Lost in translation...
I've just returned from a visit to my local Waterstones. Whilst browsing for Christmas presents (tis the season to spend money...) I came across a copy of a book called Journey Through the British Isles with photographs by Harry Cory Wright. It is one of the recommended books in my local branch, receiving fulsome praise from a member of staff in the Hereford shop. Intrigued that a book of landscape photographs should get such 'positive' publicity I spent a few minutes studying it. You will have gathered from my use of the word fulsome that I was extremely disappointed with what I found between its covers.
First the good news; the paper stock is fine and the reproduction of high quality. The excellent author Adam Nicholson has written the forward. It is a large book (192 pages and 30.5 x 37.5 cm) and hence feels like the price of £40 is justified. The publishers synopsis states:
In the tradition of the great journeys taken by such photographers as Fox Talbot, Fenton and Bourne, Harry Cory Wright set out, in March 2006, on a quest to capture the variety of natural landscapes that make up the British Isles using a large-format plate camera. Beginning in the fragile, frozen beauty of Unst in Shetland at the spring equinox, he travelled down through the Western Isles and mainland Scotland to Northumberland and further south through England and Wales. This stunning book documents Cory Wright's remarkable journey. Each photograph is infused with the unique spirit of its location - from vast, wild mountain ranges to verdant, dewy forests at sunrise, from windswept beaches in winter to fields bathed in late summer, early evening sun. It is a unique photographic record of a journey through some of the most breathtaking locations in the British Isles. Cory Wright's Gandolfi plate camera captures images of exquisite detail and intensity. This is a magnificently produced, large-format book that will appeal to anyone interested in landscape photography.
So what's the bad news? Well I'm not so naive that I don't recognise hype when I see it – nor am I so naive as to not realise that similar hype has been applied to my own work. The pressures of the market encourage hyperbole, publishers do need to sell books after all. However the phrase "[a] book that will appeal to anyone interested in landscape photography." does seem a little dangerous. I realise that sweeping generalisation are always good in marketing land but this is a little too rich.
The important question is does the work justify the hype? Well, I have to say, for this viewer, a resounding no. The majority of the images feel as if anyone might have made them, they feel as if they just present what was in front of the camera without any distillation of the scene. Almost as if they were pretending to be unmediated. They feel like the kind of images that a non-photographer would have made if they had been presented with that scene. They don't feel as if they've been composed. Follow these links to see for yourself:
Firle Beacon from Mount Caburn
Maybe their apparent lack of artifice is the point. Maybe Harry Cory Wright is the people's photographer, re-presenting the landscape to the public as they would have seen it (but in more detail because he uses a 10x8 Gandolfi) rather than with any sign of a photographer's mannerisms. But I don't think so, I think that he's just using a different set of mannerisms and that in fact these are quite elitist images – I'll return to this point further on.
For me the real failure of these images is that the vast majority didn't evoke any emotional response in me. As someone who's pretty susceptible to being moved by the British landscape this complete lack of evocation struck me as quite a feat. Now it might be that they're all 'growers' and that continuous study will bring wonderful rewards. I'm a fan of quiet images, however, and feel that I would recognise this quality were it present. I know that I'm in danger here of sinking without trace in the treacherous uncertain ground of taste, lost in the mire of what constitutes a 'good' photograph, but I'm going to press on regardless!
Adam P suggested in an earlier post that he might be making photographer's photographs and questioned whether this was a good thing. Someone he knows opined that he 'wish[ed] to avoid the “dreary photographer’s photography … I'll lose the visual immediacy …” ' This seems on the face of it to be a simple desire to present the world as it is. But more than this it is a desire to avoid a particular style, a photographic 'imprint' that carries with it a set of connotations that this person felt deleterious. How might one characterise this 'imprint'? The photographer's photograph seems to me to be typified by the conscious effort to distill reality (a concern with form, careful framing and composition), the deliberate manipulation of perspective (use of wide angle or long focal length lenses) and careful control of contrast & colour (use of filters). These transformations of reality are elements of a photographic syntax.
Why might these transformations be undesirable? Wishing to avoid them is perhaps a wish to avoid being associated with photography – a desire to make an unphotographic image, one that doesn't declare that it is photographic. An oxymoron if ever I heard one; there can be no such thing as an un-photographic photograph. Cory Wright's images also seem to spurn these visual signs. Instead they use elements from a different syntax; one characterised by passive compositions (an indifference to form and apparent lack of concern with framing), standard perspective (a weak relationship between foreground, middle ground and background) and unremarkable lighting (burnt out highlights, unsaturated colours, little or no filtration). I feel that this syntax is borrowed from, or strongly influenced by, a strain of Modernism – an art movement that is notoriously antipathetic to a concern for the natural world. A strange choice for landscape photography perhaps?
So why do Cory Wright's images fail to move me? Is it just that I don't understand the language that he's using? This possibility cannot be ruled out, nor that he wouldn't understand mine. Is it that I need nature to be enhanced by the photographic 'imprint' in order to appreciate it? I definitely don't feel that this is true. I have no trouble appreciating nature when I experience it but a photograph of nature isn't nature, it's something else. It begs the question, do you feel that photographers – or any other artists – enhance by re-presenting or that they reveal by their selection and applied technique? I feel that it is the latter. Of course Cory Wright has made selections, has chosen which lens to use and where to place the camera. He just hasn't revealed anything to me by those choices. Once again I freely admit that I might just be blind to his message. The syntax that predominates in landscape photography today owes much to the syntax used in landscape painting from the 17th century through to the 19th but has evolved over time. In part its strength comes from the richness of its sources. Cory Wright's images seem to turn their back on this heritage. There's nothing wrong with that per se, in fact that's exactly how revolutions in art begin. I just don't see any evidence of his application of an un-dynamic aesthetic to landscape photography revealing anything new or more importantly evoking a passionate response. The images seem both literally and metaphorically to have no focal point. I don't know what he wants me to look at in an image like Candover Brook. It seems an image willfully without direction. I certainly don't feel that, "These are moments captured and communicated with great intensity. These are timeless photographs that change your way of seeing..." as his dealer's website proclaims.
Or might the crux of the matter be that the syntax that he is using and the one that I, and I would suggest most of my readership, use have evolved from quite different foundations and now have quite different resonances? His syntax has, as I suggested earlier, evolved from Modernism. As such the images have a resonance that appeals more to the art market than the general public (and a consequent economic value). The syntax that underpins my work originated within the American landscape photography of the early part of the last century. Its pedigree, whilst recognised by fellow photographers, has somewhat less cachet than Modernism (and a consequently lower economic value).
It's like he's speaking French (a language in which I only have a smattering of understanding) and I'm speaking German (of which he is equally ignorant). Each has our audience of fellow native speakers and a tiny minority who speak both languages. Does this then mean that there's no such thing as a bad photograph, only something that doesn't translate well? Certainly not! I await your comments...
Workshop at Linhof & Studio
Paula and I will be running another LF workshop in Leigh on Sea in spring 2008. Details will be posted on the Linhof website in due course or if you just can't wait contact Paula on +44(0)1702 716116 for further details and to reserve a place.