“Photography in Transition,” Essay by Edward Lucie-Smith

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Photography in Transition

I. Artistic Ancestry

Donald Woodman has what might be called a ‘classic Modernist’ photographic pedigree, since he began his career as student a of Minor White [1908-1976]. In career terms, White stood at the very center of the group that created American photography as we now know it. In his youth he worked for the WPA, which fostered work by so many major photographers. After World War II, he was closely associated with Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and, through them, with Alfred Stieglitz, the doyen of American Modernist photography and indeed, in many important respects, the founding father of the whole Modernist Movement in the United States.

White’s work, technically, marches in step with that of these other masters. Typically, he used large format cameras, often with special filters, to produce immaculate, often quasi-abstract compositions that push the possibilities of black-and-white photography to its apparent limits.

There are, however, special features to White’s work, which give it its highly individual flavor. He believed passionately, for example, in the metaphorical power of photographs, and in their ability to correspond with mental states. ‘If the individual viewer realizes that for him what he sees in a picture corresponds to something within himself -‘ White said, ‘that is, the photograph mirrors something in himself – then his experience is some degree of Equivalence.’ This is a reference to a theory already enunciated by Stieglitz, and realized in the famous series of cloud studies made in the 1920s, but White was to push things much further. It is easy to see how his attitudes find an echo in much of Donald Woodman’s photography, as presented in this exhibition.

Two more of Minor White’s pronouncements are also worth keeping in mind when we look at the material in this show. He often worked in photographic sequences, and noted that ‘to engage a sequence we keep in mind the photographs on either side of the one in our eye.’ This is advice one would do well to heed here.

The other is his perhaps unexpected declaration that ‘there’s no particular class of photograph that I think is any better than any other class. I’m always and forever looking for the image that has spirit! I don’t give a damn how it got made.’

II. The Technical Background

This last pronouncement is particularly well worth keeping in mind because Woodman not only belongs to a different generation, but operates within a very different technical sphere.

Photography – together with film and video – differs from other forms of artistic expression in several important ways. First, it is a vernacular form. In the world ‘outside art’, photographs are a principal means of visual communication. Indeed, the vast majority of photographic images are made for purely practical purposes, without any form of artistic intent. In this sense, photography resembles literature, whose basic material is words – words which are far more often used for strictly non-literary purposes. Some photographs made without any artistic purpose can nevertheless, be transformed into art, or incorporated in art works. One or two examples are present here.

The technical issue, in the present context, is in my view even more important. Photography has never been a stable entity. The two forms with which it began, the daguerreotype and the calotype, were rapidly superseded, and throughout the 19th century, and throughout the 20th, there was a rapid evolution. Glass plates gave way to film; cameras became easily portable and could be held in the hand.

The emphasis, during this long evolution, was always placed on increasing convenience. The major reason for this was not simply a desire to improve photography in general, but because the photographic market was increasingly dominated by the needs and desires of non-professionals. In addition to being a vernacular form, photography was a democratic one. It seemed to make it possible for anyone to make art – or at least art of a sort.

Evolution has occasionally been combined with revolution – moments when all previous assumptions about what photography was seemed to be suddenly overturned. What was perhaps the most drastic of these moments occurred only recently, with the birth of digital photography.

This is now such a familiar means of making pictures that we tend to forget that it has been with us for only a very short time. The world’s first megapixel sensor was invented by Kodak in 1986. The first professional digital camera system, a Nikon F-3 camera equipped by Kodak with a 1.3 megapixel sensor, appeared on the market in 1991. The first digital camera for the home-consumer market, which could be linked to a computer through a serial cable, was launched by Apple in February, 1994. The first digital camera with an LCD monitor appeared in the following year.

Not surprisingly, digital photography at first met with great resistance from many professional photographers, and perhaps most of all from those who belonged to the Ansel Adams-Edward Weston line of descent. Conversion to digital image-making seemed to involve the abandonment of all the darkroom skills they had so painstakingly acquired, and, with pure digital, as opposed to images made by conventional machines and then scanned into a computer, there were at first severe limitations concerning the actual size of the end product. It is only very recently indeed that these have been at least partially overcome. Using special software, it is now possible to take an image from a 5 megapixel camera and enlarge it without distortion to A1 size [594 x 841 mm or 23.386 x 33.11 inches]. In a world where photography increasingly competes with very large paintings, even this is not always large enough.

One unexpected result of this huge technological change has been a reconsideration of the early history of photography, and there has been an increasing tendency to revive and experiment with methods of image-making long discarded as obsolete. A well known example is the series of daguerrotypes made by Chuck Close in 2001-2.

Donald Woodman’s work occupies a fascinating position in this ongoing technological debate, since it represents a highly original, and extremely various mixture of methods, both traditional and new.

One can go further than this, and say that the series which go to make up this show offer a highly sophisticated examination of the fluid, ever-changing nature of early 21st century photography, and a perhaps wider-ranging and more radical examination of photographic possibilities than any other American photographer active at the present moment has been willing to make.

III. The Holocaust Series and Harbingers of Which Future?

The most nearly conventional of these series, from a technical point of view, are the earliest and the most recent on display. Both use long established photographic means, and both are dependent on the impact made by a sequence of images and the relationship of each image to those in immediate proximity to it.

The Holocaust Series springs from Woodman’s collaboration with his wife, the celebrated feminist artist Judy Chicago on the Holocaust Project, which features a unique combination of painting and photography. These images, however, are not left-over raw material, but were made for their own sake. The photographs made by Woodman himself are interspersed with a few others that are documentary records made by the Nazis – prisoners being carried off to the camps in cattle-cars, prisoners who have committed suicide by flinging themselves against electrified barbed wire.

Each image in this series is precisely chosen to make a point – it begins, for example, with a still life of sacred books rescued from a Lithuanian synagogue. Their survival, and their battered condition, both bear witness to the stubborn survival of Jewish culture. There is a preference throughout the series for simple, iconic presentations – a few strands of barbed wire, a mortuary slab, a heap of eye-glasses preserved as plunder after their owners perished. The sequence concludes with a powerful portrait of a concentration camp survivor rolling back his sleeve to show his identifying tattoo. His level gaze holds that of the spectator.

While the series is a historical commentary, it is also deeply personal – an exploration of the photographer’s sense of his own Jewish heritage and what it means to him.

Harbingers has both a narrower and at the same time a less personal focus. Made in conjunction with a project facilitated by Woodman and Chicago at Cal Poly Pomona in 2003entitled ‘Envisioning the Future’, it contrasts wealth with poverty, and wasteful affluence with deprivation. The images are paired to offer social and ecological contrasts, with an emphasis on the automotive culture for which California is famous – for example a huge, apparently endless parking lot is paired with a picture of people who are homeless, and forced to live in their cars. Each pair consists of a black-and-white image linked to one in color. And garish photographic color is used in most of these pairings, to condemn the wasteful aspects of the contemporary Californian life-style.

IV. The Rodeo and the West

As Michael Kimmel says, in his brief essay included in this catalog, ‘The idea of the west has always been at the heart of the American experience.’ He also notes that the rodeo has also been ‘something of a fraud’. ‘The rodeo was the hypermasculinity of the western cowboy rendered as a spectacle for eastern “dudes” (hence the origin of the dude ranch) with about as much authenticity as professional wrestling today.’

It is therefore interesting to note that the images themselves, the largest in the show, are technical hybrids of an unexpected kind. They were originally made, in the mid 1980s, using a battered old 4 x 5 box camera, originally meant for glass-plate negatives, but now adapted to take 4 x 5 polaroids. Hugely enlarged by digital means – not available when the pictures were first made – these pictures bring the spectator extremely close to the action in the arena, so much so that one feels that the photographer has sometimes had to jump aside, to avoid being ridden down by the contestants.

The majority of the compositions have the composition placed on a steep diagonal – the ground-line bisects the image from corner to corner. In addition, there is a good deal of blur in many of the photographs, which emphasizes the speed of the physical actions portrayed.

One of the things that photography has inherited from painting – though too few photographers, including much-employed professional ones – seem to realize this – is a set of general laws governing pictorial composition. Every successful picture is an arrangement of shapes, within a rectangle [or, more rarely, within a space of some other kind, such as a circular tondo]. These shapes have to have a satisfactory relationship to one another, and also to the edges of the containing space, or the composition will not be fully dynamic.

The Rodeo pictures obey these rules in a slightly unorthodox way. The use of the diagonal, combined with the amount of blur, tend to flattened the image, and bring it close to the picture-plane. These are characteristically Modernist devices, and anyone reasonably familiar with early Modernist styles will notice a current of influence from Italian Futurism.

The Futurists did boast a few photographers among their number, though these are not nearly as well-known as the painters who belonged to the same group. The best remembered of these is Anton Giulio Bragaglia [1890-1960], author of the manifesto ‘Fotodinamismo futurista’, published in 1911. Bragaglia’s photographs of figures in motion are more extreme in their use of blurring than Woodman’s Rodeo series, but they belong to the same photographic family.

The fascination of the Rodeo series is that it ties Woodman’s work so closely to the Modernist mainstream, while at the same time offering a commentary on typically American subject matter, which is deliberately and successfully heroized. These are mythical images, whose connection with what is ‘real’ is becoming tenuous. In photographic terms, this makes them distinctly paradoxical.

V. Fifteen Clouds and The Therapist Series

In different ways, these two series probably come closest to some of the ideas enunciated by Minor White. Fifteen Clouds is a very direct homage to Stieglitz’s Equivalents, which use exactly the same imagery.

In terms of technique, they could hardly be more different. As Donald Woodman explains, in a note in this catalog, the process of producing them was particularly demanding and elaborate, despite the small size of the images themselves. The prints began as Polaroids, but the finished result looks like an etching or photogravure, with the image sitting within an embossed space.

To obtain this effect, the photographer had first to persuade Photoshop to do things that it doesn’t always want to do, using Layers, and interchanging one Layer for another. Anyone who has tried scanning Polaroid prints will be aware that they frequently have a bias towards magenta, and this was one of the problems Woodman had to overcome.

Another problem was the nature of the Iris printer, a machine now generally thought of as obsolete, because it is so inherently cranky and difficult to get consistent results from. Its attraction was that it puts one color directly over another, instead of laying down the pigment dots side by side, in the fashion of more recent and reliable digital printers.

The image is printed on a very fine, fragile rice paper in a variant of a traditional etching process called chine colle., where the paper is brushed with a coating of wheat paste, then laminated to stronger paper beneath using a press. The advantage here is that the pigments can actually penetrate the surface of the super-fine top layer, as they cannot do in most digital printing, since digital is a non-contact method.

Fifteen Clouds are an exercise in virtuosity, but also a meditation on the shifts in technique that have taken place in the eight decades since the original series of Equivalents was made.

The Therapist series is meditation of a different and more personal sort. As Woodman’s therapist, Dr. Donald E. Fineberg, notes in his explanation, also printed here, therapy is a two-way street – the patient looks at the therapist, just as much, and just as intensely, as the therapist looks at the patient. The series is a record of these acts of observation. Woodman made a single image on every occasion that he visited his therapist. Some of these images are formal, some are spontaneous; some – the double images – required previous preparation. Some did not. They were made with several different cameras, using a variety of photographic techniques.

In the most literal sense, these photographs enact a psycho-drama. We see two personalities in conjunction – colliding, overlapping, melding. They reveal the essential fluidity of human personality, in a uniquely dramatic, memorable and original way.

All this of course is something that would have deeply interested Woodman’s original mentor, Minor White. Yet it also represents a level of candor that he, a deeply closeted gay man living in a far more repressive social situation than our own, could never attain.

If this exhibition has a moral it is that photography, in the right hands, can be a uniquely liberating force. For me, Donald Woodman is admirable for more than his fluid, innovative, virtuoso approach to technique – his willingness to embrace the new without renouncing photographic tradition. What I admire him for most is the courage with which he presents himself to us as a human being.

Edward Lucie-Smith