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Photography and the decisive moment
Technically perfect, pictorially dull

Last month, Portland photographer Christopher Rauschenberg wrote to NW Drizzle Art Editor Jeff Jahn. Here is Jeff’s response:

Dear Christopher,

I’m impressed that you took the time to research my position, but I’m afraid you mistook my misgivings regarding most photography for an outright dismissal.

Also, I do not equate eye candy in any way with abstraction. For examples of that, see the bourgeoisie fare at the Pottery Barn, or the annoying Pamela Anderson. Further, razor-blade content does not merely “describe.” It transforms, and this transitive aspect is core to what I write about.

I do selectively like some photography, as my articles and extreme admiration for Stieglitz should bear out. Actually, I set the bar significantly higher for photography than most other media.

In other words, Man Ray, Andreas Gursky and Robert Maplethorpe are just as important to me as Duchamp, Andrew Wyeth, Still, Clemente, Cornelia Parker and Richard Serra. But I think Cindy Sherman is overrated and Andreas Serrano suffers from a similar lack of rigor and relevancy.

There is a reason photography is often where young collectors start. A lot of it panders to what is already somewhat familiar. That isn’t necessarily bad, but it usually is.

If I review a photography show it will be because it was more salient than other shows I had seen that month.

These days I like the photography of Todd Johnson (Portland’s best conceptual photographer), Anna Gaskell and Melanie Manchot because they are more rigorous and difficult. They don’t meet me halfway like most photographers do.

If I review a photography show it will be because it was more salient than other shows I had seen that month. In fact, my first piece for this e-zine was an Erika Blumenfeld show at PICA.

Part of the problem is the extremely conventional nature of 99.99 percent of professional photography’s output. You can hear it when photographers talk of composition as if they have a magic formula.

It's often a strategy that minimizes risk and increases the odds for a certain acceptable style of photo. Bah!

Not all photography is like this, but most of it feels way too formalist for my tastes. Finally, let's drop the black frames and white mattes for chrissake. Ugh!

Then there’s the whole issue of photography being everywhere. Frankly, I think it is suffering in the same way allegorical academic painting suffered during the early 20th and late 19th centuries. It takes a hell of a photograph to cut through the very high level of image competency out there.

Once again, I think too many photographers are very conservative even when they think they are being rigorous. At least a painter is being somewhat primal. What is primal about a Nikon?

Yes, photography is everywhere. But is it possible that this mainstream aspect of photography is lessening the cultural charge the medium once had as a marginalized and debatable art form? Art does best when it is marginal and riding one or more fences. William Wegman’s best works are his early films; now he’s becoming the Nadelman of the 20th century (for those who pine for the 80s and 90s).

Overall, I would rather write on any artist’s strategy for inviting failure than a particular artist’s unique strategy for avoiding risk. I play 12 instruments, so technical ability isn’t as impressive as risk for me. Long ago I learned practice does not make perfect if you produce exactly what you rehearse. Instead, how one pushes and gets pushed by their limitations is a central question on both personal and environmental levels. It really has nothing to with media preferences; if I feel the risk in a show I might write a review.

Still, I do tend to care less for art made in mechanical processes (FYI: I dislike brushes, too), as that seems like another risk-adverse behavior. Also, when I wrote “inherently derivative,” I meant that most photographs are usually an inferior simulacrum of the original image. Still, being a simulacrum alone is no sin.

Maybe the reason I’m not a gregarious lover of all photography is that I’m not much of a second-hand voyeur and do distinguish between illustration, documentation and high art. Mind you, I like illustrations and documentary photography (I’m a magazine fanatic), but high art is more sphinx-like and loaded. I don’t write reviews of illustrative photography. Maybe some day ...

Photography is not the primary vehicle for understanding “decisive moments” as you suggest. The eye and the mind are the real instruments of this sort of perception. From my experience, if one pays attention, all moments are pretty decisive since time is perceived linearly. Photographs are just one medium that can be used to focus one’s attention. I prefer my own observations to most photographic compositions, probably because I’m a historian who doesn’t believe much of anything entirely.

Besides, if I wrote on all the decent photography out there I’d be inundated. So much of it is, as Stieglitz pointed out, technically perfect and pictorially dull.

Jeff Jahn
Art Editor
NW Drizzle

E-mail us your correspondence at editor@nwdrizzle.com, or check out some of our favorite letters in the mail bag archives.

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