'Modern Art' in Primitive Patterns

I experimented. I showed this photograph to someone who had not seen it before and knew nothing about it. What is it? I asked.

''A garden path? A pie crust?'' she hazarded.

''Not exactly.'' I said. Did she think it was a painting or a photograph?

''A painting?'' she guessed. Wrong again.

''A crocodile? A lizard? Some sort of reptile?''

She edged closer. But finally I had to give the game away. ''Shell Game'' is what the photographer has named her picture. (She has added a little more information: ''Tank for injured turtles, Padre Island, Texas.'')

This is not a documentary or journalistic photograph. It belongs to the tradition of ''art photography.''

Edward Weston, an American photographer whose work sometimes came close to paintings by Georgia O'Keeffe and Stuart Davis, or to sculptures by Constantin Brancusi, strongly felt that photography was not a poor relation of painting and sculpture. ''Painters have no copyright on modern art!'' he observed in his daybook.

Weston himself made photographs from shells (empty ones, however). Very direct, and without pretentious claims to be ''artistic,'' they still transform the shell into an abstract essence. Recognizability is no longer primary. In fact, a disorientation of the viewer has occurred: It is difficult to know the scale of the shell because it is a form without point of reference, now something unfamiliar.

Some later photographers, like Minor White, took such disorientation even further, and photographs took on aspects of radically abstract art -- nonreferential form and color and texture, depths and surfaces, movement and stillness -- while still being a photograph.

Freeman's cannily cropped photograph of turtles apparently all around her in their protective sanctuary similarly concentrates on an essential beauty rather than a subject.

Once we know the subject, however, new thoughts surface. The exquisite opalescence of these enormous shells, a visual felicity intensified by the grace with which their primeval inhabitants swim at such giant ease, makes one ask: How could humans, by stealing eggs, by marketing tortoise shell, by drinking soup, have brought some of these turtle-wonders-of-the-world to near-extinction? How could we let ourselves be so selfishly destructive -- so inartistic?

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