The Story of Photography
“Your photography is a record of your living, for anyone who really sees.” - Paul Strand
Photographs can function as repositories for personal memories, as historic documents, as political propaganda, as surveillance tools, as works of art. We think of photographs as fact, but they can also be fiction, metaphor or poetry. They are of the here and now, but they are also immensely potent time capsules. They can be downright utilitarian or they can be the stuff of dreams.
The photograph is such a familiar form of representation that we can often fail to realize what a complex and tricky object it is. We do not look at a photograph so much as 'read' it. We regard the world contained within it, but at the same time interpret it in much, but not completely, the same way we interpret the world itself. The photograph creates a discourse between us and the world, but a discourse that is never neutral. And even if the camera, even if the photographer, were neutral, the viewer is not.
Anyone can take a photograph. Not everyone can make great bodies of photographic art, but anyone can take a great photograph. To say that, is not to denigrate the work of the great photographers but it is the reason why photography is termed 'the democratic art'.
The story of photography revolves around what unites all photographers and all photographs. To discuss that is to discuss the essential nature - the genius - of photography. The author and artist John Stathatos, in an article on the tricky relationship between photography and art, asked 'whether the photographic image, retains an independent identity beyond its purely functional roles - does it, as it were, still preserve any specific and particular qualities?' His answer was that it does, thanks to the medium's 'unique relationship with reality, a relationship which has little to do with "truth", visual or otherwise, but everything to do with the emotional charge generated by the photograph's operation as a memory trace'.
A 'memory trace'. it is a shrewd expression, for it locates the photograph firmly within the realm of human experience. A memory, of course, can be as fleeting and as insubstantial as a shadow, but there are other kinds of memory, some of which, unlike shadows, are persistent, obdurate and enduring. There are fond memories, not-so-fond memories, repressed memories, false memories, shared memories, race memories, cultural memories.
Photography serves all of these - we photograph to support our own view of the world - but, as soon as the shutter is tripped, the resultant image reveals only that which is already past. The picture instantly becomes the subject of memory. Yet the photograph is not memory. It is only a trace of memory. And the photographic trace provokes the certainty that something existed, yet it is only a representation of reality and not reality itself.
Photographs are deemed to tell the truth, and we are always disappointed when the camera is 'found out' telling a lie, when it is revealed that a picture was 'set up', or an image manipulated in the computer. In these days of Photoshop software, the old adage that the camera never lies' seems to have been replaced by a new one, that 'the camera always lies'. But a photographic image is true and false in equal measure. All photographic evidence, all photographic reality, requires interpretation. The fact that the photograph appears to be a window on the world is one of the medium's greatest problems, and yet is at the root of its potency and its fascination. It is also the potentially tricky but potentially fruitful area - between fiction and truth -where the best photographs, and the best photographers, work.
Whether or not you regard the photograph as absolute truth or absolute fiction, its basic faculty remains. A photograph takes you there. If it does nothing else in terms of artistry, or any other characteristic by which we might judge it, that is, when you think about it, amazing.
Photography takes you there, not just in a geographical but also in a temporal sense. It is a time machine, especially where people are concerned. A photograph is capable of projecting us into visual contact with the physiognomy of someone at the furthest end of the earth, or a human being who no longer exists. Photography has taken us to the moon, and to the depths of the ocean. That is powerful stuff indeed. A photograph brings us into direct contact with time past, and it transcends geographical and physical boundaries, it puts us into immediate touch with the long ago and far away, with the quick and the dead.
Photography has been used to make significant works of art. The medium has been one of the primary forces in shaping the myths, manners and morals of our contemporary civilization. But in essence it boils down to pointing a camera at the world and clicking the shutter. As Walker Evans, one of the greatest of photographers said, most photography is driven by 'a simple desire to recognize and to boast'.
The Genius of Photography
You Are What You Love
“Art is theft.” - Picasso.
When people call something "original," nine out often times they just don't know the references or the original sources involved. What a good artist understands is that nothing comes from nowhere. All creative work builds on what came before. Nothing is completely original. Some people find this idea depressing, but it fills me with hope. As the French writer André Gide put it, "Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But, since no one was listening, everything must be said again."
If we're free from the burden of trying to be completely original, we can stop trying to make something out of nothing, and we can embrace influence instead of running away from it. Every new idea is just a mashup or a remix of one or more previous ideas. Just as you have a familial genealogy, you also have a genealogy of ideas. You don't get to pick your family, but you can pick your teachers and you can pick your friends and you can pick the music you listen to and you can pick the books you read and can pick the movies you see.
You are, in fact, a mashup of what you choose to let into your life. You are the sum of your influences. The German writer Goethe said, "We are shaped and fashioned by what we love."
The artist is a collector. Not a hoarder, mind you, there's a difference: Hoarders collect indiscriminately, artists collect selectively. They only collect things that they really love.
There's an economic theory out there that if you take the incomes of your five closest friends and average them, the resulting number will be pretty close to your own income. I think the same thing is true of our idea incomes. You're only going to be as good as the stuff you surround yourself with. Your job is to collect good ideas. The more good ideas you collect, the more you can choose from to be influenced by.
Director Jim Jarmusch sums it up nicely by saying: "Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic."
Steal Like An Artist