Sunday, October 14, 2007

The nature of kitsch

Since I've been staring at photos all day and have already discussed one with you, reader, I'll share my concerns about this photograph.

It's kitsch, obviously. I feel no guilt about taking it. What can I do? I'm standing there with a camera. I see a white crane scanning the pond, which I know to be populated by many small Koi. I can see what's coming. I consciously line up the circular groups of lilly pads and set the camera to achieve the effect I want with the depth of field. I lock the exposure to ensure the bird is white, but not blown out. I set the autofocus for action. The photo comes out pretty much as planned. It's like winning at the horse races, when you've extensively studied the racing form and the race goes down exactly as you thought. Photography and serious handicapping aren't that different. It feels good to get it right. But do those little victories of predestination have any larger value? I'm leaning towards no, or rarely at best.

I am not a nature photographer, much less a wildlife photographer. Those people camp out for weeks to get the shot they envision. I am more of a photojournalist. I struggle to see what's there from instant to instant.

The problem I have intellectually, and as a photo critic, with unabashedly beautiful pictures is that they rarely tell a story. They are presented solely as objects of beauty. And beauty, by itself, is not necessarily art.

Photographs like this beg interesting questions about the relationships between actual experience and the artistic rendering of experience, or the experience of artistic rendering. To be physically present and witness a lithe white crane fish a Koi out of an in-bloom lilly pond and fly away into a blue sky on a crisp autumn day, now that is a genuinely beautiful experience. Yet, a photograph of the same event is nothing to speak of. Why don't realistic depictions of what we experience as beauty affect us in the same way as art? Why does art look like crap when you're out in reality and reality look like crap when you're in a gallery or museum, or home in the living room? I think it's because there is a physical as well as an aesthetic feeling asscoiated with natural beauty. Appreciating art requires not only vision, it requires a significant ability to empathize as well.