A THOUSAND WORDS - Alex Waterhouse-Hayward's blog on pictures, plants, politics and whatever else is on his mind.


Dr. Burnett's Materiality
Wednesday, November 04, 2009

There is a story I read long ago about American photographer Edward Steichen. It seems he was near death. His housekeeper was watching him (broom in hand) and thinking that she should ask Steichen for some advice before the man died. “Mr. Steichen, my son wants to be a photographer. Would you have any pointers for him?” Visibly affected by the question, Steichen made a supreme effort to lift his head from his pillow and whispered, his voice cracking with emotion, “Don’t send him to school!”

In this day and age of the takeover of amateur (citizen) journalism and amateur (citizen) photojournalism I question the relevance of journalism schools, universities and technical institutes that have journalism courses. I would think that journalism is as dead as the uniqueness of the images found in Flickr and Facebook. Everybody had a Colt Peacemaker by the time the 19th century was coming to a close. Gunfighters became an endangered species and disappeared. Footage of Iranian demonstrations comes via cell phones on the BBC TV news channel. With the death of Avedon, Newton and Penn I can no longer discern individual photographic style. The new style of our 21st century modernity seems to be uniformity.

I teach photography at a couple of schools. I agonize as to my relevance as a teacher. I feel that unless I declare Time-like that Photography Is Dead I am fooling my students into a false promise of money and success in a field where the mantra is “free is the best price”.

I find comfort in the idea that school sometimes has its advantage. Around 1976 I was struggling to teach myself how to print colour negatives and slides in my darkroom. I postponed and postponed. One day my Rosemary said, “You are starting a course on colour printing at Ampro Photo Workshops on Monday.” I was paying to learn. I did my homework out of guilt. I learned how to print. School had provided me with a structure.

Most of my students can run circles around me with their knowledge of the inner workings of their DSLRs. They know all about white balance and the intelligent ordering and fixing up of their images with photo programs like Lightroom and Photoshop. I attempt to teach them lighting. This is something I am sure I know something about. But when you extend a class to several weeks what else can I possibly bring into the learning crucible?

I try to explain to my students how knowledge of photographers and artists of the past can inspire us to imitate, vary, improve, modify and better still they inspire us to inspire us. I tell them about photographer Bert Stern who pioneered the use of the white background and the concept that photographically, less is indeed more. I tell them that he “invented” cleavage lighting for Cosmopolitan.

In the end I am stuck with the frustration of trying to teach them in a ten class course the idea of conceptualizing a photograph. I borrowed a bit from photographer Minor White who wrote about the idea of pre-visualization. This involved looking at a scene, imagining it in one’s head and then taking a picture that expressed that image in the mind with some sort of near perfection in reality. Every time I take a picture it is almost as if every photographer (and artist, painter and sculptor) is put into a blender. I mix it all up and pour out my modification of all their ideas.

I know I can teach the lighting and some of the mechanics of picture taking. But how can you teach students the thought process?

For all my years as a photographer I had what I perceive as an advantage. This is that I think in three dimensions. All the photos on this blog involve the idea of objects that occupy space. They cast shadows, they weigh, they smell, they change with time.

In a short but pleasant chat with Emily Carr University of Art + Design, Dr. Ron Burnett yesterday he mentioned a word, perhaps a word of his invention which finally explains for me the concept that I am trying to grasp. This concept is the very one I want to transfer to my students. Dr Burnett improves upon the idea of three-dimensionality and its importance in conceptualizing images, with the word materiality. It is the materiality of things that a photographer manipulating images with Photoshop somehow misses. This process of beginning with objects and transferring them to the latent image of actual film is being lost as photographers manipulate penguins into being on the sands of the Sahara Desert.

Dr. Burnett hints that painting and photography can only survive if both survive. My granddaughter Rebecca kept asking me if the paintings on the wall (at the recent Vancouver Art Gallery exhibition of Dutch painting) were indeed originals. As Dr. Burnett sees it she was asking me about their perceived reality. Were they indeed occupying space because they were three-dimensional? They had materiality. They were not photons on a computer monitor.

As an example I was assigned some years ago to photograph baritone Brett Polegato for a Vancouver Opera production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Those familiar with the opera know that this inveterate womanizer gets his deserved due and burns in hell in the end. I wanted to convey this idea of burning in hell. I was not given access to props, wigs or anything. I had Polegato in my studio wearing his street clothes.

So I came up with the concept and took 9 pictures (I did not need more) that were relatively tight portraits. I picked the best negative and lit it with a match. It burned beautifully and the cellouloid even cracked at the right place. The film had warped in the heat. I then scanned the result.

While a digital photographer might imitate my concept with Photoshop, it is the concept itself that (in my opinion) probably seems unlikely to be conceived by the photographer. You have to think in the materiality of things.

The Other Side of Two Dimensions

Dr. Ron Burnett's Blog


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The Film Samuel Z. Arkoff Never Made

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English Elegance & Margaret Merrill Say Goodbye

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