Beauty lies in the eye of the shutter controller

Susan Sontag presents important distinctions about the differences between cultural meanings of taking a photograph in China versus Western cultures. To those newly ingratiated in “photo culture,” taking a picture is more than whimsy, it is a ritual, Sontag says. It involves organization and posturing. The capture of a moment is always with intent, and those new to photo culture don’t spend frame of film flippantly, they metre them so that each photo is a document, a placeholder in time.

She also points out the different value photographed people of the past placed on having their portraits taken versus the way that we, as casual users, collect many, many images of ourselves. The older generations might just have one enlargened family portrait, for example, while now that the means for taking pictures is more affordable to the everyday user, we snap away without restraint.

Still, in taking pictures, Sontag points out that there is still a sort of moral code of what is acceptable and aesthetically beautiful, versus those things that one morally should not capture on film. In a way, photography is subject to the mores of society by what the censors would deem tasteful vs disgraceful.

“Not only are there proper subjects for the camera, those which are positive, inspirational … and orderly, but there are proper ways of photographing, which derive from notions about the moral order of space, that preclude the very idea of photographic seeing,” she wrote.

Sontag uses the example of some of the shots in Michelangelo Antonioni’s film Chung-Kuo and the reactions of critics that he intentionally went after what was old and ugly, sides of humanity that should not be seen, and therefore produced an undesirable film. But Antonioni was only approaching his medium with hoesty; he was including some of the most human moments, such as a person blowing his nose or using the bathroom–things that people do every day, but those things that the moral sensors find displeasing to see close up or discuss. (Think of all the times someone has pointed a camera at you and ordered you to smile, even though you don’t feel like smiling. Doesn’t that moment of dishonesty and play at a transformation more disfiguring? A smile on someone’s face could look almost grotesque at the wrong moment, say like at a funeral).

What is appropriate at a time is represented by staging. Whereas, sometimes reality can be absurd, and when those moments are captured by film they are most marked, sometimes shocking–always worth remembering.

Timing can separate a portrait posed by a wedding photographer from a snapshot captured by a photojournalist. A snapshot occurs in the moment; in a portrait or staged shot the moment is scripted and it takes time to organize.  One is meant to convey a deliberate sentiment, the other is simply meant to chronicle–like taking the temperature on a thermometer–and is, at its most innocent, completely objective.

Filmmaker John Waters is an interesting specimen and a deep advocate of free speech and spontaneity. In his films and other graphic art, intentionally pushes the envelope to test how far audiences will tolerate things that are considered foul, distasteful and deviant. In his early work, he was known for using transvestites and ex-hookers as his film stars–people who by their characteristics would not be deemed suitablet to be placed before the viewing public by Orthodox Hollywood types, but whose very quirks and ideosynchricies he embraced and shoved out onto center stage.

John Waters’ movie, “Pecker,” is full of parody and critique about the world of the photographer as artist. He uses this movie as a vehicle to dissect the critics and collectors of the art world, and to poke fun at postmodern aesthetics of value and beauty in art for its many paradoxes.

At one point, the main character’s art agent, looking to replace him after her dumps her, introduces him to her newest client–a blind photographer. With the blind photog, Waters plays on the idea of spectacle and photographer capture. During a dance party scene, the blind photographer bobs up and down, spasmodically snapping away with elation. As the viewer, we know that his snapshots can have no composition nor intention–the most anyone can hope for is that when developed anything even appears in the frame.  And if anything does, it appears without context, except that it was snapped by a blind photographer. So, there the art’s meaning & worth belongs only to the reputation of the artist, and can have no essence or “aura,” and very likely little aesthetic worth.

This is an amusing critique on art photography, because most people consider that its value is its great power to replicate, as Sontag discusses, and the power of the image to usurp in meaning and worth the position of the original. If we can’t “See” God, could he appear in one of the blind photographer’s photographs? And even if he did, would we recognize him? Afterall, we don’t know what he looks like.

Is art only valuable because it resembles something, or is the “spectacle,” of something more real? Without the real, is it really only the “nothing of nothing”?

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2 Responses to “Beauty lies in the eye of the shutter controller”

  1. One of the things that I found most suprising about this reading was DW Griffith’s staging of war. That he created spectacle just a few meters away from where the real war was happening.

    I also loved that Sontag brought up so many points from people we would consider “enlightened” who feared having their image captured on film. .

  2. I love “Pecker” too, speaking as a photographer myself. Even though it seems to say that nothing has value, or that anything has value, that is always too easy an interpretation of John Waters. Waters always knows that kitsch tells the truest story. And you know what’s funniest is that “Pecker,” while it seems to make a comment on low and high art, is in itself a form of high art (“independent film”) so it looks like Waters had the last laugh.

    Ah, the joy of doing make-up comments!~ Peter

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