Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Artist And The Viewer

In my bog post for July 18th I mentioned Eric Kandel's book The Age of Insight. I was initially impressed with the premise of the book and looked forward to delving in. Reading the book is slow going, there is a lot to give pause and think about, and the way the subject matter is presented is definitely stimulating. Since the subject matter of the book centers on the life of fin de siecle Vienna the main proponents discussed are Freud, Klimt, Schiele, and Kokoshka. They form the core of the premise in the book. Because Freud is the only actor on the intellectual/scientific side of the equation, the premise of the book falls heavily on subliminal sexuality and aggression as the underlying or unconscious factors motivating the artists (I've yet to encounter any mention of spirituality).

The strongest attraction that the book holds for me is its exploration of the role the intended audience plays in the investment of feeling and emotion by the artists in their work. Any artistic work presented, in any medium, without that deep investment by the artist falls flat on its face and isn't worth my time. When I see a performance I want to be pinned to the back of my seat, when I view a photo, painting, or sculpture I want to have the wind knocked out of me. And that's the effect I seek to have on my viewers.

I invest my work with specific feelings when I take the photo, and I try to enunciate and accentuate those emotions as I process it to create the image. That processing involves the conversion from color to b/w, the optimization of tones and contrast, and the manipulation of perspective to create drama and draw your eye to where I want it to be in the image. As a piece of music unfolds, or as a drama plays out, the composer/playwright has complete control of your attention because the work unfolds in time. With a visual work, such as a painting, sculpture, or photograph the whole work is presented in its entirety at the moment of perception. The viewer is free to move around the work as he sees fit, and that often does not  suit the intention of the artist who is trying to convey an emotional message. It's through subtle adjustments in processing the image that the photographer pushes the viewer's eye to where and how it's intended to focus.

I invest a meaning in any image I present, based upon my emotional (conscious or unconscious) motivation in taking, processing, and developing the image. I can't hope to elicit the same interpretation or response from anyone who happens to see the work. There may be millions of people who view the work (oh all right, tens of viewers ..... who's counting!) and each person brings his/her own feelings to the experience. But if I invest myself in the process - and that means I don't simply go out and snap snap snap pictures, as so much of street photography seems to me to be - I can expect that by my latent emotional investment in the work I can elicit and emotional response by the viewer who brings to the experience his own feelings.

I approach street work in two ways. I try to stay as inconspicuous as possible to capture the people in my images reacting and responding to the environment in which they are immersed. I make a point of not insinuating myself into the situation - that would change the dynamics of the experience. On the other hand, sometimes I get noticed. When that happens I try to make the most of the situation and interact as positively as I can with the subject. Even though the camera was at my waist as I walked past this gentleman on 125th street in Manhattan, he saw me coming. The tip of his hat and the effort to look dapper in spite of the condition of his clothes, the cigarette hanging from his lips, and his body language shouted attitude to me.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Photography and Insight

Third in line of my favorite activities, after playing music and shooting photos, is reading. I'm always searching for interesting books, fiction and nonfiction, that are challenging and engaging. And I'm spurred on in my search by the utter dearth of such material on TV (except for the occasional - and very occasional at that - interesting broadcast on PBS). I've just begun to read a book by Eric Kandel entitled The Age of Insight which explores the role of the unconscious in art. The book is especially interesting to me because Kandel focuses on my favorite period of art history - German expressionism of the turn of the 20th century, and specifically on three of my favorite artists from any period of art history - Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoshka, and Egon Schiele.

I often begin to read intellectual explorations of the psychology of creativity, probably in the hopes of getting some sort of cognitive understanding of what goes on in my very confused brain, only to be disappointed by the lack of intuitive understanding most writers exhibit through their sterile academic analyses and/or their pandering to 'new age' philosophy. In just the brief preface Kandel has written to this book I see that neither is the case.

Most often my photography work is centered around people - in particular, the street portraits I feature in my blog posts. In this book Kandel says that he intends to focus specifically on the portraiture work of the three artists mentioned because (as he says in the preface) 'we now have the beginnings of an intellectually satisfying understanding - in both cognitive psychological and biological terms - of how we respond perceptually, emotionally, and empathically to the facial expressions and bodily postures of others.' What is street portraiture, if not the photographer's intuitive reaction and/or response to the people and faces towards which he is drawn to point the lens?

Kandel focuses on three great masters of painting. I don't presume to intimate that my work approaches the genius of what they produced. There may be those who would deny the similarities between painting and photography - I chose not to engage in that dialogue. The process that I enchants me is the unconscious intuitive visualization of a persona, how it is expressed by facial and body language, and how the artist seeks to recreate that visualization so that viewers of his work can have the same experience of the artist's subject at that moment.

I was walking across 125th street in Harlem a few Sundays ago and noticed that many people, dressed in their 'Sunday' finest, were coming out of a church on 124th street. I noticed these three 'church ladies' who's' faces were aglow with the spirit of the service.