Modernism and Art

Featured Customer Image: By Katie Hughes

We see so many amazing photographs it's difficult to select favorites, but this week we certainly were stopped in our tracks. Not an eclipse, lightning or a stellar sunset. It was quieter than that. A mat tucked under her arm, a woman walked into the gallery on her way to Yoga Flow upstairs and wondered what we thought of this shot from her recent vacation. She flipped through images on her phone for a few minutes and then showed us this. We were floored.

Katie Hughes, Camden Harbor, Maine, 2017

Katie Hughes took this photo with her iPhone7+ a few weeks ago. This simple image of her boyfriend's less-than-perfect dive in Camden Harbor continues to make us smile. Why do we like it so much? It's not any one thing: it works on a number of levels. Aesthetically, the colors are cool and muted, it doesn't shout for attention. The composition is clean. There's a crispness to the diver, the splash, the position of the legs. The fog is a great environmental fill—it keeps the top portion of the picture from being too detailed, from drawing your eye away from the subject, but it's just enough, with the mist lightly revealing the boats in the background. And the gradient from clear in the front to hazy in the back... it's seamless and smooth, which also serves to make the subject and splash all the stronger. The elements combine to make for an elegant photograph.

The printmaster, Carlos in this case, did relatively little post production. He removed some adjustments Katie had initially made when she posted it on her social media. He restored the smooth green tint across the image. And he did one small bit of retouching, to remove some bubbles that looked like a scratch on the image. The photo worked either way, but Katie felt the bubbles looked like a mistake. It was a nominal adjustment.

But here's the high bar: we weren't on this vacation. we don't know this diver or this place. All of those factors are key for Katie perhaps, but to the rest of us, it could be anyone, anywhere, and yet it has a sort of universal quality. It's the universalness of the image that we're attracted to. Content-wise, it's just anonymous enough to let us be included. Visually it's elegant. Uncluttered. And when these elements are combined in an image that has the more important quality of being something personal and emotional for the photographer... that's a fantastic combination. 

Katie Hughes' photo is currently available for purchase and on display at Neomodern through September.

Katie Hughes' photo is currently available for purchase and on display at Neomodern through September.

It could almost have been taken by any number of masters: Hellen Levitt or Elliott Erwitt maybe. So it's a classic kind of image, beautiful and universal and still intimate. We see a lot of beautiful images get printed, but a few linger in mind, fun, hard to forget. Iconic. This is a great example.

"Photo Ops"

A sunset is a photo op. it's a beautiful thing, how can you NOT take a picture when this happens. But photos can feel a little thin when it doesn't feel personal.

The hairs stand up on my neck when i hear the expression "photo op" as in "you should go to Burning Man; good photo ops there." The term isn't meant to be pejorative: there are always legitimately cool environments and events that are hard not to point a camera at—full of interesting things to look at. I certainly love any foggy day in San Francisco, where light is diffuse and sexy, and objects fade off magically into distances... i guess, for me any overcast day is a photo op.  

Of course, those obvious photo ops—whether sunsets or Burning Man—are going to have lots of cameras trained on them, which means it's that much harder to find your unique view of this thing. There is thinking that the best photos couldn't have been taken by another person even a moment before or after: they're unique combinations of time and place. So personally i try to avoid taking my camera out when everyone is taking pictures. 

But there's this other negative side. As if photography is about the subject matter and not the photographer. There's a line in Susan Sontag's classic "On Photography" where she points out the distinction between a beautiful photograph and a photograph of a beautiful thing. Artist after artist repeat this notion in their own words. Bernice Abbott described it as "learning to see" and Elliott Erwitt said "...i've found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them."

What could be more mundane than the discarded shell from breakfast eggs...  it's not a pretty scene in the sense that it's not colorful, but the combination of the light and cracks is sweet, (maybe even nicer than the scene "looked").

You don't need any particular subject to explore how to see it, how it looks around the prevailing light, how it moves in a visual space. You can do this in your bedroom. You can do this in your town. While it's fun to go to Burning Man, you don't need wedding or spectacle to take some photos. The idea of a "photo op" puts the ownership in the wrong place, and i guess that's why it irks me.

When people ask themselves the question: what makes a great photo," i'd suggest it's only partly about the the external thing, it's BETTER when it's has something of you in it, your relationship with this thing you're looking at, and not just seeing. The best photos have both: you and the subject. So don't blame (or rely) on beautiful subjects to make your best images—any odd thing might be the subject of your best work.

Photographic "Synecdoche"

The term synecdoche (pronounced si-nek-da-key) is a literary construct introduced in ancient Greece where a word describing part of something is used to represent all of something. People say "a part for the whole"; it's a kind of shorthand.*  Common examples include:

  • "Hired hands" to mean "workers" or "Lend me a hand" when you want more than a hand;
  • "Wheels" to mean "a car"
  • "The Pentagon", a building, used to represent the institution of the military;
  • "Capital Hill" generally being used to represent houses of government;
  • "Kleenex" used generically for all facial tissues.**

Synecdoche is a marginally interesting literary form, but i'd suggest it's the very essence of photography. When we take a photograph we are selecting a very small piece of visual space and cutting it out of our 360 view of the world, and saving it. It's not a comprehensive surveillance of some moment or scene, it's just a tiny slice; we're not (usually) journalists documenting every angle of a news story, we're just selecting a small moment that will represent a larger event.

We also might not show a subject in its entirety: every portrait isn't a head-to-toe, front lit, face shot. We might just show someone in silhouette, or just their eye or legs. This is another kind of synecdoche: a part of a body to represent the entire person. A part of a building to represent the entire building (or city, or vacation...)

In time as well: video (or 360 VR) might be considered a fuller representation of something, and yet we take a surreal slice in time, a fraction of a second, and we expect it to capture something much longer. 

Everything about photography is about synecdoche. I'd suggest that the art of photography is in the creative application of this process—how to chose what slice in space and time is going to well-represent this other thing we want to show. Can one image capture a person's spirit? an entire vacation? The wedding? And when you're really good, the question might be: can a single image represent your childhood? Your hometown? Freedom? The better the photographer's ability to produce synecdoche could be the very core of "great" photography—it's more than a documentary recording; it's more nuanced, it's more poetic, it's generalized such that the photo is iconic.

That word "iconic" speaks to synecdoche. In some ways this is also the effort that brand creators and graphic designers do when making a logo—a small visual element they hope will represent an idea for consumers. Great photographs are often described as iconic: they get pulled into popular culture and become something maybe the photographer hadn't intended, representative of a larger zeitgeist.

Joe Rosenthal, 1945 "Raising the flag on Iwo Jima" = patriotism.

Robert Doisneau, 1950 "Le baiser de l’hôtel de ville"  = romantic love (and currently on display at Neomodern)

Jan Saudek, 1966 "Image 35" = fatherhood

Your iconic photograph doesn't have to capture the national mood, but it could still represent your love for your children or your sense of adventure. Icons come in all sizes.

This is precisely why editing is so important to the definition of photography: it's not enough to take a bunch of pictures, and as photographers we abdicate our responsibility by simply producing hundreds of images of events or people and say "here, pour through my feed..." The process of printing is so challenging in part because our pictures don't stand alone very often, and selecting "the one" is either painful or impossible. But it's also essential. When i say "it isn't photography if you don't print it" i'm not only saying that photography is about the creation of a photographic object, but that the selection process itself (since it takes effort and some money to print just one or a few) is part of the creative work.

Next time you take a whole bunch of pictures of something, see if you can boil it down--first to just 5 images, and then from five to ONE IMAGE that represents all those shots: both content and composition would come together, beautiful and meaningful. And if you do that work then you can truly call yourself a photographer.


*It also works in reverse, where the general larger thing is used to represent the smaller.

**It's what happens when a branded product name gets appropriated as the generic name for a class of products ("Band Aid" "Zipper" or "Google")—something legal-business people refer to as "genericide" because that sort of use can kill a trademark.

The Weight of Photographs: More Than Just an Image

A photograph is an object, a piece of paper you can hold in your hand. It has weight. It has an image on it.  It lasts. It’s a little like parchment. It’s kind of magical. A photograph is not just the image. The image is important, but the object is special.

Happy (romantic) couple yesterday in the salon, savoring the creation of their photograph.

Happy (romantic) couple yesterday in the salon, savoring the creation of their photograph.

While photographs can be pumped out by machine, its good to remember they can also be hand crafted, more like other handmade art projects than technology and apps. The mat and frame are not only vehicles for display, but maybe more importantly, methods to protect. And while photographs are great ways to remember important moments and people, it’s good to be reminded that they can also be beautiful. And when an image is both—beautiful and meaningful—a hand-crafted photograph becomes a true heirloom, something that will last through time, beyond shifts in media and technology.

Not every picture deserves to be turned into this kind of photograph—most of our pictures are fun but disposable. But some, our best, our most important, demand this treatment. These are the images we are excited to help you with.

One Print Only (#opo)

The thing that makes photography fundamentally so different from most other artforms is that identical duplicates can be created of the product such that photo one is pretty much just as real as photo five thousand. The audience doesn’t really know how many “original” artworks were created, and this dynamic runs counter to the need for unique, laboriously executed creations that seem to be fundamental in the selling of art. I’m not suggesting we want to make photography more commercial, but i am suggesting that it would only take one move to make it more like painting and sculpture and other more classical forms: there has to only be a single object created.

“Editioning” was a new concept in photography and maybe it’s an archaic notion; the masters just printed a print when they wanted one… (Kertesz’ “Mondrian’s Pipe and Glasses”). In the digital age, perhaps one original is enough.

Generally I espouse the importance of the physical print in photography. It is the thing created by the photographer, the object that people experience. As a photographer you never know what image you have taken will be super popular — and traditionally you’d really want to be able to make a quantity of prints to sell. “Editioning” was invented at some point in the modern photographic art era, to limit quantities of originals, to let buyers assess supply and demand, and ultimately make it a better product for galleries to sell. But historically the masters generally didn’t make an edition, they would print some when they happened to be printing or when someone wanted one. New order? New print. Editioning was an attempt to rein this in.

Originally, i decided that i’d never print more than three prints of any given image. Sort of “radical editioning” — it would leave one for me, one to sell, and one more “just in case.” But I was informed: if you’d ever want a gallery to represent you, this is pretty much death. For awhile I settled on editions of nine. But depending on the day I found that was both way too much and far too few.

However, with the proliferation of digital photography, and the ease with which images can be shared, perhaps more than any time in history, i think the need to mass produce prints, so that anyone who wants one can have one, is archaic; i think the natural corresponding balance to the rise of digital imaging is simply this: only make one (signed) print. An element to neomodernism then is nudging photography back out of the art sphere, before the galleries changed photography, and the artists were just artists. This addresses that issue, by making the artist’s photograph a singular object, like a painting. Simultaneously the image might circulate widely: be popular on Instagram or in online media, but the photograph, the original, there is but one. And when you see a signed print from a photographer of an image, you simply know, that ‘that’s the one’.

I have to say, this new idea doesn’t sit well. I want to print more and make them available. But this discomfort is precisely why it appeals to me. Painters deal with this every day. I see no reason photographers cannot as well. It’s so easy for people to copy or print their own photos, and some form of mechanical reproduction is still part of photography, but not for the original. We simply have to agree that in this new era, even for pictures, there is only one, and done. The great photographer then isn’t the individual with the single fantastic image that everyone wants — the great photographer is prolific and consistent.

Let’s see how this goes.

I can’t wait to introduce you to the photography of Elliott Erwitt ...

“To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place…I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see, and everything to do with the way you see them.”

—Elliott Erwitt

I’m sorta deciding this as I sit here, but there is a certain slice of photography and photographers that i particularly love. Some are more well-known than others, but their images are inspiring to me and my personal photography. I believe that by looking at, enjoying, and ultimately emulating aspects of the way they looked at the world, you will enjoy your world that much more. And frankly, your photographs will fucking rock. We all walk around with great cameras, but our images are often bland, unmemorable, visual Wonderbread. We think this might be solved by more pixels and more sharing, but it is actually solved through stopping our constant motion, looking, and playing with different ways to save what you see. Taking pictures used to be a hobby, a fun activity… it was sorta like hunting and gathering. I think of it like Trick-or-Treating: you go out into the neighborhood and collect little bits of candy from all over, filling up your bag, and then you get home and dump it all out on the table and pick through it for the good stuff. That’s photography.

Elliott Erwitt, New York City, 1977

Neomodern is going to exhibit all sorts of inspiring modernist works, but right now, and beginning at our grand opening, I want to introduce you to a handful of magnificent, funny, and artful masters of the craft: Andre Kertesz, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Doisneau, and Elliott Erwitt.

These will be the first bunch of works I’ll put up in the gallery. If they don’t get you into photography, maybe nothing will.

Image © Elliott Erwitt / Magnum Photos.

Defining Modernism — Group f.64

On a pivotal evening at the 683 Brockhurst Gallery in Oakland, California, in 1932, seven West coast photographers –Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, John Paul Edwards, Sonya Noskowiak, Henry Swift, Willard Van Dyke and Edward Weston — declared themselves Group f.64. Consciously celebrating the camera itself, these artists derived their name from the smallest aperture available on a large format camera lens. A lens setting at f.64 provided a precise image with the greatest range of sharp focus from foreground to background. Through its name and a landmark exhibition that same year, Group f.64 proclaimed the independent ambitions and aesthetics that helped define modernist photography.

Self-Portrait, Alma Lavenson, 1932

Self-Portrait, Alma Lavenson, 1932

By embracing the unique properties of their medium, Group f.64 broke from the sentimental ideals and painterly techniques of the prevailing Pictorialist tradition. Instead, they advocated the potential of photography to render an objective realism that illuminated the essence of pure form. Members of Group f.64 concentrated on the ordinary object seen in extraordinary ways. They isolated objects from context and directed their attention to details and design, employing close-ups, cropping, flattening, and ambiguities of size and scale. Their work frequently embodied a passionate and spiritual search for what Edward Weston called “the life force within the form” (Rosenblum, p.36).

Group f.64 photographers — nearly one-half of whom were women — shared utopian aspirations and radical methods, but their work also encompassed contradictory incentives and conflicting goals. Largly self-taught, they produced portraits, landscapes, and nudes in geometric and organic forms. Their work was employed in art photography, news reportage, advertising, and for documentary purposes. Some defined themselves as artists; others did not. They called attention to the photographer’s subjective vision while asserting the impersonal detachment of the camera apparatus. Many were passionately committed to social reform; others saw social relevance in the aesthetic image itself. Though they insisted on “pure vision” their notion of pure photography allowed for a wide range of technical approaches, including both manipulated and non-manipulated images.

The work of Group f.64 emerged from avant-garde currents that had existed for at least two decades in the United States and longer in Europe. The modernist movement on both sides o the Atlantic drew much of its vigor from the industrial transformation of the urban environment. The machine became central to a faith in a new age where technology promised a better life for the average citizen. Its geometric forms became a favored subject of Precisionist painters and photographers alike. Industrial subjects, shapes, and surfaces are prominent in the work of Edward Weston, Edwards, Lavenson, and Noskowiak, while Adams and many of these same artists were drawn to the geometric and cubist shapes of New Mexican pueblo architecture.

Group f.64 was built upon a loose and already established association of friends that included professional, romantic and filial relationships. Several artists benefited from exhibitions at the photography gallery run by Williard Van Dyke and Mary Jeanette Edwards at 683 Brockhurst Street in Oakland. Especially important, too, was the patronage of Lloyd Rollins, director of the M. H. de Young Memorial Musueum in San Francisco, where the group’s inaugural exhibition opened on November 15, 1932. This seminal exhibition also included invited associates Preson Holder, Consuelo Kanaga, and Alma Lavenson.

— Kerry Oliver-Smith

Curator of Contemporary Art, Harn Museum of Art
2001