I've been noodling on a bunch of things this last week. I tried to write up a review of the latest Luminous Endowment Winners, but it wasn't going anywhere (it's a stronger field than the last time, still with a couple of weak spots, and I really really just like several of the winners). Colberg made a remark on his recent reviews about the trend toward photographing traces of people rather than people. I noted in the Luminous Endowment Winners a fellow doing aerial/drone photography to illustrate poverty, which is pretty much the same thing. See also recently reviewed bits and pieces.
It strikes me that I am noting an almost nihilistic thread in contemporary Art, at least in the products of people with MFAs.
The business about not photographing people, about appropriating satellite imagery, and so on, has the effect of creating distance from the subjects. I suppose if you're shooting macro pictures of bugs, or landscapes, or whatever, you can go get coffee now, skip this essay entirely. Human stories are increasingly being told without any
humans in them. I have at least one regular reader, who makes pictures that I love, who shoots extensively in this genre.
We also have Nina Berman writing about how to document sexual violence with photos, leaving out the people. On the one hand, obviously, photographing people in these cases is difficult, on the other hand the photo essay she provides to support her point is a piece of shit, and on the third hand Nina Berman shot "Marine Wedding" about which I have written a little before. Nina can and does shoot people, and her work is much better when she does.
So the Artists are leaving people out. The photojournalists, some of them, are working around to leaving the people out.
Cowardice, perhaps. It might be more kind to say "Shy"? Because people are difficult to handle, because photographing them is difficult, the temptation to leave them out of their own stories is strong. There are other reasons, rationalizations. I don't claim it's as simple as mere cowardice, there's a lot going on. But gosh, it sure clears out the underbrush when you don't point your camera at people. I include myself in here, it's goddamned hard for me to take pictures of people, and I constantly find myself rationalizing not doing it. Constantly. Every. Single. Day.
Art used to, I think, at least for a time, try to point the way to Answers. At least suggest an agenda, give some hints, some ideas. In Christian religious art, piety and mercy are often shown as the path to, well, some sort of betterment. In the Victorian era we see little morality plays in collaged photos; Oscar Rejlander's "Two Ways of Life" is a photographic manual for not meeting a bad end, as subtle as a Chick Tract. The FSA photographers, under the firm hand of Roy Stryker, held out the FSA itself as the answer to all the ills a farmer might experience.
I don't mean, here, answers in a necessarily specific and detailed way. In contemporary photography I think I could argue that Sally Mann's What Remains gives us in some sense answers to questions of mortality, or more specifically our fear of death. It's not a handy 3 step book on Overcoming Your Fear, but it is in its own poetic way a kind of guide, a collection of hints, items for consideration. Maybe I'm just projecting my own reaction onto the work, I don't know.
The Smiths' Minamata obviously looms large in my mind here, again they don't give a handy 3 step guide to solving the pollution problem, but they have some ideas, some signposts.
It seems to me that the reluctance to photograph people is, if not a symptom of, at least packaged neatly together with the larger trend to shy away from taking a stand, to shy away from proposing answers. If you won't photograph the people, then you're not telling their stories in a meaningful, visual, way. If you can't even tell their story, you're unlikely to provide answers to problems, or paths to enlargement, or insightful commentary, or any of that. See Nina Berman's photo essay.
The same coyness that pushes us not to engage people, to avoid their terrifying gaze, to avoid engaging them, to avoid their messiness, also pushes us to avoid Answers. It's so much easier to simply document the problem, or the place, or... whatever it is. Actually engaging, actually shoving our ugly fat noses into it to, actually getting muddy, involved, messy, is simply too much.
For me too. It's hard and it scares me.
But you can't make anything of any depth unless you get in there, get in there hip-deep in the muck, get engaged, get your face all shoved up in whatever it is. Even if you're shooting landscapes, when you simply drive up at the golden hour and take 50 minutes to shoot, your work is going to be shit. Get your goddamned boots on and hike out there, roll in the flowers, drink out of the streams, wrestle a bear. Metaphorically, of course. Unless you're Russian, then just go right ahead with an actual bear. Because, Russians. Google "russian dash cam" for proof that Russians are more or less immortal.
If your story is about people, you're gonna have to get messy, you're gonna have to get into their faces, get involved. I don't mean be Bruce Gilden, and I don't mean you have to become friends with your subjects before you shoot them. I mean you do have to be in the mix, you have to connected, plugged in, part of it all.
Stamp all over this piece, in big red letters, "NOTE TO SELF" because I am the first person that comes to mind as I write. Still, you can use it too, if you think it might apply.