|Why are you taking a picture of THAT?|
|Written by L. M. Lloyd|
|Tuesday, 20 May 2008 13:55|
It is a question I get asked a lot. I suppose it is because I have a fairly fancy camera, and often use a tripod. People see me setting up for a shot, excitedly look around for what undoubtedly exciting event warrants so much gear, only to find absolutely nothing but an empty alley, or seemingly nondescript building. Letdown, they feel the need to question why I got them wound up over nothing, as though I am playing a prank on them. I am always struck, at times like that, by how different my approach to photography is than the common idea of it. It would seem that most people think a photograph is something you take of something. You don't take a photo, just to take a photo, you take it to capture something special that is going on. For me, it is quite different. My main interest is in making a picture that I find appealing, either intellectually, or aesthetically, and the subject matter is largely inconsequential, except as it relates to whatever theme I am trying to illustrate. For me the photo is not a keepsake of a moment I don't want to forget, but a way to, as Man Ray said, paint with light.
I realize this all sounds horribly pretentious, but it is just how my mind works. My memory is just fine for me when it comes to special events, and so forth. I have no special need to document my life in pictures for the world to see. I have no illusions, as some people do, that there are all these people out there who are just dying to see pictures of my family and friends smiling and waving to the camera. To me, the camera is just another tool to express the way I see the world. It is just like a graphics program, or this site. A way to try to show people what the world looks like from inside my head. As such, sometimes things just catch my eye, and I feel I need to get a picture of it, because I like the mood of the scene, or something about it is interesting. To me, this is the difference between someone who takes pictures, and a photographer. A photographer is thinking about the photo itself, as a composition, whereas someone who takes pictures is thinking about what is going on, and how to capture it with the camera. It is like the differences between a writer and a journalist. Neither is superior to the other, but they have very different goals. The way most people take photos, it barely matters how technically good the actual photo is, because what is important, is the subject matter. Even if the end result isn't perfectly lit, and the composition is off, and the color palette is a bit muddled, the photographer is still happy with it, because he got the picture of the subject he was trying to get. What is important, is the event, not the photo, as long as the photo is not so bad that it fails to convey the event.
For example, I recently was showing some of my photos to someone, and they said
If there isn't a person in the photo, I don't get the point.
I can accept that as a perfectly valid point of view, and to it could only respond that she would really hate the rest of my work. I could have gone on about what I thought was good about my photos, but the fact is they didn't meet her expectations of what should be in a photo, so nothing I said would change her perception of them as pointless. Perhaps she is even right. Half the time, I don't even know why I take, or like, a particular photo. There might not be a point. It doesn't change that my eyes glaze over as I look at snapshots of someone's party, as they tell me who each person in the photo is, and tell me the story of what they were doing as the photo was taken. Just like her, I don't see the point. The story would have been just as interesting, or not, without the photo, so I don't really see the point of taking it. Just like that woman, but on the other end of the spectrum, I am just staring at the picture thinking "what is the focal point? Why is everything all washed out? Why did you take it from that angle? Wouldn't it have looked better had you taken it from over in the corner?" Just like her, I completely miss the point, because I come to it with different expectations.
I come at it from exactly the opposite direction. From the moment I pick up the camera, all I am thinking about is what I think would look nice hanging on the wall. It might be an event going on, it might be a person, or it might be nothing at all. I never know, or care, what I am looking for, I just wait to see what jumps out at me. My particular interest as a photographer, is the mundane. To me, the greatest photographic challenge in the world is to get an interesting, or even beautiful, picture out of something most people wouldn't even look at twice. In fact, I tend to look down my nose as a lot of what most photographers dream as prime subject matter. To me it seems like you don't have to be much of a photographer to get a beautiful picture, when you setup a few thousand dollars of lights, in a dedicated studio, with some of the most beautiful women in the world, wearing custom made dresses, designed by some of the most talented designers on the planet, and having their hair and makeup done by professionals who have devoted their life to knowing what looks good on camera. At that point you aren't exactly showing your talent as a photographer, you are more directing a stage production, and making sure not to screw it up. You shoot a couple hundred pictures, and if you can't end up with a decent few, then you are either phenomenally bad, or incredibly unlucky. The same goes for amazing scenic vistas, or cute puppy dogs, or delicate flowers. I am not saying there is no skill involved, because there is a lot needed, but I wouldn't say they are the most challenging subjects. Sure, there are those talented few who can really take that sort of subject matter to a new level, and get something really fantastic out of it, but it isn't exactly like there was much of a chance of coming away without a single good photo. However, getting a really interesting photo of a dirty AC unit, or an unused toilet, or a deserted back alley, now that gets me excited.
I suppose it is sort of a 'found art' aesthetic. Rather than going to where I know there will be a good photo, or bringing subjects to a studio and making a good photo, I prefer to walk around and find them. Of course, I suppose this all begs the question of what constitutes a "good photo?" For me the only legitimate answer to that question is that I like it. I could go on about all sorts of subjective versus objective measures of art, or give some rather learned dissertation on the merits of a particular form of expression, but when it really comes down to it, that is all a bunch of bullshit to rationalize an internal creative decision. I can spew artspeak with the best of them, and sometimes even mean it as I examine the themes that moved me to take a photo, or make an animation, or create a graphic, but what it really comes down to is whether or not I like it. Everything else is just an attempt to win the favor of critics by setting the context for something that really should stand on its own with no explanation. Ultimately, I can't know what anyone will think of anything I do, be it a photograph, or a graphic, or an animation. So, all I can do is please myself, and hope that someone else likes the same qualities I do.
I only wish that the rest of the art world could have the courage to have the same honesty. One of the most dismaying things I have noticed traveling around a bit, is that all art has become performance art. I have spent quite a bit of time now in galleries in LA, London and Tokyo, and one thing I don't seem to be able to escape is that most of the art in the galleries isn't there because it is good, which some of it is and some of it isn't, but it is there because of the story the artist tells about how and why they made it. Maybe it is completely mediocre photos a woman from Bogota took while fleeing murderous drug gangs. Maybe it is a brilliant painting an artist did of his AIDS medication sitting beside his hospital bed. Maybe it is a complete travesty of the worst kind of snapshots taking by a transsexual junkie living on the streets in a historic slum in the process of gentrification. Maybe it is a moderately decent bit of design work, done by a rock star. Whatever the case may be, it is always clear that the reason it is hanging on the wall isn't because of the quality of the art, but the story of the artist behind it. To me, that does a disservice to everyone involved. It sends the message, so prevalent in our society, that who you are is more important that how good you are at what you do. It forwards the idea that what is really important isn't the quality or evocative nature of your work, but your skills at self-promotion. Tell the right story, give the right spew, and you can get just about anything hung. I know this is nothing new, but it still bothers me, because it ultimately devalues the work in favor of the artist, which I think is backwards. It makes art entirely too rational and commercial. It becomes a product, complete with a sales pitch, and packaging. It becomes not about an artist expressing what he or she feels, and that work resonating with the audience, but rather as a way to cash in on your persona or situation. It turns it from a work of love, into a reality show.
I think the art should stand on its own. If you look at it, and you like it, then it is, at least to you, good art. There should be no room for explaining why it is good art based on the circumstances or inspirations of the artist. Sure, those things can inform your understanding of the art, but they shouldn't be what define whether it is good or not. That, I believe, is a personal decision between you and the art. That is why, as much as possible, I try not to discuss what I was thinking behind the camera, but rather what I feel of the finished picture. Of course, even I fail in this regard sometimes, as in this longwinded article about my thought process on taking pictures, but what are you going to do? Sometimes you have to rant.
|Last Updated ( Wednesday, 18 June 2008 06:18 )|