Saturday, January 8, 2011

Don Worth - Nature's Exactitudes

Don Worth is another crucial figure, in the West Coast photographic tradition. Like Morley Baer, Edward and Brett Weston, Adams, Minor White, Imogene Cunningham, he participated in the birth of that tradition and was, until his death in 2009 at the age of 84, an important photographic artist in his own right, with a distinct, identifiable, and unique personal style.

Beginning, like Ansel Adams before him, as a trained classical pianist, with expectations of a career in music, he made a sharp right turn in his twenties towards photography. Inspired initially by the work of Adams, in due course he was hired by Adams as his darkroom and field assistant, until the master segued to Carmel in the early Sixties. Not long after that, Worth began his career as a teacher of photography at San Francisco State, a position he held for 30 years. Living in Mill Valley, Worth's interest in horticulture led to the construction of a large garden on his acreage, and to an interest in plants as visual subject matter, a segment of his work that became identified with him. This was well before the explosion of interest in this area which one sees everywhere these days.

All of the images I've borrowed here are available on the internet. There are several reasonably priced monographs on the market (Don Worth: Photographs 1955-1985, Friends of Photography, Carmel, 1986 is a good introduction to the work). In choosing images for the purpose of illustration, one is inevitably limited by what is out in the world. Worth's earlier work is scantily represented, and I doubt that one would be able to locate it in the public domain. But the images shown below will give a good idea of his approach.

Worth's career began well before the advances in color technology made accurate polychromatic work possible, so it's no surprise that his aesthetic, as well as the balance of his production has been in black & white. Both he and Adams shared the idea that black & white imaging permits a purer potential for artistic expression than color imaging. This idea however isn't historically limited; monochromatic vision still occupies a superior position in the art photography world. Worth characterized it as "It seems to be more removed from the real world, almost as if it were from another time and another place" and "I am pleased with the fact that a black and white image does not possess the seductiveness of color." This notion--of a membrane separating the final image from the world from which it is derived--is as compelling today as it was before color image technology had progressed to the point that it finally allowed elaborate controls and adjustments. Worth himself explored color in a series of bizarre, gaudy still life arrangements. But it's still his monochromatic work for which he is best known, and will continue to be regarded in the future.

Worth admitted to an interest in the "mysterious" in art: "I've been thinking about about how a lot of great art gets us involved because not everything is immediately explained in the image. I’ve begun to think more consciously about that over the years, and I think that adds depth to the work. My work is often complex, but the strange thing is that sometimes the simpler a photograph is, the more mysterious it becomes. I’m more and more attracted to simple things like a wet stone, a water-washed stone lying on sand. You can’t get much simpler than that. Put it right in the middle of the photograph. What does it mean? I can sit and look at those for a long time. They become meditation pieces for me. They encompass so many other aspects of the world." This balance between the simplicity of an image, and the complexity which it encompasses is not new. Minor White, Paul Caponigro, for example, both emphasized the quality of mysterious reciprocity between certain kinds of images--often abstract--and the viewer (photographer or viewer of the image). How we respond to various images tells us something critical about the content, as well as about how we may interpret phenomena in the external world. Stieglitz believed in correspondences ("equivalents") for certain emotions or ideas. Paul Strand believed in the relationship between an indigenous people and the landscape they inhabit. Sommer believed in the mystical connection between matter and perception (matter looking at itself).

Worth's best photographs are like Zen Koans, or studies, or touchstones which may be useful in "stilling" the mind or organizing the universe into abstract metaphors for principles, almost like mathematical equations in artistic terms. His images have almost a hypnotic quality. One's consciousness is sucked inward towards magnetic lines of energy. There's a sense of disorientation not unlike seeing something upside down, or perceiving something that defies ordinary spatial logic. The leaf on the stump seems to float above it, as if it were resting on an invisible transparent surface. The rocks in the sand (above) are "arranged" "accidentally" in a kind of magical relationship, of objects held in powerful, though fragile, tension.

Reality lies under perspective, like the shine of meandering water across layers of sand on a beach. The water flows across a field of resistance, both responding to, and determining, the path it takes back to the boundless sea.

The imprint of light may be reversed, as in this high contrast image of coleus leaves, edge-printed with outlines of white stippled margins. There's a velvety sensuality punctuated by the natural shapes blossoming out as from fractal generations--a stunning diagram of natural form vividly expressed.

Frankly, this business of the exactitude of fine focus opens up a touchy area in the debate about values in photographic representation. The f64 Group's main thrust was built around the emphasis upon clarity of focus, and honesty of image. This was somewhat augmented by the acknowledgment that certain kinds of "manipulations" of the print might be permitted to more nearly approximate the photographer's original conception, or to bring out aspects of the image which would heighten the effect of the image. Nevertheless, the idea of the craft of making precise and technically "perfect" negatives and prints continued to hold an important place in the aesthetic of post-War photography. Traditional silver gelatin image making (not to speak of allied means such as Platinum/Palladium, or other procedures) was never an "easy" medium to control, and during the period 1935-1970, the steadily increasing "perfection" of print quality in the gallery and book spheres, tended to encourage the concept that fine print quality was more important than the subject-image itself; or at least that an image could not be fully "realized" unless it were presented in a stunningly exact way. This was particularly true of landscape and "art" photography (though less true, of course, with candid photojournalism).

Impressive technique however cannot of itself produce interesting images, though it's clear that the relationship between a powerful vision and the ability to fully realize it is both a dialogue between subject and means, as well as a creative process during which the "original" conception may profitably undergo favorable augmentation. Worth's best images often teeter uncertainly on the edge between static subject-matter and technical wizardry.

It's obvious that even uninspired subject-matter can be made interesting through manipulations of the image. It's also true that images can be brought to life through technical tricks, which by themselves would look uninspired if presented "straight" without increased contrast, subtle adjustments of tonal areas, or dimensional alteration.

The argument about form versus technical means (as exaggeration) continues. If a photographer makes the sky "black" as Adams did with Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico this may be regarded as a "false" use of technique to make a picture out of a dull landscape, or it may be regarded as a creative discovery or application to make a wonderful result. There's no doubt that Adams's photograph is impressive as he printed it, but there is the asterisk beside it, reminding us that the sky wasn't black when Adams clicked the shutter, and no amount of critical justification can make that fact otherwise. If "verisimilitude" is to be held up as a justification for "straight" photography, then our use of that term must be tempered with qualifications.

Worth's work is invariably finished and impressive. Every image seems intensely realized, carefully planned, and crafted towards a final effect. There's nothing accidental or careless about it, and we feel the "performance" (as Adams characterized the projection based on a negative) of the print takes place at a high level of competence and intention.

Having made this segue into the thorn-patch of theory doesn't change what Worth's work means, or the quality of presentation that he chose to exploit. His studies and landscapes and abstractions stand as among the best examples of their kind, of the West Coast photographic fine art tradition, which continues in our time. What is the relationship between the abstract chair, its intersection diagonal vectors uncovered (sans canvas), standing naked in Georgia O'Keefe's patio. The plain adobe wall, and the measured placement of the tiles on the patio, are familiar elements in some of O'Keefe's most famous abstract studies. Worth's image seems like a commentary on the contrast between O'Keefe's inhabitation of her milieu, and the rigidly post-Modern abstraction (post-WWII furniture design) of the chair in her midst. Does the chair "belong" to the scene? Does its "accidental" presence imply some kind of interaction? Does O'Keefe look "away" in the sense that she looks backward through time to an earlier inspiration?

Worth's photographs often seem moody and meditative, but it's a moodiness and meditativeness exquisitely controlled and chosen. There's nothing random or casual about it.


Mahogany Furniture said...

Nice photography, especially for tree photo, I like it

J said...

Impressive technique however cannot of itself produce interesting images

That's my beef with this sort of Ahht photography. While it may look good--or "evocative"--or erotic (nothing like B-W Sappho to move some product) hung over divans or in hip bay area cafes etc people generally respond to the technique--or some unique snapshot, or...soft-porn-- not to genuinely artistic qualities. In a sense, Nature itself is the Artiste in competent photography not...the person clicking the shutter.

With the right gear and a bit of work, about any normal human can be a Weston or Adams or Worth, more or less. Yes, it takes some skill, but that skill is a matter of hard work rather than pure creativity. But not any human will be a Van Gogh, or Rembrandt. Or in terms of music few will match a Scriabin or Chopin, or Coltrane or Bill Evans for that matter (tho many virtuosos may be hacks as well-- similarly for belle-lettres. But even the hack Horowitz required years of study. Not a year at San Mateo college in the darkroom).
There's something ...nasty about photography as well.

Like the mugshot of the kid's face--the psychotic who shot Giffords. Or recall that old shot of the viet cong shot in the head. Ugly as murder can be. Photography self-destructs.... or something--.