Tag Archives: photography

Simple Concepts have the most potential to be the best concepts

I went to the Aperture Foundation’s reGeneration2 group show, where I saw hundreds of photos from a diverse group of photographers.  Yet a small photo by Milo Newman evoked the most profound experience and left an everlasting impression.  Upon a distant glance, I hardly recognized what the photo was of or about, I just saw a greyish page with maybe a few faint lines.  As I approached, puzzled, the lines transformed from looking like a contour drawing of a mountaintop to dots on an undefined greyish space, to flocks of birds in “V” and upside down “V” formation.  The photographer subtly captured flocks of birds in flight that look like distant mountaintops in a foggy grey landscape.  I can’t transcribe the experience of this realization—the events of my mind and perception when I was in the process of realizing this.  This personal moment, this punch-line, was the poignant part of the image.  I can’t transcribe this, because it’s beauty suffers when put into words; it’s meant, like all many masterpieces of art, to be experienced in person.  I just shook my head and sighed, “wow.”  How beautiful, and how simple, and how many times people have looked at flying birds, yet never took it just a few steps forward to create something out of that, and wow how did I not think of this??  It looks like something that’s so easy to think of.  But I guess in practice, it’s tragically hard to think of it—nearly impossible, because the concept simply has to get to you; you can’t really directly work at getting to it.

This is a simple concept, but I think that simple concepts are often, and I’m almost willing to argue that nearly always are more profound than complex ones.  I think that understating something will give it more authority and clarity that will not unnecessarily complicate a concept or artwork.  The artwork must eliminate everything except the art part and that which directly contributes to the art.  The more elements you have the more complex it gets and the less intriguing and meaningful the relationship of parts to each other becomes.   (the more complex, the higher the risk for this to happen.)  It often starts to feel contrived, and messy in a repulsive way.

Furthermore, (if nothing else), then a complex concept makes the viewer work harder than a simple and clear one, and this multi-step puzzle begins to build up suspense, hype and an increasing expectation of the reward of figuring the puzzle out (what the artwork is about).  If the viewer continues to work hard and figures out what the artwork is about, they will by that time have an extremely high expectation for the reward of what this artwork will bring into their experience and life.  So if the perceived reward is greater than what one finds, then that leaves the viewer disappointed that all this work was put in only to receive a mild reward.  But with a simple concept, I believe the viewer instinctively has a lower expectation of the reward, because it looks simple and simple things look like you need less time to appreciate them, and like there is less to learn from them.  But if the simple concept artwork is successful there will always be wonderment about it as to how unbelievably easy the concept is, vs. how complex and profound the revelation was.  The success of good simple concepts has something to do with how something so simple can elicit something so grand and profound.

Note:  what the artwork is about is not the end-all step to experiencing the artwork.  After one figures out what the artwork is about, the contemplation about the metaphors, themes, ideas begins, or continues to a much deeper extent.

This piece is not just a perceptual whimsical admiration of wildlife.  Conceptually it talks about the relationship between drawing and photography.  The way this artist drew the forever stationary quiet mountaintops with (a) moment(s) of ordinary flocks of flying birds, among other metaphors and ideas challenges the assumption of what drawing or photography is.  Drawing with animals, drawing with events.  Space, scale, relationships, time, transience vs. immobility, etc.   No answers in this photograph; just questions from the viewers and the image.  The artist gives no guidance to a conclusion, he simply presents an image that is very genuine, very true, but doesn’t says what its true about… that’s for us to contemplate. 

Some examples of simple concepts off the top of my head:  Chris Burden: sitting on a chair on a pedestal until he falls off.  Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings and other conceptual works.  Some of Tara Donovan’s work.

(This show closes March 17th.)

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Photography and Analysis: One Chance One Life by Laura Pannack

Ahhh Photography the moment’s medium.  Where the experienced creator knows what to look for (or spontaneously discovers) and presses the shutter button when all the expressive elements have lined up and will fall apart the next moment unless he exclaims “Yes!” with the shutter button.  There’s a lot of waiting involved and figuring out what it is that you “the framer”/photographer is looking for.  Often it’s a matter of luck; being at the right place at the right time with the right equipment.  I came across Laura Pannack’s photograph today and responded immediately—I had to write about it because it was so right.

I don’t know if it is a staged photograph, but it can pass for an unstaged shot.  The piercingly determined look of the adolescent girl demands you to halt in your tracks and at least for a second admire the energy in those eyes.  Cliché perhaps.  But that proves to only be the beginning quite quickly.   Although we are positioned close to the subject, we feel her staring past us into a farther space than we inhabit, way beyond the picture frame.  We notice the tattoo that says “one chance, one life” on her skinny, pale, young arm.  She looks puzzled and in deep thought with the creases between her eyebrows.  The sunlight casts a slicing ray on her face that is dramatically interrupted by her eye, and the corners of her slightly opened mouth are fixed together from her drying lips.    She is caught in a profound moment and emotionally we, the viewers, are too; trying to figure out what she has realized or is feeling.  The perfectness of this image comes from several more elements aligning just right.   She has a piercing, which complements the tattoo, letting us know she is already experimenting with identity, her look, and philosophy of life.  Tattoos and piercings comment (among other things) on a person’s philosophy of self, the transience of time, and adventure seeking.  Her body looks like a young teenager’s but things about her could allow her to pass for a mature adult.  She has an expression of passion with her frame, and dark, straight, long hair; a sign of passion, which further frames and isolates her mind.   She has dinky kid’s bracelets as if it was what was available at the moment and she decided to just put them on just to have a bracelet that would distinguish her a little and make her somebody.  She has some rings on her finger, and all the accessories/bodily manipulations create an unsettling balance between child and young adult, innocence and corruption.  It is amazing that she is caged in the back seat of a white (color of innocence) new car.  She is waiting and ready.  She is leaning out of it, fighting its confinement.  The back seat lets us know she likely hasn’t gotten her license or doesn’t have a car, or hasn’t been granted the freedom from her parents to own a car.  She is probably 14-17 year old.  Then I noticed the blurred cigarette in her hand left burning, forgotten about for the moment.

Lastly, I see a Nike sign, (the famous “just do it” attitude) that encourages bravery and adventure (and sells a company).  This is just delicious cake with an already superb meal.  Everything adds up just right.  Lastly, what makes this image a masterpiece beside what has been mentioned is the conceptual connection between the photographer and the situation.  The “just do it” logo and the tattoo really relate to the craft of photography.  I started to think that this is not simply about the girl, but also about photography at large.  The photographer often has one chance to capture something that will not be seen again for the rest of his life; it’s an opportunity that if he misses he will wish for it to happen again, but it won’t.  Because he only has one chance.  And the nike sign says that when you are faced with a conviction; the conviction that now is the time to press the shutter button—shoot!

PS.  I don’t think what I have written limits this image, because there are further ideas left to explore such as consumerism.  Everything is so new and perfect in this image.  The new white shirt, the car, the almost product placement of the Nike sign, the literal text tattoo.  The style of photography is fairly commercial too.   These must all amount to some questions about the packaging and sale of the promise of individuality perhaps wherein there is none?