Sunday, November 13, 2016

Vernacular Story

My best friend Ming wrote his latest version of the usual essay, hand-wringing about the current state of photography and complaining that with so many bad pictures (i.e. the other guy's) that the world is ending and the good pictures (i.e. mine) are being underrated etcetera and so on. If you're attentive to this sort of thing, you see this essay from one person or another every few weeks.

It is salient at the moment in my thoughts. Ming is complaining about several things, among them vernacular photography and low-cost professional photography.

I have nothing to say about low-cost professional photography at the moment.

Vernacular photography, though, gets lambasted in this particular way a great deal, and I sometimes stand up to defend it. This is one of those times.

This notion of "story" or as Mike suggested "the signified" or as my very intelligent sister suggested in email, the French word "trame" is what drives vernacular photography. The picture of the happy drunks at the party, the picture of grandma at the birthday celebration, the happy couple in front of their new home, the wife standing in front of the Eiffel tower, these are simply loaded with trame. They are quite literally a mnemonic, a symbol for, the event and the feelings that went with it.

Even if we don't know the people, this is true. If you find a crumpled print in the alley of the young man and his dog hiking somewhere, perhaps the Marin Headlands but you can't be sure, you feel that. Someone, somewhere, felt this was a moment worth snapping. Someone was having a little moment. Yes, in this day and age it's one moment of thousands of others, similarly recorded. It might be an extremely small moment, it might be a picture of a latte. But it was a moment, a genuine moment in a life, and you can tell.

While you might not care to hang it on your wall, there's a fair chance that it reached you more powerfully, more intimately, than some of the pictures you do have hung on your walls.

How much more valuable, how much more meaningful, than some sterile landscape taken by some earnest doofus with a 10 stop neutral density filter and a shelf of books with advice on pepping up his landscapes!

I am beginning to wonder if I have been all along some sort of advocate for vernacular photography, and it's Everything Else that I don't much like. Is this trame some sort of defining characteristic of a specific kind of photography? And is that specific kind, essentially, vernacular photography?

We've seen on this blog recently a quite different idea of photography, echoed in comments. Obviously it is a thing, a real thing, this idea of a frisson, a momentary indescribable rightness seen and photographed in the same instant. It's something like Cartier-Bresson's decisive moment, except less explicable. Henri Cartier-Bresson's idea seems to bridge the gap between the frisson/instant crowd, and my notion of story or trame. He felt that in that instant, that frisson that he felt, was all tied up with capturing that story, that essence of the moment. He was quite explicit about boiling down into his single frame a larger surrounding idea, context, story.

Others, as I read it, feel a similar moment but do not specifically identify it as that summation of the moment. Their sensation is isolated, perhaps more pure, perhaps more of-itself and less of-the-world. I don't deny them that moment, not one bit! I'm thinking about it, and I might have something to say about it later.


  1. I sense that this blog post will lead you, and us, your regular readers, to a point of heightened understanding. I think you (A.M.) are at this point, on the cusp of a new level of understanding.

  2. It seems to me that in this coming "age of Trump" we will be entering a new age of Dadaism and trying to figure out what makes sense and what is what is going to be next to impossible.

  3. I don't think that the attitude of the vernacular snapshotter and the attitude sketched by Eric Kellerman (and I see myself in his camp) are so much different. Eric told us about that special moment, when light and posture and the beauty of the female body come together. For the snapshotter, it might be the moment when little Elsie blows out her birthday candles. This moment may contain her entire 4th birthday. Both are personally significant moments, and the resulting pictures are meaningful.

    The other side of the spectrum are photographs which are merely empty exercises in form and technical perfection. I don't want to give names of particular proponents here, but what I find astonishing is that these proponents are even proud of this sterility.

    Best, Thomas

    1. Hmm.

      I was reading the "frisson moment" as a moment when the picture itself, separate from the world, comes together As Itself. Just the stuff in the frame.

      Are you saying that HCB's attitude, that the pictures comes together, I dunno, not so much INTERNALLY as EXTERNALLY? Or "as connected to the story" or whatever, is what you're actually talking about?

      I realize that this is wildly navel-staring hair-splitting pixel-peeping as it were, but I'm interested!

    2. I would rather refer to it as a moment of "Aha!" or "Eureka!" or whatever, a spontaneous insight of sorts. The scene in the frame is just a trigger to elicit something deeper. Why do certain scenes, or specific moments touch us in a way that we want to take a picture, whereas others don't? Some psychologists claim that we can only recognize what we already know, so perhaps this is some kind of knowledge? Whatever the reason, I would argue that it's not so much about formal qualities of the picture.

      As for "internal" vs. "external": I would not define "moment" as "the split second, where the passerby with the red umbrella is in front of the yellow door" (= external), but the moment, in which the picture-maker recognizes the potential picture (= internal). So the other way round than you suggested.

      My argument was that meaningful pictures share this "Eureka!" thing, irrespective whether they are intended as art or are just a lucky snapshot.

      Best, Thomas

  4. I like the idea of weaving ideas together (if my translation is accurate).
    On our family trip to Portugal recently, I had the opportunity to indulge, doofus like, ND filter duly attached, in some landscape stuff. It strikes me that these are actually self portraits in a way. I'm in as close to a zen-like state as I get, taking zen like photos of not much, very enjoyable in its way, in effect taking photos of my frame of mind, when life, i.e. the family gets involved. Looking at my Lightroom catalogue there is a bunch of similar shots of a low bar being gently flooded on a foggy day interrupted by a visual poke in the eye - a five year old grinning in the lens. The day before my lovely wife in a socialist-realist heroic pose on the beach holds son the younger, as he grabs her camera and puts it in front of her eyes. It could be an album called 'shots of the family while dad earnestly indulges his limited vision'.
    That's the end of my stream of consciousness for today.

    1. This is so interesting!

      See, this is part of why I don't believe in single pictures any more. A bunch of boring landscapes can be abruptly tranformed by a photo-bombing kid, into something quite different and alive.

      (not to say YOUR landscapes are boring, I'm sure they're wonderful ;)

  5. I wonder where the winner of this year's Taylor Wessing prize fits in to the dichotomy you're creating. Not a snapshot, since it was entered for a major prize, but with all the hallmarks of the vernacular - expressionless boy in school uniform, as if taken at the local photographer's studio in the High Street.