When I was a senior in high school, a photo of a young woman from a neighboring town appeared as the centerfold in a popular men's magazine, and a discussion took place among some of my schoolmates who had been friendly with her. Here was an acquaintance of theirs who had been so skillfully made up, lighted, photographed and air-brushed as to appear lacking in identity to those who knew her in person. Without wishing to slight the lady, I must say that quite beyond her capacity to charm her beholders, it was the transformational power of photography that carried the day.
The level of sophistication of crafts photography today makes possible the same deceits. Last summer, at the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts, a jeweler showed me the slides that had won him a place in the juried sidewalk sale. His rings and bracelets had been professionally photographed against a backdrop of spray-painted broccoli spears. 'The guy really went all out," he told me needlessly, and with a sense of pride. Another photographer who went all out is Kenro Izu, whose picture of Jeffrey Oestrich's porcelain platter appears on page 45 of the August/September 1979 issue of American Craft. The subject is seen in the foreground of a dramatic beach sunset scene. (Has the platter been cast up by the tides? What relevance does it have to Oestrich, an inland potter?) The effect is like that of a snapshot of the Parthenon seen behind a blurred figure. "There's Uncle Brewster on his moped in Greece," your Aunt Harriet tells you unconvincingly.
Therefore it came as a pleasant surprise to read on the entry form for the recent Vessels Aesthetic exhibit in California that the judges wished to see slides taken in daylight. Such directions will hold back the day when entrants to juried shows will be required to submit slides taken by a certified, registered, professional crafts photographer. I felt relieved.
The last photographer I hired charged me an arm and a leg and misrepresented the work by making it look better in the slides than it did firsthand. I threw his slides away and went back to photographing in the daylight behind my house. I may be lucky, but most pieces I make lend themselves to straightforward documentation and to my moderate level of skill with a camera. Slides should depict the object, not the photographer's means or skills.
Anyone who looks at books containing photographs of ceramics eventually sees a variety of visual representations of a given piece, and soon learns that one photographer's image can differ radically from another's. I am familiar with eight or ten photographs of a registered Japanese cultural treasure—a pot called Torn Pouch. When I saw the piece in New York a couple of years ago, I realized how I'd held a certain image of it in my mind over the years. Here I stood, in front of the pot, preferring some photographer's idealized representation of it to the thing itself. I felt duped in this image maker's shell game: "So you think this is the real pot? Well, do we have a surprise for you!"
A similar event occurred in the Everson Museum of Art when I saw one of John Glick's plates. Lovely as it was, it seemed to be quite another object from the one depicted on the cover of A Century of Ceramics in the United States, which I had just bought and happened to have had with me. I do not mean to demean the work of the photographer, Robert Lorenz, who made a beautiful image of a beautiful plate, but the success of each depends on their not being seen side-byside, and I had made the mistake of looking at them in just that way. The same plate (photographed by Tohru Nakamura) appears on page 11 of the issue of American Craft cited previously; it looks wan and drab compared to Lorenz's version.
The more photographs of ceramics that I see, the more articles I read about how to get a pot to put its best foot forward in an interview with a judge, the more I wonder about an object's actuality and the variety of ways it can be made to appear in a photograph. It is between these poles that the photographer situates himself when he cozies up to his subject.
In some cases, the results exemplify Robert Frost’s definition of poetry as "that which is lost in translation." There will always be a reality gap between the object we confront directly and the representation of that piece which a photographer shows us. As a potter, I feel cheated by photos and slides of ceramics because the more I learn about transitional backdrops, barn doors, filters, floodlamps, filament types, and film selection, the more the photographic presentation of the object seems to transcend the subject the way
Edward Weston's photographs of fruit and vegetables transcend edibleness. It is clear that we are making pots for cameras, as well as for judges, investors, and book and magazine editors. Is this part of, or alternative to, the actual use of pots with real food, as vehicles for personal expression, or as a means of solving aesthetic or functional problems in the medium?
The day may not be far off when the names of the ceramist and his/her photographer appear in equal size print and the work will be seen as a collaborative effort. An article entitled "How to Make Ceramics that Photograph Well" may already be undergoing editorial consideration somewhere.
The payoff power of photography was impressed on me several years ago when I met a young man who had just received a $10,000 National Endowment for the Arts Craftsman's Fellowship in ceramics. Realizing no one would inspect his work directly, he teamed up with a photographer, made some delicate slab-built objects, and air-brushed them to look as if they had been fired. The results were dramatic; the judges bought his package; he went on a cross-country tour with a friend, dropped out of ceramics, and, I trust, moved on to greener pastures, having established himself as a creative welfare case.
Somewhere in the middle of all this I got in on a slide presentation of how it had been done. He also showed slides of the disastrous results of firing some of the pieces after they'd been photographed. Clearly, they had been made for the camera for the visual competition-and on these grounds the young man had succeeded marvelously. Even a biscuit firing exceeded their structural integrity which, as it turned out, was flimsy by anyone's standards. The visual appeal, however, had been his goal, and he had hit the bull's-eye.
A photograph can show us the image of a ceramic object registered on a given film under one of an almost infinitely variable number of lighting conditions. It will always be a poor substitute for experiencing the fit of an actual lid; the little tug on the tongue when ifs touched to nonvitrified clay; the surge and waning of heat in a held teabowl; the uncanny way some clay objects make themselves known to us in tactile ways, as if we are blind to try only to see the piece.
In the face of these deprivations, the best we can hope for from a slide or photograph is verisimilitude—the appearance of truth in the subject matter: truth-in-packaging. A photo graph that calls attention to the process of photography is one way to define an unsuccessful representation. Interesting backgrounds, orchestrations of filtered light, and signs of the irresistible temptation to diddle with technological possibilities too often result in images that make us feel that if the photographer's wish could come true, we'd view the slides to a specific recording of Wagner's The Ride of the Valkyrie while burning the proper incense, nibbling a particular Brie, and sipping the appropriate wine.