Monday, November 20, 2017

Why does Photography Need Theory?

After chopping up the remarkably fatuous Daniel C. Blight a bit the other day over his piece on this, I thought I'd take a whack at it myself. As an aside, I am apparently not the only person who has noted what an idiot Blight it, but he's got the academic word-wooze down pat, so he places pieces in the usual pseudo-academic "web magazines" pretty effectively.

Anyways, to the question in the title. The simple answer is "It does not." It's pretty obvious that photography as a thing, as a cultural phenomenon, as a method of documentary, as an art, could proceed just fine without some bunch of eggheads like Andrew or Blight or Colberg droning on. You point the lens, you press the button, yo.

You need not be an architect to build a house, I happen to know this for a fact. I've seen it done!

But, when you build a house, you are nonetheless working from a pragmatic distillation of architecture. There are things that work, and things that don't. The roof has to go on top if you expect to keep the rain out. There should be places to pee, to cook, to sleep, and they should be separate.

And there are other details, less obvious, but which one could discover by feel, perhaps. Rooms should have window light from at least two sides whenever possible. It is, apparently, a fact that if you have a building in which some rooms have window light from less than two sides, and other rooms with window light from two or more sides, people will avoid the former and spend time in the latter. I mean, unless the latter are perpetually filled with poison gas or something.

This is something one can deduce by living in some houses. This is the kind of thing one can do by instinct, drawing a design that simply has this feature without ever actually thinking about it. You'd have to be a bit gifted, but it could certainly happen.

So, you can do it. Photography can exist, and even develop, by an emergent process based on instinct. People invent new ideas, perhaps by accident, others copy them without much analysis, and you can end up with a sophisticated, broad, creative art form without anyone bringing up the word "dialectic" once.

So what's theory for?

I think it's as much for understanding what you've got as it is for anything else. I, at any rate, treat it mostly as struggling to understand how photographs function. By "function" I mean everything from "how one person looking at one picture reacts" to "how does photography as a whole interact with society as a whole" and everything in between.

You could argue, I guess, that there's also a bunch of theory to be spun around the photographer. Their influences, their philosophy, and so on. And you might be right? It's certainly another topic I am interested in, but I think we already have a name for that: Art History. Perhaps it's a cheat, but I'm going to set it aside.

What I have named as theory is worthwhile, I think, just because it's interesting. It might not be interesting to you, and that's OK. Being interesting is sufficient to be worth studying. But, perhaps there's a little more. Does it inform my, as the kids say, "practice"? I dunno, maybe.

I think it's a more efficient path to communicating. If you ever show a picture to another human or even imagine doing so, you are to some extent invested in what people make of your pictures. Theory isn't anything more complicated than trying to understand, a priori how that might go. On the one hand, what it actually is is simple, but on the other hand how to unscramble the stuff is more or less infinitely complicated. People and society are pretty much complicated all the way down, and how someone reacts to your picture is dependent on all of it, at least slightly.

Things that I think I have derived from my understanding of theory, that are literally in my mind when I press the button:

Shoot what you truly feel deeply about, in a way that exhibits that deep feeling, and the viewers will see it. Maybe.

Propaganda is a real thing, what is the impression I am trying to create here? What idea am I selling?

You can absolutely feel your way through both of these without a whit of theory, but for me, it works to have thought about the ten steps past what I actually need, in order to really nail down the bits I do need.


  1. I'm not sure what to make of all this high-falootin' theorizing and philosophizing, as it seems (to me, anyway) the old saying is right on the money.

    To wit:

    Those who can, do.

    Those who can't, teach.

    And those who can't teach, either criticize it or theorize about it. 8^/

    1. There's a lot to that in my case. I don't think I have much of a nose for it, not a lot of anything I can identify as "natural talent". I have been able to, after a fashion, think really hard and get to the point where I can grind out photographs that suit me well enough.

      I definitely feel a bit too much like a picture taking machine, and less like an emotionally sensitive artist who's just making it happen on raw, but finely honed, infinitely delicate, emotion. I'm just a philistine who's learned by rote to chop out crude shapes with passable accuracy.

    2. Do the film critics need to make films?