One of the most annoying things to read in a statement or press release is the claim that so-and-so has captured the essence of such-and-such. Even someone “attempting to capture the essence” of their subject makes me look around for the nearest edge. I am saved only by the certain knowledge that some people are so intimidated by words that they’ll settle for meaningless clichés just to be done with it.
What prompts this rant is the recent launch of a new project that seems to be about cottonwood trees, or at least it involves cottonwood trees. Like nearly all my projects, this is not a blocked-out week in my schedule, but more in the way of a page in a mental notebook. The penciled-in title just reads “cottonwoods,” not “scarred survivors” or “chaotic growth” or “ancestral skeletons” or “vanishing havens.” As the list implies, such potential encapsulations tend to come float up in my mind from time to time, like shifting blobs in a lava lamp. Despite their intriguing associations, it seems quite clear that none could even remotely serve as an essence of cottonwood. More than that, they suggest that any notion of essence (not only verbal) would be diminishing.
Photographers seem more prone to the essence infatuation than other artists, though when it comes to publicists the guilt spreads wide. However, I have become aware of a couple of photographic studies of cottonwoods that I much admire. Robert Adams (no relation to Ansel), as I re-discovered while writing this post, has a book on cottonwoods. A longtime Colorado resident (though now in Oregon), Adams has lived with and loved cottonwoods, and his photographs, like mine, were made within a few miles of his home.
To an interviewer’s question, “Why do you feel that you have to be familiar with a place in order to do your best work there?,” he answers “Because what I’m after are characteristic views, and I can’t know if a view is characteristic until I’ve seen a place again and again, through all kinds of hours and seasons.”
The exact meaning of “characteristic views” is unclear, and seems dangerously close to the notion of essence. I think Adams means something close to “true,” as in true to the place, showing it as directly as possible. I’m not sure whether his notion of characteristic might exclude some facets of the subject, and I’m a bit puzzled how I would make a photograph that was not characteristic. In the end, I think the judgment is based on accumulated experience, and Adams is mainly saying that his selection of photographs has nothing to do with the “wow factor” touted in some circles.
Another well-known photographer, Lee Friedlander, is apparently also a fan of cottonwoods. Coming from the coastal Northwest, he has not lived with cottonwoods, but he has a masterful way with the high contrast of southwestern sun, and has, I think, reached the absolute limit of complexity that can be crammed into an image without it totally exploding. Only very poor images are available on the web. Most of them have a feeling akin to Sunil’s Pollock-like abstracts (see here and here). I happen to like Friedlander’s photographs quite well from an aesthetic point of view, but they don’t seem to say as much about cottonwoods as Adams’ do.
The second photograph in this post is actually the first I took at this location. Though I wanted to avoid too much blank sky, it fails to show the (characteristic!) broken trunks, victims no doubt of a windstorm that may have followed a weakening drought. I didn’t think of it in such terms at the time, but in retrospect the lead-in image seems to reach a better balance between the awkward solidity of the trunks and twiggy connection to the sky. I think I’ll try again to see it with yet more sky, though–a luxury I can indulge with a nearby subject.
The last, closer photograph introduces a few new details in the broken fence parts under the tree and the cattle (mere dark blobs through the falling snow) stretched along a line of dumped feed. This connects it more closely to the human environment and history.
But back to the question of essence. Having written the rant, I’m feeling more tolerant. How about you? Do you think of a subject as having an essence? One that an artist might capture? Perhaps an essence for you? Perhaps only for you at this time?