the narrative within
Emma Dodge Hanson/Roy W. Stevens
The Arts Center Gallery
320 Broadway, Saratoga Springs, NY
through November 12
Photography, of all the art forms, is most compatible with Schopenhauer’s notion of a God: Relentless energy rending all things in pieces.
Even without using the contentious word, “God,” we can easily see how energy forms both the photograph and the viewer’s experience of the photograph.
Put differently, both digital and “analog” photographic processes can be expressed very directly in terms of energy: Photons reflected from the subject are gathered through lens elements and recorded either through photochemical reactions or mathematically (triggering “switches”).
Printing in effect reverses the above. That is not the end of the process, however, for the viewer must do pretty much the same thing, gathering the image through the lens of the eye, stimulating the optic nerve and sending electrochemical signals to the brain, which recreates the photograph.
Pardon, please, my crude and even unscientific description.
The activity of the viewer’s central nervous system and the activity of the camera are similar, in other words. We are describing energy transmission.
Which is not to say the other arts forms are not energy transmissions. It’s just that photography is very direct — which should be obvious.
The works of both Emma Dodge Hanson and Roy W. Stevens are documentative.
Dodge Hanson gives us portraits of survivors of a horrific event, the Battle of Stalingrad (July 17, 1942 to February 2, 1943), at a point in history when adult eyewitnesses — those survivors — are in the very twilight of their lives and whose numbers are now very small.
The scale of these 31.3″ x 48″ inkjet prints is impressive. The effect is to present the subjects at something close to life-size.
Subjects are identified with simple placards, accompanied by quotes from themselves and, in some cases, family members, about their experiences of the battle.
Here, then, are the survivors before us at last, some of them displaying a photo within the photo as they tell us, in a few words, what we might presume is most memorable at this distant point in time.
Yes, that time element is very significant: In all probability, this is the last we shall hear from them of the battle before they pass on … thus we are allowed to look at the event in the fullness of time.
One cannot help but respond emotionally to the wizened visages as mute witnesses: They are both strongly “present, in the form of the apparently life-sized images and yet, distant, in the sense that they speak to us only through the brief printed quotes. One has to connect the words to the faces, which creates a sense of otherworldliness, or even morbidity.
Dodge Hanson’s portraits, in general, are typically striking. These, however, are most striking as they are quite straightforward. It is as if the viewer has walked into the parlor or kitchen of the subjects, perhaps even having been offered a cup of tea. The photos display a “casual formality” as they are very finished, well composed and well lit but seem quite natural. The subjects are weary with age but very much living.
Here is Luzia Kollak, holding a photograph of her late husband, Gerhard, recalling his quote, which sounds almost like poetry: “When the sun sets, half the world turns red.”
Here is proud Generaal Zverev with his weighty medals, his bearskin rug, suggesting … that his experience left no permanent psychological damage!
Here is the off-center head of Alexander Filipovich Voronov, who’d been in the unfortunate position of serving as commander of an anti-tank gun, with a snippet of dialog with his wife: “Not true, you didn’t try,” she argues about defending the city against Panzer attack. Such verisimilitude!
There is much irony in this exhibit and, perhaps, that is a sign that there has been some healing in the 60-plus years since the battle. The “fullness of time” allows us to see this.
Roy W. Stevens’s photos are quite different from Dodge Hanson’s in terms of all the usual elements: Subject matter, scale, lighting, tonal quality, focal length, etc. They also document, capturing construction projects on State Street in Schenectady, etc.
So, on the one hand, we have the ashen faces of survivors of the destruction of World War II and, on the other, the “re-birth” of an urban center, or what some accept as a re-birth. Stevens himself observed that, as the war was fought, prosperity was coming to Schenectady and most of industrial America. True enough, although that very prosperity would lead to suburbanization which would mean the decline of Schenectady’s downtown beginning in the 1960s. This is a bit distracting.
These are photos of men and women at work — although through the lens of Stevens, they become parts of compositions rather than portraits.
Pattern and flow mark these photos which are architectural, not only in content, but in composition. Nuts and bolts form an architecture of a photo within the architecture of a building under construction; like Dodge Hanson, Stevens has his “picture in a picture.”
In addition to that common element and the element of documentation, Stevens, like Dodge Hanson, shows viewers what, in all likelihood, they would never see. Walking by a construction site — and I happened to be at one of the sites, watching the same two men, I think, with a suspended I-beam — one sees a world in motion. One does not see what the photograph shows. I believe the same cannot be said for an ordinary snapshot.
Let me try to elaborate: One can walk past the same array of nuts and bolts, the same welding activity, and not “see” what is in the fine art photograph of the same subject. It takes an artist with a camera to compose the evocative picture.
The fine art photograph allows the viewer a rare opportunity: To re-rend an image in mind.
If we link this Schopenhauer’s notion, we might say that, the fine art photograph allows us an “instant” of unity with the Godhead or at least a glimpse of the process of creation as it is expressed in terms of energy.
We don’t really do that with a snapshot. With a snapshot we are busy with other activities: Our memories get busy, or we try to identify people, places, or things in the photo, etc., and we are distracted by the “unreality,” or “unnatural,” about the snapshot. There is nothing that seems “unnatural” about a fine art photograph (although the subject matter might well be unnatural). It takes on a life of its own: It is a whole thing, not a picture “of” something.
The fine art photo creates a kind of harmony with the viewer through the photographer’s sensitivity and skills. A snapshot is a record, a document, but, lacking passion, it also lacks unity. It creates nothing:
Lo! Thy dread empyre, Chaos, is restored
Light dies before the uncreating word.
— Alexander Pope