Monday, January 15, 2007

ku # 450 - What kind of photographer are you?

I was nosing around, investigating the notion of reading photographs. Steve Durbin's featured comment on urban ku # 20 and comment on intent (see below) was the instigation.

My initial area of interest was Roland Barthes' idea of Studium and Punctum. According to Barthes, Studium stands for the general, cultured interest one has in photographs. Punctum is the personal relation, the emotional side. It occurs when one is deeply touched by a picture. Barthes writes, " is this element which rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me. A Latin word exists to designate this wound, this prick, this mark made by a pointed instrument: the word suits me all the better in that it also refers to the notion of punctuation, and because the photographs I am speaking of are in effect punctuated, sometimes even speckled with these sensitive points; precisely, these marks, these wounds are so many points ... A photograph's punctum is that accident which pricks me — but also bruises me, is poignant to me."

Barthes goes on to state that photos which exemplify studium appeal on "the order of liking, not loving...I glance through them, I don't recall them...I am interested in them (as I am interested in the world), I do not love them."" I don't know if Barthes ever states directly that he "loves" a photograph that "bruises me, is poignant to me, but he does state that "...While most photographs offer only the identity of an object, those that project a punctum potentially offer the truth of the subject....they challenge us outside any generality...these are the photos which take our breath away...", so I'll go out on a limb here and venture, what's not to love about photographs that meet that criteria?"

So, you might ask, what does this have to do with the question what kind of photographer are you? Well, maybe nothing...but, while I was nosing around I also came across this - from Reading Photographs by Hans Durrer : judge photographs by the — perceived — sincerity of the photographer (intent?) is highly problematic. Ansel Adams, who refers to photographers as artists, points out: 'Some of the worst artists, after all, are the most sincere... the only things that distinguish the photographer from everybody else are his pictures,' he should be judged by them, he argues, because 'major art, by definition, can stand independent of its maker'".

It is not without significance that Adams is referring here to the concept of 'beauty in photography', so the title of his book, and as far as the aesthetics of form is concerned, one cannot but agree with him. Documentary (photography), however, is not only about form, which is exactly why sincerity and biography do matter. As Stott says: 'The heart of documentary is not form or style or medium, but always content.' Furthermore, documentarists stress feelings, '... they believe that a fact to be true and important must be felt.' This is not to say that form in documentary is without relevance, this is only to say that documentary aims, primarily, at being true, not at being beautiful. Yet what is true is often beautiful.

From that I infer (and believe - always have, always will) that intent matters. Point In fact, I believe that it matters very much. Almost to the point that I believe it is a photographers (artist's) responsibility to state his intentions.

That said, the question that came to my mind after reading this excerpt was, "Am I a documentary photographer"?

I tend to think of myself as a Fine Art Landscape Photographer, although I have not ever really been comfortable with the phrase "fine art". At various times in my commercial life I have randomly functioned as a Still Life Photographer, a Fashion Photographer, a Corporate Communications Photographer, and, yes, a Documentary/Journalism Photographer (periodical feature/editorial type, not news).

Now, I know that some could care less what kind of photographer they are. They are just photographers. OK, but I think giving yourself a well thought out label, just like writng a well thought out Artist's Statement (statement of intent) is an important part of self-knowing. The only problem I have in this regard is finding the right word to use as my label. The more I think about it, the more I realize that none of the "classic" labels fit. Mostly, I feel like an observationist.

But, when I encountered the ideas that "The heart of documentary is not form or style or medium, but always content." and "...that documentary aims, primarily, at being true, not at being beautiful., and the absolute deal-clincher. "Yet what is true is often beautiful.", I must admit that the label, Doumentary Photographer, starts to sound and feel pretty good.

What kind of photographer are you?


Anonymous Jim Jirka said...

I really don't know how I would classify myself. I choose to document the real landscape.

1/16/2007 03:12:00 PM  
Anonymous William Biderbost said...

I have also struggled over the years with a label or
classification. I went through various words, always avoiding "Fine Art" as pretentious. I felt that it was up to others to call you an artist but inappropriate to call ones self that.
At some point I settled on "personal work" to
differentiate that from commercial photographs.
That seemed to work for me personally until I didn't care anymore.
I have come to the conclusion that the work itself,
when seen, will separate the commercial from the
artistic. That separation, however, would hopefully be made by a person who is not ignorant of visual
art and knows the difference.

1/16/2007 05:01:00 PM  
Anonymous Steve Durbin said...

I would certainly agree that "intent matters." My earlier comment was just to point out that often, in viewing an image, we often have no direct knowledge of intent (of the photographer), as was discussed regarding Rarindra Prakarsa. We have only the image itself PLUS whatever we infer based on immediate and cultural context and previous knowledge and experience. Perhaps it's mainly semantic taste that determines whether we say that the image carries intent, or intent was active in the photographer's mind and is reconstructed from clues in the viewer's mind. The main emphasis of the latter position is that different viewers may very well have different interpretations of the intent.

I also agree that photographers have some responsibility for communicating their intent or approach, at least if they care about their audience (and if not, why do they release their work?) Part of that comes through in what you choose to call yourself ("landscape photographer" feels OK to me, though there's a lot it doesn't capture). I also believe in meaningful written statements -- not that it's easy to write one, especially if it concerns more than a single image or a set. That certainly doesn't mean a paragraph with every print; viewers have some responsibilities, too.

1/16/2007 07:27:00 PM  

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