The Story of Art, Part 1 in a Series
Introduction: During my four months on the road, I have with me that classic book on art history, The Story of Art by E.H. Gombrich. I first encountered this book decades ago and it was quite influential in my thinking about art and photography. Now in its 16th edition, it is written for the layman rather than the art expert. It's an ideal introduction to the wide world of art beyond the borders of the photographic. Like all good books, it prompts thought — questions, agreement, and disagreement. In this series of posts, I'll provide excerpts or quotes from Gombrich and share my thoughts as they apply to photography.
Quote: There is no greater obstacle to the enjoyment of great works of art than our unwillingness to discard habits and prejudices. (page 29, second paragraph)
In one of those strange convergences of idea and experience, I was thinking about this yesterday as I wandered around the famous Bodie ghost town here in California, so photographed that it has risen to the status of Photographic Compulsory. The world of photographic Art (capital A) has codified the approach to Bodie as capturing The Old Town, the historic, the nostalgic, the past. I was simply not responding to the place that way. I've photographed too many old towns and abandoned places over the years to be excited by an old mining town turned into a tourist-centric state park overrun by holiday visitors. Besides, all the buildings are locked or fenced off for the protection of artifacts and tourists — and the denial of access to the "right spot" for photography. Normally I would be bothered by this, but I found myself torn between the prejudices of seeing (that I carry with me as a result of all the photographs from Bodie I've seen over the years) and a palpable lack of enthusiasm for making even more of them. Ennui ruled the day — until I remembered Gombrich's quote — discard habits and prejudices. It's that old business of seeing with new eyes. I did my best to let go of Bodie and start seeing it afresh. Time will tell if I feel images like this one are successful enough to have fully broken out of the habits and prejudices.
This is, of course, easier said than done. It is also, of course, the great challenge. Letting go is not easy, but is the essence of seeing artistically. Here in Bishop is the famous Galen Rowell gallery. He defines the Eastern Sierra for us with that glowing light in hyper-color, but it simply doesn't look like that to me — at least not in the days I've been here. How many ways must the Universe teach me to let go of what I expect to see and start seeing with my own eyes? I catch glimpses of it now and then, as in this image.
This is the thing about a book like The Story of Art: it offers lessons about making art equally as well as it does about looking at art. More to come . . .
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