Sunday, July 28, 2013


I have devised a theory about art in general, and photography in particular, having to do with the way an individual viewer perceives a piece. There's a spectrum from "Tell" through "Show" to "Ask" that's in play here, somehow. What does that even mean?

Starting with "Show" it means just what it says: A picture shows us something, ideally lots of things. It shows us what is literally in front of the lens. It might show us a relationship, or an idea, or a theme. There's some room for interpretation, probably. A picture "Tells" us something if it leaves little room for interpretation. If we see the man, and we simply perceive him as angry, we might consider the picture to be Telling us that this man is angry. At the other end of the spectrum, there's more room for interpretation. There's ambiguity. The picture of the man might, rather than telling us that he is angry, might ask us "what is he thinking?"

Any art partakes of all these aspects, in various ways, at various times. The viewer, the viewer's mood, attitudes, the viewer's entire life experience, affects how the picture will Tell, or Ask that viewer.

Raising the flag at Iwo Jima tells us something, not necessarily expressible in words. It's something about war, it's something about suffering, it's something about triumph. It's something about American Exceptionalism. The Mona Lisa asks us something about this woman and her mood. Both of them show us some people.

Every piece of art asks us, implicitly, "What do you make of this?" Quite a bit of modern art seems to do little else. This is referred to as challenging the viewer, but perhaps there ought to be more to a piece than simply demanding that the viewer judge it. I'm just sayin'.

So what? I don't know, really. Sometimes it's better to tell. If your art is political, maybe one piece should tell the viewer that "this situation is intolerable", while another might ask the viewer "what shall we do about it?"

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