Today I got to go to one of my favorite galleries to see some wonderful photography: the Nelson Atkins Museum in Kansas City, MO. On display right now is a large exhibition of work by Brett Weston, son of the infamous Edward Weston, one of my favorite photographers. When I asked a friend of mine, who had seen the show a few days earlier, what he thought of it, he replied that he had always found Brett’s work to be “technically stunning and conceptually lacking.” It’s hard to argue with this assessment, and I won’t, because I think it’s accurate.
(my wife picked this one out as one of her favorites, and I have to agree)
The ‘concept’ behind Brett’s work seems to be remnant of his father’s generation, when photography was pushing 100 years since it’s invention and was reacting to the soft imagery of the late 19th century. Brett’s father, Edward, was part of a loose collective of photographers that were trying to show the stunning, sharp capabilities of the camera. Edward himself believed in the value of a perfectly crafted photograph as being part of the artistic ideal of a photographer. Brett has seemed to carry on this idea, and I think part of the meaning behind his imagery is this idea of a ‘perfect’ photograph, from a technical perspective. Beyond this technical ideal, there is not much that he is trying to communicate (at least, not judging from the imagery alone). I, for one, think that is perfectly alright. Although, against the handful of photographs belonging to his father in the next room, Brett’s fall a tad short for me.
Nevertheless, looking at Brett’s “conceptually lacking”, albeit “technically stunning”, work in contrast to some newer imagery on a wall just behind his exhibit, prompted a thought that I have mulled on for some time. Specifically, I’ll pick out a photograph by Alec Soth, described as one of the most important photographers of the past ten years by the gallery sign next to his image.
I choose this image in part because of Soth’s current reputation. It’s not for nothing that he is described the way he is by the gallery. But judging one photograph against the other, as analogs of each photographer’s work, I find Soth to be lacking in comparison to Weston (Brett), technically speaking. In fact, I find that much contemporary photography has this problem: the photographer spends their efforts conceptualizing images only to settle for a snap-shot approach to capturing their subjects. Alec Soth’s image left me with this feeling. He seems to have walked into this bedroom, snapped an image with his camera (digital?), and then gone home and made a giant print. Fine. Except that the photograph seems to rely on its size and subject for value. The problem being, in my opinion, that you, as the viewer, have to care about the subject (in this case it’s from a series in which he has trekked down the Mississippi) in order for it to have any real value. If you don’t have much interest, the photograph is just a giant, obnoxiously colored slap in the face: CHOKE ON IT! the photograph seems to yell!
By contrast, Weston’s work is much smaller. He seems to have spent more time ‘crafting’ the final piece, making a “technically stunning” photograph that gets your attention with quality rather quantity (referring to size). While the meaning behind the images won’t take the viewer very far, there is at least some value in the artifact of the photograph itself. I personally wish more contemporary image-makers would spend more time crafting beautiful prints rather than spitting out large snap-shots with “thoughtful” ideas.
Can you imagine if craft and concept united:
(taken from: http://www.geh.org/parkeharrison/index.htm)
(taken from: http://www.flowersgalleries.com/artists/118-artists/3865-edward-burtynsky/#/section-work/)
If you haven’t seen the Brett Weston work at the Nelson yet, you should. It is amazing work. There are also some beautiful and significant prints up in their permanent collection gallery right now, too. I’ll leave off this post with one of my personal favorites from the Nelson’s collection. It’s a Charles Sheeler, and it is one of the most beautifully printed photographs I’ve ever seen (forgive the iphone 3GS quality of these images):
I’m thankful that such a great museum like the Nelson Atkins is around. All of the photographers above have been shown at this gallery at one time. I’m also thankful to my previously mentioned friend who has been a great mentor to me as well.
Thanks for reading!
See the show: