Elective Affinities

Each work of art presents a particular view of the world. Sometimes these views can be complemented, extended or contested by other works of art. This essay considers some relations between photographs in my collection. In science truth is attained by considering things from different directions – hypotheses based on one view are confirmed or rejected by information gained from other views. Art works in a similar way.

A) Landscapes: Brett Weston and Mario Giacomelli

Brett Weston’s 1968 photograph Guatemala Landscape looks down upon nearby fields and up toward more farmland on a distant hill. The view includes two levels of clouds. The upper clouds are dark. However, these are breaking up and the distant fields are lit by shafts of sunlight. This irregular pattern of light is overlaid upon the more formal geometry that divides the fields. Banks of light clouds cluster in the distance below the hill. We are at peace between the clouds.

In the foreground the land slopes down to a valley on the right. This curving sweep of land contrasts with the triangular shape of the distant hill. The photograph was taken from high ground, probably from a road running along the edge of the nearby valley. Although the land is intensely farmed there is no clear evidence of people or buildings. A humanoid shape in the lower left appears to represent a scarecrow. The absence of activity suggests that the photograph was taken in the early morning. Or on Sunday.

Weston took other nearby photographs. The 1989 book Brett Weston: Master Photographer includes (p. 77) a view that includes the same distant hill but has a different foreground, in which numerous buildings are seen.

The viewer’s eye follows from the left the downward sweep of land, tumbles into the valley, and then is drawn upward to the distant hill. One of Weston’s early books The Voyage of the Eye (1975) was prefaced by a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1836 essay Nature about how the eye acts like an artist, creating at the same time as perceiving:

Such is the constitution of all things, or such the plastic power of the human eye, that the primary forms, as the sky, the mountain, the tree, the animal, give us a delight in and for themselves; a pleasure arising from outline, color, motion, and grouping. This seems partly owing to the eye itself. The eye is the best of artists. (Chapter 2)

The photograph chosen for the dustjacket of that book was Garapata Beach, 1954, illustrated on the right. This photograph of the Big Sur country in California evokes a similar response from the viewer as the Guatemala landscape. The eye is initially held by the edge of the large rock on the left. It then skirts around the smaller central rock, and through the shadows to follow the beach toward the distant highlands.

Mario Giacomelli’s Paesaggio 024 (“Landscape”) from the 1970s is similar to the Weston photograph in that it looks down over farmland. However, Giacomelli’s photograph was taken from an airplane rather than from a height of land, and the horizon is barely visible at the top of the photograph. What is most striking about the Giacomelli print, however, is its contrast: the lighter regions have been all collapsed into white. The furrows in the fields are black and the snow-covered ridges between them are white. The picture presents the abstract geometry of plowed fields. Giacomelli enjoyed the visual effects of this forced contrast. Such an approach differs from that of the Weston photograph which is printed with a full range of shades.

Another example of Giacomelli’s art is from his series of photographs of Pretini (an affectionate term for priests-in-training – “little priests”). In the particular print shown on the right, seminarians frolicking in the snow appear suspended in light.




B) Natural Forms: William Garnett and Lee Friedlander

William Garnett’s photograph Four-Sided Dune, Death Valley, California, 1954 was taken from an airplane flying over the desert. The image immediately brings to mind the curves and surfaces of the human body. The desert is the earth without any clothes.

Lee Friedlander’s Nude, 1979 presents the same forms as the dune in the human body. One can sense the sunshine that tanned the skin and feel the desert in the Navajo blanket on which the nude is posed.

Dunes have long intrigued photographers. Edward Weston photographed the dunes of Oceano in San Luis Obispo County, California, just south of Big Sur country, in 1936. His son Brett Weston took similar photographs there in 1960. Images by father (left) and son (right) are shown below:

The curves and warmth of the dunes have a distinctly erotic appeal. While Edward Weston was photographing the dunes, his mistress and muse Charis Wilson took off her clothes and tumbled sensuously down the slopes. This led to several famous photographs, two of which are shown below.

In her 1977 book Edward Weston Nudes, Charis Wilson recounted

Altogether it was a magical place. The silence and emptiness, the beauty of the wind sculpted forms, the absence of any living thing beside ourselves – all these combined to give me an exhilarating sense of freedom. As soon as the sun warmed things up I took off my clothes and went diving down a steep slope. When Edward photographed me, … we were on opposite sides of a small valley in the dunes, but he was considerably higher. This tended to minimize the steepness of the bank that I was on. I was reminded of a childhood game of statues as I kept returning to the top of the bank to relaunch myself, and each slide down ended in a more abandoned position.

C) Returning the Gaze: Irving Penn and Jock Sturges

In Being and Nothingness (1943), Jean-Paul Sartre considers the role of “le regard” (look/gaze) in defining one’s existence. When something is looked at, it becomes an object in someone’s consciousness. When someone is looked at, they likewise become objectified. When people look at one another, a tension can develop about who is object and who subject. Looking defines both self and other. Furthermore, looking is often accompanied by a judgement of the worth of what is looked at.

The visual arts extend this power of the look. The object of the artist’s gaze is preserved beyond the presence of the model and made available to others. The viewer can gaze for as long as he likes at the person represented in the painting, film or photograph, whereas in reality such a prolonged viewing could easily be considered wrong – it is not polite to stare.

In a 1975 article for the journal Screen, the film critic Laura Mulvey first used the term “male gaze” as a way to express the tendency of a narrative film to portray the female character for the visual pleasure of male viewers. The idea was quickly extended to other visual arts.

Sometimes, photographs clearly cater to the male gaze. Lee Friedlander’s nude photograph presented in the previous section has a different effect upon me than upon a female veiewer.  Sometimes, however, the subjects in the photographs return the gaze of the viewer, defying his or her presuppositions, and challenging who is subject and who is object. This section compares two photographs, one of an adolescent girl in France and one of a young boy in New Guinea.

Jock Sturges’ photograph of Marine, Last Day of Summer #1, 1989 was taken at the Centre Hélio-Marin (“center of sun and sea”), a naturist beach resort at Montalivet, on the west coast of France just north of the city of Bordeaux. Sturges has published nude studies of children and adolescents in several books. Since he uses a large-format view camera mounted on a tripod, his photographs require the consent and cooperation of the subjects. The beach provided an uncluttered background that focuses the viewer on Marine as effectively as a studio backdrop.

Other photographs by Sturges are shown below. One is the pair to the 1989 portrait of Marine shown above, and the other shows a group of girls on the beach in 1987. Marine is the child furthest to the left.

Sturges ran into legal trouble when his photographs were considered child pornography. FBI officers raided his studios in 1990, seizing his equipment and negatives. Ultimately the case was not prosecuted, and his work was returned. In 1998, Barnes and Noble were charged with selling obscene books, among which were Sturges’ Radiant Identities and David Hamilton’s The Age of Innocence. The charges were dropped when the bookstore promised to keep the books shrink-wrapped and out of reach of young people.

Photographers have been taking pictures of nude children since the early days of photography. Some early photographs, such as Baron Wilhelm von Gloeden’s images of young Sicilian boys, seem definitely prurient in nature to the modern eye. Even those that purport to portray the simple innocence of childhood, such as the photograph of Evelyn Hatch taken by Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carrol) in 1879 and colored by Anne Bond, leave the modern viewer a little queasy:

Distinguishing between different ways of considering the human body is exceedingly difficult. One viewer’s eroticism is another’s pornography. In his 1956 book on The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form, Kenneth Clark considered the “nude” to be the artistic representation of the human body in idealized form. Photography gets short shrift because it is generally realistic rather than idealistic:

… the result is hardly ever satisfactory to those whose eyes have grown accustomed to the harmonious simplifications of antiquity. (p. 7)

One might as easily argue that the ideal is false and incompatible with human reality. Yet we have to give Clark some credit for admitting that even the most perfect of nudes arouses sexual feelings:

… no nude, however abstract, should fail to arouse in the spectator some vestige of erotic feeling, even though it be only the faintest shadow – and if it does not so, it is bad art and false morals. (p. 8)

Current commentary (e.g. Jorge Lewinski’s 1987 The Naked and the Nude: A History of the Nude in Photographs 1839 to the Present, or more generally Hans Maes and Jerrold Levinson’s 2022 collection Art and Pornography: Philosophical Essays) considers obscenity and pornography as more in the mind of the viewer rather than in the work of the artist.

What is most impressive about Sturges’ photograph of Marine is her complete self-possession. She is comfortable with her body, and interested in seeing what effect it can have. She is in the process of becoming a beautiful young woman.

I have paired this photograph of Marine with the portrait of an unnamed Child Painted White, New Guinea, 1970, by Irving Penn. He is a boy in the process of becoming a man:

Body painting is used in many different human societies. For the people of Papua New Guinea it serves various purposes: denoting tribal identity, instilling fear in one’s opponents, or acknowledging rites of passage. I am not sure of the particular purpose of this boy’s paint, but his obvious pride suggests that he has just been accepted as a full member of his tribe.

Irving Penn made his living as a fashion photographer. He worked for the magazine Vogue from 1943 until the 1990s. He also photographed subjects that intrigued him: nudes, still-life, and portraits. One of his abiding interests was in photographing people from societies completely different from ours. Between 1948 and 1971, travel assignments from Vogue allowed him to portray people from Peru, Dahomey, Nepal, Cameroon, New Guinea, and Morocco. In each location he set up a studio-like background either by hanging backdrops or erecting a tent. The following quotation from his notes (at the Art Institute of Chicago) describes his technique:

… pictures trying to show people in their “natural circumstances” were for me generally disappointing. Certainly I know that to accomplish such a result was beyond my strength and capabilities. I preferred in this fantasy of mine, the limited objective of dealing only with the person himself, in his own clothes and adornments away from the accidentals of his daily life. From him alone I would distill the image I wanted and the cold light of the day would put it into the film.

He described the interaction with his subjects in the portable studio

The studio became for us both a sort of neutral area. It was not their home, since I had brought this alien enclosure into their lives. It was not my home since I had obviously come from elsewhere far away. But in this limbo was in us both the possibility of contact that was a revelation to me and often I could tell a moving experience for the subjects themselves

The fashion photographs and the ethnographic studies are completely different. Yet one can detect a basic similarity in the way Penn accentuates what is important. The following illustration shows Penn’s most famous Vogue cover (Jean Patchett, 1950) together with another photograph from his visit to New Guinea (Man with a Pink Face, New Guinea, 1970). High contrast accentuates fashion’s form, while full tonality emphasizes the reality of the New Guinea man.

D) I Will Lift up Mine Eyes unto the Hills: Morley Baer and Ruth Bernhard

In this section I shall briefly compare some of the formal similarities between representations of landscape and studies of the nude. The first photograph is Morley Baer’s Farm Knoll, Contra Costa, 1970:

The photograph shows a small hill in Contra Costa County. This is an area spreading east from the inner shore (“contra costa”) of San Francisco Bay, north of Berkeley and south of Napa Valley. The region is hilly farmland, now much more suburban than it was in 1970. The photograph shows newly plowed land with the furrows taking the viewer’s eye up toward the hill’s elevation. The newly formed alto cumulus clouds in the sky provide a randomness that contrasts with the regularity of the land.

Baer was fond of the rounded hills of coastal California. The following two photographs show two other studies: Spring Storm, Portuguese Ridge, Sur Coast, 1971, and Knoll, Capay Valley, 1975.  (The Capay Valley is northwest of Sacramento.)

The nude photographs of Ruth Bernhard provide human forms to compare to Baer’s landscapes. Perspective II, 1967, highlights the rolling curves of a reclining model. Bernhard was intrigued by how light could be used to paint her photographic pictures:

Bernhard was intrigued by how the human body could adapt to various limitations, such as the large steel bowl of In the Circle, 1934 on the right, or the packing box of a new Omega D-2 photographic enlarger of In the Box, 1962 below.

E) The Power of the Center: Thaddeus Holownia and Geoffrey James

Though the human eye acts like a pinhole camera to present an upside-down image of the world upon the retina, the neuronal response to the image varies with the distance from the center of the visual field. The number of receptive cells and hence the resolution of the neuronal image is higher in the region of the retina known as the fovea – the central 5 degrees of the visual field. In addition, the number of cones (as opposed to rods) and hence the perception of color is far greater in this region and in the surrounding macula (about 18 degrees of visual field) that in the periphery. Half the neurons in the optic nerve carry information from the fovea and half the area of the visual cortex is devoted to what it sees. When we look at the world, we are automatically focused on what is at the center of our gaze. Rudolf Arnheim’s 1983 book The Power of the Center: A Study of Composition in the Visual Arts, discusses the way in which the visual arts can draw the viewer’s attention.

Although the Seigneury of Canon has origins in the Middle Ages, the present Chateau de Canon near Caen in Normandie was constructed in the 18th Century by Jean-Baptiste Élie de Beaumont, a lawyer, philanthropist and friend of Voltaire. The extensive gardens were planted with trees from all over the world. Adjacent to the castle is a set of 13 chartreuses (walled gardens, the term derives, like the liqueur, from the La Grande Chartreuse, the first Carthusian monastery, founded near Grenoble in 1084 by Saint Bruno). These gardens are filled with flowers and fruit trees. They communicate with each other through arched doorways. In one of the distant gardens is a statue of Pomona, a Roman Goddess of fruitful abundance, her name deriving from pomus (fruit tree).

Geoffrey James’s photograph of Chateau de Canon, Les Chartreuses, 1986, views the gardens from behind the statue. The statue is slightly off-center. This allows the viewer to see the sequence of arches that lead to the other gardens. The goddess is surrounded by a profusion of flowers, probably asters and chrysanthemums.

A photograph (on the right) of the goddess viewed from the other end of the chartreuses is available on the Web Gallery of Art.

Thaddeus Holownia’s photograph Upper Dorchester, February 1981, shows the remains of one of the longest covered bridges in the world. The bridge crossed the Memramcook River near the village of Dorchester in western New Brunswick, Canada. In the border regions between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia at the further reaches of the Bay of Fundy lies a land of marshes, tidal flats and dykelands.

For centuries the people of the region have tried to reclaim the land from the sea and tame it for their uses. At the end of the 19th century, an attempt was made to build the Chignecto Ship railway across the land to connect the Bay of Fundy to the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. The hope was to transport ships 17 miles overland in several hours, thereby saving several days of sailing the 500 miles around Cape Breton in the open sea. However, the land was too severe, and stable construction was impossible. All that now remains of the railway is the ruined dock at Tidnish on the Gulf of Saint Lawrence.

The Rockland Bridge (also known as the Upper Dorchester Bridge) dates back to 1877. It is discussed at length in the Parks Canada Manuscript Report 212 (1977). The tides and the storms caused the old wooden bridge to collapse several times. A new covered bridge was built in 1924. Covered bridges protect the structural timber from the weather and last much longer than uncovered wooden bridges. The Rockland Covered Bridge was built with five spans. Windows were cut in the walls since the length of the bridge made it quite dark inside. The windows could be closed in bad weather. The bridge was otherwise plain and functional. Old photographs are available at the New Brunswick Archives (right). (New Brunswick is famous for its many covered bridges.) Although the country at the end of the Bay of Fundy is harsh, the covered bridge lasted half a century. Strong winds and a particularly high tide finally destroyed it in late 1977.

Holownia’s photograph is completely centered. The top of the nearest pilings is equidistant from the two sides of the photograph and equidistant from its top and bottom. Though everything is in focus, the distant reaches are difficult to discriminate in the silvery winter haze. The detail of the scene thus mimics the way our eye concentrates on what reaches the fovea. We approach the image as though we were about to cross the bridge. But we cannot because it is no longer there.  As Martha Langford notes in her 2007 book Scissors, Paper, Stone: Expressions of Memory in Contemporary Photographic Art:

The Rockland Bridge is almost a memory, its passage from function to sign recorded with simple fidelity. Where it used to bridge space, thereby connecting communities, it now bridges time. (p. 152)

In Howlonia’s 1989 book Dykelands, his photographs of the region are published together with poems by Douglas Lochhead. The poem associated with this photograph reads

out there the cold remains of pilings
in a winter-waiting tide

the strength, the order, a kind of love
is shared as each to each

the pilings on an inward morning
stand as shattered sentries, almost,

and then the clopping traffic
of the near past batters the ear

the leaning tense figures with reins
and the horses adding white breath

in the bridge’s close. the sides and roof
went last year, and October tide it was.

Over the subsequent years, Holownia returned to the bridge to record the demise of even the ruined pilings, putting together a whole sequence of images from 1981 to 2000. Time passes. The marks we make on the world ultimately become indecipherable. The photograph below shows what little was left in 1997. This photograph was taken at low tide: at high tide the remnants of the pilings would not be visible.

F) Extended Exposures: Robert Bourdeau and Michael Kenna

Most modern photographs are taken using an exposure of a fraction of as second. In the beginnings of photography when the negatives were much less sensitive to light, exposure times often lasted for several seconds or even minutes.

One visual effect that is not really possible to capture in still photographs is the sparkle of light on water. The rapidly changing pattern of the light cannot be seen in a medium that cannot show change over time. However, a photograph with a long-time exposure can produce an effect of light on water that is almost as beautiful. Sparkle is changed to sheen. The glittering lights are integrated to show something like molten silver. This effect is demonstrated in Robert Bourdeau’s County Wicklow, Ireland, 1980. The water in the tumbling brook has been smoothed out over time.

Using a long exposure time at night can reveal aspects of a scene that would be impossible to see with the human eye. Michael Kenna’s photograph Tow Path, Blackburn, 1984, shows what the camera can see at night:

What is impressive in the picture is the lightness of the sky, the brightness of the railing, and the darkness of the water. The railing draws the eye up toward the bridge: this is the way we must travel. In his 1988 book Night Walks, Kenna remarks

I like the dramatic quality of the lighting at night. There are often strong shadows, and that relates to hiding things. It is as if the shadows invite the observer in to share their secrets. One can bring one’s own experience and thoughts into these areas of shadow. The power of suggestion has always been more important to me than accurate description
It is possible to photograph in places so dark that the eye has difficulty seeing into them. But if the camera is open long enough, it will record details that could not have been seen with the eye. Often the lighting reverses what one sees during the daytime, so that light forms become dark, the dark sky becomes light, and so on. That adds another dimension for me.


G) The Light and The Dark: Ansel Adams and Wynn Bullock

Ansel Adams’ photograph Frozen Lake and Cliffs, 1932, was taken at Precipice Lake in the Sequoia National Park in the Sierra Nevada Mountains about equidistant from San Francisco and Los Angeles. The lake is partially frozen in the area under the shadow of the cliffs on the southern side of the lake. Mottled snowbanks rest in the recesses of the cliffs. The photograph was taken with 4 by 5 inch view camera, which gave a restricted view of the cliffs. The image is a masterpiece of light and dark:

Some idea of the full scene before the camera is given in a modern photograph (Google Earth) illustrated on the right. The actual field of view of Adams’ photograph is to the lower left in this image.

At the time of this photograph, Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and several other California colleagues were proposing new esthetic principles for photography. Rather than imitating pictures produced by painting, they decided that modern photography should follow its own path and produce highly detailed images, such as those obtained with small lens apertures and relatively long exposure times. They called their loose affiliation the “f/64 Group” – the smallest aperture usually available for a lens. Apertures are measured using reciprocals: the diameter of the aperture is the focal length of the lens divided by the f value. Changing the f value from f/64 to f/4 increases the aperture diameter by 16. The first exhibition of the f/64 group was in San Francisco in November 1982. The group was never really formalized; the term just became used for photographers that made high-resolution images with everything in focus.

Another aspect of this photograph is the difficulty in printing all the shades of grey to make the texture of the image fully perceptible. In his book 1983 book Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs, Adams described how he was able to print the image:

I found the better method was to divide the basic exposure into two parts, first burning in the foreground reflection area starting from the top of the ice, then burning the cliffs starting from the bottom of the ice.

In this way the ice becomes relatively darker and cliffs relatively lighter than what would have occurred by exposing the whole image for the same duration.

Over the following years, Adams and his colleague Fred Archer worked on a “Zone System” to help photographers to take images with a full range of shades or “tones” from black (zone 0) to white (zone X). This system was to photography what the principles of chiaroscuro were to painting. The Zone system helped to determine both the exposure time for the negative and the development time for the final print. The system was fully described in Adams 1948 book The Negative: Exposure and Development. The zones can be diagrammed:

In terms of digital photography using a scale of 0 (black) to 255 (white), each step from 0 to X increments by 25.5, with zone V set in the middle at 127.5. The goal of the Zone System was to make sure that the photograph showed detail at each level of luminance in the captured scene. Forcing the exposure of the negative or the development of the print to only portray some of the zones available in the photograph, as in the prints of Mario Giacomelli or the Vogue cover photograph of Jean Patchett, can give interesting esthetic effects, but Adams preferred prints that showed a complete range of zones.

In the early years of the 20th Century, Alfred Stieglitz had promoted “straight photography” as opposed to “pictorialism.” Straight photography emphasized what the camera was good at: sharply focused detail, and a richness of tonality from light to dark. In 1917, Paul Strand provided some incisive comments on this approach in a brief article in the short-lived journal Seven Arts (Volume II, pp 524-6.)

The photographer’s problem, therefore, is to see clearly the limitations and at the same time the potential qualities of his medium, for it is precisely here that honesty no less than intensity of vision is the prerequisite of a living expression. This means a real respect for the thing in front of him, expressed in terms of chiaroscuro (color and photography having nothing in common) through a range of almost infinite tonal values which lie beyond the skill of the human hand. The fullest realization of this is accomplished without tricks of process or manipulation, through the use of straight photographic methods.

In his multiple books on photographic technique, Adams provided the principles of straight photography: how to render both the over-arching form and the nitty-gritty detail of the world.

Wynn Bullock’s print of Shore, 1966, provides an interesting example of the different levels of light and dark in a photograph:

The photograph represents the light of the setting sun on water at a beach that is half sand and half rock, probably somewhere on or near the Monterey Peninsula in California where Bullock lived after 1946. The photograph was taken with a long-time exposure and a very small aperture. The exposure time reduced any sparkle in to the water to a silvery glow. The tiny aperture prevented over-exposure of the negative. As shown on the right, the original negative also included the sun, which was cropped out for this particular print.

The zones in the print vary from the complete darkness that occupies much of the print to the brightest of the reflected light which reaches Zones VIII or IX. The effect is much different from what the human visual system would perceive. We would see a scene that was mainly bright with little if any darkness.

Bullock used this approach – looking at the darkness beyond the light – in other photographs. Edward Steichen chose Bullock’s Let There be Light, 1951, for inclusion in his 1955 exhibition The Family of Man at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Bullock’s print was displayed as a 10 by 12 ft enlargement (composed of four panels). It was voted the most popular photograph when the exhibition was shown at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington.