Friday, December 21, 2007

today's secret ingredient:


Joe Holmes ( 2005)

Hiroshi Watanabe (2000)

Susan Gouinlock (2007)

Johnny Jett, travel writer (October 2002)

from the film Night at the Museum (there may have been a better
image or moment, but I didn't want to watch the whole thing... again.)

And I didn't even look that hard.

Having taught introductory photo classes for a few years now, I'm familiar with that list of subjects that new students consider to be "photogenic": weathered wood, red rocks in Arizona, peeling paint in Cuba, wrinkly hands, starving people with "character," flowers, smiling children, and ornate architectural details to mention a few. Oh, and supple young breasts, preferably in a natural landscape, during sunset. With deer, or even an elk. But I get it. These are all subjects that have been officially sanctioned in mass culture as "beautiful" and to those who are coming in fresh, isn't Art just the search for beauty? I get it alright. Some days it seems like it's the most honest and straightforward way to work, by bringing it all back to the "I like this" stage. But we've got our own list too, don't we? I'm talking about those recurring subjects that seem to be all too common in the fine art photo scene. Let's start with the antelope.

While each of these photographs is interesting in their own way, the comparison leads to some obvious questions: Which shooting strategies are most effective? Which photo or photos work best? Is Gouinlock's deadpan readymade strategy enough of an artisitic gesture? Is travel writer Johnny Jet's flash pop an intentional reference to the self ala Gowin's tripod, Sultan's chair, or Friedlander's shadows and reflections? Does Watanabe get extra credit for being the first? Well, the first in my examples (I'm sure there are others). Is it even fair to call for judgment or comparison in these examples as they've now been stripped of their original context? And when I take yet another step back and look at the larger picture, the big question I'm struck with is whether antelope, or even natural history museums, or, to really open this up... taxidermy, parking lots, freeways, overpasses, power lines, empty rooms, sullen yet beautiful semi-naked twenty-somethings, depressed industrial towns, suburban tract homes, the excessive waste of Capitalism, incongruous ephemera, and nostalgia in its other varied forms, are becoming the cliches of our time? Are these our sand dunes, our jukeboxes, our barns, and our famous men? Is it possible that this is our Yosemite?

Yeah, probably.

I go back and forth with this question all the time. Where's the line in the sand that marks cliche? If I'm doing what I consider to be my job as a photographer, that is, living in the world, questioning it, and making work that asks why and how, shouldn't I be dealing with some of these subjects that are the stuff of the everday? Each of the subjects listed above (and please, chime in with more) come out of both an individual's engagement with the world and also from a dialogue that's developed over time from within the world of visual culture. It seems to me that these are subjects that in part, define our cultural/generational concerns. And yes, certain subjects get picked up and used maybe a little too heavily or without an awareness or acknowledgement of others who have dealt with such topics before. But I can't help but think that when we begin to worry about originality too much, we do ourselves a disservice and play into the world of trends and fashion. That's not to say that I'm pushing for the status quo, in fact, originality and awareness is exactly what I'm pushing for. But I don't see the challenge as reinventing the wheel, but recognizing it as such and using it to get somewhere. I guess it goes back to that earlier discussion on "personal style," and the goal of making work based on one's personal concerns, rather than a specific formula or subject. That is, who are you and what do you do with this thing? That's the only thing any one of us has that sets us apart. By all means, don't avoid antelope, in fact, go seek them out, but use them wisely and be aware of those who've gone before you. The hunt is on!

And remember, you've got my support as well as that of recent graduates from the Advanced Taxidermy Training Center of Northern Montana:


Ross said...

Oh man those taxidermy shots with the cloud filter are amazing.

Grant said...

In the last photo, which was the taxidermied item?
A. Deer
B. Mustache
C. Both.

Merry Christmas.

Mel Trittin said...

Hello, my name is Mel and I enjoy the antelope/natural history museum/people being watched by taxidermied animals shots. I admit to having bought the Joseph Holmes print from 20 X 200 ( a couple of weeks ago.

Hi Mel!

(This comment is in no way to be interpreted as derogatory to the 12 Step Program.)

shawn said...

hi mel,

don't get me wrong- i enjoy them too. i really am just questioning where cliche comes in? and yes, the joe holmes one is my favorite, though i prefer the other joe holmes picture, the one that you bought. merry christmas to you.

Joe Holmes said...

Shawn --

Great points you're making, or more accurately, great questions you're asking.

When I shot that amnh series in 1995, I was just beginning to shoot seriously and quite naive about the cliches.

And looking back on it, I'm glad I was. The excitement of discovering and shooting those images carried me through a few weeks of shooting, and I still look back fondly on that experience.

Now more than two years later, I'm much more educated about cliches and honestly it makes it a lot harder to get excited about shooting many things. My love of street photography, for example, has been eroded by discovering just how difficult it is to shoot something fresh in that area.

So I really appreciate your mixed feeling about cliches.

A year or more ago, I made fun of the cliche of the gas station shot wide under a twilight sky. The first time you see those fluorescent colors under a big sky it's so very impressive, but after your fifth or twentieth, you start to ridicule the photographer.

Then last summer I took my own gas station shot, under the last pink remnants of a sunset, and I have to say, now that I have my own twilight gas station photo, I feel much more forgiving of the cliche. It's mine and I love it.

shawn said...

hey joe,

i'm so glad you wrote in. yes, it's easy to dismiss things as cliche, but it's too easy, isn't it? what's actually much more difficult is dealing with a loaded subject matter, something that we've seen plenty of before and then making something new and great out of it. your antelope certainly fall into that category. well done. keep 'em coming.