Stuart Grais (Lecturer)
CHAPTER 1 Why We Make Pictures: A Concise History of Visual Ideas
Light and Lens Photography in the Digital Age Robert Hirsch
Questions about Photo-Based Imagemaking
1. How does one become a photographer?
Since past photographs inform future photographs, looking at photographs and other visual material should be a primary activity. Look at what drives your visual curiosity. Look at the classics. They have been preserved because their artistic, conceptual, and technical content serves as a model that has proved useful over time. Look at contemporary work that is grappling with new and different ways of expressing ideas. Read, study, and practice different methods of photography, not for the sake of technique, but to discover the means to articulate your ideas. Don’t make technical learning your priority.
Form an idea first. The German artist Joseph Beuys said it best: “Once you’ve got an idea, the rest is simple.” Step back from the familiar to better understand it. One peril facing photographers is a lack of commitment that translates into indifference in their work. Talking, thinking, and writing about photography are vital components of understanding the process, but these activities do not make one a photographer. Ultimately, to be a photographer one must act and fully engage in the process of making photographs (usually lots of them).
2. Why is photography important?
In disaster after disaster, survivors report their most irreplaceable objects are their snapshots. This reveals the crux of why people photograph: to save and commemorate a subject of personal importance. An image may be a memory jog or an attempt to stop the ravages of time. Regardless of motive, this act of commemoration and remembrance is the essence of photography.
What does this mean in terms of developing an artistic practice? There are more options than ever to pursue. Whether the images are found in the natural world, in a book, or online, part of an imagemaker’s job is to be actively engaged in the condition of “looking for something.” How this act of looking is organized, its particular routines, astonishments, uncertainties, and quixotic complexities, is what makes a photographer unique.
3. Why is it important to find an audience for your work?
Part of a photographer’s job is to interact and stimulate thinking within the community of artists and their world at large. Without an audience to open a dialogue, the images remain incomplete and the artist unsatisfied.
4. What can images do that language cannot do?
An accomplished photographer can communicate visual experiences that remain adamantly defiant to words. The writer Albert Camus stated, “If we understood the enigmas of life there would be no need for art.” We know that words have the power to name the unnamable, but words also hold within them the disclosure of a consciousness beyond language. Photographs may also convey the sensation and emotional weight of the subject without being bound by its physical content. By controlling time and space, photo-based images allow viewers to examine that which attracts us for often indescribable reasons. They may remind us how the quickly glimpsed, the half-remembered, and the partially understood images of our culture can tap into our memory and emotions and become part of a personal psychic landscape that makes up an integral component of identity and social order.
5. What makes a photograph interesting?
A significant ingredient that makes a photograph interesting is empathy, because it provides viewers with an initial toe-path for cognitive and emotional understanding of the subject. Yet the value of a photograph is not limited to its depiction of people, places, things, and feelings akin to those in our life. An engaging image contains within it the capacity to sensitize and stimulate our latent exploratory senses. Such a photograph asserts ideas and perceptions that we recognize as our own but could not have given concrete form to without having first seen that image.
6. How is the meaning of a photograph determined?
Meaning is not intrinsic. Meaning is established through a fluid cogitative and emotional relationship among the maker, the photograph, and the viewer. The structure of a photograph can communicate before it is understood. A good image teaches one how to read it by provoking responses from the viewers’ inventory of life experiences, as meaning is not always found in things, but sometimes between them. An exceptional photograph creates viewer focus that produces attention, which can lead to definition. As one meditates on what is possible, multiple meanings may begin to present themselves.
The result is that meaning, like the weather, is local; viewers interpret images based on their own understanding of the world, which in turn is based on their private agendas, historic context, and sense of time.
7. How can photographers know and define beauty and truth in the 21st century?
Beauty is the satisfaction of knowing the imprimatur of this moment. Although beauty and truth are based in time and may exist only for an instant, photographers can capture a trace of this interaction for viewers to contemplate. Such photographs can authenticate an experience and allow us to reflect upon it and gain deeper meaning.
During the past 25 years, issues of gender, globalization, identity, race, and sexuality have been predominant because previously they had been neglected. In terms of the practice of digital imaging, the artistic ramifications have been the overriding concern. But whether an imagemaker uses analog silver-based methods to record reality or pixels to transform it, the two greatest issues that have concerned imagemakers for thousands of years — beauty and personal truth — have receded into the background, especially in academic settings, where irony has been the major form of artistic expression.
Beauty is not a myth, in the sense of just being a cultural construct or creation of manipulative advertisers, but a basic, hard-wired part of human nature. Our passionate pursuit of beauty has been observed for centuries and should not be ignored simply because it can’t be scientifically measured. The history of ideas can be represented in terms of visual pleasure. In pre-Christian times, Plato recognized the three wishes of every person: “to be healthy, to be richby honest means, and to be beautiful.” More recently, American philosopher George Santayana postulated that there must be “in our very nature a very radical and widespread tendency to observe beauty, and to value it.”
Although elusive, there are certain visual patterns that can be observed that define a personal truth (a conclusion beyond doubt). When we recognize an individual truth, it may grab hold and bring us to a complete stop — a total mental and physical halt from what we were doing — while simultaneously producing a sense of clarity and certainty that eliminates the need for future questioning and reinforces the genuine voluble role that art plays in our lives.
8. What are the advantages of digital imaging over silver-based imagemaking?
Practically speaking, you don’t need a physical darkroom with running water and expensive enlarging equipment that exposes you to the dangers of handling chemicals. Conceptually, as in silver-based photography, digital imaging allows truth to be made up by whatever people deem to be important and whatever they choose to subvert.
While analog silver-based photographers begin with “everything” and often rely on subtractive composition to accomplish these goals, digital imaging permits artists to start with a blank slate. This allows imagemakers to convey the sensation and emotional weight of a subject without being bound by its physical conventions, giving picture-makers a new context and venues to express the content of their subject.
9. What are the disadvantages of digital imaging?
The vast majority of digital images continues to be a reworking of past strategies that do not articulate any new ideas. Manufacturers promote the fantasy that all it takes to be an artist is just a few clicks of a mouse or applying a preprogrammed filter. The challenge remains open: to find a native syntax for digital imaging. At the moment, this appears to be one that encourages the hybridization and commingling of mediums.
On the practice side, having a tangible negative allows one to revisit the original vision without worrying about changing technology. One could still take a negative that William Henry Fox Talbot made to produce his first photographic book, The Pencil of Nature (1843–1846) and make a print from it today. In 150 years, will there be a convenient way for people to view images saved only as digital files? Or will they be technically obsolete and share the fate of the computer floppy disks that contain data that most people can no longer access?
One does not have to be a Luddite to continue making analog prints. One reason to keep working in a variety of analog processes is that digital imaging tends to physically remove the maker from the photographic process. This is not a romantic notion or a nostalgic longing for the ways of the past. Often what is lost is the pure joy of being alone in a special dark room with an orange glowing light — the exhilaration of being physically creative as your body and mind work together to produce a tangible image. The act of making an analog photograph is a haptic experience that does not occur while one is seated in a task chair. The smell of chemicals, the sensory experiences of running water as an image emerges in the developing tray from a white nothingness — such things are missing in making digital images. A silver-based photograph never looks better than when it is seen still glistening wet as it emerges from the washing process. And regardless of how long one has been making prints in the darkroom, there is still that small magical thrill that your photograph “has come out” and now can have a life of its own.
10. How can I find something interesting to photograph?
Although photography is exceptional at capturing the surface of things and not as effective at getting below it, don’t automatically assume that the physical subject of an image always reveals its content. Meaning is not always linked to the subject matter being represented. Photographs that affect people may have nothing to do with the apparent subject matter, and everything to do with the subsequent treatment of that subject. This realization creates limitless potential for subject matter.
Light and shadow are vital components of every photograph. This was recognized early in the medium’s history by William Henry Fox Talbot’s image The Open Door, 1843, which demonstrated his belief that subject matter was “subordinate to the exploration of space and light.” The quality of light striking a subject can reveal or conceal its characteristics, which will make or break a photograph. Light may be natural or artificial, but without the appropriate type of light, even the most fascinating subjects become inconsequential. Ultimately, light is a principal subject of every photograph which imagemakers must strive to control and depict. As Talbot stated, “A painter’s eye will often be arrested where ordinary people see nothing remarkable.
A casual gleam of sunshine, or a shadow thrown across his path, a time-withered oak, or a moss-covered stone may awaken a train of thoughts and feeling, and picturesque imaginings.” This is the realization that the subject in front of the lens is not always the only subject of the photograph.
11. Hasn’t it already been done before?
To accept the notion it has all been done before is to embrace clichés. The problem with clichés is not that they are erroneous, but that they are oversimplified and superficial articulations of complex concepts. Clichés are detrimental because they encourage photographers to believe that they have done a sufficient job of recording a situation when in fact they have merely gazed at its surface. The simple act of taking a photograph of Niagara Falls or a pepper is no guarantee that one has communicated anything essential about that subject. Good photographers provide visual clues and information about their subject for viewers to contemplate. They have learned how to distill and communicate what is essential to them about their subject. By deeply exploring a theme and challenging clichés, photographers can reconstruct their sight of distorted, neglected, or other contextual issues that surround a subject and its meaning and gain a fresh awareness and understanding.
12. What if I’m not in the right mood to make photographs?
Responding to life with joy and sorrow is part of the human condition. At times when pain and suffering are inescapable, it is important to remember that this is part of the process by which we acquire knowledge. This does not mean that one must be in discomfort to make art,but stress can be channeled into a creative force if it produces a sense of inquisitiveness and an incentive for change. Thinking through making pictures can allow us to place our pain in context. The images we make can help us understand its source, catalog its scope, adapt ourselves to its presence, and devise ways to control it. There are things in life, once called wisdom, which we have to discover for ourselves by making our own private journeys. Stress can open up possibilities for intelligent and imaginative inquiries and solutions that may otherwise have been ignored, overlooked, or refuted.
13. What happens when I have difficulty figuring out how to photograph a subject?
When you get stuck and cannot find a solution to your problem, try changing your thinking patterns. Instead of forcing an issue, go lie down in a quiet and comfortable dark room, close or even cover your eyes, and allow your unconscious mind a chance to surface. Some people may take a bath or go for a walk. The important thing is to find something that will change the pattern of your brainwaves. Anecdotal history indicates that the following can be an excellent problem-solving method: turn off the cognitive noise and allow your internal “hidden observer” to scan the circumstances, and then return to your normal state with a possible solution. Keep paper and pencil handy.
14. Why is it important to understand and be proficient in your medium?
Understanding the structure of the photographic medium allows one the freedom to investigate new directions. Upon first viewing, an image may appear to be exciting and magical; however, the photograph needs to be objectively evaluated. To do this, one must have the expertise of craft to understand that photograph’s potential.
Mastery of craft allows one the control to be flexible, to sharpen the main focus, and discard extraneous material. This evaluation process requires you to reexamine and rethink your initial impulse and jettison inarticulate and unadorned fragments, and allows you to enrich and refine them by incorporating new and/or overlooked points of view. An artist who invests the extra time to incubate fresh ideas, learn new technical skills, try different materials, and experiment with additional approaches can achieve a fuller aesthetic form and a richer critical depth. This procedure is often attained by reaching into a different part of ourselves than the one we display in our daily demeanor, in our community, or in our imperfections.
15. Why is it important to make your own photographs?
The physical act of making a photograph forces one into the moment and makes you look and think more than once, increasing your capacity for appreciation and understanding. This not only allows you to see things in new ways, but can also be physically and psychologically exhilarating. It reminds us that life may be absurd but it is not mediocre, even if our daily conception of it is. Making your own images allows photographers to forge their own connections between the structure of the universe and the organization of their imagination and the nature of the medium. Consider what artist and teacher Pat Bacon says: make work . . . make it often . . . make it with what’s available!
16. How much visual information do I need to provide a viewer to sustain meaning?
There are two basic stylistic approaches for transmitting photographic information. One is an open approach in which a great deal of visual data is presented. It allows viewers to select and respond to those portions that relate to their experiences. The second method is the closed or expressionistic form. Here the photographer presents selected portions of a subject with the idea of directing a viewer toward a more specific response. Photographers need to decide which technique is most suitable for a particular subject and their specific project goals. Approaches shift depending on the project situation, but generally it is helpful to keep a constant approach throughout one body of work. Consciously selecting a single stylistic method for a series also provides a basic template for organizing your thoughts and producing work that possesses a tighter focus of concentration.
17. How much of my output is likely to be “good”?
The American poet and writer Randall Jarrell wrote an apt metaphor that can be applied to other forms of artistic inspiration: “A good poet is someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning fi ve or six times; a dozen or two dozen times and he is great.” When Ansel Adams was photographing on a regular basis, he said he was satisfied if he made one “good” image a month. Much of any artistic practice is working through the process. Good artists take risks but also recognize that not everything they do is for public circulation. Situations that provide constructive and challenging criticism can be beneficial in helping to resolve a project. Over time, skillful artists can learn to edit and critique their own work, presenting only their most thought-out solutions for public consideration. Keep in mind what Henri Cartier-Bresson said: “It’s seldom you make a great picture. You have to milk the cow quite a lot and get plenty of milk to make a little cheese. Hmmmm?”
18. How do photographers explore complex relationships of time, space, and scale and their role in generating meaning?
The process of making pictures involves keeping an open mind to single and serial image constructions, narrative and non-narrative formats, in-camera juxtapositions, and post-camera manipulations. How does changing the sense of scale, the size you expect something to be, affect viewer reaction? Does the unusual scale evoke humor, mystery, or horror? How does this make you rethink the subject? Consciously ask yourself questions like these: How does image size affect viewer response? How would changing to black-and-white or color affect the image’s emotional outcome? Examine how one photograph may modify the meaning of the image next to it. Consider what happens if text is added to an image. How can meaning shift with a title as opposed to leaving a photograph untitled? What is the most effective form of presentation, and what is the appropriate venue?
19. Why study the history of photography?
History is how we define ourselves based on what we make of the past, which determines our future relationships. Being grounded in photographic history allows an imagemaker to see what has already been done. Photographs are built upon other photographs. Look at the work of other imagemakers who have covered similar ground and ask: What did they do that allows you to connect to their work? What would you do similarly? What would you do differently? Photo history also offers an opportunity to learn the basic skills needed to critically examine photographs: description, interpretation, and evaluation. Going forward from a foundation of knowledge, the imagemaker is in a position to carry out the Irish writer Oscar Wilde’s aphorism: “The duty we owe to history is to rewrite it” — or in the photographic sense, to re-image it.
20. What are the limitations in studying the images of others?
The French novelist Marcel Proust stated, “There is no better way of coming to be aware of what one feels than by trying to recreate in oneself what a master has felt.” While viewing the work of others can help us understand what we feel, it is our own thoughts that we need to develop, even if it is someone else’s picture that assists us through this process. This also involves gaining an understanding of the visual and media culture that makes up our social environment. Regardless of how much any image opens our eyes, sensitizes us to our surroundings, or enhances our comprehension of social issues, ultimately the work cannot make one aware enough of the significance of our predilections — because the imagemakerwas not you. Looking at work can place one at the threshold of awareness, but it does not constitute cognizance of it. Looking may open deep dwelling places that we would not have known how to enter on our own, but it can be dangerous if it is seen as material that we can passively grab and call our own. Many of us become photographers because we have not found pictures that satisfy us. In the end, to be a photographer, you must cast aside even the fi nest pictures and rely on your internal navigational devices and make your own images.
21. Can too much knowledge interfere with making photographs?
The answer is both yes and no. Beware of those who do not think independently, but rely upon established aesthetic, theoretic, or technical pedigrees as guides to eminence. You do not have to know all the answers before you begin. Asking questions for which you have no immediate answers can be the gateway for a new dynamic body of work. Do not get overwhelmed by what you do not yet know. Acknowledge that there is always more to know and learning should be a life-long process. Use your picture making as a discovery process, but do not allow the quest for data to become the central concern or a deterrent to making pictures. Knowledge of a subject can offer points of entry for visual explorations. Learn what you need to begin your project and then allow the path of knowledge to steer you to new destinations.
22. Is it necessary to explain my photographs?
Yes, it is vital to give viewers a toehold to your work with an artist’s statement. This process also allows a photographer to learn if the audience agrees with the stated intentions of the work. However, while useful, an artist’s intention offers only a single perspective for understanding work. By remaining open to different interpretations, imagemakers may discover meaning in the work that was not their conscious mind.
Enigma also remains an essential quality of art making. English painter Francis Bacon, whose work was strongly influenced by photography, believed that the power of a work lay in its ability to be alluring yet elusive. Bacon thought that once an image could be explained, sufficiently approximated in words, it became an illustration. He believed that if one could explain it, why would one go to the trouble of painting it? According to Bacon, a successful image was by definition indefinable, and one sure way of defining it was by introducing a narrative element. For centuries, storytelling was the backbone of Western art, but it was the bourgeois coziness and shallow academic conventions of 19th-century narrative painting thatmade storytelling anathema to the aesthetic vocabulary of modern art. Bacon took the existential position that his pictures meant nothing, said nothing, and he himself had nothing to say. Bacon believed that painting was the pattern of one’s nervous system projected on the canvas. He claimed he wished to “paint like Diego Velázquez but with the texture of a hippopotamus skin,” achieving the tonal subtly inspired by the Spanish master who encompassed the rough, grainy immediacy of a news photo. He sought to exalt the immediacy of camera vision in oil, like a portrait in the grand European manner.
23. What is the role of critics and critique?
“Unless you are one critic in a hundred thousand,” wrote the critic and teacher Randall Jarrell, “the future will quote you only as an example of the normal error of the past.” The real importance of criticism is for the sake of the work that it criticizes. Good critics do not set up rigid agendas and templates or try to impose their own prescriptive notions, but allow the work and the experience of it to set the general expectations to which the criticism conforms. The only thing we know about the future is that it is not what we think it will be, and therefore we should try to remain open to forthcoming possibilities.
24. What is the role of theory in relation to contemporary photography?
It is a matter of perspective and priority. Do you want to be concerned with the object of study or with constructing a cohesive conceptual system? At its best, postmodernism’s agenda of inclusion creates a permissive attitude toward a wide range of interpretive possibilities. At its worst, it encourages a nihilistic solipsism where all expression resides in an undecidable haze of indeterminate value. As a student, one does not expect to learn and unlearn photography all at once, but regardless of one’s personal inclinations, one should become informed about past and present artistic theory, from John Ruskin to Jacques Derrida.
25. What do good teachers teach?
Good teachers instill a sense of responsibility, generosity, and discipline. They encourage students to be curiously critical, to find the means to accomplish their goals by working autonomously, and to be respectful of others with the goal of building a practice.
26. How do photographers earn a living?
Living as an artist depends on what you want to do and how much money you require. Less than 1 percent of artists can live on what they earn from their artwork. Do not expect to get a full-time teaching job in higher education even if you are willing to work for years as an adjunct faculty member at numerous institutions. However, there are career opportunities in arts and cultural organizations as well as in primary and secondary education. Take advantage of being a student to do an internship that will give you first-hand experience in an area you would like to work within. Successful internships can lead to entry-level jobs. The visual arts community is still a relatively small field. Hard work and networking skills can benefi t you and the organization that you serve in terms of letters of reference and bridges to your future that are at present unimaginable.
27. Which equipment is the best?
It doesn’t matter. Every camera is fine; it’s how you use it. Travel photographer Peter Adams said, “Photography is not about cameras, gadgets and gismos. Photography is about photographers. A camera didn’t make a great picture any more than a typewriter wrote a great novel.”
28. Can creative efforts in other fields inspire your work?
Absolutely. Einstein was fascinated by Mozart and sensed an affi nity between their creative processes, as well as their personal histories. As a boy, Einstein was a poor student and music provided outlet for his emotions. At 13, he discovered Mozart’s sonatas and the result was an almost mystical connection. He played the violin with passionand often performed at musical evenings. He also empathized with Mozart’s ability to continue to compose magnificent music even in very difficult and impoverished conditions. In 1905, the year he discovered relativity, Einstein was living in a cramped apartment and dealing with a difficult marriage and money troubles. That spring he wrote four papers that changed the world. His ideas on space and time came in part from aesthetic discontent. It seemed to him that asymmetries in physics concealed essential beauties of nature; existing theories lacked the “architecture” and “inner unity” he found in the music of Bach and Mozart. In his struggles with the complex mathematics that led to the general theory of relativity of 1915, Einstein often turned to Mozart’s music for inspiration. Scientists have described general relativity as the most beautiful theory ever formulated, and Einstein himself emphasized the theory’s beauty. The theory is basically a personalized view of how the universe ought to be. Amazingly, the universe turned out to be more or less as Einstein imagined and revealed spectacular and unexpected phenomena such as black holes. What more could any artist ask for?