Subordinating his own story?

‘The “quiet” photograph is a difficult notion to define with any exactitude, partly a question of style, more a question of voice.”

Badger (page 210) characterises “quiet” photography as modest, self-effacing, not hectoring. Shunning the egotistical mediation of the determinedly expressive auteur. Understated. Eschewing ‘quirky tricks of technique or vision’.  

He goes on to quote Thomas Weski who describes such photographers as shaping their results ‘subtractively’…

Badger’s essay then goes something of a detour, first explaining that the “quiet” photograph is certainly “straight” but that not all straight photographs are quiet. (“The images of both Sugimoto and the Bechers positively scream…”) The “operatic” prints of Bill Brandt or W. Eugene Smith are likewise straight, but by no means quiet. Badger contrasts “quiet” photographs with the obsession with size, and the need to exhibit consistent style that betray a concern with the art world, rather than the world itself .

“The world is infinitely more interesting than any of my opinions concerning it. This is not a description of a style or an artistic posture, but my profound conviction.” – Nicholas Nixon’s dictim is clear but it does not get us closer to understanding the aesthetic of the “quiet” photograph. We might understand this a bit better if we remember Frank Gohlke’s aim of the “‘passive frame’, in which the image appears not to have been composed actively, with any great forethought, but has happened ‘naturally’ as it were.” (p.218)

But this “prediliction for what can be discerned as a hiding of the artist’s hand” doesn’t sound to me like the ‘transparent eyeball’ of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Too much artfulness involved in hiding the art. 

Does quiet photography have to be composed in such an artfully neutral fashion? I feel I need to go and look again at Badger’s examples.

We come to the end of the essay without much of a positive definition or characterisation. And we are offered little guidance for practice. I am not even sure that we have been helped to appreciate the work of Gohlke, Richard Misrach, Robert Adams, Nicolas Nixon or Stephen Shore (p.217). To me they are too ill-assorted, their work too multi-faceted, to really help us grasp this slippery notion of the “quiet” photograph. But I know that I will be looking again (more or less immediately) at the work of each of these men with Badger’s words in my mind. 

The notion has indeed been difficult to define. Although the following words do not add up to a definition they are likely to stay in my mind for some time…

“The voice of the quite photographer remains modest” (p.216).

Scrupulously maintaining the camera’s “inherent neutrality” (p.217), he maintains “a discreet emotional distance from his subject, he allows it to tell its own story, and as the conduit for this story, is content, indeed insistent upon, subordinating his own ‘story’, if you like.”


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