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Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Truth is Elusive

I'm a fan of good writing, and for years I've collected short examples of good writing from all sorts of sources. I think this article, by Tom McCarthy, is beautifully written. It's not really a political piece, although of course every line is charged with political meaning if you come to it with that sort of prism over your eyes. It's a human-scale meditation about getting woken up in the morning by bombs and about a woman who made the mistake of only taking one change of clothes when she left a home she now can't get back to.

There are some good turns of phrase:

"The purely surprising, somehow awkward early stages of the conflict are past; both sides are up to speed now; both have hit killing stride. How many innocents did Hizbullah murder in the last week, in reply to the innocents Israel murdered, in reply to the innocents Hizbullah murdered?

"The death accountants and blood apologists on both sides, too, are now fully engaged, every day on TV getting out their scorecards, history books and slide rules and proving with dates, numbers and names the greater suffering of their particular side, and its consequent moral spotlessness."

I admire that "death accountants and blood apologists." When combatants fight by killing mostly innocents associated with the other side, those are terms with resonance. But in general the piece is good not because the words are pretty, but because the ideas are sound and clear and the communication direct, and he doesn't bite off more than he can chew.

Above: Truck Drivers; Below left: Subway Portrait; Bottom: Evans.

What got me meditating on this with regard to photography (yes, I'll get back to photography), is a comment John Roberts made in the "Digital Ansel Adams Filter Invented" thread: "I think I'll wait until the Walker Evans filter comes out," he writes.

He doesn't need to wait. A Walker Evans filter has always been available for those with the integrity and strength of character to use it.

Walker Evans's photographs strike me a lot like Tom McCarthy's essay: beautiful, as long as you understand that beautiful is the wrong word. Evans was always trying to get at truth. Not all truth, just the limited subset of it he could show. One of the best things about him is that he went after it no matter what anyone else told him to do, or even paid him to do. (Yale University hired him to teach photography, but he didn't want to teach photography, and he told them so; they hired him anyway. One quote I remember coming across was something to the effect that the Deans of Yale would have been "greatly surprised" by the actual contents of Evans's art courses.) Evans is trustworthy that way: he couldn't be directed and he couldn't be bought.

What bothers me about him, if anything does, is that we can no longer recover the great distance between his work and the pretty photographs of the day, because he showed us how sound, clear ideas and direct communication also have a certain beauty, and in the decades since he made his work, we expanded our definitions of beauty not only to meet but to engulf him. We robbed him of his "slap of truth" by learning to see what he showed us as being merely beautiful.

Our problem as photographers today is even worse. There are no demarcation lines anywhere. Some pictures are true, and some merely pretty, and many of each look more or less the same as the other: it's up to the viewer to sort out which is which, and the task is seldom easy. A picture with all the cues of truth might be merely propaganda, and a picture which looks standard-pretty might in fact be true. And of course there is no way to know which is which, except, in some rare cases, by noting who authored it—assuming the author is one of the few who has a Walker Evans filter firmly in place. Some photographers just don't care about truth, and others Balkanize themselves, compartmentalize their work, and tell the truth only sometimes, at other times allowing themselves to be persuaded to make someone else's argument.

All the more reason to pay attention to the players.



Blogger jasperAmsterdam said...

This post is why I read your blog.

Walker Evans is one perfect example to support your thread about internet forum image critique some time ago, (also a signature thread wich gives true signivicance to your blog B.T.W.)

I'm a strong fan of Walker Evans, and aside his social portraits wich will probably still amaze even the most mediocre forum-photographer, I'm very much in love with his photos of trailers, houses and so on. None of these pictures will survive the forumcritics, this proofs that while internet might me liberating photography as an artform in some ways, it will most certainly oppose the threath of populism. Good is what everyone thinks is good.
If you feel scared, stop sharing your work all the time, do your work solitairy untill its almost done and share with people you think are capable or apreciating what you are trying, show your final body of work to friends of those people and you might end up with a contract for a book.

Then you are allowed to return to the forums for a few laughs..

(sorry for my less than perfect english, I'm dutch and trying too hard not to sound liken one)

12:27 PM  
Blogger Peter Hovmand said...

Nice to read about literature and photography at the same time! I am a writer so I am not really objective :) Another example coming to mind is the English writer Bruce Chatwin who also did photography on his travels to Africa. He reminds me of the German writer Ernst Jünger who didn't do so much photography (as far as I know?), but he did collect bugs and butterflies! And his writing is know to be crystal clear no matter how demanding the topic. Jünger could as a writer be compared to Robert Capas sort of photography: Fearless in every way.

2:12 PM  
Blogger Impasse Lebouis said...

"How many innocents did Hizbullah murder in the last week, in reply to the innocents Israel murdered, in reply to the innocents Hizbullah murdered?"

It's no longer about the daily killing. It's way passed that point. Today, as I write this, there are now close to a million homeless and displaced people with a week's supply of food and medication for only 100,000 of them as there is a a blockade on new relief.

In certain areas, dogs are chewing on decapitated bodies.

And it's no longer about military manoeuvre but about avoiding a greater human tragedy.

2:47 PM  
Blogger stanco said...

If memory serves, I think I read somewhere on this site that political content was the one thing that was not particularly welcomed. So it's good to see some small reference to our "current world situation" with this post. We can only function in a vaccum for so long, discussing the merits of 8.9 megapixels v. 9.8. Our "leaders" already excel in denial at the highest level...

7:40 PM  
Blogger robert e said...

That was a nice bit of writing, Mr. Johnston.

8:00 PM  
Blogger John Roberts said...

Gee, I try to make a funny, and you go and turn it into a thought provoking and insightful article concerning my favorite photographer. I guess that's why I keep coming back to read this blog daily - for the interesting, and the sometimes unexpected.

I can't always quite put my finger on what intrigues me so about Evans' photographs. I just know that I never get tired of looking at "Main Street, Saratoga Springs, New York, 1931". And I don't think I ever will.

8:08 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

"If memory serves, I think I read somewhere on this site that political content was the one thing that was not particularly welcomed. So it's good to see some small reference to our "current world situation" with this post. We can only function in a vaccum for so long...."

The problem is that I have very strong political views that tend to take over everything if I let them. Some people whose views diverge from mine find that objectionable, so in this blog I've kept the political content to a minimum simply to acknowledge that whatever our political views we also have some common ground in our mutual interest in photography.

I must admit that it's also an admission, from me, that I know more and write better about photography than about politics.

But please don't think I don't care!


9:25 PM  
Blogger WeeDram said...

Geeze, Mike, this is a great piece. Not only do I now have to revisit Walker Evans, but you've introduced me to Tom McCarthy. Thank you.

9:44 PM  
Blogger dyathink said...

Unbelievably and painfully well said. You are not a man without heart, soul perhaps at times, disturbing convictions.

I dug out an "Aperture Masters of Photography" book about Walker Evans. I read that he wanted desperately to be a writer and that he deeply admired the poet, Baudelaire. I looked at Mr. Evans photographs and have to say, relative to your comment about truth and propoganda, that what Evans gives best to the viewer is the confidence to tell the truth. He inspires a clear vision and the faith in ourselves that the truth we know/feel/see is what we need to speak/write/shoot. When we wander from our truth or lose sight of its significance than what we create is redundant and cliche because only we can tell our truth. And if we're not telling it, then it's not being told. Evans gives us courage as photographers to tell our truth. Is that the Walker Evans filter you are speaking of? I'd like to think so. i know this is simplistic but much of my shooting is street and i lose sight of my truth all the time. It's tough to stay on track. Mr. Evan's photos were like a slap upside the head.."thanks i needed that".

Your writing is beautiful Mike. This post was profound and moving. thank you.

1:30 AM  
Blogger Khoa said...

You have a way with words. Although, I must contradict by saying that the purpose of photography is not to capture the truth, because in truth, photography is not able to capture it. It is a representation of reality. Any photo may or may not be true, but truth is not it's nature or purpose. That doesn't and shouldn't stop us from trying to capture it.


"Not all truth, just the limited subset of it he could show," is very true because Truth (with a capital "T") is as you say, very elusive and even deceptive. But great photographers like Evans capture what they know. And I guess we can both agree it's worked out for him.

5:37 PM  

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