Sunday, September 30, 2007

The weight of an image

The right photo strikes the eye, as the right chord strikes the ear. Mark Riboud.

I learnt about Contacts in Tuscany from Anders Peterson. It is a series of short films in which photographers talk about their contact sheets and the way they take photographs. It is so fascinating being able to get a peak into the minds of great photographers. The above quote by Mark Riboud is from his short film.

As I watch photographers pick their selected images from countless others, I wonder what makes an image the image? All images are abstractions, just little dots forming patterns on paper. And as Ansel Adams said,

There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs.

What makes patterns on a paper a good photograph? The way the patterns create a visual form which resonates with the viewer? That is just a pretty picture no? When the symbols in the image, that is the content of the image, strikes a chord in the viewer? And if the viewer does not have knowledge of the symbols in the image, is it that striking? And there those images that speak of the human condition, probably universal to all human viewers. Do we not all cry when we are sad and laugh when we are happy. Or are emotions in an image enough to make an image good? So many questions.

There are rules and methods that can help us make a dynamic, visually striking image. And sometimes, when an image is so visually strong, it can inspire the viewer to other thoughts. But there are even stronger images, that make us think about the condition of existence, images that make us question our own values, our own lives. How are these images made? I do not think that the images that are great have a formula and you cannot teach people how to take them. Like Imogen Cunningham said,

I don't think there's any such thing as teaching people photography, other than influencing them a little. People have to be their own learners. They have to have a certain talent.

Photography is an alchemy of unconscious emotions and thoughts. The training of photography is not to be found in geometry, philosophy or mechanics. It is an art where the photographer is like a stone under a waterfall, slowly being washed into a shape by the torrent of visual experience. You basically learn photography by taking photographs again and again. And each time you see the results build a intuition for the resonant image, the image that can touch strangers around the world.

So young photographers, ask not about the technique or the method. You can learn that yourself. Look to the process of the photographer you admire. What drives the photographer, how his alchemy loops from photograph to editing to print to the next photograph and the ongoing internal discourse. And that will teach you nothing as a photographer's process is as unique as the photographer. What you will see is the possibilities of seeing. And what you must learn is how to find your own loop of alchemy.

Photographs are not an end game, not even for commercial photography in my view. Photographs are partial answers begging for more questions. Pictures that are complete are easily forgotten. Pictures should haunt the viewer long after they have left the presence of the viewer.

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