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Monday, April 29, 2024

Photography as a search for Alternative Solutions

 To say that photography has changed during my lifetime is, of course, a ridiculous understatement.  When I was a kid, magazines like Life, National Geographic, and their ilk, were on the table in front of the sofa.  I inhaled them from early childhood and grew up studying Karsh, Stieglitz, Adams and the other great “large format” photographers.  I was an advocate of the "Zone System," and "Moon Over Hernandez" was the masterpiece that I aspired to understand and emulate.  As an adult, I built a darkroom into my home, complete with all of the vile liquids that were an essential part of the process.  I still love black and white, even though I rarely use it today, color being the norm, rather than the exotic.  I almost never actually print a photograph on paper or aluminum anymore, the internet being today’s “canvas.”  Today’s photographs move as often as not, and video is no longer the realm of the professional.  Mom records her kid’s every expression and the family cat has gotten used to being the star of stories on the family Facebook page.  My biggest photographic challenge today is deciding whether I should use my digital camera or my phone for my photography, and I am reluctantly edging up to deciding whether I should use my phone instead of my computer to edit my photographs because I could do the work wherever I happened to be at the moment.  I no longer have boxes full of negatives.  Instead, I have hard drives full of image files, and the immediate question is whether those hard drives have to be on my desk, or if it is acceptable to store my files on somebody else's hard drives in the “cloud.”  Where I used to “dodge” and “burn” an emerging image sloshing in a vile liquid, under a dim red light, in a smelly room, I, today, cut and paste with the flick of a mouse almost anywhere I happen to be, whether there is light around me and my “devices” or not.

I continue to chaff at conventional wisdom regarding all things, including photography, and I welcome the expansion of the group of people engaged in it, because it stimulates this particular form of communication.  I believe that communication is essential to civilization.  The sum of all of the photographs being produced all over the world also says a great deal about the individuals and the societies that are creating them.  It is my belief that the human attention span is becoming shorter and shorter and I see the current fascination with today’s snappy “magazines” like Instagram and Tik Tok to be a commentary on the current state of the human mind.  I see this trend to be contrary to civilization’s best interests because problems are growing in complexity as more and more people crowd into a world of fixed dimensions and finite resources.  I remember Cappa’s Second World War photography as being dramatically different from anything I had seen as a kid, whereas, in today’s world, imagery of war is routine fare on the evening news and the morning Facebook feed.  It is, in fact, so pervasive that it encourages people living in one or another alternative universe to believe that they understand war.  It is my contention that social media’s use of photography is an accurate insight into each of the individuals posting it and the sum total of it is the most accurate insight we have of our society, writ large.

From time to time I have been asked to teach photography and I have on several occasions tried to do so.  Never was I successful in helping anyone do anything other than improve their technical skills.  It is my belief that the essence of photography, to include video, is to see and understand thoughts, feelings, moods, all sorts of intangible things to include expressions of morality.  The very first thing that I usually do when asked to teach, is to have that person look at a given scene and envision the photograph that he or she would make when photographed from an entirely different angle.  Extremely few people ever grasped the rationale for the exercise and most were unable to “see” the myriad of alternative photographs that were possible, let alone choose the one that best expressed the message that they were trying to communicate.  The majority of them did not have a message in the first place.  They were, in fact, merely “going with the flow.”  I see this as being a manifestation of a far more profound problem facing humanity.  I believe that the vast majority of us are unable to see alternative solutions to the complicated challenges facing the eight billion of us trying to figure out how to live together peacefully.

PS:  I should also note that I rebel at almost all photographic rules.  I, in fact, see them as being analogous to human prejudices, but that is a discussion for another day.

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