Jim Sienkiewicz's Blog

Jim Sienkiewicz's thoughts on his own and others' photography

Category Archives: Writings

Camera Phones and the Democracy of Photography

If you follow the chronology of photographic history, there are some milestones that illuminate how the medium has become more and more available to the everyday purposes of the public at large.

1839-Photography’s advent: The first photograph is officially created by Niepce in France 12 years before but this date is when Daguerre and Talbot simultaneously unleash each of their unique processes upon the world, forever changing media, art, and society as a whole. Both of these processes (the Daguerreotype and the Calotype/Salt Print) are the province of the elite, wealthy and all but most adventurous hobbyists for the next decade. The chemistry is sophisticated and for the larger part of the 19th century a photographer is equal parts craftsmen, scientist and alchemist (upon those rare occasions when images of lasting value linger into our contemporary consciousness even today). While the operator of the camera is as distanced from the everyday citizen as the hierarchy of classes essentially allows, beginning in the 1850’s the average person is finally able to afford a likeness of themselves, a luxury previously only reserved for the commissioners of painted portraits and the expensive tastes of church patronage. The “Tintype” and the “Carte de Visite” were the first true levelers of this prior artifact of excess, with everyone from soldiers in the American Civil War to casual tourists now able to possess a small, inexpensive portrait made in a quick manner.

Flash ahead to 1878 when the laborious and complex wet-plate collodion negative technique is replaced by a dry-plate version, then 1883 when celluloid (modern-day flexible film) is introduced and most importantly 1888: the introduction of the Kodak Hand Camera. This is the year the “snapshot” is born and with it the rise of the “vernacular”. The vernacular is common, even generic and boring everyday photography created by amateurs, in-laws and basically anything not deemed art or serious photography. This is the true ascent of photography’s democratic ideal: that anyone, not just a skilled technician and not the previously wealthy class of the old world could now make pictures whenever and of whatever they wish. Kodak’s Rochester, NY facility boomed under the marketing scheme of selling the cameras preloaded with roll film and then having the customer send the entire camera into the factory. The labs then printed all of the images and loaded the camera again for its next term of use. It was genius. This is the business model that launched Eastman Kodak to stellar financial heights. (It is ironic and unfortunate that the advent of digital photography and less dependence on traditional silver-based materials has essentially been the death knell of this corporation a century later.)

So it is by no mere coincidence that one year after the introduction of this snapshot revolution that in 1889 one witnesses the birth of Pictorialism, a photographic movement that lasted until the outbreak of World War I and came into existence with the express purpose of establishing the photographic medium as a fine art and in direct opposition to the types of pictures being created by the quotidian masses. (This movement was noble in its intentions but ultimately doomed in its insistence on mimicking the surface effects and subject matters of painting, attempting to co-opt aspects of the latter in legitimatizing photography’s place in the visual arts.)

Fast forward a half-century or so and we arrive at the large-scale introduction of color photography. Color images had existed to some degree in the 19th century, either through a process where miniaturists on staff at studios would paint colors over monochromatic pictures or through incredibly laborious and unstable processes like the “Heliochrome”. The Lumiere Brothers introduced the “Autochrome” around the turn of the 20th century and while the Pictorialists experimented with this technique, the slides were one-of-a-kind and incapable of reproduction. (I had the pleasure of seeing some examples of autochromes in Paris at the Musee D’Orsay some years back in a darkened room, and the aesthetics of the pictures are gorgeous.) It was really the debut of Kodachrome film in 1935 and its wide scale use by families and tourists in the 1940’s and beyond that ushered in the age of the true to life images that we take for granted now. While color remained the domain of the advertising photographer well into the 1970’s, essentially hands off to fine artists, generations of families now grew up on the amateur father or mother snapshot still image-maker, not to mention the pulpy 8 and 16mm moving pictures that became a staple of American and European living rooms during the era. (Polaroid becomes a mere footnote in this article, but Edwin H. Land’s innovation in instant picture making is where this whole summary culminates in the mainstream uses of photography as we know them today.)

From the 1970’s to the early 2000’s the amateur or vernacular photographer was judged by the sharpness of his glass, and if he used the best cameras available on the sub-professional market. The often Nikon clad weekend warrior photog was hunched over due to his enormous telephoto lens and their estimation of success was the itinerant house guest’s notion of “hey, you took these? These could be in National Geographic!”.

Ah, and on the 7th day God rested, but then everything was nearly open 24 hours/7 days a week and in this atmosphere came Digital! Analog photography’s decline was of course precipitated by the introduction of digital cameras and what at first was the sole province of the technophile soon became the working standard of photojournalists and media, and now the domain of the majority of people who consider themselves “photographers”, novice, professional, or ambivalent to the term whatsoever. At first digital cameras had to catch up to the resolution and dynamic range of film-based capture but within the scope of 20 years, digital has essentially surpassed film in sharpness and reproduction quality except for the largest of traditional formats. This leads of course to the teaser that possibly drew you to even reading this essay…the appearance of camera phones on the scene and their contemporary status as photography.

Now, when I mentioned sharpness and quality in the previous statements, let me be clear. This matter of quality is key because much of the world has lost its appreciation for subtlety and classic aesthetics, which is at the heart of the matter. Camera phones now possess incredible resolution and can even be utilized to make the small-scale prints that once would have graced the pages of the typical family picture album. I have no doubts that relatively soon “Moore’s Law” will account for camera phones being able to make greater and more significant enlargements and with even smoother and more professional looking results. (This assumes of course that people still view pictures as prints or in traditionally published media, as tablets, phones and online require about a quarter of the resolution necessitated by the older standards.) Damon Winter’s 2010 Iraq War pictures were made with an iPhone and stylized with a widely available app. This year Nick Laham had an image of New York Yankee Alex Rodriguez published on the front of the New York Times that was captured and processed through Instagram. Often photojournalists and other media photographers supplement their higher quality captures with images created in this vein, and it will only continue to grow more and more popular. This fails to recognize of course how many millions of individuals utilize this technology on the daily level and as Anderson Cooper claimed in an interview he conducted of Kelsey Grammer, with Instagram “Everyone’s a professional photographer”.

Alas, where does that leave us? Are images created with camera phones “photography”? Yes, without a doubt. But, are they “serious photography”? No. That may seem a bit snobbish, but it is in reference to that quality issue I referenced before. It’s about process…thought…commitment…and things not always seeming as easy as society would have you believe. There is a substantial difference between the amateur photog that anyone on earth can claim to be these days and those practitioners of either traditional or contemporary craft that can truly refer to themselves as photographers of a certain regard. Even if the case is made for qualified and dues-paying professionals using these apparatuses, they are essentially pushing a line that they know they are in the unique position to walk over. Quality is an evaluative term and it can be troublesome in this age of political correctness, social egalitarianism and post-modern globalization. That said, is it wrong to believe that people who have dedicated their entire lives to the craft and service of the photographic medium are not separate from the remainder of the public in their status as photographers? If some stranger came up to you in the style of Alec Soth or Bruce Davidson, would you think higher of them if they were asking to photograph you with a large format view camera or a Leica rather than framing you in 5 seconds with their phone? What about the future status of professional photojournalists or art for commerce? Will all commercial and news publications simply scroll through the archives of Flickr and Facebook to access ready-made images that require no greater thought than a computer logarithm mimicking a “Holga” effect or vintage sepia? What will it mean when more and more MFA Photography programs are tortuously extended into a Studio Art PHD when schools can require more and more education and finances of their students, but still accept that they might never learn the craft of photographic history and potentially complete a thesis project with a camera phone? These are some of the expansive questions that face photographers of tomorrow and ones that do not present easy answers.

Roland Barthes hypothesized in Camera Lucida that the vernacular photographer was closer to the true essence of the medium due to the photograph’s quintessential nature of having documented, or certified “this has been”. He also believed that when photographs were subjected to the same aesthetic constraints of composition, surface effects, etc. as those of the traditional visual arts that they sacrificed this essence in an attempt for legitimacy. Perhaps he was right, but I find rather that a combination of these concepts is truer to the crux of the argument. That the democracy of photography is a large aspect of its power, but that also it is a momentous achievement of a photographic image-maker to transcend the billions of pictures circulated endlessly through the world at any given time and create those pictures of lasting import, value and ultimately physical or intellectual craftsmanship. And that readers, can only be attained through process…thought…commitment.

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The Legend of Manure Man

Oh, here comes the story of the Manure Man
Who said hell to the county and their terrible plan
Our river’s not your toilet, not now, not ever
Development be damned, this action must sever
His Legend arose when he delivered a hit
To four busy blocks, fresh paved with bullshit
Not the kind normally found around city hall
But a load and a tale that came to be quite tall
I’d love to see them wade in this piss they spew
Which they flagrantly dump towards our towns out of view
A tractor I think will do the job right
And I’ll travel and work while their mouths rest at night
Now tomorrow they’ll notice, when they lift up their shoes
How this is our life, not theirs to abuse
Lynch was his name, talk not his game
But action by one a success all the same
So remember the moral of the Manure Man
His injustice avenged, we could all take a stand
And hell to Saint Rose, at least her town on this day
It’ll be two weeks from Tuesday before the reek goes away.

(Based on a true incident involving toxic dumping in the Russian River under the supervision of Santa Rosa officials)

High Desert

Landscape like leather
a world stripped bare of excess
and what man would call life
he kills those he chooses, no trespass greater, than poor fate
and running across him

Hard hills
no streams, no springs, no port of egress
it will swallow you in its parched gulp
it makes haste to drain the blood of what dare cross it
but still you encounter him

Pinnacles proliferated
but with no signs of a savior
no holy cross formed of snow and ice
the land as barren as your thoughts, he will endure you here,
against all determination

Not man, not mountain
morose, morbid monuments of dust
gathered at the feet of an unfeeling god
left to the devices of a de-peopled place that cares little
for your lot or escape

Manifest misery
politics of a point on a map
a territory inhabited by no one
a heat mortal by existence alone, crushing cloud of fact
unabated by attempts to outlast

Downward drag
your body feeds nothing
returned to a source of bad water
that never reaches the surface, only desperate fissures
left to erode over time

New Alamo (an ode to the New and Alamo Rivers)

Brown, dirt-fed stream
a century’s dream
control through design
everything’s fine
water looks good
“how’s ’bout neighborhoods”?
cash rolls in
thanks to the flood

Desiccated parcels made to lure
5 & dime convenience stores
endless summer at low cost
dollars that is, not forethought
who knows where it goes
this project unfolds
into our gift
to our kin, lots still sold

A mistake by birth
borne of earth
burden of land
deemed void by man
first seemed great
as an escape
now leads to
an empty waste of space

Alphabet

A
B roken
C lock
D rives
E venly
F orward.
G aining
H igh,
I mmediately
J umping.
K eeping
L ess
M eaningfully
N ow
O ur
P atience.
Q uiet.
R estful.
S eemingly
T ruthful,
U nless
V anished
W hen
X
Y ields
Z ero.

We Watched It Burn


We watched it burn from the hills to the east. We saw flames and plumes devour the landscape we knew and held dear. Black and other unfamiliar hues now spread throughout the woods where we had once walked under canopies of green. Forest cleared to timber cleared to cinders.

The town was gone but the flames kept moving, almost as fast as the human exodus that had preceded it. “I heard it was a couple of college kids making a bonfire”, “no, it was a lightning strike” some chimed in, while others speculated more on what would be lost rather than what caused one to think of it. We were all there, but the physical impact was still registered, only transferred from one material form to the other. The year had been dry and while winter was on its way, there was no stopping a spark jumping to brush, then to log, and finally to us and our place in the world, nestled into the tapestry of waiting fuel that would eventually swallow what we had built.

The air grew cold with less wind, so the fire stopped, but the burns lingered. Scattered remnants of meadows dotted the terrain like unscarred patches of tissue pressed up against char.

When the time for news passed, the others left, but we picked through the ash and rubble in search of family albums, jewelry, and anything else that might remain. Futile for the most part, although we were all still alive, but that is like comparing survival alone to what is worth living for after, what we had built.


The snow came soon, almost an insult after the fact. The snags poked through the bandage of white like a wound trying to cleanse itself. At least we had somewhere to lie down, but home was a far place from the land we rested upon now. Old growth fell away like matchsticks and we knew that most of us wouldn’t be around long enough to see any of it as it had been.

Time yielded to weeks, months, and eventually years. The children witnessed the evidence daily, even if they had no remembrance of the event itself. Things grew, the grass then the brush, but still not the trees. Meanwhile all of the houses had been rebuilt in the generic style that had come to define the new west. The settlements helped some of us, but others just moved on and tried to get a fresh start. “I hear that those college kids felt pretty terrible (it was them in fact), and that one of them wasn’t doing too well.” He drinks in an attempt to forget, but the land won’t let him.

Years turned to decades, and only a few of us could think back far enough, but the image of it all would never fade. Now I’m the last one left, and I think I finally see something out there on the horizon. I can feel it more than describe it, but I know one day long after all of us have disappeared, those woods will come back whether we’re here to walk through them or not.

Jim Sienkiewicz 2010

Into the Dark

Throughout artistic evolution, individuals have frequently returned to several themes upon which they continue to develop and contribute. One such motif which mirrors the inner feelings of the artist is that of the dark. A reflection of the individual’s perception of themselves or the world which surrounds them, it remains a broad area of investigation but one which often has had a profound psychological impact upon our experience. The outcome of these explorations can be both fascinating and haunting in how they transpose the inner workings of the solitary mind to that of the communal experience of the realized artwork.

In his A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1756), Edmund Burke identifies several aspects of what we deem to be the sublime, the recognition of a kind of beautiful terror. Darkness is pivotal to the nature of this concept. It not only invokes greater curiosity than lightness but also speaks more to our psychological connection to the world. Obviously there is its equation with death, but darkness also references the unknown, all which remains obscure to us, and therefore a consistent avenue of introspection.

If we take into account this conception of the dark as that which is obscure than James Joyce’s colossal final work Finnegans Wake (1939) is perhaps the most eloquent example. Begun after the publication of his landmark Ulysses (1922), the chronicle of one day in the life of Dublin, Finnegans Wake is an evolution upon it’s predecessor. The stream of consciousness writing method Joyce employed for the former finds itself completely free of constraints, left approaching a grammatical and logical breakdown of both writing and language. “If Ulysses was a book about daytime, Finnegans Wake was a book of the night. Dream and riddle, myth-making, myth-breaking, syllepses, syllogisms, naturalisms, supernaturalism, fabulism…” 1 Joyce alluded to dreams and Irish legend in a complex and interlocking pattern of verbal puns. Lauded and decried alike, the work has largely remained misunderstood, which may be fair given its references to some sixty languages as well as unique ones which can only be termed as Joycean. What makes Finnegan Wake so particularly interesting is its embrace of the unknown. The author, who’s rapidly failing eyesight had reached one tenth of normal vision by this time, often worked by candlelight to the point of exhaustion over the sixteen years he devoted to the piece. Joyce was also an artist who dared to elevate the mundane to the level of the heroic. His seemingly non-sensical construction is partly the result of his motivations to explore a realm to which no one had ventured. Most poetically however Finnegans Wake may be seen as an eloquent reflection of Joyce himself. Nearly blind, equally infamous as famous, and collapsing under the weight of his own genius, Joyce was attempting to create something which echoed his deepest thoughts and perceptions. A work which cyclically engages all of experience and becomes phenomenal through its own means. Perhaps the unadulterated nature of his stream of consciousness was the perfect vehicle for a man working with an imminent sense that the temporal world was nearing its end but the eternal within reach. He becomes linguist, storyteller, and medium, a creator of a strange and unknown world, but one which harkens to the experience of this one. Finnegans Wake is certainly a book of the dark, the outpourings of the crafter of the obscure mirror held up to the arena of the world.

Francisco Goya’s late Black Paintings herald the beginning of the Modernist fascination with the darker aspects of humanity. While predecessors such as Hieronymus Bosch and William Blake provide a clear lineage to the subject, Goya is the artist who truly makes the genre his own. In his later years a deaf and increasingly anti-humanist Goya occupied a two-story house on the outskirts of Madrid nicknamed Quinta del Sordo or “deaf-man’s villa”. The large interior walls became the carrier for a series of murals that the painter never intended for display. The Black Paintings comprise a range of subjects, but all are united through a singular dark and horrific underpinning. Saturn Devouring His Son (1819) is the most well known and perhaps for good reason. The gruesome image of the giant cannibalizing his progeny frozen in a muddy and gestural chiaroscuro is not easily forgotten. Another scene, Fight With Clubs (n.d.), portrays two young boys about to bludgeon each other set against a frigid cerulean sky that heightens the drama. It is clear that the events surrounding the aging Goya’s life were informing these works. He had suggested the dark before and experienced it directly with his Third of May 1808 (1812-14). The horrors of the Peninsular War (1808-14) had left Goya even more withdrawn and skeptical of humanity than he had been prior. Now in his seventies, the painter was not only deaf but also suffering from what is since known as Vogt-Koyanagi-Harada, a syndrome that may have affected his vision and possibly induced delirium. Added to this was the constant fear in his last years regarding his prior position as royal court painter and the instable political situation of his contemporary Spain. His illnesses coupled with his ever-increasing paranoia and hostility appear to reflect the content of the Black Paintings rather well. Francisco Goya is often considered the last of the old masters as well as the first of the moderns and his art resolves this through his use of classic models while still engaging the events of his own time. He truly was the first modern artist to sincerely embrace the darker side of human nature and thus commence a tradition that is still strong in the Post Modern period.

(Francisco Goya, Witches Sabbath, 1820-1823)

“Through every forest, above the trees.
Within my stomach, scraped off my knees.
I drink the honey inside your hive.
You are the reason I stay alive.” 2

When The Downward Spiral was released in 1994, it signaled more than the progression of NINE INCH NAILS and sole composer Trent Reznor’s entrance into the popular music mainstream. It also heralded the foundation of a new synthesis of musical subject matter: the dark, yet decidedly Pop. While Reznor had achieved critical and club success with Pretty Hate Machine (1989), his newest incantation had cemented his place as a visionary. The second single and most noteworthy inclusion on the album was Closer.

Arguably the dark masterpiece of Industrial music, a genre Reznor himself refuses to be categorized by, “Closer” is more than a hypnotic dance piece, although it remains a standard. Part of a larger concept album, it remains one of the sincerest musical reflections of both the self and its moribund manifestations. In keeping with the continuity of the album, Reznor recorded it while occupying the infamous house where actress Sharon Tate was murdered by Charles Manson’s followers. 3 The impact seems to have been clear as the demons of both Reznor’s psyche and the locale’s history infect the tracks.

As much as language is a poor substitute for visual art, it is a particularly mediocre equivalent for music. That stated, I have always identified with Reznor’s compositions and their lyrics as metaphors for his personal relationship to his art. Not necessarily always the case, but often NIN’s references to drugs and sexuality align themselves with the self-induced narcotic of creation. Words of course need not end at their face value and the symbolic connotations of sacrificing yourself to your passion(s) are those that any artist can understand. I will refrain from elaborating further and only mention in summation that with “Closer” Reznor has spoken to the transformative experience of the interior made outward and made the adage “beauty from pain” not an empty cliché but a reality.

(Stills from Mark Romanek’s 1994 music video for “Closer”. Visual motifs include references to Francis Bacon’s beef carrion and Joel-Peter Witkin’s human cornucopia.)

“Beauty is found in places you least expect it, and sometimes in death.” –Sam Mendes 4

It is rare for a successful contemporary film to reach the truly poetic, but the collaboration of writer Alan Ball and director Sam Mendes for American Beauty (1999) was able achieve this brilliantly. “Lester Burnham”, both the film’s subject and narrator, introduces us to and later concludes the story of his life, which is essentially as conformist and passionless as the critics of suburbia have always claimed. Throughout the narrative’s progression we discover the means by which Lester has fallen into his sorry state as well as those which ultimately liberate him from it.

What the pairing of Ball and Mendes have so eloquently conveyed is that our antihero is not some isolated, pathetic loser approaching middle age, but a reflection of who we are or may become. This is precisely why Lester’s story is so gripping, because it is so inescapably ordinary. A recurring motif of the film is Lester’s and his life’s insignificance, which Mendes has beautifully visualized through the recorded images of a plastic bag caught in a gust of wind so that it “dances” for minutes on end. This is revealed through Lester’s neighbor and amateur videographer “Ricky Fitts”, who is extraordinarily sensitive to even the most seemingly trite manifestations of beauty in the world.

Now as Lester begins to transform his life from the banal pseudo-existence it was into something more closely resembling what he had imagined in his younger days, the supporting players begin to take their respective roles in relation to his path. They become counterpoints to his actions and in the process “struggle viciously – and hilariously – to escape the middle-class doldrums, [through which] the film also evinces a real and ever more stirring compassion.” 5 While Lester pursues this new direction he increasingly garners the freedom and gratification that was absent in his previous state and it would appear that his recent persona is embarking on a fruitful new course, emblematic of what Heidegger described as a being-towards-death. The closing moments of the film reveal however that happiness was never absent from this man’s life, but that he just didn’t know where to look for it. When for the first time asked how he is doing, he has an intense moment of realization to which he responds “I’m great.” As Lester reflects on this at his kitchen table while gazing into a snapshot of his family suspended in a moment of joy we slowly follow the camera’s pan only to in an instant discover that he has been killed. In Mendes’ compelling final sequence, we see the memories flash before our hero’s eyes at the point of death. Gone are the insecurities and trivial concerns, and all that is left is the beauty of that man’s heart and love for his life. When Ricky finds Lester, he again is able to recognize the extraordinary beauty of this individual’s last moments. And as Lester’s own life lingers in his mind for time infinite, the closing narration speaks to all of us:

“I guess I could be pretty pissed off about what happened to me,
but it’s hard to stay mad when there’s so much beauty in the world.
Sometimes I feel like I’m seeing it all at once and it’s too much.
My heart fills up like a balloon that’s about to burst.
And then I remember to relax…
and stop trying to hold on to it.
And then it flows through me like rain,
and I can’t feel anything but gratitude…
for every single moment…
of my stupid little life.
You have no idea what I’m talking about, I’m sure.
But don’t worry.
You will someday.”

____________________________________________________________

Notes
1. Edna Obrien, James Joyce, p.137
2. http://www.seeklyrics.com/lyrics/Nine-Inch-Nails/Closer.html, April 1, 2007
3. http://music.yahoo.com/ar-259781-bio–Nine-Inch-Nails?ev=30672468, April 1, 2007
4. American Beauty, Dream Works DVD, 2000, Audio Commentary
5. New York Times review, Janet Maslin, September 15, 1999.

The Tradition of the Sublime Landscape

Thou hast a voice, great Mountain, to repeal
Large codes of fraud and woe; not understood
By all, but which the wise, and great, and good
Interpret, or make felt, or deeply feel.

-Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mont Blanc, 1817

As long as the tradition of landscape in the visual arts, so is that of its expression of the sublime. The artists of the Romantic era were perhaps its greatest and most apparent exponents, but scores of artists have transcended medium, stylistic, and historical boundaries in their mutual engagement(s) of the idea. Numerous aspects and interpretations of the sublime landscape have been presented, and the constant evolution of our conception of the sublime has helped to make it a relevant dialogue in the contemporary landscape.

Echoes of the Wilderness

Landscape, considered art historically, is not the oldest of subject matters. While it is has served as a structural framework and played a supporting role in a large part of art’s history, it’s development into an artistic genre of its own is relatively recent. There are several factors that account for this. For one, landscape had always enjoyed a secondary status as the backdrop for human activity. Historical, biblical, and allegorical themes in the arts were often enacted in this setting. The presence of the landscape was essential to the image, but less to the narrative, and on the whole commanded little attention outside of this token status. While there were early ruminations of the landscape’s emergence as a genre proper to be felt in the Renaissance, it was the Baroque period that first explored landscape on its own terms. While it had previously been rare to see nature without human presence, it increasingly became depopulated and devoid of humanity. The Dutch especially engaged this subject matter with a sensitivity and proclivity for interpreting it eloquently, and the breakdown of the traditional painted hierarchy of subject matter led not only to the development of vanitas still life but also to that of the landscape as appropriate artistic fodder. This period signals the advent of the subject on par with its historical and portrait counterparts.

(Albrecht Durer, View Of The Arco Valley, 1495)

Durer was among the most prominent Renaissance artists to embrace the symbolic potential of landscape, most often in his engravings and wash drawings. In this mixed media work we can see how the artist has re-interpreted the topography and inserted human features into the cliff face.

In a broader respect however, it appears that the most important causes of landscape’s singularity were technological. The fresco and oil paintings that dominated the artistic practice up to and including the Renaissance were ill suited for use beyond the studio. Careful and meticulous attention to detail as well as the necessity to mix one’s own colors both precluded serious investigation of the world beyond urbanity. One medium that allowed artists to elude this restriction was that of the etching. The relative informality and manner of transcription permitted for work to be done in the field. Because little was required outside of some simple tools and the etching plate, the studio could be transported wherever one wished. Early industrialization also allowed for the pre-mixture of colors. So whereas one was once required to exact an often complicated process of fabricating paints, you could now utilize it straight from the tube. Such is the origin of plein-air.
(Rembrandt van Rijn, The Three Trees, 1643)

After this initial phase of entrance into the contemporary currents of art, landscape soon began to expand its emotional and symbolic character. I have mentioned that the Dutch are among the most responsible for this, and their unique history and geography greatly imbues it in such a tradition. The shipping industries that dominated the Dutch economy and the low-lying landscape of the countryside afforded settings for the initial explorations of the sublime. The maritime atmosphere that surrounded almost all of life in the Netherlands provided a strong regard and reverence for the sea. The sea became an increasingly apt subject for the early conceptions of the sublime in that it not only was accountable for countless disasters and shipwrecks offshore but also the below sea-level topography of Holland allowed for massive flooding and farming losses whenever nature refused to cooperate. The later Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich was known to have studied several of these Dutch seascapes in the forms of engravings. Such was the power of the landscape, that from its beginnings as a genre it immediately commenced investigation of the awe-inspiring power of the natural world.

(Jacob van Ruisdael, The Jewish Cemetery, 1655)

Some early expressions of the sublime were evident in the landscapes of van Ruisdael, who often evoked senses of human mortality and transience with foreboding paintings such as this one. The advancing storm and reference to death both contribute to an atmosphere of nature’s elevation beyond humanity.

The Enlightenment era was ripe with talk of the sublime. Rationalism, with its effort to make intelligible the passions, viewed the concept of the sublime as profoundly linked to human associations. Immanuel Kant and other Enlightenment philosophers tackled the subject, but it was the young Edmund Burke who best provided an accurate conception of the sublime and its effects on us. Burke distinguished between beauty and the sublime, unlike Kant, and posited that the sublime awakens terror, not aesthetic appreciation within us. To account for our sensational and profound experiences of the natural world, a notion of the sublime such as Burke’s seems most appropriate. Just as the poet Shelley stands before the glacier Blanc and is enthralled by both its grandeur and awesome power, the Romantics who would follow in Burke’s wake seem to make a similar equation. It is because of nature’s often violent character and ultimate
refusal to yield before us that affords it the respect it commands in our presence.
(Caspar David Friedrich, Abbey In The Oakwood, 1810)

The Romantic artists and their enterprise burgeoned at the inception of the full-scale industrial revolution. The vast urbanization and mechanization of life evidenced in even this early phase motivated the Romantics to return to nature as inspiration. Scenes of ruins in the wilderness coupled with solitary figures in the landscape both communicated the sense of isolation and minuteness that are the hallmarks of Romantic naturalism. Other images completely negated human presence or always presented them in a diminished capacity. The landscape is always triumphant in the vernacular of the movement. Nature has attained the status of deity, as for some such as the atheist Shelley, and achieved the most remarkable expression of the divine.
The later paintings of the British Romantic artist Turner contain abstract and violent gestural qualities that foreshadow the non-objectivity of the twentieth century. Turner’s depiction of a snowstorm at sea not only conveys the torrentiality of the storm but also the inadequacy of the ships that have fallen victim to its phenomenal power.
(J.M.W. Turner, Snowstorm, 1842)
(Thomas Cole, The Oxbow, 1836)
In the early nineteenth century a group of American artists known as the Hudson River School expanded the exploration of the sublime landscape from Europe to the United States. Here Thomas Cole has depicted the meeting of two worlds- wilderness and civilization. The natural and unencumbered landscape yields and is encroached upon by the man made acclimation of it. The confrontation is a violent one and conveys the unsettling atmosphere that must have been present in Cole himself. 1

Since its invention in the first half of the nineteenth century, the photograph has possessed the ability to artistically engage the world in a way which is unique in its immediacy and power. Because photography is always at least partially rooted in mimesis, it can relay some aspects of reality with a more profound effect than other mediums. The photographic image almost always asserts that this has happened 2 or does so with a greater certainty than its visual art counterparts.

That said, the photographic engagement of the tradition of the sublime is an apt one as much of what informed and inspired early photography was the existing Romantic sentiment that had preceded it. What the photographic image offered was a factual account of the landscape it presented to us. Granted that throughout the entire history of the medium there have been those who have composited images, altered prints, and distorted the reality it claims to authenticate, but the notion still remains that what the camera provides us with is a representation of the true world around us.

(Francis Frith, The Pyramids Of Sakkarah, 1857)

Two decades after the photograph’s advent, Francis Frith documented various historical sites in Egypt and on the Sinai Peninsula. The result is a series of albumen prints that illustrate the natural attrition of some of humanity’s greatest achievements. The temples of Egypt have eroded and become buried by the wind-swept sands of the desert. Even the great built wonders of the world become dust at the hands of nature and time.
While the relationship between the sublime and the landscape had been thoroughly developed on the European continent, its extension into photography appropriately finds its roots in America. Vast expanses of previously undeveloped landscape dominated what was to become the United States. Manifest Destiny and an innate pioneer mentality lead to the great western exploration and expansion. At the same time photographers themselves participated in this migration, and provided us posthumously with an image of both the wide-open space that was the west and what has since become the contemporary American landscape. William Henry Jackson’s images of the western wilderness not only gave people back east a vision of what lay in their backyard but also the majesty of the nation’s natural resources. Other photographer’s braved similar journeys and contributed to a greater consciousness of the sublime in this new and seemingly endless terrain.

(Timothy O’Sullivan, Black Canyon, Colorado River, 1871)

(Carleton E. Watkins, Solar Eclipse From Mount Santa Lucia, California, 1889)

Watkins photographed many of the natural wonders of the western American landscape, particularly in California. In this image of a solar eclipse we can see how the Romantic sensibility has informed photography. While this could easily be the subject of a painting, there is perhaps a more profound emotional resonance due to the photograph’s authentication of the event. The scene exhibits a supernatural aura partially due to this certification of rare but naturally occurring phenomena.

(Minor White, Barns & Clouds, In The Vicinity Of Naples And Dansville, NY, 1955)
Minor White’s image of a solitary barn placed in surreal surroundings evidences how landscape could summon such metaphorical connotations of the natural sublime even in the mid-twentieth century.

Reinterpreting The Paradigm

At some point it was only natural that many artists, having grown up in cities and not the country, would begin to approach landscape from a different perspective. A shift occurred from that of the natural world to that of the man-made and built one. The great skyscrapers and metropolis’ inspired such phrases as “the urban jungle.” While a humorous and facetious term, it still exploits the relationship between the individual and the vastly expanding urban environment. The cities built upward towards the sky, as opposed to the vast expanses of the traditional landscape that lie below it.

What most sparked a kinship between the established notions of the sublime landscape and the newly developed urban environment was the scale of humanity’s relation to it. Just as Shelley is paled by Mont Blanc, so is any one walking through Paul Strand’s image of Wall Street (1915). A fifty story building looming above you can be just as awe-inspiring as a mountain, especially if it is surrounded by structures of equal measure. The city offered a new arena for this ongoing discussion. Modernism may have superseded its Romantic predecessor but not without subsuming it.

(Alfred Stieglitz, From The Back Window, 291, 1915)
(Michael Wolf, Architecture Of Density, 1995-2006)

Using the backdrop of Hong Kong, the world’s most densely populated city, the German artist Michael Wolf has afforded us a picture of humanity at its most structured level. Images of the complex and compacted network of sky rises and apartment buildings that make up the urban center abstract the architectural forms as well as metaphorically represent their inhabitants. We are left with an image of a society where the mechanical has triumphed over the individual and utilitarianized its existence.

Ironically, the industrial environment evinces some of the same sentiments as our classical conceptions of the sublime. The aggressive and monumental forms of the built landscape provide an equivalent to the untamed and expansive wilderness of the Romantics. A contemporary of Charles Sheeler once commented that “for Sheeler the industrial sublime was both heroic and disquieting.” 3 This coupling of the power and beauty of the industrial environment and the imposing and mechanistic implications it could have on society forge the industrial sublime. Sheeler, a Precisionist, elevated these structures to the realm of high art, but not without misgivings as to their potential negative implications upon humanity.

(Charles Sheeler, Blast Furnace, 1927)
(Edward Burtynsky, Rock Of Ages, No. 7, 1991)

Photographer Edward Burtynsky often utilizes the degraded and modified natural environment as the subject of his imagery. In this photograph of an industrial quarry, it is clear how man has severely altered the landscape. The confrontation of nature and humanity’s effect upon it presents us with a harrowing vision of how man transforms the world.

The Sublime In The Expanded Field

There has been a progression of the concept of the sublime landscape since its historical inception some four hundred years ago. It has evolved to not only include additional contributions to its classical infusion in the representation of the natural landscape but also its extension to the man made and built one. Several artists working in a variety of art forms have embraced some model of this idea and presented it in their own unique way.

As Modernism progressed, several individuals sought to expand their area(s) of artistic enterprise beyond the gallery and museum’s walls. The Earth Artists in particular sought a direct collaboration between nature and the process of artistic creation. By not only making the landscape their subject, but also their medium, this group of artists sought a deeper connection to the natural world than just the metaphorical one that had traditionally been explored. They sought to make this realization entirely physical, in that they directly worked the land around us and focused our attention on the landscape as the artwork itself. By doing so they raised not only pertinent questions regarding artistic context, but also the character of our involvement with the contemporary landscape. Their legacy is in part a further expansion of the notion of the sublime and its relevance to our current period.
(Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty, 1970)

It was perhaps the young Robert Smithson who best understood the potential of the physical landscape’s ability to be conceived of as art in itself. Smithson’s most famous work altered the landscape of the Great Salt Lake using natural materials that surrounded the site. This work evokes elements of the sublime for several reasons. Besides that it directly uses nature itself as the medium and subject matter, it also displays a direct collaboration between the artist and the world around him. Furthermore, the Spiral Jetty is now usually covered with water and in the process nature has reclaimed this man-made modification. The road to the site is quite desolate; the few signs of human activity upon the approach include a bird sanctuary and ironically a military testing ground. Artist Buzz Spector has remarked that in essence the journey to Spiral Jetty is as important as the work itself. 4 The confrontation of man’s imposed devastation and nature’s untamed ruggedness is perfectly apt for the tone of the piece. Upon Spector’s trip the jetty was indeed covered by the water but the greater meaning of Smithson’s masterpiece was communicated all the same.

(Walter De Maria, The Lightning Field, 1977)

When one comes upon The Lightning Field, it is a strange encounter. Isolated in the high desert of the New Mexico wilderness, Walter De Maria’s installation of 400 steel poles in a rectangular arrangement seems an odd place for a work of conceptual art. What the artist has done with this expanse however is truly magical. The steel poles harness the power of nature directly and produce a spontaneous and kinetic experience. Because nature itself generates the incredible vision of the lightning’s meeting with the poles, in this manner the sublime is translated independent of any human presence in the landscape. For time infinite this dramatic play of electricity and its conduit will continue without the further necessity of our involvement. The work functions entirely by its own means and through this simplest method of interaction, produces the most startling of experiences.

Conclusion

It is clear that while the tradition of the sublime is certainly rooted in the idea of the grandeur and power of the natural world, it has not been confined to this conception alone. The expansion of the sublime’s ever evolving dialogue into the realms of the modern urban experience and that of conceptual art attest to the idea’s continued relevance. It is certain that as further developments take place within art and society, the sublime landscape will progress along side them and remain a viable tradition that lends itself to the practice of future artists.

Jim Sienkiewicz

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Notes

1. IMAGINING AMERICA: ICONS OF 20TH CENTURY AMERICAN ART. PBS, December 28, 2005
2. Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes.
3. Charles Sheeler: Paintings And Drawings, Carol Troyen and Erica E. Hirshler.
4. IMAGINING AMERICA: ICONS OF 20TH CENTURY AMERICAN ART.

As The West Burns

This photo-essay of mine was published in the September/October 2009 issue of ‘Wildfire’ magazine. It is a survey of some of the images and experiences I have had while working on “The West Is Burning”, my 8 x 10″ documentary project on the aftermath of wildfires.

Sienkiewicz-Wildfire Magazine Essay

Truth In Advertising

In our contemporary Postmodern, post-structuralist, post-everything period it is not difficult to find oneself jaded or skeptical of another’s sincerity. This is an indelible symptom of the epoch and one which promises to flourish in the years ahead. Art, as mirror of the society it is created in, finds itself prone to the same predicament. Being that authorship has been dead and buried for some time now, how can any of us esteem a work of art to be genuine or of original sentiment ever again?

Thankfully, we have been graced with many such artists who have sought to restore the value and merit of being honest in their craft. With the plague of conceptual, contextual, and hyper-textual art that has ushered forth in recent decades, it is comforting to know that some seek to retain this noble tradition.

What follows are two case studies of particular import. These artists are representative of the prevailing currents within the art world and the framework that surrounds its underlying commercial motivations. Both have remained avant-garde and continued to evolve in their ways of engaging cultural relevance. More than anything else they stand as prime examples of what it takes to be at the top of the artworld and to stay there.

Joel-Peter Witkin
Interviewer: Has your work ever received a very unexpected or especially absurd response?
Witkin: Yes, in an article that was printed recently in response to a photograph. In the picture, there is one man who is missing an eye and another is about to put his penis in that man’s eye socket [History of Commercial Photography in South America, 1984], and the writer thought it was a potato! [laughs] I couldn’t believe it… a potato. [1]

Joel-Peter Witkin’s images have been controversial from their inception. Ranging from corpses to the macabre and romantic depiction of human oddities and sexual taboos, the artist has long existed on the peripheries of contemporary society. Many have dismissed his work as exploitive and little more than shock art, and no doubt more would if not for the sheer beauty and presence of his prints. In the case of Joel-Peter Witkin it is the physicalization of his vision that so eloquently legitimizes his art as of superb caliber. The aestheticization of his subjects has allowed him to explore this iconography extensively and continually introduce greater complexity into his oeuvre.

But the personal narrative of Witkin is equally rich to that of his subject’s. Childhood witness to a decapitation, explorations of his own and society’s sexual boundaries, and a personal fascination with all that would seemingly contradict the beauty his art exudes, anyone who has heard the artist speak is aware of his colorful, if not exaggerated descriptions of his work and life. He is an artist who defies convention but often offends taste – something art has always been thoroughly engaged in, even when it pretends not to be. No self-respecting artist would dare dismiss Witkin, only question his methods. He is the rare, but increasingly conspicuous realization of a Romantic artistic conception: that of the individual whose vision and life mirror each other and exist as unique among the faceless in the crowd. Beauty is created from pain; that of his own and that of his subjects’.

Critics have run the gamut in their perceptions of the artist’s work. Ibid’s Cynthia Chris has stated “Witkin’s altered photographs are representations of some of the most repressed and oppressed images of human behavior and appearance,” while the New York Times critic Gene Thornton has praised him as “one of the great originals of contemporary photography.” [2] It is the spectacle of his work and promotion that keep Joel Peter-Witkin a hot topic amongst art circles. It is impossible to separate the man from his art, which is fortunate for both.

One of Witkin’s more popular anecdotes is that of a medieval juggler’s pilgrimage to a new and magnificent cathedral. While the majesty of the church has commanded the awe and gifts of the elite of society and others of great renown, it is this simple juggler who the artist identifies himself with. This lowly member of the society of his time can put forth no lavish tribute or great deed in marvel of the cathedral, but only offer the humble act he has always known, and begins to juggle before the alter. This is what Witkin believes himself to be doing through his art; creating beauty through the means he possesses. [3] An extremely well-versed and knowledgeable pupil of art history and its traditions, Witkin often employs classical motifs and references within his photographs. His sculptural background finds employment in the construction of his made-to-be photographed installations. Perhaps it is this infusion of the classical into his imagery coupled with the aesthetic sensation of the finished print that make it so hard to ignore the artist’s efforts. Whether a detractor or supporter of Witkin’s images, certainly our attention is commanded.

Now ponder that story of the juggler in the cathedral and consider it in relation to an image of Joel-Peter Witkin taken by his wife. The artist wears a mask that bears a crucified Christ. The mask calls to mind a time gone by and perhaps a dark reference to Poe, but it also symbolizes Witkin’s own relationship to religion. He has investigated various approaches to spirituality and become immersed in several belief systems his traditional Jewish upbringing did not afford. The repeated references in his photographs to Renaissance and Baroque motifs further suggest this traditional streak in his work. Often he will depict scenes of religious significance or deify profane subjects. What this relationship to religion is best understood as however is the complex persona that the artist has created for himself. Witkin often correlates stories of religious meaning with his own aesthetic treatment of what he chooses to photograph. By placing himself behind a mask bearing the image of Christ he is playing a clever joke on us, the audience. He is veiling himself in a conception of religion that not only supports his vision of morality but also fuels the debate surrounding his work. His spiritual sentiments would be easier to dismiss if he were simply relegated to atheism or possibly as one who delights in the ugliness of the world, but instead by stating these objects of attention are indeed the greatest source of beauty, he poses a conundrum that demands our reflection. He is not interested in shocking the viewer, only awakening them to an alternative to the typical perception with which we approach the subject. His dismissal of his art’s shock value can fall on deaf ears however, as when he relays his enjoyment at hearing model Cindy Crawford’s having run for the bathroom after seeing his photographs. [4] Testimony that Witkin is a cunning self-promoter and one who keenly understands the packaging of an artist.

Whatever the case, Joel-Peter Witkin is successful in large part due to the aura that surrounds him. In an age of broadened acceptance and tolerance for what was once viewed as anathema, Witkin’s photographs are thoroughly of his time and certainly bear credence to contemporary discourse.

Jeff Koons
Jeff Koons makes me sick. He may be the definitive artist of this moment, and that makes me sickest. [5]

-Peter Schjeldahl

It is only fitting that Jeff Koons was a commodities trader before becoming fully immersed in the art world. This first hand knowledge of business and marketing has been wholly responsible for his success. Since his creation by Larry Gaggosian and a handful of other top art coterie, Koons has taken Duchamp’s concept of the ready made and turned into big business. A recent auction fetched an astounding $4.6 million for his 1986 Aqualung, [6] and his puppies of various sizes range from a few thousand to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Koons has proven that art no longer need distance itself from media and entertainment, to do so would be to miss out on all the money to be made.

Like many artists who came to prominence in the 1980’s, Koons does not actually produce any of his work. “I’m basically the idea person.” [7] His brand of appropriation and consumerist context were nothing new by this point, Richard Pettibone, Richard Prince, and Sherrie Levine having all greatly contributed to the discussion already. What is unique to Koons is the sheer unabashed way in which he holds the mirror up to a society of brand labeling and media-based identity. His use of pornographic images, Neo-Pop celebrity fetish – really, what artwork is more relevant than a life-size porcelain statue of Michael Jackson and Bubbles, – and his general disregard for any spiritual associations inherent with being an artist have opened our eyes to the ever-approaching horizon of meaninglessness and vacuous vanity Koons has so thoroughly entertained.

It is also not surprising that Jeff Koons only hires the finest artisans and craftsmen to fabricate his pieces. I would certainly hope that with the money his work is commanding he would at least do it the service of demanding absolute perfection in production. Only the best Italian marble workers will do. Teams of assistants are nothing new of course. Throughout much of his career Peter Paul Rubens only painted the faces and hands of most of his subjects, so why shouldn’t a contemporary artist do the same, or if they possess no technical proficiency, à la Koons, why not just hire other artists to do it for you. Andy Warhol’s Factory, and Sol Lewitt’s detailed instructions for others’ production of his artwork find particular relevance in the process of Koons. Like Damien Hirst, who similarly employs scores of assistants to make the work that his name goes on, Jeff Koons has remained at the forefront of what it means to be an artist today; namely not being involved with the making of one’s art. When you work your way through the labyrinth of the artist’s contextual framework and greater insights into linguistic concept, Koons emerges as Minotaur, and a fabulously adorned one at that.

Since we assume an artist’s work is a reflection of their inner world, we must determine that Koons is happiest in the corporatized, auto-erotic cotton candy mill he has created for himself. His oeuvre is a powerful advertisement for himself and the culture that produced him. He relishes the relationship.

Interviewer: What do you think about the fact that the owner of one of the largest advertising firms in the world, Charles Saatchi, is buying your art?
Koons: It’s not negative toward advertisement. I believe in advertisement and media completely. My art and my personal life are based in it. I think that the art world would probably be a tremendous reservoir for everybody involved in advertising. [8]

What Jeff Koons is showing us with his art is not its pertinence to our current society, but instead its agenda as justification for the outright commodification and commercialization of art in general. Artists like Koons evidence the troubles of an art world greatly concentrated on the packaging of the idea. There is nothing original but the concept. And when idea is God, anything goes. Is it coincidence that the artist has been in the game – yes, it is a game – for twenty years, yet his work is currently fetching prices that a decade ago could have purchased Van Gogh’s? Why is it that a contemporary, living artist who does not produce his own work and fills up galleries with assembly line momentum and quantity is esteemed as so valuable despite the complete un-art like nature of his objects? Because he knows how to play the game. Good show, old chap! Artistic tradition, spirit, and virility give way to the same selfish, lazy desires amok elsewhere in contemporary “culture”. He is not simply part of the problem, he is the hydra. And in an artworld increasingly destined to maintain the art star celebrity-ism running wild now, Koons is an oracle of what is to come.

If Postmodernism has taught us anything it is to remain skeptical, and there is little forbearance that money as subject of and motivation for art will cease any time soon, if ever. With an exponentially exploding population of Koons’ objects and the promise of increasingly longer lifespans, perhaps we will live to see the artist’s complete Orwell-ian conquest of collections and museums everywhere. But we might also come to our senses and return to something more befitting of the grace of art, and quite possibly the culturati of the future may look back and reflect on the Dark Age of Koons.

Jim Sienkiewicz

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Notes

1. Interview with Chris Buck and Christine Alevizakis, http://photographerinterviews.ifihadahifi.com/2001/witkin/
2. Terry Barrett, Criticizing Photographs, p.34
3. Lecture given by the artist at Arizona State University, October 2001
4. Lecture
5. Peter Schjeldahl, Selected Writings 1978-1990, p.307
6. Art & Auction, July 2006
7. Klaus Ottmann interview with the artist, http://www.jca-online.com/koons.html
8. Ottmann