Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Framing as Meaning

I made the above image in 1988, along the Oregon Coast. It's an 8x10 contact print, taken with a "normal" focal length lens (for this format). It's a shot taken at about early to mid-afternoon, facing West toward the ocean, and this little tide-pool is formed from the run-off rivulet of fresh water flowing from higher ground across the beach.

This is in my view a typical kind of tide-pool study. The attractions of such subject matter are obvious, in that it's easy to set up, and easy to conceptualize a number of different possible versions, no one of which is the correct one, no one of which can be considered final or comprehensive. When photographing in nature, there's always this riddle, of having to rely on some principle exterior to the phenomenon, since nature has no aesthetic boundaries; you have to decide for yourself what they should be, and your choice, though unpredictable, will be derived either from your previous experience or training, or upon some more unique personal view of things.

In terms of my own aesthetic, I see this as a study in circles, impingements, gratuitous structural expression, elaborate material states. Rock, sand, water; light, movement, reflection. What does such an image mean? To a scientist, it may be an expression of natural forces. Gravity, balance, inertia, stasis. Our relation to it is typical and opportunistic. Any slight movement to the left, the right, forward or back will alter the inherent arrangement of light, shadow, and the tensions set up between the contiguous parts. The frame is initially rectangular, but it could as well be circular, oval, or atypically trapezoidal or irregular. We ordinarily regard such departures from traditional framing as being a little gimmicky; though there's nothing visually inevitable about rectangular framing. The fact that it's a cliché actually releases our attention, allowing us to see into the image without being preoccupied with something as methodical as the shape of the frame.

If we can get beyond the initial rectangular frame, and examine the composition as an exercise in framing--a sort of interior framing--we can begin to think about its arrangements as a set of choices which all contribute to its overall effect(s). When discussing such choices, one must admit the limitations. In order to have put the sun's direct reflection on the surface of the water, in a position, say, more towards the center of the composition, would have been practically impossible, since it would have involved having the camera view at a point backwards and up and slightly to the right of the view--requiring having a platform allowing me and the camera to be something like 8 feet up in the air--obviously an impossibility under the circumstances. But would I have wanted the reflection to be in the middle of the pool? Probably not.

What initially attracted me to this was the neat curving edge of sand, the fact that it had not been disturbed by footprints (or paw-prints!), and its pristine purity, the delicacy of the ruffled edges of the sand, the hard dark edge of exposed igneous rock, and its aspect in relation to the sun's angle which lit up the wet margin. Again, in a practical sense, I had to take care not to let the tripod points get too close to the foreground of the picture, since the wet sand would show this as a disturbance--clearly, I wanted no evidence of human agency to impinge on the scene. It had to be natural--that is, it had to seem to have occurred as a consequence of purely physical forces, without any human (or other organic) interference.

The notion of the purity of nature sans any human manipulation is one of the great themes of 19th and 20th century landscape photography. Often an illusion, it nevertheless endures as a guiding principle of our concept of an unspoiled world, pre-human, pre-historical, pre-civilized, and pre-conceptual. But all art is conceptual, insofar as what we make of it involves, at least initially, a given frame. This little freshwater tide-pool is a part of the larger eco-system of which it's one minute element. In a whole (holistic) sense, it can't be considered apart from its surrounding context. And yet it is precisely the delineation of the whole that most often creates the sense of an aesthetic event, of a choosing and a making that derives from the aesthetically undelineated continuity of the natural world.

Photography takes in what comes through the lens. Once an image is saved, it may be manipulated in a number of ways. But initially, the data thus received, can't be refused. We can't prevent light from behaving in the way that it will. It's an adamant power of the universe, and follows laws we can't begin to fathom in their entirety. Working within the context of such a relationship one is apt to be subservient, since most of what we think we know about the world can't be altered.

For me, one of the driving motivations for making an image is a balance between the active and passive tendencies in one's own nature. You want to celebrate and share your vision, but you also want an image to speak for itself, as if it had a separate voice. And there is no question that nature can tell us, or confirm for us, all the things we come to deduce about it. Nature can be self-defining, in that its structure and flux and tactility and unpredictability occur with or without human permission and desire. Art is about making, is making. But in landscape photography, that will to form (or make) is limited first by what there is. A painter or a sculptor or an architect or a move-maker can manipulate their respective media, irrespective of such considerations. But their freedom implies a greater risk, too.

In terms of my act of framing in this photograph, I wanted the circular extent of the pool's edge to be "in" the picture. I could have used a wider lens to allow in more of the surrounding sand and rock and rivulet(s), but I had no desire to do so. I could have moved the camera around towards the right hand of the circle framed by the exigent "center" of the pool where the rock point lies in the water, but that would have put the sun's reflection at a point just above the water's surface--I wanted that white light near the top of the composition. There's the time element, too. If I had happened upon this scene at a point an hour earlier, or an hour later, I wouldn't have had the sun's reflection available to me at this vantage point. Circumstances can dictate what choices you have. Or I might not have had my camera with me--light and angle and shadow can change, from second to second, and the window of opportunity may be open for just a few minutes, or even a few seconds. People who think photography is easy don't always realize this.

This image has a quasi-spiritual quality for me. But I'm not a religious-minded person. Systems of ulterior belief generally bore me. But I am often moved emotionally, even on what is often called a "spiritual" level, by things I see in the world. I don't think, for instance, I've ever seen a designed landscape feature, anywhere in the world, which is as moving as this little pool. Nature wins hands down in contests like these. If you set out to create a pool as beautiful as this one is, by constructing one, it's doubtful the result would be as satisfying. The sense of satisfaction in nature's accidental arrangement is more moving that my sense of a "perfected" nature.

Oriental gardening is based on the proposition that nature in itself isn't perfect, that it requires the hand of man to make it "more perfect"--more, as it were, perfectly natural than nature itself. That, too, is a riddle. Human industry is no less natural than anything that occurs anywhere in the universe. But that's a philosophical fine point. There is a difference between naturally occurring phenomenon, and human design, and that difference is part of what makes taking photographs of nature intriguing. What's out there is itself first, not a second-hand stage-set meant to be seen just in a certain way. And that makes all the difference.

As in some kinds of oriental philosophy, the meaning of the universe can be implied by certain short-hand keys. Brief poems can do the trick. But any kind of art can serve. Photographs can be like koans, touchstones to the meaning of existence, or of the universe. They are everywhere, if you look hard enough. But just wanting to do it isn't enough. You have to let it happen, too. There must be a balance between wanting (desire), and waiting (passive awareness). Wanting and waiting. Dedication, and patience. Devotion, and intuition. Inspiration, and obedience. Determination, and chance.


Conrad DiDiodato said...


the view of landscape photography as an 'interior framing' sounds very phenomenological (in particular, the descriptive phrase "pre-human, pre-historical, pre-civilized, and pre-conceptual" is very Husserlian). You see the world as a vibrant unity of its realized (but 'manipulated'ultimately)physical properties: light, shade, camer position. Phenomenology tries methodologically to explicate the tension between "phenomenon and human art" in just this way.

I, however, seem to see any photograph not so much as still life as stillborn. To me the photographer's proper task is to give faces of 'death' since s/he deals in life's immovables. I can't help but see in your 'Oregon coast'contact print a kind of embalmer's art. By which I mean the attempt to make viewable not so much what's there as what you've managed to hold down long enough to work on. As French novelist Pierre Mac Orlan writes in a recently published book of his essays on photography (recently cited in Pierre Assouline's blog),

Car la puissance de la photographie, c’est de créer la mort subite et de prêter aux objets et aux êtres ce mystère populaire qui donne à la mort son pouvoir romanesque.

This fictionalizing (romanesque) of an otherwise natural seaside 'phenomenon'amounts to a kind of death (to me).

Curtis Faville said...


Very interesting take.

Of course, philosophically one could deduce the very opposite of what you're proposing.

I.e., that "timeless" moments are not moments stolen from life, but preserved against extinction. Pictures of ephemeral things, like a policeman standing at an intersection waving his arms about, has death and decay and the ephemeral written all over it. An Ansel Adams shot of Yosemite Falls is deathless, though there's no human agency present. What you're saying would make Weegee and Cartier-Bresson and Capa the great image makers of their day, but all the subject-matter they've captured is passing away into oblivion. How is that life-affirming?

Thanks for this! It made me think.

Conrad DiDiodato said...

What do you think of the photographic artwork of people like Damien Hirst, Janine Antoni (which I just discovered)?

Is it art or amateur photography?