You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘art’ category.
After seeing the Scott McFarland exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art a few weeks ago, I decided to learn more about the history of photography. Luckily for me, Geoff Dyer’s latest book, The Ongoing Moment, recently came out in paperback and is about just that.
The book looks at the entire history of photography, focusing mostly on pictures taken in the United States by Americans. Of course, since it’s a book by Geoff Dyer, it isn’t your normal dry study of the art – its fluid chapters focus on reoccurring images (hats, hands, signs, benches, backs, stairs, etc.) that tie noted photographers together (Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, Walker Evans, Edward Weston, Dorothea Lange, Diane Arbus). The result is a somewhat successful look at how photographers have “conversed” not only through actual, physical meetings and relationships, but also through emulation and homage, whether conscious or unconscious.
The book is a great introductory for someone like me, who could only named one or two famous photographers and even then couldn’t tell you much about them ( like, “Ansel Adams likes mountains”). Dyer, who is isn’t so much an expert in photography as someone with a deep interest, doesn’t assume you know anything, and doesn’t try to teach you everything so much as to conduct closer studies about certain pictures or sets of pictures while quoting from various art critics and theorists.
Although I appreciated the book and learned a lot, though, it’s certainly not Dyer’s best work. Unlike Out of Sheer Rage and But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz, this effort is a bit drier and a bit less creative. Dyer mentions in his acknowledgments that his wife through this book didn’t have enough of him in it, and I agree – what has made his books unique (and so loved by me) is the integration of his journey researching the book with the final product – his discovery of the information and his own interest in the people behind the art he discusses makes him a truly different and innovative writer. The Ongoing Moment, though, is a more traditional approach, and, therefore, a bit harder to wade though.
There are moments when Dyer slips into his natural style – the chapters about Stieglitz, his wife Georgia O’Keefe, his protégé Strand, and Strand’s his wife Rebecca (who looked eerily like O’Keefe) are the best in the book. Through various nudes that the two photographers took of each other’s wives, Dyer illustrates the somewhat weird, somewhat touching love-square that the four shared (which finally ended with the two women abandoning their husbands for each other). It’s Dyer doing what he is best at – tying art to the personal lives of artists just as he ties may of his own books’ subjects to himself, the author. Especially after reading these chapters, the rest of the book left me wanting as much heart as I found with these four.
Still, it was a great way to learn some of the basics of American photography and some of the ideas and philosophies that surround and inspire it. It might also be an interesting read for someone who does know a lot about photography but is interested in the connections and conflicts between some of the better-known photographers over the last hundred or so years.
In the book, Dyer writes about how some photographs are more about the subjects while others are more by the photographer (is this photography more of Queen Elizabeth or by Cecil Beaton?). In The Ongoing Moment, I’ll say that it is more about photography than by Geoff Dyer. Personally, I’d rather read a book that is more by Geoff Dyer – Such as Out of Sheer Rage or his essays, Yoga for People who Can’t be Bothered to do it. Although I doubt I’d be more interested in a book about photography written by anyone else.
This weekend my old high school friend Jess came to visit at the very same time that New York was hit with the nasty leftovers of Hurricane Noel. The weather was pretty awful, so we spent Saturday wandering the six floors of the Museum of Modern Art – although I’ve lived here for over a year now, I had somehow never been.
I’m not sure exactly what I feel about museums. Being an unabashed nerd, I love to learn about new things. But sometimes, especially in art museums, standing around and looking at the art isn’t enough for me — it seems a little pointless. I want to know about the artist, I want to know about the techniques, I want to know about the original public response. In general, I want context. I like reading the placards and listening to the lame audio tracks. I want the story. Milling around for hours and only looking at each piece for a few seconds before moving on doesn’t do it for me.
But then again, there’s love at first sight. On the photography floor, in the contemporary section, I saw this photograph, “Orchard View with Effects of Seasons“, by Scott McFarland, and was drawn to it right away (as you can see, it’s for sale if you’d like to buy it for me). On one level, the orchard looked normal. But at the same time, it felt otherworldly – or as if it were slightly surreal or just a touch psychedelically beautiful. I couldn’t put my finger on it. I shoved my way to the placard. I noted his name and later, at home, I read all I could about him on the internet.
McFarland, it turns out, is a very young, subtly experimental Canadian photographer. He digitally alters many of his pictures to make them just a little magical – it’s almost like an emotional optical illusion. In “Orchard View”, he took pictures of the same orchard throughout the four seasons and then mixed them together, seemingly picking each plant at its most dramatic moment. While one shrub is gravid with spring blossoms, another, just feet away, is fired with fall foliage.
(For another example of how he alters his photos subtly, look at the one posted above. At first, it just seems weirdly surreal. Upon a closer look, though, you can see that each cactus is casting a shadow in a different direction. The effect is strange — you start to question exactly how much of the picture is real at all.)
Besides his work being extremely striking and affecting, I love the sentiment of his experiments as well. Photography is supposed to be, I would say, the non-fiction of the visual arts. Whatever you snap pictures of is The Truth. It happened, exactly as you see it. It’s a frozen, actual, accurate moment in time. But McFarland seems to know that it’s a lot more complicated in that. What if one wants to capture the truth of a place across time instead of in a single moment? What if the center of what something is really like is hidden – and can only be told only through indirect means? He’s finding ways to make a single photograph capture more than a second in time, or more of an accurate feeling of the place than usual.
And, even though I know I mention this a lot, I truly love that McFarland seemed to be having a lot of fun with his work. Another of his photos, “Display for Porcupines“, is a great example (I realize these images don’t look very good on your computer because they are so small – both this and Orchard View were probably 10 feet long). Sure, it at first seems like a regular old picture of the porcupine exhibit in a zoo, but as you meditate on it — the strangeness of the animals and their artificial habitat, the humans on the peripheries – it is nothing less than fantastical.
Just the fact that after all of these hundreds of years of art and creative thought, artists like McFarland are finding new tools and new ways to use them to express themselves is nothing less than heartening and moving. And perhaps it proves something: that the art that you connect with will insist that you learn more about it, it will make you inquire research, even if you originally planned on nothing more than slowly milling by.