Thoughts from the Writings and Commentaries of John Rosenthal
If photography is about anything it is the deep surprise of living in the ordinary world. By virtue of walking through the fields and streets of this planet, focusing on the small and the unexpected, conferring attention on the helter-skelter juxtapositions of time and space, the photographer reminds us that the actual world is full of surprise, which is precisely what most people, imprisoned in habit and devoted to the familiar, tend to forget.
"Design as Meaning: An Artist's View of His World and His Art." NCArts


Photographs testify to the relentless effacements of time. I say "inevitably" because the photographer has little to say about it. No matter what the conceptual intent of the photographer - whether it be "serious" image-making or family snapshots - the camera renders, first and foremost, and with indisputable sufficiency, the details and lineaments of its subject: a smooth, fresh, laughing face, the sleek angularity of a new building, a dotted veil worn by a woman coming out of church. Years later - when the young face is wrinkled and the modern building looks corny and nobody wears veils anymore - these photographs tell a story. And who could have guessed what that story would be? The melancholy of Time inheres in photographs, in the resemblance that no longer resembles.

Ideas, from The National Humanities Center

Photographs console us in the face of death and oblivion - it's their fundamental gift; they testify to what has been and what will be no more, and this testimony matters. It matters because oblivion is actually more than we can handle; because we get old and lose faith in the quick and competent gods of our childhood; because, unless we deny what our eyes see or turn ourselves into machinery, the future of everything is full of loss and disappearing; because we not only forget but we're also forgotten. Of course photographs matter. They remind us of that important time before the future fell upon us like a roof - when we were still handsome and lively, when our parents loved each other, and said so, and our best friend, wearing a foolish red bandanna, hadn't died. Nor is there anything false or hollow about this testimony or the melancholy it evokes, because all of it - within the great paradoxical realm of the photograph - happens to be true. To be human is to remember. That's why people standing on the lawn of their burning homes - their children safe from harm - cry for their lost photographs.
"Mulberry Street: The Story of a Photograph," Five Points
A well-composed image will catch our attention because the eye finds a certain satisfaction in composure. But that is not enough. Good photographs are also disturbing, and inevitably remind us of what we have overlooked.
"Design as Meaning: An Artist's View of His World and His Art." NCArts

I’m not a documentary photographer. You need "objectivity" to make documentary photographs. But how can you possess objectivity if you seek something, need something? As I walked the streets of Manhattan in the early 70’s I’d say to myself, "What are you doing?" and I’d answer, "I’m documenting the city" which I realize now was both a stupid and hilarious answer. You can’t document a city like New York. You can document your friends’ lives or your neighborhood, but not the city. The city is an Idea, and the idea is pluralism, which always represents itself to consciousness, like democracy, as a constantly disappearing kind of beauty. Objectivity has nothing to do with it.

NPR Commentary

As a fledgling street photographer strolling up and down the streets of cities, I quickly became aware of Time and its erosive power. My early photographs focused almost exclusively on the signs of an older culture that was holding on for dear life. I'd photograph seltzer bottles in old wooden crates piled high in a truck, or the dusty windows of Jewish bread shops, or old men building February fires on the beaches of Coney Island. My interest was more than documentary, for it seemed to me that what was about to vanish was important and irreplaceable, and frankly, I wanted my photographs to offer, in some manner, the power of resuscitation. Actually, I still do, though I no longer believe that photographs can prevent the homely past from being plowed under; rather, I believe that photographs - especially good photographs that compel our interest - help us to remember; and even more importantly, they help us to decide what is worth remembering.
Exhibition lecture, National Humanities Center
When I taught English and talked about books all the time, people used to say that I was a verbal person. When I became a photographer and carried a camera around, people called me a visual person, implying, I suppose, that I needn't apologize if I didn't understand James Joyce. Either way I was insulted, for on the one hand it was okay for me to be blind, and on the other hand, it was okay to be stupid.
NPR Commentary
Around the age of thirty it struck me that a continuous self-focus was an act of gossip - about oneself, to oneself. Turning one's gaze within might be an effective antidote to the national faith in material redemption, but by itself this habit of inwardness would only encourage a chattering of selves. I wanted my attention elsewhere. Photography was perfect. Its beginning entails the very discovery of elsewhere, and where it lies.
"Insisting on Plenitude." ARTVU: Contemporary Southeastern Visual Arts

Unfortunately, art in America has become an elitist preserve. This is partly the fault of a critical establishment which abandoned the enduring search for a common language - the language of love and loss and sorrow and remembrance - and began to speak, almost exclusively, in a specialized and opaque language that few can understand. I mean, who dares to define the ironies of postmodernism? Who cares? I know of very few writers, historians, theologians or scientists, who offer the slightest nod to the so-called "art world" - which now defines itself by a handful of art stars (exciting, savvy, marketable) who, unlike their literary counterparts (Dylan, DeLillo), speak primarily to a small New York audience. This audience hungers for an acceptable avant-garde they can take for granted, an "edginess" that shocks for a moment or two. Outside of this extroverted realm in which celebrity has been converted into meaning, in which the quiet, free-standing work of art is given little respect, apostate visual artists find themselves longing for an absent American discourse.
NPR Commentary
Nowadays, of course, it’s standard behavior for lots of people to photograph anything that is considered unusual or - as it used to be said - out of the ordinary. Photographs help us to fortify our memory and reconstruct the narrative of our personal adventures. They’re a way of proving to ourselves, especially when we’re feeling dull, that we’ve led interesting lives and have always been surrounded by people who cared for us. They’re also a way of keeping at bay the perception that life is fleeting and we can’t hold onto the past.
NPR Commentary
One of the ongoing projects of modern art, and probably its most serious, is to tell what it's really like to be living here now - not what it's like on television or in advertisements, not what it's like to be a cohort, but what it's like to be a man or a woman in that unique body that's always living an odd life. Against the forces of false persuasion the artist offers an undeniable sort of truth, stated in simple human terms, minus the jargon and the emblems of expertise and false authority. It's always a voice and the voice always says: this is how it is for me, and I hope you understand.
NPR Commentary
No matter how brilliantly Science has understood the mechanics of the material world, it is a remarkably ineffective tool for deciphering the mysteries of human misery. Even with thousands of "experts" telling us what's wrong, and measuring it, self-knowledge is on the decline. In America, the most technologically advanced country on earth, one has to be oblivious not to hear a din of sorrow and private disappointment just below the gabble of our TV’s and the hum of our personal computers. Where is the expertise that can explain us to ourselves? The scientific method is inadequate for such revelations. No matter how many developmental models we formulate to explain why and when we do things, no matter how extensive the revealed neurochemical connections, psycho-biology must always collaborate with human freedom - the curse of dealing with a creature for whom visual symbols, art and language, are a defining characteristic. Such a collaboration entails nothing less than a deeper respect for the singularity of our lives, a recognition of those immensely specific contingencies that belong only to our own individual experience. In other words, the business of art - the inner gaze, and those strategies for sharpening its clarity. Who else but the artist, insisting upon the primacy of individual experience, can reclaim the private territory ceded to experts - to those well-meaning and well-socialized professionals who created the idea of normal people just when the corporations needed a work force?
Newsletter, Institute of the Arts, Duke University
One of the ongoing projects of modern art, and probably its most serious, is to tell what it's really like to be living here now - not what it's like on television or in advertisements, not what it's like to be a cohort, but what it's like to be a man or a woman in that unique body that's always living an odd life. Against the forces of false persuasion the artist offers an undeniable sort of truth, stated in simple human terms, minus the jargon and the emblems of expertise and false authority. It's always a voice and the voice always says: this is how it is for me, and I hope you understand.
NPR Commentary
Some photographs are tricky. We see in them what we want to see, what we are conditioned to see. Adamantly they refuse to yield their own secrets. Looking at World War II photographs of wounded soldiers, one American, one German, our hearts go out to the American who was wounded in defense of freedom. The German's wounds don't encourage our sympathy. Lacking a deeper knowledge of the two soldiers, a knowledge only words could impart, our response is shaped by the tendentious constraints of patriotism. If the American is a psychopath, the German a saint, we'll never know. Like the wings of birds fluttering against closed windows, photographs brush vainly against the surface of things.
"On Photographing The Homeless," City Gallery of Contemporary Art
Those who descry too much thinking in art are all in favor of - as I've heard it said - abandoning the self to the self. This implies, however, that our selves are finished and complete - whereas I discover, every time I pick up my camera that it's the act of taking pictures which shapes and creates my self, and not the other way around.
NPR Commentary
What was rarely mentioned in the NEA controversy was something that used to be taken for granted by advocates of free expression, namely, that government sponsorship of the arts is the most effective means ever devised for undermining artistic freedom. It doesn't take a lot of brains to figure out that art is bound to become less political if it's politicians who are financing the art. Truth and gratitude have rarely lived side by side, and if you doubt that, then consider the chilling statistic that in the last 25 years only 20 grants out of 80,000 have been controversial, a statistic usually cited to show that art and federal money are comfortable bed-fellows, but which really proves just the opposite: that NEA funding has reshaped the meaning of art in America by rewarding primarily those artists who didn't upset the status quo, who made sure that their political disgust rarely made it past the "conceptual" stage, who learned, in other words, to domesticate themselves in order to receive the legitimacy that recognition of any kind brings.
NPR Commentary
As a photographer Ansel Adams saw the natural world simultaneously as itself and as an art object. The realized perfection of many of his images derives from an abstract tendency working itself out in the dimensions of a large, vibrant terrain. This is a very different matter from the mild geometry of brick and shadow or the interminable search for "texture." In his best photographs, landscape and season, earth and light, are revealed in a grand mutuality - a moment so precisely visualized in tone and composition as to be mathematical, and yet so revelatory of earthly beauty as to be something else entirely.
"Ansel Adams at the National Gallery." Spectator Magazine
When I look at photographs by Ansel Adams, I sometimes find myself wondering if Adams is celebrating the natural beauty of creation or simply the beauty preserved in our great national wilderness parks. Are his photographs about life or about zoning laws? Of course one might accuse me of asking dreary questions - but I don't think so. The act of cropping a photograph, which is a fundamental act of photography, is at heart a moral decision. In our landscapes, have we cropped out the tourists and the garbage in order to suggest 19th century America (which is to say, nostalgia), or have we cropped out what is truly irrelevant to our intentions as an artist? What photographers leave out is just as important as what they leave in.
NPR Commentary

It's worth remembering that whether it is Percy Shelley who finds in the "great Mountain" of Mont Blanc "a voice to repeal large codes of fraud and woe," or Ansel Adams imaging the heroic interplay of the elements in Yosemite, the artist who pursues sublimity has separated himself from that world-mocking cynicism which has robbed so many contemporary artists of their right to be serious, and reduced so much of current artistic activity to the sort of joking around best understood by graduate students.

"Ansel Adams at the National Gallery." Spectator Magazine
The paradox of the sublime in art, which seems at first glance to be an elitist notion, is that the heights sought and scaled serve as a metaphor for the aspirations of mankind, all men and women; whereas the pop perspective, in its attempt to limit meaning to the "now" and "happening" culture, to a reductive iconography of the present tense, tends to establish an elite of ironists who spend most of their time sending signals to each other. The assumption that Adams and his kind are the only "real" photographers usually indicates an aversion to the dissonant and playful spirit of modern art, whereas a disrespect for Adams usually accompanies the notion that life has become fatally mediocre.
"Ansel Adams at the National Gallery." Spectator Magazine
A photograph is both a way of seeing and a way of remembering. A problem arises, however, when we lose touch with the immediacy of our own seeing and begin to rely on the image, the photograph, to see the world for us. At the center of any photograph is the sheer cold weight of mentality, and yet how many of us would rather stay within the precincts of this mentality than experience the active sensuality of the world itself, the whirling and jumping world which our photographs, only in a timorous way, replicate. How many of us cannot see what is in front of us until we have photographed it, and then, with our cameras in our hands, haven't we let something get away?
NPR Commentary

I used to think that photographs were "composed." This made photography sound very unexuberant, as if it was primarily a deliberate act. Such a notion suggests that a photographer stands in front of an inviting landscape, arranges a composition, and then takes the picture. And it's true that many photographers work that way. Of course, if photographs can be composed, then there must be rules of composition, such as: the subject should never be dead center. But why not? I used to think you could learn how to be a photographer by learning the rules of composition and how to use a camera. Now I think just the opposite: if you have to learn rules, then it's already too late. The elements of a design can make a photograph bearable and inoffensive, but they will not make a photograph compelling. We are compelled by photographs which, within the limits of an objectively appropriate form, manage to offer us something that touches on authentic concerns - our happiness or unhappiness, our fidelities, our modern war with perplexity. The balance between design and content must be there because design by itself is not interesting and pure content is merely assertive.

"Design as Meaning: An Artist's View of His World and His Art." NCArts
A photograph stops the world from moving and deprives it of that lively context which is the world and in which all things seem okay as long as they take place under a blue sky with children running around....
"On Photographing The Homeless," City Gallery of Contemporary Art

A question that doesn't get asked is : If there is a beautiful side to misery, then do we want to do without misery? Frequently, photography represents the misery of the world purified of its disturbing elements, which is to say, the surface of misery without the political reasons why misery exists, and without the general human context in which misery keeps occurring.

"On Photographing The Homeless," City Gallery of Contemporary Art
The fact is, most photographs, without intending to, promote reality - they say, among other things, isn't the world a complicated place? There's us and there's them and there's room for all of us! They say: Isn't it sad what some people are driven to, but isn't it amazing how even the most downtrodden can find something to cheer about? Most photographs dignify the worst situations by revealing courage in adversity, a silent and thoughtful moment in the heart of chaos. But is this information appropriate? Can the poor and the homeless use our admiration for the lines on their face? Our respect for the silent moments in which, like ourselves, they gaze thoughtfully out of windows? In the long run, most photographs sentimentalize their subject by assuring us that poverty can be redeemed by art - which it can't - and by affirming the interesting existence of people who are not like us. But the poor are not like us. They are us. And only the very very best photographs teach us that lesson.
"On Photographing The Homeless," City Gallery of Contemporary Art
 
 
The native realism of the camera seems to require that a photographer have more faith than others in "things," in landscape, in the capacity of "surface" to reveal itself while also containing a certain latency for symbol.
Catalogue essay for "The Psychological Landscape"
The point is that good photographs frequently respect the world-as-landscape. And this is no small matter, particularly in the so-called postmodernist period where urban consciousness generally rules against landscape as a foreign territory and against respect as a mode of perception too short on irony. The loss is, regrettably, large, as it always is whenever the concrete loses ground to the abstract. The subject of a photograph shifts from the bright landscape of the real world to a murky "inner" landscape, and what once determined the worth of an image - the elusive and compelling and almost measurable tension between the thing itself and its shape as metaphor - gives way to the indefinite process of a psychology claiming whatever it wants.
Catalogue essay for "The Psychological Landscape"

Sometimes it’s hard not to think of photography as an act of aggression. You’re stopping people from the flow of their lives, you’re cropping them from the space in which they live and have their meaning, you’re juxtaposing them to something they didn’t know they were next to. You’re objectifying them according to your terms, not theirs - for who would choose to be objectified? It’s very complicated, but the fact is, most photographs reduce us. It’s very easy to photograph a man and then later say, "This man represents the homeless." Too easy.

"The Ethics of Photography," Interview with John Rosenthal
by Michael Read, Coraddi.

The modern artist is not only aware of the contours of our general deprivation, and willing, like everybody else, to yearn for what is missing, but unlike everybody else, he insists that this emptiness, this sense of unexpected vacancy, is the very condition of creativity. Nor of all the consolations offered to those engaged in art is there any one greater than that of being able to commit oneself to a meaning which can be found exclusively in the heart of absence. Childlike, and without a proper dignity, the artist insists upon the insubstantial, on the character of metaphor to provide what existence falls so modestly short of: sufficiency, fullness, plenitude. Of course to the man of substance this is all air - plenitude consisting for him of nothing more than a large unself-conscious dose of increase. The failure is one of comprehension: not to understand the human character of air.
"Insisting on Plenitude." ARTVU: Contemporary Southeastern Visual Arts


Atget was seventy when he died, still a photographer. Did he too believe, as he made his solitary way through the streets of pre-industrial Paris, that "everything had changed"? Atget's early twentieth-century Paris was still a city full of dusty light and robust trees and little gardens and cobblestone courtyards and medieval ornamentation. And yet, looking at Atget’s photographs, it seems clear to me that Atget must have known that something was coming; and he must have known - he, who fell in love with the tender, specific beauties of an ancient city - that this something would change everything.

"Mulberry Street: The Story of a Photograph," Five Points
 
Atget’s photographs were, at their deepest level, a response to the modern condition of impermanence. Why else spend so much time compiling a visual record of all those timeworn things that would soon disappear - signs of intimate life whose import wouldn't be deciphered until it was too late? I thought of those little Parisian vistas that didn't open up into any sort of grandeur; of the chipped and faded paint on the wooden facade of a tavern - a row of wine bottles in the window above three small curtains; the tilting city shacks with cracked masonry; the patchwork skylines of unremarkable neighborhoods; wooden wagons parked at the end of cobblestone alleys, hand-crafted stair railings. Atget must have known that if he didn't hurry, if he didn't hit the streets before dawn, Old Paris and its ancient neighborhood intimacies would be gone, along with the bricabrac dealers, the flower-sellers, the fried fish shops, and the small craftsmen. He must have heard the rushing of time; and it must have sounded like the beginning of a stampede.
"Mulberry Street: The Story of a Photograph," Five Points

Sometimes a photograph offers the photographer a gift he didn't expect, a marvelous detail - what the eye longing for meaning sees unconsciously, and includes. How wonderful it is that the decision to take a photograph is mysterious - giving us, like love, more than we bargained for.

"Design as Meaning: An Artist's View of His World and His Art." NCArts

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