I’m currently reading Susan Sontag’s On Photography. It’s a bit difficult for me, at this time, to access her concepts. The book presumes a larger body of knowledge than I currently possess. But, I’m getting some things from it.
Now, it’s common of course for us to live in our little version of reality, so what are revelations to me might not be to you, or even to anyone else but myself, but I’m getting deeper into seeing photography and wanted to share a few thought provoking insights.
The first is, that the nature of a photograph is that it is an intent to render as an object itself, a beautification of the subject. In other words, a beautiful photograph does not require a beautiful subject but attempts to render that subject beautifully. There are beautiful photographs of suffering. Now, that’s not to say that a picture of extreme suffering was intended to make an art of suffering. But now think about Dorthea Lange’s image of the Migrant Mother. It’s been curated many times in art museums. One would then be compelled to construe that it is therefore “art.” But of course, it was meant to show to the world the suffering and hardships during the dust bowl. But now, by extracting out of context, it can now stand itself above it’s original meaning as a portraiture with great artistry. Many of the more famous photographer’s images are considered outside of the context of their capture and consequently are judged to be wonderful statements themselves against the subject of the image themselves. We look back at the sepia toned capture of Curtis’s Noble Savages and admire the handsome portraits of the Native American without the context of a poor chief earning a few pennies while marginalized on his reservation slowly starving to death. We look with a sense of nostalgia on old photographs of people working early 1800’s factories forgetting the appalling work conditions that was the point of the photograph originally.
That’s the nature of photography. The creative and clever use of a tool to render a subject appealing. Appealing here meaning that it makes you want to look at it. Consider the controversy surrounding Rober Mapplethorpe’s images. What was difficult to deal with was that Mapplethorpe rendered the homo erotic as beautifully rendered images resembling Greek and Roman statuary that he admired. His images stand as beautifully crafted images of very hard to look at subjects. So too did Diane Arbus take photographs that made her subjects, the outliers of society, common, and in doing so, used the camera to beautify the “freaks.”
Another consideration of photography is it’s ability to capture an essence of time, without truly capturing time. It’s a wonderful tool for provoking our senses without participating with our senses. We can witness a moment of an ill fated voyage to the North Pole without facing starvation, frozen digits, mind numbing fatigue, fear, the smell of death, the sounds of the wind, the wool scratching our skin raw. By that nature photographs distort reality and affect our own reality so much so that our expectation of reality becomes distorted. The web delivers visions of worlds we have not seen, just as Life magazine delivered worlds I could not see when I was young, but regardless of where we see them, those visions, are just that, visions. They create a sense of understanding and knowledge that provokes a sense of truth sharing that isn’t there. You’ll never be able to experience the reality like it looks in that picture. If your lucky, you might get something close. What is truly captured cannot and will never exist again. But who hasn’t travelled to some place with our expectation set to have an experience shaped by photography only discover that it doesn’t look like the brochure. But we hang to our photographs as if they captured reality when in fact they captured such a very tiny minute moment of reality that can be very deceptive. Photographs contain truth but never encapsulate it. Yes, you may have actually looked like that, in that moment, as distorted in that lens, mounted on that camera, as seen by that photographer, in your graduation photo, but was that you? Of course not.
So much of what I just wrote is obvious when you think about it. But, aside from the discussions surrounding the impact of images on woman’s body types and the occasional discussion about some altered photograph in the news, most of us don’t really think about how ubiquitous imaging is in our lives and how powerful images are in shaping our perception of reality. They inform and influence are ability to participate in life far more than we think. They set our expectations and then turn around and cut those expectations down. They both lift us up and then drop us to our knees. The more I learn about seeing photography, the more I understand how little I know. And, if nothing else, I’m so enjoying the discovery.