Unendingly Curious

Thinking and Writing About What I Do.

Street photography is an active pursuit, an engagement with the world , a communing with externalities that ordinarily pass by unnoticed or unremarked upon during the progress through each day. The process of photography is minimal, something made possible by vast technological infrastructures that essentially do most of the work. The photographer just needs to discern something visually sensible, take a camera and record it with the potential it references out of what might ordinarily seem like complete chaos or chance combinations.  The world is one vast collage of quotidian events endlessly recombining and, despite being mostly unremarkable, it is still perceived by each of us as a source of wonder. Even the most unengaged person is daily moved by the mystery that is perception of even the ordinary; this is what gives rise to our need to quantify these experiences through art. Process is the usual starting point for art, and the studio is the work place where practice and experience with a plastic medium will cause idealized, or Platonic, authentic realizations,  Hence, photography is suspect, a "quick thrill" according to the art critic Jed Perl. The photographer is not communing through a plastic medium with something viscerally true that finds a channel for being made real and discernible as such. The photographer engages and records the world as it is with a device made and programmed in a factory for just this purpose, and it has become universally accepted that images, photographs, made in this way have a meaning which is self-evident; the content is seen as a reflection. literally, of sight and the recognition of real things. A picture is worth a thousand words, we are taught to believe, and its meaning, its worth, is fully literal and immediately communicated to the viewer. Here is where there is a catch: it is possible to confound expectations about what we see when we view a photograph, that it is somehow telling us something we already know and don't need to think much about. The organization of elements within the frame of the camera, what the circumference of the lens projects with reflected light onto the rectangle or square of the film plane, can be such that the viewer no longer feels tethered to objective sense. Now, with the digital realm ascendant, the processes for altering a photograph are available to all who learn the use of programs such as Photoshop. Consequently, it is no longer a given that what we see when we view a photograph is a concrete rendering of a scene. Of course, photographs have almost always been subject to alterations either through stage dressing or darkroom alchemy, but it's never been so easy for the average person to have this power. However, it is possible to achieve something in the frame of the photograph that makes it appear that some subsequent alteration has taken place when in fact it has not, and this is contingent on how an individual photographer sees things as he or she makes their way through the world, camera in hand. And this is why, when all is said and done, photography is a form of abstraction.

The Merriam‑Webster dictionary offers a simple definition of abstraction: "The act of obtaining or removing something from a source." Can this definition apply to photography?

It's all just photography, however you want to break it down, street, documentary, portrait, nature, studio, fashion, concerned photojournalism; if it's done with a camera, it's just photography, and photography is abstraction, no matter how recognizable or concrete the content of the photographic image appears to be.

The expectation, when viewing a photograph, is verisimilitude, an accurate rendering of the real, the meaning of which is self evident and instantly, by the speed of sight, recognizable and mentally apprehensible. Such an expectation on the viewer's part regarding a photograph is practically a birthright. If we visit the Statue of Liberty, we can hold a photograph of it and look up and see the same thing, only in three dimensions instead of two. What if the photograph has been taken from a helicopter or a drone equipped with a camera, will it look the same from the ground? In some respects, it will, because we can mentally accommodate the angle achieved from high up and still recognize that the photograph is of Lady Liberty. 

Oftentimes, when I broach the notion that a photograph is an abstraction taken from reality, others are not receptive to the idea because the term abstraction conjures images in the mind's eye of forms that do not mirror the real world, instead referencing parts of the real world as novel combinations of line and color that allude to real things without mimicking them. Hence, while I am standing on Liberty Island with my photograph or post card, looking back and forth at the actual statue and its two dimensional reproduction in my hand, I am comforted by the similarity of the two and needn't venture into any further analysis of my viewing experience. On second thought, looking at the immense statue towering above me and then back at the tiny rendering in my hand of the same thing, I might remark upon the differences to myself between the two. One is three dimensions and huge, the other two dimensions and relatively tiny. And the angle is different, and the base of the statue, being much closer, seems much larger than the head as I look up, and things seem to converge at odd angles, so that experiencing the thing itself can be interpreted as an exercise in abstraction. Seeing it as a photograph, flat in the palm of my hand, rendered from an angle that captures its symmetry and mass in a more pleasing way, possibly with the light coming from an angle where shadows appear and lend a quality of form that isn't happening while I am there, this is altogether something else, a second or thirdhand experience extracted from time itself.

A statue is one thing, even one imbued with the symbolism and emotional references like the Statue of Liberty. What if we see a photograph of riot police beating unarmed protestors? We likely take it at face value and, depending on the person, either feel a sense of outrage or a feeling that the protestors are disrupting order and it is being restored by the police, two very different interpretations or reactions, in themselves a form of abstraction because the same record of an event can elicit different interpretations, can take a seemingly literal scene and break it into opposing parts. We may feel a need for an explanation, in words or text, of what is happening and why, so that text is now employed to illustrate the photograph, and not vice-versa, a further form of abstraction, because if the meaning of the image is not self evident it is no longer a reliable source of knowledge and we must delve more deeply into it.

The photojournalist Eddie Adams referred to his famous photograph of the actual moment a Vietnamese police commander summarily executed, bullet to the head, a bound prisoner, allegedly Viet Cong, as having been moved to this action because the officers' own home had just been bombed. I heard Adams say this, and the image took on a whole different light. It was an act of passion now, and, although horrible, it seemed somehow different than the emotions it initially gave rise to. Now the question arose of whether or not Adams sympathized with the commander and understood why he did what he did, assuming he had an actual perpetrator in custody. So, even when confronted with the vision, as a photograph, of a horrific act, there can be cause to equivocate, and again, this is a form of abstraction where seeing may not be all that it appears, merely a fragment, or a reflection.

In the action of taking photographs, many, or most are subsequently eliminated in the process known as editing, which is similar to the editing of text and moving pictures. Again, this is an abstraction, and I say this because the action of choosing what remains and what falls to the floor in the editing room, whether it is text or image, is a shaping process which could be said to resemble sculpture, but in two dimensions instead of three, where you are either adding things or taking them away. I once had a job, sitting in the Morgan Hotel in Manhattan, editing slides taken of models in real-life situations for a cigarette ad campaign. The photographer was Hannes Schnid, whose later images of the Leo Burnett Agency's Marlboro Man cowboys were co-opted by the acquistion artist, Richard Prince. Hannes used 35mm Nikon equipped with motor drives, and he shot thousands of images on the fly. Many were unusable, and it was my job to weed out the mistakes that inevitably occurred using a motor-driven camera. I had a slide projector with a bulk loading accessory that accepted a block of slides. Soon, there was a pile of rejected slides on the floor. I'm relating this story as an example of editing. Out of thousands of slides, only a fraction would end up being used; again, there is something here that relates to abstraction, the process of selecting out, of winnowing down to achieve a means to an end, which in this case was to sell cigarettes.

Eddie Adams' Pulitzer Prize winning photograph shows the actual moment, the split second when the trigger is pulled inches from a man's head and the bullet is just passing as is the unfortunate man, from life into death, death-dealing. There are other photographs of the scene, there is even moving film, but it's the actual moment of impact we are seeing in the final edit of the still photographs. The question is, are we horrified or amazed at how this finality can be frozen in time, in two dimensions, and is the man, at the time, neither alive or dead? Neither being one nor the other is something beyond verisimilitude or abstraction. I doubt that seeing this image for the first time comes across as a quick thrill, rather, it must seem positively amazing to see time suspended between life and death. 

My premise is that it is possible to create, with a photograph, something that, on the face of it, is literal, but on further examination, a thing apart, what the photographer Charles Harbutt called "a document and an image", and it is at this juncture where the photographer departs from the program that is built into the camera and enters into what is really being shown, and that is abstraction, where the viewer is having an experience that is more than one thing.

Adrian Panaro

Corrales, New Mexico

November, 2016