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Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Torn from Space and Time!

In my previous remarks, I quoted John Berger's argument that photographs are, in an essential way, an invitation to imagine a past and a future that surrounds the photo. I was reminded by one commenter that, just as often, a photo is an invitation to imagine the world around the picture, the spatial rather than temporal extension from which the photograph was extracted.

Another commenter remarks, correctly, that this is a limited view of photography in general.

My point here is not that there are only a few things one can do with a camera, but rather that there are things the medium lends itself to better than other things.

Oil paints are formulated to stick to canvas. If you attempt to paint instead on glass, I expect the results would look quite different. You would be fighting the medium here, doing something that does not come naturally to it. The results might be fantastic. You might insist that it's "oil painting" and others might insist the opposite, and in the end it would not matter. The point is that you're doing something that argues with the medium, and that will inevitably produce something different from oil paintings on canvas. That is all.

My interest lies in the functioning of photography as a medium, and I am accordingly interested in what comes naturally to it.

I've quoted this vaguely doltish essay before: "Perfect White Family" in which Daniel Blight remarks that Buck Ellison's photos hearken back to Dutch Golden Age painting, which isn't wrong. Here's another photo from Ellison's "Tender Option" series:

Perhaps it's just me, but the vague sense of artifice (and this is a posed photo made with models) that comes off this picture prevents me from extrapolating either space or time. This frame is its own little world, and it ends at the edges of the frame. History, it has none. Future, also none. It is entirely in the present tense, as Berger would say, and as such it functions exactly like a painting.

Contrast this with a Crewdson:

This is just as reeking of artifice, and indeed just as artificial. But, to my eye, because it is shot like a play, or perhaps a stagey film, it does encourage an extrapolation of time. I reach for a past and a present to go with this thing, and indeed any Crewdson photo of this sort. I do not, I think, reach for a spatial extrapolation. It feels like a stage, so I know in some sense that it's just dusty props and ropes out of frame, nothing to see there.

Finally, let's throw in Sally Mann:

Again, this is completely artificial, but it asks to be extrapolated (again, to my eye) in both space and time. There is a world here, extending spatially and temporally.

This could all just be my personal takes, but I'm not sure how much that matters here. The point is that all options are on the table.

There are many reasons for taking a photograph. The basic one, though, is to preserve the appearance of something. When the instagrammer photographs the art in the foam of their most recent latte, they're trying to show us the appearance of that coffee, because they think it is beautiful, or striking in some way. The beauty of that latte, though, lies only partially in the pattern of tan on white that lies in the cup.

The coffee shop is, perhaps, warm and pleasant. There is a low hum of conversation, or a loud soundtrack of indie music. It's dark, or light. The instagrammer is alone, or with a friend, or with a lover. All these things are a part of why the instagrammer finds the coffee photograph-worthy.

Let us decorously set aside the issue of social media likes.

When I photograph my daughters I want, of course, to preserve their appearances, but also their essences. I am trying, after a fashion, to immortalize the little girl who is now in front of me. I love her desperately as she is right now, in this place, at this moment, and I want to put that into a container, to stash it away like a jar of jam, forever.

Photographs of this type, this ultimately natural-to-the-mediun, are attempts to encapsulate an entire universe into a frame. We are trying to stuff into the frame maybe not all of space and time, but this part of it for sure. These hours or days or weeks in this house in this yard in this cafe. We want to put them in a frame with a little lace ruffle and a hand-written label on top that reads "My daughters, Dec 3, 2019."

Upon viewing, a successful photograph (of this type) does indeed unfold into something resembling that world we're attempting to preserve. That's what success means, here. The attempt is to preserve for later enjoyment, and perhaps for the delight of others. If it so delights, so success.

This unfolding is what Barthes is struggling to tell us about with his punctum, although for him the unfolding is a sort of paroxysm, an hysterical spasm. It is, I think, what Cartier-Bresson's decisive moment is about.

As for myself, it turns out that I am not much good at this. I resort to using collections of pictures, and some words, to accomplish after a fashion the same effect. The results are less magical, are less inherently photographic, but they are perhaps within my grasp.


  1. I wish Gregory Crewdson would just go make a movie and stop with the big-ass fake photographs.

  2. u can't do that in one photo. Not generally. A number of photos facets the diamond more effectively... [stone seal]

  3. Like this post. especially the coffeeshop comparison.