Oh Captain! My Captain!

Ok, it took me a week or two to recover from that post on categorizing photography over there at the Alec Soth blog. Not that I don’t have other things to recover from. I have listed his blog here (to your right), considering it, generally, very worthwhile reading. And now this. I thought that, almost twenty years after the movie Dead Poets Society, nobody could possibly come up with some sort of a *chart* (the kind of thing you know from math, or some sociological study, with an axis) that is supposed to give you a formula for evaluating or categorizing art. Soth juxtaposes “scientific” and “poetic” and “even toyed around with charting different photographers on this spectrum.”


The basic question of Dead Poets Society, a movie on events unfolding in a New England poetry class taught by a somewhat rebellious teacher (played by Robin Williams), is to ask whether people should apply textbook formulas or think for themselves (guess what!). Let me remind you of some bits of the story. Early on in the movie the teacher lets one of the students read the introduction of a Poetry Anthology that will serve the class as their textbook throughout the year. That introduction is based on a spectrum strikingly similar to Alec Soth’s. So the teacher asks the question “What do you think of this introduction?”, only to give the answer himself: “Here is what I think: […] Rip these pages out of your books.” He asks each member of the class to learn using his (it is a boy school) own intellect and imagination to appreciate something as infinitely subtle and complex as poetry. The students, somewhat dumbfounded, rip out the pages, and this for them marks the beginning of a potentially life changing and, in one case, life ending class.


Soth’s attempt at helping us understand pictures (is this a descriptive picture? please, I need a chart to find out) seems heartbreakingly naive. Or is it repulsive? It buys into the thinking of the worst enemies of anything original in photography: the mindless, large agency, low level creative who could just as well work at your local post office. Time and again, some of these people come up with an earth shattering pseudo scientific view, defining with oh so many words e.g. “cutting edge” photography. Or, of course, they pay a marketing agency which exhibits their expertise by conducting a “study”, coming up with mind bashing insights like “today’s women feel beautiful when they are pregnant” – oh yes, I can give you the links to websites where you can learn such facts, but I’m not going to; these are among the things that take me time to recover from.

Why not end on a grand note: One wonders if “artists in a lens based medium” should cut both the “deep” statements and the ad hoc philosophy. Art talk sure is nice, it is a “salient feature of our culture” particularly amongst some of the fancier gallery owners (recommended reading: “On Bullshit”, Harry G. Frankfurt, Cambridge University Press). But after all, let’s leave questions on the epistemology of art to those who know about that stuff. No offense. Come back for more.

2 Replies to “Oh Captain! My Captain!”

  1. Take a deep breath Jens. That Post began as a way to talk about the David Goldes. There is a remarkable similarity between his work and Sudek’s. The point (perhaps a bit more subtle than tearing out pages in a textbook) is that the scientist is no different than the poet. Did you read the whole post? Did you miss this part:

    “Is it poetry or is it science? Like so much of my blather on this blog, it really doesn’t matter.”

    My little graph is meant to be playful in the spirit of Jessica Hagy. I’m sorry I’m not a serious philosopher like Robin Williams.

  2. Is the scientist no different than the poet? No matter how deep I breathe, this is just too deep for me. I guess I couldn’t agree more, “it really does not matter”. While the Dead Poets movie is just about as shallow as it gets, it does seem like an interesting bit of info that they engaged with a historically accurate movement of the 1950ies, let’s call it the chart movement of art criticism. No surprise, this was a short lived fashion. I guess I am somewhat allergic to this. But I’m all for playfulness. Cheers!

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