Jessie Thatcher’s Photography

Jessie is an artist friend (whom I met through Miriam Dym and our shared project, Submit for Riff).

Jessie’s work explores how we see and organize the world visually. She presses against the limits of our narrow primate vision, bending forms, breaking habits, through photographs, drawings, collage.

She took the time to answer the questions I posed when I introduced this topic in Reading for Our Eleventh Meeting on March 30, 2016 — ART: PHOTOGRAPHY.

Here is what she said:


Can art function as a “religion,” as some people claim?

When I think of religion, I think of rule following and when I think of art, I think of rule breaking. But, there is an implied set of aesthetic rules when making art and an artistic practice could be considered a religious one. I just don’t know…it depends on what your perception of religion is and how you view art. I’m not a religious person, but I guess I do find a type of spirituality in making art and viewing art. I think of art as more of a conversation than a preaching device. Those who want to join into the conversation, that’s welcomed, and it’s also fine if people don’t.

Can a painting, a song, a sculpture, a performance, even a photograph, give us meaning?

Yes, I think so. When I think of the word “meaning” applied to art, I translate the word to “heightened experience.”

As an artist I am constantly asking myself why did I choose this lifestyle, why couldn’t I have chosen a more practical occupation? Is art important?

Through experience we can answer these questions. For instance, the answer to my questions about the meaning of art took an act of walking into a real estate office. I walked into this completely deserted office and developed this strong reaction to this isolated room in space, shocked by its one- dimensionality; the beige walls mix into the brown floors, completely devoid of art, family pictures poorly hung and cheaply printed, there was no aesthetic reflection in this office, unless it was a fascist one. This beige- khaki pants office was the answer to me, this little office was an isolated representation to me of what the world might look like if there wasn’t any art, and it was awful. It was boring and stagnant. I realized then and there that I might not make much money being an artist, but I do live a visually rich life, and to me that adds so much meaning. And by visually rich, I mean, I am actively looking all the time, whether I’m making art, or working a menial job, I am constantly observing and arranging.

What do representations of the natural world do for our particular species of primate, homo sapians?

We are programed to scan our environments very quickly. Just try and focus on one object for more than a second, it’s very hard. Our eye movements are programed to scan quickly and we don’t focus in one area for very long. It’s a human glitch! So yes, I think we do need pictorial references– isolated documents of time–to slow us down, and look. I think the “meaning” or resonance comes along after the fact, it’s when you encounter whatever that artwork was referring to in your daily experience. I think artwork does add meaning to our lives.

Why do we seek them so avidly? Why do they fill us with longing? Make us shiver? Sometimes even change us forever?

I had a “shiver” response once! A couple years back, I visited an Agnes Martin exhibition and the gallery room was filled with all of her pastel line paintings and I got shivers. I’m not sure why I got shivers, but I strongly reacted to that work.

When I think about my process as an artist, it’s primarily a nonverbal process. So it makes sense to me that we have nonverbal reactions to some artworks.


Here is a small selection of Jessie’s marvelous work. (You can see more on her website



“Continuously Recorded”

“The photograph is a thin slice of space as well as time. In a world ruled by photographic borders (“framing”) seem arbitrary. Anything can be separated, can be made discontinuous, from anything else: all that is necessary is to frame the subject differently. (Conversely, anything can be made adjacent to anything else.” Susan Sontag, “On Photography”

“Continuously Recorded” arose from questions about what is a camera and when is the documentation of an image no longer considered photography?

While in school I took a visual communications class, and I remember the instructor saying that there is a “right” way to crop a portrait or person for a film composition, he said, “Don’t crop a portrait mid-eyeball, it’s disturbing.’ That’s what led me into “disturbing” cropping methods and compositions.

In this series I do not use a camera, only a scanner, pencil, and a razor blade. Upon creating this series, I was thinking about the role of the grid in contemporary art; I wanted to reinterpret the grid by dissecting it, and use it as a means to reinterpret the photographic medium. I am deconstructing the grid and using it as a tool to deconstruct the traditional notions of viewing and making an image. As a viewer I want to struggle at what I am seeing. With this body of work, I honestly don’t know how many copies it is from the original work of art? It doesn’t matter. The initial work of art and reproduction becomes raw material for this abstract photographic composition.

— Jessie Thatcher


Jessie also pointed us towards this endearing interview with David Hockney, in which he talks about the end of chemical photography with the advent of Photoshop.


Some More Readings for Our Eleventh Meeting — PHOTOGRAPHY

Hi Old New Wayers,

For the meeting on Wednesday night, I would like everybody (who can make it) to bring at least one photo or image with you.

(Yes, it can be on a screen, so long as we can pass it around!)

Bring something that either:

  1. Strikes you as beautiful or artistic in some way, or
  2. Represents something important or meaningful to you (that is, even if it is not “beautiful or artistic”).

I would love to talk about the role of photos and images in our lives (including Instagram, Facebook, family photos, etc.).

Do they bring us meaning? How do they interfere with it?

Why are we compelled to represent the rush of our lives in a static form? How does it interact with our natural ways of remembering? What do you like to look at in photographs, and why?

Lots of interesting questions that we all ponder sometimes. It will be useful, I think, to examine them together.


Also, if you scroll down to the bottom of our Reading for Our Eleventh Meeting on March 30, 2016 — PHOTOGRAPHY  post, and you will find two videos worth watching. One is a TED talk by JR (suggested by Kristen), the other is a link to John Berger, Ways of Seeing (suggested by Marie-José).


An artist friend, Jessie Thatcher, submitted the following essay by Agnes Martin:

Beauty Is the Mystery of Life
by Agnes Martin
When I think of art, I think of beauty. Beauty is the mystery of
life. It is not in the eye, it is in my mind. In our minds there
is awareness of perfection.
We respond to beauty with emotion. Beauty speaks a message to
us. We are confused about this message because of distractions.
Sometimes we even think that it is in the mail. The message is
about different kinds of happiness and joy. Joy is most
successfully represented in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and by
the Parthenon.
All artwork is about beauty; all positive work represents it and
celebrates it. All negative art protests the lack of beauty in
our lives. When a beautiful rose dies, beauty does not die
because it is not really in the rose. Beauty is an awareness in
the mind. It is a mental and emotional response that we make. We
respond to life as though it were perfect. When we go into a
forest we do not see the fallen rotting trees. We are inspired
by a multitude of uprising trees. We even hear a silence when it
is not really silent. When we see a newborn baby we say it is
beautiful – perfect.
The goal of life is happiness and to respond to life as though
it were perfect is the way to happiness. It is also the way to
positive artwork.
It is not in the role of an artist to worry about life – to feel
responsible for creating a better world. This is a very serious
distraction. All your conditioning has been directed toward
intellectual living. This is useless in artwork. All human
knowledge is useless in artwork. Concepts, relationships,
categories, classifications, deductions are distractions of mind
that we wish to hold free for inspiration.
There are two parts of the mind. The outer mind that records
facts and the inner mind that says "yes" and "no." When you
think of something that you should do, the inner mind says "yes"
and you feel elated. We call this inspiration.
For an artist this is the only way. There is no help anywhere.
He must listen to his own mind.
The way of the artist is an entirely different way. It is a way
of surrender. He must surrender to his own mind.
When you look in your mind you find it covered with a lot of
rubbishy thoughts. You have to penetrate these and hear what
your mind is telling you to do. Such work is original work. All
other work made from ideas is not inspired and is not artwork.
Artwork is responded to with happy emotions. Work about ideas is
responded to with other ideas. There is so much written about
art that it is mistaken for an intellectual pursuit.
It is quite commonly thought that the intellect is responsible
for everything that is made and done. It is commonly thought
that everything that is can be put into words. But there is a
wide range of emotional response that we make that cannot be put
into words. We are so used to making these emotional responses
that we are not consciously aware of them until they are
represented in artwork.
Out emotional life is really dominant over our intellectual
life, but we do not realize it.
You must discover the artwork that you like, and realize the
response that you make to it. You must especially know the
response that you make to your own work. It is in this way that
you discover your direction and the truth about yourself. If you
do not discover your response to your own work, you miss the
reward. You must look at the work and know how it makes you
If you are not an artist, you can make discoveries about
yourself by knowing your response to work that you like.
Ask yourself, What kind of happiness do I feel with this music
or this picture?
There is happiness that we feel without any material
stimulation. We may wake up in the morning feeling happy for no
reason. Abstract or nonobjective feelings are a very important
part of our lives. Personal emotions and sentimentality are
We make artwork as something that we have to do, not knowing how
it will work out. When it is finished we have to see if it is
effective. Even if we obey inspiration we cannot expect all the
work to be successful. An artist is a person who can recognize
If you were a composer you would not expect everything you
played to be a composition. It iss the same in the graphic arts.
There are many failures.
Artwork is the only work in the world that is unmaterialistic.
All other work contributes to human welfare and comfort. You can
see from this that human welfare and comfort are not the
interests of the artist. He is irresponsible because his life
goes in a different direction. His mind will be involved with
beauty and happiness. It is possible to work at something other
than art and maintain this state of mind and be moving ahead as
an artist. The unmaterial interest is essential.
The newest trend and the art scene are unnecessary distractions
for a serious artist. He will much more rewarded responding to
art of all times and places – not as art history but considering
each piece and its value to him.
You can't think, My life is more important than the work, and
get the work. You have to think the work is paramount in your
life. An artist's life is adventurous: one new thing after
I have been talking directly to artists, but it applies to all.
Take advantage of the awareness of perfection in your mind. See
perfection in everything around you. See if you can discover
your true feelings when listening to music. Make happiness your
goal. The way to discover the truth about this life is to
discover yourself. Say to yourself, What do I like and what do I
want? Find out exactly what you want in life. Ask your mind for
inspiration about everything.
Beauty illustrates happiness: the wind in the grass, the
glistening waves following each other, the flight of birds – all
speak of happiness.
The clear blue sky illustrates a different kind of happiness,
and the soft dark night a different kind. There are an infinite
number of different kinds of happiness.
The response is the same for the observer as it is for the
artist. The response to art is the real art field.
Composition is an absolute mystery. It is dictated by the mind.
The artist searchers for certain sounds or lines that are
acceptable to the mind and finally an arrangement of them that
is acceptable. The acceptable compositions arouse certain
feelings of appreciation in the observer. Some compositions
appeal to some, and some to others.
But if they are not accepted by the artist's mind, they will not
appeal to anyone. Composition and acceptance by mind are
essential to artwork. Commercial art is consciously made to
appeal to the senses, which is different. Artwork is very
valuable and it is also very scarce. It takes a great deal of
application to make a composition that is totally acceptable.
Beethoven's symphonies, with every note composed, represent a
titanic human effort.
To progress in life you must give up the things that you do not
like. Give up doing the things that you do not like to do. You
must find the things that you do like – the things that are
acceptable to your mind.
You can see that you will have to have time to yourself to find
out what appeals to your mind. While you go along with others,
you are not really living your life.
To rebel against others is just as futile. You must find your
Happiness is being on the beam with life – to feel the pull of


And finally… for those who don’t have time to get to the readings this week… I wrote up some notes. (I wrote them to try to grope towards some connection between them — still working on that.)

Skim them if you want a (very basic) sense of what was in there.

See you soon!



Some Brief Notes on the Readings



He asks, Is beauty an ultimate value? (like Truth, Goodness?)

His answer: it is not the same.

If it were the same, then why would being an “aesthete” be seen as a term of derision?

Why are many people skeptical of over-indulgence in respect to beauty (but not truth or goodness)?

Scruton’s five “platitudes”:

  1. Beauty pleases us.
  2. It is comparative.
  3. It demands attention.
  4. Judgments of taste are about the object being perceived (not merely about the one doing the perceiving)
  5. Still, no convincing proof of beauty or taste is available.

Strange paradox: beauty FEELS objective, yet we cannot convince others of it (if they don’t already agree).


Types of Beauty to think about:

  1. Ecstatic, extreme experiences of it
  2. Everyday experiences of it
  3. The ‘Sublime’
  4. The “Picturesque”
  5. ‘Form follows function,’ i.e. utility (practical arts)
  6. Only for pleasure – “the thing itself” (fine arts)
  7. Sensory element (but not only…)
  8. Abstract / intellectual element (framing)
  9. Disinterested
  10. Interested
  11. Can be expressed in the form of a ‘style’


Scruton argues that mere taste, smell, touch, are not enough to constitute beauty (e.g. wine).

We need some mental part too.

Beauty is experienced in a “presented form.”


Evolutionary explanations for beauty:

  1. Group selection (ritual, shared purposes, etc.)
  2. Individual sexual selection (but is a peacock tail really doing the same work as Bach?)


Certainly beauty is related to desire.

But how so?

It can inspire the desire to possess… a body, an artwork, a piece of jewelry…

But there is also understood to be a Platonic, so-called “higher” form of beauty, which creates a desire not for possession but for contemplation.


Eros is perhaps best described as the act of singling out.


Consider the difference between pornography and (deeper?) beauty of “embodiment.”

Pornography provokes in some the desire to possess. Beauty provokes something quite different… a kind of disinterested state of wonder.


Note that there is a parallel when we turn our gaze to nature.

A sense of the beauty of nature is not the same as a scientific interest in it.

(To know the geology of a cliff is not the same as to marvel at the rocks.)


This feeling of disinterested contemplation became a form of the sacred, as religion receded.


Indeed, art became THE vehicle for beauty in the 19th century, replacing god.


But this has declined in our own era. Beauty is no longer a longed-for experience… Much art is a spectacle, or an attempt to disorient, or a subversive act.


Difference between art that expands our imaginations


pseudo-art, which merely entertains, arouses, amuses, or preaches.


Content vs. form

Scruton discusses Van Gogh’s The Yellow Chair.


Distinction between an artists attempt at representation (observable details, concepts) vs. expression (intuitions).


The yellow chair in the painting may be said to express an unseen life, a relationship with objects; or even something that goes beyond what it represents.


One idea: Beauty may be human experience under the aspect of necessity?


Modernism was an attempt to “recuperate” beauty from its mass reproduction and emptying-out in modern world

But now, according to Scruton, our post-modernist (and increasingly nihilistic) culture is more interested in tearing down.


So the most common forms of art are kitsch and irony.


Kitsch is beauty without consequences – everything works out perfectly, no sacrifice.

Irony is beauty without commitment – nothing is sacred, nothing fixed, just the arrangement and juxtaposition of forms.





(Sontag’s style is very declarative. So I will simply share some of her declarations:)


To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed.


Photographs are aggressive. Every use of the camera is an act of interpretation.


Photos take possession of a space in which people feel insecure.


They also refuse experience – by limiting it to a search for the photogenic.


They are fantasy machines. They promote nostalgia.


Always the knowledge gained from photographs is a “kind of sentimentalism, whether cynical or humanist.”


Photographs follow Walt Whitman’s erotic embrace of experience in its entirety. (She mentions William Steiglitz,, Diane Arbus.)


In our era, the image is becoming more important than the original.


We have, she claims, a “steadily more complex sense of the real.”




This book is too wonderful to summarize.

It examines, through a series of case histories, the way photographs capture events and things but also contain infinite mysteries. What is authentic? What can we ever really know about the subjects of a photograph? What can a photograph do in the world?

Reading for Our Eleventh Meeting — PHOTOGRAPHY

Screen Shot of Cable News
 An image (taken with my cell phone) of our home TV on pause on Friday, March 4, 2016.

Our topic this month will be PHOTOGRAPHY.

Can art function as a “religion,” as some people claim?

Can a painting, a song, a sculpture, a performance, even a photograph, give us meaning?

What do representations of the natural world do for our particular species of primate, homo sapians?

Why do we seek them so avidly? Why do they fill us with longing? Make us shiver? Sometimes even change us forever?

“Fence” by Gerhard Richter (2008)

Three readings:

2. Susan Sontag, ON PHOTOGRAPHY
3. Erroll Morris (the documentary filmmaker), BELIEVING IS SEEING

I have a hunch that the best approach will be a more narrow one. So I would like to read this month on photography — which is, after all, the most prevalent contemporary form of representation.

I think that, through that lens (!), we might get somewhere. As always, let’s make it personal. What is the meaning of image-making, photographs, video, film to you?

See you at the meeting.





I propose that we pursue the question of BEAUTY more broadly, at a future meeting. With that in mind, would you help me to start gathering possible books to read?

Here are few I have collected so far to get our list started…



BUT IS IT ART? by Cynthia Freeland


STRANGE TOOLS: ART AND HUMAN NATURE by (our own friend and neighbor, who perhaps will join us?) Alva Noë


(Again, these are not for our March meeting, but for later. I’ll keep adding your suggestions as they come in.)


Kristen wrote with some additional titles! Here is what she added:

When I think of the Sontag piece, a couple supplementary resources come to mind:

1. Benjamin, Walter: The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (short essay)

2. Salgado, Sebastião: The Salt of the Earth (documentary film)

3 .JR: TED talk (clichéd source, I know) by an artist who crosses lots of boundaries in how he defines himself as an artist, how he understand subject matter, & how he defines authorship.

I don’t yet know the Scruton piece. Anything with Beauty in its title always brings me back to Keats. I’m curious to read this new piece.


Walden wrote with some provocative thoughts too. And a suggested reading: Niklas Luhmann, Art as a Social System.

Here are Walden’s questions going in…

Dear Tom,

I have been trying to figure out your choice of a narrow focus on
photography, since of all of the art forms, it is probably the one
least associated with a “religious” experience — at least in
comparison to music, literature, architecture, film, and even some
painting. I am sure someone will try to point to a photograph that
contradicts this, but I will still be skeptical. A good question is
why this might be the case? Is even some painting “dynamic” in a way
that most photographs cannot be?
I say this as a consumer, since I am not an artist, but I cannot think
of an example of a photograph that has ever taken me to the same
levels of aesthetic impact as the other art forms I mentioned.

Best wishes,


A week later he wrote with another interesting find:

This landscape photographer’s statement suggests that the MAKING of
his photographs is a religious experience. This is different from the
viewer’s experience of the photograph, which I would admire but not be
transported significantly by, the way I would be by being directly in

Rex Naden Photography


Marie-José wrote in to suggest John Berger’s WAYS OF SEEING.

Here is the first of four short (20 minute) videos available on Youtube: