November 2010 Archives

Style -- the Content of the Mark


In readings on the discipline of visual arts criticism, and on photography criticism in particular, one is struck by how much critics express certainty about what they are critiquing, yet how much thinkers about criticism express uncertainty about the legitimacy of critics.

Many of these very hard thinkers seem unable to get away from debates over conventional art-historical frameworks or the psychologies of aesthetics. These debates almost invariably spend their time arguing either for or against the usefulness or correctness -- that is, the reliability -- of intellectual idiosyncracy in determining "artistic meaning" or "artistic value" in a still-image visual work. Put simply, the problem lies within the idea that we should accept the perspective of the critic as the authority on how to accept the art work, and the uncertainties lie within whatever is spotted as the limitations of the perspective.

What's left out in the general shuffle is attention to investigating how meaning in images is finally "authoritative" in the image itself, not just in whatever context the critic finally agrees to be associated with as an authority.

Regardless of any observer's perspective, the image has its own terms on which to project significance with its organization of information -- and the key to discussing that organization is in the rhetoric of the decisions that it displays in its construction.

In the breadth of received experiences, every premeditated image is simply a "mark", one which was not there before and which has an intentionality of expressing a distinction. By default, the significance of the distinction is the inherent value of the image. But part of the intent is to express the inherent value, and this is done by the organization within the image. Style is the rhetoric of the mark's ability to express the distinction it is intending, and so that rhetoric, style,  becomes synonymous with the essential "content" of the mark.

The diagram below describes a basic rhetorics of the image itself as a counterpoint to the  various rhetorics of critics.

In this diagram, the key assumption is that all images produced by human construction as premeditated images are driven by a predisposition towards one of two basic motives: to imagine real things, or to present imagined things as if they were real. Produced images can always be positioned somewhere along the span between these two poles, which are more specifically identified as two presentational "intentions", namely the invention of evidence or the evidence of invention. But the imaging is also driven by an essential "referent" that sits closer to either a concept or an observation.

This double axis of concerns results (as below) in being able to detect four essential styles of imaging, each one of which indicates the inherent content of the mark.

It follows from this diagram that a given image (which can span more than one quadrant of the area displayed) may have a complexity originating in more than one dimension, and so there may also be more than the two dimensions (axes) cross-referenced here. But we already have a standardized framework broad enough to manage most of the images we can remember, regardless of place on the historical timeline or geopolitical neighborhoods within the academies of art theory.

Fashion photos, crime scene photos, war correspondent photojournalism, movie freeze-frames, family snapshots, landscapes, portraits, pictorial bios, calligraphy, signatures or what have you, it doesn't matter: they all fall within the diagram. (If an additional dimension emerges as proof to better explain the inherent diversity of image originality, then we'd add it to this diagram.)

Meanwhile, for the most part, the diagram allows a peripheral discussion about why the image producer leaned towards a particular position in the diagram's space; this can be held without attempting to reposition the mode of expression that the image itself has, experienced by any unsuspecting viewer as a matter of fact during the encounter with the image. In practice, intentions and outcomes often diverge, and most of the life of an artwork occurs on the basis of what outcome it became.


The New Black


Photographer Laurie Bartley rolled out Georgie Badiel (left) in the massive September 2010 Elle Magazine's short flash on a New York visit, deftly drafting an aesthetic from two cultures: political memory and craft formalism. Result: an Afro-Urban suite that, like a lot of mid20th-century jazz, just doesn't stress out about itself.

Formally, the portfolio ranges oddly but without any discomfort, from postcards (as below), to a mild voyeurism, to outtakes from an imagined film or television narrative. In these shots, all of the forms ride the same type of energy: an attitude of casual but acute recording, the photographer being in the right place at the right time as opposed to directing, but definitely by intention, not by luck. This agile attitude on point-of-view also provides a high degree of graphical permissiveness in the surfaces of the pictures, something more typical of cinema and so-called "amateur" snapshots.  Result: anonymous, yet emotionally familiar, genres.

But as "professional" stills, these shots very assertively manage the light within the margins, deliberately creating and preserving Badiel as a sculptural presence. Her presence is then made all the more interesting through the careful styling of her iconic Afro.

It's a fashion shoot, and styling is the essential decision-making going on. Is this decision retro, and if yes, is it exploitative? And if it is, is that important?


Well, this go 'round, one has to accept the highly evocative choice of hair simply in terms of the way it is used -- that is, not mainly as a retro nod, but instead as a headdress. There is no basic difference, nor need for difference, between the way Badiel carries the style and the way hats (crowns) of similar shape and scale should work -- something  particularly familiar in fashion had the model been, typically, a pale or light-skinned woman instead of having Badiel's silky and dark complexion.  The fresh success with Badiel is based on simply having her pronounced presence without looking like she is trying, like it's just the way people look. And it works great with her face. In Bartley's work, we further award many extra points here for not having Badiel's demeanor rely on being disengaged nor rely on mimicking the walking dead.

With that, the dialectic between political statement and glamour is unusually calm here. This is cool because the politics is an invocation, while the glamour is a proposal -- the reverse of the usual formula, and successfully so.

With Bartley's Badiel, the Black is Beautiful '60's/'70's grabs its vague Egyptian royalty reference and swings it very easily "forward"  as a dignified counterpoint to what passes for political postures today. It is more matter-of-fact; more mature; and it is seen taken as a "given"  but not as a requirement. Selected, not adopted. Impressive, not dramatic. Imminently repeatable, not enforced.

Meanwhile, back to graphics, the immediate environment works hard, featuring "urban" iconography around Badiel as she has already entered the city. Among the key signals, drawing is prominent on the street and on walls, and poles and lattices string more lightweight lines industrially across one space or another. But, wherever Badiel is in the city, the spaces are local to her. She is in them, not at them, and although we don't know why she is in them, she does not seem to be worried, and both she and all the places seem "normal". This is because, for the most part, the impression is that she is using the spaces, not finding them or only touring through.

Because the set of pictures altogether implies a narrative, it is notable that there is virtually no other character represented in them, making the set all about her, and staying entirely within the sense that there is nothing unusual going on with her.  It's a case of watching someone already a little extraordinary being ordinary, as opposed to so much modelling which is based on someone ordinary presuming to be more than a little extraordinary in pose, place, or circumstance.

Still, she is a character without a name, and we don't know her personally. She's an image; in this case, a re-vision. In effect, the pictures as a group create a context in which it appears that a recognized stereotype is not being further repeated, but instead an acknowleged archetype is being re-iterated. With that, what we might also want to know about is whether to ascribe special value to the shots being made by a woman photographer. The notion of a young empowered woman, a female archetype, and a character cross over each other here while also rebounding somewhat against the Cindy Shermans of photography but no less against the Marlo Thomases of tv -- not just other fashion shoot precedents and divas, which had led to a not so long ago bottoming out of black models in haute couture. One wonders if the comeback trail for many of those black models is a thematic/narrative one, or self-determination through gender alliance, or perhaps the combining of both.


The Laurie Bartley photos are all copyrighted by herself and/or Elle Magazine.