Thursday, October 29, 2009

In Search of Edvard Munch

TERRY FENTON: "Modern painters have inclined to an art that appeals directly to feeling apart from representation with its inevitable overtones, distractions, and prejudice. Of course, representation couldn't be abandoned overnight and much of value stood to be lost in the process. It was abandoned in stages and often with reluctance and regret. Artists didn't pursue abstraction for the sake of the abstruse. Far from it. They were driven to it as a kind of last resort. It was a kind of necessary purging for the sake of a deep and fundamental universality, one that was part and parcel of painting itself."

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: The primary aim of the photojournalist or the portrait photographer or the naturalist is usually representation, often artfully done, but getting the representation right is the essential thing. Art, however, lies in the realm of expression. Without wanting to get any further into the question of what is art, the photographer who chooses expression as his or her primary aim is immediately confronted by a medium that clings to representation and in which representation often comes to dominate. The spectator who asks, "What's that?" of an abstract painting fears he's being tricked. The one who asks it of an abstract photo feels cheated.

I'm recently back from the Kuerner Farm in Chadds Ford, PA, the farm Andrew Wyeth made famous. Wyeth was interested in this issue, and I can never follow his footsteps without thinking about it. Seeing the way he treated real nature is instructive, but there is an essential difference between photographer and painter. Whether the painter is Wyeth, Vermeer or Fragonard seeking to represent some physical reality in the external world, or Turner or Kandinsky or Pollock working in a realm where representation is obscured, they all begin with distinctive ways of laying color onto a surface. A painter with any degree of facility begins expression the moment s/he applies paint to the art surface or draws a line. It's right there in the medium. A finely controlled physical act driven by the coordinated effort of mind and muscle is a primary element of the painter's expression. There need not even be a real scene. Similarly the manner in which a violinist touches bow to string asserts the violinist's expression. It is highly relevant to the art of both that muscles and emotions are so deeply linked. To whatever degree artist or violinist is facile, expression emerges naturally from the physical act of creation.

In contrast, a photographer begins with the things that lie in front of his lens. Where is the point of combustion between the expressive photographer and the lines and forms photographed? Where does physical engagement take place? Is it in the dance I do to juxtapose elements and set boundaries? Is it in that corner of my eye where sometimes something clicks? Or is there nothing analogous to brush and bow to connect my expression to the forms I use?

Furthermore, without the painter's brush the canvas is blank. If there is no violin there is no music, but the landscape I photograph often makes its own music without me, expressive in itself; a swooping heron, a bank of lilies, a rock formation in the desert, a Grecian urn all sing their own songs. While the thing I photograph must be central to what I express, how is its expression related to mine?

And what alteration is it that transforms a postcard image into expressive statement? On the back of the postcard one often writes, "Wish you were here." The postcard is a second-hand and second-best experience. To be expressive, a photograph must become a thing in itself apart from what it represents, independent though reliant on the moment that triggered it. It must catch something specific yet universal, maybe just a quiver of sensation or perhaps a deep resonant chord, and it must isolate it. Is this the goal that the photographer seeking expression should strive for?

This image was photographed late on Monday. The sun was slipping below the hill, and the filtered light and lonely shadows added a note of disquiet to the quickly changing scene. That note is caught also in the rock jetty that juts violently across this finger at the end of the lake.