By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
By Jennifer Swann
By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
There’s a woman in [the Getty] show who I think is really good. [Looking through catalog.] Sharon Rupp. Don’t ask me why that’s such a good picture, it’s just a perfect picture.
Why is that such a good picture? It’s a stupid question, but it actually is the question, isn’t it?
In a bad photograph, a lot of the time, the frame isn’t altogether understood — there are big areas of unexplained chemicals. It’s especially difficult as the picture gets bigger. If it’s small, a little piece of black can look like a dark place, right? But as it gets bigger, eventually it just turns into a black shape. And you look at the surface of the picture and it reminds you of the chemical factories on Lake Erie, creating pollution problems by making synthetic materials out of soybeans and petroleum derivatives. And you don’t want that. The basic material of photographs is not intrinsically beautiful. It’s not like ivory or tapestry or bronze or oil on canvas. You’re not supposed to look at the thing, you’re supposed to look through it. It’s a window. And everything behind it has got to be organized as a space full of stuff, even if it’s only air.
Some photographers think the idea is enough. I told a good story in my Getty talk, a beautiful story, to the point: Ducasse says to his friend Mallarmé — I think this is a true story — he says, “You know, I’ve got a lot of good ideas for poems, but the poems are never very good.” Mallarmé says, “Of course, you don’t make poems out of ideas, you make poems out of words.” Really good, huh? Really true. So, photographers who aren’t so good think that you make photographs out of ideas. And they generally get only about halfway to the photograph and think that they’re done.
A related question came up after seeing the Getty show, thinking about an Eggleston, which is often so sharp and so poignant, and a lot of those, which are very similar, but feel —
Yeah, flat. What is the difference?
A lot of it is just idea mongering. Well, I shouldn’t say a lot of it. The weaker stuff. You think, okay, that’s interesting, and it’s flat, and, of course, that brings us halfway to modern if it’s flat, because modern is flat, right? The whole tradition of modern painting has to do with flatness. So you march straight up to the building, and you get some letters that might be fairly interesting as letters, and maybe they say something that you think possibly has got a little bit of ironic valence. Or a photograph of a building that has been influenced by people whose taste is inferior to your own. You know, that kind of shooting-fish-in-a-barrel sort of thing. And without any affection, without any attempt to understand.
Probably the most misunderstood important photographer in American photography is [Walker] Evans. You know, people think he was photographing the Depression, people think he was photographing poor people or tried to promote social change. Walker was less interested in social change — except in his own individual case! [Laughs.] No, actually he didn’t think there was anything wrong with his social situation except that he was broke, he wanted more money. Socially, he considered himself absolutely top of the pack! But what he really was photographing was something else. Very seldom did he photograph anything that he didn’t think had some kind of quality. Even if it was the record of a failure, it was the record of a failure in which there was some kind of poignancy, some kind of memorable ambition. Some kind of artistic intention, even if naive or cut short. Noble failure was a constant interest of his. A piece of stamped tin ornament thrown away in the junk pile — it’s a record of an artistic ambition that was for some reason cut short, thwarted, died stillborn, of course naive, but nevertheless, on some level, moving. Hm? How’s that? That’s pretty good. You got your machine on?
JOHN SZARKOWSKI | Peter Fetterman Gallery, Bergamot Station A7, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica | Through January 27 | (310) 453-6463 or www.peterfetterman.com
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