Wednesday, May 30, 2007


The arbitrary is the enemy of the artistic. If you find that proclamation a bit overbearing, I'm in sympathy. I usually try to avoid such terms as "artistic," and "artist," and I'd much prefer principals to laws and rules. Defining art usually raises more problems than it solves as does this concept of arbitrary, but I address it now as I try to understand why I have published so few photos from The Hollow Farm and what that has to do with my own intuitions about photography.

As already mentioned, this farm is unusual in its orderliness. The land is flat, the barns sit along a straight stretch of road, and all lie at right angles to each other and to the road. All this means that each time I reposition myself and shoot, the elements of my images adjust themselves in ways that are not wholly distinct from the previous shot. As I review these numerous images, and watch the compositions slowly morph from shot to shot, it is usually hard to single out any one shot. Then I begin wondering if the image would be improved if I had shot under different light or with a change in leaf color or when the grasses are turning to seed. I'd like to address that orderliness in a way that seems, if not definitive, at least complete in order to set off the ways one can make it dance, but no single or set of images has emerged to do that.

If one seeks merely to publish pretty images, such concerns are largely irrelevant. One goes looking for pretty sights and then uses a camera or paint brush to document them. They exist at one level removed and inferior to the real thing. For me photography is not be about finding pretty images to shoot or even about shooting pretty images prettily; it's not about documenting the external world. It is about taking the scene in front of me, whatever it may be, as raw material and composing elements of it into a new whole that expresses something beyond the original, a mood, an emotion, something universal or iconic or surprising. It may make us see something old in a new way ormake us fit something new into a familiar emotional resonance. In the end, the compositon should feel like the inevitable arrangement to satisfy the ends of the image.

Susan Sontag, in her book on photography, suggests that painting is ill equipped to express the surreal, that the medium of photography is much more capable of truly capturing the surreal because it is so firmly attached to capturing the light of the real world. I raise this point here because I think it is a perception that goes well beyond strict surrealism, that in fact the relation of real and super-real is a fundamental paradox that forms a cornerstone of photography as an art form.

While my intuitions tell me that a given image is or isn't arbitrary, explaining why can sound a bit like intellectual rationalization. It's easy to talk about elements of a composition and their meaning, but whether the image is merely an intellectual construct or expressive in a way that goes beneath surface reality resists the verbal explanation. The image included here struck me as a likely candidate to illustrate what I mean by not arbitrary. To explain its non-arbitrariness I might talk about its division into two equal rectangles top and bottom, about the way barn and moon balance and their symbolic reverberations, about the way the dividing line of the trees seems to echo the roof line of the barn, or I might even try to justify the odd point at which I have decided to cut the barn off at the knees, but my words can't capture the deeper harmonies of the work which I feel. That is not to say that the image is profound or that one ought to like it or even that I consider it among my best. For me, it merely means I feel this image has received its ultimate form here and fulfilled its super-real potantial.

The opposite of the arbitrary is the committed. A month from now, when the moon is again rising full at dusk, I may see a similar shot with a spot of cloud in it and say to myself, that adds the finishing touch; it is more committed to the initial vision than it was before. Or perhaps it is my lack of vision that is keeping me from seeing what all those other images taken at The Hollow might become.

I risk this wandering philosophizing in the hope of eliciting thoughts that further clarify my understanding. I invite comments which may help me think further about this issue of arbitrariness.

Weekend one of the photo exhibit was a success. I look forward to seeing those you you who have told me you plan to attend this coming weekend.


Ginnie said...

You are way ahead of me, Ted, in this discussion about what is arbitrary or not. I'm guessing I would disappoint you and fall into the category of those who take pretty images. However, I DO have a sense of what a pic means to me when I take it. Maybe that counts for something?

Emery Roth II said...

...and there is nothing wrong with taking "pretty images," but you usually do much more. I've followed your blogs, and your photos are usually quite pointed in there intent and frequently quite moving. Nor do i turn away from pretty subjects. In fact, I eagerly seek them out. Yes, it has everything to do with, "knowing what the picture means," having a clear intent. Perhaps that's what I am still lacking at Hollow Farm.

Emery Roth II said...

I received the following note from Jonathan Costa and am posting it with his permission along with my own reply:

On May 30, 2007, at 8:55 PM, Jonathan P. Costa, Sr. wrote:

This is one of those issues that deserves a bottle of wine... but I find there to be a very fine line between the perception of arbitrariness and
that of order. Is it the hand of a designer or of the ever evolving web of random events that lead us to the places we are and the images that we perceive?

It is all a roll of the dice - it is what it is and those that seek to derive greater meaning are seeking to fill a void left by their own inability to deal with their absolute inconsequence.

Live for the moment and enjoy the randomness of this crazy, awful, beautiful life.

Oh yeah - nice picture. La bella luna! Tough to turn that into a desktop [wallpaper image] though - unless I turn my flat panel on its side!

Jonathan P. Costa, Sr


From: Ted Roth []
Sent: Wednesday, May 30, 2007 8:09 PM
To: Jonathan P. Costa, Sr.
Subject: Re: TODAY'S PHOTO - Being Unarbitrary

Well said and very wise. May I or will you put this on the blog?

It's just that the barns remain so attractive to me and their details photograph so beautifully, and I can't make it all work. Last time I was there I discovered that the swamp at the edge of the fields has come alive. The mix of songs accompanying the shoot was glorious. It should be paradise and I'm only getting pieces of it.

Sorry about the undesktop-friendly photo. Sheeesh! Next you'll be asking me to match the curtains.


Ginnie said...

I like the further conversation, Ted and Jonathan! Very thought-provoking. :)