February 10, 2015
A photograph is essentially an object, an object on a wall, in your hand, on a page, or on your screen. It is two dimensional. It is usually rectangular, or, if the photograph is square in format, it is usually on a rectangular page or screen. The two-dimensional physicality of a photograph is important because it is the end product. It is the message.
The actual act of photographing is entirely different. It is the means of communicating, the medium through which communication takes place. Or is it? Immediately several questions remain. Is there a message? Who are we trying to communicate to? These are fundamentally important questions, not as rhetorical ones, but as the bones and marrow of photography as an art.
A photographer is a person or self, and for a self to find value, meaning, then there must be value in meaning, in why one does something, or why one does something repeatedly, almost obsessively. Either one is bordering on a lack of sanity, or an endless pursuit is a pursuit of depth, of meaning, of value. To communicate a message is to convey meaning. To continually pursue a medium as communication is a way to find meaning.
We could say that the pursuit of photography could be purely for discovery sake. Yes it can be, and in the purest sense it is. Yet discovery is a form of communication to one’s self.
This is not a deconstruction of photography and the photograph. In fact, it is the opposite. Deconstruction is a pulling apart, a dissection. However, dissect any living thing and the result is usually its death. Deconstruction in the intellectual sense of the word leaves us with a bunch of elements. The elements (or rules) of photography, of composition. These elements may be the building blocks of good design, of good grammar, good visual composition, but we are not constructing a photograph when we are in the actual act of photographing. Some people might be, but what is technically put together using a rule book or elements is generically lifeless. It may be scientific, or conceptual, and it can be used for that purpose, if the purpose is static.
However, I am interested in photography as an art. Therefore I believe that photography as art is, and must be, an intuitive one. Construction and deconstruction interfere and destroy meaning, and meaning is a subjective and intuitive process. If photography was merely a construct of technical matters, then all photographs would be excellent if the correct scientific steps were taken. Sadly this is where a lot of thinking has progressed.
Meaning cannot be deconstructed. If attempts are made, what is left is empty, void, lifeless. Meaning is essential in photography as art, just as it is essential in all art. However, it is not meaning that is intellectualised, but meaning that can only be intuitively grasped. It is paradoxical in the truest sense that truth is paradox.
Discussing meaning in photography is on the one hand meaningless and somewhat self-obvious. On the other hand, intuitively it is correct, as it points to a deeper, wordless truth, which is why photographers photograph as different to, say, why writers write. Photography as art is indeed a means to express, yet as a medium, written words are not needed. Another paradox.
We could form the conclusion that meaning is found through experience, for without experience what can one actually learn or know that is true for that person, and that by photographing, this experience is sought and captured. However, this conclusion would lead us away from photography as art.
Susan Sontag wrote that “Photographs really are experience captured…”1 but she was referring to the majority use of photography for family and travel snapshots. She then stated that “…photography is not practised by most people as an art.”2This statement also has the ring of truth, though today’s selection and classification of paintings, objects and photographs, even intellectual ideas, as art has been tainted with the dubious extension of the notion that art is for everyone, which it is, into anyone can create art, which they can. “Is it art?” has become a hot topic of debate among the public and art critics in recent times, even though this debate preoccupied most of the twentieth century. This concern is an amplification of the silent questions of “What is it?”; “What is the person trying to say”, and “Why was it allowed to be hung and called art?”
Whilst I agree that art can and should be inclusive, I agree with Edmund Capon that “…the work of Art is exclusive, it is the product of heart and mind, of intellectual and emotional exploration, investigation and a distillation of those motivations into considered form.”3 Capon’s words of exploration, investigation and distillation separates a lot of contemporary art that has fallen into the traps of novelty, shock value, the conceptual, or presenting slices of life as “experience”. Photography has very often fallen into these same traps, and so photographing to find meaning through experience tends to suffer the same fate.
Roland Barthes, in his wonderful philosophic musings on the “essence” of the photograph in Camera Lucida, wrote that “the incapacity to name is a good symptom of disturbance.”4 He is not talking here of shock value or novelty in disturbance, nor through conceptual photography, but of the unknown. The incapacity to name means what is not known, and what is unknown is outside of everyday experience.
The meaning is unknown, and this is the disturbance Barthes is pointing at in viewing a photograph. Capon’s view is essentially the same as Barthes, who also stated that “The unary Photograph has every reason to be banal…”5 (photographs that are composed primarily according to the rules of composition).
So at best, the act of photographing repeatedly, almost obsessively, for reasons that are not centrally commercial nor to showpiece one’s casual experiences, is a search for meaning, a search that involves (using Capon’s and Barthes’ criteria) the exploration, investigation and distillation of the unknown, with the heart and mind. This is a process of discovery, not invention, as the critic Lionel Trilling observed.6 It is this repeated act of photographing for these purposes that is vital to photography as art, and where photography as art has its value. Joel Meyerowitz encapsulated this point of view well: "There's no audience as far as I'm concerned. I'm the audience."7
1. Sontag, Susan. On Photography. Rosetta Books, LLC 2005.
2. Sontag, Ibid.
3. Capon, Edmund. I Blame Duchamp: My Life’s Adventures in Art. Lantern, Camberwell, Victoria, 2009.
4. Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Vintage, London, 2000.
5. Barthes, Ibid.
6. Gurga, Lee. Haiku: A Poet’s Guide. Modern Haiku Press, Illinois, 2003.
7. Meyerowitz, Joel. Quoted in Freeman, Michael, Achieving Photographic Style: Lessons from the Great Professionals. New Burlington Books, London, 1988.
Text copyright 2015 Darren J Harris