Despite a disappointing lack of promotion, I managed to learn of and visit an exhibition of the master street photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson this afternoon. If you don't know him, you're wrong. Allow me to rephrase. You may not know of the man, but it's fairly unlikely that you have never seen his work. His are some of the most famous photographs ever, and they are the sort that stick in your mind. You see one for the second time, years later, and it won't be, "Gee, that looks familiar." No, it's going to be, "Wow. That is still amazing even though cold, hard reality has crushed my spirit in the intervening years." I see his pictures, and what blows me away is that they can never be duplicated. Cartier-Bresson captured the "decisive moments" in his life, those that lasted only seconds but revealed what lay beneath, and preserved them for the rest of us. That and the strength of the lines one finds in his urban landscapes make me want to run from my camera screaming, "Unworthy!" Check out a portfolio at Magnum Photos, an organization which Cartier-Bresson helped to found.
And yet I feel inspired to once again share a piece of my own, one that no one in their right mind would ever mistake for a Cartier-Bresson. Still, this makes a good run for being my favorite. On the technical level, this shot covers the bases fairly well. The primary element, being Madie tying her shoe, is balanced by the incoming runner, and there is a full range of value, running from the white of her shirt to the black of the track with her skin and the grass providing intermediary tones. It's even in focus, and the folds on her rolled-up sleeves are crisp and clean.
But those are the minimum. It takes more than that to be decent. For me, it's the energy contained in her actions. That reads ridiculously. She is only tying her shoes. In a few minutes she will be running 800s with, I'm guessing here, 3:20 splits. That's energy. Shoe-tying? Not so much. But that's not what I see when I run through the contact sheet of the photos taken at that practice. Maybe it's because framing up and focusing the running shots is more difficult, but this is better than all of them. Here there is energy. Her hands move in to tighten the laces. Her free leg is not lolling on the ground but straight and taut. The few strands of hair that have been caught up in the wind and might otherwise prove a distraction to be pushed behind an ear are allowed their play. She is intent and ready.
The only flaw that seriously detracts from this photo for me, is the shadow on my sister's face. Madie says it makes her look like she's crying, which she definitely is not here. I find the sudden darkness distracting as it certainly is not what you would expect after considering the rest of the picture. I guess I could print it again and dodge it a little, but the idea of manipulating my pictures outside of adjusting the frame after shooting has become repulsive to me. I should not be making up for an inadequate original shot with more time in the dark room. It is a feeling not unlike sliding a essay into a clear plastic folder to guarantee an 'A.' Then again, I have not seen the inside of a darkroom for weeks and have some nine rolls of film to develop. We will see what happens then.
Until late January, I'm studying in Munich, Germany. This marks the first time I have ever spent a significant amount of time in a city where there is not a museum or a gallery but multitudes, over 60 galleries and 20 art museums or institutions. One Euro entrance fees on Sunday make it all the more beautiful. This is kind of a big deal. Needless to say, I have been and am going to take advantage of it to the max before my departure. Last weekend was Open Art, an initiative by the city arts council which resulted in free entrance to all, extended hours, and hors d'oeuvres in the final two galleries I visited. Today I hit up the Pinakotek Moderne for the design gallery and photography exhibition, "Humanism in China."
Visiting these places and seeing all that they have to offer and being only a novice appreciator of the visual arts has caused me to wonder what the best way to come to art is. Is it better to be utterly unfamiliar with the field and movements that a piece was created within, a master in the medium, an amateur who has feet in both worlds or even something completely different that I failed to consider?
My initially, my thoughts were in favor of having more than a cursory knowledge of the field and perhaps having dabbled a little bit oneself if not making it a serious hobby, much less a career. Only enough to keep the fool from saying, "I could do that if I wanted to." Maybe a few months of casual study or reading of several books on the field of art and experience with comparable pieces. Prepared with this specific awareness, one could do more than say, "It's pretty" or "It looks like ..." With a practiced awareness, one could recognize truly creative works or fascinating new syntheses and recognize the magnitude of such. Even if the works are not on that scale, one should still know enough to tell one a piece is blatantly ripping off another and no effort has been expended at all.
But then this thought occurred to me following a reading of the blogs on Top Chef kept by the Anthony Bourdain, a frequent guest judge. I watched a few episodes and have kept up online in this way since losing access to American TV. It's such a strange feeling to see him tear into the individual contestants and explain exactly what failed with their respective dishes, how they were some of the most unpalatable things he has ever had to face, but still be aware that I will never have the skill of the participants and would probably melt if I tasted even the vilely decried curry. Part of this may be part of his language. Because he is so familiar with the subject, he can say something like "The balance of acids in their ceviche left me to seriously questioning they had ever used lemon juice before," while I would be straining myself to say, "It's too salty."
And that's where this nagging thought is founded. He has a developed palate. For the most part, I don't. You put it in front of me, and I'll eat it. There is a lot more food that I'm going to enjoy than he is. Though he may be able to better enjoy the best foods more than me, I don't have to be picky. He doesn't want to finish it? I will and be satisfied. So what if I can't detect the subtle fragrance of saffron in a fine tomato soup, much less appreciate it? The chef may be disappointed that their extra skill and care go for naught, but I'm content.
The problem now is further questions precede this one and demand answer first. What is the appropriate relationship between the artist/chef/writer/sculptor/actor/whatever and their audience? Should the audience look to meet the artist at their level or the artist the people? Is it even possible to control this? Should art be simple or complex? How much is too simple? Too complex?
And, ultimately, what is the ideal of art? Pure aesthetics? Revelation of emotion? A challenge to the audience?
I promise to write on these things, but don't be expecting them anytime soon. I've been thinking on them for months now and still have yet to find the faintest idea that satisfies me.
Well, it's later now, and I did write that I would cover the topic of a review's purpose in my last post. Here we go.
Why review this? That's the sort of question, or some variation of such, that attacks me when I find myself at a loss for words when I try to describe my reactions to art. Who cares? Is revealing my opinion and putting so much time and effort into explaining it in a public forum without invitation not one of the highest possible forms of arrogance?
The first question truly is a stupid one. Already, when I began at that simple point of deciding whether or not I enjoyed that art, I had reviewed it. Now, I may not go into full blown criticism by considering the art's relation to current events or what the many sources of inspiration are for it and how it comments upon them, but a review, the description of a reaction, is instantaneous and uncontrollable. One cannot deny the review's existence, spoken or otherwise. The only appropriate response is to dive and learn what things terrify you or make you burn with passion. That nagging question of "Why review?" is simple laziness, an unwillingness to fully explore my reaction and discover the nuances to it, why it left me cold, why I was fighting off sleep, why I laughed against my will.
As to publicly publishing such explorations, the question of "Who cares?" is a bit more interesting. In my online wanderings I have found the necessity of movie reviewers questioned as critically-panned summer blockbusters still find ways to make a profit despite record setting production costs and the highest acclaimed independent films are fortunate to break $5 million. Or your reactions can be to art on a much more local level, where opponents will chew you out for not absolutely loving their or their close friends' work, like this fellow. Really, all reviews are completely personal and ought to be written only for oneself. Reviews, as I have already written, are fully considered explorations of our reactions. To try and write for an audience is to write for the lowest common denominator, and we lose what makes the review worthwhile to us when we pursue this path. The reason we make them public is to introduce our language to the greater discussion, give another the words or, at least, a starting to point to elaborate upon their own experience.
What's the point of reviewing a movie that has been out for over a month? That's a good question. A better one is "Why review art at all?" but that is a subject for a later post. For now, be content that I promised my mother, who has commented upon the film to me multiple times, to review it, and I desire to make reviews of the art I experience a regular part of this blog.
Reducing experiences to a simple metaphor is not something I think particularly highly of, as doing so tends to obscure the nuances and wrinkles, but unfortunately, Hairspray deserves it. Hairspray was Mountain Dew. Actually, considering its length, it was more like a 12-pack. (Do these even exist anymore or are we now doomed to burial by 24- and 36-packs from now on?) This movie was a rush of sweet. The colors are bright, the jokes are frequent and less subtle than a slasher movie, and the only thing you can ultimately fault the characters for are being too nice and cheerful. Of course absolutely everything works out in the end, the good guys get what's coming to them and so do the villains.
Which makes the decision to build the plot around black-and-white integration on a afternoon television show an interesting one. Doing so is safe as it ranks near abolition and the right to vote on hot-button racial issues today, but that just makes the two overweight lead female characters such a tease when nothing is really said about that. American obesity is a much more popular issue these days than integration, but it's only played for laughs in Hairspray through Travolta's weakness to it. Effectively, the movie's silence on the issue endorses acceptance but says nothing definite, which is disappointing but not terribly unexpected in something playing for such a large audience.
As this is a musical, Hairspray lives and dies on its song and dance numbers, and one bubblegum song blows full force into the next and the next after that. There was no time to recover in between them. Moulin Rouge!, which ranks very highly on my list of all-time favorite movies, can be fairly accused of the same thing, for the first half hour or so, but it at least has the intelligence to break the songs up a little, distinguish them. Hairspray fails in this department. Barring Walken and Travolta's duet and the protest song, the others just kind of merge into a single mound of gummi bears and are difficult to remember individually now. Even that might not have been such a sin, if it had not been so long. There's a song for everything: Tracy's ride to school, her first advertising spot, her daydreaming of her crush, her escape from the police and that's only one character in this ensemble film. By the end, it begins to feel like they're trying to justify the presence of all the A-list stars in this by giving them their due screen time.
Speaking of such, the acting in this movie was a treat. Everyone, known and unknown, seems to truly enjoy being in this film and it comes out in the zest in their acting. The only reason no single character doesn't overpower the others is because all the rest are pushing back and playing it up just as hard. Travolta as Tracy's shut-in mother deserves special mention for giving it his all in what must have been absolutely miserable pieces of make-up and costuming to act in.
On the topic of musicals, I've heard that both Moulin Rouge! and Chicago were both supposed to revive the genre. Does this make Hairspray another aborted start or part of the revival these earlier Oscar nominees preciptated? As I'm on the topic, if this the beginning of a revival, I am interested to see if they go in the direction of this remake of a Broadway remake in brashness or that of the more realistic Once, which I still bleeding want to see.
After an extended break, I present to you this picture. Similar to the previously posted picture of Oma, which was taken at the same event as this, I like this one despite some major flaws, both in the shot itself in the printing. Opa's body is lost behind the blur that is my father's intercepting body, and the program he is reading, a major element as all of his attention and eyes are directed towards it, is washed out, something a little burning could have helped with. When I first showed this print to my instructor, he suggested that as the only reason for trying a second print. Seeing some of the other students struggle with their own dodging and burning at this point and a desire to print still more pictures kept me off, but I kind of regret that now. At least it's something I can always come back to.
I did, however, say I liked this picture. Ultimately it's not terribly complex, a man waiting for an event to happen, burning time with a rather disinterested look at the order of events. Barring the shoulder blur, there is only a foreground and two elements. Still, I think the relationship between the two is strong and keeps the picture interesting. And it's in focus. I'm still enough of an amateur to be amazed by that.
In closing, I would like to apologize for my tardiness in posting. I offer the not as excuses but as explanations. Last two weeks of summer were busy ones, replete with writing four articles for the university's newspaper, preparing for a semester in Germany, seeing friends and spending time with them before leaving for Germany, and traveling to Germany. Since my arrival, I've been on vacation with my grandparents, and Internet access has only just become regular. It is my hope that this transplant proves to be a strong ferment for future posts.