Going Back to the Basics: A Comparison
As my project nears its end, I decided to reflect and return to a previous session not yet discussed in this forum. Two photographs shared the two-hour block, intended as a visual comparison. Immediately after assuming my looking position I was frustrated. Though similarly monochromatic, one black and white the other red, the images did not initially speak a common visual language, and did not utterly oppose each other either. By returning to the visual basics and devoting time to each, subtle similarities and differences arose concerning the composition, purpose, and subject matter present in the two photographs.
Emmet Gowin snapped a photograph of a burnt book in 1974; forty years later that same photograph sits lifeless on the print room table before me. Geography Book, an aerial photograph of a burnt book,walks a fine line between art and evidence, a dilemma previously faced and discussed during this project. The photograph simultaneously documents a moment and illustrates Gowin’s seemingly diverging interests as a visual documentarian. The photographically preserved book is badly burnt, the text and accompanied maps transformed by fire, thus forcing an alternative purpose to its previously functional, didactic object. No longer serving as a resource for further understanding of geography, the debris-covered book now functions as evidence of a moment. The sterility of the composition and nature of the subject matter revive questions concerning photography: why is this valued? How did it find its way to the Tang Museum? What about this image defines it as art? This photograph, and the red-hued image to its left, raises challenging questions concerning the nature of photography as an artistic medium.
The compared photograph by John Christie follows a geometric order furthered by the shared aerial view. “Exhange” depicts two forms of evidence: a postcard headed to England and an accompanied image of a woman mirroring the position of a lifeless, oblong object that lies besides her. The peculiarly titled image seems to document relatively ordinary objects; however, the compositional arrangement and placement within the Tang Museum’s photographic collection transforms the work into a rather strange piece of art—or evidence. While observing this image I attempted to first maintain a typical visual breakdown, noting the structural elements and the visual relationships. This visual description dulled in comparison to the hidden oddities within the image. Reading the card and analyzing the image only furthered by confusion. Was this image ever meant for public use or an audience? Or was this merely a private exchange between two people? Now that it has fallen behind the white walls of the museum, how has its function changed?
Fluctuating functionality drives these two images by Gowin and Christie. Their purpose prior to the attention of the camera differs as the respective objects are now preserved and immortalized and art.
Geography Book, 1974
Gelatin silver print
Collection of Tang Teaching Museum, Gift of a private collection