Impermanence, last chances, and the inevitability of loss

Like everything else, art has a lifespan.

Viewfinder Vol 1, Issue 7See all issuesSubscribe to Viewfinder

A special warm WELCOME to new subscribers: Colin (who writes PictureRoom), Julia (who will soon start Tetisheri), and Tish. And a huge THANK YOU to all subscribers, old and new, for reading and being a part of this community.

In this issue:

  • Matisse’s Cut-outs
  • B-side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography
  • Why did Walmart stop selling index cards?
  • Erwitt, Fink, Wessel, RIP
  • Project prompt: Capturing impermanence
  • Status: Dec 3-9, 2023

Hello from gray and damp Washington state. I read that we just had the shortest day / longest night of the year, so hang tight, things will get lighter (though not necessarily warmer) from here on out. And to the folks who celebrate it, I wish you a bright and meaningful Hanukkah.

Earlier this week I talked to a friend (and Viewfinder subscriber) about an art project he’s cooking up. This was terrific news as his art has been mostly blocked in recent years, by a job that demands a lot of travel and other competing life priorities. But he’s now thinking about art again (woot!).

He described his still-forming idea for his next project: creating 3-dimensional collages made out of scraps of paper, painted with watercolors. He described his intent to form the paper into loops and twists, not unlike a möbius strip, and then photograph them, using directional lighting (casting shadows) to show dimension.

I observed that there’s an interesting loop here where he’s starting with 2D materials → changing them into 3D constructions (themselves, loops) → and changing again as he flattens them with photography. Interesting stuff.

That conversation brought to mind the last body of work of Henri Matisse (whose name I couldn’t remember in the moment… I tend to mix up all those French painters with ‘M’ names).

The conversation also sparked the theme of this issue.

Matisse’s Cut-outs

A color photograph of Matisse's brightly colored collage featuring abstract forms of plant life.
Matisse’s The Parakeet and the Mermaid. 1952. Gouache on paper, cut and pasted, and charcoal on paper, 11′ 11/16″ x 25′ 2 9/16″ (337 x 768.5 cm). Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam.

In his final years, Matisse made large-scale collages with painted paper, designed with the same formal aspects of color and line that he used in his earlier paintings. With these ‘cut-outs’, scissors replaced the brush as his primary tool. While Googling to remember Matisse’s name, I came across a great MOMA article about a Matisse exhibit, and their efforts / decisions related to how to preserve the collages that are quickly degrading with age.

The impermanence of Matisse’s (gouache) paint varies by color. Oranges and reds fade faster than blues, for example, likely determined by the source of the pigment. Additionally, the substrate–the thing the pieces of paper were mounted on–contributes to the decay of the work. It’s full of acid, yellowing and making the art brittle and crack. Without preservation, the art will soon be lost forever.

And yet I thought, isn’t that inevitable? Regardless of the ministrations of MOMA’s gallerists, given enough time, the work will be lost. I don’t fault MOMA for trying to preserve it, but we (as a culture) should be prepared that in time, all these things will fade away. It might have been interesting (and I’m sure controversial) to instead allow the work to expire and exhibit it while it does.

Henri Matisse, The Cut-outs [MOMA]

B-side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography

Color photograph of photographer Elsa Dorfman (a still from the documentary film B-side).

Coincidentally and unexpectedly relatedly, I happened on this excellent Errol Morris documentary about Elsa Dorfman’s photography on (HBO) Max. It’s worth your time (76 minutes) – the world needs more documentaries like this one.

Dorfman used a very large, very rare Poloroid camera to make portraits both remarkable and banal. Her work was about ‘capturing the now’, creating a record, and preserving the moment. She said the true power of her portrait photographs is only known after the subject’s death.

And yet, interestingly, the material she worked with (Poloroid) is well known for its long-term instability, an idea she only began to grapple with in her later years. The photographs themselves have a finite and very short life.

I was struck by two connected themes: ‘impermanence’ and the purpose of a photograph. I share thoughts about these, about Poloroid, and about the documentary here:

Must watch: “The B-side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography” documentary

Why did Walmart stop selling index cards?

Color photograph of a stack of lined index cards.
Photo by Pixabay.

Related to the last, I came across this article written by Evan Patrick Maloney, another Substack writer and photographer. In the article, Maloney talks about grappling with the loss of their preferred print media (in this case, index cards) and share thoughts about how this loss connects them to the history of artists who similarly were forced to adapt when materials became unavailable.

While this article is a small example of it, photography has gone through huge changes over the last 25 years. The shift from analog to digital photography led to once perennial products being discontinued– previously common film stocks are unavailable or now ridiculously expensive. Cultural expectations of even what a photograph is have changed, too. We now have a generation of photographers who’ve never been in a darkroom or have even seen their photographs on paper.

Why Did Walmart Stop Selling Index Cards? [The SideWalk, on Substack]

Erwitt, Fink, Wessel, RIP

Black and white self-portrait photograph. The photographer's reflection is visible in Garry Winogrand's photo 'El Morocco, New York, 1955'. That photo features a man and woman in excited conversation. The woman has a huge smile.
Self portrait made in the MOMA, using Garry Winogrand’s photo ‘El Morocco, New York, 1955’ as a mirror©2009 Ron Johnson.

Photography greats Eliott Erwitt and Larry Fink died in November, 2023. A lot of folks have written about them in recent weeks, talking about their work and legacy and what they meant to street photography and to photography in general.

While thinking about how I could contribute to the conversation, I (belatedly) discovered the loss of another street photographer, Hank Wessel, my former teacher. If Erwitt and Fink are ‘big’ names in street photography, Wessel is a ‘small’ one, still one that should be remembered.

Hank taught us that street photography is the art of telling fleeting stories. The moment captured in a street photograph might have only persisted for a fraction of a second before it was gone forever. Street photography is literally the art of, “here one second, gone the next.” And most importantly, street photography creates sonder (one of my favorite words). [More]

Read the full article about street photography and Hank Wessel

-> Excellent article about the life and work of Eliott Erwitt  [Blind Magazine]

👋 Project prompt: Capturing impermanence

Keeping with the theme, your prompt this week is to create art about impermanence, about fugitivity (a word I just made up), about change, about the inevitability of loss.

Finally, you have a reason to paint that bowl of fruit. 🙂

There’s no one way to think about how transitory life is, and no one way to depict it in your art. Think about your choices–not just the content of your image, but how you photograph (or otherwise portray) it, what materials you use, the expectations of the viewer, and how these all intersect to create meaning in the work.

When you’re done, if you’d like, email an image of your art to share with this community. I’ll include a few of them in a future issue of Viewfinder.

Status update: Dec 3 – 9, 2023

Art making:

✅ Photographed 6 out of 7 days this week. Pretty good!

Favorite photo made the week:

A black and white photograph of a building. In the foreground, the seams in the sidewalk make an interesting pattern. In the sky behind the building, the contrail of an airplane is visible.
12-08-2023-4. ©2023 Ron Johnson

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Cover image: 12-10-2023-6 (Etching from a grave marker). ©2023 Ron Johnson.