Sunday, November 7, 2010

Backstory. Listening to the Artist versus Listening to the Photograph

Have you ever walked through a photography exhibit, picked out a particularly arresting image, and wondered, “What was the artist thinking?” Much of the time those of us who enjoy the printed image are in a vacuum about the artist’s intent when they created the piece. There is a school of thought that this is as it should be. It states that we derive the most value from an image by letting it speak for itself and that knowing the thoughts behind a photograph, or its backstory, only contaminates our own appreciation of the intrinsic beauty of the work.
I can subscribe to the Listening to the Photograph theory much of the time. But then there are other occasions when I have found that listening to the artist, after listening to the photograph, provides the most complete experience. Here are a few cases in point.
My wife Jill and I enjoyed the opening reception of the new Angela West exhibit, Trigger, at Jackson Fine Art on October 29. Intrigued particularly by the images of what could best be termed “dead birds on a wire,” (my apologies to Leonard Cohen) I understood where the name Trigger came from. Or at least thought I understood.

© 2009 Angela West
The next morning Angela West, coffee cup in hand at the artist talk for her exhibit, informed us that the name Trigger originated from discussing the series with a friend, when the term was frequently used in describing how considering one set of images triggered an interconnecting link to another group of photographs. Oh. So much for my own (mis)conceptions about the artist’s intent for the name of the portfolio. What initially appeared to be obvious was in actuality more subtle.

I was still wondering what an artist who developed a following through poignant portraits of 16-year-olds is doing with someone’s dead birds. And what was the point of putting red dye on their breast feathers to emulate blood? Then, after a few careful questions to Ms. West afterward, I found the answer to my question. They were her birds, taken with careful aim of her firearm, a day before they were captured by her 8x10 view camera. So much, too, for thinking that the red coloration was dye.
What listening to Angela West did for me was to enormously increase my understanding and appreciation of her art. There is a deeply personal connection between the portrait of the quail and the artist. Like Ms. West’s working life portraits of her father, her Trigger portfolio is an intimate glimpse into the richly varied life of the artist. Seeing the images alone without listening to the artist would have excluded much of their total value to me.
One of the more intriguing events of the immensely full ACP 12 agenda was the October 16 Portfolio Walk, where the Grady High School lunch room tables were full of prints from over fifty artists. Of the many excellent pieces, those of Lisette de Boisblanc were among those that stopped you in your tracks in your winding path around the tables. One of her stunning photographs of X-rays of toys is currently hanging the Atrium of Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airport in Atlanta Photography Group’s Airport Show.

Interview with the Ward
© 2009 Lisette de Boisblanc
While the images are certainly very well executed, the genre of X-rayed dolls is not unique. The curiosity to learn more led me to Lisette’s website and to her artist statement.
As a New Orleans native, five years ago I felt the tragedy of hurricane Katrina as my family was profoundly affected by the storm...After finding my grandmother’s ruined doll collection, leftovers from her personal belongings, I began to x-ray them for documentation and curiosity. I am shocked with my findings; nails and pins pierced their bodies below the surface. Suddenly, the doll has an aura that is almost human, with internal workings that chronicle a life lived, an internal spirit, sometimes with strength, and others with a broken heart. I discovered that these x-rays reached beyond documentation and physical deterioration; for each, a story emerged, some sense out of my loss.
Copyright © 2009-2010 Lisette de Boisblanc
Suddenly the black and white photographs of doll innards became much, much more than the thin veneer on the print. They transformed the paper into a statement of lives interrupted, then continuing where they left off. It took the artist’s statement to give them life, and I as the viewer and reader, benefited immensely from it.
Taking the image as life story experience a full step farther, consider Jennifer Shaw's Hurricane Story exhibit at the Jennifer Schwartz Gallery that opened in July of this year. Taking a single image out of the exhibit context gives you a beautiful photograph that says “really well-done differential focus image of a toy horse.”

We drove further north to the farm
© 2006 Jennifer Shaw
The mental attributes I had assigned to her work changed by a mile however the moment that Jennifer Shaw began to relate that the entire portfolio is an autobiographical narrative relating the experience of her family fleeing New Orleans immediately before the onslaught of Hurricane Katrina. The saga became even more touching after hearing that Ms. Shaw gave birth during the evacuation. Seeing one image or even two or three from a portfolio such as this gives very short shrift to the realities of the artist’s experience. Again, as for Lisette de Boisblanc, I needed to listen as well as see.

It is not that we, as artists, have not heard about the importance of artist statements. Susan Todd-Raque, during a discussion at the Atlanta Photography Group Speaking of Photography series in June of this year, emphasized that the artist statement gives "insight into the thinking of the artist and enhances the visual communication offered by the portfolio.” But sometimes we just don’t appreciate as well as we might the value of verbally or textually expressing ourselves as artists to enhance our visual expression. One of the key teachings from moderator Chip Simone at the monthly critique sessions of the Atlanta Photography Group is that even a 30-second elevator speech about the small group of images the artist has just put on the wall is crucial for the maximum appreciation of the work by those viewing the work.
Sometimes, too, we miss out on a little fun when we don’t find the time to listen to what the artist has to say. Those of you who attended Paul Hagedorn’s artist talk for his Peachtree Battle exhibit at the Hagedorn Foundation Gallery at the end of September know what I mean. Mr. Hagedorn’s humorous recitation of his neighbors’ anguish as he blew up toys in his backyard over a period of 353 days lightened the day, as did his chuckle that many of the toys he blasted to bits were his brother’s. As he states on his website for the Peachtree Battle portfolio, “The family is still finding fragments of the boys’ army figures throughout the yard. Seeing the look in their little faces when poor, old GI Joe’s blackened body part was found is priceless!” It was refreshing to hear a serious artist have a hearty laugh about his art and its circumstances. Listening to the artist, again, adds a third dimension to the art that simply looking at its two-dimensional surface does not provide.
The artist has many means available to expose the backstory of their art. We have artist talks, artist statements about a particular series, and dedicated websites such as the one for Paul Hagedorn’s Peachtree Battle image. Blogs, too, are a powerful vehicle for the artist to communicate, as exemplified by Anne Berry’s Menagerie blog referenced in an earlier posting in the blog you are reading now. The Lumiere Gallery in particular makes excellent use of video in preserving the artists’ illumination of their own work. A video clips by Al Weber for example provide a very human view of hia art that you would not get standing before a photograph hanging on the off-white walls of a gallery somewhere.
This article then is a plea to listen to the artist. By all means first give ear to what the photograph has to tell you. Your own interpretation provides that crucial, memorable, initial impression. But do not forget to hear from to the artist if you wish to derive the most from the art.

I’ll look forward to seeing you at the next artist talk.

All images are published with the explicit permission of the artist.
Text other than direct quotations copyright 2010 by Richard Ediger.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for your comments about the importance of the artist statement accompanying someone's work when exhibited. The voice of the artist should be heard. This is a continuing issue between myself and some local reviewers (not critics, I dislike that term) but I disagree with their point of view. It is about them and their need to be the only voice the public hears and finds credible. That is why the artist should have a voice, too, in the interpretation of their work.