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.