It is what it is

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Occasionally, it will take others to express in a clear and simple manner what one has been thinking – and talking – about for a while. In a recent review of a photobook for publisher Hatje Cantz’s blog, Jeffrey Ladd laid down his base criterion for photography: “a photograph should be more interesting than the subject and transcend its obviousness.” That’s it! I’ll happily co-sign this. I honestly don’t even understand why I have been struggling with succinctly expressing this, for example when speaking with students. “A photograph should be more interesting than the subject and transcend its obviousness.” Print this out, and hang it in a place where you’ll always see it.

Needless to say, I want to discuss the criterion in the broader context of the photography this site centers on, roughly – or crudely – speaking fine-art photography. If you take a photograph for a passport, you probably have other requirements. If you document scientific processes with photography, the last thing you’d do is to make anything other than as close a photographic document as is possible. But in the fine arts… As a matter of fact, one could almost use the criterion as a definition of what “fine-art photography” means: it’s photography that transcends the subject’s obviousness.

There will be exceptions to the rule. But there will be few – as should be the case with rules and their exceptions. In many cases, one needs to look more carefully to see what’s going on, possibly even risking disagreement over whether the rule is being broken or not. What about, say, Bernd and Hilla Becher’s typologies? At first glance, those photographs do seem to violate the rule, given that the photographs are hardly more interesting than the water towers or gas tanks or whatever else is being depicted. But wherever things look that simple, they often are not. Find yourself in front of a grid of 12 water towers in an exhibition space, and there is something interesting going on that even is very obvious, but that still works.

As is always the case with rules, there are those exceptions. Talking about the latter – trying to discredit the former – is tempting. But exceptions only make sense for rules when they are not applied out of sheer principle, in other words to assert one’s desire to brush against the grain, but when they result from a thorough understanding of what the rules mean. Such a deeper understanding can be achieved in multiple ways. One of the best ways to learn about photography is to look at other people’s pictures. With other people’s pictures, most of the blinders come off that make studying one’s own work so difficult.

I have lately spent a lot of time thinking about two of the most basic properties of a photograph, form and content. “A photograph should be more interesting than the subject and transcend its obviousness.” Where it is not: That is content without form, content whose photographic form has been neglected, dismissed, not thought about…

Let’s say, you see an interesting object somewhere, and you want to take a picture of it. How do you go about it? Your photograph will be a photograph of that object, in whatever form. But what will that form be?

The following might read a little bit like a digression, but I hope its connection to the above will become clear eventually. About two years ago, I bought an iPad in order to learn about what those kinds of computers could do for photography. As I learned quickly, you can install apps on an iPad that are actually made for iPhones, so I downloaded Hipstamatic, Instagram, and various other apps.

I didn’t realize until quite a bit later – when I finally caved and got an iPhone – that what I thought of as the Instagram experience was not that at all. On the iPad screen, an Instagram photograph is decently sized. On the iPhone, however, the pictures are very small. Smart phones appear to be growing in size – on a recent trip, I saw someone holding what looked like a small tablet to her ear, but they are still pretty small.

If you grew up with smart phones, then my comment that their screens are small might not make sense. If you grew up with newspapers, though, it makes a lot of sense. In fact, the pictures on the screens of smart phones are usually quite a bit smaller than photographs you can find in a newspaper (not even to speak of most photobooks or framed prints on a wall). In principle, size itself is not a very good criterion to judge a photograph. But size does have implications for what I started to discuss earlier, form and content and how “a photograph should be more interesting than the subject and transcend its obviousness.”

If you have a small screen with, as is the case for Instagram, a square frame, there really is only so much you can do about that (there are apps that will embed your non-square image in a square – adding blank borders, but that way, your original image shrinks considerably). A photograph with a complex composition and content that needs careful looking to decipher its many possible meanings in all likelihood is simply going to disappear in your Instagram stream, given all the pictures with the subject big and smack in the center, ideally in some colour that gets your attention.

As I wrote earlier, photography on sites like Instagram results from a desire to share an experience (well, ideally – of course, much like all “social-media” platforms, Instagram is becoming increasingly a PR tool). Pointing the finger at something in the form of a photograph on Instagram hardly poses a challenge for the medium itself. If anything, it enriches it makes photography a part of our lives.

That said, one still might wonder what influence apps on small smart-phone screens play in our thinking about photography, given that on those screens the cards are firmly stacked against form, favouring content (ideally simple and quick).

Why does any of this matter, though? Why should we care about any of this stuff? Why should a photograph be more interesting than the subject? As far as I am concerned, it should because I find obviousness boring. It might be amusing to look at, say, photographs of misshapen fruit once. But how many more times will you look at them? After having seen them once, what will you experience when you look again other than something like “Haha, I forgot about that one”?

Ultimately, for every photographer the question to be addressed boils down to: “How am I going to make this my own?” – whatever the “this” in question might be. And I believe that in order to find an answer, one has to realize that there is that obstacle of obviousness that, unfortunately, photography comes with. It requires hard work, a lot of looking and photographing, to overcome this obstacle, so that, ultimately, the photographs will be more interesting that their subjects, transcending their obviousness.

There will be rewards for the photographer and the viewers. The latter will encounter photographs they will feel compelled to revisit, to experience something new. And the former, the maker of the pictures, will experience a deeper, more profound engagement with the medium photography, where what was in front of the camera becomes transformed into a photograph that speaks of more than just that.