Photography September 3, 2014
Last month, ADC’s Photographer of the Day series featured Brooklyn-based shooter Stewart Traver, who mentioned a strong belief in what he called a new “whimsical” genre of photography. We asked him to elaborate on his thoughts. Below, Mr. Traver gets very deep.
The idea of creating art that is considered whimsical is something that came as a surprise to me. At the time I was living in Los Angeles and working as a photo assistant. I was constantly asking why and questioning the concepts behind some of the large advertising photo shoots I was working on. That is, until I finally discovered who the young guy in sweet kicks and a graphic tee, who spent all day in the corner of the studio on his Macbook Pro was…the art director.
Thus my career in advertising was born as an art director and with it, my unknown all-consuming passion for typography and everything related to advertising design. But that’s a different story. Let me get back to this idea of whimsical.
Back in 2008, I photographed a friend of mine in several scenarios, adorned with an oversized boom box for a head, fashioned out of painstakingly crafted cardboard. One of the shots happened to win an award substantial enough for someone from the LA Times to cover it; the reporter described it as a “whimsical piece… affecting a sense of twisted joy.” That got me thinking.
“I always liked the idea of surreal art, but never enjoyed the aesthetic experience of the finished work.”
When I was in school, learning about different art movements, specifically within contemporary art, did more than just strike my curiosity. Trying to understand, and I mean really trying to know in the sense that you no longer need an explanation or description because you feel what it means for Sol LeWitt or Josef Kosuth to be considered a Conceptual Artist. So I had a burning desire to escape into the essence of these movements and more particularly the ones that I naturally gravitated towards: Abstract Expressionism and the aforementioned Conceptual Art. I always liked the idea of surreal art, but never enjoyed the aesthetic experience of the finished work. Not to say that I don’t enjoy a good Dalí or a Man Ray.
Another field that I was deeply interested in (and spent a considerable portion of student loans on) was philosophy; I mention this because of the similarity I felt for Existentialism. Again, I liked the idea or concept of it, but I couldn’t understand or agree with the fact that it’s inherently depressing. I used to say that I was a positive existentialist. I think that surrealism and existentialism are great as concepts, minus the negativity. I realize this is not an entirely correct definition, but for the sake of my proposition I am simply generalizing based on my experience and reactions to these concepts and not really being academic about it either. For example, when you watch a Jodoworsky film like “Topo”, there’s certainly no uplifting positivity or optimism oozing from the mind-melting aesthetics and narrative.
“… if there is no meaning to life and anything is real, then why not enjoy the ride and have a blast?”
So I struggled for a long time trying to understand why there wasn’t a category, classification or movement that encapsulated both of these ideas that wasn’t, let’s say, not happy. The idea behind whimsical is just that. A sort of blending of surreal and existentialism that is happy; if there is no meaning to life and anything is real, then why not enjoy the ride and have a blast? I never got why Albert Camus had to be so morbidly depressing in The Stranger. Why not be happy and positive? If I were in the protagonist’s situation, I would, and the ‘how’ is irrelevant, but I would fill the entire town with giant rubber bouncing balls and the sky with balloons, the ones that clowns make at your 2nd birthday party tied into completely abstract animals, and we would have fun. Except now I’ll return to the how.
The Philosophy of Experience, where philosophers like Kant and Hume question “reality” and what is real, offers the idea that if you can imagine it then it is possible in some possible world. So in other words, everything is possible, and everything is real and exists in some possible universe. So by adopting this belief we share the idea that whatever is conceivable and imaginable and manifested in the mind, is quite real and opposite of surreal, which is where the proposed whimsical certainly departs from the ideologies of other movements. But probably the most difficult aspect of whimsical that I am proposing, is to think of it as the definition of the word suggests, and not too far from the reporter’s description from the LA Times: 1. Playfully quaint or fanciful, especially in an appealing or amusing way or, 2. Acting or behaving in a capricious manner.
It gets way more complex, but for the purpose of this article I am just offering a simple, brief explanation. Also because I haven’t figured out the totality of whimsical art. My favorite living artist today is Matthew Barney and I can’t say that whimsical is as complex and thorough as some of the themes explored in The Cremaster Cycle or the ongoing Drawing Restraint series. But I’m certainly inspired by Barney in the sense that critics are sharply divided by his work but generally agree that his work is strikingly visual with a unique aesthetic quality. However, where they differ is on the meaning and whether it is truly great work or simply self-indulgent. For me, the idea of whimsical art is similar, where the viewer is participating by applying there own meaning to it. The work visually inspires awe, but affecting a sense of twisted joy.
It would be great to see this idea materialize into something real and not just an adjective to describe a photo but that’s not likely until a considerable body of work is produced that fits the genre. And it’s not just about photography but all mediums. The one that I’m most eager about is installation art because then you can put the viewer literally in the work. But for now I’ll leave it with you and whether or not you think whimsical art is deserving of such a movement, or if it should remain just an adjective to describe a photo.