Well, I swore that I was not going to continue this blog. However, the other blog is not “shovel ready” and I have something I want to talk about.
A couple of years ago I posted to the GW Photography Discussions blog one of my photographic principles: “The photograph is not the subject.” That started a long, long conversation. I finally amended the statement to “The photograph is not the object photographed.” Now this is something that I have long accepted but don’t know that I ever made any attempt to hash out the details prior to posting it to Discussions.
For the most part I am an essence person, I don’t really need the details, the minutia. All I need to know is that it is true and I am happy. Well the statement is true, has always been true, but it is not terribly clear. During the conversations on the blog I quoted several photographers that are considerably more capable of stating what I was saying but I am not sure that I ever convinced anyone. I personally believe that if you can only see a photograph as the subject matter you will never be able to advance your photography.
We are in a very good time with respect to photographic literature. When I was younger there was John Szarkowski, Minor White, Susan Sontag, Ralph Hattersley, Lou Bernstein, Herbert Keppler and many others writing about the meaning in photography but it seems to me that after them there has been a very long, very dry spell in photographic writing. Lately that is changing. David duChemin, Chris Orwig, Bruce Barnbaum, George Hall, Michael Freeman are once again exploring the meaning of photography, are talking about photographic vision, about photographic intent. I am having a ball buying books—okay, I’ve always had a ball buying books but now I buy them for the writing rather than the photographs--finally it's true what we used to say about buying Playboy.
Tonight after the photoshoot at the Zombie Walk—which seems to be something that you only need to do once, I was reading from David duChemin’s just published Photographically Speaking that puts a slightly different slant on what I have been trying to say. But first, I am an underliner—since Mickey Spillane stopped publishing the good parts in italics I have had to highlight the good parts someway and I prefer underlining to highlighting. I may run out of ink before I get to the end of Photographically Speaking. DuChemin doesn’t say anything that is not a good part.
On page 20 (I have just barely got started) duChemin is basically talking about seeing photographically and discussing how the photograph flattens the three dimensional world into two dimensions. He writes: “Being conscious of this flattening allows us to use it to our advantage, or to compensate for it and reintroduce the illusion of depth. It allows us to begin to read an image as it really is—a flat image composed of lines and tones. I’m often amused by how unaware of this flattening we are. As photographers we deal in creating illusions, yet we’re taken in by those illusions all the time. I hear my students talk about photographs as though they’re little three dimensional worlds. They say things like, “I like how that person is standing,” as though the photograph is a little aquarium full of real, but smaller, people. I have to remind them there is no person in that photograph. There are only the lines and shapes that represent that person. If this sounds like pedantic hair splitting, let me explain.”
“The ability to see the illusion for what it is allows us to more finely create it. If we stop seeing that shape in the photograph as a person and instead see it as lines and tones, we become aware of those basic building blocks. Seeing the person distracts us; it’s a sleight of hand that keeps us from seeing what’s really going on. It’s pattern recognition, something Galen Rowell often wrote about. We see the shapes and recognize them as a person because we’ve seen people before. Additionally, we respond emotionally to people. So when we look at a photograph of a loved one, we find that our emotions for that person come flooding back. The emotional response created by the illusion of the photograph blinds us to anything but that emotion. But ask a photographer who doesn’t know that person, who doesn’t share the same memories, and they’ll see things in that image you never did. They’ll see sloppy framing and imbalance, harsh shadows, and distracting backgrounds. It’s an extreme example, but learning to see images as they really are—being able to identify the building blocks—becomes an important way of seeing.”
Earlier duChemin gives an excellent breakdown of what I have been saying that the photograph has a subject, a meaning, that is separate from the subject matter, the object photographed. I have said that “photographic technique is the sentence structure of the visual language of photography.” He puts a slightly different twist on that.
Instead of subject, subject matter and sentence structure/composition, duChemin characterizes it as message, elements and decisions and gives the following definitions of each.
Message: “The subject is the message or theme of the photograph, and it differs from subject matter in the same way in which the moral of a story is not the story itself.” Which he illustrates with Aesop’s fable of the race between the hare and the tortoise. The hare and the tortoise are the subject matter but the moral, the subject/message, is pacing and persistence.
Elements: “Subject matter/elements is the thing through which the story is told”
The three important elements; message, elements, decisions to which he continues with what he calls the “missing piece,” the reader. “Once she begins to read, a new element is introduced; the act of interpretation. That interpretation is entirely out of our hands.”
I read all of this back in the fifties and the sixties—just wish I had someone as easy to understand as the authors I mentioned above. I had Minor White who I could only guess at what he was saying. Minor was on an intellectual plane all his own; Sontag who was compelled to be downright esoteric; Hattersley that put a psychological twist to everything concerning photography—I loved what they wrote, I hung on every word and understood a few of them.
Of course, I have all the books but there are two books that are on my must own (not must read but must own and study) list duChemin's Within the Frame and Photographically Speaking.
To close, from p. 19, “Before we learn to see like the camera and understand that the camera is a tool that flattens the world from three dimensions to two, we are just people with cameras.” I interpret this to be the same as saying that you must be able to see the photograph as a photograph and not as the subject matter--remember my ranting about critiquing a photograph with such comments as "oh, what beautiful eyes," "the kid is precious," -- read that to equate with "I like how that person is standing."