In hindsight, some of the responses to my last post were predictable. As were some of the responses to my friend Ken’s posting (an “answer” to my post) on his own site. “Predictable” because we’ve all heard these kinds of things before. We hear them mostly from amateur photographers, who, in general, seem to be a particularly sensitive lot. Ask them why they make the images that they do and many seem to get just a tad defensive. It’s as if you’re attacking their artistic manhood (or womanhood). So what you get are “answers” like,
“I just like them (images).”
“Because it’s enjoyable.”
“I just love to take pictures.”
“The only real answer I have for ‘why’ is because I have to.”
It’s kind of like asking a young child why they did a particular thing, and they say “Because I wanted to”. The “adult” response to the child, of course, is that that answer isn’t quite good enough. It’s just a little lacking in intellectual depth. So, depending on your level of patience, you ask them again and again until you either get a “real” answer or you give up in utter frustration.
Now, I’m not suggesting that Art (capital ‘A’) needs much in the way of verbal explanation. But asking “why” you made a certain photograph is not the same as asking what that photograph “means” (although the two questions are probably related). In “Why People Photograph“, Robert Adams said –
“Art is by nature self-explanatory. We call it art precisely because of its sufficiency. Its vivid detail and overall cohesion give it a clarity not ordinarily apparent in the rest of life.”
Later, in the same essay, he says –
“The main reason that artists don’t willingly describe or explain what they produce is, however, that the minute they do so they’ve admitted failure. Words are proof that the vision they had is not, in the opinion of some at least, fully there in the picture. Characterizing in words what they thought they’d shown is an acknowledgement that the photograph is unclear – that it is not art.”
Clearly, Adams is talking about the meaning of an image – what it is that an artist is trying to express in a particular image. If a viewer has to ask what that photograph “means”, then either the photographer has failed or the viewer is incapable of grasping that meaning. In either case, a verbal explanation isn’t going to be of much use.
In general, I tend to agree with that. I do believe, though, that some images can benefit from some well-constructed, relevant verbiage.
My original question, however, was not directed at photographic expression or meaning. I wasn’t asking anyone to explain what they’re “trying to say” in any given image. My question was: Why one image and not another? What makes the one the “best” choice?
If there is a single photographer that I admire more than any other for his work, it’s James Nachtwey. No, he doesn’t do “Fine Art” photography. Yes, he’s a Photo-Journalist who primarily documents the effects of war and political violence. He does this, I think, better than anyone else, past or present. But his work is more than just documentary evidence of inhumanity; it’s Art. If you’ve ever seen his work, you probably know what I mean. If you haven’t seen it, visit his website. Or better yet, watch his acceptance of the 2007 TED prize. This 21 minute video offers insight into the mind of a photographer that you rarely, if ever, get. If you watch the whole thing, you’ll see a couple of instances where he talks about the “why” of a photograph. All in all, it’s an illuminating piece of artistic introspection.
Serious introspection, with respect to our own work, is something we should all be doing, regardless of the subject matter we choose. And while “just because” might be easy, it simply doesn’t qualify.