Musings on Photography

The Perils of Theory

Posted in Uncategorized by Paul Butzi on November 21, 2006

I’m a bit of a jazz fan. One of the things I’ve noticed about the history of jazz is that it started out very accessible. I’ve got a CD of Louis Armstrong and his sidemen playing songs by W. C. Handy, and I’ll bet that there isn’t a human on the planet who can’t appreciate that music. It’s straight ahead, full of energy, and the lyrics of Handy’s songs speak to us directly about the human experience. But as Jazz progressed, it became more and more theoretical.

Here’s an example – some time ago, I bought what amounts to the complete recorded works of John Coltrane. I wanted to try to follow the music journey Coltrane followed, so I arranged the music in chronologic order, and let it rip. And it turned out that the early stuff – I could follow that. I understood what Coltrane was doing, right up to just past his epic “A Love Supreme”. It was no longer music for everyone – it became music for other jazz musicians, and I couldn’t follow. For whatever reason, whether it was just deeper understanding lifting Coltrane into the musical stratosphere, or his descent into the world of drugs, Coltrane had gone where I couldn’t follow. Whoosh, he’s gone, and what was incredible music in “A Love Supreme” became just random sound, with no structure I could understand. And just about the time the Coltrane and the rest of the Jazz world took that step, Jazz stopped being the dominating musical force it had been. It’s not just that I couldn’t follow; it’s that no one who wasn’t a high-level jazz musician could follow. The audience for Jazz narrowed to the world of people who played jazz, and the jazz world was just talking to itself.

I see a lot of photography that’s like that – it’s stopped being straight ahead photography that’s accessible to everyone, and become something that’s about art theory, including references to art history, quoting from the work of other artists. If you don’t have an education in art history, this sort of work is inaccessible. Joel Peter Witkin seems to me to be a prime example. I’ve had an art historian talk me through one of Witkin’s photographs, complete with the metaphoric allusions, the references to art history. It’s not photography for everyone, it’s photography that’s about impressing other folks with lots of art education.

Everyone gets to choose what they’re trying to achieve, and that’s fine. But it’s worth noting the trend. Do we really want to make photographs that are all about impressing other photographers – photos that are about capturing 14 stops of range because they’re shot in a slot canyon, say, or about clever juxtapostioning of references to art history? Or do we want to make photographs that are about conveying our direct experience of the world around us?

4 Responses

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  1. Anonymous said, on November 21, 2006 at 6:49 pm

    Right on!!!

  2. gravitas et nugalis said, on November 22, 2006 at 5:59 am

    I can’t really think of a good reason NOT to know art history or, in our case, the history of the medium of photography – its various movements and influential practioners – because I am not sure what purpose would be served by adopting a arts-luddite mentality.

    That said, there is no doubt that the “higher reaches” of fine art photography have been hijacked by academic theorists (most of whom are not photographers)…

    …BUT, a day spent photo gallery crawling through just the Chelsea/Soho/Tribeca districts in NYC will reveal that there are a vast host of photographers who have resisted the urge to dance on the head of a pin.

    If, as a photographer, one only had the opportunity to take one trip a year, I recommend forgoing the trip to a iconic picture-taking destination and making a pilgrimage to photo gallery dense NYC.

    Excitement, invigoration, and inspiration never fail to be the result for me.

    PS – here’s my short take on the theorists

  3. Dave New said, on November 22, 2006 at 8:59 am

    This trend has been repeated before, in classical music. Early popular artists, as in Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach, were accessible (in the current day, their detractors regarded them as *too* accessible) to the general public.

    Coming forward in time, I’ve been able to deal pretty well with the likes of Mendelsohn and Mahler, but most ‘modern’ classical music, with the exception of ‘pops’ music, and film/movie soundtracks by Williams, et al (think Superman, Star Wars and Star Trek), are just plain too weird and complex for my taste.

    Some may say I’m just a music luddite, but I could agree with the sentiment that there is just no such thing as “Too much Mozart” 8-).

    Maybe a given art venue ends up exhausting the more accessible stuff (you know, after you’ve seen one sunset, you’ve seen at least a majority of them), and is essentially forced into the arcane, just to keep from re-hashing all the old ground that has been gone over so thoroughly.

    This may just be a sign of maturation of an art. We’ll have to invent something completely new, so we can start again from simple roots.

  4. Anonymous said, on November 22, 2006 at 10:41 am

    Certainly as you learn more about a subject, you become more nuanced in your appreciation of it. But you also probably become bored of the things that you might have been initially drawn to. I see technical issues in early photographs that I wasn’t even aware of at the time I took them. I loved them then, I’m embarrassed now. There are no doubt similar things in the photos that I currently love, that eventually as I grow to know more about this subject, I’ll see as horrible flaws.

    It is probably hard not to push yourself further into that space where your understanding of the subtle use of techniques and drawing from other experiences appears in your work (jazz or photographs)

    Otherwise no genre would ever advance – it would always be bright, unsubtle, simple and very accessible. Chopsticks in pictures.

    The history of science is one of that sort of increasing specialization as well. Used to be you could be a Renaissance man and know all there was to know about human scientific progress. Now you can study for 20+ years to get a PhD in a vanishingly small corner of what is known. It is impossible to ever get up to speed on the breadth of the subject matter.

    I suspect any given branch of the arts is the same – you’ll go further and further into a niche and away from the mainstream, if you are at all interested in the subject.


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