Wednesday, December 26, 2018

A Knotty Problem

I've been talking about "contextualization" of photographs lately, and I find the whole thing to be a genuinely intractable problem.

When you take a picture, you probably have something in mind.

The guy Nobuyoshi Araki ties girls up, often in painful looking postures, and photographs them. By all accounts he is overwhelmed with adoration for his models, overflowing with love. Which, you know, in a way shines through albeit obliquely. Take the pictures away from the artist and his feelings, and they read less appealingly. They're just girls tied up, often painfully.

Bob Shell made some similar photos, and went to jail for, well, a bunch of stuff which you might not want to look up, but mainly for helping a model overdose on morphine. He's still in jail according to wikipedia. Now, he may have loved his model very much, but he also killed her. But in the end, it's pictures of girls tied up, often painfully.

I have not stumbled across her, but I dare say that is somewhere out there a daring female artist who photographs herself tied up, naked, often painfully. She might promote her pictures as commentary on the patriarchy, or as a celebration of her chosen lifestyle, or any number of other things. But in the end, it's pictures of girls tied up, often painfully.

You do not have to look far, any internet forum or camera club will do, to find promoted the theory that the process does not matter. All that matters, we are told, is the end result. In these degenerate times this is generally used to promote the extensive use of photoshop on shitty landscapes, but the argument applies equally well here. Applied in the usual way, this argument produces the result that Araki's pictuers, Shell's pictures, and our unnamed female artist's pictures are in fact all the same and ought to be viewed identically.

On the flip side, your average MFA program professor would offer up a muddled up complication of these two ideas: Process does so matter, these three sets of photographs should be viewed totally differently; and also the only ones that are OK are the ones made by the woman, because, identity.

The truth is that both appear to me to be simultaneously true, and this is the Knotty Problem.

A word like bitch has almost no life on its own, it requires the context of a sentence to mean anything. A movie like Triumph of the Will has a complete and full life on its own, it requires nothing whatever to be, to mean. A photograph sits between the two.

On the one hand the story of a photograph is of real interest. Ask Alain Briot how to sell photos, and he'll tell you that it is all about the story of the picture, and the customer's story. If you have a picture of the Grand Canyon taken from the viewpoint where the customer proposed to his wife, and you tell him how you got there early, and the sun rose just so and it was so cold but you waited for the light to hit the frost, man, you've got a sale.

Anyone who has ever taken a snapshot, or been urged by a family member to do so, knows that the story is the thing. The picture is just an icon, a symbol that stands in for the story.

But. But. As photographers, it behooves us to remain aware that our pictures do have some little life of their own. Torn from the story, the bear some little measure of meaning simply lying there. Ambiguous, malleable, they beg to be placed into a new story, where they can gain new life.

If you photograph children, your own or others, someone will certainly remind you, eventually, that these pictures unless carefully protected, might wind up in the collection of a pedophile, who will look at them while thinking terrible thoughts. The photos of girls tied up, often painfully, could be torn from their books and frames, tossed on the street in a jumble, to be collected by a teenaged boy, by a nun, by an MFA student. Each will embed the pictures into a different story, a different context. Each will find something different in these pictures.

Photographs exist and derive meaning from the story they're placed in to, whether that story be the artist's or otherwise, whether it be true or otherwise. Photographs, perhaps, also have a little meaning just sitting there, shorn of story. Perhaps they mean only by virtue of the stories we test against them, that we imagine and cut and edit to fit to the picture at rest. I don't know. All these things about your photograph are real and true at the same time.

We cannot pretend that there is no story, that process is irrelevant, nor can we pretend that our story is the only story. Our photograph, once loosed on the world, can be bent to the whim of the viewer, the collector.

We cannot protect our photographs from wrongthink, nor should we seek to.

We cannot pretend that our photographs will always live in a world of rightthink, nor should we seek to.


  1. I think you have mentioned this before but there is the issue of people judging your work by who you are as a person.

  2. I think this is an old problem. A certain Oscar Wilde once wrote a Preface to his Doria Gray. I hope it is ok to give the link:

    Longform, paste and copy is:

    The Preface

    The artist is the creator of beautiful things.

    To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim.

    The critic is he who can translate into another manner or a new material his impression of beautiful things.

    The highest, as the lowest, form of criticism is a mode of autobiography.

    Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault.

    Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope.

    They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only Beauty.

    There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.

    The nineteenth century dislike of Realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass.

    The nineteenth century dislike of Romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass.

    The moral life of man forms part of the subject-matter of the artist, but the morality of art consists in the perfect use of an imperfect medium.

    No artist desires to prove anything. Even things that are true can be proved.

    No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style.

    No artist is ever morbid. The artist can express everything.

    Thought and language are to the artist instruments of an art.

    Vice and virtue are to the artist materials for an art.

    From the point of view of form, the type of all the arts is the art of the musician. From the point of view of feeling, the actor’s craft is the type.

    All art is at once surface and symbol.

    Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.

    Those who read the symbol do so at their peril.

    It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.

    Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital.

    When critics disagree the artist is in accord with himself.

    We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.

    All art is quite useless.

    Oscar Wilde.