Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Seldom Seen or Aberrant Photo

While in Rochester, we made the mandatory stop at the Eastman House and saw the Ansel Adams exhibition. This proved an interesting comparison with another collection-based exhibition from the Museum of Fine Art, Boston. The GEH offering was a wonderfully comprehensive exhibition that also included photographs taken in and around the University of Rochester, which I had never seen before. This grouping as well as "The Black Sun," a long exposure of landscape of a stream and tree, leads me to ponder the issues surrounding the seldom seen and the aberrant photograph - images that don't quite fit neatly into a series or haven't seen as much exposure.

Interestingly enough, an extensive internet search did not reveal an image of Adams's THE BLACK SUN, TUNGSTEN HILLS, OWENS VALLEY, CALIFORNIA, 1939/print ca. 1970. I could find a few references here and there in terms of solarization and Sabatier effects, but no image - not on GEH's online collections not Ansel Adams gallery's website and not on yahoo or google images. It seems this photograph is reproduced in his book, The Negative, likely as a teaching tool, but are such images deemed too aberrant to showcase online?

Over on his See, Hear, and Remember blog, Christian Patterson recently discussed the idea of "difference vs. sameness" within constructing a series and Shane Lavalette followed up with a post that garnered many comments and another on repetition. I'd like to take up another angle on this discussion: Is the aberrant image within a body of work or portfolio perhaps not one of intentional variety, but an issue of quality, editing, or maybe style, or rather, is it not understanding the role of this particular image at that particular time? Or, is it simply blind luck to capture something so disparate from one's style? (Is the latter even possible?) Further, are such images deemed unfitting by the photographer, the curator, the collector, or the museum, and thus put away and then overlooked? Are the images that are taken for a different reason or as an experiment, relegated to the metaphorical and physical shelf to be "discovered" later? Conversely, do such square pegs simply need to gestate, find their mates, and thus make sense later in one's life, oeuvre, or even decades later from the perspective of a third party? As a juror and reviewer, I must admit some guilt, as often I recommend that photographers build and submit a series that holds together in a juried situation. In such a quick fire method, straight-up aberrant images simply don't hold up and thus often result in the elimination of the whole series. This is not to say that an image cannot be different from others, it can and still fit, but it is the "fittingness" that is hard to explain and a definition of "style" not easy to teach or communicate. As an art historian, we often benefit from looking through the long lens of history when analyzing such groupings (or creating them?).

On the other hand, do such seldom seen images or those created for other purposes lead to new avenues and series? Do these transitional images sow the seeds of a later style shift or are simply accidents? Robin Kelsey, photohistorian at Harvard, gave us a sneak peak at his musings on photography and chance as well as art and accident at the Clark symposium and Boston's CAA respectively. I look forward to what hopes to be a pending book!

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