in the living room
and the decisive moment
Last month, Portland photographer Christopher
Rauschenberg wrote to NW Drizzle Art Editor Jeff Jahn:
I'm at a loss to understand why you dislike photography
and what you could possibly mean by saying that it is "derivative
by nature." Perhaps you mean that a photograph, by its nature,
describes things in the real world. In that case, you wouldn't
like Chandra Bocci or anything besides "pure abstraction."
(I'll tell you that a lot of "pure abstraction" artists
think they're talking about the real world, too.)
Since you claim to scorn eye-candy art (a term that
is commonly used to describe work that has value as pure abstraction
but that doesn't address any real-world concerns) and claim to
search for razor-blade-like content, you simply cannot be disliking
work because it describes the world.
Perhaps you mean that photography is derivative
by nature because you feel that a photograph of a scene is only
a secondary experience and that you would always prefer to see
the scene itself. This is a more plausible objection, but one
that misses the boat, also.
is possible to learn to recognize these decisive moments
when the ordinary world delivers up its beauty and magic,
and it is precisely to learn this skill that we study photography.
Take for example the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson.
He photographed ordinary street scenes at the "decisive moment"
when everything in the frame came together for a sixtieth of a
second into a perfect visual harmony and when the relationships
between the elements of the composition maximized a rich humanist
meaning. You are part of such ordinary street scenes every day
and you do not notice these "decisive moments" as they
happen. To be at the scene is a non-experience; to look at Cartier-Bresson's
photograph of it is a peak experience. It is possible to learn
to recognize these "decisive moments" when the ordinary
world delivers up its beauty and magic, and it is precisely to
learn this skill that we study photography.
Through photographs, you have seen the Earth rising
over the lunar landscape, a napalm-burned Vietnamese girl running
down the road, the World Trade Center's destruction, yourself
as a baby, a green pepper as beautiful as a Brancusi sculpture,
a Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx, the Titanic
lying on the bottom of the ocean, a tiny black baby watched over
by an ornate Wurlitzer juke box in a 1950s South Carolina shack,
the terrors and pleasures of levitation, people in their homes
in the '60s on East 100th St. in NY, a faceless tuba player with
an Adlai Stevenson button and stars-and-stripes banners erupting
out of his tuba, a day in the life of a country doctor, Stonehenge,
the pyramids, Machu Picchu, the surface of Mars and a whole lot
Why is Sara Bernhardt just a name now, while Charlie
Chaplin still delights us? Photography. Humphrey Bogart died in
1957 and he still knocks us out. Photography. Why do we have child
labor laws? Lewis Hine's photography. Why do we have National
Parks? Congress created the National Parks because of photographs
of the West by Jackson, O'Sullivan and others. Photography is
important in the real world and in the art world.
To write about either of those worlds in a meaningful
way without talking about photography is like not mentioning the
rhinoceros in the living room. It can be done, but you'll always
be missing the main point. As it happens, the Portland gallery
with the strongest national and international reputation is a
photography gallery Blue Sky Gallery.
Blue Sky has the most ambitious exhibition program
in the city. When you write about art in Portland and don't mention
Blue Sky, you're similarly missing the main attraction. This month
Blue Sky is showing David Hilliard and Jessica Todd Harper.
As my mother used to say at the dinner table, "Just
try a bite. You might like it."