Sunday, October 14, 2012

To See What the World Looks Like (Photographed)

Quoting each other – that’s certainly what we do.  Especially when using a camera, or referring to/thinking of oneself as a photographer, an artist, a poet, a whatthehellever.  So, today’s ramble is going to be (a bit) less about my own work specifically, and more about some things I’ve been thinking about lately in relation to the enormous realm of the photographic (and I think of this space as pretty damn all-encompassing – I mean, is there a visual we have in our minds that we don’t also know in photographic form?).

Alright, so the post title – a recognizable portion of the Garry Winogrand quote “I photograph to see what the world looks like photographed.”  And yeah, why not?  And I believe him – eminent street photographer that he was.  He knew that his experience of that world as he made his way through it was markedly distinct from how it would later appear in its photographic re-presentation.  Now, his process was part and parcel of his work – the way he roamed the streets with camera at the ready, spontaneously pressed to eye instinctively, intuitively (I’m imagining, at any rate).  To be in the world while simultaneously recording it – playing it back later to see how it differed, which bits of the optical unconscious were revealed. 

But does this thinking only apply to the street, or to the rapidly unfolding world – order out of chaos type of thing?  I mean, we could apply it to huge swaths of landscape photographs as well – giant ass mountains that just sit there under puffed up clouds (that seem to be) frozen in space, or just the ground with no horizon and nothing to tell the viewer that this image is also a moment.  But, these images too are markedly different from the scene as it existed to the camera and the photographer that once or twice (or more) stood in its proximity.  As photographs, they are nothing more than, “a piece of time and space well described,” as Winogrand would say of his own work.

Having never worked in the street photography mode, I find it interesting how impactful that Winogrand interview with Bill Moyers was on me as a younger student.  Looking back it seems even my earliest “serious” photographs, though in a decidedly more traditional documentary style than my current work, were still concerned with those primary questions that encountering a photograph prompts – what am I seeing, how am I seeing it, why am I seeing it, why am I seeing what I know so differently than how I think I know it?

Dawn Roe:  Zoe with Cigarette (2000)
And this is where a problem comes in – and it’s a problem with a lot of what constitutes good photography (as designated by the current tastemakers – of which there are of course many, and whose opinions are of course varied).  But, there’s a lot of stuff out there that’s not questioning things anymore to the extent perhaps it should.  To depict and express what we “know” in photographic form to simply illustrate what it looks like is fundamentally distinct from asking us to think about what it “looks like photographed.”  Now, that might seem ridiculous, but I believe this.  And I believe this because it has to do with an investment in the question(s).  To look through the viewfinder and click the shutter (or role the tape) because you noticed something (or arranged something) that looked interesting (or cool, or artistic) is not enough.  What could that possibly tell us, or prompt us to question, rather than its relation to other images we know (which admittedly, at times can be an interesting territory of pursuit, but not if that’s not the intention).

So this is where I find this nice link between Winogrand’s sentiments and those of Uta Barth.  Which brings me back around to my earlier point about these notions not solely being the territory of the street photograph.  Barth’s work is decidedly quiet and contemplative, and has the quality of being simultaneously quickly happened upon and painstakingly constructed – not entirely dissimilar from Winogrands perfected compositions (it’s not incidental that my current students consistently read his work as having been staged).   But here again is this implicit concern with how these perceptual experiences are transcribed in photographic form.  These are not paintings (although they may share more aesthetic reference points with the painted canvas than the printed photograph), they are photographs – straight photographs.  Purposefully so.

Now I’m thinking about all of this because as I mentioned above, we quote each other.  And yes, most certainly, my own work is made in full awareness of the work of Uta Barth (and Luisa Lambri and Elisa Sighicelli and Andres Tarkovsky and countless others who’ve influenced me).  But, if someone says “that’s too much like Uta Barth, or too much like X,Y,Z” that doesn’t mean I stop.  It means I extend the question.  So I guess that’s my point today – I want to see more extension (oh, and you better believe that relates directly back to Bergson’s notion of duration, and to endure).

What the heck kinda fun am I going to have next week?!

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