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« Free Reads -- Fred Reed | Main | Free Reads -- Reclining Nudes »

December 13, 2002

Photography and Painting

Michael—

Steve Sailer, in a comment on my posting “The Hudson River School, Part II” suggested that readers who enjoy 19th century landscape painting, might well get a kick out of the mountain photographs of Galen Rowell. Mr. Rowell and his photographer wife, Barbara Cushman Rowell, tragically died in a plane accident this last August, but they left behind hundreds of thousands of photographs. Here is one that set me musing about the whole art/nature who-is-imitating-who question.

G. Rowell, Untitled (AA957), date unknown

This image immediately reminded me of one of my favorite landscapes, “Large Enclosure” (by one of my favorite artists, Caspar David Friedrich.) While these images are actually responses to two very different landscapes, the parallels are too numerous to ignore (for me, anyway): the crack-of-dawn lighting, the vertical dark oblong masses pushing up above the horizon, the compositional scheme of two “mirrored” arcs in place of a simple horizon line, one pointing down and enclosing the earth and one pointing up to enclose the sky, the patchy foreground “immersed” in water or mist, etc. Of course, I have no idea if Mr. Rowell, about whom I know almost nothing, ever saw the C. D. Friedrich painting. But assuming he did, it gets me wondering: does the photograph then serve to “document” the objectivity of the artist’s vision? ("See, this isn't a fantasy, this is the way it REALLY LOOKS!") Or has the photographer been so taken with the artist’s “subjective” image that he makes choices to deliberately override the so-called objectivity of the camera? ("Wouldn't it be cool to arrange things so my photograph will look like a famous old painting?")

C. D. Friedrich, Large Enclosure, 1832

Other photographs on Mr. Rowell’s website, which you can visit here, got me to pondering your comment on the “borderline overripe palette” of Frederick Church. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a painting with color effects as strong as those common in nature photography. Does that mean painters are too timid with color? Or that photographers deliberately use the technical limitations or effects of photography to pander to our lascivious desire for ever-more voluptuous color effects? Or that painters using restrained colors are really playing it smart, because they know our visual memory corrects for over-saturated color (that's why green trees in the sunset--which aren't really green, but brown--still look green) and this mentally corrected vision is what they want to replicate? Or...?

Interesting questions which I’ve never been able to fully resolve. Any thoughts?

Cheers,

Friedrich

posted by Friedrich at December 13, 2002




Comments

Good question.

Hmm, shooting from the hip here, I wonder whether a reason color photography is more insistent in its use of ripe color than painting tends to be is because of the surface. Maybe the texture and weight of paint on canvas add a kind of 3Dish visual richness that just isn't available to photographers, with their chemicals-inside-glossy-paper. Maybe it's to match that kind of richeness, that the photographers rely on amped-up color. They're compensating.

No idea, though, really. What's your hunch? Maybe that photographer simply have more garish tastes? I wonder why that might be, if it's so. Painters are more hamstrung by tradition? Hmm.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 13, 2002 2:54 PM



Stunning photos! What a tragedy. While looking at their website, I was struck by the similarities to C.D.Friedrich even more. I am convinced that the Galens were fans of the artist. Look at Portage Glacier, then look at Friedrich's The Polar Sea, 1824. The similarity is even more striking than in the example you used - although the colors are very different. Please post them (or should I?)

Posted by: Alexandra on December 14, 2002 1:58 PM



Michael wrote: "...I wonder whether a reason color photography is more insistent in its use of ripe color than painting tends to be is because of the surface."

Not at all, actually. It's because the ripe color of most color emulsions (negative, and especially color positive) are built into the emulsion itself and its subsequent rigid processing, and there's little that can be done to mitigate that rendering except by going a manifest abstract route.

BTW, I really, really, really, *hate* color photos for other than documentary uses. They're just plain...plain...(let me whisper this) [vulgar].

ACD

Posted by: acdouglas on December 14, 2002 3:02 PM



Friedrich and Michael--

Apropos nature photography, your readers might find of interest this piece of mine posted this past July on the occasion of the centenary anniversary of the birth of that great master of nature photography, Ansel Adams.

ACD

Posted by: acdouglas on December 14, 2002 3:57 PM



Oops. I wrote: "It's because the ripe color of most color emulsions (negative, and especially color positive) are built into the emulsion itself and its subsequent rigid processing...."

That should have of course read: "It's because the ripe color of most color RENDERINGS (FROM negative, and especially color positive) IS built into the emulsion itself and its subsequent rigid processing...."

ACD

Posted by: acdouglas on December 14, 2002 4:07 PM



ACD's assertion that Rowell was some sort of victim of emulsions or other technical limitations is silly. Rowell was an extremely articulate and encyclopedic writer on both his aesthetic philosophy and the technical means he used. Unlike Ansel Adams, he did not manipulate his reproductions at all. He worked solely in the medium of 35mm slides, and most of the thousands of his pictures that were reproduced in magazines were made directly from his slides with no input from him. His own prints of his slides were dedicated to reproducing on paper the richness of color found in his slides.

Rowell's goal was to render on his slides exactly what he saw with his eyes. His secret was that he routinely got his eyes to the most sublime places in the world at the most perfect moment. He was a world-class mountain climber and cross-country skier, with several classic first ascents and treks.

Were his supremely beautiful photos "vulgar?" They were certainly immensely popular. I suppose that makes them vulgar to some. Me, I just them enjoy them.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on December 14, 2002 4:54 PM



Agree with Steve. There are a wide variety of emulsions (and now electronic caputer methods) out there, and there are many ways to use them. And there are many different points of view, within the photographic community, about the relative merits. Just go to photo.net and check out some of the discussions on Fuji's Velvia (Rowell's favorite, if I'm not mistaken) Some love its hypersaturated look, some feel it's garish and tasteless. But whichever it was, it was a choice Rowell made - it was not "built in", as ACD claims. He could have shot B&W, or used any one of a number a techniques to produced washed out colors (similar to the "bleach-bypass" process used in such films as "Seven" and "Saving Private Ryan".

Posted by: Jimbo on December 14, 2002 5:16 PM



Oops - gotta learn to preview these things before I post. Delete "caputer" and replace it with "capture"...

Posted by: jimbo on December 14, 2002 5:18 PM



Steve Sailer wrote (and Jimbo agreed): "ACD's assertion that Rowell was some sort of victim of emulsions or other technical limitations is silly. [...] He worked solely in the medium of 35mm slides, and most of the thousands of his pictures that were reproduced in magazines were made directly from his slides with no input from him. His own prints of his slides were dedicated to reproducing on paper the richness of color found in his slides."

Thank you for agreeing with my statement. That's precisely what I said. Rowell was at the mercy of the emulsions he used. Which makes one wonder how you could have characterized my statement as "silly."

And, yes, I consider Rowell's color photos to be vulgar if spectacular. In short, trash art in the same way that Italian opera is trash art. Initially viscerally appealing in the same way that a pretty, gussied-up street trollop is initially viscerally appealing, but is at bottom still a street trollop.

ACD

Posted by: acdouglas on December 14, 2002 7:01 PM



Well, I try to restrain my self from calling other people's views and expressions silly and I wouldn't be keen on speculating on what a dead man would consider silly. But as one live man to another this paragraph is silly:

And, yes, I consider Rowell's color photos to be vulgar if spectacular. In short, trash art in the same way that Italian opera is trash art. Initially viscerally appealing in the same way that a pretty, gussied-up street trollop is initially viscerally appealing, but is at bottom still a street trollop.

What's wrong with street trollops?

Posted by: robt birnbaum on December 14, 2002 7:18 PM



"What's wrong with street trollops?"

All surface, no substance.

But, then, you already knew that, didn't you.

Of course you did.

ACD

Posted by: acdouglas on December 14, 2002 7:24 PM



Oh, and I should have pointed out that my original comment (to Michael) dealing with color emulsions was perfectly general, and NOT a comment on Rowell's work, although I was perfectly happy to take off on Mr. Sailer's unthinking response which assumed it was.

ACD

Posted by: acdouglas on December 14, 2002 7:47 PM



We seem (as so often happens in online exchanges) to be talking past each other. The statement "Rowell was at the mercy of the emulsions he used" implies that he had no choice of emulsions, that he climbed a mountain and said, "Gee, I'd really like to take a tasteful, moody picture with washed out tones that fully captures my existential angst in the face of "beauty" (because all real artists put quotes around "beauty"), but all that Fuji (damn them!) makes available for me is Velvia, so I guess I'm gonna have to suck it up and make a pretty picture full of bright colors."

I don't buy it. You may think Rowell was a hack, but at least do him the courtesy of assuming that he made the photographs he wanted to make. That's all I'm saying...

Posted by: jimbo on December 15, 2002 1:35 PM



Jimbo wrote: "The statement 'Rowell was at the mercy of the emulsions he used' implies that he had no choice of emulsions...."

I meant to imply no such thing, as should have been clear in my subsequent remarks in this comment thread.

For further and more detailed remarks by me on the Rowells' photographs, please see this just-posted article.

ACD

Posted by: acdouglas on December 15, 2002 4:00 PM



"And, yes, I consider Rowell's color photos to be vulgar if spectacular. In short, trash art in the same way that Italian opera is trash art."

Okay, Rowell was the Puccini of photography.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on December 15, 2002 6:03 PM



Of course Rowell's photos are vulgar.

Question for ACD: do you consider the same to be true of, say, Thomas Struth's "Forest" series?

Posted by: Felix Salmon on December 15, 2002 7:05 PM



Steve wrote: "Okay, Rowell was the Puccini of [landscape] photography."

Perfect!

Felix wrote: "Question for ACD: do you consider the same to be true of, say, Thomas Struth's "Forest" series?"

Before reading your comment, I never even heard the man's name before -- and after seeing repros of two of his architectural images (Milan Cathedral, and San Zaccaria; both interiors) courtesy of a quick Google search, damn sorry I hadn't. The architectural work I saw was absolutely *gorgeous*, and judging by the color, the man must be using dye transfer to make his prints/positives, as the case may be. Even in lousy Net repro they were magical.

I have to get out to see his work at first hand if the occasion ever presents itself. No way one can get this sort of artist's work from repros in a book, even in 5-color on the best glossy paper.

Thanks for the heads-up on this guy.

ACD

Posted by: acdouglas on December 15, 2002 7:57 PM



ACD -- FYI, TS is @ MOCA/LA 'til 1/03, @ Met (NYC) 2/03-5/03, & @ MOCA/Chi 6/03-8/03. FS

Posted by: Felix Salmon on December 16, 2002 11:45 AM



Okay

I guess I can follow how the photography and painting exchanges devolved into something about emulsions and street trollopes. I just can't figure out why.
I was especially confused by the heartless suggestion that sex workers were all surface and no substance. IO guess my yeras of photogarphy are not helping me here, since I have always seen emulsions as surface...

Also,I would not be so quick to devalue (initial) visceral appeal. I have found that my guts are just as likely to get something right as whatever other cognitive faculties I have. Or to say it another way, I have found rational/conceptual appeal can be as misleading as a candid statement by Henry Kissinger.

Oh and one more thing. Rowell got some very difficult pictures—he had to endure some tough conditions to get these shots — dismissing that part of his efforts
as perhaps merely technical or mechanical would strip away some of the greatness of shooters like Nachtway,Meiselas and Salgado... I bet no one wanted to do that.

Posted by: Robert Birnbaum on December 16, 2002 1:58 PM



Robert wrote: "Oh and one more thing. Rowell got some very difficult pictures—he had to endure some tough conditions to get these shots...."

And your point is...what, exactly?

The difficulty in getting the shot -- the difficulty in the production of any putatively creative work -- means nothing. Zero. Zip. Nada. One thing, and one thing only, counts: The finished work, judged on its own merits regardless of whatever effort was required to produce it.

ACD

Posted by: acdouglas on December 16, 2002 2:59 PM



Cero, nichts, zed ad nauseum.. A recitation of natural languages is a keen rhetorical device but while I still have some life in me after being so bludgeoned, I think I will check my manual of Olympian Judgements to see whether "One thing, and one thing only, counts: The finished work, judged on its own merits regardless of whatever effort was required to produce it." can be found there.

But, I digress. What I want to take exception to here is a matter of style. My worthy adversary (it would seem we are engaged in some kind of joust) asks what is my point and then dismisses the point that he suggests somehow I haven't been clear about. I don't find that conducive to a friendly exchange ofideas.

"One thing, and one thing only, counts: The finished work, judged on its own merits regardless of whatever effort was required to produce it." can be ,made to work if ammended as follows " For me, one thing, and one thing only, counts: The finished work, judged on the merits I stipulate, regardless of whatever effort was required to produce it."

And I really have trouble accepting that anyone having any familiarity with the human race would assert this, "regardless of whatever effort was required to produce it." Really?

Posted by: Robert Birnbaum on December 16, 2002 4:07 PM



Robert wrote: "What I want to take exception to here is a matter of style. My worthy adversary (it would seem we are engaged in some kind of joust) asks what is my point and then dismisses the point that he suggests somehow I haven't been clear about. I don't find that conducive to a friendly exchange of ideas."

Friendly exchange? FRIENDLY EXCHANGE?! We don't need no steeenkin friendly exchanges here. It's war, my boy, war. War against the idiot ideas (N.B., I called the ideas idiot, not your good self) that currently infect, corrupt, enervate, and emasculate current American culture.

Like the idea that being a "nice" and "caring" and "non-judgmental" human being is more important than...anything.

That sort of idiot idea.

Get it?

ACD

Posted by: acdouglas on December 16, 2002 5:03 PM



It's fascinating how hard some people work both to stifle their own natural enjoyment of natural beauty and then to try to make other people feel ashamed of their own innate feelings. No wonder the prestige art business is such a minor league clique these days.

Galen Rowell had a consciously worked out aesthetic philosophy: he would only take realistic photos of natural beauty, but he would make whatever sacrifices were necessary to get to the perfect place at the perfect time. He'd ski for six weeks with two companions across pitiless glaciers 20,000 feet up in the Karakorams, a first traverse it took him months to recover from. Ultimately, and hardly surprisingly, he gave his life for his artistic philosophy -- he died in a small plane crash returning from the Bering Strait.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on December 16, 2002 9:06 PM



The overheated rhetoric is giving me the feeling that I have walked into some Munich beer hall, circa 1923:

"War against the idiot ideas (N.B., I called the ideas idiot, not your good self) that currently infect, corrupt, enervate, and emasculate current American culture.

I hardly know where to begin...well,let me try— by attending to this scare crow, "Like the idea that being a "nice" and "caring" and "non-judgmental" human being is more important than... anything." Who holds that view or at least who in this flurry of exchanges about photography and emulsions and Italian Opera has expressed that view?

I am reminded of a scene from Mr Saturday Night where the aging( probably 70 years old) comedian Billy Crystal lambasts his slightly younger brother who has been his long time manager for screwing something up. " Haven't I always been right. Aren't I right", he repeats. David Payson, the brother says
"Yeah, but you didn't have to be so mean about it."

Any kind of alchemical rhetoric that suggests or attempts to make 'caring' and being 'nice' something to be ashamed of,is a corruption of more than language. I think Orwell called it doublespeak.

Art isn't a product. And it sure as shit isn't theory. The only thing I know(believe) with any degree of certainty is that art needs me(and you) to complete it. And if it is one more human foible that we ( and I suspect all of us) are very much caught up in wanting to know about the lives of the people who make art then perhaps the only thing that counts is not just the finished (whatever thatis) work of art Or maybe there is more than one thing that really counts.

Posted by: Robert Birnbaum on December 17, 2002 12:42 AM



This is not my weblog, and I don't want to turn it into a war zone. Accordingly, I'll answer both you and Steve by noting the following:

Richard Wagner, by any bourgeois standards, was an absolute pig of a human being. He used his friends ruthlessly and without conscience. He was a liar, a cheat, a thief, and a stealer of other men's wives. As if that were not bad enough, he was in addition a rabid, vicious anti-Semite and racist, who widely published his venomous ideas for all to read. He was also the most prodigious genius who ever set his hand to writing opera, and produced works of such richness and profundity that he literally, and single-handedly, changed the entire course of music -- all music, not just opera -- for all time.

Does the fact that the man was a pig of a human being in any way alter the profound genius of his creative output? Only if the assessment is made on bourgeois moral grounds, not clear-eyed aesthetic ones. In terms of the *only* thing that's lasting and of any importance -- that is, in terms of his art -- the man and what he was or was not counts for nothing; the work everything.

Shifting gears just a bit, on the matter of,

"Galen Rowell had a consciously worked out aesthetic philosophy: he would only take realistic photos of natural beauty, but he would make whatever sacrifices were necessary to get to the perfect place at the perfect time. He'd ski for six weeks with two companions across pitiless glaciers 20,000 feet up in the Karakorams, a first traverse it took him months to recover from. Ultimately, and hardly surprisingly, he gave his life for his artistic philosophy -- he died in a small plane crash returning from the Bering Strait,"

there was a great line in the movie "The Verdict" spoken by the villain, the head of a huge and prestigious law firm, played by James Mason. Told by one of his employees (IIRC) that he (the employee) would work hard and do his best at trial, Mason replied, "You're not being paid to work hard and do your best. You're being paid to win."

Just so.

And on that note, I think I'll retire from this thread.

ACD

Posted by: acdouglas on December 17, 2002 1:51 AM






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