It's my birthday. It's the end of the year. It's the holiday season, and it is, apparently, a brave new world. I feel some reflections coming on.
When I started writing this blog thing, oh so many years ago, I firmly believed in a specific path one took to create a great photograph, a worthy picture, something people would want to look at and perhaps possess. That path was to manage the objects and forms within the frame, in some sort of elusive way, and then to place tones and colors, in a similarly elusive way, until you somehow had put the right things into the rectangle. Then you were done.
This is the classic Iconic Photograph theory of picture making. It's a natural followon from painting, I think? Painters certainly do all those things. There are regular readers of this blog, people I like and respect, who hew more or less to this idea of picture making.
Over the years I've read a lot, I've thought a lot. I've made some interesting projects. I've argued with people about this and that. I've come to the conclusion that, at least for me, this approach to picture making is wrong. This is something of a self-serving conclusion, since it turns out I'm not much good at the elusive placement of things, colors, tones. I can manage a perfectly pleasing picture, but ultimately they all look a lot like someone else's picture.
That right there is one of the major problems with the Iconic Photograph theory. There are, it turns out, only a finite number of ways to do the thing. A painter can fall back on distinctive brushwork, use of color, and myriad little bits of technique to create something new out of the same old arrangement of forms. A painter can layer on degrees of abstraction (cubism leaps to mind), which a photographer really cannot. No, the photographer is more or less stuck with real objects in front of a real lens, and the possibilities are limited. Everything starts to look the same. Occasionally some brilliant talent leaps out in front and makes something different, perhaps? Generally, though, I think that the visible, distinctive, differences lie elsewhere. They're not merely a new and creative approach to lighting, or posing, or arranging lines and forms. There's something bigger going on.
In my reading, I found out many interesting things! Much of what is sold to photographers as expert advice on these elusive processes of composition is utter nonsense, invented rubbish from the 20th century passed around, copied, mis-quoted and mangled. Horrible nonsense. Rules and systems which are, as often as not, not merely arbitrary but actually wrong. I learned that the world of photography is filled with well-heeled amateurs (for a wide range of definitions for "well-heeled") and almost as many rapacious capitalists hawking variations on the above bunk, packaged with or without exotic vacations, for the purpose of making the amateurs less well-heeled, and the capitalist moreso. This made me somewhat suspicious of the whole enterprise. I even wrote a little book of my own about composition, a book which, several years later, I find is still pretty much on-point, although my interest in formal composition has waned.
I've also come to realize that I actively dislike the physical act of photography. I've been at it a while so it's pretty automatic, but still the process of fiddling with dials and settings to produce the closest approximation to the result I want is tedious and uninteresting. The best thing about digital photography is that I can wing it on exposure a lot more.
So what the heck is there, for me? I don't like messing with cameras, and I don't care much about composition. Why on earth am I still obsessed with this photography thing? I seem to be peculiarly ill-suited to it.
The trouble is that there's tremendous amounts of work out there that I love. I go on and on about Sally Mann, but the truth is that I can go around to the shelves of monographs in the library or bookstore, pull down any book at all, and find something I love. What is it that I find appealing? And, as an aside, what is it that makes a monograph or other photo book good enough to get a publishing gig?
As a minor note, why is it that the books I like least are the "greatest hits" books?
I hesitate to say that I have come around to the idea that "storytelling" is the key, I don't even agree with that statement. We're not all shooting spot news. We're not making photo essays about homelessness or some crisis, or about our family, or your family. It's not "story", it is (of course) trame.
It's a common criticism, to say that a picture relies on context. Without the title, the picture would be nothing. Without the other pictures, without the essay, the picture would be nothing. OK, so be it. So what? Why need it be something when placed in another context?
I made a book after my father died. Photographs of things that he's made or owned, paired with a short text of something my father taught me, vaguely related to the object. The photographs are nothing. They're simple record shots of objects. Pleasing, I like to think. The focus is where I want it, the lighting is amiable, but ultimately it's just an artless picture of a camera or a bowl. In context, in the book, these pictures have real power, at least within my family. It's one of the best bits of work I've ever done. I like to think that a stranger might find some strength in it, but perhaps not. It doesn't matter, because the book is for me. You can look at it if you stop by, I'm not hiding it, but it was made for an audience of one, me.
So that's what the photograph is about, in my little world. It's about showing a real thing, perhaps a collection of real things, and revealing something about them and their connections to the world. Painting can't do it, poetry can't do it, an essay can't do it. Not the same way. The photograph is rooted in a potent way to the real world. It can connect text or other work to that real world. That is the essential strength of the photograph, that is what makes photography Not Painting, and Not Music, and Not Anything Else.
The consequences of this philosophy are many.
The most obvious one is that you cannot know, a priori, which pictures are the "good ones". You have to know the context into which the pictures will be placed in order to be able to judge them -- to even begin to judge them. This renders the whole idea of "critique" in the sense of examining a picture and telling the poor bastard how to improve it, literally pointless.
It means that I never just "go out and shoot" because there is no point to just taking pictures (well, except to record some event or person or object that I happen to want a record of, of course) without having some intended context to put them in to. The greatest Iconic Photograph Ever of that building, that tree, that mountain, is worthless to me without some sort of context into which I mean to embed the picture. I could, in theory, just go out and shoot and then try to build stuff out of that. It could work, but it's inefficient. If I'm going to do that, to be honest, I'd rather use other people's pictures. It's much more fun to see new pictures, and try to build something out of them.
I do shoot projects, most of which fizzle out anyways. So I still have an enormous slush pile, if I did ever decide to go try to create something from photographs on-hand.
It means I am accepting of the idea that a photograph's meaning is malleable, and often nil. But in the right context, almost any photograph can live and breathe.
The process, for me, is now much larger. It is about creating context, trame, a total project. These things grow organically. Sometimes very fast, sometimes very very slowly. Start from the concept, imagine context and structure, shoot. Everything changes and reshapes itself to fit everything else and, sometimes, only sometimes, something complete emerges.
For me, it's vastly more satisfying than trying to shovel forms and light around inside a little rectangle, and have it both look pleasing, and also look not like some mashup of whichever two photographers I saw work from most recently.