why?

I’ve been reading Robert Adams’ Why People Photograph (Aperture 2005) and so been challenged to try to articulate my own reasons for the focus of attention and energies in this nexus of technology and aesthetics. Here are some of the current realizations:

  • The lure of fame and fortune has nothing to do with it.
  • I have a lifetime of ongoing mental projects, many of which have visual components. I enjoy both the pleasures of exploration and the assembly of findings into complex narrative structures, as tokens to pass to like-minded others.
  • I’m forever on the hunt for the magical frisson of “that’s it!” as my gaze shifts. False positives abound, and opportunities are missed. Catch-and-release is a better strategy than regret for lost opportunities.
  • My photography is mostly concerned with things and their stories, and not with states of mind, consciousness, or abstraction. I see that as a limitation of perception and vision that I’d like to address via the Ilachinski workshop.
  • The images I do capture trace my twisting and branching pathways in time and space, and are like breadcrumbs dropped to mark my path on the way to the Minotaur’s Lair. (addendum: see Andy Ilachinski’s take on this, below)

Robert Adams puts some things stunningly well in Why People Photograph:

Your own photography is never enough. Every photographer who has lasted has depended on other people’s pictures too—photographs that may be public or private, serious or funny, but that carry with them a reminder of community…

If I like many photographers, and I do, I account for this by noting a quality they share—animation. They may or may not make a living by photography, but they are alive by it…

When photographers get beyond copying the achievements of others, or just repeating their own accidental first successes, they learn that they do not know where in the world they will find pictures. Nobody does. Each photograph that works is a revelation to its supposed creator. (pp 14-15)

I recognize that you can’t really escape the derivative, especially if you’ve studied others’ work extensively, and so absorbed elements of their modalities of perception. It seems appropriate to settle for an acceptance of acts of homage when you recognize someone else’s vision in your own work. To become aware of and to acknowledge your sources, inspirations, debts is an exercise in intellectual honesty. We do, after all, learn to see by having things pointed out to us; gratitude is always appropriate. And our understandings are augmented by explanation and backstory.

Edward Weston’s Pepper #30 is a potent example: learning that Weston achieved the necessary depth of field by making an f240 diaphragm and then exposing the film for 4-6 hours greatly broadens our realization of Weston’s mastery in this single image of an everyday object. One never sees peppers with the same eyes after seeing Pepper #30, but there’s no need to repeat Weston’s procedures, nothing added to the epiphany by retracing his steps. But absorbing HOW he achieved the luminosity of Pepper #30 into one’s understanding of the glorious history of image-making is likely (however subliminally) to contribute to one’s own perceptual palette, and pretty sure to enlarge one’s future comprehension of others’ work.

Addendum: from Andy Ilachinski’s blog, 31 Aug 2014:

Our store of photographs – and/or, just as validly, any other impermanent artifacts that our essential being has “created” along its journey (including, in my case, equations, computer code, technical reports and papers, and even books) – accrued over a lifetime of “seeing,” are intertwined, nonlinearly nested visual palimpsests of an ever-evolving / never-complete document of our being; of who we really are. As such, they serve as potent probes, in hindsight – and only after careful reflection – of who we were, at some past time; and offer valuable clues and insights into how (sometimes even why) our essential being has evolved into its current state. More rarely, and with deeper contemplation, these emergent palimpsests can help us better understand and appreciate the forms and rhythms of the journey itself.

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