Aesthetics; Understanding Modernism
Seeing, a thing and understanding modernism
First of all lets define a thing. A thing, in this context, is something that doesn’t have a name or a purpose. If it is made up of different materials, shapes and textures that is a bonus.
While we are defining stuff, lets add a definition for seeing. Seeing artistically is different than seeing where you are going so that you don’t walk into a wall. It means to see objects and their relationships to each other as if for the first time. From a painter’s point of view this would mean painting a picture of the actual scene in front of them and not some generic scene imposed by the brain to save itself work.
Now why a thing and why not a common object like say, a coffee mug. The answer is simple, we have preconceptions about coffee mugs, about how they are normally viewed, and in what context e.g. on a desk, table or kitchen counter or, more unusually in a dishwasher or with washing up.
This puts the photographer in a bit of a bind. If they photograph the coffee mug is in a normal setting the image stands a good chance of being considered boring and unoriginal, but if they do something novel, say suspend the mug from the ceiling and light it with a construction lamp they would likely be considered pretentious. This is a little overstated to make a point but even if the photographer succeeds in taking a great shot the viewer will still have their perception colored by their own coffee mug baggage.
A thing removes all of these problems in one fell swoop. A thing has no context, no right or wrong environment, no right or wrong way up and no other artists opinions attached to it. It is without history. There is no wrong angle, wrong lighting or wrong anything else. The only thing left is aesthetics.
Photographers tend to fall into three broad categories. One group enjoys photographing things that have been ordained by their peer group to be pleasing to the eye, rolling hills, sunsets, idealized females, etc. For the second group the subject matter is pretty much unimportant, it is all about the tone, line and other things that go to make up composition. I suspect that most fall into a third category that takes elements from both approaches whether they have intellectualized the process or even given a passing thought about whether understanding modernism was important or not.
This can also be viewed historically. The first group that see the photographers job as being one of basically showing an inherently beautiful scene to the best of their ability would be regarded as having a 19th century approach. The second group who, among other things, believe that great photography can be made using very ordinary subject matter and that, ultimately, the photograph should stand seperately from the subject would be considered modernists, i.e. of the 20th century. Most photographers have a foot in both centuries.
Opinions differ on this but to my mind the following photographers represent these three groups:
Ansel Adams – 19th Century through and through
Paul Strand – Modernist to the core.
Edward Weston – Utilized both approaches.
Understanding modernism is not really that difficult. Once thew object or the scene is not considered all important the leap has been made. Now Post Modernism or ‘after modernism, is a different matter and when I have a few days to spare I’ll try to untangle that one.
Someone once said that photography has graduated from being about the subject to being about the photograph to being about the photographer. The last one representing the post modern. Not sure that I agree but it does represent a way into the subject.