Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘photography’

03 APRIL, 2014

The Presence of Absence: Jane Dorn’s Haunting Photographs of Abandoned Buildings in the South

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A poignant reminder of our impermanence and the beauty of accepting life’s cycles of growth and decay.

UPDATE: Dorn’s photos are now available on society6. Click each image below for the respective print.

“While a painting or a prose description can never be other than a narrowly selective interpretation,” Susan Sontag wrote in her timeless meditation on photography, “a photograph can be treated as a narrowly selective transparency.” Early photography advocate Frederick Douglas spoke of photography’s singular power to reveal the unseen as “aesthetic force,” and yet in today’s image-overloaded culture, how easily that aesthetic force can slip into what Sontag called “aesthetic consumerism” as we devour timeline visuals and telepresence stand-ins for our friends, our communities, and our own experiences of reality. The need for an antidote is precisely what makes the work of Greenville-based photographer Jane Dorn so compelling. Like a contemporary Eudora Welty of the camera, Dorn captures the mesmerizing intersection of place, presence, and absence in her project Empirical Evidence — a series of haunting photographs of abandoned houses, churches, schools, and other once-inhabited buildings across the American South.

Emanating from Dorn’s photographs is a disquieting sense of impermanence as one beholds these derelict structures once erected as assurances of permanence. And yet a quiet beauty slips in through the cracked back door, gently reminding us of the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi — the awareness that life’s beauty comes from accepting imperfection and welcoming the natural cycles of growth and decay.

Dorn writes:

Looking is benign. Seeing has teeth and comes with consequences. You see it, you own it. Sometimes it owns you.

I think of photographs as proof. Empirical evidence of both what is and what is not. Through the camera, I see not what is present, but what is missing. I see evidence of absence through the presence of what remains.

See more of Dorn’s work, which is so striking it belongs in a gorgeous photography book and it’s a miracle it isn’t yet in one, on her site and follow her on Tumblr, where she is a consistently stimulating presence.

Images © Jane Dorn courtesy of the artist

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25 MARCH, 2014

Toy Stories: Photos of Children from Around the World with Their Favorite Things

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A visual catalog of the culturally-conditioned imagination.

“Children help us to mediate between the ideal and the real,” MoMA curator Juliet Kinchin wrote in her fantastic design history of childhood. Largely responsible for this singular capacity are children’s remarkably metaphor-ready minds which transform toys into triggers for imaginative play, imbuing those seemingly simple plastic artifacts and synthetic-furred beings with life and meaning — a hallmark of childhood that cuts across cultural differences, geographies, and socioeconomic status. That’s precisely what photojournalist Gabriele Galimberti explores in Toy Stories: Photos of Children from Around the World and Their Favorite Things (public library) — a visual record of his two-and-a-half-year-long quest to document what boys and girls in 58 countries, from India to Iceland to China to Malawi, consider their most prized earthly possessions.

For each photograph he took, Galimberti spent the entire day with the families. In many cases, what the children did with their toys reflected the needs and realities of their culture. For instance, when the kids in a poor village in Zambia with no electricity, running water, or toy shop found a box of sunglasses that had fallen out of a truck, not only did the plastic eyewear immediately become their favorite — their only — toys, but they also quickly came to play “market,” “buying” and “selling” the prized toys to each other.

Henry, 5 (Berkeley, California)

Maudy, 3 (Kalulushi, Zambia)

Somewhere between Peter Maisel’s Material World series, James Mollison’s poignant photographs of where children sleep, and Rania Matar’s portraits of teenage girls through their bedroom interiors, the series touches on something beyond the sheer visual curiosity of this global atlas of childhood. What emerges is a poignant living testament to the nature-and-nurture model of human nature: The children’s choices, far from pure personal preference, are deeply rooted in social norms and gender conditioning, as in the dominant pink color in many of the girls’ possessions (the subject of another photographer’s fascinating project) or the extensive car collections of little boys, economic reality, as a Kenyan boy’s single stuffed monkey, and cultural climate and priorities, as in a Swiss boy’s minimalist, design-minded LEGO blocks or the toy-firearm artillery of a little boy in the Ukraine.

Julia, 3 (Tirana, Albania)

Abel, 4 (Nopaltepec, Mexico)

Talia, 5 (Timimoun, Algeria)

Pavel, 5 (Kiev, Ukraine)

Reania, 3 (Kuala Lampur, Malaysia)

Shotaro, 5 (Tokyo, Japan)

Chiwa, 4 (Mchinji, Malawi)

Enea, 3 (Boulder, Colorado)

Complement Toy Stories with an equally fascinating look at children’s classrooms, bedrooms, and family possessions, then revisit this pause-giving visual study of gender and color.

All photographs © Gabriele Galimberti/INSTITUTE courtesy of Abrams Image

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13 MARCH, 2014

Narrowly Selective Transparency: Susan Sontag on Photography vs. the Other Arts

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“While a painting or a prose description can never be other than a narrowly selective interpretation, a photograph can be treated as a narrowly selective transparency.”

“The picture of life contrasted with the fact of life… All that is really peculiar to humanity … proceeds from this one faculty or power,” early photography advocate Frederick Douglass observed in contemplating the power of “aesthetic force.” But what is it that lends photography its singular power to capture and convey the facts of life? In On Photography (public library) — that same indispensable 1977 volume that presaged the dynamics of visual culture on the social webSusan Sontag considers how photography differs from the other arts and what makes it a unique medium for human communication and consciousness. Her thoughts are doubly interesting to revisit decades later, when digital photography has lowered the barrier of entry so much that “everyone is a photographer,” as the aphorism goes, and as we find ourselves immersed in an ever-flowing stream of digital images flickering before our eyes faster than we’re able to contain them, let alone interpret them, in our minds. Today, as the photographic image becomes both more ephemeral (a string of information bits rendered on a screen, deletable and manipulable at the touch of a button) and more inescapably permanent (“The Internet is a copy machine,” Kevin Kelly tells us. “Once anything that can be copied is brought into contact with the Internet, it will be copied, and those copies never leave.”), Sontag’s meditation gets at the heart of what lent photography its increasingly affirmed status as the most powerful and far-reaching communication medium of our time.

Sontag begins by considering how photographs offer an assurance of permanence — of tangibility — far greater than the moving image, a sort of guarantee of experience that also explains why photos of vacations, progeny, and backstage passes populate Facebook feeds, as well as a sense of actuality greater than paintings and drawings:

To collect photographs is to collect the world. Movies and television programs light up walls, flicker, and go out; but with still photographs the image is also an object, light-weight, cheap to produce, easy to carry about, accumulate, store. . . .

Photographs are perhaps the most mysterious of all the objects that make up, and thicken, the environment we recognize as modern. Photographs really are experience captured, and the camera is the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood.

To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge — and, therefore, like power. . . . Photographic images … now provide most of the knowledge people have about the look of the past and the reach of the present. What is written about a person or an event is frankly an interpretation, as are handmade visual statements, like paintings and drawings. Photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire.

Photograph by Brandon Stanton from 'Humans of New York.' Click image for details.

But even if photographs imply an interpretation of the world, they invariably attest to the world — that particular world — existing in the first place:

The picture may distort; but there is always a presumption that something exists, or did exist, which is like what’s in the picture. Whatever the limitations (through amateurism) or pretensions (through artistry) of the individual photographer, a photograph — any photograph — seems to have a more innocent, and therefore more accurate, relation to visible reality than do other mimetic objects.

[…]

While a painting or a prose description can never be other than a narrowly selective interpretation, a photograph can be treated as a narrowly selective transparency. But despite the presumption of veracity that gives all photographs authority, interest, seductiveness, the work that photographers do is no generic exception to the usually shady commerce between art and truth. Even when photographers are most concerned with mirroring reality, they are still haunted by tacit imperatives of taste and conscience. . . .

In deciding how a picture should look, in preferring one exposure to another, photographers are always imposing standards on their subjects. Although there is a sense in which the camera does indeed capture reality, not just interpret it, photographs are as much an interpretation of the world as paintings and drawings are.

And yet despite their affirmation of reality — or, rather, a reality — photographs also prompt invisible narratives:

Photographs, which cannot themselves explain anything, are inexhaustible invitations to deduction, speculation, and fantasy.

Photography implies that we know about the world if we accept it as the camera records it. But this is the opposite of understanding, which starts from not accepting the world as it looks. All possibility of understanding is rooted in the ability to say no. Strictly speaking, one never understands anything from a photograph.

'Migrant Mother' by Dorothea Lange, 1936. Click image for details.

On Photography remains a must-read, increasingly so as the steady coevolution of technology and culture continues to complicate our relationship with the still image. Sample more of it here. Complement it with 100 ideas that changed photography and the history of photography animated, then revisit the best photography books of 2013.

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