Thoughts on Photography (Part 1: Artist)
A few years ago, I wrote about my relationship with photography for a class called Photography and Language with Bill Jenkins. I recently found the essay, and remembered how important it was for me to think through my practice as an artist. Following is part 1 of 4 sections. I'll be posting the rest of the essay over the next week, so stay tuned!
This essay is an attempt to reconcile my relationship with my own photography with the expectations I hold for the photographs I produce. I know that photography exists because the world exists, and yet the photographic image is something that I cannot seem to anchor to any single moment in time or location, even if I was present when it was taken. I can’t help but feel obligated to give something back to the world that I so obviously took it from. I know that my work is reliant upon a universe that I, as a photographer, engaged with and arranged at a moment in time, but I do not feel like I can take full credit for any single photograph because a photograph it only exists because something else exists.
My reliance upon the world to create art has me at a cross. My decision to pick up a camera and make a photograph is done, at first, entirely for myself. This action, however, is followed by the realization that I am a co-creator who is, by definition of “artist”, claiming sole ownership over a product that I did not make on my own. With this in mind, I feel that I must do something more than take from the world—I must give something back as well. I must find a way to affect, alter, enhance, and I am not sure if my photographs can do that by themselves.
More than once, I have been told that an artist’s job is to bring to attention that which others overlook. It is as if the artist is granted the gift of a heightened awareness, and has the means to interpret the secrets of the world for the non-artists to consume. I hope that this perception of artistry is not held by a large group of people, but I’m afraid that it might be. I am both skeptical of this description, and I also admire its simple optimism. I wish art were that easy. I wish I could make work that existed only to help others discover something they missed before. And at the same time, I dread the idea of my photographs being interpreted as such.
I hope that my photographs can show more than what they present. Art, to me, is more than the artist pointing out something that was once unapparent. ‘Good’ art is both personal and shared, a connective occurrence that exists in a realm of thought and experience. Photography attests to a common, seemingly irrefutably shared visual language, which lends itself to generating a sense of cohesion—something that we all might be able to agree on. However, photography is (both fortunately and unfortunately) fused to that which it comes from. This marries it to the literal, even though the literal is fragmented in such a way that it is transformed. I believe this characteristic of photography makes it accessible because it presents something of familiarity, which, in turn, makes it difficult to see anything other than such. Photography, as a medium that relies on a world that exists outside of itself, makes an image especially susceptible to trite interpretations based on comparisons to the physical relationships of its referent. In Camera Lucida, Barthes said:
“Society is concerned to tame the Photograph, to temper the madness which keeps threatening to explode in the face of whoever looks at it. To do this it possesses two means… making photography into art, for not art is mad… [and] to generalize, gregaraize, banalize it until it is no longer confronted by any image in relation to which it can mark itself, assert its special character, its scandal, its madness.”
Photography appears to be dangerously similar to what we understand as reality, creating a bizarre parallel to the universe that we interact with. Sometimes it seems impossible to separate a photograph from the three dimensions that it rendered during the release of a shutter. It is to no surprise that people expect photographs to look like the world, and by extension, to tell them something about the world that they live in and about the thing the photograph is reflecting. I too hope they can tell me something about the world, but not in any factual sense. I want photographs, especially the photographs that I take, to tell me something I cannot I understand otherwise—and they often do. From the interaction that is involved with taking a photograph, to the editing, to the gathering of images, I truly believe that understand the world I live in more extensively. It becomes a process of discovery that is more internal than about the subjects I choose to photograph. The photographs I create tell me about myself and gives me the chance to question the relationships I have with people and places in ways that I would not have done otherwise (or at least I allow myself to believe that they do). The photographs I produce compress my experiences in a representational form that I can later unpack and digest. It is quite possible that they tell me things I already know, but I like to think that they’ve revealed something I couldn’t have found without them.
I want my photographs to do the same for others. I want them to do more than show, I want them to interrogate and internalize. I want them to exist with purpose and alter perceptions. I know they are not capable of any of these things, but I make them with the myth that they are. I have faith in photography, and I hold high expectations for the images that I make. We imagine meaning from a photograph; they cannot generate it on their own. And as photographers, we cannot guarantee meaning for anyone. Photographs disseminate into the world, representing what once was, and have no control over how they are understood. This doesn’t sit well with a lot of us, but there is no way communicate intent without modifying, sometimes even subtracting from the possibilities of interpretation any single photograph suggests. Photographs cannot force, they can only represent. Context forces. We force. An image does nothing more than trace.