Post from September, 2010

More on Art Reproduction

Sunday, 26. September 2010 21:44

A few days after I wrote about the potential deceptiveness of art reproductions [”The Real Thing,” here], I ran across an article in a magazine that was touting the first online photography competition hosted by the Fort Dearborn-Chicago Photo Forum to celebrate its 115th anniversary.  This was not the first online photo competition I have run across, and it certainly will not be the last. All of the winners reproduced in the magazine were in color.

My first thought was, “How could the judges know they are looking at the colors the photographers intended?” There are just so many variables: different monitors with different drivers and different resolutions calibrated to different standards, different color profiles, different browsers, different angles of view.

The list seemed to go on and on. Maybe the judges were trying to look at other things in the images, and while there is the perennial problem of no two people seeing things the same way, in this case there seems to be cause to wonder if the people were even looking at the same thing. (Admittedly I assumed that the judges were not viewing the entries on the same monitor.)  And I was wondering if I, looking at the images in print, was seeing anything near the images that the judges saw. A quick trip to the Photo Forum web site told me that the print version and what I saw on my monitor were very, very different.  Then there is the bigger question of whether anyone was actually seeing what the photographer saw on his or her own monitor, before saving and sending the file.

I realize that the world is digitizing at an ever-increasing rate, but the problems still exist. I have sent digital files to juried shows myself, always with reservations.  Monitor calibration, contrast, and resolution can dramatically impact black and white images, to say nothing of color.

Perhaps my difficulty is that I still think of photography as primarily a print medium. I look at a lot of images online and a lot in magazines and books. And even though the technology for reproduction continues to improve, or at least develop, both online and in print, they are still reproductions, subject to a myriad of variables, so you’re never really sure that what you are seeing is what the photographer had in mind when he or she made the image.

If I really care about a photographic image, I try to search out a print made either from the negative or the digital file, preferably by the original photographer. Or I visit it at a museum.  Only then do I know that I am looking at what that photographer intended.  Because that matters.

Category:Aesthetics, Criticism, Photography | Comments (3) | Author:

The Real Thing

Sunday, 19. September 2010 21:02

I stumbled across a web site the other day that consisted of a set of reproductions of da Vinci paintings—well, sort of. The images had been stretched horizontally to fit the image placeholders, distorting every da Vinci image on the page.

And I thought, what if someone, a student, perhaps, researching the work of da Vinci, came across this page and thought that this is what da Vinci’s work really looked like? How sad. How misleading.

And this brought up the whole subject of art work reproductions. Even if the inks aren’t quite the right color, at least in a book, the proportions are usually correct and not subject to the all the possible distortions that might be found on the web. In all fairness, a quick glance at da Vinci pages on the web shows that the proportions are correct on almost all of them, although there appears to be great variation in color. How do you go about determining which colors are the right ones?  How are you to know by looking at images on the internet, what colors the artist actually put on the canvas or paper? You really need to see the real thing.

There is so much that one can learn from seeing real art work as opposed to reproductions. The first Rembrandt I ever saw was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I was fairly young when this happened, and I had seen reproductions in books, and read some comments on his paintings but I didn’t really get it. I would look at the pictures in the books and try to figure out what it was that made this painter so wonderful.  Then that day in New York, I came around a corner and there it was, on a tripod stand, at eye level, carefully and cleanly lighted. And suddenly I knew what all the fuss was about.

Seeing a real Rembrandt, I at once understood what everybody had been talking about. I saw the use of light; I saw the color choices and blending, and things that I had no words for at the time, that I sometimes still have to reach to find. It was completely amazing. I couldn’t speak. I stood there and gawked.

And suddenly I knew something I had never known before: what art could be.  I also realized that it was really impossible to judge a work of art or an artist without seeing the real thing.

The internet has its place, as do books of reproductions of art work. They certainly can display subject matter; they can show us elements of technique and style; they can suggest the use of color. This last item is, I think, the most problematic since it is subject to monitor quality and calibration, color correctness of the original file, or ink distribution, accuracy, and press control in the case of printing.

Reproductions can let you familiarize yourself with artists whose work you may never actually see, and I have certainly used both the web and books for that purpose. But I always take an opportunity to see the real thing when I can, because no matter how closely the reproduction approaches the original, it is still just a place holder. It can never match the impact or be more than a stand-in for the presentation the artist intended. There is no substitute for the real thing.

Category:Aesthetics, Criticism | Comments (1) | Author:


Sunday, 12. September 2010 21:05

I got an email the other day with a photograph as an attachment and a note, “The caption makes the photo,” and, of course, it did. That set me to wondering about the relationship between captions or titles and the works of art.  Obviously in some cases the caption or title “makes” the artwork, or makes it clearer, or more understandable, or, at least, lets you know where the artist was going.  Yet I know art instructors who demand that works be presented without title because they believe the work should stand on its own with no external comments.

Some of those instructors present their own work as untitled or with very minimal titling effort: “Figure study 23.” “Trees,” “Still Life with Mayonnaise.”  At least one artist I know makes up titles so obscure they have no meaning for anyone but himself, and sometimes I think that they have no real meaning at all and exist only to make a point about titles. Not surprisingly, those made-up titles have impact. People look at the work, then look at the title, and then you can see them thinking, trying to figure out the connection, wondering to what the title might be a referring, wondering how they should now view the piece.  It’s amazing to watch, and all because of a few words on a little white card.

Other artists consider titles, if not part of the art work, of immeasurable import to the work. Consider, for example, how, in a TED talk about her series of photographs of secret places, Taryn Simon discusses how she accompanies each picture in the series with detailed text beside it and how an image is transformed by text and the text by the image.

In some cases, titles are better than the art they label. Go over Deviant Art sometime and look not only at the art, some of which is very good, and a lot of which is very interesting, but at the titles. While there are some non-titles or minimal titles, for the most part the titles are very imaginative.  Indeed, mediocre work will often have an absolutely magnificent title, far surpassing the work itself. I wonder at this. Do the artists put more work into the titles than into the pieces? Is their talent really titling?

What all of this consideration of titles has done is make me think more about the titles of my own pieces (those that don’t come with titles already, i.e. plays) and the interaction of title and artwork.  Should I be more concerned with titles? Should I ignore titles? How much does it really matter?  This, in turn, has had a very useful and somewhat unexpected result: it has made me think more about the pieces themselves. And that is not a bad thing at all.

Category:Creativity | Comments (5) | Author:

Likes, Dislikes, and Quality

Sunday, 5. September 2010 21:50

I remember explaining to my English professor that I just did not like the (American) romantic poets.  She informed me, in her British accent (which gives any academic an air of authority), that it was not important what I, or anyone for that matter, liked or disliked; what was necessary was that I understand what made those particular poems good.  It was one of the most valuable pieces of advice I ever got.

I find that students often dismiss a play or a movie or some other work or art that they do not like as not worth the time it would take to understand it, or at least figure out how it works, or know why it might or might not be important. And I think that many of us who are not formally students do the same thing.  We often confuse what we like with what is good, thus making the individual, educated or not, the arbiter of quality.  Without troubling ourselves to really examine the work in question, we fail to apply some standards outside our own personal feelings to determine quality.

I moved on in the course, and I remember how pleased I was with myself when I finally figured out exactly what those romantic poets were doing, how their poems worked, what made them good. I still did not like them, but I understood the difference.  And that was important.

My taste has changed since those days; the quality of the romantic poets has not.  My opinion of at least some of the romantic poets has modulated; the quality of the poems remains unchanged.

The capability to make that distinction between quality and personal appeal is an ability that every critic must have, and by “critic” I mean everyone who renders an opinion. That ability is even more important in today’s world of instant electronic, often uninformed, opinion than it was when I was learning it as an undergraduate.

You may be saying, “But my opinion matters. What I like and don’t like is significant.” Of course it is. It’s called taste. It’s part of what you bring to the art work. And it is important to you, and maybe even to the people you hang out with.  It is not, however, the determinant of the quality or worth of a piece of work. That is something that the artist puts in.

I am not suggesting that, like Phaedrus in Robert M Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, we spend our lives and our sanity in the pursuit of the nature of quality, although I think that is quite possible. I am suggesting that, before we spout our opinions about a piece of art, that we learn enough, educate ourselves sufficiently to have some foundation to begin to determine the quality of that piece.

Category:Aesthetics, Criticism | Comment (0) | Author: