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Photographer Edward Weston is most famous for bell peppers that look like nudes and nudes that look like granite. He is one of a handful of American photographers that took the art from gauzy Edwardian Pictorialism to hard-edged industrial Modernism. Along with the patriarch Alfred Stieglitz and the radical Paul Strand, they put the wooden stake into the heart of the merely pretty.

In Europe, Modernism took a different tack, with photo-collage, political engagement and a series of “isms,” from Dada and Surrealism to Abstraction and street photography. But in America, the art went in the direction of monumentalism and the celebration of the “Ding an sich” — the thing as itself — a way of transmuting the object in the world into secular  icon. 

As Weston himself put it: “to photograph a rock, have it look like a rock, but be more than a rock.” And “To present the significance of facts, so that they are transformed from things seen to things known.” 

Unlike the soft-focus Pictorialism that sought to imitate the look of Impressionist paintings, Weston and the other American pioneers attempted a hard edge, sharp vision that took advantage of what the camera and lens could see.

“The camera sees more than the eye,” he wrote, “so why not make use of it?”

In fact, where he once called himself “Edward Weston, artist,” he began using the expression, “Edward Weston, photographer.” He was proud of being what he was. Not that that makes him any less an artist. 

He was born in Illinois in 1886, son of a doctor, who got him his first box camera when Edward was 16 years old. He dickered around with it and a larger 5X7 camera, and won several awards for the “artistic” images he made. In 1910, he moved to Tropico, Calif. (now Glendale) and opened a studio. He married, eventually had four sons and in 1913, met the bohemian bisexual Margrethe Mather, who joined him in his studio and introduced him to a more Modernist vision of art. 

From 1923 to 1927, he spent a good deal of his time living in Mexico with his new love, Tina Modotti, where he came into contact with many artists of the Mexican renaissance, including Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco. 

While there, he began photographing subjects less overtly artistic, and more mundane, transforming them into Modernist form — such as his multiple “excusados,” or toilets. 

“Here was every sensuous curve of the ‘human form divine’ but minus imperfections,” he wrote.

When he finally returned to California, he was a full-fledged avant-garde artist, making his living with his camera. In short time, he became nationally known and joined such photographers as Stieglitz, Strand, Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham and several others, who all proposed a new esthetic of crispness and clarity. 

By 1937, he was awarded a $2,000 Guggenheim grant — the first ever given to a photographer — and traveled around the American West with his new squeeze, Charis Wilson, making in all some 1,200 images, mostly of landscape. The following year, he received a follow-up grant, that allowed him to process and print those negatives. Eventually, he married Wilson (she was 25; he was 53). 

Charis

After the war, they divorced and Weston was hit with Parkinson’s Disease, forcing him to give up making new photographs. He died on New Year’s Day in 1958. 

 

2.

We know the work of so many by their specialty. Ansel Adams has his pristine landscapes; Robert Frank has his street photos; Richard Avedon his pitiless portraits. But Weston encircled so much, so many subjects. 

He also tried so many different things in his career that he seems to prefigure most current movements in art photography. No matter what it was, Weston did it first: 

—He included man-made objects in his Western landscapes before Robert Adams. 

—He made surreal satires — a nude woman in a gas mask — before Les Krims. 

— He chronicled his family before Nicholas Nixon or Emmet Gowin did theirs.

—He used foreground to obscure background, preceding Lee Friedlander. 

—He prefigured the “New Color” of William Eggleston and Stephen Shore when he made his first Kodachrome pictures. 

—He photographed graffiti before Aaron Siskind. 

—He photographed ice crystals as abstractions before Minor White. 

—He prefigured what has been dubbed “photography in the directorial mode” when he posed his friends in oddball satires such as Exposition of Dynamic Symmetry.

—He posed cats before William Wegman posed dogs.

—He even began the “grantsmanship” syndrome, being the first photographer to win a Guggenheim Fellowship, in 1937.

—In fact, it is hard to find a genre of art photography that Weston did not essay before anyone else. He is ancestor to Frank Gohlke, John Pfahl, Lewis Baltz, Len Jenshel, Olivia Parker, Ralph Gibson, Linda Connor, Stephen Shore, William Eggleston, Sandy Skoglund and really every other working photographer/artist, including those who show his influence by their rebellion against it. 



You would be hard-pressed to find another artist in any medium so crucially seminal. 

His presence has been so overwhelming that one critic, A.D. Coleman, has called Weston a “vast boulder blocking the path of photography.” It is nearly impossible to make a photograph for at least the remainder of the century without either imitating Weston or reacting in opposition. 

It was the same complaint that T.S. Eliot made of John Milton: Being so good, a century of followers couldn’t think of any better way of doing it and so wound up as epigones. It sometimes seems that Weston, like Plato, was the original, and everyone else is a footnote.

That is, of course, an exaggeration, yet his achievement is monumental. Like Rembrandt, Hokusai or Beethoven, his imagination is vast and inclusive. Like them, he combined a brilliant formal sense with the realization that form alone isn’t enough. An art work must have meaning, also. His images are richly sensual, dark, at times brooding, always emotionally and psychologically fascinating. 

Weston, more than any other single figure, has defined the directions photography has taken in the second half of this century. His is an influence that is only now being transcended.

 

3.

What we think of as the ur-Weston photograph is sharply focused, tightly cropped, so immaculately composed each element in the picture fits with the others like Lego blocks. Light defines shapes, moving across their curves like a masseur’s hands. And everything, whether the skin of a woman or the porcelain of a toilet, became abstract form.

When he returned to Los Angeles in 1926, he began the series of photographs he is best known for: his close-ups of vegetables. Of his famous Pepper No. 30 (1930), he said, “It is classic, completely satisfying — a pepper — but more than a pepper; abstract, in that it is completely outside subject matter. … This pepper takes one beyond the world we know in the conscious mind.” 

Weston called what he did “a revealment” and said, “This is the ‘significant presentation’ that I mean, the presentation through one’s intuitive self, seeing ‘through one’s eyes, not with them,’ the visionary.”

He said he wanted to make a picture of a pepper, for instance, ”that was more than a pepper.” He wanted it so sharp, our attention focused on it so intensely, that it verged on the psychedelic. Of course, that word didn’t exist at the time, and Weston certainly would have resisted any label, but it is hard to avoid recognizing the visionary quality of his best work. 

This is something we might lose sight of in the later landscapes, if we are fooled into thinking of them as postcard pictures — a way of remembering scenery we have driven past. All of Weston’s work, whether portrait, still life or landscape, were made and meant to be seen as metaphor. 

As his esthetic progeny, Robert Adams, put it: “Landscape pictures can offer us, I think, three verities — geography, autobiography and metaphor. Geography is, if taken alone, sometimes boring; autobiography is frequently trivial; and metaphor can be dubious. But taken together, as in the best work of people like Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Weston, the three kinds of information strengthen each other and reinforce what we all work to keep intact — an affection for life.”

In 1941, he visited New Orleans and made a passel of photographs of graveyards and abandoned plantation houses, some burned out with old family pictures and children’s dolls left in the debris. (He even traveled around New Orleans with arch-surrealist Clarence John Laughlin, whose pictures are hardly weirder than Weston’s.) 

And there always had been the pictures of scorched car wrecks on the beach, twisted dead pelicans, sandstone concretions in peculiar shapes, a giant cup of coffee in the desert and a particularly modern-looking photograph of a steam-shovel bucket in the High Sierra. Ansel Adams he is not. Weston saw the world as it was, not a pristine version he might have wished. 

His shells and peppers are often noted for their sensuous beauty, almost more flesh than calcium or chlorophyll. It can almost become comic.

It is almost perverse, the way he conflated skin with rind.

 

Often his nudes are mere fragments, as if he were making a new set of Elgin marbles.

His nudes were another form of his Modernism. No “September Morn” for him.

 

4.

I mention all this in prologue to the three points I really wanted to make. The first is the simplest: That seeing the images here on your screen, or in reproduction in a book is a poor substitute for seeing the actual silver prints. 

Most of us get to see Weston’s images only in books. (And I own, or have owned, at least a score of them — some I have since donated to museum collections). 

But I remember as one of the highlights of my esthetic and critical life, getting to see and handle several Solander boxes of Weston’s originals at the Prints and Photographs Department of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. This was in the early ’70s, before such access was limited by new conventions of conservation. I was permitted to take each print from its box, open its hinged matte and examine the prints as close as my eye could get and still focus. 

And what is more, and more important, I could take it to the window in the viewing room and let the incoming blast of sunlight ignite the print to its true glow and incandescence. Parts of the print that in reproduction might look like a uniform black turn out to have infinite detail, which is only revealed by the intensity of the light.

Silver coated on paper is an actual piling up of image, and the blacker the image, the thicker the coating of tarnished silver. A strong light enters into that layer, hits the paper behind and reflects back out through the grains of silver, so that, the more light hitting the photograph, the more luminous become the shadows. 

What is more, even the grays and highlights pop in a way they cannot as the photos are now usually presented, in reduced light in museum galleries under the constraints of current professional standards. Those standards are meant to protect the artwork from UV damage and other light damage, so it’s hard to complain too much. But a silver image is one of the least affected by light. It is by all measures, archival. 

Nevertheless, if you ever get a chance to view a silver-image photograph in a strong light, you will understand what glorious thing it is. 

And seeing the original print can be a revelation. I remember seeing at least one image in my first-edition book California and the West, published in 1940, which featured his Guggenheim images, and that image seemed so uninteresting, that I labored over trying to figure out what Weston was thinking. But there in the Library of Congress, I held the original and it was amazing. It popped. 

He took two versions of the scene, and I have seen both live, and they both jump out with life: What looks like bland areas of light gray turn out to be deeply textured with detail that is completely lost in reproduction. These are now among my favorite Westons. 

As a P.S.: During that trip to D.C., there was a Weston show at a local gallery and they were selling original prints (albeit printed by his son, Cole) for $100 a pop. I drooled, but I was a poor student and just didn’t have the C-note to put down. I have regretted it ever since. 

5.

Famously, the last photograph Weston ever made, from 1948, is of a  few beach pebbles flying out from the center of the frame, which is left blank with its empty sand. Rather like the blank, unprimed canvas untouched by the paint that Morris Louis has thrown down along its edges. 

“Weston arranged his compositions so that things happened on the edges; lines almost cross or meet and circular lines just touch the edges tangentially; his compositions were now created exclusively for a space with the proportions of eight by ten. There is no extraneous space nor is there too little,” wrote Weston scholar Amy Conger.

Notice how, although the center of the image is largely empty, the rocks cluster at the bottom, as if drawn down by gravity, giving the photograph, although nearly abstract, a firm sense of what is upside-right. 

The cluster along the bottom of the image is nearly a constant in Weston’s design sense. It is almost as if, like a child drawing a “ground line” at the bottom of his painting before adding his house and sun, Weston wants to provide a solid base to build his composition on. 

Certainly not every image has this, but if you rifle through a book of his pictures, you will come across the ground line more often than would be expected. Sometimes, it is an actual ground line, sometimes it is a fence that runs across the bottom of the landscape, sometimes it is a row of items. Often it is near the bottom, but sometimes, he raises that ground line up in the frame, even to the halfway point or even above. But over and over, there is a foundation poured for the rest of the picture to settle safely upon. 

Take one of these images and turn it upside down and see how the gravity affects it: The picture dangles from its fence. Upside right, it sits comfortably. 

6. 

Finally, I would make a plea to some curator, scholar or writer, to publish a book concentrating on his work for the edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, which was first published in 1942. 

In 1941, he was commissioned by the Limited Editions Club of New York to illustrate a deluxe edition of Whitman’s poems. Weston and Charis traveled something like 24,000 miles across 24 states in their Ford, named “Walt,” and visited places in the East that he had never photographed before. 

Unfortunately, the war interrupted the trip, and he had to come back to California prematurely, with some 700 negatives in the sack. Forty-nine were chosen for the book. (Weston was always inclusive: He photographed many African Americans for the book; the publishers chose not to use any of them.) The book sold poorly during the war, and has only been available since in a very badly printed re-print edition, with grayed-out images. 

This period of his work is the least studied, the least exhibited and the least published — and the least respected. Which is unfortunate, because they are some of his best work, an opinion shared with Weston himself. 

Two exhibits have been mounted in recent years, one at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in 2012, and one at the Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif., in 2016. But each was rather small, compared with the number of images available, and each was rather slightly remarked in the art world. 

There are hordes of books about Edward Weston out there, many of them huge and gorgeous, with hundreds of images printed, often in beautiful duotone, nearly approaching the beauty of the originals (sans the caveat above), and they all repeat the peppers, the shells, the Guggenheim landscapes, the nudes, the portraits, even the Surrealist goofs from the war years, but no one has seen fit to gather the Leaves of Grass work together for a well-crafted presentation.  

Come on, guys, it’s just begging to be done. 

Click on any image to enlarge

color sky 03One grows as a human being, and the art cannot help but grow, too. When I was young, it was art that impressed me most: the forms, textures, colors, the transformation of stimuli into esthetic forms. Don’t blame me — it was the times in which I grew up; Modernism was in the ascendency and we all mouthed such platitudes as “art changes nothing,” and “Subject matter? The subject doesn’t matter, only what you make from it.” In those years, life drawing ceased to be taught in most art schools; students were asked merely to “be creative.” The divorce between life and art was complete. cloud30 The prejudice was that the subject, say in my chosen medium, photography, was only there to catch light and make for a splendid arrangement of greys and blacks printed out in rich silver on glossy paper. Anything else was pretty pictures for calendars or chamber of commerce brochures. A kind of puritanism set in. If you are old enough, I’m sure you remember it: No cropping, previsualize, etc. So, when I was younger, I concentrated on the beautiful print, in black and white, and archivally processed. Zone system, anyone? cloud 01 My life turned in a different direction. Instead of a photographer, I turned out to be a writer. And lucky for me, it was on a newspaper and not in academia. I never had to slog through the atrocious trends of literary theory then current (still current). When asked to lecture to writing classes, I always had one lesson to give: Good writing is having something to say. Writing in fancy words or jargon, clever euphues, gongorisms, or acrostics or esoteric allusion only get in the way. One can be so caught up in the allure of a classic Bugatti that you forget its purpose is to get you somewhere. Fancy writing is that shiny Bugatti sitting unused in a garage, cherished and polished but useless. cloud08 I continued to make photographs, nevertheless. And I have had gallery shows. But as I got older I came to see that the Bugatti was there to drive somewhere, not to show off. Subject matter not only counted, it was the reason for making the picture in the first place. But — and this is a big proviso — not to share the subject with your audience so you can all go “Ooh, what a beautiful sunset.” That really is a calendar photo. cloud16 No, the entire purpose of art, if it can be said to have a purpose, is to make a connection with the world. To reconnect with what habit has made invisible. To see what you normally ignore, to find the glow of liveliness in the experience of being alive. Few people need to be told that a sunset is pretty; there is no art in that.cloud25 But to find the chispas — the sparks — in the crack of a sidewalk, or the bare winter trees, or the clouds that sail over us every day — this is not so much a finding of a source for perfect prints to hang on the wall, but rather the illumination of a hidden fire. These things are all alive: Every bush is the burning bush. That is what makes Van Gogh’s landscapes so alive. They burn from within. This is not something he has applied from the outside; it is something he was able to see as the scales fell from his eyes. And so it can be for anyone willing to look, to see. It is what makes life drawing so indispensable for an artist. Drawing is not simply making an art object, drawing is learning to see, to break through the cataracts of habit. cloud26 And so, when I come back to clouds as an old man, I see in them not merely abstract shapes from which I can make suitable art. I don’t care about art. I see something that wakes me up, and I try to capture it with the snap of my shutter. For me. Not for some appreciative audience. For me. I am the one I want to keep awake, alive. Others have helped me in this; if I can pass this on to others, all to the good. But I no longer care about making art.cloud38 (Note: All but three of these photographs were taken on the same day during monsoon season from my back yard in Phoenix, Ariz.) cloud42 cloud43

color sky 01 cloud45 color sky 02 cloud07

clouds134In the 1920s, a fundamental change occurred in the part of photography that was attempting to be seen as art. What had always previously been seen as a picture of something became a picture of its own.

In this, it followed the progress of Modernism in other media. What had been a photograph of a house or a boat, and judged by how well it set off the house or boat, it now became an arrangement of grey and black, of line and form.

If anyone could claim to be the leader of this shift, it would be Alfred Stieglitz. “I was born in Hoboken. I am an American. Photography is my passion. The search for truth is my obsession.”

Despite his tendency toward oracular declamation — or perhaps because of it — Stieglitz became the prophet of a new type of photography in America. Modernist. Stieglitz equivalent 1

His first work, from the late 1890s through the 1920s was mostly figurative, but he became dissatisfied with the idea that his photographs were praised for their subject matter.

In 1922, he began photographing clouds and turning them into the equivalent of abstract paintings.

“Through clouds to put down my philosophy of life — to show that my photographs were not due to subject matter — not to special trees or faces, or interiors, to special privileges — clouds were there for everyone — no tax as yet on them — free.”

These first series of cloud abstractions he called “A Sequence of Ten Cloud Photographs.”  When he showed a new series in 1924, he renamed them “Songs of the Sky.” He continued making these prints, usually exaggerated in contrast and printed quite dark, making the blue sky black. He made them by the dozens, and by 1925, he was calling them “Equivalents.”stieglitz equivalent 2

“I have a vision of life and I try to find equivalents for it sometimes in the form of photographs…(Cloud photographs) are equivalents of my most profound life experience.”

This idea of “equivalents” was later taken up and expanded by photographer Minor White and others, but in essence, the abstraction of the clouds were to stand for “equivalent” emotional and intellectual experiences.

There is certainly a grandiosity to Stieglitz’s language, indeed to his person. But the photographs remain and many of them are deeply moving, perhaps compared to the late quartets of Beethoven.

But the underlying idea was that the medium of photography, rather than the subject matter the camera is pointed at, could be expressive: that the surface of palladium printed paper, or silver prints, and the blacks and whites of the silver on its surface, and the shapes they make, almost as if a Rohrschach test, could be sufficient for art.

Abstraction became a subset of 20th century photography, and even when there was a subject, such as a portrait or landscape, the photographer, whether Edward Weston or Paul Strand, or White or Bill Brandt, would insist on its essential abstraction as the basis of its value.

constable cozens pair But there is a problem with this: Those Equivalents that Stieglitz made are still clouds, and clouds carry with them all the baggage of subject matter. From the clouds in Renaissance paintings through the glorious cumulous in the seascapes of Aelbert Cuyp to the drawings of Alexander Cozens and countryside of John Constable. Clouds are an endless source of inspiration for the imagination of shape.

charlie brown and clouds In photography, it is almost impossible to eliminate subject matter, short of making photograms. The forms, colors, shadows, textures of the recognizable sensuous world keep intruding, no matter how extracted from context. When I was a teacher, one of the assignments I gave my students was “to photograph something so that I cannot tell what it is.” I expected them to get ultra close, or turn something upside down, or extend the contrast. But, try as they might, I could always tell what I was looking at.

I do not see this as a deficiency in photography, but a strength. Photography can keep us tethered to the world when we might wish to float free; it reminds us that our primary obligation is to the existence we occupy and work in.

clouds105 Given that, photographs of clouds still has a powerful attraction: We can see that abstraction and reality are not necessarily in opposition: We can have both at once.

Put this way, it seems obvious, a commonplace. But this “double vision” is one of the things that keeps art lively, and informs our interaction with the everyday — keeps us aware that the world is alive, not inert.

And so, I have made my own cloud photographs. The first series, seen here, are a rank imitation of Stieglitz’s Equivalents. The next blog installment will follow with the development of the idea. clouds116 clouds129 clouds115 clouds119

clouds130 clouds131 clouds139 clouds142 clouds145

apostle 1When I was leaving the theater after seeing Robert Duvall’s The Apostle, way back in 1997, a loud woman in the back of the crowd screamed out, somewhat redundantly, ”That’s the worst movie I have ever seen … in my entire life.”

At first, I couldn’t understand her reaction. It was a very good film, a quiet, intense character study of a Southern preacher. Perhaps, I thought, there were not enough car crashes in it, not enough glowing, cherry-red petro-explosions.

Certainly the film had not fulfilled her expectations.

And that was the sticking point. I have thought about it long and hard. Was The Apostle an outlier or a harbinger? There have been many articles written about the death of irony, yet, irony refuses quite to go away. The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, led to a brief hiccup in our otherwise comforting embrace of the snarky, but it soon returned. If we briefly took a breath and said to ourselves, some things are too real, too important to sniff at, well, then it didn’t stop Stephen Colbert, it didn’t put an end to The Onion.

But there was still something in Duvall’s film. The singular quality of the film is its lack of irony. Everything is presented utterly straight, with no snide comments under the breath, no revelation of hypocrisy, no hidden agenda. Duvall neither makes fun of the Apostle’s deeply held religion, nor does he proselytize for it: It is not a “Christian” film, but a sober look at the complexities of a Christian life, fully rounded, and not a summation of a generic Christian life, but rather only this one person. Irony depends on stereotypes, on “classes” of people, not on individuals.

This straightforwardness is rare in Hollywood, perhaps unique, where we expect a cushion of irony to protect us from messy experience. hangover 1

Irony, narrowly defined, is saying one thing but meaning another. As when we see a friend green-skinned and hung over in the morning and say to him, ”You look bright and chipper today.”

In that, we are both in on the joke. Often, though, an audience is split between those who get it and those who don’t. Irony is thus used frequently as a kind of shibboleth for a clique. Those who ”get it” are in, those who don’t move to a retirement community in Florida.

Irony is also a literary trope, which means, its expectations are linguistic and not experiential. Most Hollywood movies set up a form and audiences know where the story is going. A gun flashed in an early scene will by expectation be used in a later scene. The surprise we wait for is the when.

But The Apostle never quite does this. Each time we spot an obvious plot development, the movie goes elsewhere, and where it goes is closer to what might happen in real life than what we would normally expect in a movie.

All setups are frustrated.

Unlike almost any mainstream Hollywood film, there was no ”in joke” to be in on.

Instead, the story of the Apostle E.F. is given to us as an esthetic construct, something to apprehend and appreciate, to hold in our mind, whole, as we might hold in our hands a glass orb, rotating it and seeing it from all angles.

In its lack of irony, The Apostle is an odd fit for our cultural moment. The 20th Century was a century of irony; irony has been our lingua franca. But, there are some indications that as we descend into the 21st, irony has begun to wear out its welcome. It is still pervasive, but oftentimes, it seems to come by rote, as in so many sitcom pilots, seemingly written from some formula. Irony is tired; it wants to put up its feet and rest. We expect the irony, but we don’t really believe in it anymore. It’s just the norm, which we also are too tired to give up.

This shift away from irony has happened before: It is clearest in the change from the 18th to 19th centuries, from the irony of Alexander Pope to the sincerity of William Wordsworth.

daffodilsOne has only to compare the mock epic tone of The Rape of the Lock with the straightforwardness, almost blandness of “I wandered lonely as a cloud/ That floats on high o’er vales and hills,/ When all at once I saw a crowd,/ A host, of golden daffodils.”

A younger generation back then, tired of the artificiality of the older and sought to substitute an authenticity for the artifice.

There were things that were important to be said, the younger generation thought, and to be said clearly and meaningfully. The century that followed Wordsworth was a century without irony — and almost, at times, it seemed without a sense of humor.

Eventually, the century gagged on its own sincerity, so that when the new one began, the page flipped back. Poets such as T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound stoked their verses heavily with irony, never saying quite what they meant, always approaching their subject obliquely.

We no longer trusted the Great Truth spelled out in large, direct letters, and for good reason. Too many Great Truths turned out to be miserable lies. Colonialism, Imperialism, racism, purity, idealism. There have been many deaths. picasso violin

This wasn’t true only in literature. Music turned from Tchaikovsky’s grand passions to Stravinsky’s tweaked noses, art from grand historical paintings to pasted bits of daily newspapers and deconstructed violins.

One has only to compare the historical straggler, such as D.W. Griffith’s sentimental Way Down East with Ernst Lubitsch’s brassy Ninotchka. It is the same change. You can see the pendulum swing, saeculorum decursum, over and over.

Between the irony and the directness there is constant battle, for neither is sufficient. Each mode has both its strengths and weaknesses. Direct sentiment soon devolves into Victorian sentimentality, so that we laugh now at the mawkishness of much of it. But irony declines into mere cleverness, so that we admire an author’s wit, without much regard for his sense.

This has certainly been the case in Hollywood. It is rare to find a film in which actors behave the way any real people behave or feel the feelings of real people. Instead, they speak in catch phrases that ring with bell-like cleverness. The plots are artificial; their resolutions preposterous.

”Hasta la vista, baby!”

”Go ahead, punk, make my day!”

”Show me the money.”

“I have had it with these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane!”

On television, it is even thicker. Seinfeld was a wonderfully clever sitcom, but it was, by its own admission, about ”nothing.” All style, no substance.

Most sitcoms are the same, and most hourlong dramas are numbingly formulaic. Forrest gump

Yet, there is a hunger for substance. It shows up in such mainstream places as movies like Forrest Gump, where the sincerity and lack of irony of its main character seems like a breath of life. The movie itself was mildly ironic, but the character was guileless. And what is more, his earnestness — that is, his ”pure heart” — won him all his prizes. (I am not defending the film as a whole, but only making a point about its underlying proposal of directness and sincerity — many people despise the film for this very reason).

In that, the tone of the movie was completely at odds with its predecessor, Being There, where we were all in on the great in-joke, as the idiot gardener, Chance, fools all the supposedly smart stuffed shirts into finding profundity in his inanities. Chauncey Gardner

And just as a clever century distrusts an earnest one, the pendulum swings back and we are beginning to be unsatisfied by the cleverness. The deeper Quentin Tarantino dives into genre film pastiche, the more irrelevant he becomes. His first films were about something — the deaths in Pulp Fiction, however clever in terms of plot, were real deaths with consequences; in Kill Bill, the deaths are just tin ducks in a shooting gallery. They carry no punch.

This great cultural sea change may be due, but it hasn’t become pervasive yet. Still, there are warning signs: Sincerity has also brought us political correctness; it has brought New Age philosophy; it has brought us any part of a Tyler Perry movie that isn’t Madea.

For, while irony requires a modicum of intelligence, sincerity is democratic: Everyone is invited — no brain too small. It runs the gamut from genius to imbecility. Not every 19th century poet was Wordsworth; heck, even Wordsworth was only Wordsworth on a good day.

The watchword for irony is skepticism; for sincerity, credulity. Blind faith in alternative medicines, UFOs and astrology is only possible in a time when our irony is eroding.

Yet, irony doesn’t get off the hook so easily, either. There are reasons some people feel compelled to give it up as the new century reaches its teen years.

The first is that irony is words, not life. It is essentially linguistic. That is, its rules and habits are linguistic rules, not experiential rules.

With irony, as with a joke, you have to have the setup and punch line come in the right order, followed by the rim shot. Out of sequence, they fall flat and meaningless.

Real life has other demands, but with irony, we translate the experience of life into the language. Language is a kind of parallel universe, divorced from reality, but somehow accepted as its mirror: When we are laughing at a joke on a sitcom, we are laughing not at life, but at language.

It is at the core of what is called Modern Art, that the process becomes the subject: The painter paints paintings about paint, the playwright constructs dialogue about speech, the sculptor shows us the raw surface of stone. Modernism has been about the tools it uses.

And that is why, at the end of the Modern century, the armor of irony that has protected our egos from the embarrassment of our sentiment has begun to fall off. We demand real experience.

When that woman yelled out her frustration at The Apostle, she was complaining that her linguistic expectations — the language of film we have all become accustomed to — were violated. Robert Duvall was doing something different.

But our culture now requires of all of us that we rise above our comfortable irony and attempt to see what is actually out there, floating in reality.

And deal with it.

 
 
 
 
 

Rheingold

Modern art is so ancient it’s practically a joke. It is older than my great grandmother, and I’m a geezer myself. cubist beethovenThe birth of Cubism, say, is actually closer in time to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony than it is to us.

Modernism was a bender our culture went on; Postmodernism is the hangover we are just now getting over.

Of course, a lot of wonderful art was created in that century, but a lot of piffle was written, too, in support of the theories and ideologies that tried to argue the presumed supremacy of Modernism. Now, we look back at the wreckage and see it all as drunk-talk.

One of the arguments was over what was “appropriate” for any art form: the issue of “medium specificity,” as critic Clement Greenberg called it. Greenberg was one of the greatest pifflers at the bar, holding forth with a stein sloshing in his hand and willing to take on anyone in the bar, if they would just step outside. Here, hold my coat. clement greenburg

The idea was that each variety of art, whether painting, sculpture, theater or poetry, had its proper vocabulary and content. The lines between genres were defensive walls that should not be breached. Good walls make good neighbors, as it were.

All effects borrowed from any other medium should be proscribed, leaving the art form “pure.”  Purity becomes the sign of quality. All foreign effects must be exterminated. Esthetic cleansing, we might call it.

That means, painting must not tell a story; stories belong to literature. Sculpture must work in the round; sculpture that is meant to be seen from a single point of view is borrowing too much from painting and is therefore bad sculpture. Music that attempts to describe a scene is straying from the purity of musical expression and trying to be a picture. “Ut pictura poesis?: Not on my watch.

All this talk of purity makes us cringe now: If nothing else, the 20th century and its wars and pogroms have given the idea of purity some really bad karma.

It hadn’t always been that way: Purity didn’t used to be a shibboleth.

The issue of medium specificity is one of those generational pendulums that swings back and forth over time. nocturne in black and goldThe question is whether each art has a special message that can only be delivered in its language, or whether all the arts have the same message, only tell it in different languages.

The puritanism of the 20th century was a reaction to the promiscuous genre-mixing of the previous century, just as the pervasive tone of irony in the 20th century was an antidote to the cloying sincerity of Victorianism.

In the 19th century, it was clear that art — all art — had a single message, although there was not always agreement on what that message might be. Shelley wrote about this, Baudelaire wrote of the “perfume” of his poetry; Whistler painted “nocturnes,” as if he were Chopin on canvas; Franz Liszt gave concerts that were as much theater as music. (Nowadays, when we hear that a pianist has eliminated the hoopla and “found the music” in Liszt, we can be sure he has completely misunderstood Liszt.)bayreuth

And let’s not forget that it was the 19th century that brought us that greatest of artistic mash-ups, Richard Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk — the use of all the arts at a single blow in a grand design that ultimately included even architecture, in the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth. All set to a single purpose — albeit the purpose may have been the glorification of Wagner himself.

I said this was a pendulum. In the 18th century, a hundred years before Wagner, there was a sentiment, parallel to Greenberg’s, that the arts should not fraternize.

In his 1766 work, Laocoon: An Essay on the limits of poetry and painting, German critic Gotthold Lessing maintained, “that an artwork, in order to be successful, needs to adhere to the specific stylistic properties of its own medium.”Gotthold Ephraim Lessing

He was reacting to the classic line by the Roman poet, Horace, that “ut pictura poesis” — “as is painting, so is poetry” — arguing that these arts are inherently different, because while poetry unfolds in time, painting exists in space (forgetting that in a larger frame, both exist in the mind and imagination).

So, do we now use our scalpels and surgically separate music from poetry, painting from dance, and say unequivocally that what we get from Balanchine rubies balanchinebears no relation to what we get from Philip Roth? Or is there some quality they share that gives them value and worth?

As the pendulum swings back, we recognize that all art is about becoming more fully human, more aware of the world and our place in it. That awareness can be through compassion, through beauty, through politics, or through irony. It saves us from isolation, from ignorance, from emptiness. These are the big issues we face, in contrast, mutable public issues of politics or career are trivial: When we come to the end of our lives, what remains of the fustian of our existence has little to do with annual income or who got elected; it is how much we have loved and been loved, whether we have become larger in our hearts, or shrunken and dried up.

And it is art — in all its various plumage, each of its forms — that provides the imagery to do this. This is their common message.

And purity is a kind of puritanical and sanctimonious defense of the impotent notion of “good taste” that is anathema to the creation of vital art.

It is what Sir Kenneth Clark called the “fatal defect of purity.”

And as Pablo Neruda reminds us in his 1935 essay, Toward and Impure Poetry, “Those who shun the ‘bad taste’ of things will fall flat on the ice.”

Selva Oscura

WHEN you are young, it is easy to be in love with art. You may love its artifice, you may love the colors or the rhymes or the great blaring sounds of the music you listen to. Art is vibrant; it seems so alive. But most of all, you are in love with the sense of importance iart brings: It seems to validate the belief we all have when we are young that our own lives matter, that we count in the larger scheme of things.

We are all Tristan, Achilles or Holden Caulfield.

Perhaps that is why the young make so much art. They are not yet unhappy with it, not yet dissatisfied at the lies that art creates, not yet disgusted with the prettiness of it all.

Most of all, the art we make when we are young imitates the art we have come to love: Art most often imitates art, not life. There is so much bad imitation T.S. Eliot written in college, so much abstract painting of no consequence, so much herd-instinct.

I have been as guilty as anyone. In my 50 years of photography, the bulk of my work has been imitation Ansel Adams or Edward Weston or Irving Penn. I was learning to make images that I could recognize as art, because it looked like the art I knew.Old photos

Big mistake.

Go to any art gallery and you see the same process unfolding. Imitation Monet here, imitation Duchamp there, imitation Robert Longo there. Whatever the current trend is in art, there are acolytes and epigones.

At some point, as you age and if you are lucky, you let all this shed off you, and you no longer care about art. What takes its place is caring about the world, caring about the experience of being alive. It isn’t going to last long, so you begin paying attention: close attention to soak in as much as you can before you die.

In a sense, when you are young, you test your life against the art you know and love, to see whether you measure up to it; when you are older, this turns around, and you test the art against your life, to see whether the art measures up.

And if you are inclined toward art, you give up caring whether you are making “great” art, or whether you are part of the great parade of art history, and you care only about what you see, hear, touch, smell and taste. The world becomes alive and art faces to pathetic simulacrum.

When you reach this point, then you can begin making art. And you make it for yourself, not for posterity. You make it to attempt to capture and hold the world you love, or to understand the world, or to transcend it, when it becomes too difficult to endure or accept.

Week's Bay Bog Alabama

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The first garden I made was a vegetable garden in the front yard of the North Carolina house I was renting in the early 1970s. I grew the usual tomatoes and peppers, beans and spinach. I also ventured into eggplant, which turned into the most successful part of the garden, to my surprise.

But what I really learned from my garden is the difference between the neat, orderly photographs in the seed catalogs and the rampant, weedy, dirt-clod messiness of the real thing. Gardens, I discovered, were not military rows of uniform plants, but a vegetative chaos.

The stupid thing was that I should have known this going in. All around me, trees, vines, shrubs, roadside flowers and Bermuda grass were telling me one single thing, over and over: Profusion is the order of nature. Variety, profligacy, energy, expediency, growth.

Whether it is a kudzu shell over a stand of trees, or the tangle of saplings that close over an abandoned farm field, or the know of rhizomes that run under the turf, the rule of nature is clutter.Crab Apples Sullivan Maine

The walnut tree outside the front door was old, and its bark was stratified with moss, lichen, beds of sap, and a highway of ants running up and down. From a distance it was just a tree, but up close, it was a city.

When I was a boy, there was an abandoned farm beside our property. An old, unpainted barn and farmhouse stood in the center of a field of grass and weeds. When I was maybe 8 years old, those buildings burnt down one night in a glory of flame.

In the years that followed, the course of plant succession took over. I learned my lessons from Boy Scout merit badges I earned, but even there, the story of succession seemed much more orderly than what I saw out my window. Plant succession wasn’t a clear progression from annuals to perennials to shrubs and through a clearly delineated march of one kind of tree into another till we reached climax growth. It was instead a tangle of saplings through which it was nearly impossible to walk. There was not a “baby forest” that we saw, but an overpopulated struggle for sunlight, every plant elbowing its neighbor for survival. In a forest, the trees stand a certain distance apart, their crowns touching to make a roof. But this young version was more like a thick head of hair; there was no distance between the shoots.Buxton Sedge, Hatteras NC

Everything in nature told me the same thing: busy-ness, struggle and chaos. It was all exhilarating, and I loved the tangle of it all, the textures, the smells, loam and rot, the mud and dew.

And yet, that isn’t what I saw when I looked at art about nature, whether it was glossy calendar photos or Arizona Highways’ covers on the low end, or whether it was Raphael and Delacroix on the high end.

The nature I saw in most art was tame as a housecat. And the art wasn’t really about nature at all, but about order. I wasn’t made to see the world we saunter through, but to see how our minds organize and codify it.

Whether it was 18th-century paintings or Ansel Adams’ photographs, the art was all about order. In fact, you could say that the point of the art wasn’t to make us see nature, but to understand order.

I was unsatisfied with it, and with my own art. I wanted to make an art that would look at the natural world and make images that spoke to me about what I was really seeing and feeling.

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NDP60I recognized something of what I wanted in the arts of the Gothic, Baroque and Romantic periods, eras in art that glorified the energy and visual confusion of the world. They are arts that responded to the profuse variety of the experience. They were also arts that were devalued by the mainstream art world of the 20th century. Eliot deprecated Milton; Stravinsky insulted Berlioz; Mies van der Rohe is the anti-Gothic architect.

Yet, I loved Shelley, Schumann, Chartres. And I wanted to find a way to make that over in our new century, in a new way, and reattach art to the world around me. It had been untethered too long; too long it had been its own reason for being. Art for art’s sake? Not any more.

It can be hard — it is probably impossible — to make art completely divorced from one’s time. The visual universe is too persuasive. We cannot even know how deeply we are affected by the stylistic twitches of our own age. And I am not saying my own work is sui generis. It certainly is not.friedlander montreal

The light that knocked me off my horse on my own way to Damascus was a single book of photographs — still a fairly obscure book — by Lee Friedlander, titled Flowers and Trees, from 1981. It was spiral bound, printed in a matte finish, and had virtually no text. Inside I found a mirror of the nature I knew and felt. Nothing was framed neatly, nothing was glorified by the light poured on it, nothing we reified into monumentality. Instead there was the profusion, confusion and organicism that I recognized from my own experience.

And I realized that I had been working in that same direction for years, but had buried the photographs among the more conventional mountainscapes and detail photographs. I had several series of images that were my own immediate response to nature and they were all photographs I had made in the gardens of friends. I gathered them together and looked. The conventional photographs seemed to have no value whatsoever and these others, almost random, usually confused, and always ad hoc, seemed to breathe the life I had been looking for.

Since that time, and with the advent of digital photography, I have been liberated. I take my camera with me, point it at something I want to feed it, and let it do the chewing. I never look through the viewfinder anymore, but instead look at the larger shapes, darks and lights, that showing the digital screen on the back of my camera. I see how I see and click the shutter.Back Bay, Virginia Beach, Va

Over the years, I have made many of these sets of photographs, usually 15 to 35 pictures in a group, and printed together to be seen as a “book,” that is, a print cabinet, where my audience can spend as much or as little time as they wish and shuffle to the next.book cover

And the unit of my work is the book, not the individual photo. When I visit a garden, I vacuum it all into my lens and after processing them, spread the images out in a series. You can see the results in a book preview for Gardens/Paradisi, a book I created on Blurb.com. The whole thing is there to see via “preview.” You can find it (and buy it, if you have that much excess money) at: http://www.blurb.com/b/607398-gardens-paradisi.

For the pictures in that book, selected from those loose leaves, I have had to edit them down to a manageable few. Most of these “books” have been turned into chapters of either 9 or 15 images. I hope they still give a flavor of what I have attempted. You can find more in the other books I have made and available at Blurb.com.Giverny 3

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If I have succeeded, I have also failed.

For in the end, my attempt to wrestle with the world has turned into an art that is also about order, about how the mind engages with the things around it. I have wound up doing exactly what my predecessors have done.

It isn’t surprising. After all, when I turn on my elders and find their efforts insufficient, I am doing nothing different from what they did when they turned on their elders. It is how art grows. Wordsworth rebels against Pope, Eliot rebels against Wordsworth, Ginsburg rebels against Eliot. One generation finds its parents lacking and tries on its own to finally express the truth.

And I can only be happy when a generation after mine points its own finger backward and wiggles it in reproach at me.

It seems we never get closer to what we are all after. Value is all in the trying.Doug's Garden

Mont Ste. Victoire, Aix-en-Provence

Mont Ste. Victoire, Aix-en-Provence

For nearly a century, we have seen Paul Cezanne through the eyes of his disciples. They have given us the popular and concretized version of who the painter was. A version to validate the century that followed.

And we have all been his disciples: No other artist has had a more profound or lasting effect on the art of the 20th Century. In some sense, Cezanne (1839-1906) invented Modern Art.

The problem is that Cezanne himself was more complicated, more equivocal than the simple image of his work and influence. And it would be good for us today to widen that narrow view to discover something else in his art that may still be fertile for inspiration and a way out of the locked room that Modernism has become. cezanne self port

No one could miss the direct line between some of Cezanne’s paintings and the analytic Cubism of Picasso and Braque. And that visual kinship is reinforced by Cezanne’s own words: “Treat nature by means of the cylinder, the sphere, the cone …”

He mentioned often the need to see a canvas as a separate object, with its own rules, even if his prose is sometimes convoluted to the point it may cease making sense:

“… everything brought into proper perspective so that each side of an object or a place is directed towards a central point. Lines parallel to the horizon give breadth, whether it is a section of nature, or, if you prefer, of the show which the Pater Omnipotens Aeterne Deus spreads out before our eyes. Lines perpendicular to this horizon give depth. But nature for us men has more depth than surface, whence the need to introduce into our light vibrations, represented by the reds and yellows, a sufficient amount of blueness to give the feel of air.”

But even here, we find Cezanne concerned with something Modern art tends to ignore: The way the world looks.

Despite the modern appearance of his canvasses, Cezanne often wrote about that aspect of art he shared with the long centuries that went before him: The need to see the world clearly, and to attempt to record on his surface not only a version of the world as he knew it, but an accurate record.

“I had to become a student of the world again,” he said to Emile Bernard, “to make myself a student once more.”

We think of Cezanne as the man who made abstract art possible, but in his own words, he constantly talked of capturing the reality — the visual reality — of the world on his canvases. To be true to the world he saw and felt.

This connection with the things of the world is what evaporates as the 20th century advances. The dedication to the reality of paint and canvas supersedes the dedication to understanding the world itself.

“You say that because two large pine trees are waving their branches in the foreground. But that’s a visual sensation … Moreover, the strong blue scent of the pines, which is sharp in the sunlight, must combine with the green scent of the meadows, which, every morning, freshens the fragrance of the stones and of the marble of the distant Ste-Victoire. I haven’t conveyed that. It must be conveyed. And through colors, without literary means.”mtstevictoire1

The painter writes and talks about the colors, the feel of the air on his skin, the smells of the forest, the give of the loam under his feet. He is veritably intoxicated by the things of the world.

“The world, the sun. .. that which is transient … that which we both see … our dress, our flesh, reflections … That’s what I have to concentrate on. That’s where the slightest error with the brush can send everything off course.”

What is different in Cezanne from the connection to reality in the Impressionists that preceded him is a faithfulness to what he would call the “permanent” or monumental quality of the things of the world. Monet might be more interested in what the sun does to those trees over the space of five minutes in the morning of a spring day; Cezanne hoped to capture some essential truth of the thing-itself. That meant finding something in the world that stayed essentially the same, no matter how the sunlight played over it through the course of a day, a week or a year.

This realization dawns on you if you visit Aix-en-Provence and see the architecture there. Those blocky houses he paints, so redolent of Picasso’s Cubism, are not a figment of Cezanne’s simplifying imagination. That’s what the houses actually look like. painting and real house

Paul Cezanne felt a loyalty to the world, a sense that the things of the world inspire love and affection, and when transcribed to canvas, can be laid out almost like scripture for us. We all need to be reminded occasionally that “die Welt ist schoen,” as the photographer Albert Renger-Patzsch had it, and that through his canvases, Cezanne could capture that essential part of the world that we might miss when we fail to pay attention to what is around us.

They are, after all, the most real apples and pears ever seen that do not go soft and brown over time. cezanne apples

So, to see Cezanne only as a seed of Modern Art is to misunderstand the magnitude of his accomplishment.

At least for most people, there is little in the art world as dependably moving as a Cezanne apple or mountain. Painters, in particular, have always been astounded at the subtlety of his vision. It is said the Eskimos have 27 words for snow; Cezanne must have had 27 words for blue-green.