - But if we look at his football pictures, everything is unclear. What is this? Football from the side line, press pictures? - No - the content of information is not small, but rather chaotic, a personal expression is present. Twenty-five players including judges and some thousand viewers, all in one picture, made with a short wide-angle. The individual disappears. The fascination is not focussed on who is winning or doing what but the interaction among all participants, an interaction of masses. The whole-made withe the characteristic slanting manner with a distant anonymity that marks the later works of Winogrand, but for sure, a value of USE is not present.

Let us turn from the dead to the living: The work of Sweden' two photographing- professors' „The art to be there" from C.Strömholm and „Tuija Lindström" from Tuija Lindström (both in Swedish). That you should not seek utility photography here should be clear? But is it artistic controlled reproduction, subjective indicative or the documentarism from Bergengren? Lindström quite a bit younger than Strömholm, her work reaches from Evans/Frank influenced documentarism to strongly emotional abstractions, works within a broad band, but somehow lacking a stylistic unity. Surely is that not artistic controlled reproduction. The most is lying well within Feiningers subjective indicative photography. But no one is without some aspect of the photographers subjective reality, as Bergengren talks about.

The work from Strömholm is more unified in spite of the fact that the pictures cover a whole, long, life. You could call it a homogenous piece of work. Not everyone can rely upon 1228 students as experience besides the personal development. As well as Lindström he turns in the direction of abstraction in the later works, but his has a different character, they are much more concrete and less mystic. But, from first to last of the pictures is the outmost consequence: He photographs his subjective experience of his subjective reality and nothing else. He said himself somewhere that his pictures are self portraits, with other words: he sees himself in his surrounding world. This is sharp reproduction of this world, but as well subjective indicative, full of symbols, emotions and moods. Without doubt each picture is a small cutting out of his space and time. These pictures are much more subjective and personnel as what you find in the production of his teacher: Otto Steinert in spite of the fact that he was the founder of the subjective photography as a movement, for me it looks like the student came further as the master.

I see here a documentarism of the sort that Bergengren has defined. As much is this an art that dissolves the theoretical boarder between „artistic" and documentary photography as it often is presented. In any case, this is a documentary photography Miles above the usual post-modern .......... that you usually see presented as the „art" of our world. Documentary is not equal snapshot rubbish, as well as the fact that bad pictures are not getting better by calling them documentary photography. All photography till today has been more or less documentary, it is funded in the nature of the trade that it remains somewhat documentary independent of all errors we produce with it. To photograph is to take a stand towards your surrounding reality, out of your own inner reality. This independent of what you do with it, conventional photography, digital or whatever. Important in a picture is its symbolic content, not in that, it renders or seems to render.

I find the remark from Tuija Lindström at the end of her book as a central thing: you do not read a picture to understand another human, you rear it to understand yourself. => The pictures are serving as a mirror and therefore function totally subjective, - so that can understand what you see or what you are.

A documentary photography in the form of: „artistic controlled reproduction" from the reality may be utopian. A subjective, personal interpretation of your surrounding reality may be dominant today within what we can describe as photography in a documentary stile.. But how much is personal, how much is autonomy in artistic expression and how much is reproduction? In reality is this a photography that travels under a false flag, we have to find the right one, photography does not change much because of this, for changes are other factors responsible that we cannot and will not stop. Important is that we accept that photography has not much to do with an objective reality.

Photography can give a deeper and more intensive feeling of life. It has helped many photographers to raise their look from their own nave and to find and see a world around them. It could look like that Weston and equals did not do this under their black clothes?. It cannot be the duty of photography to be a therapy for introvertive photographers. But on the other hand, if so, it should come something special out of this.

Written in Norwegian, 1996.

© Copyright Tom Erlandsen, if you should like to use it, please ask in advance!  

Tom Erlandsen

Murten CH . 12 September 1999

"--I've finally figured out what's wrong with photography. It's a one-eyed man looking through a little 'ole.
Now how much reality can there be in that?" 
- David Hockney.

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