the drive to photograph: 3 quotes

John Lehr

There’s a great quote by Walker Evans at the end of Amy Stein’s conversation with Steven Ahlgren: “Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long.”

That makes me think about all the TED Talks I’ve been watching. They are manna for the geeky at heart. Whether you agree with the speaker or not, there is always something to think about, an idea – that’s what makes them inspirational. In fact, it’s the same thing that makes good art inspirational. But more on this later.

I also ran across this quote by Eugene Smith: “You can’t photograph if you’re not in love.”

I assume he’s not talking about romantic love but passion for the medium and for your subject.

John Lehr

I’ve quoted from the following article before, but it’s a good time to quote a bigger chunk of it – Bill Jay interviews David Hurn on subject matter (PDF) and Hurn says:

You are not a photographer because you are interested in photography. Many people are interested in photography in some nebulous way; they might be interested in the seemingly glamorous lives of top fashion or war photographers; or in the acquisition and admiration of beautiful functional machines, the cameras; or in the arcane ritual of the darkroom processes; or in the persona which they could adopt if only they took pictures like… whoever. But these interests, no matter how personally enjoyable they might be, never lead to the person becoming a photographer.

The reason is that photography is only a tool, a vehicle, for expressing or transmitting a passion in something else. It is not the end result.

The reason for a young photographer’s confusion is that most teachers, classes, workshops, books, whatever, imply that how the picture is made, what techniques were employed, why it looks different and artistic, is more important than the subject matter. Yet the photographer is, primarily, a subject-selector. Much as it might offend the artistically inclined, the history of photography is primarily the history of subject matter. So a photographer’s first decision is what to photograph.

What is the alternative to an emphasis on subject matter? It is a frantic grasping for instant gratification which all too often leads to works displaying visual pyrotechnics but of dubious depth and resonance. Photographers become pressured into a search for different-ness, a quest for newness which usually mean an unusual technique.

There is another problem here. If the images are not rooted in “the thing itself,” to use Edward Weston’s term, then the photographer has not learned anything about the real world. He/she can only justify the images by reference to self: “This is how I felt.” Before long, this leads to incredibly convoluted psychoanalysis in a futile effort to justify the most banal, superficial work.

Mind you, I have no objection to anyone using photography for personal therapy. That seems a valid use of medium. I guess what we are saying is that these images will have an audience of only one. Rarely will they have any resonance or value to a larger audience.

Hurn seems to be very wrong about the popular viability of solipsistic “this is how I felt” photography (and video, blogs, etc), which is rampant on social networking sites like Flickr. While those photographers do not become professionals, some of them certainly have an audience. Never underestimate our own narcissism!


~ by Jin on May 14, 2009.

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