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Author Topic: masterpieces  (Read 8076 times)
John Camp
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« on: November 13, 2006, 09:03:08 PM »
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In another thread (about Michael's landscapes) there was a brief exchange about the topic of "masterpieces." Masterpieces, and where they come from and how they're created, is a topic that much interests me. Here are are parts of that exchange:

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Iconic masterpieces are largely a product of saturation marketing anyway. Most photographers hate these so-called masterpieces and would much rather be remembered for other (often more personal) work. Or, more likely, their contribution to photography as a whole. A single image says nothing about the photographer. Everybody has at least one masterpiece in them.
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As for "masterpieces", here's my take. I do photography because it's what drives me. I do it for my own purposes; for my own creative satisfaction. Then, like most artists, I enjoy sharing my work with others. Accolades are welcome, but so is criticism. We learn from our failures.

Lables such as "masterpiece" are external to the process of creating art. They're arbitrary and subjective, not to mention fleeting in most cases.
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On your last point, I totally agree with that commercial success should not be the only criteria to assess the masterpieceness of a piece.
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I disagree with everything Stephen Best said. I think masterpieces are recognized for what they are, and that's when the marketing begins. Lots of things are heavily marketed, and fall on their ass anyway, because they aren't any good. I doubt that anyone (or very few people) who created a genuine masterpiece wound up hating it. I've never heard of such a case. They may hate what happened to them after they created the masterpiece, when people hold up all their subsequent work to it, and find it lacking...but most people I've read about have a certain fondness for their masterpieces. Leonardo dragged the Mona Lisa around with him for almost half his lifetime. Masterpieces are like what the Supreme Court justice said about pornography: I can't define it, but I know it when I see it.

I think a single image can say a lot about a photographer. A single image from D-Day, or a single image from the Spanish Civil War, certainly told me a lot about Robert Capa. Any great image by Diane Arbus will tell you a lot about about her. As for "everyone has one masterpiece in him," that seems patently to be not the case. A large number of people seem to have trouble rising to the level of competence in what they do, much less having to worry about creating a masterpiece.

I sympathise with what Michael says the in the first paragraph, but then he had to go write the second: I seriously disagree that the idea that a masterpiece is external to the process of creating art. I think, in fact, that creating masterpieces is perhaps the whole object of it. Otherwise, you're just messing about in a "lifestyle;" when you go off on a photography trip, are you just hoping for a bunch of really pretty good pictures? Or are you hoping to make a really exquisite image that will pull you and others back again and again, to look at and think about?

The designation of a masterpiece is not arbitrary, and their life is not fleeting; what is arbitrary and fleeting is the public relations tendency to call anything that might possibly be better than average a "masterpiece." But you can go back a thousand years and find that paintings that were thought to be masterpieces then, still are. One of the reasons a lot of early photogaphy wasn't thrown away is that it was considered pretty good, and it still is. But, exactly and scientifically  designating a masterpiece isn't easy: it's that, "I know it when I see it" business.

I agree with Bernard that commercial success is not the only measure of a masterpiece, but I will point out (after fashion is discounted -- let's say, arbitrarily, 50 years after the artist's death) that the very best paintings and photographs tend to command the very highest prices, and there is a general cultural agreement within given cultural spheres about what is "the very best." I have heard that there are ~ 700 to 1000 copies of "Moonrise" printed and signed by Adams; they currently sell (for an average good copy) for about $25,000. If there are 700, that means that one image is now worth, in the aggregate, about $17 million...

I think the idea of "masterpiece" needs a good deal of contemplation. Especially when you get older.

JC
« Last Edit: November 13, 2006, 09:56:06 PM by John Camp » Logged
russell a
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« Reply #1 on: November 14, 2006, 06:34:18 AM »
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I think a single image can say a lot about a photographer. A single image from D-Day, or a single image from the Spanish Civil War, certainly told me a lot about Robert Capa. Any great image by Diane Arbus will tell you a lot about about her.

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Fascinating!  Please enumerate what  Capa's photo of a Spanish Republican soldier getting shot in the head tells you about Capa.  Do the same for Arbus' photo of a child in the park with a toy hand grenade.  Please do not rely on any of the many captions, other critical material, or mythology that has accompanied the publication and display of these works over the years.  For that matter, enumerate what the photo tells you about the subjects.  Conversely, I accept, out of hand, that your experience as a viewer of these works may illuminate something about you.
« Last Edit: November 14, 2006, 06:35:09 AM by russell a » Logged
John Camp
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« Reply #2 on: November 14, 2006, 04:35:52 PM »
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Sure. First, I'd like to point out that the idea that Capa's photograph was staged has been pretty thoroughly discredited (that's another discussion entirely.) Researchers identified the soldier and from the date of his death, concluded that despite the rumors (mostly started by skeptics who wouldn't have taken this shot) that it is real.

About Capa. First, he shot using a small rangefinder, which was what he had available. Since small rangefinders did not have long lenses, that means that Robert Capa was *right there with the guy* who got shot. That is, he was willling to put his life on the line for a photograph that tells a complicated story. Does that tell you something about Capa? Would you do it? And Capa, of course, kept doing the same thing until he was killed doing it.

Diane Arbus: How many people would have taken that shot, have seen it, or have taken it at that exact moment? If the kid hadn't had that expression on his face, it wouldn't have worked. I don't know whether she was involved in creating that expression (asked for it, in other words) or if it was entirely spontaneous, but it tells you something about her eye for the off-center, the grotesque, the violent and the dark. I love Robert Frank's street work,  but nowhere in The Americans will you find a picture that looks anything like the Arbus. The only place you see things reminiscent of this is, perhaps, with Ralph Meatyard. All of this tells me that there is flavor of the dark and off-center in Arbus's thinking: that she should commit suicide is not a surprise.

--JC
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russell a
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« Reply #3 on: November 14, 2006, 06:40:30 PM »
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There are actually three theories regarding Capa's oft-reproduced photo - that it was staged, that it was real, than in staging it, the soldier was exposed to a sniper, and the staged became real.  Who is the Capa of your choice?

Refer to the book, Diane Arbus - Revelations and you will see the contact sheet from that park shoot.  Several pictures of the boy were taken,  most are quite dull and ordinary, and there is only one with the hand grenade.  His body language is priceless, of course, but one can only guess at how she came by the shot.  So what does that tell us about Arbus?  Somewhere between hardly anything and nothing, I would say.  

I fail to see the connection between Meatyard's and Arbus' vision.
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gr82bart
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« Reply #4 on: November 26, 2006, 09:02:56 AM »
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I agree with Stephen Best saturation marketing to a point. I think the current concept of a photographic masterpiece is a western cultural phenom. Here's a thought on why: Can anyone name a non-western, non white photographer who produced a masterpiece? Maybe it's just me. Hopefully I am wrong.

Regards, Art.
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John Camp
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« Reply #5 on: November 26, 2006, 10:22:14 AM »
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I agree with Stephen Best saturation marketing to a point. I think the current concept of a photographic masterpiece is a western cultural phenom. Here's a thought on why: Can anyone name a non-western, non white photographer who produced a masterpiece? Maybe it's just me. Hopefully I am wrong.

Regards, Art.
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Sure. Eikoh Hosoe, a Japanese photographer pretty widely collected in the U.S.
Kyoichi Sawada was one of the best-ever combat photogaphers, and got himself killed doing it.

The non-western non-white is hard to do only because it's hard to define "western" and "white," which are (IMHO) pretty meaningless categories. Does Sabastiao Salgado fit in either of those categories, being from Brazil? How about Manuel Alvarez-Bravo?

You can't seriously argue that Japan and China don't recognize the concept of the masterpiece -- heck, Japan even officially designates individual people as "national treasures" and gives them funding so they don't have to do anything but focus on their art. It also seems to me that the Asian concept of masterpiece takes in a lot more territory than the western, as in ceramics and calligraphy and weaponry, drama and performance art (the tea ceremony) along with painting and sculpture.

One thing about photographic masterpieces is that they largely derive from cultures that have had a long and deep exposure to photography (pardon the pun) and where photography is recognized as an art form. China may not have produced photographers with a world-wide reputation simply because until recently, it was quite poor, and cameras were not so much a part of the culture as in the west, where everybody has had a Kodak since the beginning of the 20th century.

JC
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