beauty in metaphor
“It is said that what you see is what you get,
and I think art is exactly the opposite. For me, the
illusory is more poetically truthful than the real.”
- Anish Kapoor
what we see is never settled
"All art is at once surface and symbol," observed Oscar Wilde, as a given; yet his contemporary George Frederick Watts, the earnest Victorian symbolist, met with smirks when he proclaimed himself to be painting "ideas, not things." For Watts, this meant depicting figures to personify Hope, Innocence, Love, and such.
Nowadays matters seem messier. My work likewise aims for allegory of a kind - images in which certain objects in frame would seem to represent certain other things off-stage or broader truths - except that, here, we get allegory, metaphor, and metonym overrun by the chaos and layered complexity, the ambivalence and slippage, of meaning in our times.
"To impute an allegorical motive to contemporary art is to venture into proscribed territory," warned Walter Benjamin, writing in the Thirties. Wariness toward allegory's traditional uses and pitfalls has persisted. Jorge Luis Borges, whose own imagery was resonant with metaphor, insisted nonetheless that allegory, as a vehicle for art, was outmoded and exhausted; "intolerable, stupid" and "frivolous," said he.
It took a much-admired essay in 1980 by the late critic Craig Owen, titled The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism, to provide an updated and recontextualized case for the creative format's continued, protean relevance.
Plainly, photographs are a good place to ply metaphor. As a function of consciousness, photographed images operate at both denotative and connotative levels, meaning that they serve both as depictions of things and as indicators of what those things might signify or express - a duality that is endlessly fertile because, as John Berger perceived in Ways of Seeing, "the relation between what we see and what we know is never settled."
When it comes to exploiting that duality, metaphor in photo art must somehow overcome the viewer's propensity to interpret photo content more literally than would be the case for other expressive media, such as painting and sculpture.
Photography's engrossing technical aptitude for images of "uncompromising specificity" and fine-grained detail inclines the medium toward what John Szarkowski termed its "preference for the particular": "the camera describ[es] not Man but men, not Nature but countless precise biological... facts."
Photography's problem of particularity has only deepened over recent decades. The field's switch to digital technology has radically ratcheted up visual resolution, which proves hugely absorbing... and distracting. As noted elsewhere, Wolfgang Tillmans now argues that this shift corresponds to a "transformation in the whole world" and how all of us now perceive the beauty of objects; a shift away from the elliptical, gestural, and symbolic, and toward an escalated interest in visual reality in its most minutely literal dimensions.
Even so, visual metaphor can still work well unless and until the viewer moves by reflex to pick it apart. In the zoo illustration above, our camera dutifully records not the Escapist as such but the sum of parts caught in striking relation: park trees, fence, wall stencils. Our minds, decoding on sight how this illusion was composed, get the delightful simulacrum at first glance, but in the next instant unravel the magic trick.
The point is that photographically explicit content militates against nonliteral takeaways based in metaphoric allusion and universalization.
(This constraint is, by the way, one reason why so much of the Pictorialist output from Watts's era - with its comely young subjects, semi-clad in togas and swooning expressively around windswept cypress trees to embody broad themes or depict greek myths - looks rather hammy to us now, a pastiche of silent-film semafore. What we notice first, at this remove, is the mannered models in unconvincing dressup, taking themselves too seriously.)
the thunderbolt of equivalence
In grappling with this narrative dilemma in the early years of photographic art, Alfred Stieglitz investigated the psychological foundation of visual metaphor. Underlying the link between depiction and signifying is an exchange between photographer and viewer that Stieglitz called "equivalence," which has the potential to de-particularize a photo's meaning and vest it with potent lateral feelings.
To illustrate the leverage of equivalents, Stieglitz famously experimented with shots of cloud banks that were framed so as to render them more abstract, their denotative content being de-emphasized such that the images' emotional resonances and associations for viewers could take center stage. "My cloud photographs," he proclaimed, "are equivalents of my most profound life experience, my basic philosophy of life."
A high hope indeed, but of course it takes two to tango: as Thomas Aquinas put the problem, "Whatever is received is received according to the nature of the recipient." Although Stieglitz's alchemic project has prompted me to undertake a parallel experiment with ice floes, I have to admit that his alienated cloud images mostly leave me unmoved as abstracted triggers to specific emotions, let alone profound life experiences.
Maybe I am tone-deaf to the music of the clouds. Or maybe this disconnect says something about the limits of relatability between the mind and moment of the artist and his or her viewers, present or future. Perhaps simply too much time has elapsed between Stieglitz's cultural gestalt and ours.
Just the same, the master's larger point about symbolic connotation is spot on: we experience a strangely charged kind of beauty that blooms outward from images that say something artfully at the level of symbol or metaphor. As Jane Hirshfield observed for poetry, “A metaphor is language that simultaneously creates and solves its own riddle; within that minute explosion of mind is both expansion and release.”
Vintage Photomat (2015)
crossed purposes, double meanings
Surely it is their duality as both incidental moments and small epiphanies that illumines images by Cartier-Bresson, Kertesz, Koudelka and other titans of "street photography," through whom the street performs less like a train of events to document, Muybridge-style, than like a palimpsest, a shadowy overlay of ulterior signals readable only by the viewer's heart.
This can go too far, for some. In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes recounts how the editors at Life magazine rejected Kertesz's photographs upon his arrival in the U.S., in 1937, "because, they said, his images 'spoke too much'; they made us reflect, suggested a meaning - a different meaning from the literal one."
"Truth in art," argued Wilde, "is the unity of a thing with itself: the outward rendered expressive of the inward." When their surface and implicit meanings are concordant and lyrical, one might say of such evocations, plus belle encore que la beauté: images of this sort somehow come to seem more beautiful than beauty itself.
And the converse is equally true: superficially attractive pictures that lack a compelling subtext - which describes, for example, most of today's commercial and fashion photography - may be gorgeously refined and decorative as eye candy, yet still feel lacking, emptied of beauty's deep ulterior and, yes, spiritual resonance.
is as beauty does
The validating correspondence between aesthetic form and embedded content works on both the fast and slow parts of the human brain: our minds instantly intuit a connection, and then unpack meaning through the more leisurely joys of appraisal and insight.
When the physicists Crick and Watson were combing through hundreds of alternate diagrams that might convey the chemical structure of DNA, Watson paused at their model of a double helix and found himself blurting out, "This is too pretty not to be it."
From equivalence, decades later Minor White worked out a way of thinking about metaphoric design (as well as image sequencing) that has, in turn, informed my own outlook and methods. White's art proceeds from this:
"When any photograph functions for a given person as an Equivalent we can say that, at that moment and for that person, the photograph acts as a symbol or plays the role of a metaphor for something that is beyond the subject photographed. We can say this in another way: when a photograph functions as an Equivalent, the photograph is at once a record of something in front of the camera and simultaneously a spontaneous symbol."
- Minor White, "Equivalence, the Perennial Trend" (1963)
something else entirely
My work often plays with disruptive ambiguities between record and symbol. Where most photographers would spot an interesting subject, take a picture of it, and then display that image to others with a label stating what it is, I am drawn instead to photograph objects and situations that seem potentially laden with implicit meanings and then ask how the subject and meanings could be evolved through creative methods - by altering the image or changing its descriptive title - to suggest something else entirely, an impression different from what had at first come to mind, and more arresting to the imagination.
I too have, as Kandinsky said, a "tendency toward the hidden, the concealed," and intend that unexpected emotional realities should loom up from behind the deceptive familiarity of ordinary objects.
Image labeling can help here. Often the simple act of crossing images with unexpected descriptors is like rubbing two sticks together, at first sparking the discomfort of cognitive dissonance and then - in a reflex to re-align these elements - deepened engagement by the viewer, resulting in synthesis of a new narrative to enclose the elements.
Thus, whereas Daumier once sniffed that photographs "describe everything but explain nothing," my images describe relatively little, in the manner of metonyms - or like clues espied through a keyhole - but point toward larger concerns and mysteries calling for explication.
To my thinking, and to the viewer's, the photo's ostensible subject - the object framed within the camera's viewfinder - fades back and no longer matters much; what counts is the new possibility I may have created in the thoughts that we now share.
At its best, my practice is about cultivating fresh meanings and emotions from visual metaphor - from the electric current that arcs between record and symbol.
What is foundationally real about the viewer's experience of my work is not the factuality of the image as such but, rather, whatever this half-real and half-conjured image may summon to the viewer's heart and imagination.
If they exist anywhere, my photographs take place not on location, nor inside the camera, nor emerging from the print exposure, but within the viewer's suggestible mind.
images conceived outside the frame
Each photo set here makes up a loosely guided meditation on a difficult subject. The objects featured in these essays matter chiefly for what they may suggest to you or resonate unseen, as well as for how their meanings may deepen or change for you in the presence of accompanying titles, texts, and links.
The first photo-and-text essay in this group is titled
The essay catalogs an array of personal hardships and life passages that befall some or all of us on the road of life, and that make existence a challenge to body and soul.
Additional essays in this set explore:
. cataclysm, a mirrored hall of existential panic reactions toward the impending collapse of life systems - and of joy - on Earth.
. us and them, the morasse of tribal fragmentation and stereotyping pulling America and other modern societies apart.
. what god wants, the mysteries and madness of religious belief (photo-essay still in development: check back later).
. in our nature, the painful twilight of our natural world in the hands of man (photo-essay still in development: check back later), and
. misfit desires, a bestiary of ideals and objects which people attach themselves to, that become obstacles to their own happiness.
If you are, as I am, a chastened romantic with an appetite for disenchanted ruminations of this sort, then you should be glad to encounter still more metaphoric art scattered throughout this site.
It's a gorgeous, heartbroken mess out there.
Such is life.
Beauty Descending a Razor Wire, No. 2 (2022)
NEXT - alienated beauty
Except where indicated, all text and images at this website are (c) 2023 Hunter Madsen, with all rights reserved. No reproduction or distribution without prior written permission.