Imperfection and Evolution by Alan Klotz
This month we are featuring the work of Andrew K. Thompson. Original and idiosyncratic, Andrew's work can also be seen as engaging in a practice of pictorial photography that has contended with a contrary impulse of factual observation since the invention of photography.
Photography was a medium born of the industrial revolution, when everything centered on the machine and all its gifts. The images came from a camera, which was a machine.It brought together optics, chemistry, esthetics, notions about Nature, and our place in relation to it, and finally, it did all this through the agency light itself. Artistic skills did not need to be acquired to be successful. The world drew itself, with photography as the "Pencil of Nature". As with Nature, it was perfect. As such, it was a most faithful record, that could not make a mistake even if it tried...fancy that! It was a true reflection of fact after fact, that everyone could trust and believe in.
So the, "tyger", of the oft read poem, could continue to burn bright, in the forests of the night, but it could be domesticated and made familiar in a photograph. This was a big deal, and one without precedent. It became photography's role: to tell the truth, using its capacity for infinite detail. This was OK as far as it went, but it limited the practitioner's options. The photographer was stuck with devotion to scientific verisimilitude. Any wandering away from fact into the realm of the "artistic" was severely frowned upon. Artists defended their borders from any encroachment by the overly scientific photographers. After all, if they could not lie, they could not tell artistic truth.
That required a modicum of visual deceit. So photography was denied membership into the academy of the exalted. Poor photography.
There was a small elite group of photographers among the ranks of the masses, who thought of their work as art, and themselves as artists. They employed strategies which corresponded to the approach of painters. They created photomontages to give their work an idealized appearance. They accomplished this by making prints from multiple negatives, thus constructing scenes with people and props which never occupied the same space. They were picture fictions, and they brought down the wrath of critics, who thought the images were fraudulent by violating the "truth doctrine" which was somehow assigned to photography. They organized clubs and societies which promoted exhibitions of artistic work they dubbed. Pictorial Photography. One of the best known of this group, Henry Peach Robinson wrote an influential book, titled “The Pictorial Effect in Photography”, in 1869. But more important than attacking the veracity of the image, some photographers did their best to subvert the actual appearance of the photograph by altering the surface and tempering the focus, changing the chemical make up of the image itself, as well as proper exposure values. All this departed from the norm, that gave the finished work a very painterly appearance, having little to do with the edge to edge, corner to corner sharpness that was considered to be the hallmark and proper province of photography. The rules were being thrown away, but the results were worth it.
Perhaps the best of these transgressors was Julia Margaret Cameron, a wealthy woman, who was married to Charles Hay Cameron, the director of the British East India Company, which ran India. He was away on business a lot, and India was no hop, skip, and a jump away. She lived on the Isle of Wight, and although she had fascinating neighbors, including Tennyson and Carlisle, she was often alone, and bored (her children had grown and gone). The grown children felt sorry for her and bought her a camera in the hope that it would keep her busy…did it ever! She started photographing at the ripe old age of 48. She quickly turned a chicken coop into a glass house studio and a coal shed into a darkroom. She began inviting subjects into her clutches, cajoling, pleading, and ordering people sit for her. Tennyson ( who was one of them ) referred to these people as her “victims”. She did what she liked on the fly. Focus was hit or miss, as long as it looked good, and fortunately it did. She played fast and loose with her chemicals as well. There is no such thing as a standard Julia Margaret Cameron print. A fact borne out by the condition of prints that come on the market.
This disrespect for one’s medium is also apparent in the work of other Pictorial photographers. Later in the 19th century artist/ photographers turned to other ways to make their work look more like art…more like painting. These included gum bichromate prints, platinotypes, cyanotypes, bromoil prints, and photogravure. There were physical as well as chemical manipulations. All of which allowed for the photographer to physically alter the surface of the print, thus de-emphasizing portions of the print. Textures were added, for example applying brushstrokes where, of course there were none etc. This pictorial trickery was done mostly between 1885 and 1915 by such masters as Alvin Langdon Coburn, Edward Steichen, Robert Demachy, Gertrude Kasebier and Annie Brigman to name but a few.
In 1902 Alfred Stieglitz invented a group of American Pictorial photographers he called the Photo-Secession. He looked on them as the elite of the pictorial artists, and on himself as their leader. As further support, in 1903, Stieglitz began to publish a quarterly magazine devoted to the promulgation of Pictorial photography. It was called Camera Work. It contained, and supported the very finest examples of Pictorial photography, and was printed mostly in the highest quality gravure printing. Fifty issues were published between 1903 and 1917. It is highly prized by collectors and museums, not just for the pictures, but also for the criticism on photography and the newly emerging modern art it contained. Two years later it was decided that the Photo-Secession needed its own home…its own gallery. So “The Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession” opened next door to Steichen’s residence at 291 Fifth Avenue. They were now free to pursue their pictorial endeavors without any outside supervision…except for Stieglitz, of course. But he was on their side, mostly. And through the use of heavy manipulation, both physical and chemical, they made pictures that looked like paintings, drawings, etchings, in fact anything that wasn’t photography! When one member was criticized for overdoing it with added color, another replied, “Get the effect you want, no matter how- empty an ink bottle over it if you like, but get the effect that you like. It’s nobody’s business how you get it”. Strong words. Even stronger words, and more to the point were those of the critic, Sadakichi Hartmann, in his charming send-up of Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, transformed into a debate about whether photography should be painterly or “straight”:
Scene: Fifth Avenue, between Thirtieth and Thirty-first Streets.
Enter Hamlet-Steichen, wearing a Japanese obi as a necktie.
“To paint or photograph—that is the question:
Whether ‘tis more to my advantage to color
Photographic accidents and call them paintings,
Or squeeze the bulb against a sea of critics
And by exposure kill them? To paint—to “snap”:—
No more; and, by a snap, to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That art is heir to—‘tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To paint—to snap;
Perchance to tell the truth: aye! there’s the rub.
How may a fact be lost in fuzziness
When we have cast aside the painter’s brush
Must give us pause: […]
[…]When he himself might triumph over all
With base a camera? Who would brushes clean?
To grunt and sweat in schools and studios,
But that photograms were not dependent
On some manual fake: Photography turned painting;
Photographs or photopaints; a sad plight,
Which makes me rather bear (at times) the painter’s ills
Than turn entirely secessionist.
Thus prudence makes chameleons of us all;
And thus my native store of “faky” talents
Is sicklied o’er with a scarcity of tricks; […]
[…]With this regard, their currents turn awry
And lose the name: artistic. Soft you now!
The Käsebier, austere, comes down the street. O Nymph of Newport,
In thy brownish tints be all my sins remembered!
- Sadakichi Hartmann.
Camera Work #6 Pg.25 1904
The only thing that seemed to matter was artistic expression. In 1910 Stieglitz was asked by the Albright Gallery in Buffalo, NY, now the Albright-Knox Gallery, to organize a show of the finest Pictorial photography, under the banner of the Photo-Secession. There were some 600 photographs in the exhibition, but the most significant event was that the museum, bought for its permanent collection, fifteen of the photographs from the show. This was the first time such a purchase had occurred. Photography was then vindicated. It had finally broken through the barrier, and would be displayed with the right to be seen as a fine art. O happy day!
After the Albright exhibition and certainly after WW I, everything changed. The horror of the war left people with little appetite for the aestheticism and sentimentality of Pictorialism. Objectivity was ascending, as was the creative center shifting from New York, and Stieglitz’ influence, to California where new young photographers were making their mark in the revived world of straight photography. Where photography’s original characteristics, of edge to edge, corner to corner sharpness, were once again embraced. In 1932 eleven photographers formed a group they called Group f64 after the smallest aperture on a view camera’s lens. They included: Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, Consuelo Kanaga, Alma Lavenson, Sonya Noskowiak, Brett Weston, and Edward Weston.
The use of f 64 signaled the group’s conviction that photographs should celebrate rather than disguise the medium’s unrivaled capacity to present the world “as it is.” As Edward Weston phrased it, “The camera should be used for a recording of life, for rendering the very substance and quintessence of the thing itself, whether it be polished steel or palpitating flesh.” Mostly, the group concentrated on landscapes, and of course California provided them with a plethora of fine material in that regard, but they also were drawn to the recording of common objects-everything from seashells to peppers. And rather than deal with them as part of picturesque compositions they were often seen as objects in isolation…once again, as “the thing itself”. In fact Edward Weston, famously said, that he did not engage in composition, but rather he simply employed “the strongest way of seeing”. In short, then, the old question of whether you were to describe something ( as the camera did so well ), or to express something, as artists were wont to do, was reconciled by acknowledging that expression could be achieved simply by describing. The art resided in this fetish object, but was made manifest through intensity of vision. End of argument.
And so Pictorialism, with its many additions, manipulations, and posturing, receded into the visual background, as the 1960’s arrived. Politics and culture were now to intervene, and to leave their mark on photographic imagery.
I got both my Masters Degrees ( MA & MFA ) at the Visual Studies Workshop, in Rochester, NY . I was very lucky to have as my teachers and mentors, Nathan Lyons Director of the VSW and a former Assistant Curator at the George Eastman House, and Beaumont Newhall , preeminent historian, and author of the major History of Photography text, and the then, Director of the Eastman House, which we graduate students always referred to simply as “ The House”. Beaumont, was an art historian in the classical mode, whereas Nathan was more of a culturalist. You might say that Beaumont was the “What” and Nathan was the “So What”! They both were on my thesis committee, and I owe them both so much. But I digress…Although Beaumont was a generalist he was particularly aligned with the members of the Group f64. Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and Dorothea Lange were personal friends of his…imagine!
Nathan was the champion of all that was new and now in photography. His purchases for the House supported many poor, but talented photographers who were flying well below the radar: John Wood, Robert Heinecken, Jerry Uelsmann, Betty Hahn, Bea Nettles, Robbert Flick, Robert Fichter, and Aaron Siskind to name but a few. Nathan’s curatorial self saw that photography was undergoing another seismic shift, this time away from the straight photography of Group f64 with a cyclical revival of Pictorialism. The era of the “control processes” was back! And in 1969 Lyons mounted a major exhibition at the Eastman House, entitled, “Vision and Expression”. It turned the photography world on its ear, and its influence is still being felt. Without Vision and Expression there would be no Andrew K. Thompson, even if he were not consciously aware of it.
The culture wars, the three assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King Jr., the sexual revolution, the Vietnam war, the beginnings of environmental awareness, all found their way into the pictures that surrounded us. They often were expressed using the old techniques and approaches of Pictorialism: Silk screen, cyanotypes, Van Dyck Brown, xerography, collage and montage, hand applied emulsions, and color, brushwork and ink. As before, once again there were no rules, only means to an end. But those ends were programmatic and editorial rather than beautiful, or allegorical. Now, more than ever it was hard to define what a photograph was…all the lines were blurred. And of course once the digital revolution and photoshop arrived, manipulations and alterations became the rule, not the exception.
Of course all this evolution begs the question, what difference does it make if imagery has become so hybridized to the point that the source is unrecognizable, or the truth in a picture is believable?
Which brings us finally to Andrew K. Thompson’s work ( you knew we’d get there eventually ). Andrew’s photographs are deceptively simple…a palm tree looking like a hairy lollipop, that’s leaking some unknown but surely unpleasant substance. It could be light, or it could be some chemical. Whatever it is, it is an intrusion stopping you from easily making out the tree and/ or the background against which it stands. You have to fight your way through it to see the tree. Then there is the wash of color that seems arbitrary yet becomes part of the tree’s name eg. “Purple Bleeding Palm Tree”.
From an environmental standpoint, it could be said that Andrew is destroying the surface of his picture, his picturesque palm tree, in the same way we are, by pollution, destroying the picturesque California landscape that we claim to love. It is just as arbitrary, but done with much thought and with little obvious or remorse.
Andrew chooses to take his artistic “stand” in an expanse of land known as Inland Southern California. It is a place that could be described as neither here nor there. It is near LA, but not LA. It is near the desert without the desert's drama. There are mountains, but they are in the distance. It lacks monuments, both natural and man made. It’s just there…innocuous and pedestrian. Filled with stuccoed houses, Freeway interchanges, fast food joints, and strip malls. It is a good place for an imperfectionist like Andrew to work. He is not tempted to create grand f 64 landscapes. His palm trees are not Weston’s peppers. You wouldn’t be tempted to eat them. They are electric with poisons and other toxins, but they do “move the needle” forward into tomorrow, where photography will advance, or perish. Andrew believes in photography and saving the environment (all evidence to the contrary), but in order to accomplish this, change has to come. But from where? From imperfection and mutation…ask Darwin…ask Andrew, because that is what he’s up to with all his dripping and coloring, stitching, knotting and scratching. There is a lot of handwork done in each of these unique pictures that you do not see looking at these jpegs. They add dimension and a particular texture that makes seeing the originals necessary and rewarding.
He believes in creating and constructing his doctored pictures, and out there in the landscape, leads to evolution…for the medium, and for the Earth, because it generates consciousness. And that is the prime mover. Purity, and fetish objects have nothing to do with it anymore.
If you managed to get through this whole screed, in good humor, you would be eligible for a college credit from the college of your choice (kidding)!
Written by Alan Klotz. Published April 20, 2022