Still Photography

At the Quincy House Festival of the Arts

PHOTOGRAPHERS and their critics like to rank a photograph in the hierarchy of artistic quality--it's better than these, but not as good as these others. Most other people wish they could decide (and be right) that the photo they're looking at is good or bad. They shouldn't.

Society still isn't sure whether photography is a craft or an art. (It's both, like writing.) People think, in the plastic phrase of admen, that "photography is the wave of the future"; but they are generally unable to relate the airy abstract writings of Marshall McLuhan et al to themselves. Not only do people not know how photography works, but they don't know what it can do: most either think one needs a flash to take a picture out of the sun, or they think the camera is a magical mystery tool that might catch them doing anything anytime. This nervous generation of nonphotographers wants some "good, bad" standards to guide it through wearying indecision and to interpret the nonliteral into words.

The comparison of any two photographs on an absolute scale is practically impossible. Imagine, for example, an Ansel Adams photograph of the Rocky Mountains and a Life magazine shot of wounded soldiers in Vietnam. Even if someone comparing the two could decide that one better fulfills the photographer's purpose who could say which combination of subject matter and execution is ultimately more interesting?

Although the Quincy photographers allude lightly to the "Brandeis Exhibit," they would have done better to explain what they share with that exhibit--the theme, the American social landscape and the technique, 35mm camera usually with a 35mm lens. The point is to familiarize the timid viewer with what you are doing and to suggest what to look for.

Of the four, Gene Mazel is doing the most different things in his pictures. He recreates mood and motion in the dark gray tones and blur of a photograph of a truck on the highway. His camera stops things that we probably wouldn't see: two boys, one sunning his face with a reflecter, and a hotel on the beach. And he uses the camera to stop simple, clearly defined portraits so we can study them--a tree in a field, a man reading the paper on his bed. Some of his work is so abstract, however, that he has to draw a diagram to explain the lines of direction. But the purpose of a photograph ought to be clear. To be ambiguous, to suggest several ideas is fine; but a photo shouldn't be intentionally difficult.


THE message in John Levine's work is using the 35mm lens to record not just a situation, but the total environment which surrounds it. In one side of his picture of a support-the-war vendor you can see several blocks down the street. A picture of people at tea includes most of the room. His idea is a good one, and he uses it best in a photo of the light on a man eating an ice cream cone. His subject matter, however, isn't consistently interesting. So, sometimes when his pictures tell us, "Look, here's what it is and where it is," we just don't care.

Kevin Rafferty's pictures are few. His style is represented in the exhibit to show how different technique can be and how similar that of the three others is. His first nude close-up is unified, richly ambiguous, and full of fast-moving lines.

Joseph Seamans is a remarkable photographer, whose exhibit photos accomplish something that most photographers, including the best, are rarely able to do with their cameras. His photographs describe the relationship of the space around an object to that central object and all the other objects in the picture. In one picture of a girl looking a her hand, the walls on both sides of the room and the table at the bottom of the frame form a Renaissance perspective leaving the girl in a clearly defined central position with her hand sillouetted against the window. His technique isn't heavy-handed in the familiar style of the wide-angle N.Y. Times Magazine advertisement. It is subtle, but clear.