Photographs are seen to be faithful copies of the world (not forgetting the powers of Photoshop). But in three essential ways they have never been more than facsimiles.
1. They reduce the total viewable spectrum seen by the human eye from one million to one, to about one thousand to one.
2. They change the always moving kinetic world into a frozen image.
3. They reduce the three dimensions we experience into two.
There are other obvious ‘distortions’ as, for instance, long and short lenses alter perspective away from how the human eyes sees space and distance; they show grain or noise; and shooting in colour is rarely accurate in its rendition across the spectrum and shooting in monochrome is of course not a ‘real’ rendition of the world.
At best then, photographic ‘copying’ is not that accurate. The fact that it seems accepted by people as representing a fair description of reality points to an innocent imagination within the public. None the less, the many millions of photographs snapped everyday are pretty poor representations of what things actually look like. They are often naïve replicas of what is out there in the real world, over or under exposed, out of focus, badly framed, suffering from movement of the subject or the camera, having no sense of the illumination and how it defines much of the picture’s look. These are very poor representations of what photography can do. And what is that?
Many things, but I want to point out two of them: the first is to evoke a sense of the photographer’s presence and the second is to communicate meaningful stories.
To make a successful image several things must come together at the same moment. The most obvious is that the subject matter must be in front of the camera, being or in the flow of an event that may, if captured, have some universal meaning. The second is that the photographer’s apparatus – camera, lights if any, filters, lens hoods and whatever else – must be at the ready for the moment she determines to release the shutter. In other words, subject matter and technical equipment must be available.
Finally, the photographer must be present; a presence composed of his entire cultural, intellectual and emotional being. He must be ready to look, see and respond to what he thinks is the evolving moment, and of course he must respond just before rather than at or after the key moment. He must respond just before because by the time the thought process has activated the shutter release finger and the camera has actually shot the picture, the fragment of time that passes means the peak of the action will probably have been missed.
All of this relies on a strong pool of experience that has led the photographer to be able to pre-visualize an image before releasing the shutter.
I had been photographing for about 12 years, having finally learned Ansel Adam’s Zone System that allowed me to understand how the visual world in front of my camera would appear as a set of tones in the darkroom.
But there was more to it. I needed to ‘see’ what the picture meant and therefore to understand what moment I should release the shutter. Earlier I had thought that pre-visualization was only concerned with being able to see how the light would appear in the final print, and then I realized I needed to work more on the meaning of the photograph – not just the ‘how’ but the ‘why’ and ‘what’.
Dorothea Lange said that to know ahead of time what you are going to photograph means you are imposing your own point of view on the subject. I understand this but we cannot go thoughtless into the world, constantly being a victim to the forces, events, people and things around us. You can argue that where one is standing, literally standing on the earth, provides enough of a point of view. But this is not so. Why are you there, what has driven you there, why are you attracted to the left rather than the right? These questions are answered by being conscious about what drives you to that place. Understanding your unconscious needs helps you to be aware of what you care about.
From my experience, I believe that everything we do is based on subjective taste, decision-making and emotional and intellectual predispositions. I think that Dorothea Lange, whom I have always hugely respected, was able to make her incredibly telling images of the migrant families and workers because she cared. In other words, whether she admitted to it or not, she carried a set of emotions and ideas into every situation, as do we all. Being clear and honest about this, allows us more room to question what and why we photograph, which leads us to greater clarity.
Our presence expresses itself in numerous ways: from choosing what we photograph, to deciding how it should be captured (lens length, our relative positions to it and it to the light), at what fragment of a second we should release the shutter and so on. Afterwards it is a matter of investing our time in choosing what pictures are worth carrying on with, selecting, editing and maybe printing, and finally how we may combine them with texts, captions or titles and share them with the world. Each step is an investment of the photographer’s life and each step further increases his/her intensity of presence in the image or in the sequence.
Second, there is storytelling – how does the individual image or the sequence help the rest of us to understand the world and the complexities of life? I know this is not everyone’s intention with their pictures, but for me it is the most important thing to pursue. Many people produce images that are clever, seductive, entertaining and in some cases they actually aspire to and accomplish obtaining some meaning that exceeds entertainment and decoration. Generally though, they are like cotton candy, a bit fattening but leave one forgetful or unmindful of what one has just consumed.
I always ask if my life’s work has any relevance to other people’s lives. Will it provide a flash of self-knowledge, empathy, human understanding and care? Are my photographs a valuable addition to our shared world or simply more digital junk for the bling-bling dumpster to be immediately consumed, like the cotton candy, and then forgotten? Or do they tell a story and bridge the gap between my pictures (and therefore me) to a person in need of something? For me, that is why I must tell stories; that is my purpose.