Sunday, February 03, 2013

Looking Back

I've made a few pictures I like during visits to San Francisco over the years.  While I lived there in the early 1970s I made none of any value.  I also failed to make any meaningful contact with any of the many great photographers of the period who had gravitated to the Bay Area.  Luckily, photography being what it is, I can revisit those times now.

I've just finished a book by Peter Bunnell from that era when he was the MOMA photography curator.  His writing style is generally over-wrought, but his profiles of  photographic artists are contemporary and worth reading.  I was particularly taken by some quotes he took from interviews of Ruth Bernhard including these:

"My own creative work comes to me like a gift, pushing itself into my consciousness.  A powerful feeling comes over me.  It's hard to explain, but in a way the image creates itself -- with a little help from me.  It is a timeless experience, almost like being in a trance.  Often I have struggled for days to get the image of the photograph to overlap the spirit I see.  It is an awesome responsibility, and a lonely one."

"I make only one negative when photographing a nude or a still life.  The moment of exposure is the culmination of rejecting all other possibilities.  It often takes me many hours to make a photograph.  I consider creating an image a tremendous privilege."

Part of the reason I find Bernhard's words so compelling is the resemblance to the ideas of David Lewis-Williams about the origins of art in shamanistic visions.  I doubt that Bernhard had to resort to mind-altering drugs to gain access to higher states of consciousness.  The process she describes seems more to resemble the experience of the vision quest, involving isolation, extreme focus, sensory deprivation and overload.  I think it may also be significant that she worked with very large format photographic equipment which requires the exercise of great patience, and concentration.


Jim Grey said...

Illuminating post, thank you for making the time to write it.

Could it be that limiting oneself to one negative is a boundary that is meant to draw out every ounce of creativity and art? Because if one shot is all you get, you'd better put your all into it.

I think I admire someone who embarks on the vision quest without mind-altering substances more than someone who does it with them, but perhaps that's the stoic in me who finds value in the things you listed - isolation, focus, etc.

Mike said...

Paul Strand was of the opinion that a photograph must be fully composed and realized at the moment of exposure without any later manipulation of the image. I think a viable argument can be made against that kind of rigidity, but the fact that Strand stuck to it in his work certainly accounts for much of his unique style.

Lewis-Williams doesn't make a connection between ancient and present day image making outside of shamanistic manifestations. It does seem to me significant, however, that Bernhard describes her process as involving an altered state of consciousness.

I'm often mistrustful of attempts by both artists and critics to articulate the creative process, but I'm more inclined to give credence to Bernhard who took a very thoughtful and methodical approach to her work, and who was known for her great skills as a teacher.

Mike said...

I should add that while we think of present day art images as ends in themselves, that was not the case with the images made as part of shamanistic and vision quest rituals. The shaman would not see the use of drugs as a crutch to creativity, but rather as a conduit to an altered level of consciousness or to a spiritual world. Lewis-Williams speculates that the extraordinary images at places like Lascaux and Altamira were an attempt to make concrete the images seen in altered states of consciousness.