I’m delighted to reproduce the following critique by my friend and photography colleague, Tom Peck, which featured recently in the online magazine ON LANDSCAPE and I thank the magazine for their kind permission to do so. Tom’s own inspiring landscape work can be viewed at www.thomaspeck.wordpress.
Do you like modern art/photography? Especially abstract modern art…? Or does it frustrate you? Does it feel like the artist is being deliberately obscure, cloaking an image in obfuscation, and then calling it Art! I must admit I can have both reactions… But with this image by Sandy Weir I’m definitely in the former camp. To me this is beautiful, delicate and wispy. And yet on first viewing I had no idea what it was a picture of. It does not reveal its connection to reality so easily. And maybe right there – in that moment of hesitation as the mind tries to comprehend what the eye is seeing – is the fascination. So I want to try and unpack that reaction a little more, to understand what is going on. I wonder if you react the same way I do?
The first reaction when we look at an image is to seek meaning. With landscape in particular that recognition often comes instantaneously – “it’s a mountain”, “a tree”, “a shore line”. Often the eye will immediately flick to the caption – to seek confirmation of meaning perhaps: “Ah yes, Scotland, Iceland, Yosemite – knew it!”. Let me ask you a question: you’ve gone through this edition of On Landscape and looked at many photographs (Tim always puts me at the end, so I’m betting you’ve looked at a lot of images by now…). How often, and how quickly, did you check the caption? Now ask yourself, did the caption really add to your appreciation of the image?
With abstract images that immediate recognition is removed, especially if the caption doesn’t help. Actually I gave this image the Untitled caption. Sandy calls it something else, but I won’t reveal that until the end – don’t want to give the game away – don’t look ahead…
So how did you look at this photograph? Did your eye skate around the image searching for something the mind could latch onto: did you look for scale? Did you impose metaphor? Did you seek pattern? There are strands of light, but nothing else to help contrast with them and thereby suggest meaning. Compositionally the image has been stripped bare. So the eye seeks even more. Anything to help give an answer to that knotty question of what is it?
This hunting for meaning is viewer engagement, active looking and thinking. Often this engagement will result in a deeper appreciation of the formal qualities of the image. For example, the eye is guided up and down the image – the sense of flow is very strong. The lighter area of the image attracts the eye first, which then follows the ‘S’ bend from bottom left up through to top right. As well as the more obvious structural line, the lighter to darker flow of the image implies space recession and hints at 3D perspective. The black is more confusing. It throws the strands of light into relief, but suggests nothingness which the mind rejects…
OK, so I’ve forced you to look at the image a more concentrated way than normal, and I’m sure you will have worked it out by now. It’s an image of weeds in water. Sandy calls it: Lake Weed | Watendlath Tarn | Cumbria. Literal, geographical, descriptive – the opposite of the image itself… ‘Ah!’ says the mind, ‘weeds in water – got it, yes I see it now. Of course.’ A tiny epiphany and the mind is satiated, the viewer satisfied. But I wonder, did you look longer at this image than at many of the others in the magazine? Did you seek meaning? And isn’t it interesting how the mind goes about seeking meaning. And finally, did that journey towards understanding create a visual pleasure, or were you frustrated? All very subjective of course, but hey, that’s half the pleasure of modern art!