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An Aesthetic Realism Consideration of Photography
Conducted by Eli Siegel

ELI SIEGEL.  The question of emotion in photography is the question of emotion in art. One of the things I said years ago is that great poetry couldn't come without a great beginning emotion. Therefore, it is necessary to ask what is meant by "a great emotion"?  In a book which is still popular and which I used when I talked on photography in 1953, Trois Siecles d'Art aux Etats-Unis, there are two photographs which have caused a great emotion. One is Brady's "The Ruins of Richmond" (1865) and the other is "The Steerage" of Stieglitz. In the Brady, this mingling of pride and ruin--the standing up of the ruins and this gutting does do something to one. The fact that it is reproduced says something for it. Then there is "The Steerage" with somebody looking down at people who are sad. There is pride and humility there. 

The Steerage
Alfred Stieglitz
(1864-1946)
 
 

     ....We are going after the greatest emotion; and when photographs, like poems or plays or novels, live, it is attested to that someone had a great emotion. The purpose of photography is to create an emotion about the world through what has been carefully seen and selected. 

     Our object is to use other.people to have great emotions with, as Tristan used Isolde, pretty easily, to have a great emotion with. But our purpose is to have great emotion and in a way that shows our intent. That is, it is very easy to have an emotion when a girl is close to you, but it is sometimes hard to have an emotion if you are just walking on a street. The idea of great emotion, aesthetically speaking, is what we are looking for. There is a feeling, for example, that Wagner is greater than Victor Herbert because there is a greater emotion in Wagner than in Victor Herbert. That holds good for photography as far as I have seen it and if I am wrong that should be known. 

     The purpose of photography, as of all art, is to use a specific object to see the meaning of the world with. The world is repellent and sad, and it is also attractive, and that is what we feel in "The Ruins of Richmond" picture ....Whether Brady felt it transitorially or not, he decided to take this picture. He could have photographed something else. There were other things in Richmond. He could have found some colonel somewhere. Anyway, he photographed the ruins, and it has remained. It is as well known a picture of the Civil War as any. 


Ruins of Richmond
Matthew Brady
(1823-1896)


     The problem of all art is: What can we get emotion from? All art is a looking for that which can cause emotion; and if I were looking at a picture and the photographer had a large emotion and I missed it, I am unfortunate and unjust. It is not just the presence of opposites in a photograph--it is the opposites in an eternal hug. The hug is what is lacking in some pictures. The opposites are there but they could be more friendly. Aesthetic Realism says that "In reality opposites are one; art shows this." Well, the showing has to be showing....What are we looking for? What emotion are we capable of?