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Photogs / Photo Exhibits This is the place to discuss a particular Photographer (work, style, life, whatever), as well as to post Gallery and Museum Photo Exhibitions and your own impressions of them. As we march on in this new digital world, it is often too easy to forget about the visual importance of the photographic print, as well as their financial importance to the photographer. It is also interesting to remember that some guy named Gene Smith shot with lenses that many lens test reading "never had a picture published in their life" amateurs would turn up their their noses at, as being "unacceptable."

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Old 06-03-2009   #26
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In the context of the times (Steichen's Family of Man exhibit with its "feel good" notions that "hey we're all people united in our humanity"), Frank's book was (and remains) important for exposing how far from that ideal America remained, showing the persistence of racism, disaffection, alienation, political demagoguery, etc., etc. I simply cannot imagine that his image of the New Orleans train car could be bettered for showing the racist realities still governing life in the US. It is a masterpiece image that can stand all on its own.

Not all of them are masterpieces or powerful on their own, though, and paradoxically, that too is why I view "The Americans" as a model photobook: it is far, far more than a collection of "perfect" images ... for all the reasons Ray articulated above. It needs to be read not looking at each image singly, but looking for connections between images and groups of images -- the mundane ones grow in expressiveness and meaning by the other images they are grouped with. It has a deliberate structure in a way very similar to a story or poem, a narrative, as Al noted. Putting that together is of an order of magnitude harder than throwing technically fine images together at random. Frank wasn't the only one to do this of course ... Nan Goldin's "Ballad", while completely different in subject matter and of a later period, is similarly ambitious ... but I submit that he pulled it off wonderfully and the book's reputation is completely deserved for that reason. Frank wasn't trying just to make pretty pictures but to say something he felt was important.

But if the message doesn't "move" you, it doesn't move you. As the old saw goes, "there's simply no accounting for taste."
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Old 06-03-2009   #27
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I still feel you were refering to me, Rob. But no hard feelings.
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Old 06-03-2009   #28
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Its already been said: the cultural separation between the photographer and the subject (American culture) works very well, affording Frank what the poet Philip Larkin would have called 'clear sighted realism' that can only come from being outside peering in.

I agree that there are very few images that blow me away, but seen in the context of a somewhat disturbing commentary on American culture, it was a remarkable landmark body of work. It took guts to do it, but I suspect once he started his vision was instinctive and energised by a perpetual sense of amazement. In some respects, visitors to the US experience similar surprises. Having been away from the UK for a good few years and away from civilisation as a whole, it is remarkable how foreign certain aspects of my own homeland (Britain) appear to me. Everything becomes so much clearer and I find myself riled by things I would perhaps not have noticed before. I have the same experience setting foot back in London. Although I was never a city boy and never liked London much, going back after being in sandy places feels like being a tourist wandering one of those mocked up Wild West ghost towns for tourists.
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Old 06-03-2009   #29
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I always liked "The Americans".
Sort of took away that Leave it to Beaver, Daddy Knows Best vision of America.
A vision so loved and promoted in the 1950s USA by americans and their news media.
I liked the photos and that is good enough for me.
They were photos taken by a "european Walker Evans".
An America that is always on the move like a Lee Harvey Oswald in a used 53' Mercury.
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Old 06-03-2009   #30
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Quote:
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I would be careful about being critical of someones work around here. I recently in the thread '100 eyes' expressed my lack of enthusiasm for the photographers ability that were presenters. Here is what I got:

Sisyphus: You are arrogant and your comments are unwarranted (whatever that means).

Le Vrai Rdu: You are quite arrogant.

Pablito: You must be a superstar compared to the presenters.

And the most constructive by Robklurfied (R, you really should try to expand your vocabulary, words are power): I am by implication an anatomical part in the rectal area that is odoriferous.

Sounds familiar; attack your critics.
Please quote accurately or disclose you are editing the quote. What I said was:

You must be a world renowned superstar then, so much better than these slackers:

# Contributing Photogs «

* Alan Chin
* Christian Als
* Donna Ferrato
* Ed Kashi
* Frank Fournier
* George Georgiou
* Steven Shames
* William Coupon
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Old 06-03-2009   #31
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I can understand that these guys broke ground. That makes them important from a social and cultural perspective. But any work that is so dependent on its social context to be appreciated can't be a great work of art. I was once walking through the Met and stumbled upon a Velasquez portrait that stopped me dead cold in my tracks for 5 minutes. I know nothing about the artist, his time, his society his milieu or the subject in the portrait. Now that's what a great work of art does to you.

/T
lol, that's just because people are different. does everybody stop dead in their tracks in front of that velasquez? no. does that mean it isn't great art? no. same goes for the americans.
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Old 06-04-2009   #32
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lol, that's just because people are different. does everybody stop dead in their tracks in front of that velasquez? no. does that mean it isn't great art? no. same goes for the americans.
With that kind of relativism, there is no great art. Only different reactions, all equally valid. That's why we have art criticism, to help us understand why our reactions are what they are and that maybe they aren't the final measure of a work's worth. So far, I have read pretty weak justifications for why "The Americans" is a great work. Can't anyone do better than that?

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Old 06-04-2009   #33
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It was a reality check, cultural dissonance if you prefer, it confronted a cosy image the US had of itself with the reality.

Naturally that shock only works the once for that generation, and is easy to misunderstand today, if one lacks the imagination to see that; and as Al said, try doing better technically with the same equipment.
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Old 06-04-2009   #34
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In order to fully appreciate it, you have to consider the time, conditions and equipment at the time that he took the photographs.
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Old 06-04-2009   #35
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Originally Posted by Tuolumne View Post
With that kind of relativism, there is no great art. Only different reactions, all equally valid. That's why we have art criticism, to help us understand why our reactions are what they are and that maybe they aren't the final measure of a work's worth. So far, I have read pretty weak justifications for why "The Americans" is a great work. Can't anyone do better than that?

/T
Surely these opinions are the same ones that are responsible for the existence of any kind of consensus appreciation. Most opinions are in the minority, but when there is some sort of positive consensus along common lines within that minority then it is hard to dispute its significance, whether one agrees or not. People are prepared to pay to own it or to see it, either in a book or gallery, which says something too (I know this is thin ice).

Maybe its just easier for a foreigner to feel the work in a raw form than for an American, for the reasons mentioned. An understanding from an academic perspective does not have the same effect. I can completely see how this work was lost on many Americans at the time and still is now. This is about being an outsider and seeing what insiders have become habituated to.

I don't find it the most aesthetically appealing body of work, but I do feel its significance as a body of social documentary work and think it is important not to remove it from its historical context.
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Old 06-04-2009   #36
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Pablito, if you will notice there are zero quote marks in my post except for '100 eyes', therefore, it is my version of what was said. If you feel the connotation or denotation of your statement was incorrect feel free to remedy.
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Old 06-04-2009   #37
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Tuolumne View Post
With that kind of relativism, there is no great art. Only different reactions, all equally valid. That's why we have art criticism, to help us understand why our reactions are what they are and that maybe they aren't the final measure of a work's worth. So far, I have read pretty weak justifications for why "The Americans" is a great work. Can't anyone do better than that?

/T
Oddly, though it is you that is standing on your relative reaction and decreeing that because of your personal opinion Frank can't be great art. Art critics and the institutions of art in our society (museums, galleries, book publishers, the buying public) have a consensus of sorts that Frank is great art -- this is an established fact. You disagree with their assessment, which is fine, but don't then expect that because we cannot "convince" you that the art is somehow suspect. Frankly (pun intended), I doubt that you would be convinced no matter what argument is presented. And that too, is fine by me, because in the end art isn't only about appreciating something intellectually, it's about experiencing it on a visceral level. It is ludicrous IMO to expect that everyone everywhere (or even most people in most places) would have the same experience of any work of art. I suppose somewhere there are people who read Shakespeare and do not consider it to be art and would not do so even were they presented with the most eloquent arguments. Does that change one iota greatness of The Bard's work?

It seems self-evident to me, that one essential part of art is always relative: the individual experience of it. You're looking for universal standards where none exist: no one can give you the experience of Frank's work that would change your opinion, you have to have that experience for yourself. If you cannot, then that is proof enough that your dreaded "relativism" in art is an inescapable reality. :-)

Critics and museums are not any more able to hold an objective position than anyone else, of course. But the consensus of the "art world" on many artists and pieces of art is an established fact and hence not really relative at all. What this fact means, however, is debatable as the art world and its consensus can be dissected in all sorts of ways that have nothing to do with whether or not a piece of work is "great art" or not (i.e., market / economic; class dynamics; etc., etc.).

Your appreciation of Velasquez, while you say it was pure and context-free, was precisely embedded in a very real (in a physical sense even) context: a museum. Even though you knew nothing about it, that you encountered the painting there in that physical and social space validates it in a very rich (almost overpowering actually) social, political and historical context. That you stood awestruck before the painting in that hallowed context, while the next fellow walked on by with hardly a glance captures precisely both the objective and relative aspects of art: the museum validates, collects, displays, and informs the public about many items of "great art" (an objective reality based on a large and complex social and institutional assessment of the art's 'worth'), but the experience of the art is still an individual and capricious thing (a relative appreciation based on the idiosyncracies of the individual viewer).

All of that is to say, trying to "convince" someone else of the greatness of a work of art as you are insisting we do (the implication being that if we cannot then you are correct in your assessment of Frank and we are mistaken) is pointless: no reasoned argument will suffice to give someone else a moving experience of the art in question. Such arguments can only be hollow because they remain outside the experience, at best they merely look back on it or point to it.
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Old 06-04-2009   #38
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Nice post Kevin.

Whenever people ask me to convince them about something- that this is art, that climate change is happening, or whatever, I always ask them to convince me that is not first.
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Old 06-04-2009   #39
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Oddly, though it is you that is standing on your relative reaction and decreeing that because of your personal opinion Frank can't be great art. Art critics and the institutions of art in our society (museums, galleries, book publishers, the buying public) have a consensus of sorts that Frank is great art -- this is an established fact. You disagree with their assessment, which is fine, but don't then expect that because we cannot "convince" you that the art is somehow suspect. Frankly (pun intended), I doubt that you would be convinced no matter what argument is presented. And that too, is fine by me, because in the end art isn't only about appreciating something intellectually, it's about experiencing it on a visceral level. It is ludicrous IMO to expect that everyone everywhere (or even most people in most places) would have the same experience of any work of art. I suppose somewhere there are people who read Shakespeare and do not consider it to be art and would not do so even were they presented with the most eloquent arguments. Does that change one iota greatness of The Bard's work?

It seems self-evident to me, that one essential part of art is always relative: the individual experience of it. You're looking for universal standards where none exist: no one can give you the experience of Frank's work that would change your opinion, you have to have that experience that for yourself. If you cannot, then that is proof enough that your dreaded "relativism" in art is an inescapable reality. :-)

Critics and museums are not any more able to hold an objective position than anyone else, of course. But the consensus of the "art world" on many artists and pieces of art is an established fact and hence not really relative at all. What this fact means, however, is debatable as the art world and its consensus can be dissected in all sorts of ways that have nothing to do with whether or not a piece of work is "great art" or not (i.e., market / economic; class dynamics; etc., etc.).

Your appreciation of Velasquez, while you say it was pure and context-free, was precisely embedded in a very real (in a physical sense even) context: a museum. Even though you knew nothing about it, that you encountered the painting there in that physical and social space validates it in a very rich (almost overpowering actually) social, political and historical context. That you stood awestruck before the painting in that hallowed context, while the next fellow walked on by with hardly a glance captures precisely both the objective and relative aspects of art: the museum validates, collects, displays, and informs many items of "great art" (an objective reality based on a large and complex social and institutional assessment of the art's 'worth'), but the experience of the art is still an individual and capricious thing (a relative appreciation based on the idiosyncracies of the individual viewer).

All of that is to say, trying to "convince" someone else of the greatness of a work of art as you are insisting we do (the implication being that if we cannot then you are correct in your assessment of Frank and we are mistaken) is pointless: no reasoned argument will suffice to give someone else a moving experience of the art in question. Such arguments can only be hollow because they remain outside the experience, looking back on it or pointing to it.

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Old 06-04-2009   #40
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There are plenty of "great photographs" that would never qualify as "great art".

The photo of the naked little Vietnamese girl running towards the camera engulfed in flaming napalm might well have been the turning point of public opinion about a pointless conflict. Great art? Hell no!

The photo of a pistol pressed up against a prisoner's head, I forget who or which war, while blood and brains fly out the other side. Good timing but not great art.

Perhaps Frank's mistake was in recording the mundane rather than the spectacular but people remember him for his body of work, not for just a single spectacular picture. Quick! Name the other two phographers!
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Old 06-04-2009   #41
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Isn't this thread about Robert Franks? Why all the sniping? Come on guys, take it outside. It was probably inappropriate for me to even post my apology to John here (it should have been via a PM) as no one should be clogging threads with things so far off topic, let alone personal. Work this out off the thread. Or start a new thread. Differences of opinion and healthy debate are great things. However, debate about personalities and personal insults, both real and perceived, are better done elsewhere.
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Old 06-04-2009   #42
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"All of that is to say, trying to "convince" someone else of the greatness of a work of art as you are insisting we do (the implication being that if we cannot then you are correct in your assessment of Frank and we are mistaken) is pointless: no reasoned argument will suffice to give someone else a moving experience of the art in question. Such arguments can only be hollow because they remain outside the experience, at best they merely look back on it or point to it."

Kevin,
Then why did you blather on so long about it? The very fact that you did goes to show the fallacy of your own position.

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Old 06-04-2009   #43
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Not at all, nothing I said was trying to defend Frank's greatness in the sense of convincing you that you SHOULD experience it as such, only trying to show that art is always relative. And that any search for an "objective" evaluation of it is bound to remain completely unconvincing for one who is unmoved. I wasn't trying to show that Frank is great, but instead show that your call that we convince you was unreasonable and bound to fail. You completely misunderstand the implications of my post.

I would be astounded if your own experience did not demonstrate that art is experienced in a relative way. Have you never seen a work of art and been moved and then seen it later and wondered what was so great about it? Or vice versa, been unmoved and then seen it again and been moved? Has the art changed? Of course not, but you have and your experience of it has. Logical arguments are of little use to make us feel something.

In any case, you're just playing a rhetorical game and avoiding both the spirit and logic of my post.

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"All of that is to say, trying to "convince" someone else of the greatness of a work of art as you are insisting we do (the implication being that if we cannot then you are correct in your assessment of Frank and we are mistaken) is pointless: no reasoned argument will suffice to give someone else a moving experience of the art in question. Such arguments can only be hollow because they remain outside the experience, at best they merely look back on it or point to it."

Kevin,
Then why did you blather on so long about it? The very fact that you did goes to show the fallacy of your own position.

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Old 06-04-2009   #44
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Old 06-04-2009   #45
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There is one big thing about Franks book, 'The Americans', and that is that it was a breakthrough in documentary photography. The images are the sincere interpretations of a young man entranced by the U.S. The response to Franks book was so negative in the beginning, that no American publisher would touch his work, saying that his depiction of america was 'unpatriotic'. The same was once said of William Kleins work, of NYC, but luckily, there was someone out there who said 'Publish and be damned'.
Franks work freed up the photographer, showing how you don't have to be rigid or a slave to the doctrines of H-C-B, exposure, focus aim, are all notes on a page. Who cares in what order they are played, it is the feeling that the end result evokes.
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Old 06-04-2009   #46
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"In any case, you're just playing a rhetorical game and avoiding both the spirit and logic of my post."

On the contrary. I am a great believer in art criticism and the value of the informed critic to help us appreciate the things we don't initially feel affinities with or show us how an initial like may be shallow. Despite your own avowed relativism, you believe the same, otherwise why bother to write so much? You should just say, "All reaction to art is subjective. I like it; you don't. The end." Understanding something can change our feelings for it. It's not just about feelings. Having said this, I went off and read some of the overviews of Frank's work. I get it. It still leaves me cold.

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Old 06-04-2009   #47
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The photo of the naked little Vietnamese girl running towards the camera engulfed in flaming napalm might well have been the turning point of public opinion about a pointless conflict. Great art? Hell no!

The photo of a pistol pressed up against a prisoner's head, I forget who or which war, while blood and brains fly out the other side. Good timing but not great art.
Well, that's just the point, and those were just the photos I was thinking of that explain why Frank's work leaves me cold. Those are great photographs, that's pretty much all you can ask of a photograph. And certainly memorable. Describe a single photo in The American's where someone will recognize it immediately, just from the description. (Well, maybe there is one like that.) I can appreciate that the work was groundbreaking, IN ITS TIME; that it exposed things about America that America didn't want to see, IN ITS TIME. So, IN ITS TIME, it had a great affect. I think not any longer, except perhaps in a historical kind of way. But the photos of that burned little girl, of the executed Viet Cong, those still have the power to move and shock us, even in our time. That's why I would say they are great PHOTOS, but Frank's are not.

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Old 06-04-2009   #48
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I don't understand why you misconstrue my long post yet again: I did not say or imply that art criticism is pointless or valueless. Like you, I too believe that it can help us understand (and thus intellectually grasp or "appreciate") art. And at times, it may possibly inspire a new experience, but it cannot stand in for it; intellectual or reasonable arguments cannot substitute for, nor reliably invoke, the experience of art for someone who is unmoved by the art in the first place. In this sense, art is undeniably "relative".

My long post wasn't to denigrate your opinion, nor to argue for Frank's greatness; it was to point out that your demand that we "convince" you of the greatness is misguided. If the work leaves you cold and people's attempt to show you why it moves them does not inspire a new experience, then that is that. No logical argument can substitute for the feeling. The feeling is inescapably relative/subjective: either you feel it or you don't.

Your following post, in response to Al, seems to take your own subjective evaluation and write it large to everyone ("our time"). Why? On what basis? Just as because you don't find anything meaningful or moving in Frank's book doesn't undermine my experience of it as moving , nor it's objective status as "great art" (i.e., treated as such by art institutions). Likewise, my (individual) response to the book does not make it great. For the record, I find it moving and powerful TODAY, not just as a historical record or "for its time". So, which of our assessments is "correct"?

This is where we seem to part company: the objective assessment of it as "great art" is not done by individual's opinions of it, but by the institutions and organizations in the arena of the "art world". This fact, that the group of institutions that perform these functions in our society treat Robert Frank's book as an important work of art, is an established and objective fact and one that is not altered by any individual's subjective response to the book.

In short, subjectively, art is relative (we all determine what is "great art" for ourselves); objectively, great art is great because the art institutions in our society see "value" (of some sort) in it and treat it as great / valuable. What exactly that "value" is, of course, is precisely what aestheticians, philosophers of art, culture critics, and academic Marxists argue about endlessly. But the attempt to make the subjective and objective align perfectly is almost certain to be an exercise in frustration.


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"In any case, you're just playing a rhetorical game and avoiding both the spirit and logic of my post."

On the contrary. I am a great believer in art criticism and the value of the informed critic to help us appreciate the things we don't initially feel affinities with or show us how an initial like may be shallow. Despite your own avowed relativism, you believe the same, otherwise why bother to write so much? You should just say, "All reaction to art is subjective. I like it; you don't. The end." Understanding something can change our feelings for it. It's not just about feelings. Having said this, I went off and read some of the overviews of Frank's work. I get it. It still leaves me cold.

/T
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Last edited by Papercut : 06-04-2009 at 11:26.
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Old 06-04-2009   #49
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you gonna teach it, fred? I'd sign up for it if you are -- would be fun and interesting
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Old 06-04-2009   #50
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I think that the biggest mistake that a lot of photographers make is trying to create "art" with their photography. The ones who succeed aren't trying.

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