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Rhino in the living room
Photography and the decisive moment

Last month, Portland photographer Christopher Rauschenberg wrote to NW Drizzle Art Editor Jeff Jahn:

Dear Jeff,

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.

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.

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 more.

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."

Christopher Rauschenberg

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