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Sunday, May 20

Clutter...or Art?

There have been a couple of times in the past when I've railed against the horrible art speak that can spring up around photography from practitioners determined to make the medium as impenetrable as possible or to "elevate" their often meagre efforts in the eyes of an uninformed or even wilfully ignorant (from their point of view) public.

I came across a new term for me just the other day when watching a video about US photographer Stephen Shore. He was discussing his pic below and used the words "structural density" to describe what would normally be thought of as "clutter".

It's actually a nice photograph, in my opinion, without being in any way special or noteworthy. Nevertheless, according to Mr Shore it represents, "the height of structural density in my work". I've put it in quotes even though I didn't note the exact words at the time but the term "structural density" was definitely mentioned.

So structural density? Sounds interesting, doesn't it? Ask the average person about the structural density in their latest iphone pic and you're going to get a very blank stare. Go on about the structural density of your latest image to your wife or husband and see where that gets you. But when a photographer with a bit of a name uses the term suddenly it's accepted as something "out there" and arty, possibly even important.

What does it really mean? Well, apart from "clutter" you could also say "busy". If you were being mildly critical you might say "overly fussy". Forthright types might say “crammed full of crap”. All it really means is that there is lots of stuff in the view. That's it. "Lots of stuff" can be good or bad in a photograph depending on how you compose or arrange everything. I like Mr Shore's composition here. As I said before, it's a very pleasant image that I find nice to look at. There's plenty to explore within the frame and it's captured rather well the intense southern Californian light.

I set out, for a laugh, to capture some structural density of my own recently in Dundee's Slessor Gardens, part of a big project to transform the waterfront area of the city. There’s some building work going on and a lot more still to come so things can appear somewhat chaotic depending on where you look.

My first structural density effort must be one of the busiest shots I’ve taken. It could be the pinnacle of photographic clutter! I took one shot of this scene and thought, “Wow, the density!” Then a man walked into the shot to add a final layer of density so I took another. Short of a troupe of jugglers performing in front of the seat I didn't think the structure of the pic could get any denser so I called it quits.

The second pic has no fewer than 11 poles on show in what is a fairly small field of view. Perhaps this needs a separate sub-category of “vertical structural density”? Would perpendicular profusion sound more arty? I don’t know. Anyway, it certainly has a lot going on.

Is there an artspeak dictionary or an app for converting English into gobbledygook? If not, why not? It could be invaluable to art students making it easier and quicker for them to write their personal and artistic statements and freeing up more drinking/smoking/fornicating time. Imagine, just one click from:
I photograph stuff I see around me. Not sure why but it gets me out the house.
I see my image-creation as a never-ending quest to explore the synergy of material artefacts in the built environment and their spatial significance within the inevitable confines and conflicts of the capitalist hierarchy. Fuck Trump.
It was explained to me some time ago that this sort of mangled English has developed in the art world because art needs its own language to express the ideas behind it. I don't buy it. If you can't explain it with "normal" English then mixing up a whole load of polysyllabic words into a structurally dense sentence isn't going to help.

But that's the real goal, isn't it? We're not supposed to understand it so that we're encouraged to see those uttering complete bollocks as ├╝ber-sophisticated or enlightened in some way that we plebs aren't. Anyway, I can't say I'm a big fan of structurally dense photographs whether cloaked in quasi-mystical jargon or not.

I prefer simple compositions like this one above I took last week in the Fife town of Leslie. They need less explaining. What is it about? Beyond a shot of a playpark? Don't know. Why did I take it? Don't know. I like it - you may not - but that's all that matters to me and screeds of pseudo-intellectual garbage will never alter that fact.


right-writes said...

Good thoughtful piece sir. Oddly the piece I read immediately before this was the latest by Irwin Puts.

He says that now that photography has become woven into our lives, due to the convenience of digital systems, and devices that we carry that have cameras built in, the language of photography has changed.

Whereas we all used have a camera to take snapshots of things that we liked or that would make a nice picture, we now communicate as if it was part of our language, pictures with everything. The camera is sometimes involved in that, but most photos are produced by phone, or monitor of some sort.

So now we have the above, with digital diarrhoea and a new category of photographer...

... The Artist. With a camera.

And as you say, the artist will go out of his way to make his "work" seem strange and new, including, presumably, the way he uses words.

Anonymous said...

Would 'complex' be a nice compromise between 'structural density' and 'a bunch of crap'? It has the added benefit of not sounding too artsy-fartsy. I did a degree in English literature and loved the reading but hated the jargon that came with the citicism. Almost put me off books.
-Marcus Peddle

Dave Jenkins said...

Not being overly burdened with artistic sophistication, I feel free to say that the Shore photo is a nothing-burger. On the other hand, I quite like your photo of poles.

eric de montigny said...

Hi Bruce.
I also find your park picture composition pleasant.
I tried to find out why, even looked at it upside down, the picture not me.
What i see is an odd composition, i mean odd number of poinst of interest.
If you take the swing, the slide(tobogan) and the pole you form a first movement.
you can also take another route, the ladder, trees on the right and trees on the left.
if you decompose it you have a group of three trees on the right(almost) and also three swings on the left.
one can wish to obliterate what looks like a chimney over the trees on the left and make the clouds starker.
But yes it works, a sense of emptiness, leaves you wondering what's missing.
Wait i know what's missing... where are the teletubbies?

Allan Castle said...

Nice article. Most people who buy art, whether a painting, photography, etc. are not artists. They seem to need a complicated explaination of the artists' intent. Saying I liked the color and it will look good over my sofa makes it seem silly to spend $1,000 or $5,000 for a painting or photo.

Mike Kukulski said...

You can create your very own incomprehensible artist statement using the statement generator at Always good for a chuckle...

Herman Sheephouse said...

Gee Bruce, I think you have captured the nascence of change in Dundee's new post-modern, trans-structural regeneration very well. It goes beyond the mere vignetting of man and building to define the new depth of feeling that inherently was there in the City, but that is now becoming a vital pulse that one can feel when one talks to the kindly folk of the place. The feeling of change is palpable and is, at times, in the cold Eastern light, seemingly projecting itself from the new buildings like their souls, if buildings have souls, are waiting to be discovered. Nice.

These are the sort of photos I take at times actually Bruce, so I am going to say I like them and I also like the term 'structural density' too - it seems to work. Shore's photographs, whilst seemingly being of nothing, are actually, somehow, very revealing. I like them.
Well done . . . though you should have been using a 10x8!

bjorn said...

Are you still on the 2tmy400, id-ll program? These photos have a very nice tonality!

Folker said...

< digital diarrhoea >
That´s it today: not photography but DD ;--
And so true!
That made my day!

Bruce Robbins said...

Hi Bjorn,
The technical details are FP4 rated at 100 ISO and ID11 stock. I over-cooked the development a little and the negs are grainier than I expected. The camera was a Pentax SV and a few old Takumar lenses.

Sidewayseye said...

I too like Shore's photograph. I don't think the word 'clutter' does the same job as 'structural density', although the latter phrase is a little clumsy. Clutter suggests a sense of random objects unconnected to the main theme of the photo. Structural density suggests many objects that align to a theme in the photo - in this case, (for me) verticals.

I also think that artists can can use 'high falutin' language but I also think that sometimes we have to use a word in a technical sense that sets it apart from its ordinary day usage. I have just completed a masters in philosophy where very difficult language is the norm. Most of it is unnecessary and detracts from clarity. But some allows you to conceptualise something new. I think Science is like this too. But I agree with you, I don't think "art' needs to do this.

DavidM said...

It's just possible that you are being a tiny little bit unfair. All activities have their own jargon. Have you tried to explain how film photography works to someone who only uses their phone? Or depth of field, perhaps?
The Shore image is very highly ordered; there are very few lines that are not either horizontal or vertical, even the shadows. "Clutter" suggests random or untidy. As for his choice of structural density as a description, I'm as baffled as you.
I suspect that he's used "density", to indicate that there are a lot of items within the frame and "structural" because they have a certain order, or structure, but it's not a happy combination.
There's much more to criticise in your red quotation.
We might forgive "synergy" but where the jargon comes unstuck is: "...the inevitable confines and conflicts of the capitalist hierarchy."
What images can these be? Cameras today are wonderfully advanced and intelligent but I'm unaware of a camera with built-in political awareness. (But let's remember Paul Strand's "Wall Street.")
We have to ask what "material artefacts in the built environment" would look like in a non-capitalist hierarchy. Do photographs look different if they are taken in Beijing or Pyongyang, or perhaps Havana? In the last case, they certainly would, because Havana retains a good deal of pre-Castro architecture. Did these buildings look and photograph differently when Cuba was run on non-capitalist principles?
I suspect we don't have to think very long for an answer.
The difficulty here is not really the jargon, but the confused ideas that it fails to hide.
I'm afraid that I cannot see the point, in a statement on photography, of including an exhortation to provide the current President of the USA with erotic gratification.

nilknarf said...

Is structural density and photographic mediocrity one and the same?
What a "ho!

Martyn Lacey said...

Never did understand why art is conveyed to its audience in gobbledegook.
Shores photo coveys to me all that is America.. capitalism with no thought to the environment. Represented in this small scene are the oil companies and the fast food giants held together in an asphalt landscape.
Wether it’s a good photo or not ...who knows art? Well in an Andy Warhol sort of way maybe.
Of course the photo should ask questions and provide answers to its other words you interpret the picture using the contents to guide you..
Sometimes I just take a photo just because I like what I see....can’t explain it ...don’t want to’s for me....structural density my arse....probably the last frame on the roll and just wanted to get it developed that day.

normusarms said...

I think it was David Vestal who said, "if you have to explain a photograph it's not strong enough". Structural density is what I will be calling my middle age spread from now on.

Bruce Robbins said...

Good one! Think I'll join you in that. "I'm not fat,
I'm just structurally dense". That might work!

DavidM said...

May I suggest that Martyn is wrong. The image doesn't "convey" all those things about capitalism. These are things he already knows and opinions that he already holds. Before he saw this image, he knew what Chevron and Texaco are and what they do. He is deducing that it is in the USA, but there is no specific proof, within this frame: it could be some other dreary hole. There may be a caption, saying where it is, but that, too would be outside the image. I cannot contest either Martyn's knowledge or his opinions, but they are things that he himself brings to the image, not what the image brings to him.
We all find it hard to make this distinction, as our own knowledge flows so naturally into our own minds as we scan the world .
The image has stimulated Martyn by awakening or triggering certain thoughts and feelings within him. "Evoke" might be a better word than "convey." We might consider that this was the photographer's intention and if that's the case, then this is a "good" photograph. How else would we define a good photograph than successfully fulfilling the photographer's intentions?

Nilkarf: No. There are many ways to mediocrity. Many ways to excellence too.
Structural density is just a couple of words. We can live with it. I suspect that a conversation among (to pick a random group) cyclists is filled with impenetrable jargon too.

By the same criteria, a tree is structurally dense. In that case, not a host of rectangular signs but a host of leaves. We like trees. If we say we dislike the Shore picture, are we saying that we dislike the image as such, or are we disliking its content? Are we booing capitalism?

Martyn Lacey said...

Having spent time in America due to my father emigrating there I can truly say that's what I get from it. Convey is correct ...that is what this photo conveys to might interpret it differently, that's your prerogative and as I said you interpret the contents of the photo, or should I say we do as humans with that background knowledge to delve into.
I have no issue with the photo....just the 'structural density' pretentious explanation of an ordinary scene.

Alan Clark said...

Bruce, I think you are being rather small-minded here, and doing yourself no favours.
I can't see what is wrong with the phrase "structural density". The composition of the original photo is highly structured. Nothing wrong with saying that is there? The structure is dense, i.e. there is a lot of it, both on a large scale and on a smaller scale. Your photo of poles is also highly structured, but there are fewer shapes so it has a less dense look about it.
I'm not sure where the word "clutter" comes into this. The first photo isn't cluttered. It has structure and order. And so does your photo of the poles.


DavidM said...

Hello Martin,
I didn't intend to doubt your feelings. I'm sure that you are correct about it being a depiction of the results of untrammelled self-interest. I was trying to make a point about what is actually present in an image and what we, as viewers, bring to it. Clearly, you bring a great deal of experience. A good photographer (or a good sculptor, for instance) works on this, without our being conscious of it. The image call out to us. There is a technical term for: "The things we already know about what's in a photograph when we look at it." Studium*. I know it looks forbiddingly Latinate, but it was invented by a highly-educated Frenchman and we're now stuck with it. It's certainly shorter than ""
Here is an example of the difference between what we see and what we know.
Imagine we view an image of a man, nicely lit, well-composed and properly exposed. His back is to us so we cannot see his face and his hand is pointing at something outside the frame. If we are told that it is Nelson Mandela, a torrent of information flows out of memory and into our minds. No need to repeat Mandela's story here. If instead we're told it's Leon Trotsky, we will see it quite differently. And the same thing would happen if the caption were IK Brunel. In our minds, the finger would be pointing to entirely different things for each person. We might even venture to describe them. Nevertheless, the image would remain the same. It is our own creative viewing that has made the difference.
I happen to think that Mr Shore has made a good job of organising all these higgeldy-piggledy elements within the frame, as has our own dear Bruce with his own structurally dense pictures. Looking closely at the Shore image, I'd like to have seen the two parked cars on the left being fully visible and not confusing the vertical post in front of them, but this is nit-picking.
Some people apply the "would I hang it on my wall?" test to images, and I might not go as far as that. If it's in a book, however...

*Take heart. "Photography" must have seemed forbiddingly Hellenic when the word was invented. WHFT used "Sun pictures." "Camera" is Latin too. Mrs WHFT called them mousetraps. So we can easily get used to specialist or technical language, while remaining vigilant for meaningless jargon.
A more modern example: Photoshop uses terms like contiguous and contextual. How often do they occur in our daily chit-chat?

DavidM said...

My apologies. Spell-check changed your name in my previous post and I failed to notice it. Too full of my own efflorescent verbiage.

Bruce Robbins said...

Hi Alan,
Clutter probably isn't a good word when I think about it since it implies disorder. Perhaps "busy" is nearer the mark. A lot nearer than "structural density" anyway.

Bruce Robbins said...

Don't know about a Frenchman inventing the word "studium". It's been around since the 17th century and means seat of learning. Maybe he just offered up a new definition because it sounded more arty and impenetrable? "Prior knowledge" would have done the job very nicely with the benefit of needing no explanation. Plus, it's only one syllable more to grapple with. :)

DavidM said...

"Prior knowledge" might be fine in Scotland, but not in Paris. Why would he bother being impenetrable? He wasn't negotiating Brexit. Or arty? He wasn't an artist.
All words may acquire specialist meanings in different contexts.
"Bowl" means and open-topped container to all intelligent English-speaking lifeforms but within cricket, it means peculiar way of throwing a ball.
The photographic community seems to get itself in tangles over any kind of thinking about photography. Sooner or later, someone will say "Pseudo-intellectual" as though that was a valid rebuttal. I'm not entirely sure where this pseudo-Luddism comes from; it's mere abuse, not debate. I look forward to reading "pseudo-bourgeois" some fine day.
Having said that, the art world, including snapping, is plagued by some pretty dense jargon. Sometimes, I'm pretty sure, it's window dressing for (how shall I put it?) rubbish.
On other occasions, I think there is a genuine struggle to express difficult ideas. Ideally, I'd be listing examples in lengthy footnotes but it's late and I'm tired.

Rusty Rissole said...

Artspeak?Check out Victor Burgin,he's full of it and artspeak too.

Rusty Rissole said...

How correct you are to point out the lack of a predefined language for "artists".
As an ex art student of photography (artspeak version=still image),I was regularly
exposed to this quasi language in boring lectures usually examining example images
and using semiotics to read the hidden message within the image.It takes a whole heap
of steaming bovine excrement to understand a simple photo if you can stop talking
long enough to actually look at it...................

DavidM said...

Did you find that the hidden message was always anti-capitalist or pro-feminist or a special kind of anti-racism? It seemed odd to me that all images just happen to have meanings that coincide with the speaker's views. Surely there are photographers who like capitalism. Or who have their own ideas about a woman's place.
I don't wish to either attack or defend any viewpoint, but merely point out the remarkable unity of ideological stance among all the photographers who ever lived, when they are subjected to academic Critical Analysis.
Correction: I don't think I've ever seen political leanings attributed to Niepce's picture of his own back yard, but maybe I haven't looked hard enough. Perhaps pewter is exempt.
Everyone should read Victor Burgin for at least sixty seconds.