visual grammar, learning grammar
all photos, Felix R. Cid
An unexpected heat wave is a perfect time to hole up in a temperature-controlled sanctuary of books to soak in some Shore and Meyerowitz now that I have finally sussed out what appeals to me about modern landscapes. It’s taken me a while to warm up to the school of Shore and Co. I was at once predictably repulsed by the seeming insignificance of everyday yet drawn to something about the style of the photographs. I think that something is essentially an attempt to show scenes in a visually interesting way that is devoid of the flashy style which reduces the subject to an emotional reaction or abstract concept.
No photograph is objective, but there is something in the sweeping grand style of your average landscape poster print that is an overt lie. In the way that man and his effects on the land are usually ignored or glossed over. In the way that at first glance they virtually scream “Beauty!” and reduce a natural location or event which occurs in context to a visual artifact to coo over. (Come to think of it, yes, see the previous post on museums.) Nature photography in the Adams style may have been somewhat appropriate in the ’20s or ’30s, when most national parks and the tourism associated with them did not exist yet, when less of the world was paved, but to photograph in that style now is either to unthinkingly imitate or to willfully ignore a fairly obvious change in the physical landscape.
For me, this puts a different spin on claims of how ground-breaking or revolutionary an artist is. Choosing trash, industrial offal, plain urban landscapes as subject matter is not breaking from any tradition of depicting serene beauty. It is following in the longstanding tradition of artists’ work reflecting what they see. It’s just that our world has changed enough to be fairly unrecognizable compared to what our ancestors saw. A different physical world means a different visual world, and contemporary visual art is to some extent an effort to parse that new visual world, to update our visual grammar.
When I look at a photo of some Alaskan snowy mountain with reflected in a lake in a fall evening, I perceive it as pleasing not so much because I have decided independently that this is what constitutes beauty, but rather because somewhere, some time, I picked up the notion that certain natural elements are beautiful when arranged a certain way, directly from other people and from sheer repeated exposure to such images in publications and media that are respected. That’s not to say that there wasn’t something potent and novel about such images originally – certainly the colors, scale and unfamiliar peace of striking natural landscape has a visceral impact – but I believe now the punch comes from a socially transmitted visual convention as much as the subject itself.
That’s a long-winded way of asking: in the past, when I was your average snapshooting tourist, did I stop to take a picture of a vista because it was impressive or because it matched a postcard I’d seen? The answer’s murky, but I think it’s safe to say that we all learn some sort of visual vocabulary (or tradition, but I think language is more accurate), a way to understand the world as a visual construct that depends on contemporary styles determined by some intersection of composition, lighting and subject matter.
What we consider intuitive depends on what we’re taught and are accustomed to. This is far more obvious in the history of painting. In pre-Renaissance religious painting, the relative size of human and godly forms was determined not by real life size but by spiritual importance. We had to invent the use of perspective. If I’m not mistaken, there was an experiment where people of indigenous cultures who were shown paintings utilizing perspective found it ridiculous that a large animal like an elephant in the background would be drawn as smaller than a person prominent in the foreground despite, of course, being perfectly able to function in the real world, where large animals are smaller when seen at a distance. They must have a different visual vocabulary.
Text in reviews and on museum walls can sound very, very bloated with insider keywords that ring a bit hollow for the practical-minded in no small part due to the inescapable inanity of trying to articulate visual ideas with verbal language. We’re trying join ideas that exist on two different planes. But sometimes the text makes only vague sense because there aren’t enough images on display for us to learn the language of the artist. New work is challenging because we haven’t become accustomed to that artist’s visual vocabulary.
You know that feeling of finally “getting” an artist? This, I think, is the moment when you finally grasp his visual grammar. You can “get” art without really being able to explain it to other people. Visuals stick in my brain for reasons I can only express through inept hand-waving, and I admit I am irrationally wary of people who park in front of artwork they’ve never seen and immediately spout fluid sentences full of multiple clauses that originate from every cardinal compass point yet slide snugly into place without any violence. In fact, I’m not sure we will ever be able to have a truly thorough and precise discussion of visual art. (Unless we invent a way to project non-verbal thoughts into three dimensional space?)
Sometimes I come upon a photo that’s very “ad-like.” I can’t quite put my finger on it, but my best guess today is that ad work is never visually difficult. It is always easy, either to figure out the visual punch line or simply to parse the photograph in a visual vocabulary you are already familiar with. (It’s a different story with shock value derived from breaking taboos, but I won’t go into that. It seems fairly straightforward.) After all, ads have to be easy to serve their function of delivering a quick impression to people who might not stay long. You’re probably not going to stop and stare while driving by on the freeway or flipping through a magazine (though fashion and beauty magazines… but that’s another story altogether).
But back to our landscape case study. I’ve misunderstood Adams’ role in landscape and art photography. I’ve never liked the work, but that’s probably because I’ve become familiar with his language through the work of those whom he influenced and when I finally got around to seeing his work, it seemed old and conventional already. He is one of those style-changers whose influence is so widespread that it’s difficult to see back past his time. Our visual vocabulary is so altered that we begin to take his innovations for granted. (A little like, in film, the use of flashbacks or non-linear chronology, devices we accept easily now.) I suppose the Adams era is like the Impressionist era – we’ve gotten accustomed enough now that it’s popular.
The moderns, on the other hand, I need to spend more time with. We can digest established artists through iconic singular images because we have already learned their style, but new art is best served in ample portions since we’ve yet to learn and what better way to learn than repetition with variation. Looking at photographs can be a very passive act, but it doesn’t have to be.