the subject, the form, and broad influence
They are very interesting, but I’m not sure that the images really reflect his statement:
These photographs were shot in modest, well-worn, suburban cities in central and inland Southern California. Built in the 50s and 60s, these cities provided a new home and future to a post-war population. While Southern California’s coastal cities flourish, cities in these inland counties struggle. Future prosperity and civic health seem to come primarily from growing ethnic populations, which are reviving and recreating these cities for their communities.
Speak of content and form, I found a conversation between Bill Jay and David Hurn on choosing a photographic subject (PDF) while digging around in Alec Soth‘s old blog. Jay notes that the role of photography is essentially to show what something looks like, yet curiously, many photographers don’t know what to photograph, photograph randomly. Hurn replies that those photographers are drawn to the medium either because of the impressive figures cut by famous photographers or because of a fixation on gear, but ultimately, they do not choose photography as a profession. He says:
The reason is that photography is only a tool, a vehicle, for expressing or transmitting a passion in something else. It is not the end result. The photographer is, primarily, a subject-selector. Much as it might offend the artistically inclined, the history of photography is primarily the history of subject matter.
I’m not sure I agree with this entirely, but it’s interesting to think about this while considering, say, Stephen Shore’s American Surfaces. Would be considered groundbreaking if all those scenes were immaculately lit and composed more conventionally? If the idea itself wasn’t to document mundane details in an ‘unpretentious,’ informal, almost haphazard way? In quite a bit of contemporary photography, form and subject seem inseparable.
In most instances, the artist’s intent also has a huge effect on how his photography is considered. If Shore had said nothing about his intent or said that he’d taken all those photos in one town, would we look at them the same way? Would it make any difference if he had taken those photos in one town and simply said they were from across the country? Maybe those are trivial questions.
On a bit of a tangent, I’d really like to see a book, show or website that place the work of recognized artists alongside photographs taken by the general public. It’d be interesting to see the influence trickle down over time. Ultimately, I’m more interested in how a photographer changes the way ‘ordinary’ people rather than professional photographers, see, and it’s difficult to take critics at their word and accept the statements in sweeping retrospective essays without any evidence of how the images actually changed people’s perception of art or the role of photography.
Or do we consider the work of subsequent photographers to be representative of public influence? To me, this also highlights the fact that the history of photography is the history of selection curation.