Sunday, August 21, 2011

Nature Morte in response to the Modern

Denise (study all the triangles and parallelograms!)
II.  What began with Paul Strand
Paul Strand, in the course of a long career, worked in a number of kinds of photography, but we are concerned here with the body of work completed in his twenties, just before World War I, exhibited and published by Alfred Stiegltiz in Camera Work in 1916-1917.  Ideally, those who don't know this body of work should try to get access to Sarah Greehough's Aperture publication of the National Gallery's exhibition in 1990.  The Dover Press published in 1978 a pictorial index to all of Steiglitz's Camera Work, thus providing a conspectus of the introduction of the latest 'cutting-edge' European art to New York City at Stieglitz's Gallery from 1903 through 1917, including Cubism.  With international distribution (not to mention the American west coast) of Camera Work, Strand's experiment to discover and to show that straight, unretouched photography could explore vision as well as anybody's cubism immediately reached photographers worldwide—just before the War brought such efflorescence to a close.
The succession to this accomplishment of formal, abstract values in pure photography informs most of 20th-century gallery photography through at least six decades, since the curriculum of the Bauhaus (itself further disseminated by the diaspora of its faculty caused by World War II) also furthered the use of the camera as a means of understanding the meanings of form (see Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and the early work of Renger-Patszch, for example), and, since the Bauhaus was a school of Design, it still is usually dominant in high-end commercial work.  Basic design courses in art schools even today are rooted in this tradition.  These brief notes, of course, only lead to much else!
Of course, Strand's famous early prints, at first platinum prints, then gelatin silver, are large CONTACT prints, nearly 11" X 14".  What can the little digital cameras do?  More than one might think, though obviously they are not the same.  But we are interested in how things are seen.
What is the relationship of analytic cubism to the Nature Morte?  First, the latter uses the forms of things not anecdotally (not, for example, to glorify the guitar as a musical instrument or the bottle for its contents) but as such.  When young Picasso and Braque began making cubism, they used the genres that Cézanne had been working with (Picasso also, like Degas, was interested in the camera's effect on forms in light).  Still life (unless you include Netherlandish laden tables and all their Fur and Feathers, which replace idolatry with the worship of gastronomy and hunting) is simply painting as such.  So: just in case you wondered as I did in my youth why cubists were so fond of musical instruments and newspapers and bottles—and, a novelty, printed lettering for its own sake, too.
Now, the earliest photographs had to prefer whatever held still, but it was those who had an educated knowledge of art, Daguerre, because he was himself a painter, and Fox Talbot, because he belonged to a class of Englishmen who were educated in art and architecture, who made real still lifes in the first decade of photography.  Of course, these were carefully arranged and set up in advance, not "found" in one's ordinary surroundings.  You might say that they MADE a Nature Morte and then photographed it.  Most of the first generation, in any case, were interested in genre pictures, fishermen, card players; see the work of Hill and Adamson, though Fox Talbot also set up his friends as card players and in other pictures that were illustrations such as the public liked.
Again, it is with the last decades before World War I, not least with Paul Strand, that the Still Life Hiding in Plain Sight really took hold.  Among those participating in the Album that supports these posts, Denise is especially good in recapturing the discovery of Strand's work a century earlier, and both of them fully appreciate that it makes no difference whether the mundane identity of the things photographed is obvious or not.  In fact, the perfectly recognizable stuffed cats that I used in the last post are as perfect a formally, abstractly considered composition as can be: it's what the photograph IS, not what it was taken from.  That is why, too, when Denise's elderly and interested black cat came nosing in to help in what she appeared to be doing, his visible presence does not make him break the rule of the game, that cats "are not morte enough".  In this case, he is (though in everyday life, we are glad to report, he's perfectly alive), simply part of the photograph:
In this photograph, taken in the kitchen, the dramatic diagonal of a white board (materially, perhaps a nylon cutting board) is transformed by the pattern of reflections on it:
Their source is just discernible between the folds of the curtain, but the arc that they cast is the true subject of the image.
Similarly, it is not the chair and the barstool stand themselves but the dark design that they create against the complicated brightly lit material behind them that makes this image memorable:
Most dramatic of all Denise's contributions (also demonstrating positive exploitation of the small cameras' wide-angle extreme) is the image of a strong band of light in receding space, picking up in its course a sequence of objects, each different but not all of them identifiable in their daily-life character, and leaving inexplicit and perhaps unimportant the book-title legible at the bottom of the picture plane:
The term "picture plane" has been used deliberately, since, as in analytic cubism and much of Bauhaus teaching, the image discourages reading it as space in depth, in spite of the perspectival clues.

BW's casually diagonal vantage point to the righthand end of a book shelf is very discretely abstract, deriving its governing compositional coherence from the jagged shadows at upper right and the plain block of red at lower left:
My own oddly modest, viz, unexciting, visual sensibility seems to tend to photographing light striking through cloth or paper, which is all I seem to do—not only missing the emulation of Paul Strand but also that of Imogen Cunningham, one of his earliest and most interesting disciples, but it is no good if one tries something phoney, so I don't:
There is nothing 'modern' about it, but it is not a traditional Nature Morte either, and I do like (in daily life as well as in the photos) the color added by my accidental accumulation of king-cake babies and the bricks responding to the checkers.
Even more unassuming is the composition that originated in a stack of half-folded laundry, but it is perfectly true to the least Modern of Strand's early portfolio, being not even a Nature Morte but a composition that is perfectly true to the picture plane, tied to it in fact by the apple-green garment among so many textures and kinds of stripes, greens and reds.
MS's cooking top works similarly, adding the reflections of ceiling fixtures in the polished granite.