Posts Tagged ‘Illuminations’
Touching the Heart
On September 11, 2012, I visited my beloved 97-year old Aunt Ruth. Her body systems were shutting down. Two of her children, Maureen and Susan, and one granddaughter, Olivia, were there. I took a few pictures, including the one above. Two nights later, Aunt Ruth passed away.
In the 1980s and ’90s I spend fifteen years photographing nudes and the body. For much of that I carefully avoided hands: they felt personal and unique, whereas the project was about universal forms. Eventually, though, hands started creeping in. I’m not sure if that was my decision or theirs. Several appeared in my 1996 book, Illuminations.
“Hands” is a project without a beginning or an end. Some were used with Indian poetry quotations and readings by Sramana Mitra. I used a shot of my own palm as the endsheets for my 2011 book, Causes and Spirits.
Here are some others:
Women are natural masters of tone. Their voices are extensions of their bodies and feelings – from cooing and whispering to babies, to the murmurs and cries of love making, to the exactingly regulated interview or phone voice of a business professional, to the bark of a drill sergeant or the yell of a basketball coach, to the whining shared grievances and inebriated hilarity of girls night out, to the plaintive pain of a close-miked blues singer, to the glass-shattering beltings of an old Broadway pro, to the moans of mourners the world over… Men have no equivalent for such emotional precision. (We do have other advantages.)
Tone is as fundamental to art as it is to life. It is about relationships. It is about attitudes. It has a billion nuances. Tone subverts speech. It is pre-literate: dogs, like newborn infants, get the message. Like breathing and heartbeat, tone springs from sources preceding the analytical brain.
Each scrap of civilization is permeated by tonalities. And each separate civilization has its own dominant tone. Choosing a tone, we can actually choose what sort of civilization we wish to live in — what sort of civilization we are creating, second by second, from the ground up (actually, from the underground up).
Tone is interwoven with the materials and techniques peculiar to each craft, each art. The sounds of musical instruments are analogous to those of the human voice — bestowing limitless expressive possibilities. Musical fundamentals – harmony, melody and rhythm — open into endless variations of emotion, attitude, relationship: carriers of thought and feeling, from sudden joy to the wisp of a half-forgotten memory. Essential to this conversation is the artist’s sensitivity to the ears of his listeners. Refined artistry implies respect for people’s receptive capacities.
And tone is interactive. New Orleans jazz derived from street processions before it moved indoors to dance halls. The early jazzmen and their listeners were conditioned by both. At certain events one early bandleader is said to have occasionally surprised everyone by shouting “Feet!” – an instruction to his players to suddenly cut the volume so far they could actually hear the shuffling feet of the dancers.
Tone is crucial in writing. The element hardest to teach, it remains after everything else has been fixed. After each essay has been structured, each meaning parsed, each meaning clarified, the voice of the author, and his fictional characters, is what finally counts. It is what we hear below the surface of language — what we ultimately care about in a person or a book. The off-putting snarl, the simmering poetic glow, the endearing humor: tone is the attitude of the speaker toward his listeners and himself.
Tone is the light in the eye: the energy radiating from a person – what we really take away from an encounter.
Representations of the human face or body, in all the visual media, include great examples of tonal artistry — translating the invisible into the visible. Titian painted many scenes from classical myths involving nudes; many sacred scenes in the Christian tradition, involving more discreet clothing; and many portraits. His women often present a thoroughly mixed message: their neutral stare, the amount and distribution of skin revealed, and the sumptuous coloration and warm compositions, combine to make his subjects appear, at once, as holy as the Virgin and as sensual and shapely as a Venetian courtesan. Rather than presenting these as opposites, he presents, at least in some cases, a mixed message. As important as what they do or do not reveal of their breasts is the care the artist gives to the sumptuous fabrics and delicate lacework around or over the chests, arms and bodies.
For me, Titian is using all his matchless talent and vast technical means to express the multi-layered, multi-valent wonder that is Woman. Hiding while revealing, Titian enrolls us in the mystery, leaving it to us to make what we will of his women’s inscrutable faces. This great Renaissance painter stood astride two intersecting epochs — the religious and the classical. He was trained in the old, tightly restrained, exacting tempura technique; yet he pioneered the new, freer, emotionally expressive medium of oil and impasto on canvas. Such dualities fused to inform his work, but did not determine his vision. Whoever happened to be sitting for him, in whatever moods, and whatever myths and fashions might have shaped the story telling, what counts for us, five centuries hence, is the look of the work – an aura of person-hood that confounds interpretation: a nobility of tone emanating to us from the canvas, delivered to us out of the artist’s own being.
In photography, especially of people, whether clothed or unclothed, the word “tone” also applies to technical choices involving lighting, contrast, paper color, etc. Such choices are necessary but not sufficient means en route to the work’s larger tone and overtones. The attitude and intent of the photographer affect his choices of dramatic stage lighting vs. soft shadowless light – deep shadows for striking layouts in the magazine era, for instance, vs. subtle grey-scale values for intimate personal portraiture. Layers of over-civilized European irony permeate the tough commercial nudes of glitterati like Helmut Newton or Karl Lagerfeld. Whereas the nudes of gentle humanists, alive in a gentler age, such as Imogene Cunningham or Paul Strand, are all about tenderness.
How we see is who we are. Inevitably, our tone, our voice, is a projection of our inner state — our inner self.
Are traditional & modern / old & new media, really at war?
For fifty years I shot worldwide on film, printed in darkrooms on four continents, published in a wide variety of traditional media. I would not trade those experiences. To quote from my forthcoming book, “I count myself fortunate to have been seeded in the warm loam of classic photographic practice.”
But then I add, “Equally, I’m glad to make use of whatever new developments prove useful.” Most useful, indeed, are digital photography and the digital media, in their countless flowerings. Literally and metaphorically, I find myself emerging from the meditative close focus of the darkroom into the fresh broad brilliance of the “blogosphere.”
The frontier-minded U.S. has always been spellbound by the “new all new,” whereas traditional cultures located their main value clusters in the past. But the greatest artists often seem to surpass such timely strictures.
Near the end of his life the painter Paul Cezanne said, “Even though I am already old, I am only a beginner. However, I am beginning to understand…” Photographer Paul Strand said, “We are all students.”
In that sense, we are all, always, “emerging.” Every morning, the light on our doorstep is as fresh as Genesis. We only have to see it. A great teacher said, “One sees the world as one is.” The sculptor Constantine Brancusi said, “It is not difficult to make things. What is difficult is to reach the state in which we can make them.”
Some such quotes were printed in my 1996 book on the nude, Illuminations. Others appear in my Causes and Spirits, due out this summer, which opens with the lines of the Star Spangled Banner — “Oh, say, can you see?” — and riffs on the realization that the camera, besides being a profession, was a way for me to discover, at once, the world and myself.
A sampling of the results are on view at www.wcarter.us.
Photographing people of many backgrounds, in many places, one becomes acutely aware of their sharply differing tribal, social, and other identities – the source of seemingly endless conflicts. There are no easy answers, and indeed the future seems ominous on that level. In later postings here, I hope to say something more about tribalism, its possible origins and future. Blogging and the web seem to have raised the stakes.
For now, suffice it to say that in my work as a photographer, writer, and sometime jazz musician, my (unfashionable?) mode has always been not to dwell on the surfaces that seem to separate us, but to try to look behind and below those surfaces, to that which unites us.