Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Tell Me Something

Ecole Militaire, 2006

Maybe it’s because I look at a lot of pictures every day that I’ve become more appreciative of the ones that have something to say. They don’t have to be provocative in an in-your-face kind of way. But it is nice when a piece of art engages you and causes you to want to look at it more, to look into it more closely and to try to understand, and perchance share, what the artist was thinking about.

I attended an art show opening the other night at a local gallery. The work in the show was full of information. Exotic places. Beautiful colors. Sinuous shapes. There were many large canvases, and lots of evidence of good artistic craftsmanship. Some of it was even thought provoking. But as I looked at it, much of it failed to engage me. It wasn’t that the art was all that conceptual or hard to understand. It was actually just the opposite, that the art was too easy, the colors too predictable to take in and then just as easy to forget.

Why so easily forgettable? Because it didn’t say anything. If it was a landscape with a path, there was no one on it or nothing in the lighting to mark the moment as notewworthy. If it was a dramatic seascape, the action of the waves or the crash of the waves against the shore lacked energy and tension. Your mind couldn’t hear the crash of the waves of feel the vibration of the earth as they pounded the shore. Looking at these paintings I knew nothing about how the artist felt about them.

Two very small paintings did stand out precisely because they aren’t very precise in their representation. They’re both dark landscapes. There’s no question about what they’re depicting. But that they’re not specific to any identifiable place and are just abstract enough to be slightly ambiguous makes them fascinating. They invite your imagination to wander.

In the recesses of my mind is a memory of something from English class about how literature depends on conflict. Man against man. Man against nature. And so on.

The beautifully framed photographs in the gallery were the most disappointing. I won’t call them snapshots because even some snapshots have their charm. No, the problem is that they were mindless. They were pictures of things and places without any thought to the moment in which they were frozen on film or in pixels. There was no story, no conflict and no tension.

I’m spoiled, I guess, because there’s such a rich array of thoughtful photography over at Flickr most any day, created by people with far less pretense and more innate talent and awareness of things around them than any of these pretentiously framed pictures.

We photographers take a lot of “pretty pictures,” beautifully composed scenes with wonderfully balanced lines and complementary colors. I’m as guilty of this as the next person. They’re full of information. Some are momentarily pleasing to look at. But so many of them are static. Nothing going on. No tension. No conflict. No story. When I go back and look at them months later, I wonder what in the world I was thinking when I took them.

So how does all of this relate to Ecole Militare, the photograph above? The story behind this picture is that there were several versions of it, all but this one completely devoid of people. (It was taken just before 7:00 a.m., so there weren’t many people out yet.) The first few versions all looked like pretty postcards because they were so clean and neat and balanced.

Then the bicyclist rode into the scene and I knew I had to do something with him quickly. He’s not doing anything dramatic. I don’t think of him as infusing the picture with any conflict. But combined with a slight lens distortion, he brings an inference of motion that, at least for me, brings this otherwise static scene alive.

[By the way, today marks the 250th post at What I Saw. Thanks for coming along for the ride.]


  1. Ecole Militare was my Metro stop last visit to Paris and will be again next time in June..
    This is a stunning photograph!
    How did I miss this site?
    Where do I go?
    I know where Lenotre is(beside the Metro station Ecole Militare) and rue Clare, but how do I find this?
    Idiot moi!
    Merci Chris

  2. First of all, congratulations! 250 is quite a feat. Love the photo. I had to smile, because I used to teach this in lit classes.

  3. I think your observations are right on, and expressed so very well. My own thoughts as well, and you expressed them for me!
    I am trying to decide on a 'represenative' 3 photos to put in a show, no easy task, and I thought it would be. On close inspection, too many seem too vapid. So it will be an interesting exercise.
    Your shot above is quite wonderful, and you're right , the cyclist adds just the right amount of motion/tension. And the distortion, very much so. Bravo!