The art of speculation

Posted in Flotsam by LBM on October 2, 2011

Last night Errol Morris posted a wonderful series of tweets:

For what it is worth, I subscribe to every single one of these assertions. But the fun part of reading this is thinking about the implications for fine art photographers. What does the clumsy and pretentious term ‘Fine Art Photographer’ mean? For me it means the kind of photography in which authorship is essential to the reading of the pictures. With this in mind, Morris’s 2nd point is key:

The intentions of the photographer are not recorded in a photographic image. (You can imagine what they are, but it’s pure speculation).

This speculation is at the heart of what we call fine art photography.When I look out Robert Franks’s window in Butte Montana, I hold in my head all of the other pictures in The Americans along with some words by Kerouac and whatever else I know about Frank and his biography. In other words, the intentions of the photographer might not be recorded, but their speculation is essential to the experience of the work.

This is a point Geoff Dyer eloquently makes about Frank in his book The Ongoing Moment:

“The pictures are apparently so casual as to seem hardly worth dwelling on. If we do choose to linger it is often to try to work out why Frank took a particular picture (what’s so special about this?)…The purpose of the photograph made from a hotel window in Butte, Montana is to confirm that the view, partly hindered by net curtains, does not merit a second glance (as such the photograph demands that we return to it again and again).”

So what is the photographer’s intention when he recreates another photographer’s picture? I’ll leave that for you to speculate.

Alec Soth, from the series Broken Manual, 2008

11 Responses

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  1. hernanzenteno said, on October 2, 2011 at 1:20 pm

    All photographs are posed. I hate this phrase. I don’t like the people that make this light comments llike you. I like you found moments not posed things. Di corcia posed people. Bresson and Winogrand no. There are at less two styles that John Lonegard described well , the photographers that like posed pictures and those that prefer the see how the situation are developed to them. Don’t mix all on the actual standards of staging all.

    • TimA said, on October 2, 2011 at 11:44 pm

      Certainly all photographs are posed. The camera frames them, turns the subject into a stage, a play. The photographer picks the pose they want whether the subject knows it or not.

  2. Tom said, on October 2, 2011 at 2:25 pm

    Isn’t speculation the essence of art? It’s not just photography. If you experience a painting, sculpture, music, poem, etc. the true meaning is always open to interpretation. The intentions behind the Mona Lisa has been speculated about for centuries. That’s why art is engaging — it causes you think. DaVinci could have just written “I met this girl with a really stupid smile…” and then we would all have known exactly what he was thinking. What fun is that? I’m not sure DaVinci would have used Twitter.

    As for “fine art photography” that’s one of those art community catch phrases for photography that people will actually pay money to own. Maybe that’s what makes it so “fine.”

  3. Blake Andrews said, on October 2, 2011 at 4:06 pm

    Interesting. I think what Morris meant by “All photographs are posed,” is “All photographic interpretations are posed,” meaning all photos are interpreted through the photographer’s point of view. Obviously not all scenes are posed, but all photographs of those scenes are subjective interpretations, with no “objective” view. I think that’s what Morris meant and I’d agree.

    I wrote some thoughts about the Frank/Soth hotel window last spring, found here:

  4. Charles said, on October 2, 2011 at 5:47 pm

    I’ve started reading a book by Nicholas Muellner called The Amnesia Pavilions that I picked up at the NY Art Book Fair this weekend. About a third into it there is a subsection he’s entitled The Parable Of The Jackass, after a well known print by Gertrude Kasebier (The Pathos Of The Jackass). In it, he talks about his preoccupation at the time with the transition from American Pictorialism to Modernist Photography at the beginning of the 20th Century; from an ultimately failed desire to assert emergent Meaning into photographs heavy with metaphorical allegory (the dominant Victorian-era strategy championed by John Ruskin) to the rise of “the illusion of the viewer’s interpretive autonomy” that came to define Stieglitz’s Modernist Photography. Apropo to Morris’ point 2, I believe Muellner bemoans the loss of the Victorian photograph’s intentions and vulnerabilities that came with Modernism and has been characteristic of practically all of 20th Century Photography. Point 2 is a Modernist conceit that continues to this day, particularly in what you refer to as Fine Art Photography.

    So may I propose a corollary to Point 2: The speculative interpretation any viewer may have is irrelevant to the photograph… even when recreating another photographer’s picture. It is simply our contemporary strategy we use to read a photograph and we are today very conscious (or self-conscious) as artists of this strategy when we create and present photographs.

    If you’re interested in looking this up, don’t just skip up to this subsection. Muellner’s larger story of searching for a lost friend in Siberia is a compelling read.

  5. Worldriot said, on October 3, 2011 at 1:47 am

    Technically, and not to sound redundant here, but the perspective of the conscious observer is biased by default. Therefore the perception you hold of the photograph is, before delving any deeper, your personal perspective. This is shaped by a lifetime of personal experiences and emotions. The photographers standpoint, at the moment of initial observation, is irrelevant. All that matters is the person who is perceiving the image and what they hold in their memories.

  6. Stefan Vanthuyne said, on October 3, 2011 at 2:19 am

    Context is everything. The less context is given to you by the artist/photographer, the more speculation you will get from the viewer. Or maybe, hopefully not always the viewer, but definitel from the critic.

    Like you point out, when it comes to Frank’s photograph the book The Americans – as in the series of photographs published and the words of Kerouac – provide a certain amount of context. But there is still more room for speculation. Knowing the personal history of Frank, where he came from, can help you fill in more of the context.

    But as for that single picture, why he photographed that hotel window, you’ll never really know untill you talk to the man himself and he’s able to reconstruct the exact feelings and thoughts he was going through, the feelings and thoughts that made him shoot this.

    So as a viewer of any kind, you’ll never completely get the context, and there will always be room for at least some specaulation. And that, I guess, is what makes art fun.

    Personally I gladly doubt that he was thinking: Hey, this does not merit a second glance, so I’ll photograph it (as such the photograph demands that we return to it again and again)’.
    That is the critic giving meaning. Critics try to provide a context, but for my personal taste their context is too often too academical. It’s lacks psocyhology, it lacks the sentiment that must have been there. Maybe, in true Kerouac style, he had just had a visit from a hooker who talked too much, and decided too photograph the view as a souvenir. Who knows? (Maybe the info is actually out there, I haven’t seen it).

    So anyway, speaking for myself I believe a lot of good photography comes from an emotional place. And speculation can never go there.

  7. LBM said, on October 3, 2011 at 7:17 pm

    Just finished Janet Malcolm’s exasperating profile of Thomas Struth in the New Yorker:

    This nugget jumped out at me:

    “Photography is a medium of inescapable truthfulness.The camera doesn’t know how to lie. The most mindless snapshot tells the truth of what the camera’s eye saw at the moment the shutter clicked.”

    • Stefan Vanthuyne said, on October 4, 2011 at 6:48 am

      I can agree with the second and the third sentence. Yet I completely disagree with the first, even though the second and third serve as an explanation of the first. How funny is that.

      The camera is a technical tool. You hit the shutter, a photograph of whatever is in front of the lens is made. Pretty straight forward. (Still debatable, I know, but bear with me)

      But when you talk about photography begin a medium, your talking about communication. So you’re talking about these components:

      And that’s a completely different ballgame. One in which truthfulness has plenty of opportunity to escape.

  8. Charles said, on October 4, 2011 at 8:52 am

    I think Struth is a kind of idiot savant.

  9. Bob Black said, on October 16, 2011 at 5:01 pm

    yo, alec:

    read Morris’ new book…..much of which i loved…some, not all, i’d didn’t fully….but important thoughts…..btw, love the reproduction project you’re on….btw, isn’t Camera Lucida, really, the history of the photographic medium to begin with?, not so much Barthe’s biography or coming to terms with pics, but in fact, the taxonomy of the medium? :))…notice the chronology of the pics in the book…;)…and also, love On Going Moment, nice to see you mention it….

    from my upcoming installation of pictures, rather words describing the pictures made, but staying at home….for are not pics always about the reproduction of pics that had come before?…surely….

    it’s really all it is…ok, then, for u :))

    from the project:

    Instructions on How to Make a Photograph:

    Think of the world,
    Do something to that thought,
    Do something again to that thought.


    Think of a picture,
    Do Something to that picture,
    Do Something again to that picture.


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