Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Joe Klamar takes unconventional photos of Olympians; everyone loses their shit.

On Independence Day, photos were leaked from Joe Klamar's one-minute shoots with the US Olympic Team.  They bore a certain theme to which critics and the public have reacted somewhat strongly.  I read about this on the day, but gave myself a week so my thoughts could simmer and be laid out to dry before I picked them over and made them into new ones.  Here are a couple paradigm cases:

She looks like a human instead of a doll and I can see what went into the shot.  How dare he!

That tear in the paper is destroying America.  You can see the flag wilting over it, for fuck's sake!

He's been criticized for angles, focus, lens choice, lighting, showing the set, you name it.  The technical criticisms in and of themselves are perfectly legitimate, to my mind:  you're observing compositional flaws which remind you of rookie mistakes, and you wouldn't want it in your gallery because it looks sloppy to you.  Their inclusion is a deliberate act of juxtaposition, not an unintended oversight; but this stroke is itself an element that may or may not appeal to you.  It makes a statement, and you don't like it.  Cool.  This is what art criticism is all about - every artwork is a statement, an answer to the question of what statements are worth making, and that worthiness is exactly what you ought to be evaluating  From dance to music to video games, high art gives you a contemplative experience that enriches your life - you are meant to walk away with a sense of the profound.  This didn't do that for you, and you can articulate what you feel is missing, out of place, or handled poorly.  Fair play to you.

That's not the kind of reaction I'm talking about.

I'm talking about moral outrage, like the photographer who said, "This is an embarrassment to our country and my profession."  Even Slate wrote, "Klamar’s portfolio makes our athletes look silly and desperate - the wrinkled guts of a makeshift studio serves only to steal their spotlight."  Our Olympians are heroic figures, and these folks are furious that they're being shown in such a light.  Furious.  Over photographs.

I totally get anger when art comes at you from left field- I watched Match Point on the big screen opening night, and that movie made me livid.  I hated every single character, couldn't identify with anyone, and was uncomfortable for all but the first fifteen to twenty minutes.  At several points, I was physically quaking with rage, and I never got resolution for that.  But I spent considerable time thinking about what the film meant, which I admit I only did because of how much I like Woody Allen, and came away with a whole new view:  I realized that the movie had profoundly affected me in a way that movies rarely do, because the tension of tremendous injustice was never resolved and I didn't even feel sympathy for the victims.  I now cherish the experience, though I never want to repeat it.  This, coming from someone who has watched Requiem for a Dream like eight or ten times and loved every viewing, while every single person I've watched it with has never wanted to see it again.

I love Requiem because I'm rooting for the characters, and even though their lives are utterly destroyed, I feel catharsis because I've been in hopeless situations and experienced catastrophe.  The movie makes me feel less alone, and the deep well of sympathy I feel for the characters makes me feel like they can feel back.  Darren Aronofsky couldn't finish the book on his first read because it was "too real."  When a friend borrowed it to read on a ski trip, he came back with two things to say:  "It ruined my vacation," and, "We must make a movie out of this."  When Aronofsky charted the character arcs, he realized that they were upside-down:  the "hero" of the story was addiction.  In limerick form,

There once was a young man named Harry
Loved by mom, friend, and girl (who he'll marry)
But his epic addiction
Is the hero of this fiction
And it wins in the end, which is scary

Contemplating Klamar's photos, they certainly don't have the taste of a photo shoot - to me, they convey the sense of a documentary of a photo shoot.  I don't feel like I'm looking at the athletes, I feel like I'm there with them.  I feel like I know them better having seen them in this way.  I don't.  But I feel it just the same.  The off-kilter shots and exposed backgrounds have a sort of naked honesty to them that I simply don't get from your typical staged photo, because Klamar deliberately introduced elements of chaos.  I guess it's not for everybody; meh.  I mean, I'm not a big fan of the Mona Lisa.  I can recognize the skill that went into it, I just don't give a shit.  It doesn't compel me in any way.

Klamar's detractors, at least, are compelled to something.  I suppose that doesn't say anything on its own.  But from inside my own head, it looks like they're missing out on an enriching experience.

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