Photography; Considering contemporary issues of the day…

I start out this “first post of the year” thinking about extending an effort towards building a personal understanding on how artists/photographers, approach depicting “contemporary events”.  It comes from the “what’s new?” question  posed in “Making Art New” by Robert Adams which I still am very much interested.  I was thinking about the kind of work that you might find out there that looks at the broader issues of the day – take for example, our relationship (or lack of understanding thereof) with the environment.

Crushed cars #2, Tacoma 2004 – Chris Jordan

The images are there – a lot of them – some flirt with an aesthetic that is almost “beautiful” albeit ultimately destructive.  Most of the photographs, that I’m aware of (please, I’d like to become better informed), seem bleak in outlook, or so about destructive imagery that I for one, can’t imagine myself “transfering” seeing into doing,  taking an action about the situation…  It’s novel to be able to view a million, billion sheets of paper and realize that we use up that much resource.. by the minute… or something along those lines… but it leaves me feeling dismayed and disconnected – I feel like “throwing up my hands” with a helpless feeling overwhelming me – I can’t not use paper after all… maybe more wisely, but…

Jordan notes in his statement rather hopefully:

“As an American consumer myself, I am in no position to finger wag; but I do know that when we reflect on a difficult question in the absence of an answer, our attention can turn inward, and in that space may exist the possibility of some evolution of thought or action. “

Maybe a future post can find something more contemporary- in photography – that deals with the issue in a more straightforward way – I’m  sure it exists out there.  I suppose I’m looking for something that is a little less “over the top” – something subtle – something I can transfer my being into.  Maybe the question is what other ways might a photographer engage the viewer that doesn’t involve being “shocked” by the image in order to provoke a deeper understanding…

So,  instead I want to look back and with the benefit of hindsight and the passage of time and consider some work of another time of transition in the US, where there might be said a clear moment of “leaping forward” change,  that being the “industrial” age of the American experience.

Charles Sheeler – Precisionist painter, photographer.


Wheels – Charles Sheeler
American, New York City, 1939

The “Wheels” was a photograph by Charles Sheeler while on a commission from Fortune magazine to create a series of paintings entitled “Power.” Energy – raw power steam – applied in a controlled way – that’s a nice image to consider.

Charles Sheeler - Ford Plant

Criss-Crossed Conveyors – Ford Plant, 1927 – Charles Sheeler

These images of the “time” in which America embraced worshiped celebrated the potential of the machine are in the styles of art current at that time of cubism, precision-ism… etc.  These photographs were constructed to portray a sense of power, utility, and the machine – all that was “modern” about that moment. The obvious monumental quality of the image the object pictured leads to  a sense of  self sufficiency, the energy of being independent – the freedom and know-how that is associated with this kind of image is easy to get caught up in – perhaps sometimes the images feel a bit like propaganda – commissioned by the Ford Motor Plant and all –  perhaps the images became politicized through time and use by others to signal a “new age”… Now with the benfit of time and understanding – we might now view this image in a more slavish way.

Ford Plant, River Rouge, Stamping Press, 1927 – Charles Sheeler

Here, a worker oversees a huge machine that stamps out car fenders. It rises above him like an altar, reflecting Sheeler’s statement that America’s factories are “our substitutes for religious expression” and similar sentiments expressed by President Calvin Coolidge, who proclaimed, “the man who builds a factory builds a temple, [and] the man who works there worships there.”DIA – Exhibition Information – references.

For its heroics and monumentally, this Sheeler photograph is completely over the top and I love it for that.   All of this machine to form a fender, on a cheap Model “A”.

So was Sheeler’s photography a reflection upon the contemporary issues of his time?  Was he “true to his subject?”

A different more subtle take on the subject but related in someways is the work by Alec Soth “Making Parts”.

“Bliss” from the series “Making Parts” (for Granta Magazine) – by Alec Soth

“The business of making things is becoming a memory for much of the western world—the very business that once gave mastery over the east and the south. Factories don’t just make objects. They created (and elsewhere go on creating) a way of life.” – Granta.

It’s about the people and their lives affected by the real endgame of the more menial task of making bits of things and who are now finding themselves in a very a hard place competing with those who view this as a step up in the world. But, have no illusions about the step ladder – it leads nowhere here in this particular series.

More on this in the future, as I endeavor to discover more positive out looks on the possiblity of regaining a healthy relationship with environment – by considering the impact of making things – regional and global.