I've been trying, in recent weeks, to examine photography in a more critical way. I’m trying to not just analyze the aesthetics and draw conceptual conclusions, but examine the political and philosophical implications of a photograph, or any work of art for that matter. I’m curious how a photographer’s philosophical intentions translate to the viewer. If something is subtle and nuanced, can it be more effective than if it is blunt and direct? That is a difficult question to consider. There are many examples of powerful political images…Eddie Adam’s picture of a South Vietnamese soldier executing a member of the Viet Cong comes to mind. Those types of pictures exist and will continue to be made, but I am very intrigued by images that have profound impact even though the imagery doesn’t make that immediately apparent.
While visiting the Wieland Collection this week, the curator commented that Sally Mann toned her “Deep South” prints in tea. The tea, she said, added to the authenticity of the image. It made it, in a phrase, more southern. Whether or not Mann’s intention was to use tea, as a southern compliment, isn’t particularly relevant. The curator felt that by using tea the “Deep South” series was closer to the land…it had become, in effect, part of the land and vice versa.
I love the idea of intricacies translating into huge concepts. Another good example of a photographer with intense, but subtle, conceptual ideas is Michael Ackerman. There is a particular photograph he made of men in a public shower that emphasizes my point. Ackerman is a Polish Jew, so a public shower (not uncommon in Poland I guess) has a much different meaning to him than it does to me. During a recent interview with Ackerman, the interviewer mentioned the Jewish Holocaust, and how it related so hauntingly to his work. Following that interview I began to see his photographs very differently. The work is already haunting, that much is for sure, but it now has meaning to me in a way that it didn’t before. When I look at his shower picture, I instantly think of the gas chambers at Auschwitz...not a pleasant thought at all, but very powerful.
In the case of Ackerman, the interviewer relating his imagery to the Holocaust was as new to him as it was to me. Sally Mann using tea to tone her prints may have been an intentional gesture, maybe not. Maybe it’s the toner she had handy. Who knows? The point I’m making is that sometimes art can go places that even the artist hadn’t originally intended. That, in my mind, is one of the many things that make good art.