a node at the edge  

September 26, 2002
ConnectingSentimental Reasons

Jonathon Delacour writes about sentiment and freshman photographers:

    When I taught photography, the photographs taken by first year students were—with very few exceptions—sentimental clichés.

As an attempt to counter this, Jonathon and the other photography department instructors posted a notice that banned certain subjects in photographs the students submitted, such as closeups of bark on tree trunks, toddlers with ice cream smeared on their faces, and nudes. Denied their usual subjects, the students were then forced to use their own imagination.

Sentimentality is more than dusty red velvet boxes and a baby's lock of hair pressed between the pages of a book. At its worst, it is both a fake and a fraud, an attempt to package a thought, memory, or mood into something palatable to the general populace.

Ansel Adams was a master of the photographic technique, and generally held to be one of the best "nature" photographers of all time. Yet, lately, I'm beginning to understand Jonathon's intense dislike of Adams' work. When I view Adam's photograph of Canyon de Chelly, I see technique and perspective, but the photo is flat, emotionless, safely consumable. It completely lacks respect for the spirituality of the location.

It is a photograph you can hang at McDonald's.

Yet when Nat King Cole sings "I love you for sentimental reasons", he isn't singing about clichés and pop art. The song reflects the simple, honest love of one person for another, and the hope of shared memories in the future. This is the sentimentality that Loren Webster writes about:

    Personally, I worry about friends who aren’t sentimental about their childhood, their children’s childhood, or their grandchildren. You’re supposed to be sentimental about these things, for God’s sake. Does anyone really think you’re supposed to be totally objective about your children? And grandchildren? You’d have to be a real Scrooge not to occasionally indulge the temptation to spoil grandchildren, wouldn’t you?

The tendency in art in the past was to paint the family, the ultimate symbol of life, in an ideal light: (One) Mother always smiling, (One) Father always strong, and the children always bright and sunny. A hopefully impossible vision for any family to meet. Today's artist, in a burst of artistic integrity and honesty rejects this bland rosiness, and paints the family in the palette's darkest shades -- Father missing, Mother disturbed, Mother's boyfriend abusive, drunk, and unemployed. And don't even ask about the kids.

Yet, the pictures we paint of the darkness of family life are just as much a lie, a characterization as the pictures we paint of the positive -- it is the worst form of sentimentality, that which is fraudulent and false and focused on making the work consumable, at least by today's standards.

The reality is that the best of families have a little horror in them, and the worst have a little hope. Scratch life and you'll find this everywhere.

I thought about this as I walked along a trail in Powder Valley today, camera in hand. I thought about how difficult it was for me to pick a good shot because it seemed as if I was surrounded by great shots. As a little experiment, I deliberately looked for bad shots, and when I found a good candidate, I would take a photograph of it, and of the scene directly opposite. What an eye opening and exciting experience this was -- and disruptive.

What I want from my pictures, and my writing, is to somehow pull in my audience while simultaneously pushing them away. Sentimental? Yes. Non-sentimental? Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.

Today's photographs:

Bent tree

Path 19

Path 20

And sorry, Jonathon, but I couldn't pass up this bark closeup. I think you'll find, though, that it is anything but ordinary.

Path 21

Posted by Bb at September 26, 2002 11:15 PM

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Strangely enough, two of my all-time favorite televison shows are Married With Children, because it broke all the rules and showed a totally dysfunctional family that somehow managed to love each other whenever it came right down to it, and Wonder Years, which reminded me an awful lot of To Kill a Mockingbird.

As you correctly point out, both were sentimental in their own way, but both also managed to convey a "truth" that hadn't yet been stereotyped and robbed of its originality and power to make the viewer see a "truth," whether the truth was that not all families are "ideal" families or that our childhood, as ordinary as it may have been, still has a sense of "wonder" about it.

Posted by: Loren on September 27, 2002 01:07 AM

I wonder if any of Jonathon's students have ever chafed against his code of photographic conduct, and went ahead to shoot these off-limit subjects anyway. The better artists are ones that tend to find a way of chucking the rules, or at the very least a loophole in them.

Posted by: Kafkaesquí on September 27, 2002 06:20 AM

"What I want from my pictures, and my writing, is to somehow pull in my audience while simultaneously pushing them away."

That's it in a nutshell, Bb: the tension that is, for me, the essence of so much great art.

Kafkaesqui, we only had the "rule" in place for a semester. And students did go back to photographing the "banned" subjects. But I don't recall any truly memorable photographs. In my experience, the best artists are the ones who manage to find freedom within the most severe constraints. As the Japanese say: "The further you travel along a narrow path, the wider it becomes."

Posted by: on September 27, 2002 09:04 AM

Loren, I'm finding much of this out. I started writing about my childhood experiences, and either the work ended up being 'sweet', or in one's face. I pulled a posting yesterday that contained one of my stories, primarily because it was 'flat' -- there was more to this than the event implied.

I have to learn how to combine the views into something multi-dimensional. This is not going to be easy.

Jonathon, I feel as if I've now returned to ground zero, in writing and photography. I hope everyone will be patient as I bump about in confusion for a time (perhaps longish time) with both.

Posted by: Shelley aka Bb on September 27, 2002 10:30 AM

I read that original post that was pulled and tried to write a comment three different times, but couldn't put any adequate response into words.

It was a telling experience, but one that was obviously difficult to put into words.

The F- word came to mind, though.

Posted by: Loren on September 27, 2002 11:52 AM

I debated two days about publishing that little essay, Loren. I think there is a limitation to the type of material you can put into a weblog. The problem, lately, is that everything I want to write about seems to fall out of weblogging scope.

My weblog doesn't fit me lately. Maybe I should go back to writing about technology. Or cats.

Posted by: Shelley aka Bb on September 27, 2002 03:20 PM

I was beginning to feel that my site, too, lacked focus. One of the reasons I'm moving sites is so I can set up three different areas, one for lit., one for politics and environment, and one for personal reminisces. That way people can choose what they want to read.

Personally, I think it's important for people to read that kind of thing so that they understand what some people have gone through and managed to transcend, though I understand why you might not want to include it here.

"Both 2 and beyond Binary" does a good job of combining these elements.

Posted by: Loren on September 27, 2002 03:39 PM

I would be interested in hearing what you think the limitation is, Bb. Not because I don't believe you; just because I'm (in my ex-comp-lit way) curious about the boundaries between media.

Posted by: Dorothea Salo on September 27, 2002 08:11 PM

Shelly, it seems as though the term "sentimental" here is being used synonymously with "cliched," and this is something of a reduction of the rich and resonant ride the term has had, especially as it developed in the German idealists. For Schiller and that ilk, "sentimental" contained the sense of, essentially, self-consciousness, reflexiveness - i.e., something well beyond mere cliche. This may be what Ward has been trying to get to in some of his ruminations on the word - the sense that it is getting bashed around a bit by being treated as if it can only equate to a sort of stupified poster of a feeling.

Posted by: tom matrullo on September 27, 2002 08:29 PM

I think it's more me than the media, Dorothea. Odd woman out.

Posted by: Shelley aka Bb on September 27, 2002 08:32 PM

"Odd woman out" - against which particular groupthink sense of normal Shelley? I love the way blogs mix different aspects of people's character - it's what makes them so interesting. The main reason I don't use aggregators is that they deconstruct this tapestry and reduce blogs to their parts (the whole being greater than the sum of)

Similarly (as Loren knows from a previous "conversation") I believe that attempts to categorise posts are usually flawed and add minimal value to the reader.

Do keep going with the "Odd" mix - I love it!

Posted by: Euan on September 27, 2002 11:00 PM

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