The Over Image: Three Ways

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An exhibition comprising photographs and painted images. Principles: Stephen Brown, Marcus Grandon, Geoffry Hinton. June, 2010.
Over-Image Exhibition

The "Three Ways" of the title does not necessarily mean three "different" or "separate" ways; rather three aspects of achieving one goal, that is a sense of an "Over Image", or "Above Image".

The Three Ways are:

1. Empathy - The Human Image: Stephen Brown photography.

2. Transformation - Culture/The Land: Marcus Grandon photography.

3. Abstraction - Images: Geoffry Hinton painting.


Let us explore the implications of these Three Ways. In this age of mass production - mass consumption, already a well-worn cliché for forty years, what does the individual, person or image, stand for?

By this we do not mean to simply juxtapose mass - individual as mass today means a flood - a disgorgement of goods and images (and images can be visual or sonic) and the fact that images and goods are seen as being interchangeable with people: image equals people, all one and the same with no differentiation.

When millions in the dominant currency, usually meaning the US dollar, are spent - not lavished, though - on the production of concerts and movies as well as "block-buster" exhibitions (whatever that means), what chance, or reason, is there in this over-blown world, does the individual artist have, producing on a small scale, singular artworks?

Must one become a financier's darling, too, so as to compete, forever "ramping up" the levels of investment and expectations?

As in the film or music "industry" the reaction to retreat to the manageable scale is tempting: "hi-fi" becomes "low-fi", "big-budget" becomes "low-budget" (or "indie"). This is understandable.

However, the question then arises: Is there another way? A way to step outside of this action-reaction binary situation that is found within areas of human activity deemed "cultural".

Indeed, should "culture" be held hostage to such limiting thought and expectations?

As already mentioned there is this flood of images today, and yet this process has been with us, on a progressive scale, since the invention of the Gutenberg printing press. And photography. And the phonograph. And cinematography. And television. And digitalization. And ... .

How is the individual, unique work of art or photograph, to hold its own in such an environment?


In the age of the ubiquitous Ford motor car, the Model T, the first assembly-line vehicle, the New York based photographer Alfred Steiglitz (1864 - 1946) addressed similar concerns. However, he, then, was in the vanguard of a new art form: photography, which had freed itself from being a toy of the bourgeoisie and had become a viable means in art creation.

Art, like everything else, has been considered a means toward progress; itself a tool, witting or unwitting, in the march forward of humanity. This may be from the very dawn of human-kind, when fire illuminated the cave walls where primitive man etched and depicted their quarry in the stone: the first diaries of human activity.

In Modern times, that is the industrial age, art became the avant guarde, forever pushing at the boundaries of society, of chaffing at the constraints and restrictions and taboos, wishing to burst forth with new, vital, energy, not to say ideas, too. That was most significant up until the mid 20th Century, at least.

Steiglitz, too, was caught up in this uneasy relationship with the Modern: discovering new ways of pictorial representation, while taking concern over the relationship of those images with the viewer. It is in this regard that his notion of "Equivalents" comes into full play, apart from their artistic importance.

Minor White has said that the Equivalents; "...communicate-evoke with individuals who are in tune with the central core of universality common to both man and spirit" (Minor White; Equivalence: The Perennial Trend, PSA Journal, 1963).

It is interesting to refer to the Surrealist poet Paul Eluard (1895 - 1952) here, or at least a commentary on his work: "in his L'Avenir de la poesie (1937) Eluard points out as Baudelaire's most significant contribution his realization that the "I" always points to an "us," that ultimately poetry should depend on a universal equality of happiness. ... As the poet realizes or creates the unlikely resemblance which is the image he creates himself, the observer, and the whole community of men - that is, he makes himself "common".

In this sense poetry is not, as Eluard says once more in Les Sentiers et routes de la poesie, an object of art, limited to personal aesthetic enjoyment, but an object to be used, a conception based on Lautreamont's dictum so often quoted by the Surrealists: 'Personal poetry has had its age.." The dark images of individual uselessness should yield to the bright ones of a common universe: 'And the good of all men has no shadow'." ((Mary Ann Caws; Essay on Eluard's Poetry, printed in "Capital of Pain").

This has been quoted at length as it mirrors so many of Steiglitz's concerns, and it should be noted that Steiglitz was a champion of the Surrealists, in New York.

It is to Steglietz and his photographic work titled "Equivalents" that we turn so as to ground the present exhibition, "The Over Image: Three Ways", both artistically and historically.

From 1923 to 1934 Steiglitz engaged in creating a series of images of clouds, which today are considered to be the first abstract photographic works of art. This is so because of his intention to transform and so free the subject matter from literal interpretation: the cloud is not a cloud but an image that one reinterprets in one's mind.

"...Eluard speaks of the artist's power to transmute everything into everything else..." (MAC)

There are more than 220 photographs that comprise the body of work called "Equivalents". These were further divided into series or sets, and often as not, not in any time sequence, but rather organized to reflect his own personal feelings about the images. There was no fixed rigid theory at work; the subjective state was also very important to the ordering of the images.

At first, in the early 1920s Steiglitz named these images "Songs of the Sky" and then "Equivalents", before finally organizing the images into "Key Sets", which were catalogued numerically. In other words there was a lengthy intellectual process involved, and not one dogmatic, or didactic approach.

There are important aspects to the production of the Equivalents, and what today we would call "constraints" - either imposed by outside limitations or as self-imposed rules of procedure, such as:

  • no internal evidence to locate themselves in time or place
  • no horizon line: it is not clear which way is "up" and which way is "down" - that is there is no top or bottom

This, again, serves to create an inability to locate them in time or place and so forces the viewer to read what we know are photographs of "clouds", to be photographs of abstract forms.

Today, this is an almost common practise: take a known image and invert it, and we have an abstraction of that image. Famously, the myth behind the first abstract painting is: a colourful landscape painting that the Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky was working on was inadvertently up-ended by his landlady. Far from being angry, Kandinsky had a moment of empathy with his own work and so there was a sort of revelation, and abstract art, in the European sense, was born.

During the 1980s the German painter George Baselitz would actually paint his subjects upside down, using his own private system to do this, and so freeing his human subjects from all preconceptions of them as people: they were no longer who one thought them to be.

This method serves to force the viewer to free the subject from its associations and so create new associations and to dislocate the viewer's world-view or prejudices, at least. "Seeing" is born anew: "the observer does not impose the narrowing grid of a rational interpretation on the simplicity of nature" (MAC).

And; "...seeing and understanding are equivalent for Eluard: "voir, c'est comprendre". So, for him, there is no gap between the visual and the mental. His poetic theories are all based on this simplicity of sight and thought and on this union or reunion of disparate or disordered elements..." (MAC).

When seeing is born anew, it is then that we may have an "Over Image". The essence of an Over Image, and the Equivalent, is to communicate, not an idea but a sense of something. Vague, yes, however consider Chinese calligraphy or Japanese Kanji - pictographs or ideograms that have accreted meaning that communicates a sense of state of being. In other words these brush written images make for perfect Over Images, or Equivalents. Calligraphy is learned, studied, absorbed by osmosis and comes with cultural heft. It is a serious form of communication that is explanatory and is embedded with philosophy (it is interesting that the idea of Over Image cannot easily be rendered in Chinese characters). Nobody would deny this or dismiss this form of communication out of hand. It is the opposite of "mass" media, the superficial advertising slogan, or sound "bite". The question arises; 'Why has so much important and philosophically interesting Western art been diminished to mere entertainment, something to be amused with?' How sad this situation has become. However, this is a diversion from our central area of consideration.

A successfully executed example of brush-stroke is not considered only because of niceness of form - it is also the sincerity of the feeling communicated through the brush to paper through the medium of ink: it is a unique, specific image. With all the incredible technological developments there is one thing that has never changed: with photography, like the hand with the brush, it is the finger on the shutter, and the interiorized, almost mute, process involved in deciding when, to push the shutter, when to apply the brush to paper. It is at this moment there is an emotional discharge, or when apprehending the meaning of an ideogram, a soft explosion. Almost all developments in the field of technology have been towards efficiency, expediency and convenience. Witness the tragedy of the Holocaust as a horrific example of the urge towards expediency. The finger pressing a shutter, the hand holding a brush, is not much different to the finger on the button to set go a ballistic missile. The scale is vastly different, the emotions worlds apart, they are similar actions apart from the fact that one is constructive, the other destructive. This is still a primitive world. The line to draw here is that of the already mentioned emotional discharge, that which seeks to be recognised in a calligraphic image, and that which transmits in a photographic image.

Returning to the point that there was no particular orientation with the prints, that they could be exhibited sideways, upside down, or in any relationship and so provoke "feelings" in the viewer. And it was these feelings provoked by the abstraction from nature that were at the heart of the Equivalents, for in fact, "equivalence" is to step outside of one's known world, and to relive, to recall or to reinvent a feeling or a sense dormant in oneself: "Equivalence is a function, an experience, not a thing" (White).

White continues: "The power of the equivalent... lies in the fact that he can convey and evoke feelings about things and situations and events which for some reason or other are not or can not be photographed." This is a transforming power.

"Equivalence, while it depends entirely on the photograph itself for the source of stimulation functions in the mind of a viewer... We can see that only in the mental image held is there any possibility of a metaphorical function occurring." This is also termed "projection" or "empathy".

The feeling of equivalence is specific, White continues: "In literature this specific feeling associated with Equivalence is called 'poetic,' ... Not having an exact equivalent for the word 'poetic' in photography we will suggest the word 'vision,' meaning not only sight, but insight."

Stephen has noted that the idea of empathy is to create an emotion in the viewer; from a singular image it is possible to create a feeling: love, fear, warmth, rejection. Empathy aligns emotions; this is their equivalence. The most memorable images are those that create a sense of empathy, and this places them within the human. That is their scale, it is human: outside of the mass production, outside of "big production", within the viewers mind and feelings. Emphatically, then, the scale is human and therein resides their power. It is then the conscious attempt to seek out a situation of empathy through images that we can achieve a sense of the "Over Image".

Marcus comments: "How the feeling transfers to the viewer is hard to say. What transfers to the viewer is also hard to pin-point. I would have to say that the transfer is happening at an intellectual level, as well as an intuitive level.This is the "mirroring" (that White discusses: "We can say that the photograph invariably functions as a mirror of at least some part of the viewer ... and when we invent a subject we turn the photograph into a mirror of some part of ourselves." And Eluard: "...keeping your eyes open on yourself and on the world, on the front of the mirror and on the back of the mirror in order to hold off the night"). And while it takes place subjectively in the viewer, there seems to be some objectivity to this within circles familiar with the art. It's like wine tasting: Experts have to subjectively measure the length of the tail of the wine taste in timed seconds with a stop-watch. While they might not all be able to agree on the exact time, they all do agree that it exists and the results are all very close. So there some objectivity occurring. Judging Olympic ice-skating or snow boarding is another such example... ".

Stephen adds: "When I first saw the work of Pete Turner, the colour saturated prints, it had such a big impact. That's when I knew I had to take photographs."


Systems of constraint have appeared not only with Steiglitz's Equivalents. As a means to define just what Surrealism was, a set of requirements were imposed; themes of purity, spontaneity, and intensity. Any artist meeting these requirements could be considered a Surrealist.

These "requirements" could be read as constraints.

The literary group "Oulipo" members would proceed by using self-designed constraints, often mathematically derived, as a means of producing texts. (See Raymond Queneau).

Steiglitz's cloud Equivalents then fall within a broader category of Modern art experimentation.

However, there is another important constraint and this is the technological one, a constraint that is often considered to be a hurdle. To photograph a cloud in 1923 was a particularly difficult undertaking given the sate of negative film quality. Until 1925 film emulsion was sensitive primarily to light on the blue end of the spectrum, that is orthochromatic. Special filters were then necessary so as to capture a white cloud in a blue sky.

With the development of panchromatic emulsion, a full range of colours could be captured, that is in "black and white", or in monochromatic prints.

The problem of the chemical composition of the emulsion was therefore not a true constraint, it was a hurdle.

The true constraint was in the limiting of the range of subject matter to one: clouds. And we have to be careful here, to recognize that we're not talking of the constraints imposed by Nature, rather to emphasize that these constraints are self-imposed. Although it does seem to be science and technology's self-appointed task to demolish all natural constraints, or at least restraints, as encountered by humans.

With regards to the technological aspect of photography today, Stephen commented: "The craftsmanship is still important, it is not to disregard craftsmanship, however digital technology, still imperfect with regards to image quality, simply allows one more freedom to achieve the desired results. One must still "see", have a vision of what that desired result may be."

It is similar to what Eluard regarded as important for poetry: "...it requires clarity of vision, reflection of that vision, and action... with an emphasis on light, on the image with its metamorphosing power...".


In 1924 Steiglitz exhibited sixty-one cloud photographs in a single room (at the Anderson Gallery, New York); perhaps the first time an exhibition of one idea repeated to create a determined impact and environment. From this exhibition the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston acquired several images, the first time a museum had acquired photographs for its permanent collection.

In addition to this there would be the impact on American painting in the 1940s and 50s, that these images would have that is important, to the prefiguring of lyrical abstraction, of which Clifford Still is a notable example.

Geoffry comments here: "From an art project I need to attain a sense of intellectual satisfaction; that is there must be a degree of intellectual discourse involved, as well as criteria: context, history, aesthetic purpose and so on.

"This is not to say it must be 'difficult' or 'obscure', rather that the project undertaken can be talked about in a meaningful way - like any serious enterprise should be; building a house, for example.

"And this project satisfies on all levels; co-operation, production, the teamwork, aesthetic purpose and motivation, and it also provides a dialogue with ideas both contemporary and with the history, that is in early Twentieth Century Modern Art.

"As to the abstract images presented, the idea of constraints is central: they are essentially self-organizing graphic designs, that, however, are not fractals, in that they are limited to one simple image, and not forever reproducing themselves. There is no 'up' or 'down' with these designs, and they must be able to flick between negative and positive. That is there is only a background and one other colour. They are naturally limited in number, too. This collection of paintings I have been working on, off and on, since 1994 and have already been exhibited twice, once in 1996, for the Tokoha Tandai Anniversary Exhibition, and again in 2006, for Artpro2. They are collected under the working title "Hyper Icons", that is because they are viewed as definite images, however, they're not actually recognizable as something material. They touch upon the argument over "qualia", an idea in the philosophy of mind used to describe the subjective quality of conscious experience: like the taste of wine, the smell of perfume, and so on. It has been said that qualia simply are "the way things seem to us". The term was first used in Clarence I. Irving's book "Mind and the World Order" (1929).

"In many respects these paintings 'mimic' Steiglitz's cloud images, if not his ideas on equivalence. However, I would go further and say that equivalence also includes subject matter; that is, there is no hierarchy; a nude, is not of greater aesthetic importance than a cloud, which is not greater than a mundane scene. The emotional weight of subject matter, whatever it may be, is equal.

"Realism and Abstraction are bound as equivalents, too, I would think. And the idea that either can act as a catalyst in a viewer's mind to transform, to "metamorphose" into something emotionally perceived, is an inherent quality of any successful work of art. It really all depends on the viewer, "to be tuned in", as White suggests. This doesn't absolve the artist from being aware of his or her responsibilities toward the history or the viewer, though.

"The Over Image, then, is accumulative yet paradoxically singular: by the repetition of an image; a cloud, a human face, a cultural item or an abstract design, we move beyond what is signified, beyond the metaphor for an emotion, and discover a new emotion, a new depth to experience."

Marcus sums up his approach: "For me, there is this sudden mental and intuitive "pop", "bang" or "whoosh" that I consider to be part of inspiration. It is both mental as well as physiological in nature. One could easily argue that the mind is a physical entity anyway. Even mental imagery is a physical process at some level, that is to say imagination is physical. What in this three dimensional world isn't? Firing on these cylinders - perceivable to me, at least subjectively, in both mind and body. I make images. It's like a visit from the Muse while right in the middle of making a photo."


The long and the short of this discussion and exhibition is to challenge the prevailing mind-set that "bigness" is necessary to present-day art. The history shows this is not a requirement. Although the idea of Equivalents, when demonstrated in an exhibition, requires a considerable body of work of a very similar nature, it is a very disciplined approach to image making through the imposed constraints. This goes some way to controlling the flood of random inputs and images afforded by present-day technology, images that are characterised often by a lack of discipline. Ultimately, each individual image carries its own weight. By using a human dimension and what White terms "The Perennial Trend", it has been possible to create an exhibition that transmits emotions just as much as ideas to the viewer, and in a positive manner, and hopefully demonstrate what an Over Image may be:

SEQUENCE


To sleep, with the moon in one eye and the sun in the other,
Love in your mouth, a lovely bird in your hair,
Adorned like the fields, the woods, the routes, the sea,
Around the whole world so lovely and adorned.


Flee across the landscape
Through branches of smoke and all the fruits of the wind,
Stone legs with sand stockings,
Held by the waist, all the river's muscles,
And the last concern on a face transformed.


Paul Eluard; Capital of Pain, Repetitions, 1926 (Black Widow Press, 2006.)


EQIVALENCE


Closed her eyes,
Over, over image all.
Old keys and riddles,
The day sunny-side up -
Wispy white and bright.


Faded out to the horizon,
I look and I see
As you can see
That eyes,
Flee across the landscape.


Hands on the ground
Under the cloud,
Day and Night have succeeded,
As light is no longer itself.


If the sun went in,
Over, overflows the shadows,
The sky changes,
Then the sun.
To look ahead,
Their eyes arose sooner.
Stand on one foot,
Keeps closed her eyes.
A face transformed,
The last concern of riddles.


"Equivalence" - G.H. '10.



Notes:

Caws, Mary Ann; Essay on Eluard's Poetry, Capital of Pain, Black Widow Press, 2006.

Greenbough, Sarah; In Focus: Alfred Steiglitz; Photographs from the J. Paul Getty Museum. 1995.

Irving, Clarence I.; Mind and the World Order, 1929.

White, Minor; Equivalence: The Perennial Trend. PSA Journal, Vol. 29, No. 7, 1963. http://www.jnevins.com/whitereading.htm

Worringer, Wilhelm; Abstraction and Empathy, 1907.

G.H. March, 2010.

Over-Image: The Drawings: