Wednesday, September 2, 2015

What is a Photograph, anyway?

Sally Mann says,

The earth doesn't care where a death occurs. Its job is to efface and renew itself. It's the artist who, by coming in and writing about it, or painting it, or taking a photograph of it, makes that earth powerful and creates death's memory, because the land isn't gonna remember by itself, but the artist will.

I remembered this, or possibly another remark she made about the same thing, as "the photographer sanctifies the land".

Pause for a moment, hold that thought.

Here is what makes photography itself, rather than painting: We find something in the real world (or perhaps we even make it, or arrange for it, if we're doing a still life or shooting a model, but it is anyways a real thing). We find something that moves us, that we respond to, and then via a mechanical/optical process, we render a picture of it. Unlike a painting, the photograph is rendered without the emotional and inexact input of the artist. The photographer chooses a lot of things, but ultimately, the picture is made without us.

Is this important? I dunno. It is what makes photography not painting, though, so if making the distinction between the two is important, then this is important.

Getting back to Sally.

The point of Art, when it is taken from reality as a photograph is (or a painting from life, or whatever) is that it is an interpretation of the thing. We sanctify, or desecrate, or whatever, that which we point the camera at. Painting from life, we're interpreting it through ourself as we make the painting. The painting comes from inside us. A photograph, not so, it comes in an essential way from outside us.

A painting of a civil war battlefield would be incredibly dull. Look, a field. Sure, a field where a bunch of guys fought and died 150 years ago, but just a field. The painter would be hard pressed to not stick in some figures, to actually show us the guys, in some way.

The photographer can't. The photographer is pretty much stuck with the field. But the reality of that field, and the knowledge of the blood shed there, the lives lost there, lends that field gravitas. It's not a painter's idea of a field where something happened a long time ago, it's one step closer. It is the actual field, where the actual blood soaked into the actual ground.

The photographer creates the memory, or at any rate a memory, of a thing at a moment. There's a moment, Now, when we press the shutter, and there it is. The picture is made, drawn in a literal way from reality. The memory, latent I suppose, unless we print it and someone looks at it, is made. The land is, perhaps, sanctified.

It's a bit like baptism, isn't it? The subject, the stuff in front of the lens, is in an instant reborn as a photograph, with perhaps the emotional freight we found there preserved with it, somehow. And now, per the tenets of Christianity, the moment, the stuff in front of the lens in that moment, now has eternal life.

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