Pompidou Museum, Paris (Click to enlarge)
Why do some types of photographs appeal to us, and not others?
A week ago, Kirk Tuck, one of my favorite photo-bloggers, asked the question on his Flickr discussion group page, "Can someone show me, or explain to me, the appeal of landscape photography?". A lively discussion ensued.
Tuck also wrote that he had re-read Susan Sontag's "On Photography", and found it much more valuable on a second reading. I've always been impatient with deep philosophical writing about photography and the other arts; but Tuck is a sensible guy, so I thought I'd see what Sontag had to offer. The web site of the University of Minnesota Libraries reported that the book was on the shelf, so I walked over yesterday, hoping to check it out. Alas, it wasn't there, but near where it should have been was another book of presumably similar import (and greater readability), "Diana and Nikon", a collection of New Yorker essays by Janet Malcolm. The first few sentences of the first essay, "East and West", reframe Tuck's question in a startling manner:
"A woman of about fifty looks at a Marin exhibition in bewilderment. She turns to Steiglitz: 'Is there someone who can explain these pictures to me? I don't understand them at all. I want to know why they arouse no emotion in me.' Before Steiglitz realizes what he is saying, he replies, 'Can you tell me this: Why don't you give me an erection?'" (Quoted from Alfred Steiglitz: An American Seer by Dorothy Norman)
Malcolm goes on, in an amusing and enlightening essay, to compare and contrast the photographic influences and personalities of the rigid and constricted Steiglitz (New York: East) and the open, adventurous Edward Weston (California: West). According to Ben Maddow (a more reliable biographer of Weston, according to Malcolm, than Dorothy Norman was of Steiglitz) it seems that Weston hardly ever met a woman who didn't give him an erection; he had a large number of simultaneous affairs.
In other words, we're each turned on by different things, and explaining why would require a deeper understanding of developmental psychology, genetics, and environmental influences than contemporary science is capable of providing.