Photography and Art

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I’ve written the following in any number of variations countless times: photography has a lot of limitations. It is incapable of showing inner states, leaving us with depictions of surfaces. Because of these limitations, it’s an interesting medium to work with. However, I don’t think I’ve written about why this is interesting. What has me make that claim?

People have come up with all kinds of solutions for photography’s problem. For example, if you have a photograph of your late grandfather’s pocket watch, you could add a caption underneath that says as much. That way, a viewer would know what they’re looking at. Of course, you immediately get up another conundrum: as a viewer, you will have to believe that the caption tells you the truth. After all, it could just be some pocket watch, and the photographer added the caption to throw you off.

But in general, text can help solve the problem of conveying information that cannot be communicated visually or that is hard to communicate that way. This is the approach taken in the world of photojournalism and documentary photography, where factual text is made to work closely with images to communicate. By now, it’s a well established model. Its possibly only interesting aspect is the fact that what we today view as the rules of documentary photography have not always existed in this fashion. For example, in the 1930s, there was a very different focus on representing facts and on the role of fiction to achieve the larger goal.

I own a fair number of books that are photojournalistic or documentary. Many of them are quite good. But I rarely (if, to be honest, ever) look at them. They quench a thirst that I don’t experience very often. It’s not that I’m not interested in facts or information (I am). Instead, I find the game that you can play with photographs when you step away from intending to convey a very particular truth a lot more interesting. Again: why?

The answer probably comes down to the combination of two factors. First, I enjoy the process of engaging with a set of photographs to see what they will do to me. I attempted to write this sentence in the broadest possible sense, because I did not what to cut off anything. This engagement might centre on trying to understand something. It might centre on picking up on a feeling. It might centre on experiencing beauty. The list goes on. While these types of engagement are not necessarily strictly separate (of course, they can be), I enjoy all of them.

Second, I enjoy the type of photography the most that allows me to play a part in it, whatever that part might be. What I mean by this is that instead of being a passive observer (as in the cases of photojournalistic or documentary photography where someone attempts to funnel information into me), I become an active participant in the work. In fact, my whole self becomes a participant: my biography, my short-term and long-term feelings, my current life circumstances etc. Phrased differently, just like every person I engage with photography based on who I am in any particular moment, a combination of long-term and short-term factors. When it’s done well, photography affects me in ways that have me reflect not only on what I encounter in the pictures but also on aspects of myself.

Making art is a selfish act. Looking at art is a selfish act. However, given that there are shared sensibilities at play, the combination of these selfish acts offers a chance to get converted into a larger, societal effect. I personally don’t believe that it’s art’s job to make the world a better place. That’s our job. Instead, it’s art’s job to give us a chance to become better people.

When you approach art this way, a lot of it opens up to you. Instead of being attracted to art that you know speaks to you directly, you can expose yourself to art where it’s not clear what you will get out of it. Note that I didn’t write “whether you will get something out of it”. I feel that all-too-often, people approach art as a form of investment (this probably is not very surprising, given that decades of living under neoliberal capitalism have taught us to deal with every aspect of the world that way). Instead of letting art do its job, people try to gauge whether the investment will result in what they deem to be a desired outcome.

When you do that, though, you limit yourself to what you already know. In effect, you apply your own equivalent of the algorithms used by entertainment streaming platforms to your own life: I like this, so I will like that, given that I know that it’s in the same ballpark. You can observe this effect in the groups and bubbles that have formed in photoland, where the same group of people will look at, discuss, and make the same kind of photography. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to judge these groups. If that’s your way of engaging with art then, well, enjoy! I personally find it much too limiting.

It’s not only that I get bored (but not in a good way) by exposing myself to more of the same all the time, it’s also that I crave the thrill of looking at something that I don’t understand, that I think I have no connection with (at least right now). Because, you see, later I might be able to get to some connection with what I see, even as now I wouldn’t be able to tell what that connection might be.

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