Wednesday 16 January 2008

Figure and ground

I was very taken with Dave's manifesto for his new photoblog. I've always found his photos much to my taste, and what he says about them is too - an uncontrived alliance of aesthetic and politics is not common.
"I'm especially interested in the challenge of making photos in which the roles of figure and ground are reversible, or even nonexistent. Philosophically, I feel we must get beyond a perception of nature as mere scenery. Gorgeous wall calendars from Sierra Club and the like offend me at a very basic level; nature porn does nothing for the cause of conservation."
His words reminded me also of some black and white photos which I loved and have often returned to, by my hero, John Berger, in his volume of poetry, Pages of the Wound. You'd have to say they're landscapes, I think, not 'landscapes with figure', because they're on a single plane.

In the valley
The mouth of the river like a rumour
Whispers water in the ear of the fields.

Before it is dark
From this summit my mountain
You must descend me.
Photos and extract from At Remaurian - 6, by John Berger in Pages of the Wound: poems, drawings, photographs, 1956-96
My next thought, when Dave's words made me go back yet again to these pictures, was: attractive as I find them, are these meldings of woman with landscape just more of the crassest kind of objectification of the female form? (goodness me, by the critic best known for excoriating this in his famous
Ways of Seeing!) In context, I don't think so: pictures of his own naked body also feature in this book and often elsewhere in his work, and the poem seems to equate both his own and the lover's body with the landscape.

Anyway, there's a spare beauty that gets me every time.


K. Brobeck said...

I don't know. Isn't any rendering of the human form fundamentally some kind of objectification? It's all about context and comment; in the case of these two photos, I'd say they're the same.

Jean said...

You have a point, k, certainly. Maybe the word objectification requires some qualification. I don't feel as though these photos, or my pleasure in them, oppress me. But perhaps that just means they oppress me particularly effectively!

Jean said...

I added 'crassest kind of (objectification)' after reading k's comment.

Zhoen said...

I'm not sure I completely agree with the figure/ground dichotomy, but I absolutely agree about the nature porn, without ever before realizing why. I knew those calendar photos bothered me, but not the reason, because, well, beautiful animals, beautiful land, repellent photo... Thanks for the insight.

Anonymous said...

Jean, thanks for the kind mention and links -- and for sharing the John Berger photos plus poem, which strike me as a very effective experiement in ekphrasis. I like the almost found-object quality of his photos, and no, I don't think they treat the body with disrespect. "Objectification" in a feminist context implies reductionism, doesn't it - saying that x is no more than y? These photos clearly don't do that.

Zhoen, I'm sure there are other ways to avoid cliched nature porn than my de-emphasis of a central, dominant subject - and lord knows I don't practice what I preach in a majority of my shots. But it's an approach that does lead to many interesting discoveries, I've found.

Jean said...

I like your turn of phrase, Dave. I hadn't managed to formulate it, but I think these photos treat the landscape as no less than the figure, rather than the figure as no more than the landscape.

Anonymous said...

Dear me. I find the first picture just porn, the second indifferent and the poem an embarrassing effusion (fnarr). How peculiar. I'm obviously entirely uncultured :-)

Beth said...

Aren't we as "natural" as anything else in nature?

I don't have as visceral a ngeative reaction to beautiful nature photos - like the work of Pohangina Pete, which I find wonderful. Maybe we can sense the intention of the artist to some extent, deciding when the photo is designed to manipulate us, and when it's sincere.

Jean said...

Wouldn't do for us all to always like the same things, would it Rachel? :-)

Interesting that you and I quite often fiercely love the same things and sometimes equally vehemently not at all.