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In the Realm of Spirit

"Seaworks" by Paul Kenny & "Minor White: Manifestations of the Spirit" by Paul Martineau

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David Ward

David Ward

T-shirt winning landscape photographer, one time carpenter, full-time workshop leader and occasional author who does all his own decorating.

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When the photograph is a mirror of the man, and the man is a mirror of the world, then Spirit might take over.
Minor White

 

It is said that the eye has independently evolved between 50 and 100 times. Evolutionary biologists have long recognised that genetically diverse life forms can converge on the same solution to an opportunity presented by their environment. The case for convergent evolution has also been made for flight, fur and sex – sometimes referred to facetiously as the three ‘f’s. A similar convergence might be supposed for many kinds of art, with geographically and even philosophically disconnected artists independently arriving at similar stylistic approaches.

Of course, artists cannot claim to be as unaware of their fellows as the octopus is as ‘unaware’ of the land vertebrates’ convergent evolution of the eye. After all, artists live in a milieu of shared ideas - and in the Internet era these ideas can be rapidly disseminated. Artists with common aims or ideals will often group together into a ‘school’ (such as the Cubists or Impressionists),

But sometimes artists with different aims do independently produce superficially similar images. So it is with the some of the works of Minor White and Paul Kenny. There are, however, even for the most similar images, important differences in technique and approach. Most obviously, Kenny ‘creates’ his images - sculpting them from ‘ingredients’ specific to a location - whereas White worked with the found. Having said that, both are attempting to make the specific stand for the generic, the literal for the metaphorical. They are both striving to make photos that are allegorical and symbolic. It seems to me, that any passing stylistic or formal similarity is less relevant than this coincidentally shared intent. In their own ways, each photographer is attempting to appeal to a sense of spirit. For White, I believe, this is the spirit of Man and for Kenny the spirit of place. More on this anon…

seaworks-cover

The recent publication of Seaworks by Paul Kenny and Manifestations of the Spirit by Paul Martineau has prompted me to try and delineate the two artists points of contact. I’ll try to draw out the similarities between some of their images but also attempt to place their work within a larger historical and artistic context.



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  • John McMillan

    I always feel intellectually inadequate after reading a David essay. I’m going to re-read ‘What kind of camera is an a7R’ I felt I had a chance of understanding that. ;-)

    • Hi John,

      It wasn’t my intention to bamboozle! I hope the article wasn’t too difficult to read.

      David

      • John McMillan

        David, as eloquent as ever, it’s just I’m easily bamboozled, particularly at 9.00pm on a Friday after a considerable proportion of a bottle of red.

  • Robin Jones

    David,
    I have been stretched by this beyond the contrasting and comparison of 2 visionary artists. You start from the evolutionary biology position to explain convergence of ideas; or to be blunt to make clear both are original thinkers.

    I have been thinking of this convergence in terms of free will. Is my subconscious pre-programmed to make the picture long before I operate the shutter? More quantum uncertainty rather than biology.

    • Hi Robin,

      Current thinking amongst many behaviourists and psychologists is that we have little or no free will, that our so-called voluntary actions are simply reactions. So if you subscribe to that depressing theory then all photographs are pre-programmed before any of us press the shutter… That seems a step too far for me! But perhaps that’s just because I’m programmed to think I have free will ;-)

      • Robin Jones

        There is an interesting video you can find by searching “Morgan Freeman-Do I have free will?” I do not think all pictures are pre-programmed before we press the shutter, but equally my subconscious is drawing on all sorts of stored info and “rules” I am not consciously analysing, which leads to that moment when that little voice says “that’s the shot”. The interesting example given is of crowds moving through urban areas. Individuals feel they are moving and making judgements using their own free will. Modelling the whole crowd shows we are not exhibiting as much free will as we think.

        It is just interesting to think how physicists etc look at behaviour.

      • I struggled with this ‘fatalist’ approach for a while until I read more about modern physics and realised we are just macrocosmic effects of quantum probability fluctuations.

        • John McMillan

          This is now getting beyond a joke!! ;-)

        • Robin Jones

          That’s what I meant to say!

  • Robin Jones

    Sorry for taking the subject away from the purpose of the piece. I have been guilty of bypassing Kenny. So, inspired by you, I have been looking deeper into Kenny’s work (including his piece in Triplekite – Land Sea) and I have become a fan. Not all would I agree with; “If as an artist you rely on finding images out in the world in order to capture them, you become ruled by the law of diminishing returns”. I think I get his point from his own “journey”, but there is plenty left for most of us.

    Both books will go on the seasonal wish list.

    • I agree with his statement to a point but a small fraction of infinite possibilities is still infinite possibilities. Ultimately restrictions promote creativity too so it’s all win :-) You’ll enjoy the book definitely.

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