Friday, November 13, 2009

out of tension comes meaning

it seems my little ditty yesterday about documentary photography struck a cord with some (thank you all for your comments). and thanks to your comments, i've had a chance to think some more on the half-thought thoughts i threw out there.

i want to start by saying that i, in no way, was saying (or even thinking) that my iPhone photo of a photo in a museum was in the least bit an example of documentary photography. what i like about it (and the one above), is seeing my own reflection in the photo. it underlines for me the way in which i feel i participate in an exhibition (or really, most things) by placing myself somehow there. participating. active. part of it. that i chose these documentary photos of russian women to take my iPhone photo in underlines another interesting thing (for me, anyway) - that the ones i wanted to identify with were the photos of russians, not of norwegians or gypsies or rwandans (which were also represented in the exhibition). i guess it was these to which i could most relate. either that or the reflection was best there and i could see myself most clearly. which is also a potentially interesting statement.

ASIDE: can i say that I DESPISE blogging from a PC and IE6? who is still using IE6, you ask? morons. why is this stupid thing hopping up to the top all the time? ARRGH! deep breath. and now back to the regularly scheduled blog...

and to a huge extent, i agree with bill that many of the photos on blogs, while documenting everyday life in many instances, are not documentary photography. and it has to do with what he said about there not really being that much of the less-than-perfect. i know that aside from iPhone photos, i don't really share with all of you the ones that didn't turn out or which were from the wrong angle or where i had the settings all wrong. we try to show our best here in the blogosphere. and that's not really that real. documentary photography is raw and almost painful in its realness.

i guess what i was wondering about blog photos and frankly blogs in general, is whether they will be data worthy of study by future historians and sociologists, in the way that walker evans' photos evoke the depression like no one else can. i saw the photo of allie mae burroughs that redhead riter mentioned and i have to admit i was transported instantly into a steinbeck novel. i suspect what we're doing out here is more ephemeral, less dense with meaning (yet i continue to try to find meaning in it, like some obsessed maniac).

and the debate made me think about a whole style of photos on blogs that has arisen out of the 3191 project. a sort of naturally-lit, slightly lonesome but rather poetic and a bit wistful photography of mundane breakfast crumbs on a plate. because there's a lot of that out there. and i'm guilty of it myself. but honestly, i don't think it will last. not like walker evans. but i do think it captures the ennui of this present moment and that's something. i don't think that in the diptychs there's enough tension between the photos to hold greater, lasting meaning. because true meaning needs tension of some sort, doesn't it?

of course, a growing disdain for such diptych projects hasn't stopped me from wanting one myself. so we started across ø/öresund, which i share with kristina, where we do photos of life in denmark and life in sweden (and which i love and look forward to and enjoy collaborating on).  i'm not sure we are always beyond wistful breakfast crumbs (i do adore a good macro, after all), but i'd like to think that over time it will show that we have captured something of the contrasts and similarities of the two countries in which we reside, so near and yet so far from one another. and for the first time, i think that i'm willing to watch and let something develop and only later see what it really is. and that's something, at least for me personally. and speaking of kristina, i would say that of the blog photographers i know, some of her photos come closest to a documentary photography spirit.

my own photos probably never will mostly because i have a hard time letting them speak for themselves. that's why i've pushed myself to do wordless wednesdays, in an effort to try to let the photos speak and not try to pile words and meaning onto absolutely everything. that and i really don't like taking pictures of people all that much. rocks and leaves just sit still so much better and they never get impatient with you and tell you to hurry up and snap it already or yell at you for taking their picture without their permission.

but, i thank you all for your thoughts and for the polemic. it provoked a whole lot more thinking on my part and it's less a half-thought thought now and more of a two-thirds thought thought. but, as i said, out of tension comes meaning.

edited: sorry for all the stupid errors that were in this one...but on that stupid PC, it kept jumping back to the top and i clearly lost my place several times...sigh. another reason to love macs. and safari. but that's a whole 'nother post, isn't it?


will said...

I once wrote a blog with the theme that photography is dead. That is, traditional photography required skills and technical knowledge in order to achieve some photo success. Digital photography essentially erased the need to understand all the factors required for a picture. How a lens worked, focal distance, f stops, the relationship between exposure time, lens opening and film speed are all now archaic.

In so many ways digital photography fulfills George Eastman’s ambition of getting a small portable, easy to use camera into the hands of the masses. The term “Kodak Moment” has significance if it simply refers to the enjoyment of snapping good pics of a person’s private world.

When once it was rare to share family photos or vacation photos with someone else, the internet now provided an avenue far greater than the once often dreaded experience of visiting someone while they trot out albums or slide projectors and stacks of snapshots complete with running dialog.

The result of the computer and digital age and the plethora of easy to use cameras potentially blurs the distinction between art and snapshots. Anyone can take pictures and exponentially share. Gone are the arcane skills and gone, in the most part are connections to all the great photographs and photographers of the past (unless Googled, of course).

There’s nothing wrong with a good snapshot and Kodak Moments are still rare. And, I suppose, as the wave of digital images sweeps the planet, old ways are no longer required and a new strain of photo DNA is coming of age. All good stuff except the past stills teaches lessons.

And there is also something else missing from today’s picture taking, especially for those shown on blogs. Simply, the business of critiquing and review are not part of the process. Professional or gallery work is very much scrutinized before ever shown to the public. A pro will discard thousands of pictures in order to get just one good one. Galleries won’t show just anything and schools will demand student work be critiqued as part of the learning process.

I’m willing to bet a large sum of money that very few bloggers are willing to have their photos reviewed by someone else.

I‘ll give a personal example. When I was a boy I loved looking at all the magazines with page after page of black and white photos. I then found the work of Ansel Adams, Ed Weston and other nature and form photographers. Later, I taught myself how to shoot and develop black and white film. When I attended art school they required we use 4x5 cameras and one of the stipulations for taking class assignments was to be aware of photo history and to not copy the work of other photographers. Suddenly I was immersed in photo history and from that I learned to see and, as Adams said, to pre-visualize.

And I learned to listen to (and survive) crits which in turn helped me to make better images. The litmus test was how I felt when an art director or gallery owner was blunt and outspoken when reviewing my work.

Should review be part of the process? Art is or isn’t art just because of personal opinions - it is so much more. Refining style and technique - learning to see, compose and include meaningfulness is still important.

Marion Williams-Bennett said...

I don't think we can define documentary photography in such a narrow way. When you say .."what i like about it (and the one above), is seeing my own reflection in the photo. it underlines for me the way in which i feel i participate in an exhibition (or really, most things) by placing myself somehow there. participating. active. part of it.

I find that experience with art and photos perhaps don't meet the documentary photography definition, but which evoke that response in me. I think it's the response that defines it.

Char said...

I don't really do documentary photography, though I wish I was better at it. But, quite frankly - I don't know if anything around me would be worthwhile to really record in it's rawness or 'realness'. I think there is a certain bravery in recording the suffering of others or the pathos that some documentary style does. I'm not that big on self-portraits for some reason, not of me or not of other people really. Which is weird because I like portraits and street photography.

christina said...

these are beautiful photos. i too love the fact, you can see your reflection.
i adore documentary photography for so many reason, but mostly because of Gordon Parks.
I live in a neighborhood, that is not always easy to love. But my heart is here. And on any given day, I would love it, if just one of these lost kids, replaced the guns they carry, with a camera. I could give a crap if the photos were in focus or not. As Mr. Parks instilled in the photographer- let the camera be the weapon of choice.
Great post, J.

The Redhead Riter said...

I thought of a picture I would love for you to take...Have someone take a picture of you from behind while you are taking a picture AND have your reflection as well as the other person in the picture. The split between being a person being photographed viewing art and a photographer all in the same picture with you in full view both sides.

I like this picture especially the small slice of blue showing in the background. However, I love yesterdays photo. The depth of the scene behind the blond lady, the look on her face and the child, your reflection, and the reflection of the woman in the photograph behind you appearing to be watching you. REALLY cool. ♥