Photography is not always about making memories, but sometimes it is just that. That’s the part the KODAK emphasized in its concept and in its advertising. We have a flyer on our kitchen wall, a water color image of a couple on a sailboat, the girl with a postcard sized folding Kodak. The text reads in part “there’s all this and more for those who keep a record of their outings with a Kodak.” This was an important part of the cultural revolution energized by making cameras for the masses. Few people were immune to the allure. Avant garde painters in Paris bought Kodaks and snapped each other on the boulevards. And even before the Kodak working people found the quarters to pay for tintypes from small studios and street photographers. Workers carried the tools of their various trades to the camera and paid to get a record, a memory of themselves and their liveihoods.
The tintypers did a great business in the army camps of the American Civil War and their thousands of quick informal portraits not only gave families at home memories of the many who did not return, but they instituted the public affection for cheap portraits, cabinet cards and so on. They also made an incredibly important contribution to the National Memory.
The tin type photographers of the era remain, for the most part, anonymous and forgotten. Most of the individuals photographed for these one of a kind images are also lost as identifiable individuals. So what remains? The little photographs, dull in color and found in junk shop bins, these remain. There was a day, an afternoon, adequate light, the excitement of the one being photographed, the photographers hand on the plate, dipped in developer and fix, rinsed off, the sitters first look, blowing on it to dry it, showing it to spouse or parent or friend, or slipping it into an addressed envelope and handing it over to a postman. All the participants, all the witnesses interested or not, are gone. Now the image is anonymous. Then why does it compel us, interest us, fascinate us?
Many people are fascinated with Vivian Maier, a woman who died in obscurity but now garners public interest because her unprocessed rolls of film were discovered. As it turns out Maier was a good photographer, and not only technically competent but with an excellent eye that sought out images rather obsessively over decades in some very photographically interesting places; the streets of the city. People are fascinated with the story of her obscurity, that she was a complete unknown, in the world of photography. It is her photographs, nearly all have been printed by others after her death, it is these photographs that are of much greater interest, and it is their subject matter clearly presented with her command of exposure and focus and skills of composition that remain what is most important in the Vivian Maier story. Through the 40’s and 50‘s and 60’s she recorded city life in New York and Chicago and that city life has been so transformed, that her work chronicles that which was but is no more, i.e., converted it to memory.
We value images from an earlier time. The Ken Burns documentary on the American Civil War used a lot of literature, letters, newspaper articles, books to fill in layers of detail and nuance, but the popularity of the documentary, and its inherent power would not have been the same if instead of photographs there had only been artists renderings available. The public sense of authenticity of the photograph, and even more so the common perception of the photograph as captured reality and captured moment made the images of the era almost time travel vehicles for the imagination. This, the artist, sketcher, painter can not do.
Other Peoples’ Memories, Other Peoples’ Photographs
I suggested earlier that when I was looking at the little print books of family gatherings that I was looking at other peoples’ memories, as I had not been present, had not existed at the moment of exposure. Now I am not so sure of the characterization. If I read a memoir of some time or event I am reading the author’s recollections, interpretation, of his or her memory of the time. A skillful author can convey even the impression of his emotional state at the time in the retelling. Language has the potential for nuance and subtlety that would be very difficult to express in a photograph. The creator of a photograph might, on the other hand, feel the welling up of such subtleties and nuance in looking again at her photograph, and in this case the image serves as a catalyst for recalling these things in the form of memory revisited.
Is it possible that someone else’s photo could stir up in me such subtleties of emotion? This is the supposition behind the long held idea that the photographer should try to express in a photograph the emotional response the scene evoked in him at the time of its taking. This classic Ansel Adams take on artistic photography goes back to Stieglitz and his “equivalents” and is especially noted when it comes to landscape images. The artistic skill here is beyond the technical achievement of exposure and focus, and represents the supposed ability to control the subtleties of the medium as to gain control of the readers’ emotional responses.
Stating it this way makes it seem like a far-fetched and rather presumptuous notion of a photographer’s ability. This is not to say that a photograph does not itself have the potential to stir emotional responses and memories. It is just that one must be very suspicious that a photograph can serve as a channel between the emotional response of the photographer and the same of a reader. If one’s memory is stirred by another’s photograph, whose memory is stirred? Not the photographer’s.
If not another’s memory, then what am I seeing in the other’s photograph?
We learn the language of our family and our community and that makes it possible to communicate on many levels. The common language is the basis but not the whole of the community grammar, which includes norms for politeness and respect, recognition of common meanings to traffic signs, all kinds of rules for behavior and so on. There is even a more fundamental body of understanding: such things as lighter in color usually suggest higher in elevation, from the basic awareness of sky and ground, or that reflections of the sky on a surface suggest wetness, or water. We know that shadows tend to fall under things rather than over. Much of this kind of innate knowledge is applied by us to the photographs we make. So we have a basis in this common grammar that helps us to convey in our photographs things that the reader will understand and if we were to turn down the expectations of those photo gods a bit then there is some truth in that sense that “artistic photographs should convey something of the photographer’s emotional response to the scene…” I cannot, however, read another’s memory in a photograph.
It’s not what you look at that Matters, It’s what you See!
That’s a loose quote from Henry David Thoreau, who was not a photographer.
In this last section I want to imagine a large retrospective of a photographer who worked with a camera his whole long life. I don’t want to pick out a famous photographer so you can just imagine that it was you that I am imagining. It’s all the same in any case as the principles will apply. To do this I have to exclude the images made, let’s say, by a portrait photographer who toiled for 40 years in his studio on Main Street, already tired and struggling to stay creative after the first decade. I do this because what I have in mind is one who roams about, a lover of photos, if not obsessed with taking pictures at least warmly passionate about it. So you see, it’s not the same as it is with a commercial guy who went to school and into business initially because of his love for cameras and film, and then spent decades always on the verge of burnout. For my photographer he or she should be one who would rather die with a camera in hand.
So in this retrospective we begin with, of course, the early years and as critics we look for signs of what is to come. Are there hints already that our photographer prefers certain themes, times of day, lighting qualities and so on? Is a youthful exuberance and optimism, even naivety present in the prints on the wall? Or is there something darker that will manifest itself more strongly later on?
Into the second room of this big exhibit: here the photographer has reached some new level of energy and awareness, out of school and into the world, the real world. Can we note the photographer’s take on the social realities of adult life? We fully expect something of that sort, don’t we? We expect to be able to, ought to be able to gain something of the photographer’s take on the world. Why is that? Why should we have such expectations?
As photographers we know that the process of making images has much to do with choosing, with selecting, with excluding or including, with deciding whether to make an effort or not, with looking through the viewfinder and making subtle adjustments and so on. We understand the process. The walls of this imaginary retrospective would be blank except for the choices the photographer spent a lifetime making. So we can walk through these rooms and gain some sense of this photographer. It’s inevitable.
Here we are in the middle age room. Each image represents now 30 years of taking pictures. What can we see from that 30 years of shooting? Are there things that this person is now photographing that were not being photographed in the first ten years of work, or the second ten? Yes, we say, look at the difference here. See the shift in emphasis.
And then we are in the final room. Critics often note in viewing this room, the later years room, how there is a darkness not before present, that there are notes of mortality present. Critics love to get into that drama.
When we walk out of the hall, what have we seen? Did we just go through the photographer’s lifetime of memory or memories? No, not memories, but what? The first level of the answer to the question, what did we see?, is that we saw the collection of what the photographer chose to look at and the moments he or she captured. The first answer to our understanding this photographer is to learn what caught his eye, captured his imagination, captivated his vision. The short answer to the question is the photographers question back: “What did I look at?” Thus the photographer responds when we ask, “Who are You?” That is, according to Thoreau, not enough, not sufficient. It is definitely the right direction to take though. The photographer after all, is keenly visual in his or her approach to life, if in fact, this person with the camera is really a Photographer. Thoreau’s question that seeks to clarify, “What did you see?” represents a deeper understanding of how the photos reveal the person behind them. Seeking that deeper understanding of another is a valid quest, but it might be even more useful to turn back to face the self, an inward turn to self-revelation. The question then becomes: What do I look at? What do I see?
Photography for me is full of mysteries. I wanted to find in my fascination for looking at old family photos an ability to connect to other peoples memories, but found ultimately that I could not. My memories are my own. The photos still hold power over me and they become part of my memory but only as photos, not as the moments in time. The process of photographing on the other hand is partly in capturing moments from the flow that stops for no man. In some ways, the photograph represents a stubborn resistance to that flow of time. The movie line, resistance is futile, applies here. When my box of my Dad’s photos and paperwork disappeared, all the efforts at preserving those moments proved futile, and thus I felt a death had occurred. When the family of the Civil War soldier got the tintype in the mail, they somehow could feel as if they had their son and brother back, but when his corpse was thrown into a battlefield mass grave, the reality of the flow of time prevailed.
Is photography about the struggle against Death? Perhaps it is more about preserving moments of Life. That doesn’t explain so much of photography and so many genres. It doesn’t directly throw light on why one spends hours photographing inanimate objects or setting up still life images. But then one thing cannot be expected to explain everything, can it?
May 30, 2018