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Form, content and emotion: Sean Reid's interview with Ben Lifson


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#1 Guest_malland_*

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Posted 15 July 2007 - 15:55

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Reading an interview with Ben Lifson on Sean Reid's site this morning — prefaced by a series of testimonials by some of Lifson's students, each with some photographs, that are interesting in themselves as many of them refer to their mentor's emphasis on form as the most basic element of art rather than the content — I've been thinking about form content. I have always concluded that whatever story one is trying to tell pictures work because of of their graphic form and fail because of its lack or deficiency, no matter how strong the concept or the story behind them.

It should really be an obvious that this is the case because the same thing is true about all the visual arts, but the trouble is that we are so often taken with what our own photogarphs represent, or the concept behind them, that we don't see that they don't work as a picture, that the form doesn't work or that, that it clashes with what we are trying to say or that it's merely a graphic artifice.

The idea of the meaning flowing from the content can be particularly problematic when we consider emotion: many people say that they like to see emotion in photographs and some photographers say that they are seeking to express emotion, or mood in their pictures. I feel strongly that it has to be the other way round: to make a good picture you have to feel the the form, have a passion for it, and, then, the emotion will carry through from the form and give meaning to the picture. Starting by trying to express emotion or mood will, at best, result in pictures that either don't work or are shallow, or, at worst will be kitsch.

Another interesting thing from the Lifson interview article is that Lifson like to use the phrase "making pictures" rather then "taking pictures". I think this is right but we also need to recognize that photography is an art of selection: first, what to we frame? — Lifson emphasizes: where do we establish the edges? But then there is the next level of selection, at which we must select the pictures that we are going to use from all the ones that we have shot: this choice is as important as the first one when we clicked the shutter, and the selection can be difficult to make: sometimes one can suddenly come to the realization years that a frame that one has never printed can indeed make a good picture. For this reason it's better to keep pictures from a digital rather than deleting all the one's that one does not immediately like. Photography is difficult.

As I don't believe in making such a posting without showing some pictures here are some: the first three were selected by Sean Reid for display in his review of the Leica D-Lux 3 for which he asked me to contribute a "second opinion":



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[continued in repsonse to this posting...]

#2 Guest_malland_*

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Posted 15 July 2007 - 15:58

And here are three from my Bangok Series <Mitch Alland's slideshow on Flickr>:



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—Mitch Alland/Potomac, MD
Flickr: Photos from Mitch Alland

#3 Guest_malland_*

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Posted 15 July 2007 - 16:01

And here is an interesting series of artiles by Ben Lifson:

http://www.rawworkfl...s/01/index.html

#4 Guest_stnami_*

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Posted 16 July 2007 - 10:06

I don't really accept Lifson take on form and content, seeing his approach as being limited due to his reliance on traditional art boundaries.One can work in a purely subjective manner and the images need not be scrutinised as photographs, thus they need not always need to be subject to analysis emphasising elements and principles. Then there is ithe photograph as a documented form either as an artwork or information. Photography as an action,one may also take pictures and then turn them into pictures or leave them as pictures taken.

#5 Guest_malland_*

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Posted 16 July 2007 - 10:56

It seems to me what you say does not eliminate form as the basis: you can, and should, think of any photograph as a picture, whether it's a document or ends up being treated in a non-traditonal manner. In either case the form unserlying the picture is what gives is it's effect or meaning.

—Mitch/Potomac, MD
http://www.flickr.co...s/10268776@N00/

#6 smokysun

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Posted 16 July 2007 - 16:15

it is odd how many great works of art fit the golden section!! and an artist's formal power must be exceptional for a work to become iconic, representing something large in the human condition. and i enjoy it when he/she takes a pile of apples and turns it into paradise.

thus, i agree form is the final arbiter. on the other hand, robert henri in 'the art spirit' says this over and over again:

"The most beautiful art is the art which is freest from the demands of convention, which has a law to itself, which as technique is a creation of a special need. The demand we so often hear for finish is not for finish, but is for the expected."

"I think the only salvation is finding yourself, you will never find yourself unless you quit preconceiving what you will be when you have found yourself. Pictures tell the story of actual impulse in the artist - or the lack of it. Take your head off your heart and give the latter a chance."

"When you, body and soul, wish to make a certain expression and cannot be distracted from this one desire, then you will be able to make a great use of whatever technical knowledge you have. You will have clairvoyance, you will see the uses of the technique you already have, and you will invent more."

"Men either get to know what they want, and go after it, or some other persons tell them what they want and drive them after it."

"To be an artist is to construct, and to whatever degree one shows the genius for constuction in work of any sort, he is that much an artist,"

"Art is simply a result of expression during right feeling. It's a result of a grip on the fundamentals of nature, the spirit of life, the constructive force, the secret of growth, a real understanding of the relative importance of things, order, balance. Any material will do. After all, the object is not to make art, but to be in the wonderful state which makes art inevitable."

i can't tell you how many times he says to be a master of what you know now.

Amazon.com: The Art Spirit: Books: Robert Henri

is this still a photograph?

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#7 Guest_malland_*

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Posted 16 July 2007 - 16:37

Wayne:

Form does not imply convention.

—Mitch/Potomac, MD


#8 mitchell

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Posted 16 July 2007 - 17:12

Mitch,

Thanks for this link and discussion.

I wonder if you could define what you mean by "form."

I like your pictures. I find the woman's clothed torso quite disturbing in an interesting way. It looks very vulnerable, perhaps because we (you) are not interested in her face, not interested in her. But, this explanation (like all explanations of art effects) falls short of explaining the extent of my discomfort. Good job!

I think convention, and form are related to each other. As in the rule of thirds. The art that we find exciting reinterprets, expands, or defies convention, but depends on the convention's preexistence to relate to, to create resonance, tension, or dissonance. I think it is this relationship which creates energy.

Best,

Mitchell

#9 smokysun

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Posted 16 July 2007 - 18:37

i'd like to echo that. here's a quote from a book on the painter Francis Bacon:

"It is the artist's job to manifest what the naked eye cannot see, that field of contradictory forces - of movements, the application of effort and the relaxation of effort - that is the basis of organic life. Bacon is endevouring to demonstrate a principle rather than a state, moving beyond beauty and ugliness, the individual and the particular. The image he produces is not a snapshot (like the arrested moment of a photograph) but the simultaneous manifestation of successive contractions."

i do think photos can do this (many fashion people, for example, have imitated bacon). we play off convention, yet there are many conventions. i really enjoy ben's articles, his personality, his teaching. i do think it is a particular school of photography, that of cartier-bresson. the snapshot ethic, for example, of nan goldin, et al is something else. basic understanding of traditional forms seems to me easy to acquire. doing something unusual with them (or against them) does catch our eye. the first sentence of this quote seems to me the key. does the work bring out the invisible forces manipulating people and the scene?

Amazon.com: Discoveries: Francis Bacon (Discoveries (Abrams)): Books: Christopher Domino

by the way, i've started a blog. smokysun's heaven maybe some of you will find it fun. words and pictures.

#10 guywalder

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Posted 16 July 2007 - 20:08

In either case the form unserlying the picture is what gives is it's effect or meaning.


that seems to me to be a very limiting way of looking at photography, assuming that it is simply another form of visual art, when it is also used, extensively, outside the sphere of 'art'. I dont think many people would claim the photos used in newspapers are art, but they are certainly photography. The effect and meaning of Eddie Adam's picture from Vietnam, or Ron Haviv's picture from Bosnia are not art, but they have had tremendous effect and impact. Photography can be art, but it doesnt have to be
Guy

#11 manolo

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Posted 16 July 2007 - 20:13

I believe that each medium has its limitations and it is always healthy not to see a photograph as photography or architecture through the eyes of an architect (as,for example, Mitch Aland's picture of the city above shows the city as something different)

#12 smokysun

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Posted 17 July 2007 - 20:53

that seems to me to be a very limiting way of looking at photography, assuming that it is simply another form of visual art, when it is also used, extensively, outside the sphere of 'art'. I dont think many people would claim the photos used in newspapers are art, but they are certainly photography. The effect and meaning of Eddie Adam's picture from Vietnam, or Ron Haviv's picture from Bosnia are not art, but they have had tremendous effect and impact. Photography can be art, but it doesnt have to be
Guy


i have to defend mitch on this one. commercial artists - advertising, political propaganda, journalism, which have blended into one these days - study forms more closely than the fine artists. they wish to sell something you don't need, to have you see the world in a particular way. they really study how visual pictures influence people, get under their skin. this is where certain formulas get applied over and over again.

as for these not being art, a friend once told hcb, 'you are really a surrealist, but don't tell anyone.' the big difference between art and commercials is the first comes from a specific consciousness. the second, like stock photography, eliminates the photographer as a individual commentator. there's a generalized view of things meant to say, 'this is the way we should all feel.' an artist looks more closely at things and cannot help making a personal judgement.

in terms of mitch's orginal post, here's another quote from the artist robert henri:

"It is useless to study technique in advance of having a motive. Instead of establishing a vast stock of technical tricks, it would be far wiser to develop creative power by constant search for means particular to a motive already in mind, by studying and developing just that technique which you feel in need of, and which alone will serve you for the idea or the emotion which has moved you to expression."

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#13 frc

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Posted 17 July 2007 - 23:41

Buy a concept first,
then think of a camera.
Photography is meaningless.
Journalism as art?
Inter disciplinar marvel.

#14 smokysun

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Posted 29 July 2007 - 18:42

i'm finding the photographers i enjoy the most and who feel the most modern are part of the story, their journey autobiographical, whether it includes fashion work, etc. or not.

someone said, 'you will do best to make pictures you enjoy looking at.' not that you copy, but that you exist within a genre.

here are a few examples:

Amazon.com: I'll Be Your Mirror: Books: Nan Goldin,David Armstrong,Hans Werner Holzwarth

Amazon.com: Wolfgang Tillmans: If One Thing Matters, Everything Matters: Books: Wolfgang Tillmans

Amazon.com: Jurgen Teller: Books: Marie Darrieussecq

Amazon.com: araki by araki: Books

all base their work on the snapshot ethic (if you're offended by sex, don't look at any of these). in other words, there's a context for the photographs. it makes you, the viewer, feel you are there.

how does this differ from ordinary snapshots? it's more like they're part of a movie.

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#15 sean_reid

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Posted 12 September 2007 - 12:58

Mitch,

Thanks for this link and discussion.

I wonder if you could define what you mean by "form."

I like your pictures. I find the woman's clothed torso quite disturbing in an interesting way. It looks very vulnerable, perhaps because we (you) are not interested in her face, not interested in her. But, this explanation (like all explanations of art effects) falls short of explaining the extent of my discomfort. Good job!

I think convention, and form are related to each other. As in the rule of thirds. The art that we find exciting reinterprets, expands, or defies convention, but depends on the convention's preexistence to relate to, to create resonance, tension, or dissonance. I think it is this relationship which creates energy.

Best,

Mitchell



I can't believe that I never saw this thread the first time around. It is very important to realize that form and convention have absolutely nothing to do with each other. And there is no such thing as "the rule of thirds". I'll keep reading to see where this goes.

Form without content = problematic
Content without form = problematic

It's a razor's edge.

Cheers,

Sean

#16 sean_reid

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Posted 12 September 2007 - 13:00

that seems to me to be a very limiting way of looking at photography, assuming that it is simply another form of visual art, when it is also used, extensively, outside the sphere of 'art'. I dont think many people would claim the photos used in newspapers are art, but they are certainly photography. The effect and meaning of Eddie Adam's picture from Vietnam, or Ron Haviv's picture from Bosnia are not art, but they have had tremendous effect and impact. Photography can be art, but it doesnt have to be
Guy



That's true. Mitch is talking about photography as a visual art medium. It is indeed used in other ways as well - forensic photography, for example.

Cheers,

Sean

#17 Guest_malland_*

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Posted 12 September 2007 - 13:09

That's true. Mitch is talking about photography as a visual art medium. It is indeed used in other ways as well - forensic photography, for example.

Cheers,

Sean

Yes, that is what I'm discussing; but even the documentary pictures from Vietnam and Bosnia that were mentioned are memorable because of their form as well as for their content. Think about Nachtwey's war photography: they would not be memorable if they did not have a strong sense of form, but only had gore. Now, forensic photography is another thing.

—Mitch/Bangkok
Flickr: Photos from Mitch Alland

#18 sean_reid

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Posted 12 September 2007 - 13:15

Another interesting thing from the Lifson interview article is that Lifson like to use the phrase "making pictures" rather then "taking pictures". I think this is right but we also need to recognize that photography is an art of selection: first, what to we frame? — Lifson emphasizes: where do we establish the edges?


Hi Mitch,

First of all, thank you for starting this interesting thread which I, initially, missed completely while I was out leading motorcycle tours. Your posts often bring our attention to things that matter much more than MTF charts and the like.

Szarkowski first popularized the idea that photography is an art of selection and the idea has been echoed by many since then. I think its not quite true and Ben would argue that its not true at all. If one looks at the writing of both critics over the past 30 years or so (and both have been similarly influential) its clear to see where they parted ways and why.

Strong pictures definitely are made. Winogrand was very right when he said that the photograph is "not the thing itself. It is a new fact."

Szarkowski's seminal book, "The Photographer's Eye" emphasizes, among other things, a discussion of "The Thing Itself". I think that not many have seen that Winogrand's comment might be understood, partially, as a response to Szarkowski, despite that fact that the latter greatly admired and promoted the work of the former.

It may not be long before someone suggests that this discussion deals too much with ideas and that we just need to go make pictures. But, I'd suggest that some reflection upon what we do, and why, is not at all a waste of time.

In the end, one of the best things a serious photographer can do is to make an intense study of visual art - photography, of course, but also painting and other mediums. I used to haunt the Metropolitan when I lived in NYC.

Cheers,

Sean

#19 sean_reid

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Posted 12 September 2007 - 13:21

Yes, that is what I'm discussing; but even the documentary pictures from Vietnam and Bosnia that were mentioned are memorable because of their form as well as for their content. Think about

Nachtwey's war photography: they would not be memorable if they did not have a strong sense of form, but only had gore. Now, forensic photography is another thing.

—Mitch/Bangkok
Flickr: Photos from Mitch Alland


Yes, that's true too. The best photojournalism endures largely because the pictures themselves are strong, even above and beyond their content.

Cheers,

Sean

#20 Guest_malland_*

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Posted 12 September 2007 - 13:27

Funny, a long posting that I wrote earlier today, to try to bring this thread back to what I originally wanted to discuss, didn't show up! In it I had two quotes. The first was Shakespeare's Sonnet 129, which shows the best example I know of form expressing content in literature, with the language running riot in the expression of the idea of lust:

The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,
Enjoy’d no sooner but despised straight,
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had
Past reason hated, as a swallow’d bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad;
Mad in pursuit and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.


And the second was the following quote from Matisse:

Expression to my way of thinking does not consist of the passion mirrored upon a human face or betrayed by violent gesture. The whole arrangement of my picture is expressive. The place occuoied by the figures or objects, the empty spaces around them, the proportions, everything plays a part.


It seems to me that a good photograph works the same way as a poem, in that the meaning also comes from the form.

And to come back to pictures: does the following photograph from the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo have relevance for what I'm saying?

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—MItch/Bangkok
Mitch Alland's slideshow on Flickr




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