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The Helmut Newton Exhibit: A Question of Authenticity

Monday, 29. August 2011 0:02

The Museum of Fine Arts Houston is hosting an exhibition of Helmut Newton photography until September 25, 2011. The MFAH is showing very large reproductions of images from Newton’s first three books: White Women (1976), Sleepless Nights (1978), and Big Nudes (1981). Newton was a world renowned photographer, specializing in fashion and nude photography. His work has always been controversial. This show concentrates on his personal work which, in turn, reflects his fashion work, at least in style.

This show raises a number of questions: Is this really a worth-while show? Just because you can print images that large, should you? Is Newton really an artist? Does he really have something to say about feminism? Society? Fashion? Is his work merely black and white pornography? Where is his place in the photographic canon? And now here is another: are the works presented authentic?

Why would I question the authenticity these images? Since this project began in 2007, three years after Newton’s death, and the images on display “were made specifically for the exhibition,” it stands to reason that Newton could not possibly have printed, approved of, or signed these prints, any of which actions might be taken to be proof of authenticity.

There is no question the subject matter is his; Newton’s work is unique to the point of being iconic; anyone who has studied photography will recognize it. There is no question the negatives or original prints, whichever were used as sources for the digital files, were his. But since he was not involved in the printing process, mustn’t one say they are reproductions, not prints?

Perhaps this is too fine a line for some people, but it speaks to the issue of what constitutes a “real” or “original” work of art. This is not such a difficult question for those who sculpt or paint: the original is the one the artist made; everything else is a reproduction. This is not necessarily the case with printmakers, and certainly not the case with photographers.

So the question becomes, when is a photographic print “real?” Is it an image that the photographer physically made him/herself? Is it a print perhaps made by an assistant that the photographer approved? Is it a print made by an assistant according to instructions of the photographer? Is it a print that is signed by the photographer? The Ansel Adams Gallery takes great care to distinguish between original photographs and other types of prints and reproductions. Should we expect less from museums?

The size of these images brings up another question: Are they a true representation of Newton’s art? We must remember that Newton shot originally for print. That is, his fashion work was for magazine publication, and his personal work, at least initially, was for book publication. This is a far cry from the size of pictures on exhibit at the MFAH, “some reaching nearly 8 x 8 feet.” Although the images are presented unframed and unglazed “in order to show how Newton’s work appeared in magazines,” the difference in size makes that impossible.

And another more general question arises: is the art in the concept or the execution? As noted above, these are certainly Newton’s concepts, but not his execution. Still everyone says that this is a show of Newton’s images. And I suppose they are his images, just not his prints.

So perhaps the MFAH is not misleading the public. Maybe this is not so much an exhibition of Newton’s work as it is an overpowering display of Newton’s concepts, of Newton’s subject matter, of Newton’s style, and, by extension, of Newton’s influence. Maybe the art is in the mind and eye of the artist, not in the creation of artifacts. This is indeed an idea worthy of thought, but a curious position to take for any museum that prides itself on showing only authentic, original work.





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The Medium is Not the Message…But It’s a Big Chunk of the Experience

Monday, 23. May 2011 1:37

In his book Beauty, Roger Scruton maintains that meaning in a piece of art is “bound up with, inseparable from” the medium through which that meaning is presented. This means, of course, that the art cannot be reproduced in another medium and have the same meaning.

Although I have already discussed the difficulties I have with art reproduction here and here, two relatively new forms of art have been on my mind recently. These forms really seem to make the case for Scruton’s ideas even stronger.

The first is the lenticular image. For those who do not know, a lenticular is a fairly obscure medium (in which I work from time to time). Lenticulars can be based on photographs or other media; multiple images are interlaced and fused to a lenticular lens to create the illusion of movement or three-dimensionality as the viewer approaches the work. While the lenticular is not new technology, it is a relatively new art form. Many people have never seen one that was not an advertising piece.

The problem with lenticulars is that there is no way to reproduce the image electronically, so they cannot, for example, be viewed on the web. A simulation can be made with an animated gif file, but it is only a simulation and cannot reproduce the experience of walking past an image in a gallery that appears to move or to come out of the frame.

Interestingly, the animated gif is the vehicle for the second form. It is the cinemagraph, and its foremost practitioners are a team, Jamie Beck and Kevin Burg. You can see these images, which have been hailed by The Atlantic, Huffington Post and many others, on Beck’s From Me To You Tumblr. These images are essentially still photographs with movement added in isolated segments.

Despite the artistry involved with cinemagraphs and the stories they tell, they also have a problem. Cinemagraphs require an electronic device capable of displaying animated gifs. They can never hang in galleries unless those galleries are appropriately equipped.

These are just two instances where the art work seems completely inseparable from the medium; there are many.  For example, there are images etched in metal. A photograph of the etched image can be made, but that is a weak representation of the real thing. The same can be said for images printed on glass, another medium that cannot be adequately reproduced.

And there are others: physical collage only works if you can really see the texture of the items being collaged. Paint buildup is an integral part of many paintings that simply does not show up or certainly has less impact in a photograph of the painting. Sculpture defies reproduction in any kind of meaningful way except perhaps as a series of images or a video, which still falls far short of adequate reproduction. The same is true of dance or any other live performance art.

Actually, the same is true for all works of art. We can photograph them, we can describe them, but we cannot fully express the experience of them without reference to the media in which they were originally created.

Scruton, it seems, is correct: the content of a work of art is not really translatable to another medium; the medium is an essential part of the experience of the art work. And with these newer forms that union seems even stronger.

One can only wonder what the future holds.

Category:Aesthetics, Communication, Photography | Comments (2) | Autor:

Into the Realm of Books

Sunday, 3. October 2010 22:17

Jason Wilson wants to push the arguments in The Real Thing and More on Art Reproduction into the realm of books, and raises the question of preserving the author’s intent in electronic reproductions, citing as an example Mark Z. Danielewski’s Only Revolutions. I had not meant to exclude any art, but his point is well-taken.  In forwarding his argument, Jason quotes Cliff Gerrish’s Echovar, which suggests that the reading experience is, for Gerrish at least, about more than the words on the page; he is concerned about line breaks and the placement of words. Gerrish’s concern is well-founded; written art seems to lend itself to alteration by electronic reformatting, and there are books that would be completely ruined by reformatting

If the line breaks were all that mattered, then 10hotdogs8buns’s suggestion that an electronic reader capable of displaying a constantly-formatted page, such as could be rendered in a .pdf file would answer the issue. When I read Gerrish’s comments, I have the feeling that he is talking about more than just the arrangement of words on the page or the line breaks; he is talking about the experience of a conversation with the work. And just as in conversation with old friends, there is more to the experience than just the words. There is the camaraderie, the sights, the sounds, the smells, the sense of familiarity, the overtones and undertones, the environment that contribute to the communication that “conspire” with the speaker, or reader.  This sensory environment is very eloquently described by Charles Anthony Stewart quoted in Menachem Wecker’s Sept 23 Iconia:

The three senses were overwhelmed….the large books, as big as a desks [sic], covered in their ancient leather bindings; pages filled with ancient notes, smudged finger prints, and candle wax–and the smell resembling soot and offal; the texture of the parchments, rough with the pores, some still with attached hair. But in the midst of these earthy materials, were golden images and vibrant colors, as bright and brilliant as the day they were made! Somehow, I was transported back in time.

Obviously, there is much more going on here than just experiencing a book. The environment makes up an important part of the experience. The primary significance, however, is, in Gerrish’s words, a conversation between the viewer/reader and the work.  Once we reduce the experience to the interaction of those two elements, we are getting to the essence of the art experience.

If what the viewer/reader is interested in is gathering information, then advanced technology may be the way to go, provided that the presentation is at least adequate; it’s inexpensive and convenient. But those who are seeking the experience that the author/artist intended, who are seeking a real interaction with the work, will, if possible, want to experience the work in the format and medium that the author/artist initially chose. That viewer/reader will want to experience the page layout, the typography, the brush-stroke, the shifts in tonal values, the texture, the structure, the movement. That viewer/reader will want to experience the real thing.

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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) | Autor:

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.

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