Monday, April 13, 2009

Is it possible for art to be more than lies?

The title for this post, taken from the chapter Truth and Landscape in Robert Adams' book Beauty and Photography, seems like the single most important question asked by the New Topographics photographers. Working in contrast with the grand and romantic old topographic views of photographers like Ansel Adams and Carleton Watkins, New Topographics photographers used the frame of their cameras to emphasize rather than exclude the widespread invasion of human structures and consumer culture over the American landscape. The stripped down greyness of the photographs was meant to emphasize their "straightforward" and "truthful" aspects, implying that the images were not cropped or lit in a way that gave a false "pictorialized" impression of an America filled with unspoiled nature. But is one Adams any more truthful than the other? If Ansel was cropping out the roads and power lines might Robert have also cropped out the sublime view behind him? Is it somehow more truthful to wait for a grey day than it is for a sunset?

Robert Adams - East from Flagstaff Mountain, Boulder County, Colorado, 1975

As I was reading I kept moving from R. Adams questioning of art's ability to not lie to a question of my own: "What kind of truth can a photograph offer?" R. Adams claims that the power of the Weston photograph below is its truth - the truth of a form that has survived beyond this bird’s death.

Edward Weston - Tide Pool, 1945

But the photograph is not merely about a body without life, it has an implied narrative that extends before the shutter was snapped and after as well. The fragments of logging suggest the cause of the bird's death and also suggest that not just one but many interconnected species of plants and animals have fallen from the practice of logging. Is this the true cause of the bird’s death? Are there really other effected animals? Did Weston simply stumble upon this bird while walking by as the camera angle suggests or was it moved or placed to make a better composition? There is a certain negotiation between truth and fiction and between evidence and narrative that we must navigate.

Here is a two-sided map of this negotiation:


To communicate the objective truthfulness of their photographs, the New Topographics photographers used so many layers of structured formalism that it is amazing to me that anyone ever saw these photographs as absent of style. One method that I haven't given much thought to in the past is the serial approach to making work that was discussed in "Systems Everywhere: New Topographics and Art of the 1970s" by Greg Foster-Rice. This is not to say that I haven't considered the work as a series. New Topographics photographers worked to keep their photographs even, flat and similar so that no hierarchy of composition or imagery would emerge. This is interesting because when I think of Robert Adams there is one photograph that immediately comes to mind. Its the one in the text books.

Robert Adams - Colorado Springs, Colorado 1968

1 comment:

  1. "Is it somehow more truthful to wait for a gray day than it is for a sunset?"

    You hit an important point I wish I would have touched on in my blog... So I'll comment on yours. I think "truth" and photography gets discussed a lot at Columbia and I sometimes I can get tired of it. But when framed in the context of beauty, truth seems to trump beauty. It has an appeal that at a gut level, makes us go "oh" instead of "ahhh". That's not to say that Adams' and Gohlke's images aren't beautiful - I think it's that gray truth that might hit you first.