Friday, November 07, 2014

Looking Out VS Looking In

Over a month and no posts. I've been wrestling with my thoughts on the state of photography, in particular, my photography. Looking at what's on the web I feel kind of 'out of step' but at the same time I have no desire to be 'in step'.

I just finished reading Disappearing Witness: Change in Twentieth-Century American Photography by Gretchen Garner. It is an art history book which is not my usual reading matter. I read enough art history in college to last me for a lifetime. Art history is mostly dry boring stuff and there is a certain amount of that in this volume, recitation of lists of photographers and how they fit into this or that genre. But this volume attracted my attention because its premise is something I had noticed myself.

One aspect of aging, of having been around for a long time, is that you gain a perspective that younger people don't have. In a sense it's like you learned to drive at night, able to see only what your headlights could illuminate and gradually the sun comes up and then you can see all this stuff that was hidden in the darkness. The stuff immediately around you, which was all you could see in the dark, takes on a whole new context once the sun comes up. I learned and began my practice of photography in the latter end of what Ms. Garner refers to as the "witness" mode of photography, the practice of looking out at the world, connecting with it on a psychic and emotional level, and making images that attempt to convey that connection to the viewer. That largely remains my mode of expression to this day.

Somewhere in the sixties or seventies the focus of art photographers took a major turn inward. It manifested in photographs that were less about the subject in front of the camera and more about the inner life of the photographer. Images became staged performances that were recorded on film and later digitally to illustrate an idea the photographer had. Such photographs had existed for some time previously of course but most were commercial illustrations for advertising or magazines, images made by photographers under the direction of art directors or editors. In the latter '70s and onward however it became the major trend of fine art photography.

I have observed this trend even among photography enthusiasts who don't aspire to "fine art" status but are moving in this direction as well. I don't know if it is the influence of Photoshop with its infinite control or a response the art world but I see ever more constructed as opposed to observed images as time goes on, images that are less about the subject matter and more about the photographer.

Perhaps I'm just being "stuck" in my past but I'm not sure that this trend is a good thing. Yes, we need to look inward, Eastern religions with their emphasis on meditation have been doing this for millennia but always as a ground for relating outward to the rest of creation or seeing ourselves in what we see. It is my belief that is what "witness" photographers were trying to do.  Whatever the trend my photography will continue to look outward, to engage the larger world.

The photo is of a tree on the corner of Rt 56 and Garfield Rd outside Potsdam, NY. It caught my eye as I was driving into town one day and I stopped to photograph it with my cell phone which was the "best" camera (the one I had with me). It has been modified in Photoshop to accentuate the mood.

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