In the previous two notes I have cited vernacular photography a few times, as a source, and inevitably more than one person has latched on to that.
I am explicitly not suggesting that vernacular photography is the way forward!
I am fine with vernacular photography, it's great. I am also fine with overworked
photos, although they are less great. My point is essentially Berger's: there is a point
of crisis in working to produce a photograph, a point at which you cease to discover
your subject, and begin to discover things about the photograph itself. When you
continue much past that crisis point you begin to make a picture that is about itself,
rather than to discover things about your subject (or yourself, or whatever.)
You can produce highly non-vernacular photos without going past that crisis point.
I've shown you this thing, and even given away some prints of it:
This thing is the result of a well-defined process which in almost no way resembles the modern
"work with test prints until you die" model.
I observed the lilies on the dining room table, doing their thing. Specifically I noted the way
the stems under the water were folding up. I buckled to the urge to photograph these things,
because I am weak. I hastily hung up a dark blanket in the basement and set the pot of lilies on
a precarious pile of basement junk in front of same, and set up the camera on a tripod. I got
a flashlight. This took perhaps 10 minutes.
Then I made a short series of long exposures, painting the lilies with the flashlight, trying to
bring out whatever felt right. This took no more than another 10 minutes.
I pulled the files onto my computer, fiddled with a few levels and curves, cropped with 4:5, and was
done. Maybe 10 more minutes. Timestamps suggest 80 minutes from exposure to finished, but you should assume I got at least one cup of coffee in there.
The point of all this is that what I was engaged in was an exploration of the subject, an adventure
aimed to reveal what seemed to me important, or whatever it was I was responding to when I saw the
jar of flowers on the table. That's it. I stopped when I felt I'd brought that out as much as I could.
It's not vernacular, nobody would look at that photo and say "ahhh, I see you're deploying the tropes
of vernacular photography." It's an extremely formal photograph, that looks pretty heavily worked. It
is not. It is a hastily made voyage of discovery. It shares with vernacular photography not
a look, or a style, but rather an approach to seeing. Vernacular photography is about recording
what it in front of the camera, about revealing what is seen. Look how cute my daughter is! Look
at the way the stems of these lilies are folding up! See?
Can you tell? Does it look like something that would get heavily upvoted on whatever web site?
Well. Kind of? It's formal and beautiful, but it doesn't have any of the marks of being ostentatiously
overworked which seem to be a requirement to make Flickr's "Explore" page, and I consider that a good thing.
There is, I feel, a harshness, a directness, that suits me very well indeed. These are the kinds of
pictures I want to produce, the kinds of pictures that I want to build into larger things with meaning.
My only issue with this photo is that it doesn't mean anything. It is, I feel, a well-made study that
hits certain notes that I want to hit, but it doesn't mean anything. It exemplifies a method that
works for me, a method which can produce other photographs which do "mean." It exemplifies a method
that stops at the moment of crisis, and can therefore produce work that is about something other than
This photo, I think, is about its subject, and whatever else these is about it, I think that comes through.