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wowe - Last of the Straight Shooters

The way I look at it...well, the way I look at it is a lot like the way wowe (Wolfgang Wesener) looks at it. Straight up with a twist. wowe is a photographic realist. He takes it as it is, as it comes, as a witness.

wowe and I both wear glasses. I think he wears his to see, I just wear them to read. Maybe we change lenses sometimes. But for people like us lenses are to see better the way it really is. And yet we are not Geordi La Forge on Start Trek: The Next Generation, viewing the world through a computer interface. We are not cyborg visionaries, but old fashioned observers. wowe practices naturalism, and I preach it, and maybe it’s the last stand.

I was talking the other night with a couple of other generations about writing, and how those of us who learned on a typewriter write differently from those who learned on a computer. I remember when cut and paste was literally cut and paste, and so my process developed a style that was perhaps more finished when it first hit the page. A paper page. That may mean that the process is more internal. I don’t think it means it’s better. But some people might think so. Work is a habit. It’s like Hitchcock editing his films in the camera.

We always have to think about what new media are doing to us. There are always new tools but they’re not always better. From my point of view Microsoft Word gets worse and worse as they improve it. And when your car drives into a river, you may regret the power windows.
What wowe is good at, what he does for a living, is seeing, seeing the world through the people in it. He captures what and how he sees people for connoisseurs of perception and personality. His is a classical practice, portraiture, and it is increasingly out of step with photo- graphic fashions, and fashion is a powerful force in photography, even when it’s not fashion photography. Trends dominate in photography the way they do in art or popular music. This year the music players have gone back to tube amplifiers and hollow body guitars, the artists have gone back to Arte Povera materials, like string, cardboard and concrete, but photographers, for the most part, have gone theoretically forward into post-produced photography where the image from the camera is finished in the computer. They are still, it would seem, trying to compete with painting by producing images that are beyond reality. They may be surreal, or hyperreal or just fake real, like the graphically cosmetized covers of fashion magazines.

This week someone asked me what I thought was exciting in photography now. I couldn’t think of anything. I think the first thing I said was “Well, I like to see Steven Meisel’s fashion pictures in Vogue Italia.” When I start to think about art photography I want to stop. For the last few years I have found the fashion factor, the following of trends. Andreas Gursky has certainly taken some memorable photographs, but he’s an example of that common phenomenon of a good artist being a terrible example. At art fairs it seems that every tenth work is a faux Gursky. There are also quite a lot of School of Crewdson, School of Ruff, School of Golden, School of Becher.

But clearly the computers have taken over photography. It’s not just the move to digital, which even traditionalists like Eggleston have flirted with, it is about post-production taking over. We haven’t seen a wrinkle or a blemish on a magazine cover in a decade. Fashion photography and art photography have gone all cinematic on us. They are making stills from imaginary movies and the movies tend to be surrealist affairs with lots of smoke and mir- rors, unnatural colors, fictional characters and bluescreenish environments. Photography today is assemblage, set up situations, visual jokes. Psychologically loaded. Unsubtle.
I get a feeling similar to what I experience when I see a couple getting physical in public, the situation where you want to yell: “Get a room!” Except when I see these photographs I want to say, “Make a movie!” Today fashion photography is all Guy Bourdin and Helmut Newton via Photoshop. But without the live nature of the shoot the work is cold, flat and dead. It purports to be more than what we find in the natural human world, but more often it’s less. Like Tallulah Bankhead said at the theater, “There’s less to this than meets the eye.”

The more I thought about it the more I realized that I don’t go to photography for excite- ment. I never really did, except maybe when I looked at pictures of naked girls as an adolescent. I think I go to photography for contemplation, for allowing my eye to be bor- rowed by another so that I might enjoy the vision of someone who has really developed it.

wowe photographs the old fashioned way. He shoots what’s there. What he sees is what you get. He doesn’t play the director. He doesn’t collage or paint, banish wrinkles or rewrite torsos. He seeks out the subject, selects a situation and interacts with his sitters conversationally to achieve a classical portrait. It’s quite human. It’s quite ordinary in a way. What’s extraordinary about the picture is very subtle. It’s nuance. It’s a presence. If you could describe it immediately it would be a failure, because what makes wowe’s portraits strong is not that they are iconic. They are, in fact, almost the opposite. They are cryptic.

Great portrait photographers are collaborators. They take something from their subject, from their history, their physique or their aura, and turn it back on them. The portrait becomes a sort of conversation. It might involve actual conversation, or even a sort of interview, where the photographer positions the subject inside his context. Studio photo- graphers tend to have a routine or formula, but wowe is an improviser, altering his approach to suit his subject. In his process he deploys skills that may be culturally endangered: reading the language of human form, capturing the ephemeral gesture, and deciphering the map of lines on a face.

wowe’s portraits are in the classical mode—simple, straightforward meditations on how personality reveals itself in physiognomy, costume, posture, gesture, and expression. wowe’s mission is the capture of tellingly characteristic looks and poses; he watches, waits and seizes on the moments in his subjects’ lives where they reveal their minds. He finds the phys- ical manifestations of the psychic, what poker players call “the tell,” that cock of the head, or interaction of the arms that signal the silent poetry of human being.

I have been photographed by wowe several times. He likes to revisit his subjects, illustrating personal history, capturing change and permanence simultaneously. Serial portraiture is a way of getting at essence. It was actually a photograph by wowe that disturbed me and first made me feel old. I wasn’t old, and today I can barely see what bothered me, but I can see that it was the directness of the shot, the lack of visual euphemism that gave me that feeling. I was talking to another portrait photographer, Michael Halsband, yesterday and he said that the thing about a portrait is that it tends to improve with the subject’s decline —in the portrait they look better and better.

Each time I was photographed by wowe, who is an old friend, there was something slightly awkward about it. I know wowe quite well and he knows me, so that’s not it. It might seem to have something to do with shyness, or some sort of diffidence. But then he can also be quietly insistent and intense. This sort of abstract lacuna is not easy to describe. I think it’s because he’s thinking, and thinking fast. He’s here and elsewhere in the moments before the shutter clicks.

It definitely comes from his personality, which is unusual and not easy to pin down. He’s a sort of sly humorist. You can tell from the way he’s dressed, how do Americans put it? “You’re not from around here, are you?” I think that by presenting himself as a problem to be solved, as a bit of an anomaly, he piques the interest of his subject. Who is this guy and what does he want? What is he trying to do with me? wowe made a brilliant portrait of my seven-year-old son by being adult and firm with him and eliciting a state of quiet resistance that shook him out of his normal silliness in the face of a lens.

There is a sense of moment in each portrait. This is a point in time from which context radiates. A conversation can be reckoned from eye-lines and attitudes. Sometimes there is a convention in play, a formality of the sort one would find in a 19th century bust. But a formal pose is not unrealistic and it can be as revealing as something that would be con- sidered candid. This is where the sitter sums himself up. We have been posing our whole lives, and if we are any good at life we are good at posing. wowe knows how to induce the heroic moment, and how to make eye contact that conveys the electricity of a look that sees, and a look that seems to see right through.

This is a practice that can be learned but can’t be taught, a practice that can’t be improved or replaced.