Thursday, October 27, 2011
OOO Aesthetics: Some Photographs of Natural Objects
Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO) shows how one can activate the tension between patterned color forms and the objects they represent.
In pursuit of an object-oriented aesthetics of photography, I want to quote one of Graham Harman’s remarks in his ASK/TELL interview. Early on he notes “For me, art in general is a special way of breaking the bond between an object and its own qualities, and I believe it is now the central mission of philosophy to theorize the deformations and breakdowns in this bond.” He later goes on to talk about installations, which are, of course, visual, but perhaps tactile, haptic, and kinesthetic as well.
The Perils of Representation
I want to remain with the visual mode, but I want to talk about two-dimensionsal (2D) art: paintings, drawings, etchings, lithographs, collages, whatever. One could certainly write a history of Western 2D art in terms of the “tension between objects and their qualities” (a phrase Harman uses later in the interview), that, BUT ALSO the tension between the 2D medium and its 2D and/or 1D images, and the manifold qualities of the objects represented through that medium. Such histories, I’m sure, have been written, though perhaps not quite in those terms.
I’m thinking in particular of Ernst Gombrich’s magisterial Art and Illusion which, though it isn’t a history, certainly has a historical flavor. Gombrich was interested in the conventions and techniques that were developed for representing objects and scenes on 2D surfaces. Gombrich’s point is that, while pictorial realism was the representational objective for several centuries, art is fundamentally an act of making, and only secondarily one of mimesis. The mimetic project, he points out time and again, always fails in some respect, even if the making succeeds.
During the decades of the transition to the 20th century the realist project collapsed, in part, at least, under the inherent impossibility of ever achieving a fully realistic image. You simply can’t ‘squish’ 3D reality onto a 2D surface nor can you compress, WITHOUT LOSS, the full dynamic range of visible light into the much narrower range possible with reflected light.
In the wake of this collapse many other forms of painting and drawing emerged. Some of them, e.g. surrealism, still depicted objects and scenes, but simply discarded the requirement that they be (potentially) real. And some forms abandoned representation entirely, post-WWII abstract expressionism being perhaps the best-known school.
Meanwhile, the 19th century had seen the birth of photography. Some versions of art history give photography a role in the demise of realism. After all, the photographer can attain, and with ease, a kind of realism the painter cannot—hence the term “photo realism.” I’m not sure I buy this, though, mainly because photography doesn’t eliminate the tensions between objects and their qualities that had been one of the driving forces in Western art.
What it DID do was place restrictions on how one could deal with that tension. In photography the equipment dictates the details of image geometry. That is the source of its easy realism, but it also handcuffs the photographer.
The most obvious restriction is that, for decades, photographs could only be monotone images. Once photography became accepted as an artistic medium, monotone (usually grays from not-quite black to not-quite white) was assumed to be the standard and color was resisted once it became technical possible. There is a certain logic to this in that, as deploying a fully realistic range of color is physically impossible, why bother? Why not just stick to monotone realization of the primary qualities of an object or scene (res extensa, extension in space) and discard that pesky secondary quality, color?
A less obvious restriction is that of geometry. Paradoxically, the camera’s rigid Euclidean projection of the scene onto the 2D surface is also the source of photography’s ‘easy’ realism. The problem is that the visual system doesn’t use Eucldean projection. This mismatch doesn’t matter at portrait scale and distance, nor does it much matter for grand landscapes (e.g. Ansel Adams), but it can be critical for ‘house’ to ‘skyscraper’ size objects at tennis court to football field distances. There the geometric mismatch between what’s on the photograph and what we actually see can be acute, though we quickly accommodate to the distorted geometry of photographs.
Thus, far from providing a mechanical solution to the difficulties of realistic representation, photography simply underlines them in various ways. Representation is always just re-presentation, not re-creation. What is always made is that re-presentation, not the thing itself.
In photography, as in painting, drawing, and print-making, much of the artistry lies in the deliberate attention to and control of the properties of the visual medium itself in relationship to the properties of the represented objects, whether real, surreal, or otherwise.
Representational Expressionist Photography?
It’s not at all clear to me that I would have taken the following photograph, much less find it interesting, without first having become familiar with, and liked, abstract expressionist art:
It has no visual center, no focal object, nor any obvious composition. All it would seem to have is pattern. Yet we must be careful about that, about thinking that pattern is really all that matters. Here’s a different image that I realized from the same original data:
Much of the pattern, and coloring is still there, albeit without nuance and detail. And the image has lost much of its interest with much of its representational now dissolved. If we are able to see it as composed of reeds and leaves that is, in part, a consequence of the fact that we’ve seen a version of the photo with more or less full detail and nuance. Just as important, the sense of representing three-dimensional space is all but gone.
The fuller realization is, in fact, quite different from the flattened one. That fuller version is obviously full of objects, objects crossing through the visual space. We see the reed stalks and the leaves, not to mention the light playing on them, and a tassel (to the right of center). We recognize each as an object.
But these objects—and here’s where things begin to get interesting—while they withdraw in the ordinary way that objects do (OOO kicks in), they’re also truncated, forcibly withdrawn by the boundaries of the image itself. That effect is greatly attenuated, if not all together eliminated, in the flattened version. The flattening makes it more difficult to see the leaves and stems as individual objects. Instead they become color masses of varying shapes. When we see those visual forms simply as color masses, we have little reason beyond implied visual motion to follow them beyond the edge of the image nor to arrange them in front of and behind one another in three-dimensional space.
Yet that implied visual motion DOES give the pattern a vitality of its own. And that vitality persists in the fuller image, the one replete with violently truncated objects. But that vitality is, at best, only loosely coupled with the many objects represented in that image. Each of those objects is, after all, a living plant and, as such, has its own vitality. That is separate from, and in tension with, the vitality of the flattened pattern of the image. It is the interaction between those two vitalities that activates the three-dimensional space implied by the image, making it a vital space, giving it the force of a world in which one can move, breath, and live.
Now consider another image from the same family. Let’s start with the flattened realization:
This image has more of a sense of differentiated composition that the first one did. The upper right corner is clearly different from the rest of the image. There also appears to be some diagonal action at the lower right and upper left that differs from the spotty background. But that composition is pretty weak. It just ‘lays there’.
Here’s a more fully realized version of the data:
This image breaks into a foreground consisting of diagonal leaves, tassels, and stalks and a background containing vine-draped trees. It dramatically BREAKS the stasis of the weakly composed flat rendition. If you will, once we recognize those color forms as objects, that objecthood and patterned color field withdraw from one another opening up the image, pulling us in.
Note that the spatial differentiation is much stronger in a larger version of the image, which you can see by clicking through to the Flickr site. That is to say, pattern and composition really ARE NOT all. Scale matters as well. That spatial separation opens up space that draws you into the image. The stalks and leaves bleed off the edge one by one, but the trees move back away from the frontal plane and off the top edge as a single large mass, one that is articulated by inner detail—branches and trunks—and flecked with the surface detail of leaves. All of this is lost in the flat realization.
Finally, let’s consider a third image from this family, one with an obvious compositional focus:
This image, like the one at the beginning of this post, has a single tassel at the center—well, slightly above and to the left of center. The area around and behind the tassel is a bit darker than the rest of the image, which is filled with various forms of plant life.
But what is that greenish haze to the left of the tassel? That’s an artifact of shooting more or less into the light. My sense of these matters is that, with different equipment (or perhaps not) and different technique, I could have eliminated the haze in this particular case. And that’s what I wanted to do the when I first encountered such artifacts. Moreover, if I wanted to sell photos to magazines, I would have to eliminate those artifacts.
But I don’t particularly want to sell to magazines. I rather quickly decided that it would be more interesting to pursue and gain a measure of control of these artifacts. In this particular image, the artifact happened without my inviting it to the image; I didn’t know it would show up. I still like the photo.
And that’s what it IS, a photograph. So why pretend that it’s something else by trying to eliminate specifically photographic artifacts? The fact that they are a quality of the photo-as-object rather than of any objects in the photo is no reason to eliminate them. Rather, it’s a reason to keep them around, to keep the image honest. And it does so without being self-consciously meta, like Escher’s hands drawing one another.
What’s the point of trying to assert the privilege of represented objects over that of the representing object? It’s a losing battle, has been for centuries, and one that has nothing whatever to do with beauty. Let it be.