Obsession, art and photography

“Without obsession, life is nothing.” John Waters

I recently reread a short story by one of my all time favourite authors, Italo Calvino. The story, from his collection ‘Difficult Loves’, is called ‘The adventure of a photographer’ and it triggered a thought about the importance – or otherwise – of obsession and art; more precisely, about its relationship with photography.

The Calvino Story

In the Calvino story, the protagonist, Antonino Paraggi, is a bachelor who initially scorns photography and to an extent, relationships. Yet ultimately he becomes so consumed with capturing life through photographs that he hurtles towards obsession if not virtual insanity. Along the way he alienates the girl who apparently loves him, photographs her every waking – and sleeping – moment, often without her knowledge or consent. When she inevitably leaves him, Paraggi captures images of where she was or would be in the apartment they shared. He then decides to tear up photos of the girl and photographs the fragments against a background of newspaper reportage images. Finally:

“…Antonino realized that photographing photographs was the only course he had left, or rather, the true course he had obscurely sought all this time.”

Clearly Antonino had reached the zenith of his obsession.

Maybe it’s time to take a closer look at the word and its shades of meaning.

Obsession and its synonyms

So just what is obsession, an obsession? A fixation, consuming passion, mania, compulsion, preoccupation, addiction are just some of the synonyms on offer. In a brief online exchange about the subject with Wayne Ford –  somebody whose opinion and view I value – he held that there’s a fine line between obsession and simply returning to a theme again and again. Perhaps, but I suspect that we’re talking degree.

John Updike , author and art critic, being quoted about J. D. Salinger had this to say:

“The refusal to rest content, the willingness to risk excess on behalf of one’s obsessions, is what distinguishes artists from entertainers, and what makes some artists adventurers on behalf of us all.”

Clearly there’s much evidence of idées fixes strongly at work in the arts in general.

Yves Klein and the colour blue for instance, no disputing the degree of ‘obsession’ there; it was virtually absolute.

IKB 191,Yves Klein, 1962

And what of Marcel Duchamp and chess? Georgia O’Keefe and her wrestling with how to represent the desert? Francis Bacon with lost love? Warhol and Christianity, death and the cult of celebrity? Surely these were more – much more – than just revisiting themes.

Last Supper, Andy Warhol

More important, perhaps, is the question whether or not these obsessions were, are or can be instrumental in propelling artists to greatness, and to the attention of crtitics, collectors and curators.

The artist Lucian Freud holds that the painter’s obsession with his subject is all that he needs to drive him to work. While novelist Norman Mailer believes that obsession is a waste of human activity in which you return again and again to the same question but never get an answer. But surely what you do get is a series of answers which, in their own right, are of merit.

Obsession in photography

What of obsession’s role in photography and with photographers?

Diane Arbus in her early years as a professional fashion and celebrity-portrait photographer was rather less than obsessive about those fields. But then she turned her attention to human oddities, the ‘opaque dignity of victims’ as Susan Sontag described it. Norman Mailer, in his usual pugnacious fashion, put it another way in 1971, the year Arbus died: “Giving a camera to Diane Arbus is like putting a live grenade in the hands of a child.”

Perhaps he was influenced by this:

Child with a toy hand grenade, Diane Arbus, 1962

The question begged is: was Arbus’s preoccupation an obsession or a theme?

In 1934 the Russian artist and photographer Alexander Rodchenko wrote: ”I want to take some quite incredible photographs that have never been taken before… pictures which are simple and complex at the same time, which will amaze and overwhelm people. I must achieve this so that photography can begin to be considered a form of art.” Which led him to his increasing obsession with severe angles.  He would shoot dramatically from below or above or skew the angles of buildings to the point where they would almost look like they were running or marching. The results were  both compelling and stunning.

Stairway, Alexander Rodchenko, 1930

The Japanese photographer Seiichi Furuya was certainly consumed by the subjects of life, death and tragedy. For good reason, as from 1978 until 1985 Furuya obsessively documented his wife Christine as she battled with various neuroses. Through his photography we see the changes as she struggles with mental illness through to the fatal conclusionm of suicide. An excellent and thoughtful piece by Stacy Oborn on Furuya and Christine can be found here.

Christine Gossler Furuya, Seiichi Furuya, between 1978-1985

By turning the camera on herself, Cindy Sherman has built a name as one of the most respected photographers of the late twentieth century. To be sure, this is a pre-meditated obsession designed to comment on the role of women and of the artist. Sherman’s self-images have been variously described as disturbing, funny, symbolic, repulsive, horrific, playful, but above all, ironic.

Untitled #85, Cindy Sherman 1981

Then there is the Czech photographer Miroslav Tichý, who between the 1960s and mid 80s surreptitiously took thousands of pictures of women in his hometown of Kyjov in the Czech Republic. What made this obsession doubly remarkable was the fact that he made these images using homemade cameras made from cardboard tubes, tin cans and anything else he could lay his hands on. Tichý is quoted as saying … “If you want to be famous, you must do something more badly than anybody in the entire world.”

Untitled, Miroslav Tichý

Finally I offer you Charles Fréger. Fréger was born in Bourges, France in 1975, studied fine art in Rouen and now dedicates himself to the “Portraits Photographiques et Uniformes” project which includes everything from American majorettes to Sikh troopers. As the artphotoexpo site puts it, “[Fréger] photographs his subjects like an entomologist pins his insects. There’s also a touch of sociology and ethnology with his inexhaustible inventories of the most extraordinarily diverse social groups, many of which are slowly becoming extinct.”

Légionnaires , 2000-2001 © Charles Fréger


Here’s my thing: I guess I’m what you’d call a generalist in my chosen photographic subject matter. I capture whatever takes my attention: people, architecture, graphic detail, food, landscape, abstract. Sometimes in colour, sometimes black & white. But whenever the gallery that handles my work suggests an exhibition, she invariably ‘bullies’ me into working to a theme. One subject. One style.

Here’s Susan Sontag from ‘On Photography’:

“The very nature of photography implies an equivocal relation to the photographer as auteur; and the bigger and more varied the work done by a talented photographer, the more it seems to acquire a kind of corporate rather than individual authorship. Many of the published photographs by photography’s greatest names seem like work that could have been done by another gifted professional of their period. It requires a formal conceit (like Todd Walker’s solarized photographs or Duane Michaels’s narrative-sequence photographs) or a thematic obsession (like Eakins with the male nude or Laughlin with the Old South) to make work easily recognizable. For photographers who don’t limit themselves, their body of work does not have the same integrity as does comparably varied work in other art forms.”

And the fact is that gallery owners and museum curators almost universally insist on singularity of style; the more obsessive the better.

My bet is that if Calvino’s Antonino Paraggi had been a real life character and had manifested his obsession, the world’s galleries and museums would be falling over themselves to give him an exhibition.

Anyway, got to run. I’m photographing a pear rotting every fifteen minutes until it has virtually disappeared, and waiting to hear from Larry Gagosian any time now.

Fred Shively was born in the USA, but has lived and worked most of his life in Europe. His current  base is Spain. His background of writing and creative direction in advertising and  corporate  communications exposed him to some of the world’s most talented photographers,  designers,  musicians and film-makers, all of whom influenced his work. Fred is now primarily  involved in  photography, writing, and, with his wife Arpi, managing a holiday finca in Andalucia.


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