Ideas and Intent, Form and Content

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The topic I want to address in the following is not restricted to the world of photography at all. Here is David Salle in his introduction to How to See: “A visit to any of today’s leading art schools would reveal one thing in common: The artist’s intent is given far greater importance than is his or her realization, than the work itself. Theory abounds, but concrete visual perception is at a low ebb. In my view, intentionality is not just overrated; it puts the cart so far out in front that the horse, sensing futility, gives up and lies down in the street.” It would be straightforward to apply this line of thinking to photography, which is what I intend to do here.

The younger forms of art, photography or video, do not feature very prominently at all in Salle’s book. The painter seems most comfortable with what he is familiar with, and that’s his own medium, plus some sculpture. It would be somewhat tempting to think that his argument cannot be extended to these machine-based forms of art, given it rests so much on physical form, the layers of paint and the way they are being put into place. In photography, we don’t (can’t) consider form this way. Photographs, as we know, have no surfaces. There are no slowly accumulated materials. Especially these days, every printed photograph basically looks the same, some semi-generic inkjet print produced after the file was made with an equally generic camera (some photographs just telegraph “Mamiya 7,” don’t they?).

But the absence of the maker’s execution in the painterly sense that Salle discusses needn’t deceive us. In photography, there are a few exceptions, to be found in heavily processed-based photography, whether it’s analog (where materials might be added on top of each other) or digital (where the process itself might include a large number of building blocks). But these days photography contains its own type of accumulation, with individual photographs playing the role of paint and the final project being the painting, the final “thing” to be considered. Seen that way, the Sallean argument can be applied here.

Photography fights the same battle over the roles — or weights — of idea and intent over what’s in the pictures, form and content. That battle is fought everywhere, and it’s mostly a battle over interpretation. It’s being fought in art schools, and it’s being fought wherever there are discussions about photography.

It’s not clear to me whether there are different factions fighting at the extreme ends. I suppose in the strictest sense, one could place conceptual photographers squarely at the “ideas and intent” end, and maybe photojournalists and orthodox documentarians are at the other one, “form and content.” That separation feels a little simple (if not simplistic), but there is a grain of truth to it.

Of course, mere ideas and intent without proper form and content (or, to maybe phrase this more accurately, with form and content lacking) are not particularly interesting — think of all that tedious conceptual photography where you spend at most five minutes looking at the pictures. And mere form and content without proper ideas or intent behind them fall equally short, even though here, the problem can potentially get tricky (see my earlier piece Why does it always have to be about something?).

There are some recent developments that have muddied the waters even further. There is the prominence of the photobook. It’s not that difficult to make a fairly OK looking photobook with pictures that really aren’t that good at all, especially if you add lots of bells and whistles. Even if your pictures are really not very good, a well executed exercise in cleverness, printed in an edition of 300 copies, is likely to get you considerable success — a place on at least one of those many, many shortlists for sure.

In addition, on the internet the need for constant material by larger news sites has also not necessarily helped photography much. There really is only so much good material available. The rest will have to get dressed up with gratuitously added hyperbole, and by throwing lots of overblown adjectives, claims or promises (or all of those) at the viewers. So it goes.

But the choice to buy into any of this is ours, and it really is a choice. I personally believe that there will have to be a balance between ideas/intent and form/content, and I long to see the best. That’s what it comes down to. That’s what makes photography so hard. It’s so easy to press the button to get a picture. You do it 50 times, and you got your project. But that’s usually not what will give you something that holds up to much, if any, scrutiny. It’s a lot harder to get a good picture, and then even harder to get a good project filled with good pictures.

As a photographer, you will probably have to address the problem ideas/intent vs. form/content simultaneously from both ends. This is difficult, because it’s much easier to have an idea and then produce something around it than to be able to have that idea evolve, based on what is coming out of the pictures.

By “easier” I mean easier in all senses of the word, in particular thinking of one’s comfort. Ideas tend to come properly formed, unlike pictures. Who would want to go somewhere without having a properly defined target? But that’s really how this should work, assuming we’re in the realm of the arts. Even outside, let’s say when we’re dealing with the documentary form, there will have to be some discovery (otherwise, it’s really just propaganda, isn’t it?).

Maybe it’s easier to grasp this by looking at examples. The balance between ideas/intent and form/content is as important in Bernd and Hilla Becher’s typologies as it is in Robert Frank‘s The Americans. That’s really what this comes down to. Unless you are a dogmatic grouch, you will have to admit that experiencing a set of water tower photographs on the wall of a museum provides just the same level of amazement as looking through The Americans — even though the amazement will manifest itself in very different ways (and that makes both so exciting). You might prefer one over the other. But you will be forced to tip your hat to the one you don’t prefer. Both are so rounded, so well done, so utterly visceral that in their presence your resistance will simply be futile.

That’s a good definition of great photography: it’s photography perfectly balancing ideas/intent and form/content in such a way that the photographs will enthrall you, even if you would never hang them over your couch. In other words, it’s not about what your preference or sense of taste dictates, it is about what the work in question dictates. And the work can only do that because its maker pushed her or himself very hard to achieve that proper balance between ideas/intent and form/content.

Thus, as a photographer, you will have to tackle the problems all at once — if you really want to have that well rounded body of work that offers so much, regardless of how long a viewer looks at it. Regardless of where you live on that spectrum that says “ideas/intent” at one end and “form/content” at the other, you will have to look at your photographs taking both ends into account.

And you can’t… Well, you can, but you shouldn’t give in to the temptations — whether it’s making a quick book, or dazzling a young curator whose background in, let’s say, curatorial studies doesn’t allow them to understand the full intricacies of photographic form and content.

Instead, you will have to want it all.

(French: Idées et intentions, forme et contenu)