The Concept Continuum

We can perhaps think of the role of concept in art on a continuum.  

At one end of the spectrum we have art about art where concept is king.  An example is Marcel Duchamp's readymades.  As a Canadian the snow shovel (In Advance of the Broken Arm) is especially appealing.  From Moma Learning:

To make In Advance of the Broken Arm, Marcel Duchamp selected a snow shovel, hung it from the ceiling of his studio, and called it art. . His readymades—mass-produced, functional objects he designated as art—challenged many accepted assumptions and traditions, namely that art should reflect an artist’s skills, or even be handcrafted by the artist. Duchamp asserted that an artist could create simply by making choices.

Such self-referential work spirals in upon itself until there's nothing left.  It's not like you can make a practice of sticking shovels in an art gallery.  Otherwise, art schools would only need to teach students how to find the nearest Canadian Tire.  That doesn't stop some members of academia from trying to find ever more obscure and convoluted ways to make clever statements mostly appreciated by those in the know.  But I digress.   

A little further along the continuum we have photographs of photographs.  Richard Prince is well known for his Cowboy photographs.  

Richard Prince came to the attention of the art world in the 1980s for appropriating the Marlboro Man advertisements into his own photographs. When he started appropriating images he was working at Time-Life in the tear-sheet department. “At the end of the day, all I was left with was the advertising images, and it became my subject.” He would rephotograph the advertisementsand then crop them to remove the text and most references to the cigarettes they were selling. Eventually one of his Cowboy photographs would become the first photo sold for more than $1 million. In 2007 he reset the record price for a photograph by selling “Untitled (Cowboy)” for $3,401,000 at an auction.
— James Franco

From this article.


This kind of work where concept is king doesn't appeal to me that much.  But further along the continuum we find ourselves visiting artists such as the recently deceased Lewis Baltz.  From a tribute by Gerry Badger:

Baltz was a leading figure in the field of what has come to be called ‘conceptual’ photography.’ Indeed, he was actually the Professor of Conceptual Photography at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland. But the term ‘conceptual’ photography, like ‘documentary’ photography, can be difficult to define, and is a complex beast; not quite a school, not quite a defined approach.

But then Lewis belonged to no school, and in his hands, the conceptual approach certainly was both complex and meaningful, unlike so much contemporary photography that pretends to have a concept where in fact it has little, and is merely a regurgitating of formulaic strategies that lack either intelligence or soul.
— Gerry Badger

Baltz is best know for works such as The New Industrial Parks Near Irvine, California.  There's a great deal of over-wrought writing about this work, but Tyler Green does a good job summarizing it here.  From that article:

New Industrial Parks, which Baltz shot in 1974 with a 35mm camera and the help of a National Endowment for the Arts grant, is one of the masterworks of the 1970s. Baltz’s project made our ugly, under-considered treatment of the land into something uncomfortably beautiful, an apt metaphor for the way bad Western land-use policies served as an effective economic engine.
New Industrial Parks gracefully engages with many of the most important art-making threads of its time: conceptualism, the marriage of conceptualism to photography, geometric abstraction, minimalism and artists’ intense engagement with the then-nascent American environmental movement.

Baltz's work appeals to me because concepts are - at the very least - balanced by the aesthetic properties of the photographs.  These photographs can be deeply appreciated without reference to concept or their place in art history.*  They are beautifully crafted images.  They invoke a visceral response.  The aesthetic properties and concepts support each other. 

Duchamp's shovel by comparison, is a bit of a one-trick pony.  It's about the concept.  There is a 'right answer' as to how one is intended to interpret the shovel.  Prince's photographs are similar.  We're meant to marvel at the cleverness of the idea rather than his ability to assemble light and form in interesting ways.   

Many  excellent photographs lie further along the continuum where concept plays a lesser role. Ones where concept is more emergent or implicit.  I appreciate these photographs equally well.  

But I can't help but admire photographs like those from Lewis Baltz that sit comfortably at the balancing point of the continuum.  They are photographs that have a strong conceptual foundation while still being excellent photographs independent from conceptual reference.  

* Perhaps assuming one appreciates photographs of the vernacular.  

Where Have All the People Gone?

I rarely include people in my photographs.  In fact, I go to some length to ensure there are not included.

In this 2010 interview John Gossage (JG) and Lewis Baltz (LB) discuss why they don't include people in their photographs:

JG: ...unlike Jeff Wall, one thing I’m very sparing with is photographing people. Once you insert a person into the work, he or she become the protagonist and a lot of my books are at such low intensity that it throws everything off. I want the viewer to be the protagonist in the book. Like in The Thirty-Two Inch Ruler – no people occur except for the viewer.

LB: I think this is one thing we have in common: that the subject of the work is the person looking at it. If you want to get a little more Zen about it, the subject is necessary for the completion of the work.

JG: Yes.

LB: And the intellectual or imaginative engagement of the viewer is what makes the work finally a work. And if you interpose another human in the work, then he or she becomes the subject, which I think is too simplistic.

JG: I think it’s to be used incredibly sparingly and delicately.
— John Gossage (JG) and Lewis Baltz (LB)

Last Light, Bittern Lake, 2004

Prairie Waters

The warm glow is probably the first thing you notice in this photograph.  Equally important is the feeling of being alone in a vast space.  A figure would change that.  It would become a photograph about a person standing in the landscape.  Including myself in the photograph (something that seems to be increasingly common in our selfie-obsessed culture) would shift the emphasis from the viewer to the photographer.

There's also the impact of figures on scale.  Its common advice to include a figure in landscapes to provide a sense of scale.  But I want the scale to be ambiguous.  This scene could almost be an aerial view.  I consider that a feature.

Loops, Edmonton, 2006

Winter City

More care is required to avoid people in urban landscapes.  Its one of the reasons I photograph in-between places and visit during off hours.  In "Loops" there's still that feeling of being alone.  We can consider the landscape rather than wondering why a person is out in an otherwise abandoned school yard on a frigid winter day.  We might ponder why a city with long, cold winters seems to double-down on the suffering by favouring muted, windowless buildings.  

I also find vehicles can behave like figures.  When they are being driven, they become proxies for people.  But even parked vehicles can become the subject of the photograph.  Still, vehicles are a common feature of urban landscapes.  In the last few years I have started to carefully include them in some photographs.  They are usually more like architectural features -- a part of the photograph but not its subject.

In the scene below, we see a used car lot designed to both attract and repel people.  We observe a clean interior and a garbage strewn exterior.  The vehicles motivate the situation and play a supporting role in the visual structure.  But the emphasis is on the ribbons and fence.  The presence of people is implied through their choices.  We are invited to consider these choices. 

Used, Vancouver, 2013

City of Glass

There are certainly many excellent bodies of work where people in the photographs play a primary or significant role.  They are just different from the kind of work I choose to make.  

Prairie Revisited

The Prairie Modern photographs were made in 2005 and the spring of 2006.  During that period I photographed the prairie intensively and more or less exclusively.  

I also photographed the prairie after this period creating a few more photographs I love.  They are similar in some ways, but have a different look and feel.  

The Prairie Modern photographs adhere to self-imposed constraints reflected in their formal and symmetric compositions.  The later ones break from those constraints.   They are more relaxed and organic and perhaps even a little romantic.   

Here's a few of my favourite post Prairie Modern photographs.

Edges, Alberta, Fall 2006

Above, Alberta, Winter 2006

Clumps and Abandoned Shed, Alberta, 2012

I didn't recognize the end of the Prairie Modern project until sometime after it had happened.  Starting in the summer of 2006 there there were several years of lean photographic activity as I focused on leading product development teams at a startup.  The photographs during this period started heading in new directions.  The prairies remained the same, but I changed. 

I haven't included the more recent photographs in the Prairie Modern portfolio.  The portfolio is not a 'best of' collection of every photograph I've taken of the prairies.  Instead, its meant to be a cohesive set of photographs with its own narrative and a consistent aesthetic.  

There are also some fine photographs of the prairies taken before the project.  They are different from the project photographs and the ones that came later.  I think of them as precursors.  But that's a topic for a future post.  

I thought perhaps the more recent photographs might lead to a new prairie project and maybe they will someday.  But for now they are a vignette rather than a full story.