Where Do We Come From?

Larry Lytle

In 1897 Paul Gauguin titled one of his masterworks, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? The painting, almost five feet high and over twelve feet long, is large and strangely panoramic. Did he use this shape perhaps because it asked a large and complex question, and a linear format which helped to address and echo the linear nature of his questions? Or did he once see a panoramic photograph of a landscape and was taken by its long and narrow vista? We will never know what went through his subconscious as he gave life and power to those questions—questions that everyone at some point has asked himself. Whatever the reason, we realize after some thought that a square shape wouldn't have been right, nor would a tall panel have worked. Gauguin was, after all, painting a landscape filled with water, trees, and people. It is an intimate landscape (the people are, for the most part, in the foreground) that asks an intimate question: What is our purpose?

This painting has always fascinated me, with it's Fin de Siècle ruminations, and for some odd reason I've always seen this painting as a kind of photograph—something that Henry Peach Robinson or Oscar G. Rejlander would have done, an expression of an idea that on the surface seems emotionally unsophisticated (to our year 2002 eyes) and yet, upon inspection, feels visually complete and fulfilling, with much to look at and think about.

That is what this series of essays is about, a Fin de Siècle rumination on the nature of photography and art. These essays aren't meant to be scholarly, filled with facts and footnotes, although there might be one or two. Rather, I wanted to put down my thoughts as a practitioner of photography and a student of the machinations of it's history. I hope to approach this in a different way from most writers. I don't want these to become a monologue that creates a distance between you and me, a distance that exists in most books of history and criticism. I am not the teacher here to disseminate knowledge, and you, Dear Reader, are not the student, an eager receptor. Instead, I want this to have the feeling of a dialog between us. I want you to think about what I have to say, to engage it as if I were here in front of you, agreeing or disagreeing with what I put forth—as much as would any visual art or artist engage the viewer, one-on-one with you, making the final decision on whether to buy the idea or not.

So, at the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first, I ask you to think about art—the act of which, in turn, asks and sometimes answers those eternal questions: Where do we come from, what are we, and where are we going?

© 2001 Larry Lytle

Larry Lytle is a native Angelino. He has an MA in Art from California State University Northridge. Larry is a fine artist whose work has been seen at the Museum of Neon Art in Los Angeles and the Society for Contemporary Photography in Kansas City. He is also a commercial artist specializing in theatrical and video key art photography, and is an instructor at the Otis College of Art and Design continuing education. Larry contributed to "William Mortensen: a Revival," published by the Center for Creative Photography, and is currently at work on a biography of William Mortensen. Parts I and II of his "Command to Look: The William Mortensen Story" appeared exclusively in the June and August issues, respectively, of this magazine. He can be reached via the webmaster (replace [AT] with @).


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