Tell me what you think

Among the other things that I’ve been up to, when I’m not posting as regularly as I should be, has been studying art in an effort to improve my photography. It’s led to some interesting speculation about how we interpret some particular pieces, and made me want to throw it out there to my myriad (3) readers to see if you had similar reactions. So here are a couple of images for your consideration, one of mine and one that’s not, to provide a comparison. Feel free to chime in and tell me what you think.

great blue heron against contrast reflections in water by Ansel Adams
This one is by Ansel Adams, which I think most people know by name even if they’re not necessarily familiar with his work. Here’s what he himself had to say about it, as quoted from Adams: The Mystery and The Passion from Haubercourt Books:

When the heron paused and raised its head, I was struck by the interplay with the post-sunset light on the ripples of the river, and quickly tripped the shutter. The complete silhouette actually meant that there is no heron there, just a heron-shaped gap in the alternating pattern of light interference. It put me in mind of white noise and static, the hallmark of the industrialized world, and how nature provides a break in the cacophony. The fluid lines and curves of the waterfowl distinctly offset the linear aspect of the background, telling us of the grace of a world untouched by Man.

To me, that’s a lot of what art is: recognizing the metaphor and symbolism that can be drawn from the image, and I’ve been finding it interesting seeing how the more-accomplished photographers went about it. I suspect that we all recognize the elements subconsciously, but the presentation of the image is what drives them from the subconscious to the conscious, bringing these reactive elements up to where we take notice.

The next image is mine, and I’m going to come right out and say that I’m not promoting this as high art, and I’m not even sure of my feelings about it – I like it, but I don’t think I know why yet. Nonetheless:

stark bare branches against delicate sky colors
And my description, for eventual submission to galleries:

The black fingers of the bare branches seem to be drawing the last of the warmth from the autumn sky, making room for the cold blue winter. Smoke from a nearby fireplace chimney also helps mask the faint feeble rays from the sun, themselves inadequate to provide the necessary warmth. The scene tells us that it will be a while before the return of spring, the re-emergence of the leaves and the songs of the birds; for now, we will have only the shrill whistle of the wind.

So what I’m asking right now is that you pause, re-examine the image, and tell me if you think I’ve captured the essence of it, or alternately if you think I’ve missed anything.

Take all of the time that you need – I’m going to work on cleaning off my desk a little.

[Why am I still hanging onto this?]

All set? Feel comfortable with your response, and what kind of feelings the image evokes? And more importantly, did you agree with Adams up there, and see the aspects that he did?

Because it’s all bullshit. First off, Ansel Adams was born in 1902, so he would have been 3 years old at the time that shot was ostensibly copyrighted – it’s actually one of mine, and nowhere near Adam’s style in any way. Adams also wouldn’t have known about white noise or static at the time, and there’s no such book, and so on. Basically, everything in there is a lie.

But there’s a well-known effect (that probably has a name which I’m not going to bother looking up) where people perceive a greater level of integrity or artistic merit, what-have-you, when they believe something was created by someone prestigious. It’s kind of backwards, really; the prestige that they have has (usually) come from producing art that resonates well with a lot of people, but we’re capable of assigning this property based on the prestige we feel it’s supposed to merit.

In fact, both images above are ones that I took without any particular metaphors or symbolism attached – it was strictly the visual aspect that made me snap the picture, and while I like them both, I don’t consider them high art in any way. That’s why I chose them, really. Because it was the descriptions that were supposed to influence how you felt about them, what you noticed, what you actually thought. The second image was really taken in March, right before the leaf buds started to emerge, and the smoke is not smoke, but simply another level of clouds. No wind.

An awful lot of art is exactly like this: visually unprepossessing, but buttressed with a lofty (and often spiritual) description that’s supposed to evoke something deeper within the viewer – which is actually the reader. Now, it can be argued that this is a part of “art,” and I won’t necessarily disagree – there’s a skill and often an emotional component to creating the descriptions, and of course you’re on a blog which relies heavily on my ability to express my thoughts in an adequate manner (notice how I said nothing about succeeding at this.) However, if the description is needed in order to even imply the supposed properties of the image or piece or whatever, then does it even matter what the piece is, or how much skill is involved in it? I don’t spend a lot of time looking at art galleries or exhibits (and I lied about studying it, above,) but I still come across a few local displays. Much of what I see is butt-ugly, and not particularly skillful from a craftwork standpoint, appended with some overblown description to try and make it transcendental in some manner. And yes, this is personal opinion; all art, and all art appreciation, is, which is why I find art critics and wine tasters and suchlike to be completely superfluous. Critical thinking is a large aspect of my outlook, and so I tend to be more sensitive (or so I believe) to situations where things don’t seem to jibe, where I suspect someone is trying to influence me towards valuing something higher than it deserves.

I won’t dismiss the possibility that such descriptions or the emotions or the backstories or whatever are legitimate, accurate depictions of how the artist feels, and they simply don’t have the skills yet to express this to me in their chosen medium. However, I’m not going to buy the idea that it’s all like that; I think the vast majority of artistic descriptions are simply bullshit. It’s marketing, pure and simple, and it’s done because it works, because all too often people can be more influenced by what they think someone else believes than by what their own senses have provided.

For another viewpoint, most of the advice that I found when starting my own website of photographs was that they should be presented simply, with a neutral grey or black background and no descriptions – as if in direct avoidance of the trends among other forms of art. I personally elected to dismiss this advice, and included some form of description with most of the images; in most cases it’s more of a backstory, to provide something of interest (hopefully) to the viewer, but on occasion I provided my own suggestions. Feel free to call this hypocritical if you like – I never took it seriously myself, and think I expressed that adequately within, especially since the vast majority of suggestions are humorous. Yet, you might also argue that this is simply another form of influence away from what the image is capable of communicating on its own.

You might have been influenced by the descriptions that I provided above, if only by a little bit, or you might have seen right through it all. You might even have found yourself agreeing with either of them, or some aspect, after I admitted they were just made up; I did aim for something that at least seemed plausible. What I’d suggest is, look something over and get a nice impression fixed in your mind first, before seeing what the artist has to say. Maybe you’ll understand the piece better. Maybe you’ll find there’s little relation between the two. But if you find yourself more impressed after reading their description, perhaps you’re responding to the prose and not the piece. And I’ll leave it up to you to determine if that’s what works for you as art.

And yes, the post title is a bit tongue-in-cheek, since my point is that I’m trying to tell you what to think with those descriptions. I’m not impressed by that approach, myself.

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